Author: Greg Staggs
Three simple words ended a three-year quest. Of course, even those couldn’t be that simple.
Three years earlier, I accompanied the man who had moved in next door to my family to Colorado for his 34th straight trip to the Rocky Mountains. I had met Larry Pierce at what we affectionately called “Crappie Camp”, where a few friends of mine had a cabin on one of the local lakes. Somewhat of a crappie-fishing legend, he came in a week early every year and caught all the fish for the fry that would feed upwards of 30 grown men with nothing but filets on a weekend night.
He had sought out the owner of the vehicle with the personalized BOHNTR plates pulled to the side, and we had formed a fast friendship. When he and his wife, Jo, moved in next door a couple years later, it was a true Godsend as they quickly became a very special, loving third set of grandparents to my two boys.
Tagging along those first two years with Larry, I came so agonizingly close to punching my tag each year. Once, I was working my way back from a remote meadow up the draw back to camp when I had a nice 5x5 come down and slip in behind me across the canyon bottom. A quick cow-call with my mouth stopped him in his tracks as I snapped to full draw, but the crevasse between us made the yardage-estimating task an extremely difficult one, especially given the self-imposed need to quickly get off the shot given that I had the bull’s full attention. My 45-yard shot nicked the bottom of the bull’s chest exactly beneath his heart as he stood 54 yards away on the other side of the ravine, leaving three thumbnail-sized drops of blood in his wake.
After foregoing the trip to Colorado last year for an antelope hunt instead (where – even with taking a nice P&Y speedgoat -- I vowed I’d never do another trip in lieu of Colorado; if anything, it would be in addendum to…), I found myself nestled in the back seat of Larry’s pickup once again for the 23-hour drive to the Uncompahgre National Forest situated a few thousand feet above Montrose, CO.
We were pleasantly surprised to find the inability to purchase a cow-only tag in our unit had seemed to keep many of the hunters we shared the public woods with at home this year, as the mandatory either-sex tag was closer to $600 rather than the previous years’ $260 pass to launch an arrow at the female elk. Combined with the tough economic setting of the past year, we virtually had the mountainside to ourselves.
It took a couple days of scouting after setting up camp, but I started feeling confident slipping through a newly discovered bedding area as I walked past rub after rub on trees bigger than my thighs with deeply grooved scratches ending above my six-foot frame. Opening day would find me stealthily making my way through the dense cedars and aspens, hoping to sneak up on a big elk before it noticed me. Everyone else in camp had elected to sit over a wallow, but I had found none to my liking. It would be the ultimate cat-and-mouse game.
Sunrise on our first day of hunting found me doing just that, and I worked the bedding area so slowly it took me three and a half hours to cover just 3/10ths of a mile. Emerging off to the side, I found myself overlooking an expansive draw that signaled the beginning of another big canyon. Spotting a log that ran parallel to the drop-off at the very edge of it, I sat down and took my backpack off while carefully laying my bow and nocked arrow beside me. After digging out a power bar and devouring half of it, I froze as I heard sticks breaking over my left shoulder. Whirling in that direction, I was awestruck as a monster 6x6 was just 15 yards behind me, moving quickly at a quartering-to direction as he neared the top of the draw.
I sat down the bar, grabbed the bow and came to full draw while still seated on the log. I followed the huge bull through the brush with my top pin, having to lean ridiculously far back to avoid the tree to my left. I cow-called with my voice to stop his gait, having removed my diaphragm call that I had in my mouth for the first three and a half hours of the morning to eat my snack. The bull froze in mid-stride but was stopped behind a wad of limbs. I waited, stomach muscles quivering as I was nearly balanced evenly on the log at full draw and my feet extended out in front of me. I had to wait for him to move again, and then quickly mewed once more. Of course, he stopped behind more brush.
I swung my bow to stay on him, and now had to lift my bow arm up and behind the tree in front of me while maintaining full draw to give my stabilizer clearance so I could keep my sight picture on the bull’s vitals which I estimated to be around 30 yards away now. Still, I had no shot; I would have to let him walk again. The third time I cow-called to stop him I was able to find a small dinner-plate sized opening in the brush between me and his lungs. Still precariously balanced on the log with my bottom as the fulcrum, I placed my 30-yard pin in the middle of his lungs and squeezed off the shot.
I was anguished to see my arrow hit extremely high, and its penetration stopped well short of what I would have preferred to see. The behemoth exploded down the face of the draw, smashing whatever got in his way. I followed his progress as best I could, especially noting that at one point I couldn’t see the dangling arrow shaft any more emitting from his wound.
I waited for close to 30 minutes before getting up and heading off in the direction I knew a camp member to be hunting; I had marked his wallow the previous day on my GPS, and it lay only .35 of a mile off to my right. As I worked my way towards Roy Poe, I found myself staring at a series of step-down wallows that as far as I knew, no one had discovered yet. I mentally marked the spot but was otherwise too occupied with thoughts of the huge 6x6 I had just arrowed.
