The herd of cows tear up goat country like hell’s gates just materialized at their heels. Along with them a five by five bull covering up the ass and with him my hopes of success for the season.
Joe stands alone looking over a cliff’s edge into the valley that held them moments before.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me. Did you need to sit on the edge and watch them?” I spew pure anger, “What good did that do? You know the wind is swirling. How in any way did that get us closer to killing these goddamn things?”
I was livid. I had to walk away before the words really started to boil.
Get it back down to a simmer at least buddy. No need to get nasty.
The anger takes on a life of its own. A dark place within festers, threatening to grow and become a life of its own. If I don’t control it a friendship will be lost.
I know I am projecting. That I’m really mad at myself for letting this happen. The blown stalks are stacking up and I need an outlet, a person to try to pawn this embarrassment off on. I happen to have someone ten yards away to hurl insults on and I take advantage of it.
Joe has been hunting elk for a few years, me much longer. I should know better and I should have made the call.
Instead I decide to be an asshole and push the blame to protect my fragile ego. I am weak and I know it.
You’re a scared little boy. Fucking control yourself.
“He was a pretty small five by five, eh?” I say.
My voice calms and I let the emotion wash off and absorb into the earth blow.
The consolation prize. Pretend it’s something that you didn’t want anyway. Pretend that the reason you messed up has nothing to do with your impatience and lack of skill but rather that he wasn’t good enough quarry for you anyway. Pretend that it was someone else’s fault. Anyone else's fault but your own. Lie to yourself.
The inner monologue wasn’t helping so I shut it down.
“On to the next one?” I say.
“On to the next one.” Joe repeats back as if nothing ever happened.
I could tell he was used to dealing with the intensity that can come from a blown opportunity. He takes the higher road and doesn’t come back at me like he deserves to.
We gather ourselves and head for a vantage point, trying not to notice the globs of fresh elk shit and other sign that even a blind man would see.
We push higher up, a common theme when we hunt together.
“Might as well give the valley a good glassing and see if there are any late wanderers headed back to their bedrooms,” Joe says as we walk.
We’re above treeline and the walking is easy. A game trail that could be mistaken for a well maintained hiking trail points us to the next valley over.
We pick a spot to sit and glass that offers us a shot opportunity at any window shopping elk that happen to pass by.
A few cows and a spike graze in the valley directly below. Nothing worth chasing but it’s a relief to know that our efforts haven’t cleared the whole mountain range of four legged animals.
The heavy clouds build up as we set glass to cross valley mountain in hopes of making anything huntable appear out of the still land.
The cooling air negates the effects of the thermals for that time of day and everything comes to a standstill. It’s dead silent as the mountains shut down their eternal wind making machine and drops it in neutral.
“They’re going to switch early today,” I say while continuing to glass.
“Yup,” replies Joe.
Now we just need something to chase.
As if on cue.
“Got those bulls from yesterday. They haven’t moved but ten yards from where we saw them twelve hours ago,” Joe says calmly.
“They’re near the valley floor. That must mean no one is down there chasing them,” I respond back. “How the hell can there be no one chasing them?”
“Dunno,” comes the reply. “I mean the backcountry army that has laid siege to this land must have read on some internet forum that they were using that avy chute to feed.”
Maybe this idea that the more brutal you make a hunt the higher your chances of success is backwards. Maybe we’ve had it wrong the whole time.
“That’s definitely in the cow zone, let alone bull zone,” I say with a twinge of excitement in my voice.
“It’s still eight and a half miles in man. Better than shooting one up here, but that’s a whole lot of elk to get out of here,” Joe responds bringing me back to reality.
“Two elk,” I correct.
“Huh,” he responds
“Two elk. There are two bulls down there. That’ll be two elk to carry out eight and a half miles,” I say.
“Right…” Joe responds. “With the way it’s been, lets just worry about getting one on the ground big dreamer. Let’s wait and make sure the thermals push down the mountain then we can make our way in.”
I settle back into the hillside and peel my eyes away from the two bulls feeding out in the open. I’m baffled by their audacity. They strut about as if they weren’t on public land and as if they hadn’t had carbon and lead thrown their way from the time their eyes opened to the world.
It must be exhausting being seen as a source of food, never knowing if there is something lurking for you behind the next tree. I feel sorry for their predicament in life for a minute, but know this was the hand they were dealt. Better them than me.
The thermals did what they have been doing since the beginning of time. There’s no free will, just science that acts as the hand of god and the wind changes to a consistent downhill pull.
“Looks like we can get in pretty close before having to play our hand,” Joe says as we take a last look at the lower part of the avy chute where the two bulls have just recently bedded back down.
