Elk Archery Montana September 2013 By Jeremy Rodgers
15 yards broadside double lung shot.
In February my dad, Jerry, and I made a plan to go elk and deer hunting in Montana. A few years earlier Montana raised its nonresident fees so high that they weren't even selling all the tags, so we figured we'd draw a tag if we applied for the general combo tag. After we drew we made plans to hunt for a week in early September as I had another family commitment on the 14th. So we ordered more arrows, practiced a lot, and got our bows set up. My dad lives in Bismarck, ND so on Friday the 6th I left Fargo after work and got to his place at 9 pm. We planned to travel west nine hours to a specific drainage in the Little Belts of MT that I had hunted in years past. By midnight we were packed and we had each other so excited that we couldn't wait. After a stop for missing supplies (Monkey Butt) and fuel, we left by 2 am. I drove first and my left foot starting getting hot at about 4 am. We switched driving and I realized that my foot was swelling up. At 6 am we pulled over to get some sleep. At 9 am we were both up and ready to go after grabbing a pop from the cooler. By that time we knew my swollen foot needed some medical attention. The weekend before I got into poison ivy in a campground in the badlands of North Dakota. I was swamped at work installing wood flooring out of town, so I never made time to get checked out. I just figured the irritation would go away with some time and nothing was going to stop me from going to MT. My left knee had dozens of blisters so somehow it must have been related to my swelling foot. By now I had a clubfoot that was the same size as my ankle. Good thing we left early. At 11 am we wound through Lewistown around the town celebration and the closed main street to get to the medical center. My dad and I are usually quite efficient so I asked him if he was going to drop me off and go fuel up. He said, "I'm not going to miss this. They're going to laugh their asses off!". And he was right. After the formalities with insurance and questions, the doc said it was the worst case of poison ivy he'd ever seen. A good diagnosis and some steroids for "topical irritation" and the swelling was on it's way down and we were headed into the mountains.
I had hunted the same area of the Little Belts the two previous years so we went to the same drainage as it seemed to have lots of elk. At around 3 pm we hiked west. By 7 pm we realized we had gone more SW than west and we started to drop off the ridge. We rested and ate some leftover chicken for supper and discussed our next move. We wanted to be on the ridge to glass the next day so we decided to camp high that night. By dark we had been hearing thunder for a couple of hours and a moderate rain started to fall. I wanted to quickly pitch tents and get settled in, but the rain picked up. So we tucked under the biggest, small pine trees we could find and waited a half hour for the rain to quit. We set up tents and got to bed. Both of us were wet, but I was wearing wool and I had a heavier synthetic sleeping bag so I was good. I found out in the morning that my dad had a wet down sleeping bag and he shivered most of the night.
The next morning I was eager and up before dawn. I went east to a good lookout and scanned and listened for signs of life. Nothing showed so we packed up and decided to work separate directions throughout the day and meet in a meadow with a creek that was 1500 feet below us. My dad slowly worked down a point and I went around a ravine to the east. I hadn't seen any signs of elk until a large 6x6 jumped out of his bed and stared at me from 30 yards away. The three cows with the bull slowly walked away and I couldn't get a shot through the thick tree branches. The top of the ridge dropped off quickly into loose rocks within 5o yards and I got desperate. So, I cow called a couple times and looped to the expected route of the elk. I bumped right into a cow, but the thick cover prevented a shot. She hustled off and I couldn't keep up. I met my dad later in meadow and we set up tents and switched sleeping gear so he could use a full sleeping bag pad and larger sleeping bag. We discussed how we hadn't seen much elk sign besides the four elk before eating supper and getting to bed. In the morning I was up in the dark and watching the meadow. It was still too dark to see when I turned my head and spooked an elk up the hill from the night before. So there were a few elk around. We heard the bull from the night before and a couple other bugles above us. My dad decided to investigate the creek to the east and I was to go up the opposite side as the day before and look for elk in wallows that held elk two years before. After an exhausting day of hiking, we met at our tents for supper and neither of us had seen any fresh sign. Lots of sign from earlier spring and summer and the years before, but nothing fresh. Disappointed but determined we decided to pack out the next morning. We didn't have a plan except to find elk or at least fresh sign. My dad, Jerry quoted Yogi Berra "When life gives you a fork in the road, take it". So we did and at dawn we hiked for hours and reached the truck at 1 pm.