With Roy’s help, we returned to the shot scene a few hours later and took up the trail. We quickly found spotty blood, but not good blood. One hundred yards into our search, I found the arrow, the first 1/3 of it snapped off and apparently still in the bull. Its shaft revealed way too much fat and muscle on its exterior for our liking. Roy had done his best to convince me the shot was probably better than I had relayed to him, but unfortunately all the sign we were finding proved what I saw correct. Five hundred feet from the shot site, we were forced to give up the spotty trail as blood simply gave out. We spread out and walked on in the direction the bull was travelling, but eventually was forced to give up. The DVD-cover quality bull was probably hurt with nothing more than a severe flesh wound.
I slowly still-hunted in the area that evening and the next morning, working methodically back and forth in hopes by some miracle I may actually find the bull downed by my arrow, eventually giving way to doing more grid searching than actual hunting. By the evening of the second day, I was ready for a break from all the walking I had done over the previous four days counting the two days of pre-season scouting; I opted to lash my Lone Wolf Alpha Hand Climber to the 4-wheeler rack and an eventual seat 30 feet over the series of step-down wallows I had discovered on my way to request trailing help from Roy.
A little after 7 o’clock that evening, the straight-line winds were back with a vengeance from earlier that afternoon, but this time they brought with them booming thunder which eventually gave way to loud cracks of lightning. I began looking around nervously, noting the billowing clouds tumbling across the skies just before they opened up. At first the rain came before being replaced by hail. Having seen plenty by this point, I decided to live to fight another day and lowered my bow down with my pull-up rope. However, I’d made a habit over nearly two decades’ of bowhunting to not just simply drop the loose end of the rope not attached to the bow; that end quickly got clipped to the D-ring on my safety harness.
For once, after all those years of employing that practice, it paid off. The rain slowed to a slow drizzle on my way down the tree, and halfway down the big aspen I heard limbs breaking off to my left about 60 yards away. I stopped my descent and looked over to see two big bulls working their way down the middle of the ravine. Just as quickly as I had lowered the bow in fear of the storm, I now raised it in anticipation of a possible shot opportunity. What an incredible difference five seconds could make in attitude!
I clipped on to my D-loop and applied pressure to the string… only to find now that my safety harness was going to prevent me from drawing. Only 15 feet off the ground now, I carefully laid my bow on the seat portion of my stand and unscrewed the locking carabiner from the safety rope. Then, I slid the top portion of the stand around and out of my way, all the time eyeing the two bulls milling around a little over 50 yards away.
I continued watching them feed slowly past before realizing they were about to walk out of my lives forever. I pulled my Hyperlip Single out of the cargo pocket of my pants and turned my head away from the bulls to begin a series of enticing cow calls which hopefully sounded like they had just come 40 yards from behind my tree. My spirits lifted as the second bull broke off from the first and began milling around slowly in a circular path that would swing him back my direction. He continued on that path until I could see he would hit a crossroads of sorts about 45 yards away from me. There, he could turn towards me and hopefully keep coming until I had a 15-yard broadside shot, or he could keep going straight through a thick patch of cedars.
I attempted to recall every yardage-estimation trick I had learned while shooting 3D around the state, zeroing in on the critical juncture where the bull would have to choose a direction. I walked it off in my mind in 10-yard increments. After coming up with a distance, I guessed where halfway between that and me was and found the distance to there, then doubled it to double-check it. I flipped 20-yard telephone poles end-over-end as I’d read about 3D World Champion Randy Ulmer doing in his prime.
And then the bull was there. He stopped, turned his massive headgear towards me, and feinted coming down the trail that would put him in easy gimme distance before holding up. Another big step put the bull ¼ of the way through the opening as he changed his mind and headed straight on through. I yanked the BowTech Destroyer 340 to attention while cow-calling with my voice once again. The front foreleg and massive chest of the bull now out of sight behind the undergrowth, I could still see all of his vitals and everything else behind that; it looked like the length of a truck was still visible.
I put my 40-yard pin in the middle of his body, and counted breathlessly to myself “20, 30, 40….” I counted down, wanting to make sure I somehow didn’t use the wrong pin in the heat of the moment. Settling into my anchor, I applied very light pressure to the release and then let my shoulder muscles take over from there. My rear elbow exploded backwards as the energy I had been holding back was suddenly and violently released, sending the Muzzy MX-3 arcing toward my target.
Whether it was the overcast conditions or something else, I never saw the flight of my arrow, despite its last 10 inches being adorned by a custom Onestringer wrap that faded from my beloved Predator Fall Gray to a gloss white to aid with in-flight visibility. All I heard was the Muzzy slamming into a log somewhere behind where the bull stood. I was mortified. How could have I missed? In disbelief, I watched as the bull took two steps forward, unfazed as he looked around at the source of the sound which had just come from so close to him. I quickly pulled up my binos to look at him through the overhanging cedar branches that now shielded him from me, searching for any sign of a hit. I was crestfallen; I could find none.
