Looking back on September is always bittersweet for me. Regardless of whether or not I’ve filled my archery elk tag, those thirty days are always the highlight of my year. Countless hours of shooting my bow, tuning gear, running hills, and scouting new country culminate in a vortex of bugles, close encounters, and sore muscles. Despite the innate difficulty associated with bowhunting elk, I am by no means alone in my obsession. I am thankful for a strong network of friends that share in my affliction for elk hunting, and as much as I hate to admit it, social media has helped me develop part of that network. That being said, the collages of hunting pictures hanging in a small town gas station will always hold a sense of nostalgia for me.
My season had been eventful, but I hadn’t had a shot opportunity after the first three weeks. On the last Friday of the season I had stumbled upon a trail of fresh sign. I worked my way along the overgrown logging road, as the musky smell of elk became increasingly overwhelming with each step. The road ended, but a small gap in the bushes lead me to a beautiful creek bottom that elk had been visiting with great regularity. A twig snapped loudly under my foot as I walked, triggering a sharp grunt of skepticism from a bedded bull, about 100 yards below me. My heart raced as I fumbled to knock an arrow and pinpoint his location in the thick brush, before letting out a sultry cow call. I could hear the bull hesitate before crashing through the timber as he stepped into sight. My bow was drawn, my bubble was leveled, my breathing was calm, and he was standing motionless at 30 yards after I’d stopped him with another soft cow call.
I’m always amazed by how calm everything is in the moment before the shot breaks. It’s one of my favorite feelings in the world. I watched my arrow spin towards the bull, as he looked inquisitively in my direction. The shot looked as good as it felt, and the bull whirled around before taking off out of sight. I was in absolute shock, everything had happened SO fast. It takes a while to process these encounters no matter how many times you’ve done it, but an overwhelming sense of relief began to wash over me. My legs and hands were shaking from the adrenaline, and I sat down to digest everything that just happened. I love experiencing this moment alone, being that every emotion is so incredibly raw when there isn’t anyone to share it with. I couldn’t believe I had finally gotten a shot off with three days left in the season, especially after how quickly it had all come together. I backed out, laid on the logging road, looking up at the massive old growth trees of the Oregon Coast, waiting about an hour before getting up to retrieve my arrow since I hadn’t heard him crash.
I walked up to the spot that the bull had been standing at, expecting to find a red arrow buried in the ground or a nearby tree. My heart began to race as I realized there wasn’t a drop of blood on the ground, and my arrow wasn’t where it should’ve been. I broadened my search and quickly found the arrow buried in a half-rotten stump, at an angle that didn’t make sense. The arrow was clean, and my happiness quickly dissipated into shear panic and disbelief. I stood in the tracks of the elk, looking back to the spot I had shot from. As I scanned back and forth, I noticed a freshly broken branch hanging directly in the path of my arrow, and a fresh brown scuff on two of my vanes. I hadn’t seen the branch from where I shot given the thick underbrush, and it had caused my arrow to deflect just enough to miss the bull. I could have sworn I’d heard “the noise” of my arrow entering the chest cavity, but the reality was that it was the sound of my arrow slicing into a damp, half-rotted stump. It’s a gut-wrenching feeling knowing that I’d missed, especially on a shot I could make in my sleep.
I worked all year to be prepared for that moment, and by no fault other than my own, had let the opportunity slip between my fingers. Although incredibly disappointed, I was relieved that I hadn’t wounded the elk. I sat down on a log, running the shot through my head repeatedly. The vibration of my phone quickly snapped me out of my haze, and I opened my texts to see a picture from a co-worker that had just arrowed his first elk with a bow. There’s a conflicting range of emotions knowing that a friend found success while you were sitting under a dark cloud of your own disappointment, but I couldn’t help myself from being excited for him. I shot a text back, and worked up the motivation to climb out of the creek bottom with hopes of relocating the same bull.
I searched for him over the last two days of the season, eventually accepting the fact that I had a new addition to my list of bulls that keep me up at night. Sunday evening marked the end of the Oregon archery season, and I slowly made my way back to the truck in defeat. As I passed a gate near the exit, I could see someone heaving the final load of meat into the bed of their pickup. I climbed over the gate and stood in disbelief, realizing that the elk in the back of his truck was the same bull I had missed Friday morning. His rack had a unique character to it that couldn’t be mistaken. I talked with him for a while, and congratulated him on his success before jumping in the truck to head home.
I’ve had my fair share of success over the years, but this was undoubtedly my toughest season yet. I find comfort in the fact that I gave this season everything I had, making the most of every hour in the woods. As nice as it would be to replenish the freezer with some of my favorite meat in the world, season’s like this serve as an invaluable lesson for a hunter. If you’re only goal is harvesting an animal, you’re going to be disappointed more times than not. Take the time to enjoy the entire body of work. Early mornings that bleed into late nights, having the freedom to see what’s over the next ridge, and countless miles on your boots and truck make for some of the best memories as a hunter. You can throw money at the latest and greatest gear every year, but there is no substitute for time spent in the woods, even if it means eating a healthy portion of tag soup. Like many hunters, it’s time to kick the dog out of my spot in bed, and get back to the drawing board.