feature By: Patrick Meitin | November, 18
After 25 years in New Mexico’s Gila region, I pulled stakes and settled seemingly worlds away in northern Idaho. Twelve years of failed Land of Enchantment archery-elk license applications made the decision to move an easy one, but the brutal fact remained that I was now in my mid-40s and facing the daunting task of starting from scratch learning foreign ground. Two Idaho seasons passed before I could shake the feeling of wandering blindly. It took time to amass a handful of spots where elk could be found semi-reliably (granted, I did arrive after a summer to find one of those areas turned to stumps and slash – the reality of living in logging country).
My backyard opportunities had evaporated, so I woke at 3 a.m., drove an hour and hiked three miles to access one of my “spots.” In this hard-hunted, over-the-counter unit, the remote honey hole has relinquished sightings of several impressive bulls. I set off through the wet, dark woods following the tongue of a Cyclops headlamp.
I arrived where I wanted to be at first light – a collection of flat ridges and benches hung high above a major river, but for the first time ever it was conspicuously quiet. It did not take long to discover why elk abandoned the area. The previous winter had been especially vicious with windstorms gusting to 85 mph, turning the rolling, open glades and their lush grass into a nightmare of toppled timber. I spent the morning climbing over and around interminable trees.
I eventually reached a familiar rocky point where an ancient burn on the opposite flank of the gorge was clearly visible across two miles of open space. The point traditionally marks the end of the line. Beyond is “The Abyss,” the confluence of two canyons creating a vertical pit from which emanates the faint hiss of a river and intersecting creek. I had bowhunted there on many occasions but had never invested more than exploratory pecks around its edges. Honestly, the place is downright intimidating. It exhausted me just looking at it, but I could detect faint bugling well below.
Despite the hours and miles behind me, and the daunting drop, I was feeling surprisingly energized. Lured by the siren’s song of bugling elk, I began quickly sacrificing altitude, though I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the hellish climb back out weighed heavily in the back of my mind. The original bugle was joined by another, and then another. I closed the gap, but as I neared the river its roar began drowning out all other sounds. I reluctantly regained some altitude hoping to get my bearings, but it had grown conspicuously silent.
One Trip Across
Another 3 a.m. wakeup – forcing the ATV-laden truck across torturous mountain roads and grabbing ground across ridges above The Abyss put me on the point by daylight. I was rewarded by distant whistling floating from misty bottoms. I contemplated the previous day’s ascent briefly, feeling it in my calves most especially, took a deep breath and plunged downward, sliding on loose, rocky ground while fighting through a wall of scrub 1,500 feet below before entering old growth and another series of loamy benches punctuated by sap-oozing elk rubs. I passed a monstrous wallow, moving confidently but carefully, tossing bugles into the bottom to encourage the continued “talking,” the bulls answering with crystal-clear notes but always somehow receding. At least three bulls were screaming insults from various points, so I chose the throatiest grunter, and though I never stopped moving, I also never seemed to gain on it.
The river brought me up short, the bull’s screams coming clearly from across the tumbling water. I slipped downstream and then up, finally discovering a toppled fir creating a questionable bridge across swirling water. I crossed gingerly and clawed up the opposite bank, finding a sloping bench of thronged second growth and charred stumps. A tan shape appeared. Tossing a Nikon 8x32 to my eyes, I discovered a decent yet uninspiring 5x5 bull. Another bugle arrived clearly from downstream, and I angled toward the inspiring music as morning fog was quickly burned away by a brassy sun. I was swimming in my clothing but could not stop for fear of losing contact. The clock was ticking, and temperatures were rising each minute. It was past 10 a.m.
The bull was close. I actually heard breaking brush as the bull fell back into the river. I bugled, received a retort after a long pause, and plunged in after it. It was ridiculously thick, slick and impossibly noisy pushing through interwoven evergreens, the river appearing as patches of flowing silver. The bull screamed and finished with rasping grunts. I responded and the elk countered instantly. It seemed impossible that I could not see it – the bull was so close!
