I had waited 7 long years to draw a coveted bull elk tag for the sought after Anthro Unit and here I was; settled into a patch of sage brush next to a pond, slow breeze at my face, at full draw with the bull of a lifetime at full broadside less than 40 yards away and I am under pressure. But, no hunt starts out like this.
Putting in on limited entry hunts in Utah can be a frustrating experience. Not expecting anything in the first couple of years, because you know it’s almost impossible with the number of applicants in most limited areas, the pressure is not that great. Then as years 3, 4 and 5 roll around, the pressure begins to mount. You wait in eager anticipation for the inevitable “unsuccessful letter” to end the pressure for the year. In 2008, the “unsuccessful letter” didn’t arrive. Instead another one did and the pressure went up a notch. The game was on!
Pressure is not a new thing for me. I have been shooting archery for about 4 years. My husband and I participate competitively both indoors and outdoors year around. We compete in 3-D events, field archery and basically any venue that involves a bow and arrow. I have hunted the last 3 years, but had been unsuccessful in harvesting a trophy class animal. With all the shooting that my husband and I do, practicing wasn’t going to be a problem. That at least dropped the pressure down a little bit.
Once we found out I drew a tag in the Anthro unit, Rod (my husband) and I began visiting with a few friends that we shoot with at our local archery club. We learned that two of the guys had Anthro tags in the past and had taken extremely nice bulls during their hunts. They were very helpful with information and advice. Then as luck would have it, another friend, Jared, who had been with both of the other guys during their hunts, offered his help during my upcoming hunt. Great news… the pressure turns down a bit more.
About a month and a half before opening days of the archery hunt, Rod, Jared and I head out to this monster unit to do some pre-season scouting. Learning water holes, guzzlers and pond locations is a must because the best hunting in this area isn’t as you would imagine. It’s not in the quakies and pines but rather down in the cedars, juniper and sage. One good rainstorm can ruin an entire hunt where every low spot becomes a puddle and the elk scatter everywhere. Getting caught back up can be a nightmare you don’t even want to face.
The time finally comes, the many hours of shooting, shopping and loading the camper were past. It’s now or never. Rod gets off work and we head out to camp. Running late as usual, we are hookin it up the road. At least Jared was able to go up earlier in the day to look around and determine the best place to start in the morning. We are about an hour out of town with the sun headed down in the west. Rods phone rings, it’s Jared. I overhear parts of the conversation “BIG BULL HEADED TO WATER, HURRY!!!” “WHAT??” “YOU’RE WHERE?” All of a sudden we are screeching to a halt at the side of the road, Rod jumps out and starts unhooking the camper while saying “HONEY, get your bow and stuff out of the camper, we have to make it to this pond up there before the elk do!” That thumping in my chest as I race to the camper door is just a little more of the pressure to come.
A half hour up the worst road in the world brings us to our rendezvous with Jared, as we lay out the plan of “you go this way, I’ll go this way and then…. well just shoot the bull if he comes in!” I hurry and get into my scent loc base layers and pull on my ghillie suit, I’m ready to go. We are barely a ¼ mile from the pickup where we spot some cows down the draw, around 300 yards below the pond that we are headed to. Rod says “see the raghorn bedded there in the grass?” my heart pounds harder, the pressure is building again.
When Rod and I finally make it to the pond after skirting around the base of a ridge, being careful not to skyline ourselves, I have ½ hour left of legal shooting light. The wind is light and in my favor at least. As the light wanes and the sunset rapidly approaches, nothing advances toward the pond. Pressure wanes as a little disappointment creeps in. Rod and I leave the pond while there is a minuscule amount of light remaining to avoid busting any incoming elk in the dark. There is no moonlight. As we get back to the pickup, Jared is waiting there for us. We quietly discuss tomorrows plan, Rod feels that if the bull didn’t come to water tonight, then there is a pretty good chance that he will in the morning since it appears to be a new moon. Jared and I agree. Cool, we have a plan, pressure eases.
