BOWHUNTING: The Ones That Got Away
by Chuck Adams
Big elk get big for a reason: they’re smarter than the elk that get shot, and they get smarter every year. So should you.
It is early afternoon in elk camp as I write this. Just after daylight today, I spotted a massive-racked 6x7 bull. Weather was perfect—nearly dead calm, with a sprinkling of frost on the early-morning grass.
I circled fast to get ahead of the cows the bull was pushing. A slight breeze was cutting sideways, and I managed to crouch behind a juniper where I thought the elk would go.
I figured a little bit too well. Five cows walked past less than 10 yards upwind, and the bull appeared 50 yards behind them. But there were two more cows to come, and one decided to trot behind me. An instant later, the old biddy got a huge snootful of Chuck. She nearly turned wrongside-out, barking like a dog as she thundered back past the bull. He whirled and galloped out of sight. End of the morning hunt!
It is only the second day of my two-week Montana bowhunt, and I still have high hopes of getting close to that 6x7 or another oversized bull. But as I sit here beside a propane stove, I cannot help but remember bulls that got away. Sure, I have enjoyed great success on big elk over the years, including a former Pope & Young World Record, but for every elk I have tagged, there are countless others as big or bigger that gave me the slip.
I was still in college when I bowhunted Colorado for the first time. The famous Flat Tops Wilderness was jam-packed with elk. To see them, all you had to do was climb 2,000 feet from the nearest road to the 11,000-foot timberline.
After several days of glassing 50 to 100 elk each day, I spotted a colossal 6x6 at the rear of a herd. Elk calling was not too common in those days, but I had been practicing with a turkey diaphragm. The bull stopped and stared toward my first bugle, and swaggered my way when I called a second time.
The bull moved downhill with incredible speed, stopping only once to bugle before he shifted into a trot. You could have scraped my eyes off with a stick as the animal got closer and closer. I crouched behind a huge deadfall spruce with arrow nocked and knees knocking together. My heart was racing.
He never stopped, and never gave me a broadside shot. I was looking for a place to jump when he finally reached the log and peered over the top barely six feet away. He bored holes through me with his rut-reddened eyes, and recognition suddenly hit his brain. In a flash, he lunged sideways out of sight.
As I sat there trying to settle my jangled nerves, I told myself I would never see another bull that big in Colorado. I was right. I did not shoot an elk on that trip. Despite several more great years of bowhunting in the Flat Tops, the huge 6x6 dwarfed all the others I encountered.
Lesson learned. Never again did I set up to call without lots of cover around me. A dead log does not work when an elk peeks over the top!
A few years later, I took an outfitted trip to northern New Mexico. I was hunting the famous Baca Ranch, some 100 square miles of lush grass and thick timber. There were elk everywhere.
On the third day, my guide and I heard a high, squeaky bugle behind a nearby skyline. We both knew that “high and squeaky” usually meant a small bull, but seconds later a monstrous 7x7 strolled over the ridge.
“Let me sneak up on him,” I hissed. I had stalked elk many times before, and the lay of the land was right.
I quickly crab-walked and crawled half the distance as the bull beat up a little tree with his rack. Then, as I crossed the only open ground in between, a mind-blowing bugle erupted behind me. My guide was a young, cocky guy who fancied himself a wonderful elk caller. He could not put the brakes on yet another chance to prove just how good he was.
The bull whipped his head and charged the remaining 100 yards toward me. Before I could move, he galloped into the opening where I was crouched, skidded to a halt, spotted me and fled.
“I believe that was the new New Mexico state record archery bull,” my guide groaned as he trudged up behind me. He wasn’t groaning half as much as I was.
It always helps to talk hunting strategy ahead of time with any guide, but in that case our previous discussions had done no good. You cannot control everything on an outfitted hunt.
I shot a 357-inch elk later on that trip, but the one that got away was 30 or 40 inches bigger. The image of him whirling to run is indelibly imprinted in my brain.
Roosevelt’s elk are notoriously difficult to call in their thick, hard-hunted public-land habitat. Yet I managed to call one excellent bull in coastal Oregon a number of years ago.
