Pushing For Two: This Bowhunter Gives It His All as he Embarks on Two Wild Wilderness Elk Adventures
Posted on April 4, 2014
Many years ago a fellow bowhunter asked me what I thought was the difference between a guy who consistently filled his tags and one that rarely filled a tag? “Research and persistence,” I answered, and I still believe that holds true today. If you hunt public land and want to be successful, you absolutely must research your hunting areas thoroughly and you must be willing to push yourself beyond your physical limits, everyday, if that’s what it takes.
I have always admired and respected men like the late, great Fred Bear, and modern legend Chuck Adams, due to their persistence, knowledge and never-give-up attitude. In Chuck Adams’ book “Life at Full Draw,” there is a story in there where Chuck and his guide, Rod Collin, spent 9 days in a tent sheep hunting in the Canmore Bow Zone of Alberta. They were hunting along vertical peaks with narrow, snow-covered ledges in temperatures that ranged from minus 25 to minus 40 degrees. I don’t care who you are — to hunt in those conditions, you’re as tough as nails in my book. Stories like this really motivate me.
By comparison, there are guys today that refer to themselves as “extreme” and “hardcore” because they hike the woods for a week with a pack on their backs, then call in an outfitter to pack out their animal at the end of their hunt…really? That’s not extreme if you ask me.
By my standards, September 2012 was a very intense, hard-core elk hunting month for me. After spending two weeks helping a friend on his elk hunt and chasing antelope, it was time for me to get going on two do-it-yourself elk hunts, one in Wyoming and the other in Arizona. Here’s the break down of each.
Hard-Core & Hellaciously Steep
On this hunt, I had set up a small spike camp at the head of a basin at 7,500 feet elevation, but with the ranchers running cows and the warm weather, I anticipated having to hunt the timberline benches at 9,000 to 10,000 feet in order to find the elk. I’ve bowhunted elk in a lot of steep country, but none as steep as the terrain in central Wyoming. Many of the drainages in my area were almost vertical with dead-falls everywhere.
In order to get a feel for the area, I had arranged to be there several days before the season opened. After spending four hard days leaving camp before first light, and returning in the dark, I had hiked a total of 42 miles without seeing much elk activity. I did, however, see several moose, two black bears, some wild turkeys, about 40 deer and two elk.
Often times when this happens, guys get discouraged and begin second guessing themselves. I try to go the other way and keep reminding myself that it’s still early, that I did my research, and that I only need one opportunity. Whenever thoughts of negativity enter my head, I always ask myself: “How bad to you want this? What are you willing to do to succeed?”
September 1st: Opening day. I left camp before first light and hiked up a long ridge to the edge of an aspen grove. I setup and called for 30 minutes, nothing. After topping out on a big ridge, I decided to drop off the back side into a timbered bowl that held a small creek. I set up and called for 45 minutes, still nothing, but I did see a fresh rub.
Now fast forward to September 7th: For the past week I have hiked six to nine miles a day, set up and called into numerous bowls and basins, and pretty much hunted my butt off with only one elk encounter to show for it. Last night I called in a small four-point that I could have shot at 20 yards.
September 8th: Heavy rain and thunder woke me up in the middle of the night — this could be a good change I thought. When the alarm went off at 4:15 a.m., it was still pouring rain. I like elk hunting in the rain, but not a hard rain like this.
The rain finally let up at 3 p.m.; I was on the move at 3:15 p.m. The skies were dark, the air fresh, and the wind steady but cold. I was not a mile from camp when I heard a bull scream. As I worked up the canyon toward the bull, I could hear another bull up on top just going crazy. After silently closing the distance between myself and the bull, I set up on a little bench with good shooting lanes and began to call. The bull must have winded me, because I called until dark without hearing a peep.
September 9th: Determined to get on those same bulls early, I was on my way up the mountain at 4 a.m. At 4:50 a.m., a bull sounded off up the canyon, then another, then another up on top. Sensing I was in a race against time, I quickened my pace to close the gap and got set up before first light.