“I’m thinking we can get within a hundred yards of them and do some quiet bugling and raking,” I say. “Nothing flashy, just something to gain their attention.”
“Agreed,” Joe replies.
We make our way down to the valley floor. No easy feat when you’re sitting fourteen hundred feet above and the contour lines look more like a solid line from a Sharpie rather than the well spaced lines I was hoping for.
Once on the floor it will be a hunt of faith. We’d have to push in close without knowing if they backed out. Such is the way of spot and stalk.
We creep our way through the random trees that have fought for solid ground in the swampy drainage that is the main artery of the giant mountains above.
Habit takes over and we both crouch low as we push our way forward. I know that it makes no difference, they will either see us or they won’t. Dropping a foot lower isn’t going to change that, but sometimes you negate the “shoulda, woulda, couldas” before they happen if for nothing else but piece of mind.
Communication converts over to hand signals. Navy SEALS of the backcountry.
We split out thirty yards apart, wanting to stay within sight in case one needs to call for the other.
The air is heavy in the thick in the shade of the pines as we approach our predetermined point of attack. I feel like a stalker hanging out in the shadows of an alley waiting for an innocent bystander to walk by.
We’re in position and we let everything go quiet for a while, letting our ears become accustomed to the deafening silence.
Minutes roll by and I can now hear the flutter of tiny songbirds, the far off rush of the stream below and the blood in my own ears.
I grab the bugle and blow an introductory note into it. Nothing dramatic, just a wake-up call to let the locals know that a newcomer has arrived. Some light raking on a nearby pine to add to the realism and then I go silent.
The constant breeze in my face has me feeling confident as the sun begins to slip away. I don’t see or hear them, but I know they are there.
My eyes scan the open park as if trying to will something to appear.
And then he just materializes. He doesn’t walk out, he doesn’t come in running, but rather just appears as if a wisp of fog is blown away to reveal his presence.
The ambient background sounds are overpowered by the rushing pulse in my ears and the heavy breathing of my lungs.
Control the situation before you do something stupid.
I pull up my rangefinder as slowly as my patience will allow. One hundred and eight yards.
The battle has started and I clearly don’t have the upper hand. He moves along a rounded ridge and I can tell by his body language that he knows something isn’t right. He’s expecting to see some fur behind the vocalization and when that doesn’t appear he walks a perimeter of perceived safety to try and suss out the dilemma.
I know I have to act or I’ll lose him. Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing, but this isn’t one of those times.
Joe has been dead silent behind me, so my guess is he can’t see what I’m seeing. He has no idea that we have a visitor.
I squeak out a quick cow call, full well knowing it will give away my position. But something has to be done.
The gamble is worth it as I hear the cracking sticks from Joe’s movement behind me. He throws out a few cow calls, pleading with the bull to come in.
His attention snaps to where the sounds are coming from. Slowly the yards are shaved away.
He’s bright in the open field of the slide area, me dark below the heavy pine limbs. He struggles looking in, trying to catch a glimpse of the cow causing this inner turmoil within him.
Trust your survival instincts and you’ll live. You’re mating instincts will betray you.
The pull is too strong and he continues towards the darkness. He sees my slight movements but they aren’t enough to overpower his urge to breed.
At fifty-five yards he turns broadside and pauses. He looks back from where he came in case the need for an escape route arises.
I know I’m pressing my luck. I also know that at fifty-five yards he has no chance of surviving.
By the time he comes to his senses it is too late for him. His urges betray him, my fanatical training on the other hand doesn’t.
He catches the arrow in the bulk of his body that releases the tell tale “thud”.
He walks off sick. He shows no sign of feeling the impact, but knows his body isn’t reacting to the demands of his brain.
I lay my bow in the pine needles and watch him walk away.
The sun fades and along with it his life.
My fists pump into the air, expelling the elation of something long sought finally being obtained. The years, the miles, the sore back, the time away from family. Everything balls together and punches me in the face.
I look back at Joe. He has glass to his eyes but it isn’t focused on the bull laying in a pool of its own blood.
Shit. What did I miss?
My head swivels to where he was looking. My binocs go up and in it is the full frame of the second bull, obviously curious as to what all the commotion is about.
I keep my eyes pinned to the glass, full well knowing that the wheels of motion have already been set into place. At this point I’m merely a spectator.
A train locomotive goes roaring high above my shoulder. The impact is breathtaking.
The animal’s head snaps back as if it was rear ended by a texting teenager in their mother’s soccer van.
He takes three steps and is uprooted. His feet go up in the air and position themselves like the tree limbs of some morbid fairy tail.
“This didn’t just happen,” I say as Joe approaches.
We both stand in the fading light looking stupid.
“Two bulls down?” he says.
“Two bulls down,” I repeat.
// Fred Bohm