We head back down the worst road in the world to retrieve the camper so we can beat it to death getting it to the location we plan to spend the next few weeks. A few hours and 15 miles later we arrive at the pre-determined camping location from our pre-season scouting ventures. As we are setting up, we notice a couple of new water leaks in the camper’s water system. A direct result of the road no doubt. We put the parts back together that had rattled off from the road, fix the water system and cook up a couple of brats for supper. I finally put my head on a pillow sometime after 1:00 a.m. That 4:45 a.m. alarm is going to come awful early. I can hardly sleep.
4:45 a.m. BEEP BEEP. We are all half awake and trying to get moving. Finally, we are all in our scent control and camo heading down the road. Jared is going to drop us off at a knoll near the pond while he scouts a few other watering areas. We’ll walk in from there.
Rod and I begin moving quickly and as quietly as possible through the rye grass and sage around the base of a ridge to the pond on the other side. I notice the trail we are walking on is fairly beaten down. First potential error but no pressure, it’s too dark to really tell, maybe the bushes just grew apart here, great quiet trail though. As we come around the ridge to the pond I notice a really nice clump of sage brush right on this trail with a great shooting lane directly to the pond below. Potential error #2. I plop down near this bush and start getting into position, what a beautiful night. There is not enough cover for both of us so Rod moves laterally from me about 7 yards to another sage brush patch. We settle in. I’m ready for a nap.
Darkness fades, with barely enough light I range a few spots around the pond, 30-40 yards, the pressure wanes, I set my range finders down next to me just in case I need them again. 40 yards to the upside, things look good. I get an arrow out of my quiver and nock it… rattle rattle, broadhead is loose. Probably from the road beating, I wonder to myself if my sight is loose too, or maybe even my rest. That road was pretty rough. I reach out and tighten up my broadhead, do a quick check on my sight and everything else, it’s all good. Wind is perfect, blowing very lightly down the draw. I am high enough above the pond that anything coming above or below would probably not catch any scent. I glance over at Rod, he looks to be settled in as well. We had agreed that he would be the “judge” and give me the “shoot” or “don’t shoot” signal. I have done this sitting and waiting before. No problem, no pressure now. We wait.
This photo shows the pond from just over 100 yards away
Shooting light is upon us and things are starting to happen. I am watching up the draw when suddenly here comes a calf elk headed directly at the pond. The calf trots right out into the water bucking and playing like a little kid. I am thinking “this is too cool”. The elk calf then comes around to my side of the pond and starts to drink. I decide I better pick up my bow just in case a lot of “eyes” close in soon. I realize my bow is laying right in the middle of this monster trail we came in on. I get a little tenser and as I scoot a little deeper into the sage bush beside me on the edge of the trail, the pressure builds.
As I sit with my bow ready and still watching the calf playing in the pond, I hear the sounds of rocks rolling and footsteps closing in behind me. I don’t dare turn my head or make any undo movement because of the calf in the pond or whatever is behind me seeing any movement. Potential errors #1 and #2 are about to come into play. I can hear the footsteps getting louder and louder. “OMG, I want to look, there is something coming down the trail that I am practically blocking. No sooner had that thought flashed through my mind when these two calves burst down the hill headed for the pond. As I squeeze in tight next to the bush thinking “be the bush, beee the bush” the first calf’s foot barely glances the edge of my range finder that I left sitting by my side as he heads past me toward the pond. The noise of my range finder sliding brings the second calf to a screeching halt at a distance of less than two yards behind me. The first calf stops and turns to look back up at about the same time. The only thought going through my mind now is “BUSTED, I am BUSTED!”
