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The Original Silver Bullet
Rifle Magazine
September - October 2003
Volume 1, Number 5
Number 5
On the cover...
Cover photo Mike Barlow
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A Two-Year Quest for a Big Bull with a Hand-Made Long Bow

Hunting can be important, very important. Too often, a dead critter becomes the measure of success. Too often a tape measure is the dividing line between great and ordinary. But from time to time, throughout the history of hunting, there have been great and monumental hunts.

This is the story of one of them. It is a story of an English long bow, hewn from a tree and its arrows made from ancient cedar. It is a story of hours that turned into days and then into weeks of intense hunting. It is a story of many close encounters with one of nature’s most grand, the bull elk. And most important of all, it is a story of courage, the courage not to take a shot. It is a story of the flight of one, single arrow that undoubtedly changed a man’s life.

I was “only” a spectator, only a listener to the tales and an observer of the supreme effort. I am glad of that, for some things are almost better seen than done - and I did not have to make the shot, under the immeasurable pressure. Pressure - perhaps we should define pressure. It was not the pressure to impress onlookers, it was not the pressure of the need to kill a trophy. It was the pressure of the need for perfection, the pressure of loosing an arrow at a huge bull, knowing there was no margin for error - the pressure of knowing the slightest mistake would leave the grand monarch miserably wounded. It too was the pressure of the challenge after nearly 50 days of hunting, the pressure to face yourself and know you were up to the task when it finally came. Yes, I     am glad it was not me.

Pressure builds with anticipation, and anticipation builds not so much from total failure but from almost success. Close encounters, many of them, haunted the hunter. They ranged from “seeing” a big bull at a distance, to times when an arrow went on the string, to ones where the bow was actually drawn. The full draw with a long bow is a hair-raising experience, for unlike the easy-to-hold compounds, one only draws a long bow when you really mean it. Their pull does   not “drop off.” Instead, the archer with a long bow must hold every ounce of its weight at  full draw.

Rich only drew twice in two years. The first time was when he had stalked the pair of giants in heavy timber. The distance closed to 50 yards when the bulls began to feed downhill. The tawny ghosts moved through the trees, a glimpse of an ivory tine or a chestnut leg said they would walk into the slight gap in only a few seconds, walk into the gap at less than 30 yards. The fight begins - to still your crashing heart, to stop the intense trembling in the fingers as the great bow bends and the razor edge touches your knuckle. One step, one more step is all it will take and the prize is yours. But in the way of old bulls, they become vapor.

A big, old bull elk makes the infamous whitetail buck a white mouse. The monsters are usually as nocturnal as vampires, their sixth sense runs at full power, and they rarely make mistakes. This fellow did not; he shunned the gap, detoured through the young fir and was not seen again.

The story begins with the bow, that began as something looking much like a long fence post, about 30 pounds of it. The wood was cascara, one with the greatest similarity to yew, which is the wood of choice for English-style long bows. Cascara is a lightweight, white wood with very fine grain structure. It lends itself to bows that are narrow and rounded, and ones with relatively heavy draw weights.

Days passed and the pile of chips on the shop floor grew, chips from the knife and rasp. Finally the chips turned to fine dust as the last bits of wood that did not resemble a finely tuned, 70-pound long bow were removed. Then there were the tentative moments, the first shots, to see if the wood was up to the tremendous stresses. Wood bows have a nasty habit of blowing up if they are not perfection, and just a bit lucky to help the perfection. But this one showed no signs of distress, and it drove the heavy cedar with unerring accuracy. Now it was time for many loving coats of hand-rubbed oil finish and the leather handle wrap. Then it was time for the endless hours of practice.

I watched the red-and-white fletching sing through the air, watched as his arrows fell in small groups, groups that usually were well inside my own patterns. On the good days, he needed some new arrows, as a heavy shaft would splinter the one in front of it. Most of the time a softball was in real trouble at 40 yards, a golf ball could be the target at half that distance. And yet, out in the real world, the 40-yard shot seemed impossibly long. In my own world of revolvers, a 100-yard shot at an 8-inch target is child’s play; I am dismayed when I miss. But, put a buck or a bull at 100 yards, and they seem to be miles away. So it is with a bow. While 40 yards at a burlap target is easy - when the mistake does not matter . . . when the target cannot walk out from under the arrow . . . when every nerve you have is not vibrating like a base drum . . . when all these realities happen - 40 yards might as well be in next week, that is, for those real hunters, real archers who refuse to risk the wounded-and-lost syndrome that plagues too many with less courage.

The practice continued through the summer and not just practice at the shapeless burlap with plastic-film stuffing. One of the greatest mistakes any hunter can make is becoming familiar with his target, with his home range, with the known distances. These do not exist in reality. The answer is something that I believe every archer should pursue: soft, blunt points and the wild world. Now targets are everywhere. A stone is perfect, or a pine cone, or a patch of moss, while the ground squirrel that almost always outruns the arrow adds a touch of reality.