Ten minutes later, still the bull stood in the exact spot he had stepped into after the shot, and I began to wonder now. Then, my spirits lifted as he simply bedded down right there. I heard a stick break off to my right, and I found his buddy through the trees 50 yards away still hanging around. A few minutes later, I heard him leave and watched my bull carefully to see his reaction: he didn’t move a muscle. That was incredibly reassuring, as I knew his instinct would be to leave with his companion he was running with.
Forty-five minutes later, I studied the forest floor intently, examining the rain-soaked dirt and evaluating a path that would lead me to him so I could get a second arrow in him. I couldn’t bear the thought of bumping him out of his death bed though, as his massive rack still swiveled freely left and right as he surveyed his surroundings. I finally talked myself out of a stalk and decided to wait him out to see what he would do. Perhaps if he stood and then walked back into my original shooting lane, I could get that other arrow in him I so desperately wanted.
At 7:43 p.m., he attempted to get out of his bed, but his hindquarters failed him, and he fell back to the earth. I was praying hard now, asking that he die right there in his bed. I had no idea of the shot I had on him, but I knew he was hurting extremely bad now. Ten minutes went by before he stood, and then another 10 as he remained motionless on his feet; I hoped he would simply fall over dead. Just in case, I kept tension applied to my bowstring and stood at the ready, much as I had done for the last hour and a half solid of watching him.
Then he left, trotting away before I could even yank the string back and ignoring my pleading cow calls. He ran down through the canyon bottom as though nothing was wrong with him, and I was thankful I had decided to stay put so I could get a line on where he headed. With the thunder and lightening moving back in, I decided to quickly climb the remaining length of Aspen I had below me and go investigate his bed; after all, I doubted much sign would remain after a stormy night, and I wanted to have a look at the damage I had done before it all washed away.
What I found left me in sheer amazement. How had he been able – after an hour and a half – to simply get up and trot away? There were two huge pools of bright, red blood bigger than the lid of a 5-gallon bucket almost a yardstick’s length apart signaling a solid pass-through hit. The pool of blood on the right was literally almost three inches thick with pink, frothy, bubbly blood. I stared in disbelief at the bed, then looked over to where the bull had stood when I shot him, a mere three feet away. There was my Victory arrow sticking out of a log, soaked with bright, red blood – the feathers matted down to the fletching tape with reddish, pinkish coloring.
I backed out without even taking a step in the direction the bull had run and began my hike to the 4-wheeler I had parked a half-mile away in the increasingly stronger and stronger downpour. When I told the guys at camp, some asked if I wanted to go after him right then. No, I told them… if he was dead now, he’d be dead in the morning and I didn’t want to bump him. What an incredibly fortuitous decision that turned out to be.
I tossed and turned all night in my cot and thought of how many times I’d read of others in the bowhunting world doing the same. I thought of how many years I’d been pursuing animals with a bow exclusively, and how I guessed I was fortunate that this was my very first time to ever lose a whole night’s sleep over my quarry. I thought of my family, and the sacrifices my wife makes for me to pursue bowhunting with such passion. I thought of God, and how blessed I was – whether I recovered the bull or not. I thought of everything that I could think of in 10 hours of staring at a tent ceiling. And then the heavens opened as inches upon inches of water crashed down onto the mountainside.
By 9 o’clock the next morning, two friends from camp were standing beside me as we stared at the bull’s bed where I’d watched him for over an hour and a half. Amazingly, there were STILL two huge puddles of blood – a testament to how big and thickly pooled they were given how much rain had been dumped on the mountainside that night. Our spirits lifted briefly at the hope of the blood trail remaining but were quickly dashed as we tried to find anything outside the bed itself.
We immediately spread out three abreast and started down the canyon, hoping the bull stayed close to the creek in the bottom. A half-mile later, we decided to turn around, and spread out on the opposite side so that we could cover up into some likely bedding area in case the bull had crossed the canyon bottom and went uphill to bed down on the other side. My GPS told me we had almost made it back to the starting point of our grid search when James yelled out the three words I’d been longing so badly to hear: “I found him!!” As I stated at the beginning, though – even that wasn’t so simple. The words were immediately followed by “… and he’s still alive!”
Incredulously, I made my way through the underbrush towards him when I spotted the hulking figure off to my right, head up and alert. I had to circle behind and around James to get the angle I needed to put a finishing shot on the big 5x5, and eventually ended up about 17 yards away broadside from the bull. Crouching slightly to allow the arrow a path through the limbs, I settled my pin directly on the bull’s front shoulder before watching my barred feathers come to rest against his tawny skin. The bull didn’t flinch. “What does it take to kill one of these animals?” I thought, reaching for another arrow from my Octane quiver.
I held my top pin an inch away from the feathers and nock barely sticking out of the elk and sunk another arrow into his vitals. Upon impact of the second arrow, he exploded out of his bed and crashed away – only to fall to his final resting place 20 yards away.