California Challenge: Pursuing Tule Elk With a Traditional Bow

A bowhunter’s account of the trials and tribulations of pursuing Tule elk bulls in the extremes that California has to offer.

California Challenge: Pursuing Tule Elk With a Traditional Bow

The author celebrates a challenging Tule elk bowhunt with a rewarding harvest.

As I draw near the conclusion of my active bowhunting life, I realize how blessed I’ve been with the opportunity to hunt all three of North America’s elk species on more than one occasion.

My most recent elk adventure took place in the heat of July on a large ranch near Paso Robles, California. It was a hunt that would prove to be the most physically, emotionally, and psychologically exhausting one of my entire life.

 

The Setting

The ranch I hunted had been owned by outfitter Doug Roth for more than 20 years. When he bought the property there was not a single elk, deer, wild hog or even a quail to be found on it for one simple reason — it had no water.

Roth realized, however, that — if he could drill and find a decent supply — he’d be able to pump the liquid gold up to the top of the mountain ridge his ranch sits astride. Then, he could use gravity to distribute it into every draw or canyon that offered cover to the wildlife he wanted to attract. Roth’s plan was so successful that the California Fish and Game department rewarded him by issuing two Tule tags annually. Finally, his herd of around 200 elk could be appropriately managed.

I met Roth in January of 2017 and learned he still had a bull tag available for the following year. He’d not yet had a bowhunter on his ranch for elk. However, he was genuinely intrigued by the challenge of guiding a traditional archer to a mature Tule bull, so we agreed upon a 10-day hunt. 

I knew there were many mature bulls on Roth’s property because he’d shown me trail-camera photos. Roth would periodically email pics of bulls visiting various “drinkers.” He explained that — unlike most ranches where Tule elk are hunted during the rut — would be hunting them in the velvet. By the time the rut really got underway, there wouldn’t be a single bull left on his property.

About Aug. 1, they all head down to the lower, flatter terrain along the shores of Lake San Antonio to join up with the cows and start their mating rituals. To be successful, he said, I would need to hunt from a ground-blind over water.

Spot-and-stalk is much my preferred method of hunting. Roth insisted that due to the scorching, dry conditions, approaching a bull within stick bow-range would be virtually impossible. So, ground blinds it was going to be! At least the shade would provide some protection from the extreme heat.

Early in the planning, I explained to Roth (who is not an archer) that traditional bowhunters need blinds with plenty of height and space inside to be able to shoot without slapping the roof or side walls. He said he already had half-a-dozen metal blinds positioned near waterholes, and he felt those would work OK for me. Nervous about whether he truly understood me, I urged him to acquire a couple of Double Bull-type blinds, which could be easily moved from one location to another.

By the time I headed for southern California, the daytime highs were averaging 105 degrees. I reached Roth’s lodge the afternoon of July 1 and learned our hunting grounds lay an hour-plus drive away. Roth’s nephew, Garrett Roth, was there to greet me and would be my principal guide throughout. Doug had just had a knee replacement and would be restricted to glassing from his truck.

After unpacking, shooting a few arrows, and wolfing down a marvelous, steak-barbecue dinner, I set my alarm for 2:45 a.m. and crashed. The curtain was about to rise on a hunt that turned out to be nothing like what I expected! For one thing, I would average only four hours of sleep a night — for 10 days!

During the heat of summer, an archer’s best chance at tagging a velvet Tule bull is over water from a good hide.
During the heat of summer, an archer’s best chance at tagging a velvet Tule bull is over water from a good hide.

The Bowhunt Begins

The plan was to be in a specific blind a half-hour before dawn because midday trail camera photos collected the day prior revealed two large bulls at the nearby drinker shortly after sunrise.

When we arrived, however, the blind was a metal one, and — to my consternation — was not suitable for bowhunters. Not only did it force me to shoot out the high, fixed window, but I could not even draw my bow without the upper limb striking the metal roof! It was the very thing I had sought to avoid. I reluctantly placed my tripod stool outside, a few yards uphill, inside the forest-fringe, with a clear shot at the drinker. Three hours later, we left, having seen nary a critter larger than a ground squirrel.

An evening sit in one of the fabric blinds produced no result. Nor did the second morning in the other Double Bull blind. However, a check of the trail camera provided a picture of a good bull drinking there the evening before. No question where we needed to be by 4 p.m. that afternoon!

