Elk Down

 Rick, the Hunting Manager for Buffalo Mountain Ranch, had helped me brainstorm some good location s for my elk hunt. One place really drew my attention. He told me that a big bull and a herd of cows were hanging around an open area in thick cover, where they would eat before bedding down in the middle of the morning. That sounded like a winner to me, so I put my name marker on the place of that particular blind, on the large satellite photo of the ranch on the wall in the lodge, and jumped into the Excursion for the trip to the blind. A short drive down some dirt roads put me on a road leading along the canyon rims. I pulled onto a feeder road and parked on a flat place just off a steep cliff, above two deep canyons. The blind I would be hunting was located only a hundred yards or so further east, just a hundred yards or so away from these vertical drops that led down into the brush-choked bottoms of the canyons on the north side of the ranch.

I suited-up for a freezing walk to the blind. I have learned to always put the release on, and the rangefinder around my neck, before I leave the truck. There are just too many times when there was not another opportunity do so later. I shut the truck door very quietly, finally pushing it into the final latch with a bump from my hip.

I picked up the Dren and walked the last hundred yards or so to the blind. Soon, I slipped into the seat, a good half-hour before first light. It was quite cold, so I was thankful for longjohns, the extra layers up top, the good gloves, and mostly for a calm wind. I was facing east. The deep canyons were just off to my left, and some low ground was off to the right as well. This long, wide piece of high ground I occupied was a natural crossing area for deer and elk. They would often stop in the opening in the thick woods to graze before bedding. A gentle breeze was blowing from right to left. That was perfect. The open area was just in front of me, well over seventy five yards wide ahead, and extending a hundred yards or so to the right. I could lean forward and see much of the open area, but the way the tree where I was located was cut (providing lots of cover, and just a few "shooting lanes") I couldn't see all of the opening. Well, one must choose great visibility or being exposed to the prying eyes of the animals. I think I like the idea of fewer shooting lanes and more cover, frankly.

I retrieved my water bottle and took a sip. I find I must drink often while on the stand, or I will dehydrate. As I was quietly screwing the plastic lid back onto the bottle, I heard the crunch of hooves upon rocks in the middle of the open area. I stowed the bottle, and leaned forward, squinting and straining to see in the faint light of a setting quarter moon, which was still giving some light from over my left shoulder.

A tiny movement drew my eye. I saw a lighter tan patch in the browns of the open area. I couldn't be sure if it was an animal, or just a light patch of grass. Only more light would answer that question. I gently pulled an arrow from my quiver, and placed it within the grasp of the fall-away rest. My rest has a wonderful feature. It has two small plastic claws which grab the arrow, holding it tightly, until you draw. No more floppy arrows during the draw for me. The arrow won't fall from the rest regardless of the angle of the bow. The arrow's plastic nock clicked twice upon the string - securing it fully in the seat. I lay my bow across my lap, and waited.

The morning light didn't arrive before a lot more cold found me. My feet were plenty warm with thick boot socks inside insulated calf-high Muck Boots, but the rest of my body was complaining. I put my hands under my arms to preserve the little heat they still had. I pressed my legs together to try to slow the heat loss. I hunched up my shoulders to try to make my neck shorter. I closed my eyes often to preserve their meager heat. When I opened them to stare at the brown ghost across the opening, they would burn from the cold. I was beginning to second-guess this early arrival at this blind. Every now and again, a gentle breeze from my right would burn my right ear, even though it was covered with a tight-fitting Ninja-style camouflage head cover.

Finally, a hint of orange mixed with crimson began to push back the deep blue of the sky in the east. Soon, there was enough light to begin to see. I was finally able to determine that the brown ghost I had suspicioned in front of me was real. It was an elk. It was a bull elk. Some noise in the woods off to my right that I couldn't hear, drew his attention. He turned his head. A huge set of antlers turned with it. I blinked. I brought the rangefinder up to my eye and shot the range. Sixty yards. The magnifying monocular gave me a first good look at this magnificent animal. I counted tines, "One, two, three, four, five, and six." Six on each side. He had a spread that was three times wider than his body. The tips of his antlers were high, and gleaming white. He was looking into the woods just off to my right, and I suspected he would eventually walk that way. That path would put him just into a very nice shooting lane.

I began negotiations with myself. Surely he would eventually step closer and give me a good shot. But I also knew that there were other hunters coming later in the season who really would want to take this bruiser. But I was here and they weren't. But I can come here all the time and take a nice bull, but many other hunters only get one shot. Besides, I had already resolved to just take a cow, and have some freezer meat. But I wouldn't get a better shot this year. And he sure would look nice on the wall in the lodge. But he would also look really nice on someone else's wall... and why am I being so doggoned selfish? In the end, my arguing was brought to a halt by circumstances beyond my control. The arrival of a small herd of cows.

