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Bittersweet October 1994
Brad Birdsell  

This past Archery Elk season will excite as well as haunt my memories for the rest of my life.

I sat on a tank opening morning and listened to at least two herds in the surrounding hills. The bulls were bugling back and forth and cows were mewing constantly. A herd of cows went past the tank at about 80 yards and disappeared up onto a ridge. I couldn't sit any longer.

I followed after them and got up on the ridge, but couldn't see any of them. The bugling and cow mews continued, however. I was not sure what they were up to, so I gave a short series of mews on my diaphragm call. I received an answer instantly, a bugle from the next ridge. My heart raced, my mind was a little slower, but I managed to find some cover in a group of small ponderosas.

My answer to the bugle sounded like something in death throws due to the fever. I knew I had to relax. A couple of deep slow breaths did the trick.

The bull answered again and it had covered at least half of the original distance between us. I spoke to him one more time, but the response this time was hoof beats. About 60 yards out I could see a bull leading a train of cows, directly at me! He came in quick with his head down and antlers high over his back. I did not count the points because I was starting to worry about his intentions, adding me victoriously to his harem. Besides, I had a cow tag in my pocket, so my attention quickly focused on the 20 cars behind the locomotive.

He started to circle around me at about 15 yards with one cow following. I brought my bow back when they both looked back at the other cows which where hung up about 40 yards out. They both started a slow trot away broadside to me at 20 yards, so I let the arrow fly.

I heard that familiar thump of a hit so I sat quiet and watched her trotting away, but there was no blood on her side. While I was pondering where the ?#@%$ my arrow had gone, some movement caught my attention. When I looked around, the rest of the herd was standing right behind me, the closest about 10 yards away. They must have decided, as did the bull, that I was not one of them, because they all thundered off in his direction.

I found my arrow stuck in a tree in a line that would put it two feet behind where the cow was when I shot. My heart sank because when my arrow falls off of the new TM hunter rest that I am still adjusting to, it flies way right. In the excitement of the moment I bobbled the arrow.

I couldn't believe the experience I had just encountered. I sat down and played it over in my mind a few times. I shoulda, I coulda, . . . no, it was great just the way it was.

I went back to camp and told everyone my story, twice, and then headed back out to a canyon I had been eyeing on my topo map. When I got about half way down the canyon, the fresh sign was everywhere. I went into still hunt mode, I could sense they were close.

Something was moving toward me, but the underbrush was thick and I couldn't make it out. I froze against a huge dead snag watching the approach. It was a bobcat, he stopped at 30 yards, he knew something was not right. He was sweeping the area and when his eyes reached my motionless camouflaged figure he locked on and studied me for 10 seconds before turning and slipping away as silently as a shadow.

I was patting myself on the back for still hunting into such a crafty predator when I heard a twig snap. Dropping to my knees, I searched the area, finding what I was hoping for. The long dark legs of elk could be seen through the undergrowth. They were all around me, I was right in the herd.

One cow angled toward me. She would have to graze in about 10 more yards before her head would go behind a fallen log so that I could draw my bow. It seemed like forever but she did just that. She was now 15 yards away and could not see my movements. I kneeled up and drew in one motion, picked my spot and released. The arrow hung in the 15 yards of space for an eternity, then the fletch disappeared into the animal.

She moved off thirty yards at a trot and stopped, motionless, legs locked, for ten minutes. I settled in for the standard 30 minute wait. My arrow had passed completely through the cow. I could see it through the binos and was suddenly concerned about the shot placement because of the quantity of blood present. So, I moved up to where the arrow was to investigate and to get into position for another shot. I found very little blood on the ground and the arrow. I looked up and she was starting to move. I felt sick. I had no shot but I could see the exit wound as she disappeared. It looked like it should have caught the tips of the lungs.

I moved up to the spot where she stood and there were two blood pools, one frothy orange and one dark red. I determined that the shot must have hit one lung, the liver and then exited on the gut side of the diaphragm. I was feeling much more confident and decided to wait another 10 minutes.

There was no obvious blood trail leading away from the pools where she stood. In fact I could not find any blood other than the pools. I was on hands and knees searching in semi-circles in the direction she had headed. I followed several sets of tracks up the canyon before they mingled with others. I looked for several hours and found nothing. That sick feeling was back.

I marked the area and headed down the canyon to find a road to access the area. Finding it, I went back up to go get help. Upon coming back through, I found the blood pools scattered and a huge nearby log torn into pieces. I looked up and saw a dark figure moving up the canyon through the brush. Bear! And I was standing in blood with a bloody arrow on my quiver. I could hear him in the bottom of the canyon tearing something else up and I wondered if he had found my elk. Heading out, I kept one eye out for my elk and one out for the bear. I had an arrow nocked the entire way.

Back at camp it was almost dark and nobody was back yet. They all came in at about 7:30 with news. Ken had killed a nice cow and field dressed it, but could not find the animal again. The decision was not too difficult to make but still painful; the odds were much better in finding an animal that had been located once already and the odds of spoilage was less for a gutted animal.

At 2:00 AM we gave up the search for Ken's elk. The animal was found the next morning and we finished processing it and transported it to cold storage. My animal had been hit 14 hours earlier and I knew there was no hope for salvaging the meat.

I continued to hunt the area where I shot my elk and found it on the third day of the hunt, by smell. The carcass was two hundred yards from where I shot, laying behind a giant windfall less than 50 yards from where I had walked in my search. Something had been eating the remains so I did not get a close look for fear of finding a bear guarding it.

I walked out of the canyon feeling like a complete failure as a sportsman/outdoorsman. I got close several more times during the hunt but could not bring everything together to make a shot. Maybe unconsciously I put up barriers to keep from getting another shot, I don't know.

Back in town we took Ken's elk to the butcher, excited about the future meals from "all that meat." The look on the butchers face squelched the excitement. He asked, "Was this animal left in the field over night?" He went on to explain how he gets 4 or 5 elk a year like this and there is nothing he can do with them because the meat is green. It's got to much spoilage from not getting cooled down soon enough.

0 for 2.

Ken and I have hunted for several years together. We have both successfully bagged several big game species. This year we put in many hours of preparation and training to bag our first archery elk. We were as ready as we could be to get in close enough for a chance. What we were not ready for, and had not fully detailed, was the post shot plan.

The Arizona archery elk season is very early and elk are extremely large animals. These two facts equate to rapid spoilage. It is imperative that the animals be processed as quick as possible. Learn from our painful mistakes, be prepared for the post shot work. More importantly don't take the shot if you are not certain that you can process the animal quickly. Minutes count after the animal is down.

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