The pictures had shown the shooter bull had a young 5x6 keeping him company. Fifteen minutes from the truck on foot deposited us inside the well-camouflaged blind about 20 yards from the waterhole. Two hours of sweating profusely “paid our admission” to a remarkable drama about to unfold. The sun had dropped behind the ridge, and the first suggestion of dusk starting to settle in.

Suddenly, the crunching sound of animal hooves was heard, coming up the draw. The young 5x6 was soon visible out my shooting window, but then he stopped to study our blind. We waited breathlessly to see what might happen. Our hope was that the bigger bull was somewhere behind him. The 5x6’s next move was to saunter uphill directly at us until his front hooves were barely three feet from the bottom hem of our hide. It seemed he was trying to peer through my shot window to see what was inside. I could not get my brain around what was happening!

Not only had we thoroughly sprayed ourselves with Scent Killer spray (including all gear) before leaving the truck, but I was the only hunter on the entire 1,900-acre ranch. What sixth (or seventh?) sense had caused that bull to come and investigate our blind? Perhaps the evening thermals had something to do with it. I’m doubtful, however, because — when he turned — he proceeded unhurriedly toward the water. After a short drink, he fed his way up the far slope, soon disappearing over the ridgetop.

What happened a minute later was even more amazing. The sounds of hooves shuffling over the oak leaves came from above, on the hillside behind us! Slowly, inexorably, they came closer and closer — until finally, they stopped, sending a small rock rolling a foot or two onto the uphill, bottom edge of our blind.

As best we could, Garrett and I ceased breathing completely, yet could hear the breath of the massive animal standing mere inches away. We assumed it was the 5x6’s buddy from the previous evening, though we couldn’t be sure. After two long minutes, the mystery bull departed quickly the way he’d come. We never caught even a glimpse. If he returned to drink, it would have been in total darkness, after we snuck out of the blind and back to the truck.

The uncanny smarts of both bulls boggled my mind and convinced me the Tule is likely the craftiest of all three North American elk. Moving ground blinds to different drinkers didn’t seem to make a difference, either. For the next several days, only one spike bull showed up to water during shooting hours. We were regularly checking the cameras at five different waterholes during the hottest part of every day. Soon it became clear that all the mature bulls were almost entirely nocturnal. Garrett and I became increasingly frustrated. The occasional blacktail buck or doe came to drink, but that was about it.

Tule bull inhabit the ranch’s mountainous terrain during the summer, and then travel to the low country to find cows during the rut.
Tule bull inhabit the ranch’s mountainous terrain during the summer, and then travel to the low country to find cows during the rut.

With time starting to run out, it was becoming clear we needed to develop a new strategy. For several days, Doug and another guide, Dawson Work, had been sitting during the final hour of daylight on the highest point of the ranch, glassing for elk movement along the upper ridges and slopes.

After a seventh, futile, morning waterhole sit, we rendezvoused with Doug. He told us about seeing three mature bulls appearing for two consecutive evenings, just before dark, from the backside of a distant ridge. They seemed to be headed for water somewhere in the timber below.

 

A New Plan

Suddenly, a new plan materialized. That afternoon, Garrett and I went to work cutting out of the brush a little hidey-hole, right along the edge of the bulls’ travel corridor. The spot we placed my stool was recessed far enough back that we knew no passing bulls would be able to see me until it was too late. Equally important, the tracks lay only 12 yards from my stool. Several hours later, I returned to the new, natural blind with enormous hope in my heart. If only those bulls would travel that same open ridge for just one more evening!

It was not to be. At least not that evening. Yet, with no better option available, I decided to try the next evening again, and — BINGO! Suddenly, the bull of my dreams walked out of the Twilight Zone right into my world.

I first spotted the bull, not a hundred yards distant. His head was down, partially hidden in the tall grass. I was able to see one seven-point antler prominently silhouetted against the faint embers of a vanishing sunset. “Please have him move in my direction,” I whispered to myself as if I had a private line direct to the Almighty.

Direct line or not, my whispered prayer was quickly answered, as the bull started feeding in my direction. “Keep coming,” I pleaded. I knew the end of legal shooting light was fast approaching. The bull, alone, was in no hurry. Yet I knew I was in a race against the clock. Oh, if only the bull would cooperate in time.

