Quietly, my guide and I crept up the last 25 yards of a heavily wooded draw where a symphony of elk rut played. Peering over the rocky knob revealed the animals calling out every elk sound - snorts, grunts, squeals, bugles, and challenge responses mixed with mews and estrus calls echoing back and forth from far ridges. Thirty to 40 dark hides gradually came into a piercing predawn view. Spike bulls whose voices belied their youth squeaked and honked as if in their adolescence. Yearling calves responded with mews to keep their mommas close by. Within the fray, one bull slid in, standing antlers and shoulders above the rest. The monster 6x8 bull with double eyeguards slipped in from the dark timber, projecting dominance over the meadow. The deliberate gait, measured pauses, and distinctive bugle made him seem magical. I named this bull "Merlin."
I watched in awe as a mature 6x6 challenger approached. The two giants closed in on one another, stared, and locked up. The crack and rattle of sparring antlers filled the hayfield, sending shivers up my spine. Their heads twisted, charged, and drove for leverage. Back and forth each would drive, with neither ceding ground. Minutes later, Merlin emerged the champion. His upright stance, shoulders, and grunts indicated that he was the boss of all bulls in the field that morning. Sunlight had just crested the far ridge, framing Merlin’s impressive rack as his head turned slowly from side to side, surveying the broad landscape. He let loose one more distinctive bugle and grunt and then collected up his cow and began slipping away back into the deep timber. Merlin would be the bull I would choose to pursue.
Knowing how tough it can be to get drawn for elk in a trophy unit, I was floating on air when I learned of my successful draw. Adding to my elation was the fact that I was scheduled to begin my hunt the first day of the rut. Friends and experts alike seemed to extend the same enthusiastic encouragement - practice, Practice, PRACTICE. Each coached me to shoot every day, wearing the gear that I would use in the field. No matter the conditions, rain or shine, standing, kneeling, and sitting, all coached me to get comfortable shooting out to 70 yards. If I could consistently shoot at long distance, they reasoned, close range shots could fly effortlessly and I would be mentally and physically prepared for anything. Rounding out my daily workout routine included core muscle strengthening mixed with distance running in order to develop the endurance to hike 5-10 miles a day with a fully loaded pack.
Perhaps the most profound guidance shared was, “Stop looking at the antlers and focus on three things – kill zone, kill zone, and kill zone.” These words would be a calming mantra that I repeated to myself with each set up and every practice arrow that I would shoot. Trophies West guide Christopher Dalley made clear his advocacy of getting into position early to minimize calling and to hunt the animals in transition, tracking elk from feed to bedding, from bedding to water, and water to feed. Following this basic game plan, we drove to our hike put-in spot near Sarpy Creek, Montana and set out on foot an hour and a half before sunrise on September 23, 2017. With stars as a guide and under moonlight-scarce conditions, Chris hiked us through dense, dark woods characteristic of this stretch of southeastern Montana.
Chris would take to his call only once. Moments later, a bull responded and closed distance toward our hide. I settled into position at a confluence of trails shrouded by pine and cedar boughs. Clear shooting lanes opened up with a 180-degree view. However, no shot opportunities presented throughout day one. A persistent low-pressure ridge bringing rain, wind, and unsettled air beset each day of the six-day hunt. We used two full bottles of liquid smoke, gauging the swirling winds, adjusting our approaches, and trying to keep our scent from blowing out the herd. Early rains quieted the trails so that we could hike 8-10 miles daily without the crunch of dry grass and brush. However, filled creek beds and ponds also meant plentiful watering holes and wallows, impairing our ability to predict herd movement. Some days, we were fortunate to have animals work nearby, only to be busted by a shifting breeze, the bark of a lead cow, and bulls making a hasty about-face away. Other days were swept by wind with no animals in glassing sight.
Before I knew it, day six, Thursday, September 28th, the final morning of my hunt, arrived and we made our way back to Sarpy Creek. As if by magic, all winds had laid down. During our predawn ritual of gear checks and spraying scent control, an auspicious shooting star blazed across the southern sky, crossing the constellation of Orion’s belt. The symphony of elk sound that greeted us on day one could be heard again miles off in the distance. Working quietly, we hiked into position, eagerly waiting for the herd to transition from feed and toward bedding. Fresh elk sign was all around, and I settled back in the deep cover of pine below the confluence of game trails where shooting lanes lay clear between 15 and 55 yards. As the sun rose over the eastern skyline, Merlin’s distinctive bugle sounded in the distance. Every five to six minutes, his call grew louder and closer. Eventually, his call was so clear that he sounded as though he was just yards beyond my hide. 459 grains of arrow was nocked, d-looped, and ready to go. My mind ran through the distances of each visible pine, cedar, and sagebrush, repeating the mantra “kill zone, Kill zone, Kill Zone,” as I recounted each yardage.
Then the unthinkable happened. The next bugle sounded from behind me. Peering over my right shoulder, I saw that Merlin and his cow had dropped in behind my flank. Without thinking, I pivoted, moved to full draw, centered on my 25-yard pin, and let my arrow fly. Time seemed to stand still. I heard the brief, unmistakable sizzle of the arrow in flight, halted by a “thwock,” and both animals faded below the draw. Seconds later, the cow reemerged at 50 yards, trotting downhill. Where was Merlin? Did I wound? Did I miss? And then out Merlin followed. As I nocked another arrow, his gait slowed. He took a dozen more steps, crumpling motionless. Chris emerged from a deep cedar grove, arms outstretched in victory, signaling that I had closed the deal. From the distance, we sat, glassed for movement, and cautiously approached to see that my four blade 125 grain Stinger-VAP arrow had made a clean double lung pass-through. I had taken my first archery Rocky Mountain bull – Merlin – a 6x8, 406” giant.