The thrill of hunting public lands echoes of man’s returning to the primitive existence he left behind for the comfort of technology and modern conveniences. I trek to public land hoping to rekindle that side of me that modern society attempts to suppress. I love to bowhunt because it allows me to immerse myself in the wild and pit my skills against wild animals using nothing but stick and string. Although I began hunting three years ago, and I’ve only been bowhunting for the last two years, I’ve quickly become a passionate bowhunter and advocate for public land conservation in an area devoid of public land hunting access.
When I moved to Montana, I felt like an explorer in a new world as I was exposed for the first time to the wealth of public land the west has to offer. In the fall of 2016, I went on a week-long public lands archery elk hunt in central Montana. Having never gone on an extended, overnight hunt, I was unsure of what to expect. I quickly discovered the mental and physical challenges that come from chasing elk day after day for over a week. However, as one of my close friends and hunting partners pointed out to me, the opportunity to focus solely on hunting during these extended excursions gives the hunter an edge. There is no temptation to go home early, no projects from work demanding your time. It is just you and the challenge that is bowhunting elk on public land.
As a newbie bowhunter, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the area where we were hunting. We were in what people who hunt refer to as “big country.” I was blown away by the grandeur of the towering buttes, the serenity of the golden plains, the mystery of the dark coulees, and the overall enormity of the public land we were privileged to hunt. We spent days glassing up dozens of elk without an opportunity for me to draw my bow or nock an arrow ever materializing. On the evening of the fifth day, I was starting to worry that I was going to go home empty handed, without accomplishing my goal of harvesting an elk with my bow. That evening, with the sun beginning to dip below the horizon, we headed down a dirt road to glass in preparation for the next day. Suddenly, we spotted a herd of about fifteen elk, heading toward a spider-web-like system of coulees to the south of us. We quickly made a plan that sent me and a caller sprinting after the elk with only our calls and bows. We ran for about half a mile down into a coulee paralleling the elk until we came to an intersection that was well worn with elk tracks.
We quickly set up in hopes that the elk would enter the coulee upwind of us, giving us the advantage. I took a seat on the ground, letting my camouflage blend me into the surrounding foliage and clipped my release to my bowstring. I ranged the opposite side of the coulee where the elk had traveled in the past. It ranged at twenty-two yards, well within my effective range, and I felt confident that if an elk stopped across from me that I would be able to make the shot. As I settled in, my partner set up several yards downwind of my position and let out an estrus call. The silence that followed that call was palpable. I had millions of thoughts and second guessed our plan just as many times. But just as I was ready to give up, a twig snapped, shattering the silence that had been weighing down on me. I froze and my heart quickened in anticipation. Not daring to move, I let my eyes travel down the coulee to my left and saw a cow elk tentatively peeking her head over the rim of the coulee.
The cow must have been satisfied with her initial investigation of the coulee because she quickly moved up and over the edge and headed right toward my setup. I felt calm as she slowly picked her way toward me, and I knew that all I had to do was wait. Much to my chagrin, I heard a commotion, and more elk started moving over the ridge following their lead cow. I felt a knot start to form in the pit of my stomach. More eyes meant more opportunities to get busted. The lead cow was now at fifty yards, but still facing toward me, providing me no shot. I needed her to turn for just a moment. And then, as if it were too good to be true, she stopped at thirty yards and dropped her head as if to begin feeding. I slowly raised my bow and started to draw. As I reached half draw, she whipped her head up and looked right at me. I froze, my arm halfway back. I tried to hold still and quiet, but I could hear my breathing becoming labored and my muscles began to ache from the effect of fighting to hold my bow at half draw. “I’ve blown it,” I thought. “This elk is going to run, and I’ll have no shot.” Slowly, the cow dropped her head and began feeding for real this time and mercifully allowed me to let down.