Then too there is the test of the broadheads. Most fly much like the standard field points, but your mind needs to know, for confidence. Knowing the arrow will fly correctly is paramount. Big, 160-grain Grizzly two-blade broadheads replaced the field points on a pair of tried-and-true cedar shafts, and they flew as if there had been no change. Then the edges were honed and stropped. They need to be sharp: deadly, ugly, cut-you-when-you-look-at-them sharp.

Rich hunts simply with minimal equipment. He does not understand why you might want to carry a dozen arrows, or clutter the light, elegant bow with some plastic arrow holder. Instead the fragile back of the bow is protected with a layer of buckskin, protected from the single, spare arrow he carries in his left hand in front of the bow. He thinks, and I agree, there is only one shot at a bull. It is finished when you loose the arrow, finished for better or worse. The spare arrow is there just in case, just in case the wildest of odds might demand, or offer, a second shot. Too, he knows gadgets like rangefinders are a joke. When it matters you must do the business; moving and fussing with a thing like a rangefinder, when you are less than 40 yards from a bull, will have only one result - and it will not be an elk steak.

We watched from afar across the Sheep Creek Valley as August turned into September, and the quiet, gentle bulls turned into warriors. The leisurely pace of summer turns into a boiling caldron, while small trees are torn asunder to the tune of bugles, grunts and roars echoing in the hills. Most of the show begins in late afternoon, when the face of the big ridge falls into shadow.

From a half-mile away, through a 10x binocular and an 80mm Swarovski scope, one finds an occasional elk. It might be a cow, but more likely it is one of the many bulls who haunt the ridge and face, one who has decided to stir from invisibility. He will probably graze, but he may attack a young fir or tamarack tree, often not being satisfied until its 4-inch stem is shredded and the “enemy” is felled. Elk seem to hatch out of nothing, for the young timber is open and we think we can see every inch of the ground, but one after the other they appear. Sometimes there are five or six in a bunch as the quiet afternoon turns into the circus of evening. Many of them are six-points, while the smaller two-year-olds will keep a respectful distance and spar with each other. Bugles begin to ring, some high melodious ones of the younger bulls and some of the deep brutal roars of the old-timers.

Elk are streaming down the face now; little rivulets of cows turn into small streams and sometimes into torrents of several hundred as they move from their beds down to the stream for a drink before they move into the bunch grass meadows beyond. The rush hour is fun to watch, and the beautiful young bulls with their lightweight 6x6 antlers are magnificent - but there is another.

He begins as a piece of a leg, or perhaps a tell-tale glint of ivory poking out of a patch of dog-hair timber. The beautiful cows walk by his nose, but he does not move. We begin to see him, piece by piece, and he is still as a statue. That there are several feet between his ear and the seventh point says much; that he will not allow the light to touch his old white hide says it all.

While we come to know many big bulls almost by name, this is all we will know of this great giant. We will not see him again. It is this way with the great bulls, those who are perhaps 8 or 10 years old. They are nocturnal, secret and very wise; they do not make mistakes. But the time for idle watching is over; September’s Song has begun. Tomorrow morning, amidst the songs of the cows and the roars of the bulls, the hunter would bend the great bow, set its string and steal into the darkness.

Now, for me, the waiting began. Waiting to hear the stories in the evening, watching the hill trails during the day for his early return that would signal success. But day after day that message did not come. Instead there were the “close” and “very close” encounters. At the end of the great saga, he said he could have easily taken 40 “big” bulls with a muzzleloader Ð an honest, iron-sighted, 100-yard muzzleloader. Had he been the kind to irresponsibly sling arrows, he probably could have “hit” 20 of them at the 40- to 50-yard range. Sometimes the great bulls were wonderfully close, but the many necessary details would not all fall into place at the same time: the range, clear air to the target and a perfect angle.

Waiting in ambush at wallows was one very effective method. In a place with many elk, it is not as easy as one might think. First and foremost there is the wind, the changing eddies of early autumn   afternoons, combined with the greatest unknown: Where would the elk be at any given moment? When the wind was treacherous, he would avoid the stream beds, for one elk nose, touching the taint of man, is all it takes to clear the valley for that evening and perhaps many more.

On one fateful afternoon, all was perfect, and he slipped into the firs, on the edge of the old growth. The once beautiful, clear bubbling springs were now nasty mud holes. The surrounding area was smeared with black stinking mud, while the tender foliage (trees less than a foot in diameter) were torn and gnarled. This was the playground of several bulls, some that tore branches from trees much higher than a man can reach.