I had been bowhunting more than a week without seeing so much as one elk antler in the lush coastal forest. I was hot on the quest to complete my North American big game Super Slam, with only Roosevelt’s elk, Alaska brown bear, and a mountain lion to finish the fabled “North American 27.” When I heard my first-ever Roosevelt’s bugle that morning, my heart did a back flip. Finally a chance at success.
I eased upwind through second-growth trees and nearly fainted when the bull bugled again 50 yards in front of me. I clenched the diaphragm call between my teeth and bugled back. Limbs cracked, hooves thudded and polished antler tips appeared. Seconds later, the bull stepped out broadside between tightly jammed clusters of trees.
I was already at full draw, and the thick 6x6 rack glittered as my 20-yard sight pin settled on the bull’s chest. As I released, I knew I had my Roosevelt’s.
What followed was a sickening “bang” and more thudding hooves. My carefully tuned arrow had skewered the only evergreen branch in front of the bull’s ribcage. I had not seen that big twig in the early morning half-light, but a one-inch piece of wood completely ruined my day. I extracted my arrow and trudged back to camp.
A few days later, I stalked and shot a raghorn bull in a logging clearcut. I was on the road to completing my Super Slam the following year, but I will never forget that big Roosevelt’s bull that got away. I am always careful to wait for a clear shot, but low-light can still play tricks on my eyes.
My favorite elk-hunting state is Montana, in part because I lived there for nearly a decade. Too many Big Sky bulls have tricked me to describe all of those misadventures here. But one massive 6x7 really played me for a fool.
I was hunting the famed Missouri River Breaks in late September when I found the bull in a small canyon several miles from the nearest road. I found him every day for the next week as he chased an eight-cow harem from one side draw to another. If the wind didn’t bust me, one of those cows or the bull always heard or saw me.
Finally, in early October, I found the harem yet again, but a smaller 6x6 had taken over. The rut was winding down, and the big boy had deserted his girlfriends.
Unlike all those other days, I slipped crosswind on the little herd, peeked over the lip of a dry wash, and had the 6x6 cold turkey at 35 yards. My arrow smacked his ribs, and the hunt was over. That bull was nice, with a score a touch over 300 inches.
I was walking back to my pickup when I spotted an antler above a nearby hump of dirt. Out stepped the big 6x7, barely 30 yards away, with his head behind a clump of sage. As I watched, the bull fed leisurely away, presenting dozens of perfect archery shots. But my tag was already filled, so all I have is the bittersweet memory of finally getting close by accident.
That bull would have scored 375 or more—one of the best I have ever seen in northeastern Montana. He was lucky, I was unlucky, or both.
Elk hunting can be great near my present home in Wyoming. Three years ago, I shot an excellent 355-inch 7x8 within 10 miles of my house. But I saw an even larger 6x6 a few days earlier. I sneaked closer and closer through knee-deep grass and jackstraw timber as the hoarse-voiced elk bugled and grunted his head off.
His rack swiveled bewitchingly at 40 yards, but I could not get a shot past a mess of chest-high deadfall trees. The wind was perfect, the sun was barely up, and the bull was not moving around very much. I hunkered down, confident I would probably get a shot sooner or later.
Suddenly, the elk’s antlers rotated upwind. Then he ran like he’d been goosed by a cattle prod.
My head was whirling with disappointment when something brown flickered 50 yards uphill. Out stepped a grizzly bear, his silvery hump glowing in the half-light of deep timber. Like the elk, I hustled away from the long-clawed, sharp-toothed bruin.
Chasing elk is never a sure thing. I doubt many of us would hunt them if there wasn’t the opportunity for failure. There are so many variables in bowhunting that even the tiniest branch or the faintest breeze will blow a hunt. But it’s important to stay out there, keep after it, and try to learn from every blown chance. You never know what might happen in the elk woods. But I do know one thing for sure. No matter how hard you try, the big ones often get away!
Life member Chuck Adams has written 10 books about bowhunting—including
Super Slam, detailing his adventures with all 28 species of North American big game.