A Sisyphean task is one that seems almost impossible to complete. It comes from Greek mythology where the character Sisyphus is sentenced for his wrong doing to push a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down where he must repeat that task over and over. On every elk hunt I’ve ever been on, no matter the area, whether it’s an over-the-counter tag or the permit is one I’ve waited years for, there comes a time when the task at hand feels.. Sisyphean. Stalking in close on a mature bull elk, or calling him away from his harem is extremely difficult, and on top of that, you must then pick your lane, know the range, draw your bow while being undetected and then shoot a perfect arrow when mentally and physically your entire system is at a boiling point.
After a long hike, I climbed into my sleeping bag hours after dark on what was my 9th straight day of attempting to get within bow range of a mature bull. Even though I was exhausted and questioning my abilities and the likelihood of future success, I had the same twinge of optimism that I think every archery elk hunter clings to. What if? Just a few short hours before I had been 98 yards from a bull that I would have been ecstatic to take. I’d seen the same bull a few evenings prior, completely unaware, attending to his cows, on the opposite ridge a mile from me. I watched him until dark that night through the spotting scope. He had long, heavy beams and he was easily distinguishable due to the broken fifth point on his right side.
I laid there looking up at the stars recapping the entire scenario in my mind. I had been so close tonight on that same bull, so close. He had done almost exactly what I thought he would do. As I eased up the bottom of the creek, the thermals shifted in my favor as the sun sank behind me in the west. He side-hilled along, nosing cows and occasionally bugling. I moved in quietly, thinking he would walk directly above me. As I eased forward, focused on the bull I caught movement in my peripheral to the right and shifted my eyes. A spike and two cows had slipped in ahead of the herd and began their descent towards us and the creek. They froze, seeing my camera man, who stood motionless. I recall thinking how amusing the scene was to see a spike bull, his nose essentially hovering a foot over my camera man’s head as he stood there on the bank above us. He was so close I could hear him breathing. He was assessing the situation and the two out of place shapes cowering below him could not have felt right. I knew that the opportunity at the bigger bull was about to slip away. I stood, waiting for the worst sound any elk hunter can hear, that piercing bark of an alarm call. The bark never came, but he turned and altered his direction. The change in his demeanor was sufficient enough that the lagging cows and bull took note and rather than follow suit, they all moved up the slot canyon away from me. I followed as quickly as I could but once again, which is most often the case, the entire herd outpaced me and darkness fell with disappointment.
My 10th morning started with the same 5am alarm. I rolled over in my bivy and sleeping bag and searched for my headlamp in the dark. Finally finding it, I got dressed, boots on, and after a quick breakfast bar I started the hike down the creek bottom with the plan of finding the herd from the night before. It was quiet and hot that morning, very little movement in the woods and it was well after light when I heard the first bugle. The whistle came from across the canyon and I watched as a six point bull relentlessly pushed his cows up the opposite face and disappeared over the top. He clearly had no intention of lingering, he had a mid morning shady bed in mind. Even though to that point my side of the canyon had been silent, I decided to press on and move uphill, hoping that there were other elk in the area. A five point bull did eventually work below me and rather than come closer to investigate my calls, he also decided to drop into the bottom and move up the opposite side of the steep canyon. The temperature climbed into the 90’s and I decided to drop into the creek and attempt to play catch up on the dehydration I was feeling. I spent the afternoon huddled under the only shade I could find in the burned area I had been hunting, an overhanging cutbank that heavy spring runoff had provided. At 3 pm I decided it was time to make the climb to the top of the ridge I’d seen the elk ascend that morning. I surmised it may take me two hours to climb, which it did.
I topped out, completely drenched from the work required to lug a pack and bow up the steep face. I collected my breath and let out a high pitched locator bugle. Almost immediately a bull pipped off in answer further up the canyon. I closed the distance, bugled again, he responded almost as quickly as the first. I rapidly moved his direction, checking the wind every few minutes. As I approached a high point the landscape opened up into a sparsely timbered sage flat. In the shade of a lone pine I decided to test his temperature with a cow call this time. Again, he bugled, this time with more intensity and he was much closer. This bugle gave his location away and I moved now with a good understanding of the swell near the bottom of the flat where I figured he would be. I crept through the flat towards a large lone pine, hoping to make it into the shadow it cast. As I approached I saw movement and the shape of the bull began to appear as he worked through some aspen saplings towards the cow calls I’d been making. It only took me a split second to recognize him. I muttered to my cameraman, but mostly to myself “you’ll never believe who it is”.
From that point my entire focus shifted to the necessary steps that experience told me I needed to take. Range, grip, find the cover to draw, pick my moment, draw, anchor, relax, pull, relax, pull and keep breathing. He walked broadside within range, moving from left to right in the wide open. His stride placed him momentarily behind a small pine and I used the opportunity to draw. As he stepped out he turned toward me and he locked eyes on my camera man who was on his knees, pinned down to my right in the open flat. I had the range, my pin hovered over the spot on his chest and the shot broke. Time slowed down, the arrow rotating in flight.. cutting the distance quickly and disappeared entirely into his chest. He whirled, quickly moving for just a few seconds towards the direction he came, and then slowed to a walk, then crashed. The entire time, from the release of the arrow to his death, was over before I could stand.
In my experience, archery elk hunting is almost always the same. It’s a grind, it’s pushing a boulder up a hill, day after day, chasing the impossible, and then in a split second it happens. Ten days hunting and another two packing meat, hide, and antlers culminated and have given me memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life. My hope is that anyone reading this will find the cherished sense of accomplishment of pushing that rock.. of chasing elk hunting dreams. Those moments are so rare, but they live forever. Don’t waste them, push your limits, and good luck this fall.