Life is full of choices, as was this afternoon. There were nearly a dozen wallows in a 400-yard stretch of the stream bed, but two of them were the largest and most used. This combined with the trail through the timber, small firs for cover below the prevailing wind and a clear shooting lane made this place the choice. After a quiet hour, the bugles began at some distance and gradually grew closer. Before long there were five bulls within 100 yards and one, by the sounds of his voice and rending timber, was closing the distance.

Rich’s back was in a small clump of baby fir, the wallow was 20 yards to the east. The bull was coming. He began to break out of the heavy timber into the more open edges and, yes, he was a mighty bull: old, heavy and long. But he was also lucky or wise; instead of walking into the pure open and playing in the chosen wallow, he veered slightly to the left. This left him partially covered by trees, and he stalked to another wallow 50 yards farther upstream. The bull took a stand in a small thicket and began to play.

After a considerable length of time, Rich could tolerate no more and decided to stalk, to try to get rid of the last 20 yards. He moved silently inches at a time, moved like a leopard. Every foot made the shot more and more real. The thicket was such that he could not see the elk, nor could the elk see the hunter. One moved in silence, while the other made a tremendous sound show. It was close now - very, very close. Rich said it was odd, difficult to describe the sound that made his ears ring. It was apparently one of those moments when wetting your pants seemed the best course of action. The bull had circled, closed behind the hunter and bugled at him with all the volume he could muster - and then melted into the trees. Tomorrow was another day.

. . . and another and another and another. The days wore on, and that season ended. Close, very close, but still the arrow remained on the string. The deep snow of winter passed, the little spotted calves were born, and the glorious days of September came once again. Some evenings he spoke of the bunch of six bulls, bedded where they were impossible to approach closer than 70 yards, or the spike that nearly stepped on his toes. There was the fine young five-point that posed at 20 yards and then there was the great monster that fed into the soft green carpet beside Sheep Creek.

This time it was a sure thing. A big bull, a very big bull, trailed off the ridge to the stream bed. No trees grow for about 20 yards on   either side of the stream, where it becomes a beautiful, long meadow that winds through the timber. Again Rich set himself for an ambush at a wallow, and this time there was only one. He was backed by two little trees on the east side, while the bull approached with all the caution of a wild cat from the west. He came silently through the timber and tiptoed into the open. At that moment there was a pretty good 35-yard shot, but the elk was facing the bow, which meant there was no shot at all. He needed to turn, to move closer, to walk to the wallow. He had two ways to get there: one straight across the open, the other behind a few little trees.

I did say, they do not make mistakes. He moved behind the trees - but there was a slight gap only 20 yards from the broadhead. To shoot there, Rich had to pivot about 45 degrees to his right and draw. The bull had to take five more steps. As Rich turned in slow motion, the edge of his soft fleece pack brushed the tip of a pine bough. The sound was unimaginably small, a muffled, natural brush. But it was enough to tell the bull he was not alone. He did not panic, but every muscle in his body tensed. Rich was close enough to see them flex and watch the hairs stand on end. The bull froze, listened and slowly and quietly melted back into the timber.

Days passed, then the first week, then the second. Virtually every day brought excitement. Many brought close encounters. I saw the edges of discouragement, mingled with the growing sense of challenge. I saw an almost fatalistic attitude, I saw him wonder if it were really possible to take one of the Elk Song giants, honestly, with a long bow.

The days remained hot and dry, sometimes touching our summer extreme of 85 to 90 degrees. The ground was crunchy, and the elk were lethargic. It was tough hunting, stacked on top of tough hunting. He saw the huge bull across the valley, feeding quietly in a meadow and apparently alone. Was he an old-timer who had already grown tired of the women?

Whatever the cause, this was a great prize. With luck, the archer would only have to defeat one elk, instead of the often many bunches of 10 to 200. After a half-mile, the distance was critical. Rich moved from one Christmas tree to the next, one silent step, in the bowl of cornflakes, at a time, until at last he saw the elk again. The bull was still feeding in the meadow, and from the last cover to the elk was about 50 yards. The elk only needed to move 20 yards to offer a perfect shot, but he was rooted to the spot. Gentle cow calls had no effect, which contrary to popular belief is just the effect they normally have - unless they circle and come in on the downwind side, just like coyotes. Bulls just do not rush up to other elk very often. Cows choose the bulls, old bulls do not want to fight or chase. This fellow was not budging, at least not until the sun began to touch his meadow, when he packed his baggage and stole, upwind, into the trees.

Rich said about then he was sure it was impossible, but he climbed a little and looked back above the rim rocks into the meadow across the valley. It was late now, nearly 10:00 a.m., but as sure as the rain, some 150 elk with five big bulls were trailing across the meadow and moving toward the dark timbered hillside. The race was on.

