September the 6th 2023. I ventured into the woods to begin archery elk season. Five hours after parking the truck, blood had been drawn, emotions peaked and the adrenaline was flowing.
I spent the summer like most outdoorsman: scouting, planning and general mountain swashbuckling. Several weeks before opening day I had my plans set and wasn’t intending on hunting elk until around the 11th, but did have a nice buck to pursue. Opening day of archery was filled with rain and wind gusts but still found myself determined to be out in the woods and heading down to the water hole that the buck had been frequenting. The short half mile walk into the canyon left my fingers frozen and the body soaked but I found the buck, or his big white flag high tailing it out of the country at least. After searching for him for a few hours I cut my losses and headed back.
The next week was fine tuning gear and keeping excitement in check. I made a last minute decision to head out Wednesday morning to a spot I had seen a couple dozen rubs the previous year, not wanting to head into my main spot this early in the season.
By 4:30am I was making the trek up the canyon to a big bowl, hoping to near the summit and begin side hilling back towards the south by the time the winds started their shift. Timing was perfect but I had seen zero elk sign and heard not a peep. I began cow calling occasionally a little bit after first light but still had zero response. Having now worked my way nearly back to the truck, I found a nice little perch overlooking the canyon I previously walked up and gave one last cow call. It was immediately answered with a lazy bugle emanating from the opposing ridge and about a half mile up from where I had just come from. I waited a few minutes and called again and he answered back, prompting two other bulls to sound off. With hope brewing once again I began to pick my way down the mountain to more suitable terrain and found a nice well used elk trail running parallel to the canyon all the way back into the bowl. To keep the wind in my favor I needed to go this way instead of straight down. Every 5 to 10 minutes I would cow call and get a response from one of the bulls. As I neared them, one of the bulls was getting progressively more annoyed/angry which led to the silencing of the other two. Assuming this was the herd bull or at least a mature dominant one, I kept on course to intercept him and as luck would have it, he started making the journey down towards me, bugling occasionally in answer to my calls. By this time the wind was perfectly in my favor and the distance was getting short so I stopped calling for a while to hopefully get him riled up. It paid off and the next time I mewed he ripped a bugle about 100 yards away.
North Idaho brush and dead falls make it hard to see an approaching animal so I decided to hunker down where I had a shooting lane and figured was his most likely course. About this time I could hear other cows mewing and scuffling around in the bulls general direction so I couldn’t risk getting any closer and decided to try challenging him. A quick cow call and as soon as he started the guttural sounds I switched to the tube and cut him off with my own emotion filled bugle and immediately heard brush crashing. Game on.
Problem was, it sounded like it was going the other way and then dead silence. “Fuck! I just blew it!” was about the only thought I could muster. I had an arrow knocked and continued to wait a few more minutes and mewed once more. He let out a quick squeal and began chuckling about 40 yards away but before he could finish I cut him off with another challenge. More crashing and thrashing and I could finally see antler tips charging through the brush. I drew my bow and lined up with where he was going to come out but he paused at the end of the brush and stood there huffing and puffing for what felt like an agonizing eternity. And then resumed his trot down the trail giving me my opening. Tracking his shoulder I let out a quick mew and he stopped and stared at me, perfectly broad side. My inexperience and fried nerves led me to squeeze off my shot before I was perfectly stable and I hit a little further back than I had meant but it didn’t look bad at all. He went running down the hill a bit and I soon heard a lot of commotion and branches breaking. Assuming he had fell over dead I waited about 25 minutes. Obviously not long enough because I crept down and bumped him from where he was bedded, he did a slow trot away and offered no additional shots so I backed down the canyon and made my way to the truck to recruit some packing help. About two hours had passed and I was now returning with my father to help track and what not. Not being able to find the blood trail after the 50ish yard mark had me a bit worried but we were both confident it was a liver shot and that the bull would be down or very soon be. My father stayed back looking for blood and I made my way up to where he was last seen and lo and behold I found him. Still alive. He stood up very lazily in a nasty thicket of brush and I could only see the antlers and ears, he then picked up speed and charged down the hill a bit, straight towards my father. The next thing I hear is my dad yelling, “ Stephen! Get down here, he’s standing right in front of me, shoot him!” I raced back down the hill around some dead falls and come to a bizarre sight. The bull is standing face to face with my dad about ten feet apart. My dad’s waving a stick in an attempt to not get trampled but the bull was on his last few ounces of energy it seemed. I quickly put two arrows through the lungs and he drew his last breath right in front of us.
Waves of relief and grief spread through me and I couldn’t keep the tears out of my eyes as I apologized to my dad for my poor performance. A 30 plus year successful hunter, perfectionist and general bad ass, he was the last person in the world I would have wanted to see me mess up. He quickly dispatched my negativity and showed nothing but excitement at an extremely odd set of circumstances and the ability to watch his son shoot his first archery elk.
Things rarely go perfectly, but we owe it to the animals to make it as smooth as possible. Another year, another lesson learned and beautiful memories made.
Written by Stephen Coe