This is when we got lucky. A friendly engineer for the forest service stopped on his drive by and we visited for a while. Apparently our hard work of backpacking was about to pay off. After he learned of our 3 day backpack outing, he was much more open with information and he told us about a drainage they had just worked in. He said there was fresh elk tracks right on the road and he told of a meadow that was only barely visible as you went by. So that night we set up a base camp with a large tent, ate some good food, and got lots of rest. We had a big breakfast before light and we were at the trailhead at dawn. The forest service had just deconstructed some of the roads in this drainage. They closed the main road to trucks and it was only open to ATV's. Since we didn't have one, we went on foot. After about a mile we heard water in the creek below so my dad decided to head that direction and we made a plan to meet at the truck at dark. I walked another mile and found fresh elk tracks so naturally I followed them on the road. After a mile they disappeared downhill towards the creek, but I still wanted to find the meadow. I passed the meadow after a mile and a half, but I went farther where the timber got older and I was downwind of the meadow. For hours I slowly worked downhill towards the creek. The old timber was loaded with fresh rubs and tracks from elk and deer. I felt like I had eyeballs on me all the time, but after many hours of stillhunting I hadn't seen anything. I got near the creek and a main trail and decided to build a ground blind. I was well concealed and I sat/slept there from 4 pm to 8 pm. I knew I had about four miles back to the truck and I wanted to be there no later than 10 pm which was about an hour after dark. But I figured if I hit the road by 9 then I could hustle and make it even sooner.
So at 8pm I hiked uphill and got turned around in the timber. Using my compass I kept working towards the truck and the road. Then I heard a nearby bugle! Then a separate bull bugling! I quickly and somewhat quietly worked uphill for a half hour until I got to the meadow and within 100 yards of the nearest bull. The other bull had continued uphill of the road and he was gone. I've always had better luck getting a shot if an animal was unaware of me so I didn't call and I kept quiet and covered the last 100 yards very slowly. I was extremely quiet and everything around me was too quiet. I was in full predator mode, slowly moving only my legs and my eyeballs, when I met the eyes of a bull only 15 yards away. He looked at me for a split second through an 8 foot pine tree, which his antlers couldn't hide behind, and he grunted while stampeding away. I was so deliberate in my movement and he was so startled that I wasn't surprised when he stopped at 98 yards for a better look. After a minute he walked away, but he didn't run. He started raking trees and letting out a bugle once in a while. He was wound up. After a few minutes of this I let out a cow call. After another minute he bugled back. He was out of sight, but I heard him destroying more trees. I had a feeling that he was ticked off and he wanted a piece of me. So I played along. I let out my original cow call, then a cow in estrus, then a spike bugle with chuckles. He answered immediately and I knocked an arrow. He kept raking trees and I figured my presence was infuriating him so I gave another wimpy spike bugle with lots of exaggerated chuckles. I hadn't moved from the original encounter so I knew he had my position. I stood completely still facing the meadow at 12 o'clock. I threw two rocks 20 yards ahead into the small trees in the meadow to hopefully take his focus off me and then I didn't make any more noise. He was worked up and he kept walking closer while raking trees and occasionally bugling. He took forever and he came in from left to right, but he was always behind trees and out from me about 40 yards. He started at 9 o'clock and slowly moved to 2 o'clock. By this time I got more luck as the little bit of wind that existed had switched and it was in my face. I was tucked into a U-shaped corner of trees. All behind me was dense timber, so I just stood still. The bull silently came to me within 15 yards. I could feel his stare, and he was behind the exact same tree as our original encounter just a few minutes earlier. I however had moved 3 feet over and I was behind a six foot wide pine. It probably took a minute or two, but I'd have to see a watch to believe it was less than 10 minutes, then he moved to my right. He circled to get behind me, but the thick trees prevented this. By this time he was positioned at 4 o'clock from my view to the meadow. And he was coming closer! I was scared by this time as he had likely just kicked another bull out of his meadow and I was imitating a bull and cows. He was about 10 yards away behind the last tiny six foot evergreen when I drew and slowly turned. I wanted to stay hidden and when I looked at him I wished for a hole to crawl into. With him in the sun and me in the shadows, somehow he didn't see me. But he was pissed off and he bugled right in my face. My heart beat so loud I could see his ears perk up. I shut my mouth to quiet the heartbeat noise, but then my ears pounded. I'm not sure why, but instead of coming in head on, he circled back to his 15 yard tree and paused. I let down and tried to breath without gasping for air. At 15 yards away, I know he heard my heartbeat and my breathing in the calm air. But again he didn't come in head on. He held his head low and postured while he walked to my left. He got close to clearing the last large evergreen towards the meadow and I drew. I had a small opening, but I couldn't pick a clear spot on his side while he walked so I waited for two more steps for him to clear the last evergreen. I squeezed the trigger, heard the splat like a water balloon on concrete, and then the thunder of hooves. He only ran 30 yards before stopping. I thought I hit him well, but I was unsure after last year. The year before I had shot at a nice bull from 25 yards. Usually from that range I can hit a baseball every time, but that bull ran away too. I looked for four days and never found a trace of the bull or my arrow. So now I didn't know what to do besides wait.