I am frozen, being the bush and praying silently that when the calves blow, they won’t head toward anything else that might be coming to the pond. Time stands still. Right now I am sitting frozen trying to be a bush with an elk calf less than two yards from me staring at me. I know it is staring at me because I can feel it’s eyes boring right through me. If that’s not enough, I hear a bugle that is almost on top of me and a huge bull comes screaming around the hillside. He is coming into the pond from the same direction as the calf that is playing out in the water. I am about to blow up, my heart is the loudest thing I hear, the pressure is at a crescendo now and I can’t even turn to look at him, let alone blink an eye.
The first calf that came down the trail finally turns and heads to the pond, thank God, two less eyes on me. I really want to focus on the bull that is getting closer to the pond but the other calf is less than 3 feet away from me now. Everything seems to be moving in slow motion. I catch a glimpse of Rod out of the corner of my eye with his jaw to the ground and then the truly incredible happens. This calf which obviously can’t smell to identify what I am or see what I am does the unthinkable. I feel its muzzle touching and rubbing on my shoulder. My only thought now is “this situation is going south in a hurry, you have got to be kidding me.” It was like the calf needed to try to verify what I was or was not. Pressure, you have no idea!
The touch of my shoulder makes the calf move, not explode, but he moves back up the trail the way he had come. At least now I have a little breathing room although I can still hear him behind me. Maybe it is only my heart thumping out of my chest that I can hear. The bull by this time is at the bank of the pond that sloped into the water. He lets loose another bugle, glunking at the end as he slides into the water. He looks huge, I hook up my Sensation release and make ready to draw my bow calculating in my mind how far I think he is. I look over at Rod expecting to see the “yes” signal but instead I am getting a “NO”. I wonder, “maybe he’s not that big, ok, no problem, I’ll just watch him instead” I unhook my release and reach for my binos. I start to slowly raise my binos to get a better look because I hadn’t had a chance during all the “touchy feely” stuff with the calf. As I raise my binos I must have grabbed a piece of my ghillie suit and was lifting the suit at the same time. As I come loose of the suit, my binos come up too fast and I whack the end of my nock which sends my arrow down into the bush in front of me. “well, at least I’m not supposed to be shooting this bull” I think since I now don’t even have an arrow nocked and I know the calf is still about 10 yards behind me. At least that didn’t scare anything. I take another glance at Rod and my heart sinks, his head is bobbing up and down like it’s on a string. Oh my gosh I think, I don’t even have an arrow nocked and my friend is still hanging out staring at me from behind. Shoot the bull, yeah right. The pressure completely and utterly explodes.
Somehow, I decide to just go for it, the bull somehow is still in the water, his head is down. I pull another arrow from my quiver and nock it. Out of habit I hook up my release again without a thought and slowly lean out away from the bush into my beautiful shooting lane (elk highway) and get this gorgeous bull in my sights. I slowly draw my bow and start counting pins, 20, 30, 40. He is standing at roughly 35 yards broadside. All I can think is “don’t hit the shoulder.” I have no memory of triggering the release. I hear the thump of the arrow hitting but not sure where it hits as the bull whirls and explodes out of the pond, headed back the way he came from. I am trying to stand up to watch him and I can hear Rod behind me saying “get down, get down, don’t let him see you.” I quickly reach in my fanny pack and grab my call and let out a couple of cow calls, the bull stops running and slowly moves away. As I sit back down, I see the bull for the first time in my binos and watch as he lays down in the tall grass just over a 100 yards away with only the top of his antlers visible.
This photo shows the bull where he lays down in the grass
The last 20 minutes had been the most surreal experience in my entire life. To top it off, the first words out of Rods mouth weren’t words of congratulations but instead what I heard was, “my God if I would’ve had the video camera we could have made a fortune whether you killed the bull or not.” Rods first “NO” he gave me was because he was afraid to raise his binos for fear of spooking the calves that were hanging around me. Once he got the opportunity while I was entertaining our new friends, he took one look at the fronts of the bull and knew he was definitely a shooter.
Pressure, what pressure? My first archery kill and the monster is mine.