I was rattled. I could hear myself breathing and my strength was severely depleted. I wanted this elk, and I was terrified she was going to turn tail and run. Miraculously, after an eternity had passed in seconds, she started walking down the trail toward my position once again. As the cow drew even with me, I gathered all of my remaining strength and came to full draw. The sound of my arrow moving against my rest froze the elk in her tracks, and once again she looked at me, trying to identify what she was sensing but couldn’t see. I was breathing so loudly that my caller later said he could hear me from where he sat ten yards away. I could feel myself shaking, and I sensed the cow become restless. I forced my body and mind to calm, culminating in a moment of clarity and a clear thought: “PULL BACK.” My release arm went back, I felt my release fire, and I watched as my arrow leapt off the string of my bow. The silence in the coulee was shattered as my arrow hit home with a sound not unlike the crack of a wooden bat connecting with a ball for a home run. My elk’s shoulders hunched forward as she absorbed the impact of my arrow. Moving with speed seemingly impossible for an animal her size she spun around and disappeared down the coulee.
For a brief moment I sat in stunned amazement at what had just happened. I allowed myself a brief moment of excitement but quickly suppressed the feeling. I couldn’t allow myself to celebrate until I knew my elk was down. I quickly gathered my wits and, after a quick hug and high five, my caller and I slipped back out the coulee the way we had come. Once back to our friends, the four of us decided to work back in and see if we could find a blood trail. This decision would prove to be an impactive learning experience.
After searching for what seemed forever, we found the blood trail. The blood was thick and dark red. One of my more experienced friends advised me that this probably meant I had hit the liver. I was crushed. After striving for a quick, ethical kill, I was about to learn one of the hardest lessons a hunter can learn: Some things just don’t work out. We grouped up and were debating whether we should head back to camp and come back in the morning, when three cow elk leapt from some bushes ahead of us and headed into the labyrinth of coulees. One was definitely my elk, judging by the blood pouring from the arrow wound in her side. With this knowledge in hand, we decided to let her rest and come back in the morning. Let me just say I’ve had more restful sleeps then the one I got that night. The weather the next morning matched my mood: gloomy. We picked our way back to where we had last seen my elk. After splitting into two groups of two, we started our search. My friend and I combed that coulee from top to bottom and saw no sign of my elk. We headed back to the meeting spot, but saw no sign of our companions. After waiting for a bit, we went into the coulee they had been in to see if we could see them. Seeking a better vantage point, I climbed to the rim. I didn’t see them and picked my way back to where I thought I had left my partner. When I got to the bottom I saw no sign of him. Then it started to rain.
I cannot adequately even begin to explain the emotions I felt as I now searched for an elk and three people. Initially the thoughts running through my head were things I wouldn’t say in front of my momma. I proceeded to fall and bang up my knee. Self-doubt and despair set in as I feared I was never going to find my elk. There I was, rain coming down, no elk, no friends, and a throbbing knee. Dejectedly, I started the long trek back toward the truck, wondering if it were even still there. I climbed out of the coulee and was trekking across the flats when I heard someone whistle. It was one of my hunting partners. He asked if I had found anything and then asked how I was feeling. I tried to give a positive, upbeat answer, but it fell flat, even to my ears. He then explained to me that sometimes things don’t work out, and that is the struggle of bowhunting. He told me to really focus on how depressed I was feeling in that moment, because they had found my elk. It took a moment for the words to register in my mind, but as a smile crept across his face I knew it was true. My emotions went rocketing from the depths of despair to the heights of elation. I suddenly felt like I could breathe again, and the reality that I had accomplished this monumental goal hit home. The next several hours are a blur of photos, processing, packing, laughter, jokes, and reflection.
I didn’t set out on this public land elk hunt to get the biggest set of antlers. I trek to public land not for an ivory trophy but hoping to rekindle that wilderness part of me that modernity endeavors to subdue. The thrill of hunting public lands resonates with man’s desire to return to the primitive, where we can we still pit our skills against the wild. No matter what we are hunting, perhaps the greatest rewards we receive for our efforts are memories. We chase these prizes, memorialize them, share them until they are well worn, and file them away in the recesses of our minds, pulling them out to relieve those primal emotions we long to feel. In the end, we are all just chasing memories.