The beam of my headlamp illuminates my breath, as I gather my bow and gear in the pre-dawn chill of a September morning in Montana. Just like so many days before, I prepare for my morning pilgrimage into the wilds of elk country. My pack on and bow in hand, I begin my trek up the mountain to find the bull I’d glassed the day before and dreamed of all night. My mind wanders as I hike in the dark – after months of preparation and training, would this be the day? Will it be another close encounter and blown stock? Will I even see elk today? More questions rise with the sun, but I trek on.
As I reach the ridge, a lone bugle pierces the morning calm, and in that instant my fatigue from restless sleep and a steep early morning hike shift to acute awareness and anticipation. I look up the ridge in the direction of the bugle to see several cow elk watching me. The bull, still concealed by the timber, calls again. I set up in a hasty shooting position and reply to his call in an attempt to gain his interest. The cows at least seemed curious, and began moving down the ridge toward me. But the bull called again, and they returned to the security of the dark timber. With the wind in my favor, I decided to try and make a move, hoping the group of cows would lead me to the bull I had yet to see. I found their trail and I followed. I wasn’t 20 yards into the timber when the cows stood up from behind a bush, saw that I wasn’t an elk and went crashing through the forest away from me. My hopes for success that morning quick in tow.
The next morning felt the same. I packed my gear in the pre-dawn chill, and made the same steep pilgrimage up the mountain in the dark. Was this some cruel repetitive dream? I trudged on. Once again, I gained the ridge at dawn, and was again welcomed with a bugle from deep in the timber. I expected to see the same group of cows up on the ridge, but they weren’t there. It was a new day. Another bugle confirmed the bull’s location in the timber and I decided to pursue him into the trees. I got to the bushes where I saw the cows hiding the day before and decide to set up there. With the wind again in my favor and the brush concealing my location, I began calling to the bull. I began timidly, but given his almost immediate response, I increased the frequency and excitement of my calling. His response was all I could have hoped for - equally enthusiastic and growing louder as he closed the distance between us.
My excited calling strategy was working, and before long, I saw the characteristic tan of elk hair sliding between the trees. I didn’t want him to pinpoint my location, so I dialed back the frequency of my calls. I already had his attention, and he was closing in. As he moved through the trees I caught a full glimpse of him, he was definitely a shooter. I took a deep breath, desperately trying to remain calm as I nocked an arrow. He was no more than 50 yards away. I had to force myself to be patient and wait for the right opportunity to draw. As he continued closer, I saw a big tree he would pass behind, and knew that would be my chance to draw my bow unnoticed by my quarry. Sure enough, he moved behind that tree, and I came to full draw just as I had envisioned. He continued crossing in front of me, now at 30 yards. I waited for his eyes to be shielded behind yet another tree, chirped on my call again and he froze. I gently laid my finger on the trigger of my release, placed my pin on his vitals, and let my arrow fly.
- Alex Rich