Buzzard slipped past me in the thick scrub poplar and turned south back towards a deep ravine above the Pine River. It was mid morning and we’d been wandering in a zig zag pattern for hours, bugling as we went, listening carefully and hoping to kick up a bull in the jungle of aspen that had grown up as the result of a small fire about a decade past.
We’d been here before. The previous year we’d sat above the river with the Preacher and the Old Man watching the same ravine we were headed towards now. Then too, we were bugling out into the vast expanse of the Rocky Mountain foothills, waiting patiently, hoping for a glimpse of the elusive six point bull that was required to fill our tag.
Each of us had taken a spot along the river on the point of two south facing gullies that ran into a larger ravine which made its way West into the river. It was mid morning and I was on the eastern flank of one point with my dad directly to my right and so on and so forth until Buzzard was looking out over the river itself.
We’d gotten a few calls from the bottom of the draw as we approached so we sat for a while to let things settle. It was early September and the sun was making its way higher, warming the air as it went, and the Old Man, being what he was and tired from the hike in had found his seat of moss and grass more comfortable than it ought to have been in the mid-morning sun and drifted off to sleep.
I rolled my eyes in frustration, he was too far away for me to wake him without making a ruckus so I pulled my cow call from my pocket and began to chirp. Almost immediately I got a response from about two hundred yards beneath me but the old man never budged. I thought, “Oh well. So much for my trigger-man”.
I chirped on the call again and the bull squealed back and began moving up the hill. Finally, as he cleared a patch of poplar and willows I could see that it was a young raghorn. I decided to play anyways and chirped again and the bull climbed towards us at a slow trot straight up the bank directly at my dad, who, unfortunately, was still busy studying the insides of his eyelids.
At that stage, there was nothing I could do but sit and watch it all unfold as the bull covered the distance from the bottom of the draw to the Old Man in just a few seconds. When he was about ten yards from my dad both animals sensed something wasn’t correct and all hell broke lose. There were hooves scrambling, dirt being tossed and a rifle that made a lovely ark from the seat of my father’s lap into the grass between him and a confused and frightened young bull.
Truthfully, I had no idea a tired old guy like that could move so fast but the Old Man was on his feet so quickly and scrambling for his rifle that if Guinness had been there I believe he would have set a record of some sort. The little bull was faster by quite a stretch, mind you, and by the time the my dad had composed himself and collected his little 7mm-08 the raghorn had vanished back into the river valley.
That excitement ended the morning hunt, but the hilarity that ensued after the spectacle had passed was worth upsetting the entire river valley for. Sometimes the best hunts are the ones when nothing gets shot. Sometimes.
Photo of a photo. The Pine River Valley.
And then there are times when you wish you could rewind the clock.
As we pushed through the thick stand of poplar I would bugle, then we’d wait, move some more, then stop and bugle again.
Finally, through a batch of poplar as thick as bamboo, we came upon a small creek where the thick bush finally opened up into mature timber at the top of a rise on the opposite side. We stopped and looked for a spot to cross and waited for a minute. I bugled again. Almost immediately a response was heard from atop the bench across the creek.
Buzzard looked at me and nodded. Elk hunters do best when they work in teams. Their quarry is smart, even in the rut, and if you call too aggressively they’ll often spook and make tracks for new territory. So the tactic is simple but effective. I’d move off, back into the heavy timber and call again in a higher pitch thus giving the impression that I was a young, satellite bull. Buzzard and the Preacher would pull up a patch of willows on our side of the creek with a view of the hillside across from us, the hope being that my calling would suck the dominant bull in on top of the hidden hunters as I bugled from a distance.
The other two settled in and waited for me to move into position. About thirty to forty yards back in the thickest, nastiest batch of young poplar and willow I could find I called. I hit the higher end of the pitch spectrum and began to beat the bush around me with a big stick, mimicking the sound of antler on limb and leaf.
The bull responded. It was a deep, guttural roar ending in a series of grunts and growls intended to let me know who the boss was. If you’ve never heard it in the wild I can tell you there is something about bugling elk that borders on the mystical. As he squealed and grunted the hair on the back of my neck began to stand and I could feel what felt like electricity moving through my skin. He was king of the hill all right. I thought, “Buzzard had better do his job. I’m already married”.
I responded with a chirp and a cow call, then another light bugle.
The combination of cow calling and bugling enraged my competitor. His response was long and drawn out and getting closer. I was about to respond with a third call when Buzzard’s rifle interrupted our conversation.
The sound of the 358 Winchester filled the woods for just a moment then was swallowed up like a black hole by the dense timber. Then there was nothing. I waited a few minutes for a second shot but it never came.
As I broke out of the trees along the edge of the little creek I could see Buzzard and the Preacher standing nearby, across from a game trail that came down the other side.
But no elk.
“What happened,” I asked?
“He came out bugling and tearing up the hillside twenty yards in front of us. He was pissed. All I could see at first was antler. His head was down and dirt and grass were flying everywhere. Then he stood up and turned as if he was going to leave and I hit him before he could. He went down right over that ridge”, replied Buzzard as he pointed up the trail.
I started doing the math. It was roughly 11:00 AM. It was about two clicks back to the road and we weren’t getting a quad in. It was too thick and too rugged for a bike. Between the three of us, it would be close to supper by the time we butchered that bull and packed him out.
“You sure he’s dead,” I asked?
“I hit him square,” said Buzzard, “there’s been no noise since we heard him hit the ground. The 358 smoked him”.
I thought about it for a bit. Normally we’d wait longer on an animal in cover like this. Better to make sure it was dead than to push it and make it run. But…
“Are you sure,” I asked him?
“Ya, pretty sure.”
The Preacher shook his head in agreement.
I slung my rifle and took a run at the creek and jumped to the other side. As I hit the ground I grabbed some grass and started pulling and climbing my way up the trail to the bench above me. As the grade evened out I rounded the top and stopped.
The bull, only ten to fifteen yards to my left, in amongst a patch of spruce, snorted, got to his feet and beat it before I could get my rifle off my shoulder.
I didn’t like to swear in front of the Preacher, but, “son of a bitch”!
As Buzzard made his way up the trail behind me I turned and looked at him.
“You hit him high. He’s headed for the river.”
The look on Buzzard’s face was one of frustration crossed with mortification. I’d known him for close to a decade at that stage. He was a good man, a good hunter, and an ethical person. I’d never seen him wound anything, and come to think of it, I’d never seen him miss either. I could tell by the look on his face he was upset. I didn’t say anything else, there was no need and besides, I felt partly responsible being as how I was the first guy up the hill.
We spent the rest of the day tracking that bull through mature aspen, patches of willow and blocks of spruce swamp. We’d lose the trail then backtrack to the last drop of blood, then start again. Back and forth, back and forth, examining every leaf, every track. But the woods were lousy with elk so the bull’s prints would always get lost in amongst the others and the blood trail eventually just dried up and disappeared.
Finally, after spending the day wandering the banks of the Pine it started to get dark. I looked at Buzzard and said, “It’s time to go”.
He took off his hat, scratched his big Indian noggin and nodded .
It was a quiet ride home in the truck with the same thought running through my mind over and over again all the way back to town:
“I know better.
I should have waited.”
And it was true.