|September - October 2003
Volume 1, Number
Cover photo Mike Barlow
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 natures 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
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 childs 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; Septembers 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 Ã 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.
Richs 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
. . . 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
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 hunters 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. Richs
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 bulls 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
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.