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  • Jan Vaterlaus

Idaho Archery Elk Hunt 2020

In 2018, without a bow, I went on my first archery elk hunt with my friends Mike and Rusty Cook. On the first day we walked three miles in the dark on logging roads and trails to our starting point. As the rising sun was overtaking the darkness, I blew into my cow call not knowing what to expect. A stunningly loud raspy bugle erupted below us only a couple hundred yards away. I felt the power of the elk and the excitement of the hunt and was hooked. We later saw the big bull as the huge six point walked through a meadow evading our efforts.

Before the next season I bought a bow, a dozen arrows, and all of the other necessities and was ready for the 2019 hunt. We drove across the state and set up camp and were ready for several days of fun and excitement. Not much happened the first few days. I had seen a big bull laying in a dark secluded wallow but accessing him was impossible as I had to descend a steep cliff to get into range. Mike did arrow a bull and followed the blood trail until dark, marked the last known spot on his GPS, and returned to camp. During the night the rain came and poured and poured and poured. It was raining so hard that we got up late and drove to town for breakfast as hunting was not an option.

After the rain subsided, we went to the last known spot of the elk and tried to pick up his trail. We found two more small spots of blood and the trail went cold. We listened for ravens but heard nothing. With no trail to pursue we hunted our way back to the trailhead. On our way we bugled in two bulls but they saw us before we saw them and they disappeared into the timbered slopes. We called in one more bull and Mike was set up to take the shot. I was thirty yards back in the trees cow calling and Rusty was on an adjacent ridge not knowing which way the elk would come in. The bull stopped at 50 yards and stared at us knowing something was up but never really seeing us. Mike hesitated on the long shot after already wounding a bull on a similar shot. After a few minutes the bull walked away never to be seen again. It was an awesome experience. We hunted the same area for four more days always listening for the eagles, coyotes, and ravens on the wounded bull but never heard a thing.

On one of those days I decided to go exploring and climbed 800 feet to a pass that looked into a huge drainage to see if it was a viable area to hunt. After three miles of hiking and then climbing to the pass I rested and glassed the opposing ridges and slopes looking for elk or deer. It had snowed in the higher elevation during the rain storms so glassing was easy but there just weren’t many animals out walking around. I finally spotted a few deer but the main thing I saw was the steepness of the mountains and the tremendous amount of boulder fields and rockslides that made it a nonviable area for me to hunt.

I backed off the pass and side hilled across the steep face and jumped five bucks along the way. Although I was looking and moving slowly, I never saw them before they saw me. I dropped off the steep face and started down the trail. I bugled hoping to locate a nearby bull. I heard sticks breaking and the “thud” of footsteps coming closer to me but it was a cow moose. I cow called with her for a few minutes and practiced using my rangefinder and had her pegged at 50 yards. She finally had enough of me and walked back from where she came from.

I continued down the trail and out of the corner of my eye saw the back end of an elk moving toward the creek. I stopped and watched until he crossed and I saw antlers. It was a rag horned five point but the perfect elk for a first-time archery elk hunter. I nocked an arrow but knew the elk would hear the Velcro ripping if I went for my rangefinder. I had just seen the moose at fifty yards and this looked similar. I set my pin at fifty yards and waited for him to come into clear sight. I came to full draw and let my arrow fly. He lunged forward long before the arrow would have arrived causing me to miss. He ran off and I spent the next hour looking for blood and my lost arrow but found neither. In hindsight the range was sixty-three yards and my shooting lane was not nearly as clean as I thought it was during the adrenaline filled moment of the shot. I think my arrow hit a limb at the start of the flight alerting the bull and causing him to lunge forward. It was exciting and disappointing all at the same time but I had taken my first shot at a bull elk with a bow.

Throughout the next year I practiced with my bow and watched many archery elk hunting shows trying to pick up tips from those that are successful in the sport. I got in shape and was ready for the 2020 season. My son in law, Blake was interested as well and I gave him a bow for Christmas so he could join in the fun.