Once in position, I ripped loose with a deep throaty sounding-growling bugle. Nothing…just dead silence. After about five minutes I bugled again, then followed it up with a few soft grunts. Still nothing…not a sound. As I sat there in the light rain trying to decide if I should move on up the ridge or call again, I heard a branch break above me. Slowly peeking around the tree, there was a nice four-point bull standing there, looking confused. But with a full week left to hunt before heading to Arizona for my bull hunt down there, I decided to pass.
September 11th: No matter how many years may pass, I think this date will always hold a spot in our hearts and prayers. After taking a moment to remember those we lost, I grabbed my bow and started up the steep canyon. The first half of the day was uneventful as far as elk hunting goes. Knowing that I was in an area holding a few bulls, I decided to just spend the day up on top.
After having lunch, taking some pictures and feeding a chipmunk a Pop Tart, a bull bugled below me, reminding me why I was here. With the wind blowing down the canyon, I would need to drop off the backside of the ridge and come up below the bull. An hour later, I silently slipped over the ridge right below the bull. He was pretty worked up and still grunting and carrying on. Everything came together pretty quick. I could see him and two cows 60 yards above me and there was another bull just below them going off. I think that other bull was the herd bull but I never saw him.
My intention was to work by the bull on the ridge and get a shot at the herd bull, but for some reason the bull above me just came walking down the ridge toward me. As he passed by at 15 yards, my arrow disappeared behind his shoulder and blew out the other side.
As he disappeared down the canyon, I tried to regain my composure and go over everything that had just happened in my mind. I knew the shot was good, but with darkness less then a half hour away, I was a little concerned. I never heard him fall, so after a 15 minute wait, I walked over and checked my arrow and started following the blood trail. Marking the trail as I went, the high spray told the story. Pass-through, double-lung shot. I went about 50 yards and found my first Wyoming bull, a beautiful big bodied six-point.
But there was a big problem. He dropped dead right in the middle of a creek that was about six-feet wide and shin deep. I tried to physically move the bull out of the creek, not a chance. The next few hours really sucked, as I had to remove his head, then quarter him the best I could while standing in that ice-cold creek. My feet and hands were frozen, and I was soaking wet almost to my butt. I was finally able to remove enough meat to roll him over and out of the water, but I was so cold that I could not even feel my knife. After stripping off all my clothes, then putting on my raingear and a jacket from my pack, I made the decision to go to camp and return at first light.
The next morning when I returned with a full belly, dry clothes, and my pack frame, everything seemed to take on a new perspective. For almost two weeks I had really pushed myself trying to find a good bull in the Wyoming backcountry. Long, hard days, short cold nights, freeze-dried dinners, and all the peace, beauty and solitude a guy could ask for. This ranks as one of my all-time favorite elk hunts.
Entering Big Bull Country
Mentally drained, physically exhausted and tired as hell. But with one more great elk hunt lined out, there is no time right now to rest. After a long tedious 22-hour drive, finally, I find myself slowly idling up the narrow two-track path to my old camping spot high in the mountains of northern Arizona.
This is an area where I have bowhunted Coues deer several times, but this particular unit also holds some enormous bull elk if you’re lucky enough to draw the tag. My emotions were through the roof, and I was barely able to contain my excitement. I have been waiting to draw this tag for ten years.
Over the past 25 years. I have been blessed to hunt elk in some of the most beautiful states in the west, but I have never been anywhere else where you may see one dozen-plus big bulls in a single day, and this is what makes Arizona elk hunting so very special.
Elk Going Nuts
September 13th, 2012: With tomorrow being opening day, the game plan for today was simple. Leave camp before first light, cover as much country as possible, and try to get a feeling for what the elk are doing.
Nature’s alarm clock woke me up at 4:10 a.m. as I listened to the bulls shrill screams of lust on the ridge above my camp. I was dressed and on the move by 4:45 a.m. It was still dark out, wet, and colder then I expected. By 9 a.m., I have hiked about five miles, and probably heard close to 60 bulls bugling. There are fresh rubs and active wallows in every canyon that I have been in and I was feeling really good about tomorrow’s action.
September 14th, 2012: Holy smokes, what an incredible first morning. I left camp at 4:30 a.m., and hiked about a half-mile up to some timbered benches, where I had seen some elk yesterday. Sitting there in the dark, there are at least three different bulls bugling back and forth. With first light coming on quick, I got set up and bugled.