Footfalls from the right, further up the clearing, caught my attention. I turned my head slowly to the right to see what was making the commotion. A small herd of cows stepped out of the thick woods and walked confidently into the clearing. The presence of an unspooked bull had given them the "all clear" to move to the grazing ground. I sat up in the seat. Cold air rushed into my collar. I didn't care. The two large cows and two yearling cows stepped from the treeline and were standing just in front of me at a distance of no more than twenty yards. One of the cows was slightly bigger than the other, and I settled upon taking her. She would provide a lot of really good eating.

For what seemed like hours, the animals milled around in front of me. I never could get a good clear shot at the largest cow. There was always another animal between me and her, or she was facing the wrong way. That is, until a curious sound in the distance lent me a hand. The heads all came up, and ears and eyes faced directly away from me. Even the big bull across the way turned and looked. The big cow was clear now, and all I needed was for her to turn just a little more to the right.

I had set the Dren at only 65 lbs of draw weight. Because of that decision, I now had the stamina to hold against the stop for a bit longer than I normally have. I checked the arrow one last time, and then extended my left arm out toward the animals. Smoothly and quietly I drew back on the string. I held the bow in the ready position, awaiting her next move.

There was a nice bend into the Dren's limbs. The grip was comfortable in my gloved hand. My fingers were open, putting no torquing pressure on the grip at all. The release felt cold against my face through the thin face mask as it found the familiar spot. The string just touched the tip of my nose as my right eye found and focused on the pins against the light tan of her body. I put the top pin in a place that I expected her lungs to be when she turned.

Finally she turned, orienting herself in a more aligned position with the far-away sound that had alerted her and the other animals. As she turned, she finally presented me with an ideal broadside shot. I drew a deep breath, exhaled some of it, and held the rest. My index finger tightened on the TruBall release and I felt the pressure of the trigger, familiar through the glove. The top pin wobbled in a little circle in the pocket just above the big cow's front leg. I pulled back with imperceptible pressure upon the trigger. Suddenly, the arrow sped away, arcing gently as it cut an invisible path in the still Texas air. I could see the cock vane rotating to the right as the arrow spun - in slow motion - toward its mark.

In less than a quarter-second the 125-grain broadhead broke a rib, and a sharp "thwack" broke the silence of the still morning, as it continued its deadly plunge into her vitals. The huge elk reacted, spinning away. The other elk jumped as well and sped into the trees. As the big cow turned I could see a fourth of the arrow still protruding from her ribcage. I did a mental calculation, and was confident that the arrow had penetrated both lungs, with the broadhead embedded in the far chest wall. The ribs had apparently dissipated enough energy to prevent a total pass-through.

Hoof-thrown rocks spattered through the underbrush as the animals ran into the edge of the thick woods. I leaned forward in the seat, straining to see where she had gone. There, between a few limbs, I could just see her rump in the edge of the woods. She was standing there, motionless. I heard the big bull huffing, and even giving the typical "gluck" which is supposed to bring the ladies closer. But she didn't move.

I leaned out a little further, and finally could see part of her head. Her ears were back, and she was standing in what appeared to be an unnatural stance. I resolved to simply sit here and watch her for as long as I needed to. I had no place to go. I glanced at my left wrist. It was 7:30 a.m. The clearing was ... clear.

A few minutes later, she stepped off into the woods and disappeared. I waited for another half-hour, and then left the blind to try to see what I could find. I walked almost on tiptoe towards where I had seen her in the edge of the woods, and found a large pool of frothy blood. I had a good shot on her. It was only a matter of time now.

I looked up and bobbed my head around, trying to see among the trees and ground clutter a light brown coat. Then, the sound of thrown rocks and breaking underbrush from just in front of me hit me like a blanket. I took a few steps back, not knowing which way she had gone. I was hoping that I was hearing the remainder of the herd leaving her, but to my dismay, all I could find of her was fresh panicked prints and fresh blood. She was moving fast, and leaving almost no blood. What made it worse is that there were five animals in that herd, and I couldn't be sure which one was leaving the tracks I had to follow.

I tracked her for another hour, sometimes on my hands and knees, until I lost the tracks and the blood trail. There were just too many sets of tracks out there to isolate those of the mortally wounded cow. The blood trail was gone.

I walked back to the truck, and went to get Rick at the headquarters. I told him I had an animal down, but lost her tracks and blood. He got his Terrier "Pebbles" into the pickup, and drove to the blind.

Once Rick put Pebbles on the blood, she tracked the wounded cow like a bloodhound. The cow had taken a curving path. She left the herd and went back to the north - toward the deep canyons. Pebbles tracked her across the road I had used to access this area, and down into the deep canyons. Pebbles found her in terribly thick underbrush, lying down.

I'll be bringing lots of elk meat back, my next trip over there this month.

I still wonder how that big bull might have looked on the wall in the lodge, though.


H. J. Ledbetter, is owner of Buffalo Mountain Hunts, frequent contributor to BowhuntingInfo.com., and a constant hunting companion of Bob Baldwin