I drove across state and set up camp only to be met by rain storms the first night. Mike and Rusty were coming the next day so I was alone for a while. With camp set up I went to a familiar logging road to glass a huge open area. I spotted a deer but nothing else. As I sat there, I heard something above me and turned to see a cow elk running full speed across the face of the mountain with a six-point bull in hot pursuit. I could see his wide antlers catching on tree branches and he would shake his head to remove the broken limbs. It was an awesome way to start the hunt.

The next day I finished up camp and drove to town to get a cooler full of ice to have on hand for groceries or if someone was successful taking down an elk. When I got back to camp Mike and Rusty had set up their sleeping cots and were somewhere on the mountain chasing elk. I drove up the road to see where other hunters were parked, where they were hunting, and on my way back saw an animal in the road. At first, I thought it was a coyote but it had a long tail with a black tip. I quickly realized it was a mountain lion. I had never seen one before. He moved off the road into the bushes so I rolled forward looking for him. I finally found him behind one large bush and he was only ten feet away. He quickly moved through the brus and disappeared.

That night, Mike and Rusty reported that they had been in elk and had several bugling up the front side of the mountain. They did not get close enough for a shot but were enthused at the number of elk they had seen in such a short time. The next morning, they went to another area so I went to the adjacent area they had been the day before.

As I walked up the long canyon, I had three bull bugling to my right. I decided to climb the left ridge and get on the backside and move to the top of the canyon undetected. The plan worked perfectly as I crossed around the head of the drainage and descended on the bugling elk. I was walking down the ridge and could still hear the bull down in the canyon. I was in stealth mode and was making each step count when I spotted a bull coming up the ridge toward me. I nocked an arrow and stood ten feet behind the only cover I had in front of me, a small pine tree. I was able to silently get my rangefinder out and get a distance on two trees that he would walk by if he continued, forty-five and forty-one yards.

He stopped at around sixty yards and looked at me but I remained a statue on the ridge. I kept telling myself to breathe and be patient. During this time the bull I originally pursuing was bugling close enough to make the hair on your neck stand up. The bull on the ridge started walking again and was coming closer. He stopped once again to look around but could find nothing out of the ordinary. The little pine tree was adequate cover as he started to move again. His head went behind a tree giving me a chance to pull the arrow to full draw. I waited. He came into the open and stopped directly in front of the trees I had ranged. I had him at thirty-eight yards. I had his head and neck exposed but then he stopped. I needed him to take one more step but he was now the statue. The other bull bugled. I could not shoot until either he took one more step or if I could possibly take a step to the right. I could not hold draw any longer so I tried to slowly take the step sideways. He wheeled and turned and ran down the ridge before I could anchor a shot. Another shot opportunity squandered.

For the next few days, we hunted different areas with the same results but were always in the elk. As temperatures were rising the bugles waned. Blake arrived in camp and experienced the two worst days of the hunt. Mike had shot a cow so we now had meat in the cooler. With two days left, the temperatures dropped and fog rolled in. As we walked the logging road into the deepest reaches of our area, the bugling started up as it had been at the start of the week.

We quickly changed plans and went after the bulls. As we made cow calls, the bulls seemed to move away from us. Our plan was to get ahead of them and set up an ambush. Then it dawned on me that we could use the calls in our favor. I sent Blake ahead up the mountain ahead of the bulls. I ran back down the trail well behind where the elk were last located. I climbed the steep terrain and started calling trying to move the elk in Blake’s direction. I spotted a cow and heard bugling and loud barking from the lead cow so I started calling. Our plan worked perfectly as they moved in Blake’s direction.

Unbeknownst to me when Blake climbed into position he got into another bull with cows and was working on getting a shot on them. With all of the careful planning and everything working perfectly we still did not get a shot opportunity. I was climbing higher calling as I went always looking in the direction of the elk we were pursuing. I was on the edge of an opening and happened to looked back across the meadow and a big bull had me pegged. He was coming in and went behind a tree so I quickly moved into the pines. I waited but he never showed up. I never saw him again. I saw a few more elk during the afternoon but never had another opportunity.

It was a week of fun, excitement, learning, and disappointment. The thrill of being close to those huge elusive animals and hearing the power and volume of their bugles is intoxicating and addictive. I cannot wait to go again next year.


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