Previously: Trophy Whitetails

Bruiser Bulls

The other half of my mixed bag hunt was a five-day elk hunt in the Selway-Bitterroot Region. Getting to base camp included a breathtaking five-mile horseback journey with my guide, Mark Kennedy. With a background that includes part-time as a competition bull rider, Mark’s been guiding since 1985 for deer, bear, mountain lion, and elk. His successful clients have topped the century mark.

To ensure that I’d make Mark’s list of successful hunters, I found some pre-hunt preparation vital. If you top your arrows with feathers, like I do, make sure your fletching is waterproof, and your broadheads are screwed tight and perfectly aligned. Proper loading of your day pack is also key; you don’t want to be overburdened while chasing an elk herd, yet you must carry enough gear to ensure comfort in driving rain, searing heat, and bitter cold and snow. Variable September weather in mountainous terrain can bring all three—sometimes all in the same day.

I found that the most important aspect was being mentally ready for success, but that’s only half of it. Mark pointed out that the two most common client errors are inaccurate shooting at the moment of truth and not being in good enough physical condition. I silently hoped I’d prepared for both adequately.

The first morning, as we were easing down the trail on our horses, Mark bugled out a challenge. Almost immediately—a few hundred yards off to our left—a bull answered with resounding fury. I didn’t even need Mark’s wide-eyed, reactionary glance to get me excited.

We both got into position as a monster elk materialized at 40 yards, quickly closing the distance as he ghosted directly towards me, swinging his large rack from side to side to intimidate his unseen challenger. I nocked an arrow and waited feverishly for a broadside shot to present itself. Thirty, 20, then only 10 yards separated us as my excitement turned to panic. Would he run right over me?

As I drew, the bull caught the movement and leapt back, equally panicked. He stopped at 25 yards, offering a good look at his vitals. Then the arrow was on its way—I could only watch as it flew nearly to the elk before deflecting at the last second. It had launched upward, harmlessly over the big bull’s mighty rack!

The elk and I both froze in silence. I quickly attempted to nock another arrow, this time pulling back with frazzled nerves. In shock now, I watched as, during the draw, the press-fit nock somehow separated from the shaft, which fell to the ground with an audible “clunk.” In the next instant my dream bull pounded back up the mountain. After his hasty departure we found the twig responsible for my deflected arrow, invisible from my vantage point. The nockless arrow still remains a mystery.

With only two days remaining, we were about to descend the mountain after a hard day’s hunt when we stopped for a brief rest. As a last-ditch effort for the day, Mark let out a bugle. Miraculously, an ear-piercing response came rumbling back, just 100 yards to our right. Mark directed me to the tree where I would set up, then quickly jumped back into the brush, continuing to call.

I anticipated the elk would come to the clearing in front of me. Then suddenly, he was there, skirting the outside of the tiny opening as I tracked him with my arrow. I’d already come to full draw. Glancing ahead I knew I’d have one opportunity at 30 yards. With only a two-foot opening to thread, I released when the shot felt right. It was, finding its mark behind the bull’s foreleg just a little higher than I’d hoped. I quickly knocked a second arrow as the wounded bull spun and retreated on the same trail.

Again I tracked the bull through the brush, waiting for him to reach a small opening that I guessed at 50 yards. As I released, the bull lowered his head and trotted off. The second arrow had also felt good, but as I replayed those 10 seconds over and over in my mind, more doubts haunted me.

After an intense, unsuccessful search, and with dusk quickly approaching, we noticed two faint trails just ahead; Mark took the one to the left, I made my way to the right. Discouraged but still hopeful, I didn’t go 20 yards when I saw the large, tan mass just ahead. I cautiously approached to discover my very first elk: a fine 6×6 bull. Words can’t describe the relief and exhilaration.

See page 2 for more.

Lessons Learned

Packing the bull out the next morning and later, while breaking camp, gave me a lot of time to reflect back on this mixed-bag hunt and all its hard-won lessons.

Expect the unexpected: Getting fidgety in the stand was the culprit that prevented me from collecting a fine whitetail buck. Before moving around in any stand thoroughly scan your stand site to make sure all is clear. You just never know when and where that trophy may appear.

Pre-hunt prep is key: Practice religiously, shooting from a treestand in all kinds of positions and angles (make them difficult), so in the field they become routine. Also, carry a rangefinder or pace off known distances from your stand site so you’ll be prepared.

Stay confident: Miscues such as the missing of a trophy buck and my opening-morning bull blunders are enough to mess with anyone’s self-confidence. You can’t let it. Analyze what went wrong, learn from the experience, and move on. Keeping a positive attitude pays big when additional opportunities arise.

Fight adversity with perseverance: Unexpected tall, thick jungle-like foliage on my elk hunt made me adjust how I walked, stalked, and shot. I had prepared for steep terrain, but not for busting brush on every ascent and descent. Sadly, the level of physical conditioning needed for this type of hunt claimed a whole group of hunters in one of Tim’s camps early in their hunt, sending them home with their tails between their legs—an expensive lesson to learn.

Get outfitted for the worst: Severe heat, cold, and freezing rain are just some of Ma Nature’s moods you must deal with during the course of a week-long hunt. Prepare your daypack accordingly. Bring lightweight, warm-as-toast fleece for insulation, and depend on outerwear made of fabrics like lightweight, tough and water-resistant microfleece or Saddle-Cloth that also dry quickly when wet. On the trail we met up with two hunters heading back to camp about mid morning. One of them was shaking so badly he could hardly sit in the saddle. He needed more clothes—his cotton T-shirt and worn flannel shirt were no match for the cold, damp conditions and dew-soaked brush. I found out later they left two days early—without their bulls.