Well, he did — or God did. As the final minute of legal light was ticking down, from 40-or-so yards away the regal, larger-than-life, black silhouette of this magnificent animal started trotting downhill in my direction. When he reached my shooting lane, I was already at full draw, and I let out a grunt. The bull stopped on a dime, and my arrow was away. PSST! was the only sound I heard, as the shaft passed through him. The residual light was so minimal I could not see where the arrow passed through his side, but the shot had seemed about right. Only dawn would bring answers.

 

A Restless Night

A mostly sleepless night followed, but sun-up found our search-party trying to follow a nearly nonexistent bloodtrail. I was disheartened to realize that my shaft had likely not passed through the ribcage. We couldn’t even find the arrow to examine it for sign. Nevertheless, before long, Garrett spotted the bull 300 yards below, at the bottom of the steep draw he’d run into the night before. He was standing there in the open.

With our hopes mightily lifted, we decided to spend the day watching him till further action seemed warranted. Soon, he started moving slowly uphill, entering the cover of the forested slope across from us.

The entire day was spent watching that hillside. Shadows cast on the ground, visible through the few open peek holes in the canopy, allowed us to monitor his slow progress toward the ridgetop. Finally, just at sunset, his full body cleared the horizon and disappeared over the top. “Heartbreak Ridge,” I mused, painfully.

Daybreak of day 10 found us at the bottom of the backside of that ridge. In an open bowl, we wondered which of three converging ridges the bull had decided to hide out on. All offered substantial cover to hide. However, this is when my guide Garrett’s uncanny instincts came into play. His intuition urged him to one specific ridge that his gut told him was the most likely to be harboring our quarry. It wasn’t more than 15 minutes of his crisscrossing the forested hillside before he picked up the tracks of a large bull.

Hollering at us to join him, he soon had all of us reinvigorated and hot on the trail of my wounded bull. There was no blood to follow, but the heavy tracks were unmistakable. Within minutes, we jumped the 7x6, though he didn’t appear to have been bedded. After staring at us for a moment, he trotted away, heading downhill into a deep draw. Though we lost him briefly, it wasn’t long before we could see him standing — 300 yards distant — right up against a barbed-wire fence. Garrett whispered, “Dennis, I don’t think he’s got enough strength to jump that fence.”

 

Miracles Happen

An hour later, we were in position, and Garrett flashed me a hand signal: 33 yards. As I leaned forward for the shot, a minuscule rock grated underfoot, and suddenly the bull cleared the barbed wire like a gazelle. We watched in dismay as he disappeared around a corner into another forested hillside more than a half-mile away.

Many hours later, after crisscrossing that distant ridge several times — and with Yours Truly near the point of heat prostration, we sat down in the shade to rest. Garrett then delivered the words I was dreading to hear. “Dennis, we’re out of gas and out of luck. I think your hunt’s probably over.” I nodded silently. A few, quiet, painful minutes passed. Then we all rose to head out toward the ranch-road below.

Yet, miracles do happen!  Twenty yards down the slope — Glory be — there was our bull standing 40 yards away, right up against a fence. This time he seemed unwilling to try jumping, however.

As the reader can imagine, a new shot of adrenaline surged through all of us as the beleaguered bull began a slow trot back in the direction he’d come from.

An hour later, I found myself on a country road, less than 30 yards from my elk, with a chance to end his tribulations and our anguish. He was standing in the shade, about 25 yards away, just the other side of another wire fence running parallel to the road.

To accomplish a finishing shot, I needed to secure a toehold on the nearly vertical 10-foot rocky bank. By God’s grace, I was able to climb just high enough to shoot over the top edge of that bank.  As I saw my arrow shaft pass through both lungs, I lost my toehold and came sailing off the bank — my body twisting outward and forward. Thankfully, Garrett was there to catch me, or I’d have done a nasty face plant in the gravel.

Seconds later, the drama was over. I can genuinely say that, by the time I finally “did in” that magnificent animal, I was totally “done in,” myself!

After a few prayers, silent handshakes were exchanged. Yet there was no real joy, no elation — only an immense sense of relief. Bowhunting is supposed to be fun, but sometimes, it is something else.

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