Nocking an arrow, I slipped ahead silently, leaning around a red cedar at the river’s edge to find the bull up to its belly in the cooling water – a gorgeous 6x6 with ivory-tipped antlers the color of walnut meats. Crisscross alders prevented a shot, and then the slightest tickle of wind touched my sweaty nape. The bull roared across the river, throwing up water and digging up the opposite bank. I could see it clearly, all the while following it with my pins, but shooting through that crisscross brush was not feasible.
When the bull was gone, I became suddenly flushed and light headed. I needed to sit – to shed some layers mostly. I sat long enough that the bull resumed bugling, fading into the middle distance and rainbow trout dimples on the river’s surface. I noticed a grasshopper warming itself on a rock, snatched it up and tossed it into the water. The hapless insect was snatched up nearly instantly, but I was contemplating the climb out.
Two mornings later while staring into The Abyss, I confirmed the house elk were still absent. While feeding the rainbows I took a GPS reading (2,178 feet above sea level), and another after reaching the point (4,857 feet) and at the ATV (5,162 feet); a total gain of 2,984 vertical feet.
I had spent the cool hours dropping into The Abyss, then running up and down ridge points on both sides of the river until nearly 11:30 a.m., attempting to ambush the bravely bugling 6x6.
The bull remained one step ahead of me, tossing back gutsy rejoinders to anything I offered but refusing to meet me halfway. I finally surrendered to exhaustion, even as the bull continued bugling and fading into nasty-thick second growth. I had the foresight to pack a filtration bottle and lunch, so settled in feeding trout before falling asleep in the shade.
It was still sweaty hot when I set out around 4 p.m., climbing into the bowl where the bull was last heard, still-hunting thick stuff while offering frequent cow calls and occasional squeally spike bugles. No sale. I was convinced I had finally pushed the elk too hard, sending it packing. It was September 24, and I had time, but not the seemingly endless days that that were ahead of me when I began. The sun was settling behind high ridges when I started out. A long climb was ahead after all. If all goes well, I mused, I’ll be in bed before midnight.
I descended, crossed the river and was trudging upward when a bugle arrived from the opposite side – faint enough that I wondered if I was imagining things. I eyed the point above, the burn across the river. Somewhat grudgingly, I descended and crossed the river again, convinced I was squandering precious time. But on the opposite bank a bugle sounded clearly on the breeze.
While skirting a relatively open hillside of blackened stumps and scattered young firs, cow elk appeared at the edge of a long, narrow meadow several hundred yards away. As I watched with a binocular, the bull ghosted into view, head tossed back, mouth gapping. Its bugle reached me a moment later, and I dropped the glass and began weaving through scattered Christmas trees. Nearly jogging, a Carbon Express Maxima Hunter was nocked on the run. I reached the meadow’s edge believing I could hear hooves clattering atop rock, and produced a muffled, high-pitched squeal with the grunt-tube clamped beneath an arm. The bull responded; it was close, very close. I moved ahead in long, cat-sized strides, scanning thronged trees for patches of tan or churning legs. It was frustratingly thick.
Then antlers were glimpsed. The bull was looking over its shoulder, quartering away, a basketball-sized hole my only chance. There was no time to reach for the rangefinder. I jerked the bow to anchor, trusting instincts, framing its hindmost rib between my 40- and 50-yard pins. I lost the arrow on release but detected a watermelon thunk as the bull tucked its rump and bolted. I bugled again, detecting pieces of the bull ambling up a game trail, whereupon I began ducking and sprinting to clear a finger of crowded fir.
Nocking an arrow on the fly, I slid to a stop, drew the bow and leaned from behind cover to find it standing, watching its back trail, blood streaking its flank. I centered the vitals with an 80-yard pin and released an arrow, producing a crack like a fastball hit out of the park. Then the elk was gone, light fading quickly at the bottom of this crack in the earth. I was a long way from home.
I found the bull early the following morning, an incredible 600 yards away and well uphill. The first Slick Trick 125 had done the job, finding the liver and a bit of lung. The second arrow, a solid shoulder-blade hit, nicked that same lung and provided enough blood for tracking. It was one heck of a fine bull, at least by Idaho standards. But I had become used to that and was beyond happy to have it, as proud of that bull as any I have taken. Still, I could not help but stare back up that rearing point, knowing I was in for an excruciatingly long day following a toss-and-turn sleepless night. I had worked as hard for that bull as any I have taken, but the real ordeal had just begun.