Nothing ever goes as planned. With every passing second I knew my dad was getting more worried and I wanted so badly to hear the bull crash. No crash, but after a couple minutes he did start to gurgle so I knew the arrow had hit at least one lung. He was so close I felt bad listening to him, but I also knew he could hear me if I moved. He gave half a bugle, then waited a couple minutes, then he started to yelp like a lost puppy. Ten yelps then nothing else. After another few minutes of silence I came out of listening mode and realized that I needed to get back to the truck and my dad. It was too quiet and the bull was too near to make any noise until I got uphill a couple hundred yards to the road. So I quietly took out my arrow with a field tip and stuck it into the ground to mark the spot of the shot. Then I stumbled in the dark for many minutes before feeling I was out of eyesight of the bull and I turned on my headlamp. Once at the road, I dug out marking tape and hung a large ribbon. I was overflowing with adrenalin so I jogged for a mile before hearing a whistle in the creek below. I knew my dad had a signal whistle and I thought Jerry had an animal down or worse maybe he was down. I walked and fumbled for my good flashlight, but the switch must have been hit in my pack and the batteries were dead. So I left my waistbelt of my pack on and swung it around in front of me while I continued to walk, and dug out spare batteries. Eventually I got the light working and I flashed the mountainside opposite the creek. It was about a half mile away so I figured Jerry would see the light and signal me. I covered another mile before I heard the whistles again and now they sounded behind me and towards the creek bottom so I stopped. Worried, but not panicked I flashed the light and blew whistles with my bugle. No answer. I went down the road another 1/4 mile and did the same. No answer. I couldn't leave, but I had no option. If he was in the creek bottom, he likely couldn't hear anything over the running water and I had nothing else to check besides going back to the pickup. I ran most of the way to the truck and found my dad mad as hell. I was so happy to see him that I almost hugged him even while he yelled at me. I learned that after waiting at the truck after dark, he had walked down the road three miles blowing the whistle all the way. The whistles I heard must have been bouncing off the mountainsides and throwing me off. He then walked back to the trailhead and wrote a note that he was going to get the sheriff and put it on the other truck at the trailhead. I explained my tardiness to no avail. He was upset, worried, and mad. But I was secretly hopeful. I was so scared and nervous during the encounter with the bull that I didn't get a good look at his antlers. So I couldn't even tell him how big it was. But I was hopeful that the arrow was in the right place. We had a quick supper and went to sleep in our clothes since it would be a very short night.
By 5 am I couldn't sleep anymore so I made lots of coffee and a good breakfast to pass the time until daylight. After eating we drove a couple miles and hiked four miles while the sun rose. I found my ribbon, but it took numerous circles and an hour to find the spot where the bull was shot. It felt like the year before as there was no bull piled up. I found little spurts of blood 20 yards from where the bull was hit. After 20 yards more, I found my broken arrow which showed about 18 inches of penetration. That was a good sign, but the blood was sparse from there. One of us would hold the spot and scan while the other would slowly work ahead in the dewy grass to look for the next spurt of blood. No big blood drops, no spray sideways from the tracks, just a spurt like you blew blood out your nose as you walked. I was worried and after a hundred yards in the meadow we got to some trees. Then my dad tells me he heard a crashing from this area when we first got here. So, I assumed the bull had lived through the night and he escaped when we pressured him. But the blood spurts got more pronounced. As we got to the timber we both got a little nervous and Dad said, "You knock an arrow and look ahead and I'll track the blood". Just as I said ok, I saw antler. Lots of antler.
