Hunting elk in northwest Montana can be more frustrating than some give it credit. Eight out of 10 times, something makes your hunt go south. Whether it’s dealing with wolves, brush, hunter pressure, or just callshy elk, it seems as if the odds are stacked against you. When my buddy, Sparky, told me I could access his private lease in Idaho to get to some landlocked public land, I immediately purchased an over-the-counter Idaho elk permit.
After arriving at Sparky’s place and looking over the property, I knew my buddy, Kyle Meyer, and I were in for a great week of archery elk hunting. Over the first couple of days, we looked over dozens of bulls, but there was one that had my attention. He was a big old 5x5 that had around a 330"+ frame. Kyle and I pursued this bull for five days with several close encounters but never had the perfect opportunity to let an arrow fly. Though we both harvested bulls, I played back the close encounters I had with “Big 5.” I figured he would be harvested during the rifle season, but somehow, he managed to sneak by without being shot.
As I made my hunt plans for the 2017 season, I contacted Sparky and asked if I could use his property to access the public land. He told me he had some self-guided guys hunting it and wasn’t sure if I would be able to. I still purchased an Idaho tag and figured I would hunt some other areas.
The week I was headed up to hunt, an early fall snowstorm rolled in. I met up with my cousin, Kyle McKee, who was going to help me try to harvest a bull in Idaho and then we were going to go hunt Montana. The first two days of the hunt were a struggle with high winds and low visibility due to the snow. The following two days weren’t much better, but we did have a couple close encounters. We decided that if I didn’t harvest by the end of the next morning we would pack up camp and head to Montana. That morning, I almost sealed the deal on a nice 5-point, but he crossed just out of range.
The first night in Montana, I glassed up a 330" type bull with a large group of cows in an area that wasn’t getting much pressure. We spent the next three days stalking and calling but never could close the gap on him. We passed on several opportunities on smaller bulls because once you find the big one it’s hard to settle for less.
It was September 27th, and the Idaho season closed on the 30th. I knew I would be able to hunt Montana later during the rifle season, but the Idaho season was going to close soon. I told Kyle that I wanted to make one last run over to Idaho to see if I could notch my tag before the season closed. He wanted to keep hunting in Montana, so on the afternoon of the 28th, I headed south for Idaho.
Coincidently, Sparky called me while I was driving and told me I could hunt behind his lease the last two days. That evening, I met up with him and the guys who had been hunting his lease that week. They said they had seen Big 5, but much like previous years, he had given them the slip. I was excited to hear this because that was the bull I wanted to go home with. It was hard for me to go to sleep thinking about what the next day might hold.
I hit snooze one too many times that morning and woke up about an hour later than I wanted. I quickly got dressed and jumped in my truck to make the 20-minute drive. By the time I parked my truck, daylight was already breaking. I was frustrated because I knew the elk would already be making their way to the bedding area and I was not going to be in position to cut them off. While lacing my boots up and getting my pack ready, I could hear a bull bugling about a mile off. If only I had been on time, I would have been right in the middle of the action.
I started up the mountain, moving as quickly as I could. I hadn’t taken time to eat anything, and I could feel my body slowing down from the lack of energy. With the bull still bugling ahead of me, I had to keep moving. I had about an 800 foot elevation gain to get to where I thought I needed to be. I took a quick break to eat a Clif Bar and pound some MTN OPS, but I had to keep moving if I was going to catch the elk.
After a hard hike, I caught a glimpse of the elk through the trees. I slowed my pace and started preparing for an opportunity. I could see the bull now, and he was only about 90 yards in front of me. It was the big 5-point I was hoping for! Just as I was closing the gap, the whole herd started sidehilling through the timber. I quickly started making my way underneath them, staying as close as I could. I figured they would stage once more before bedding, and I knew my window of opportunity would be small. After about 15 minutes of dogging them, I finally made an all-in move. I found an opening at the bottom of a big rockslide I had seen them cross a few times the year before. I knew that if I was going to get a shot off they had to cross on that specific trail. My heart rate quickly elevated as I saw them coming. I drew my bow when I saw a bull coming through the timber. He started into the clearing, and I noticed he was a small 6x6. I let my bow down as he crossed at 25 yards. Several cows started across the rocky trail, and I could hear the bull coming. It was like a dream setup, and I knew it was going to happen.
On my knees with my Option sight mover pin dialed to 28 yards, I waited for the bull. Just as I could see him coming, I started to draw, but I had to freeze because a small raghorn stepped out not five yards from me and looked my way. He stared a hole right through me, and I avoided making eye contact with him. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Big 5 crossing through my shooting lane. I started to panic, and the little bull looked away and started moving. I only had a couple seconds to draw my bow and release an arrow or my opportunity was gone. Instinct kicked in as I came to full draw and centered my pin. The bull was still moving as I squeezed through my shot. My arrow smashed into the bull, but I did not lead him enough and my shot was back and high. He immediately ran out of sight. I quickly nocked another arrow and rushed up the hill. He was 70 yards away in the middle of the herd. I could see my arrow and blood dripping down his side. I drew back to take a follow-up shot, but the herd scattered and he drifted into the timber away from the other elk.
How stupid could I have been to do everything I was supposed to up until the shot? It was around 8:00 a.m., and I knew I had to give it at least four or five hours before I started tracking him. I said a few prayers and called my wife, my dad, and a couple close friends to tell them the story. Minutes seemed like hours as I waited. Finally, the time came to where I felt like I could start tracking him. There was good blood in the rocks, but it quickly dried up as I hit the timber. Doubt and frustration ran through my mind as things were not looking good and I had only gone 100 yards. This was not the great blood trail I was hoping for, and I would have to follow his tracks. I nocked another arrow and moved as slowly as I could, glassing ahead to make sure that if I did find him alive I could get another arrow in him.
I continued to creep through the trees, having to backtrack a couple times to make sure I was on the right track. I had only made it about 200 yards from the last trace of blood when I stopped for a second to clear my head. Looking up and to my right, there he was. As soon as I made eye contact with him, he stood up and bolted down the hill. It sounded like a logging operation as he busted through the timber. I watched him run until he disappeared and the noise faded. I was heartbroken! I felt as if I had screwed up my only opportunity. I made my way to where he was bedded, and there was very little blood. I decided I would follow his tracks for a couple hundred yards and then wait another several hours before I pursued him.
Walking down the hill in disappointment, I found my arrow lying in some brush. There was still no blood trail, so I figured I would sit on the ridge about 60 yards in front of me. Just as I hit the ridge, I looked up and couldn’t believe what I saw. There he was! This time, though, he was not getting up. After I had jumped him, he had only made it about 400 yards before he bled out internally. He was wrapped around a tree with his antlers dug into the ground.
I said another prayer and made a few phone calls to share my excitement. Sparky told me he had a friend with horses who would be willing to help me pack the bull out. After about an hour of trying to get pictures and two hours of quartering him, I was en route to my truck with the first load of meat to my truck. The timing was perfect as Mike was just arriving as I got to my truck. We saddled two horses and put pack bags on another. We were able to ride the horses right to the kill site and get everything loaded and back to the truck just as it was getting dark. Mike and his horses were a lifesaver as it would have taken me the whole next day to pack the bull out.
It was a long, hard, and emotional day, but I was able to harvest the bull I had come to hunt. Each year, I learn so much more about becoming a more proficient hunter. The thing I really took home from this hunt was to always trust my gut feeling. Most of the time, it turns out to be right.