We walked up to our camp, dropped our gear and an elk bugled just up the mountain. I grinned at Dad, who’d never been elk hunting, and said, “This is going to be good!”
Our hunt actually began several months prior when Uncle Jeff drew a nonresident permit for Montana. I’d wanted to share an elk camp with Dad and Jeff for years, so when Jeff drew a tag, I knew this was going to be a great time together. Past archery hunts, scouting trips with the family and a few solo trips left me feeling confident I could get Jeff into elk. I was planning to hunt also, but a dislocated shoulder 2 weeks before the archery season opened turned me into a one-armed hunt planner, guide and camp cook.
The day before Jeff was to arrive, Dad and I headed for the mountains to set up camp. When we arrived, I was pleased to find that we largely had the area to ourselves, and even more excited to hear a couple of bulls bugling. The bull in the drainage above our camp bugled for 3 hours while we got camp set up. He started bugling again the next morning at 4 a.m., and kept at it for nearly 3 hours. I prayed that he’d stay put until Jeff got into camp that afternoon.
When Jeff arrived after a 2-day drive, I told him about the bull and that he was lucky I couldn’t draw my bow, or we’d already have elk quarters on the meat pole. He just laughed and we spent a few hours talking and relaxing in camp, enjoying the fall weather and gorgeous scenery that the mountains of Montana offer.
Coughs And Cow Calls
At 3:30 p.m., we all geared up, walked out of camp and started up the drainage where Dad and I had heard the bull. Dark clouds backed up against the mountains and dispersed a light rain, making the woods quiet and perfect for stalking. A few hundred yards in, Jeff and I did a short sequence with a couple of cow calls. The bull immediately sounded off toward the head of the draw, quite a ways above us.
Since we had the bull located, we backed off on the calling and headed up the mountain. After topping out on a narrow bench, Jeff and I called a few times as we sat down to take a breather and listen for the bull. While sitting together whispering about what to do next, Dad got a tickle in his throat and had to cough. We’ve all had that feeling in the woods, when you know you’re going to cough whether you want to or not. He turned red trying to keep from coughing, which just made it worse.
About a 30-second coughing jag ensued, during which I thought I could hear the antlers of the bull scraping through the trees as he walked away from us. We stayed put for about 10 minutes, after which we all took a cough drop and headed in the direction we thought the bull had gone. Within 50 yards, Jeff cut his tracks, I found some very fresh sign and the pungent odor of rutting bull elk hung in the air. Jeff took the lead as we worked through some small clearings, all of us scanning the woods for any sign of elk and straining our ears for a bugle or even the snap of twig that would indicate that our bull was around.
As we worked our way through the clearing, I rotated between three cow calls, and did my best to sound like a small harem of cows without a herd bull. I was just putting a call back in my pocket when I saw Jeff nock an arrow and drop to the ground. Dad and I immediately followed suit.
This bull was approaching silently, and the wet ground was making it that much easier for him to do so. As the bull moved toward us through the timber, we realized that we were not set up well. In order for things to come together, Jeff needed to move to the right. He slowly moved forward into the timber and bumped directly into the bull. I couldn’t see what had happened, but I heard the bull crashing off through the trees. I immediately hit the calls hard and saw the bull stop on a small ridge about 90 yards away. I called three more times and watched as he turned his head and trotted back toward us without making a sound. I lost the bull in the timber, but heard Jeff shoot and the bull retreat again.
Jeff’s shot was a clean miss, but neither the bull nor I knew what had happened. I opened up with another rapid series of pleading calls, and the bull stopped in almost exactly the same spot as before. I kept up the calling barrage and was amazed to see him turn and come back on a string. This time he stopped farther out and gave us a grunt/chuckle that echoed through the woods.
By now the rain had turned to hail that was drumming off my hat, and I turned and smiled at my dad. This was awesome! As I called back to the bull, I could see him moving through the timber toward us again. Seconds later I heard Jeff drop the string and the bull took off again, solidly hit this time. I worked the calls hard as the bull broke and ran through the timber one last time. The bull stopped 100 yards away and turned back to look again.
I made a few more cow calls and he turned his head trying to locate us. Then we heard the crash as the fatal arrow worked quickly and efficiently. Dad, Jeff and I huddled under a tree in the intermittent rain, hail and sunshine for 45 minutes, then slowly eased through the timber and found our bull. He was an awesome sight to see, and we thanked God for such an amazing hunt. The entire hunt had taken less than 2 hours!
I felt useless with one arm in a sling, but I waded in and used my one good arm to help de-bone the bull to be packed up to a two-track we’d found on the map. As Dad and Jeff packed the bull up the mountain, I headed downhill in the dark to get the truck. By the time I made it back to Dad and Jeff, the clouds had cleared and every star in the sky was visible, which made for a scene in the moonlight I’ll never forget.
Rekindling The Past
We spent the next few days hanging around camp, watching Dad hit golf balls farther than I can effectively shoot my rifle, listening to the occasional elk bugle and catching up on years that we had all missed together.
Our trip concluded with a memorial service we held on September 11. We remembered the day terrorists attacked our country and killed thousands of innocent Americans, and commemorated the bravery and heroic American spirit shown by the people of our great nation on that day. As a firefighter and paramedic, September 11 holds significant emotion for me as I remember my 343 brothers who fell in the line of duty on that day. We prayed for the families of the fallen, for our soldiers and Marines fighting overseas, and for our families waiting for us at home. It was an awesome conclusion to a great family adventure, and a reminder of what is truly important in life.
As we all headed our separate ways, I was reminded of why hunting is so enjoyable. It’s not just about solo adventures or record-book bulls. It’s about reconnecting with people you love, doing something together that you’re passionate about and building memories. Because when I’m old and gray, and can’t get around in the mountains quite as well as I do now, these are the times I will remember.
Bonus Video: Bull On A String