The bull had small pools of blood near him and he was laying awkwardly on the ground when I approached cautiously. He was still and stiff. We were both in awe at the size of the antlers, but especially at the size of the beast that we had to butcher and haul. We high fived and took pictures until 9 am, then butchered until noon. I shoot a 63 lb. bow and total arrow weight is 418 grains plus or minus 1/2 grain. The arrow went through the front side shoulder muscle, through the forward part of the chest, and out the ribcage on the backside before stopping at the hide. I didn't gut the animal, but the broadhead must have hit both lungs. I shoot foldout mechanicals so the arrow must have broken off and the forward section slid back inside the ribcage. With our gear, meat, and the head we made seven loads up the hill about 200 yards to the road. We made a plan to keep the meat in the shade and get the best loads of meat to the truck first with the head being last. We split up our extra clothes and gear on the first few loads to reduce it to six loads then hauled three apiece over the next eight hours. The antlers and cape felt like 100 lbs. on the last load, but the mount will be worth it. By 8 pm we had the meat all washed and we were on our way to town for ice. That day we walked over 28 miles while carrying at least 60 lbs. for 12 of those miles! I had elk hunted both archery and gun for many years before getting my first elk. And all the hard work and persistence finally paid off.
I love small towns. We were welcomed and congratulated when we got ice and gas. We had a quick supper at the bar and went to camp and right to bed. After getting home and showing off the horns, the work still wasn't over. I processed elk meat for three nights to get all the steaks and roast packaged and frozen into dinner-sized portions. Even with meat from a bull in the rut, the elk meat is delicious!
I learned that hard work can really pay off. That state worker wasn't going to give us any information. But when he heard we were hardworking guys that hunted on foot, he was very helpful. Once in town, one man said that he was proud to meet me once he found out that we did everything on foot without the aid of atv's. Since many of the locals don't have the means to buy atv's, they aren't too fond of out of staters that show up with lots of fancy toys and lots of money. I learned again that the Grim Reapers do the job. My dad and I both learned how important it is to have a pair of good quality stiff boots as we couldn't hunt steep terrain with backpacks without these boots. Two years earlier I ignored this advice from my friend and I wore Danner Pronghorns which have proven their worth to me in the badlands of North Dakota. The boots were brand new and I couldn't lace them tight enough. My feet kept sliding over the edge of the sole. That was miserable. I went to bed that first night in the mountains with a merino wool shirt that was soaked from the rain. I put on another wool shirt and a light fleece and I was very warm. The high cost is well worth it as merino wool clothing keeps me comfortable in all temps from 0 to 90 degrees. I learned that for the second year in a row, I wished I was shooting a 70 lb. bow with fixed blade broadheads and lighted nocks. Many weekends each fall find me chasing antelope and/or mule deer in the badlands. Some shots are out to 100 yards and I don't have time to change setups. I've found that my arrow weights need to be within a grain and my broadheads have to be aerodynamic mechanicals to hit a paper plate past 40 yards in the wind. So I shoot what I shoot with some regret while elk hunting. But I also learned that if you know the limitations and the performance of your setup, then you can have confidence and success on elk. I learned that confidence leads to success. My past experience told me how to read the animal's mood and what to do after the shot. I wish I would have backed out after the shot the year before and I likely would have recovered that bull in a similar manner as this one. Experience is a merciless teacher, but once on the other side you can find big 330 inch elk with 50 inch main beams!
Equipment: Hoyt Maxxis 35, Gold Tip 7595, Grim Reaper Razor Tip, Truball release, Leica rangefinder, Swarovski 10x40 binos, Kenetrek boots, Badlands 2800 backpack with carbon fiber stays from Kifaru, Cabelas packframe, First Lite merino wool shirts, Cabelas water bladder (1st one I've had that doesn't leak, Katadyn Pro Hiker water filter with hose adapters to connect directly to the water bladder hose.