Elk NetworkSituation Ethics: A Shot Through the Heart

General | April 19, 2018

Never having shot an elk with his bow, a hunter has the chance to seal the deal on a bruiser—except for that one, little, strategically placed, pathetic tree.

My brother let out a high, squeaky and wimpy bugle, hoping to rouse the fighting instincts in one of the bulls we knew to be close. Almost as Tim’s bugle trailed off, another deeper, guttural and angry response erupted from the timber a couple hundred yards up the hill. We scrambled.

Dad unfolded the decoy and ran 30 yards behind us to the end of the small, narrow meadow. Tim and I were trotting in the other direction to set up an ambush when we heard the bull bugle again, a mere 100 yards away. Looking up the hill, we saw its yellow withers and walnut tines glinting in the morning sun as it ran through the trees toward us. We looked for cover and ran toward it, but the bull was coming too fast. Tim dove into the low-hanging branches of a scraggly fir, and I was forced to drop to a knee behind a small pine that resembled Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. I could only hope that my full camo and face paint might fool it into thinking I was a bush as it focused on the canvas elk butt Dad was now waving at the other end of the meadow.

The elk burst into the far end of the clearing full of rage. Its massive antlers arched up over its back, and the ground pounded with every step it took. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I had started a new job at the end of the summer, and the training phase took up nearly every moment of my time. Working hard has always been a family value, and I wanted to impress the boss so I was there early every morning and stayed until after dinner. I filled my weekends volunteering for extra work. There wouldn’t be any elk hunting for me that fall. Dad and Tim were almost as disappointed as I was when I told them I couldn’t make it to elk camp during rifle season.

Tim called a few days later and told me that he had found a herd of elk in a small, protected basin just an hour from home. He said he might be able to put me on one. I checked my calendar. Labor Day was the start of bow season, and the office would be shut down. It looked like I was going to be able to go, so I started shooting my bow.

Now, I found myself in the thick of it. I had never shot an elk with my bow, and one was knocking at my doorstep. It slowed to a walk as it came to 40 yards. When it went behind a tree, I drew my bow. The bull sauntered out and I put the green fiber-optic dot in the pocket behind its leg. That pocket opened and closed as the bull walked toward me. It was locked on the decoy and heading straight for it—a perfect ambush.

The bull was going to walk right past me at less than a dozen yards, so I waited. At 10 yards, broadside, its hair filled my whole sight aperture, my whole being. I followed step for step with the bow, and right as it came in front of me I tightened my finger on the trigger. “It’s now,” I thought. I was increasing the pressure on the release when the sight picture blurred. The trunk of Charlie Brown’s tree perfectly covered the bull’s vitals. The bull stopped, turned and looked at me.

I panicked, and time froze. The bull had come off the hill nothing but angry, but now it looked alarmed. The trunk of the tiny tree, though only a few inches in diameter covered the entirety of the bulls chest. When I moved the pin to the left of the trunk it lit on the bulls swaying belly. When I moved it to the right it was on the bull’s neck.

The neck was large and made an easy target. But I knew there was a lot of muscle, sinew and thick vertebrae protecting the spine, carotid artery and jugular vein that ran somewhere under that hide. I continued on up the line of the spine to the bull’s temple. I had seen my grandpa shoot cattle there before with a .22, and they dropped like Zeus struck them with a lightning bolt. At 10 yards, I was confident I could hit the half-dollar-sized spot, but I had never heard of anyone shooting an elk there. My broadhead company prides itself in how their points can shoot through steel, but I just wasn’t sure of the kind of penetration, deflection or reaction I would get.

I weighed my options. I might never get another chance like this—to be so close to a big bull at full draw. I subscribe to the maxim that you miss every shot you don’t take, but the bull that stood in front of me was a perfect specimen of wilderness, an embodiment of raw power and fighting grace. It was the most sacred thing I had ever seen. A marginal shot will not bring a bull down. When I was little, I stumbled onto a dead buck that a neighbor kid had shot. It was lying bloated in the river at the end of a deep pool. A broadhead stuck several inches out of a gaping green wound in its back. I learned later how an animal suffering with fever from an infection will seek water to try to cool off. The memory loomed heavy in my mind. It made me sick to picture that happening to this elk. My decision was made.

I wouldn’t shoot him in the neck. I would wait for him to move. A step in any direction would clear his vitals from the trunk, allowing me to slip an arrow into his heart. I shifted the draw weight of the bow onto my bones and held. It was a standoff, with a wide-eyed bull staring at a wide-eyed archer.

Rashly, I decided to try to lean my body ever so slightly to the right and slip the arrow past the trunk. The instant I moved, the bull blew up in my face and tore across the meadow, sending clods of sod flying before it disappeared into the pines.

I let my bow down weakly, my muscles aching and my heart pounding wildly. My brother crawled out of the branches next to me. His face had the look of astonishment mixed with disappointment.

“Why didn’t you shoot it?” he demanded. Giving me the shot, he hadn’t even drawn his bow. I felt horrible.

“Well, you see, the tree blocked his chest,” I tried to explain. I could tell he just didn’t get it. His eyes said it all. My heart hung as low as my head. I had failed.

Then Dad came out of the trees. “Wow,” he said, “I’ll bet that was a rush!” From where he was sitting at the end of the meadow it had seemed like the elk was about to step on me. I started to explain why I hadn’t shot, choking on the words, and he put his arm around my back and nodded in empathy. “You are just lucky you got to see him that close.” 

Always an optimist, Dad’s words helped. It was a long time before I could talk about it without getting shaky. At first, I was eaten up with regret for not trying to shoot the bull in the neck, thinking I might have gotten lucky and severed a blood vessel or spined it. As time has passed, the more I’ve thought about it, the happier I am that I never let that arrow fly. I don’t have a wounded bull on my conscience, and Dad was right: I was lucky just to get that close to such a magnificent animal.

If I hunt long enough and hard enough, I know I will get another chance at a bull like that. If I had to do it all over again, I would make the same decision. I guess if I am making wishes I would have planted my knee a foot to the right as we set up. Maybe then I would have shot that bull right through the heart.

Cody Eardley lives with his growing family in Wyoming. He is a frequent contributor to Bugle.