Dream vs. Reality: Bowhunting

Hunting the wily wapiti.

Few pastimes elicit as visceral a response as hunting elk with bow and arrow. It’s at once ancient and modern, both art and sport, as challenging as it is rewarding. And for the few hearty souls who have perfected the craft, it is the zenith of outdoorsmanship. But what about the rest of us? The poor saps who dump time and money into the endeavor with no success? As with many pastimes, the dream rarely reflects the reality.

It’s a beautiful autumn morning, with a skiff of snow in the high peaks, brilliant sunshine, and not a breath of wind. You’re deep in the wilderness, stealthing through a stand of shimmering golden aspen. You move silently, slowly, but with purpose: cow call between your teeth, arrow nocked.

One hundred yards away, an enormous, wide-beamed, seven-point bull elk is in the throes of the rut and distracted by his bullish duty to breed—he’s upwind, horny, and oblivious. He bugles fiercely, as he has all morning, and your skin prickles with excitement. You reach a small, dense stand of trees; this is the spot. Now just 75 yards away, the herd grazes down the hillside toward your position. With patience born only from experience, you remain motionless and wait. Seventy yards. Sixty-five. A red-tailed hawk soars overhead. You wait.

This is the culmination of months of scouting, planning, and countless nights at the range. This is the culmination of a lifetime of hunting. At sixty yards, the bull raises his enormous head—he senses something. You’re ready, and produce a perfect estrus mew from the reed. The bull takes five steps and stops. You call again, as the adrenaline begins to flow. He moves down the hill and toward the stand of trees in which you’re concealed. Fifty yards. Forty-five. In one fluid, practiced motion, you draw the bow and hold. Your breathing slows—time itself slows—as the bull picks his way within 40 yards. A cow from his harem squeals, and he turns broadside into the full, positive glow of morning light. You release the arrow and hear a definitive “thunk”—a perfect shot. The bull takes three steps and stumbles; then a few more and drops.

The herd scatters and all the nervous energy rushes from your body. You feel so alive! This is as good as it gets.

This is bowhunting. 

It’s cold as hell and the wind is swirling. Your feet are soaked from an early-season snow that’s quickly melted in the warm, late-September sun. Your demanding work schedule means you didn’t get out to train or scout much, so now you’re stumbling through the woods blind, out of shape and breathing so hard that the elk can probably hear you two drainages away.

So far this morning, all you’ve seen are squirrels and trail runners, since you couldn’t take the time off to get deep into the backcountry and have resorted to poking around the northern Bridgers. All the elk sign you’ve encountered is old and sparse. You decide to hunker down at the edge of a meadow and wait (a.k.a., pray), letting out a weak, sputtering bugle that sounds more like flatulence.

To your surprise, a bull responds. It’s distant at first, a few hundred yards off. You move toward it, your adrenaline rising—the hunt is on! You call again, more confidently now, and the bull calls back a half-minute later. He’s moved toward you, angry and desperate to protect his harem. He’s throwing caution to the wind—the wind that seems to have shifted in your favor. Your prayers have been answered, and you thank the goddesses Artemis and Fortuna for bringing an animal your way.

You switch to a cow call and get an immediate response. The bull’s close now, perhaps just across the meadow. You work your way toward it through the timber, slowly, carefully. You’ve forgotten about the soggy feet and shortness of breath. Your focus is singular. You give another call and get another response, but now it seems the bugle’s origin has shifted. Could he be working around you and approaching from downwind? You take two more steps and your shoulders drop in disappointment. You’ve spotted your quarry: another hunter, equally as inept, and oblivious that he's calling you in. Damn it all.

This is bowhunting.