Instantly, not one, but two bulls screamed right back. I cut off the second bull by bugling right on top of him. Again, both bulls immediately fired right back.
Within minutes, I could see the outline of a big-bodied bull coming down the ridge fast. Nocking an arrow and taking several deep breathes, I tried to relax and calm myself. The bull continued straight on his path and walked right past me grunting at 15 yards. Anywhere else, I would have shot him, but I never waited ten years to shoot a 5×6 bull on opening morning, even a big one like this. By the time I made it back to camp at 10 a.m., I had heard at least 80 bugles, setup five different calling stands, and called in three very respectable bulls to within 25 yards. Wow!
Later that afternoon, I left camp at 5 p.m., and hiked two miles to a steep, dark canyon where I had seen a lot of sign. Hiking along the trail, I came across a massive seven-point shed, what a cool way to start off, I thought. There were not as many elk in this area, but I did see two of the biggest bulls I have ever seen in my life. One was the bull of a lifetime, a truly magnificent 8×7 bull with 60-inch main beams. He had about 15 cows with him. I ended up chasing that bull for about three miles, and until dark. I was on a dead run most of the time, but I just couldn’t get within range.
In reflection, I made a big mistake. When I first saw him, he was only 150 yards away and the wind was perfect. I bugled, which put the elk on high alert. In retrospect, what I should have done was simply closed the gap silently and shot him.
That night as I lay tucked away in my mummy bag, the elk were just going crazy. It was absolute elk insanity.
September 15th: This morning was quite possibly the most insane, intense, and awesome four hours that I have ever spent in elk country. On one ridge, I was literally surrounded by herd bulls with cows. Every bull that I saw clearly, was at least a big 6×6, and they were all within 150 yards of me, some much closer. I could see antlers, legs, and a body here and there, but I never had a clear shot at any of them.
I have no idea how many elk I heard bugle this morning, maybe 175 —it was non-stop action from 4:30 a.m. until after 9 a.m. Once the clouds blew off, they simply went silent and disappeared into the timber. Topping off the morning on my way back to camp, I came across two very nice Coues bucks that surprisingly were still in velvet.
Walking out of camp at 5 p.m., I decided to hunt a steep canyon close to camp where I had heard bulls screaming last night. Within an hour, I had setup and called in two nice five-points — just not what I was looking for.
At 7:30 pm, I heard a bull grunting on the ridge above me. After checking the wind and my setup position, I grunted back then cow called once. The bull instantly let out a thunderous bugle and came running down the canyon toward me. At first, I could only see his legs as he momentarily stopped at 40 yards looking for his adversary.
I was kneeling down next to a four-foot tall scrub pine at full draw as the bull literally rubbed up against the pine while passing by me grunting at two yards, yes, two yards! As he passed by I simply turned the bow and released. My arrow passed through the bull’s chest and he went down within 50 yards.
Walking up to my bull, I felt both elated and overwhelmed. Not only was I able to harvest two great six-point bulls in the same year, I did it in the same week.
After skinning and boning out my bull, I packed out a bag of meat and the antlers in the dark. It was 11:30 p.m., when I finally got back to camp. First light found me back on the trail in route to my bull.
As I walked along my thoughts reflected back on this great adventure, what an incredible month. As a dedicated hunter, I just couldn’t thank God enough.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank my wife for her support and Ron and Carol Niziolek of Cody, Wyoming, for their help and for allowing me to overnight during my Wyoming hunt.
“I had hiked a total of 42 miles without seeing much elk activity.”
“Within minutes I could see the outline of a big-bodied bull coming down the ridge fast.”
The Wyoming elk country was the most steep and rugged the author has ever hunted.
Owens utilized his bivouac/wilderness experience to make the most of his Wyoming adventure.
Persistence and thorough research, is what paid off for the author during the Wyoming backcountry hunt, eventually allowing him to tag out on a nice six-point bull.
The author came across a variety of wildlife while hiking the Wyoming backcountry, including close encounters with moose and bear.
After waiting ten years to draw a famed Arizona tag, the adventure truly lived up to the expectations. Owens passed up several bulls on opening day and shot this beautiful trophy two days into the hunt.
This is the author’s base camp, in which he used to hunt from.
Story and Photos by Joe Owens