The West — an itch I just have to scratch. However, at the conclusion of every fall, that itch starts to burn deeper than ever before.
I firmly believe there are some passions we are just born with. It’s like something written in our DNA that was implanted by the Creator Himself. I can’t explain it, understand it or even rationalize it; it’s something that is constantly pulsating through our veins. Without doubt I was made to be a hunter — specifically, a Western bowhunter.
Looking back at my family tree, there is no evidence that my grandfathers or great-grandfathers shared this need. For them, picking up a gun to hunt was more for survival than passion.
My dad was not a hunter. Although he tried to fit into that mold a few times when I was growing up, it just wasn’t his thing. I think he somewhat enjoyed going the few times I was able to accompany him as we pounded across the Kansas prairie, but I could tell he was doing it more for my sake than his. I commend him for that.
My older brother also gave it a shot here and there over the years, but it was something that never fully took. Even after killing his first whitetail buck with a bow many years ago, he put his rig down and hasn’t touched it since.
My mother was more of an angler than anything else, which made a tremendous impact on my life. Although it wasn’t hunting in the traditional sense, our countless journeys across north Texas lakes searching for that bass pot of gold no doubt filled a huge outdoor void in my life. Although I enjoyed every second of those adventures and they no doubt kept me on the straight and narrow during my teenage years, I knew deep down my passion wasn’t complete.
Sometimes life just seems to happen and passions get buried over time, but like your DNA, they can’t be erased. The moment I grabbed my first compound bow in my late twenties and released an arrow, I felt the passion I knew I’d been missing. This was it, and I knew it.
After countless journeys across the West with bow in hand, the roots of that passion have only dug deeper with each ridge walked and each valley crossed. Now, nearing the end of my second decade of Western bowhunting, I have plenty of stories to tell, and this new “Riding West” column in Bowhunting World is going to explore them. Some of these columns will be an account of my follies and successes, while others will dive into the lives of other passionate Western bowhunters as we learn how they fill tags season after season. Rest assured, as I pound each word into the keyboard, we will be riding West on some adventure together.
Living in Colorado, arguably the best Western bowhunting destination in the Lower 48, I’ve had my share of adventures. Some went as planned — far too many did not. Regardless of the outcome, I’ve always been able to draw from the adventure an element of success, even when a tag goes unfilled.
If I had to pick my most difficult big-game animal to chase it would have to be a bull elk. Honestly, elk have been my bowhunting Achilles heel, but not from a lack of effort. In fact, I would say we have a love-hate relationship. I love to hunt them, especially when everything goes as planned, but by season’s end when the legs are weak and the back is tired, the hate starts to creep in. It’s not that I haven’t found some relative success in the elk woods — in fact my first bow kill was a tasty cow, and that was followed up with a 300-inch prize the following season. However, as I see it, they always seem to take more than they give.
For instance, I’ve never harvested a bull during the first few days of the season, or close to my truck for that matter. Usually, I end up scrambling as the season draws to a close trying to sneak close enough or call smoothly enough to get it done. When it does finally come together and I get to witness that magical moment when the broadhead makes contact with fur and bone, I’m usually at least 3 miles from my truck. When you hunt alone, as I often do, that makes for a brutal ending to an already long season. Needless to say, it usually takes me a week before the delusion wears off and I realize the bowhunting accomplishment that’s been achieved.
After nearly 20 years, I can still remember my first elk encounter, and it’s these kinds of memories that cause me to return every season.
After downing the last drop of bitter coffee on that opening morning so many years ago, I slipped on my pack, grabbed my bow and headed into the cool blackness. I had located one of those “elky” spots that I had read about so many times before while preparing for this inaugural adventure.
At 12,000 feet, the dark alpine air was cool and crisp in late August, and with eyes wide open and passions full, I was taking in every moment. As I waited for the eastern horizon to offer its first hint of light, the whistle of a bugling bull floated from a distant ridge. I was spellbound when I heard it, and if I had not seen or heard anything else that morning, I still would have deemed the hunt a success.
As the first hint of glowing light spilled across the basin, the sound of a tumbling rock got my attention. Gripping my bow a little tighter, I tilted my head, straining to hear more confirmation, but instead I caught a glint of tan hide moving toward me through the screen of trees. Although I had planned for this moment countless times before as I scouted and prepared for the hunt, it’s not real until you are looking at one face to face.
To this day, I can still see his 4×5 mahogany-colored rack, dark-chocolate eyes and tan hide when I close my eyes and reflect. My heart pounded out of my chest as the once-90-yard gulf faded to a mere 30, but when he suddenly paused and our eyes met, I knew the encounter would soon be a memory.
In a matter of seconds, I realized the hard lessons that Western bowhunting can throw at you. Learning curves can be steep, and successes few and far between sometimes. When the capricious mountain breeze hit the back of my neck, I learned my very first one.
Needless to say, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Whether packing in for a simple day hunt close to camp or packing out a heavy load of meat, the new 23 Liter Mule ($380) from Mystery Ranch (833-548-1999; www.mysteryranch.com) is perfect. Constructed from a superior 500D Cordura fabric, the Mule incorporates Mystery Ranch’s load-hauling Overload system with the weight-taming Guide Light Frame. Weighing less than 5 pounds empty, the Mule also features a telescoping yoke design to provide a custom fit, a top-zip main compartment, a second pocket on the face of the pack and compression straps to keep it tight to the frame.
With sizes ranging from 100 to 210 grains, the hard-hitting V-Series ($100) broadhead from Iron Will Outfitters (970-776-5022; www.ironwilloutfitters.com) offers a grade 5 titanium ferrule that is three times stronger than a typical aluminum ferrule. It also features a cut-on-contact Tanto tip, a low-profile vented-blade design and heat-treated strong A2 steel blades that not only provide superior hardness but better edge-holding capabilities as well. The new S-Series ($100) offers the same qualities but features a solid-blade design in sizes ranging from 125 to 225 grains.
The Ridge Warrior RB1000 ($4,600) from Rogue Ridge (952-283-0777; www.rogueridge.com) is a ruggedly built electric bike designed from the ground up to be a backcountry bowhunting machine. The Gates Carbon Belt Drive 1000-watt motor coupled with the powerful Panasonic 48V13AH lithium ion rechargeable battery allows the RB1000 to reach speeds up to 30 mph. The bike will travel 29 miles on average without pedaling, and 50-60 miles in Pedal-Assist mode. Weighing just 69 pounds and offering the ability to hold up to 300 pounds, the RB1000 can easily handle a backcountry hunter with a significant amount of gear.
Hunter and elk images by Brian Strickland