I have bowhunted nearly every big game animal in North America and people often ask which hunt I think is the best. Hands down, an archery elk hunt in the Rocky Mountains in mid-September is tops. Just walking, hiking, and camping in the Mountain West is a thrill. Crisp mornings, golden aspen leaves, and spectacular scenery capped each day with a blazing campfire are near heaven. Add a 600-pound animal with daggers on its head that screams and bugles, and you have the ultimate hunt.
Public Land and Easy Access
Public land hunting in the West is very different than the Eastern experience. Eastern states sell licenses over-the-counter and anyone who is old enough can buy one. This means, that a public tract of land can have unlimited deer hunters which leads to a very bad experience, especially if your goal it to enjoy a serene day in the woods. Western states have far more public land than Eastern states and they strictly limit the number of licenses sold and that number is based upon the population of a specific animal. Booming populations mean more tags, while a disease or starvation die-off creates fewer opportunities.
Drive-to Hunting Spots
My oldest grandson lives in Boise Idaho and I embraced our first chance to hunt together. He was 14 which meant I could fly to Boise, rent a pick-up, and drive to our hunting unit. As a resident, he was able to buy an elk and deer tag, while, I drew a non-resident bull elk tag. Eastern hunters often associate elk hunting with pack horses and dizzying heights in search of elk. Ironically, our plan was to drive to the end of a gravel road, make camp, and hunt the next morning. We would be hunting with three friends who had scouted the area, yet this was our first time. As we lay in our tent that night, we heard elk bugling all around us and the next day seemed very promising.
Dealing with Altitude
When daylight finally arrived, bugling had ceased yet we spotted elk moving above the timberline. In early September it is common for elk to graze in open meadows in the wide open spaces and retreat to dark timber as the day grows warmer. Climbing mountains with an emergency backpack, binoculars, rangefinder, water, and a crossbow is a challenge. An intelligent person would arrive in the area two to three days to become acclimated to altitude before hunting. My head said that made sense, but my heart said, “Bologna.” Luckily, my grandson carried my pack on the final climb to a nearby saddle. I planned to sit and watch this promising mountain crossing while he and a buddy attacked the high country.
Geared for Success
Idaho does not allow crossbows in most of their archery seasons, however, I have not been able to draw a compound bow since my late 60’s and qualified for a crossbow permit. Even with this opportunity, the bow had to have a zero magnification sight and I opted for a Burris FastFire III sighted in at 25 yards. My bow was the Barnett Hyperghost that shot a .209 arrow in excess of 400 feet per second. I counted on the slim shaft to increase penetration with a Wasp 100-grain three-blade fixed head. Although the bow and sight system had traveled 2500 miles through airports, over dusty roads, and up and down mountains, the sight held true on the discharge target I used at the end of each day.
Jase, an older grandson joined Zack on our third day and I planned to watch a wallow that was well hidden and discovered during a previous scouting expedition by my friends. Our plan was to head to the wallow as a group and let the young bucks do their thing while I cow-called and watched the wallow. Setting up was a challenge and I had to bail on my 20-yard ideal as an ambush. If I was that close, elk would probably see or smell me so I backed into a fallen tree that was 50 yards from where I expected the elk to approach. I was at that spot for less than an hour when I heard hooves pounding and was delighted to see a string of elk running at full speed in my direction. I didn’t need binoculars to see a mature bull at the end of the herd.
Opportunity at Last
The elk disappeared into the forest several hundred yards away and I hoped that they would filter toward me. Suddenly, a cow elk poked its head over the horizon and then paralleled the ravine I was watching. She paused for several seconds, searched for danger, and began walking up the mountain. She was followed by another and a dozen more, one at a time. This gave me the perfect opportunity to plan my shot, learn the exact range, and anticipate that the bull would follow the same movement pattern. Sure enough, a big 6-point rack broached the horizon, paused, and turned broadside. The Barnett crossbow came with a Triggertech Trigger and I used it to full advantage and launched. Without a lighted nock, I couldn’t determine a hit or miss, but felt good about the shot. Suddenly, my two grandsons came crashing down the mountain behind me. They were watching the elk parade and gave me the thumbs-up sign. “I saw the arrow hit and it was perfect,” he exclaimed. He rushed past me, dashed up the far side of the ravine, and quickly found the blood-soaked arrow. Seventy-five yards later, we came upon the bull that had expired in seconds. Not only did I take a great bull on public land, but had two enthusiastic young men to help pack it out.