Rich needed to move about 500 yards across the wind to intercept the elk. He needed the luck not to bump another on the way, for one panicked elk is enough to cause every one within sight or sound to hurry. If these hurried there would be no chance. But this time the luck was holding, and he reached the place where two big trails merged, the place where the thick timber began between two forks of the stream - but the elk had won the race. The big herd of cows and the bugling bulls were already across the stream and climbing the mountain to their bedding ground. Rich watched and listened for a time, enjoying the sight but not the chagrin of losing. He was turning on his heel, beginning the walk back to his camp for a midday siesta when the timber shook. An old “groaner” bugled in the stream bed not 70 yards away.

The first elk he saw was the next to last, a calf - a wee, exquisitely annoying calf - who was trooping right up the very same trail where Rich had taken his stand. Seconds later a brush-patch worth of antlers materialized. The largest bull of the lot had chosen to bring up the rear, to be sure no cows were left behind. He also moved on the trail, moved toward the broadhead. But the calf was well in front of the bull. He was going to bump absolutely into the hunter; he was going to ruin perfection. But the calf bumbled slowly, and the big bull made a slight detour, off the trail and into the little clearing Rich had chosen to make his shot. The hapless calf was on his own, and right then Rich said he had two thoughts, “What would it be that went wrong this time?” And “I am about to have to draw.” He says he has no further recollection of the calf, but knows the little fellow heard the wind from the feathers.

Archery poses an immeasurable dilemma that breaks all the rules of good still-hunting. When it is right, when you are closest, when everything is perfect, you have to do the most absolutely wrong thing a hunter can do: You have to move, you have to draw the bow. The bull passed the last three little pines and stepped into the open. Every tine was long, the fifth and sixth points swept high and wide, and the deep curved brow tines screamed at the hunter. This was it; this was the bull. The razor edge touched his knuckle at full draw, as the bull looked away and paused for parts of a second. The red-and-white feathers left in a perfect arc, the hunter’s mind moving so fast he could see each revolution of the shaft. The elk began to step, and the arrow moved in slow motion, seemed to take forever to cross the little clearing, seemed to fly for minutes to cover the 18 steps. And then the solid chuucck as nearly 700 grains of cedar and steel drove into the massive chest. Rich’s mind and heart knew the hit was not perfect - a little high and one or two ribs more to the rear than perfection. It had centered his lungs. The bull bolted and ran like a racehorse following his nose.

Now there was the wait, the agonizing, painful hour of pure wonder. That terrible forever that one must wait without moving. Rich did not do this perfectly, no man could, but he held his place for 15 minutes and then crept to where the bull had been standing when the arrow struck. He crept to the first, then second and to the fifth track and there the crimson spots began. Now he finished the hour and then took up the track.

The blood was not copious, but it was okay for about 50 yards - then it dwindled to the occasional speck every 10 yards and stopped altogether. The horror of failure, the worry, the chagrin must have been unimaginable. Rich very wisely gave the bull more time and returned to get me to help. Tracking here borders on the impossible. Somewhere between 200 and 500 elk had passed in front of the bull this morning and some had even passed behind, over his tracks.

We began at the orange flag, the last sure spot of blood, began on our hands and knees one step, one foot at a time. With this we were able to find two more drops of blood and to make another 50 yards of progress. Then another herd crossed his trail, and it became impossible. I was not sure of much at this moment: only that big bulls are one of the toughest creatures on earth, that this one had been hit almost perfectly, that we know the mountain like the backs of our hands and the general direction of the bull’s flight. About where we lost the track he had stopped running and began to move at a fast walk, but he had  held his beeline course. We began with that.

His run was down the little stream and slightly downhill. The first search was to cover the next 500 yards of the stream and the dense jungle on both sides. We looked under every rock and in every black shadow. Looked for the unusual track and hoped for the drop of blood. None of them came. I cannot go where Rich was then, but I can tell you that I knew if we failed, he would never hunt elk again.

The next hope was to pattern search, to comb every inch of several hundred acres of dense young timber, and so we began. We moved parallel to each other, maintaining about 10 yards between us in sweeping arcs that followed the contour of the stream. The first round trip produced nothing. We were about 300 yards from where we had lost the tracks on the second circle, well uphill of where I would have expected him to go, when we found the arrow.

It was still whole, in fact like new except for the blood nearly to the fletching. There were a few drops of blood again, but his tracks had been plowed under by other elk. About all we knew at this point was we were 400 yards from the hit and at least knew for a certainty the direction he had taken. Rich stayed with the arrow and studied the ground to try to pull the trail further. I made a little loop ahead.

My eyes did not want to accept at first, did not want to allow the great sweeping beam, touched by the sun, to be antler instead of a pine branch, but the binocular would not lie. In a dark shadow, in the absolutely typical place for a big bull to hide, were the great antlers and the huge, smooth palomino side. I whistled our old sign of success - with far more emotion than ever before.

Montana X-treme
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