For the third time that morning, I caught wind of it: a sour, slightly sweet odor beneath the dust rising from the piñon and juniper, almost an afterthought. The smell was strong enough to stir recollection, but not strong enough to command attention—a dead smell.
Bull elk get wounded while vying for affection this time of year, both by hunters and each other. I had made a poor shot the morning before. I hit the bull but not lethally, and we quit tracking after a half day of clear evidence and due diligence: no blood, strong strides. If we’d found the arrow, I’d have felt even better about giving up the stalk. Making that final decision to walk away is tough. In all my years hunting and guiding elk, I’ve had to quit a track only once or twice. I hate it. Doing so was especially tough on a hunt like this one.
I got a last-minute opportunity to put my name on a non-refundable New Mexico elk tag. Bryan Broderick, a friend and owner of Day Six arrows and broadheads, had teamed up with Dirk Durham of Phelps Game Calls to buy landowner tags that are valid through the entire unit. Jon Gabrio, a buddy of all involved, had also agreed to come along for the experience. Their plan was to meet in New Mexico with a pile of gear, pick a spot somewhere on public land, camp, and hunt through the 10-day second archery season. All was on track—gear packed, tags purchased—when Dirk took a couple of nasty falls and injured his shoulder. Had this been a draw tag, he could have possibly turned the tag back into the state, but this was a private transaction between him and the landowner, so Dirk could either eat the tag or transfer it.
Few people can take 10 days off on two days’ notice, but I’ve got a reputation for saying yes in these sorts of situations. Not that last-minute life rearrangement is easy for me, but I’d always dreamed of hunting elk in the Southwest, and I traded a pile of promises to sympathetic co-workers. There are benefits to sharing desks with fellow hunters.
In New Mexico, landowners can sell the tags distributed to them by fish and game. These tags are allocated by calculating both the amount of acreage a rancher owns and the amount of wildlife those acres support. They are intended to compensate ranchers whose cattle must compete with native wildlife for forage. What started as an effort to add a few cents per pound to ranchers’ profit margins has turned into a lucrative and competitive bidding war, since these areas happen to house huge bull elk. The tag I had in my hand cost over $6,000 and was valid on both private and public land. Needless to say, a price tag like that leaves the majority of hunters with postage prayers, hoping to pull one of the few tags remaining in the general lottery.
New Mexico greeted Bryan, Jon, and me with storms far heavier than the expected afternoon monsoons. The roads ran like rivers, and opening morning found us tucked in our tents listening to more adventurous (or possibly careless) hunters attempting to navigate the mix of ranch and forest service roads. The telltale rhythm of engines revving high then low, then high, then low, signaled trucks trying to rock themselves free of mud.
When the weather broke late that afternoon, the wind had pulled just enough of the slop from the roads to encourage us to attempt a hunt. The fog-hidden ridges reminded me that I hadn’t downloaded the hunt area on my phone. The giant bull we walked up to at 60 yards made me forget about the lost morning. The sudden and violent mix of lightning and torrential rain made me thankful that we had left the high ridge only minutes before.
Huddled under a scraggly piñon pine, rain smacked mud so hard that the New Mexico grit fountained into our ears, eyes, and hair. I thought of that old Oliver Stone movie, “Platoon.” Driving back to camp that night, the roads flowed with mud. Every mile presented challenges: ruts, sink holes, lakes of indeterminate depth. I gripped and clenched in the passenger seat of the side-by-side. Sleep came so easily that it seemed the mud helped weigh down my eyelids.
A washed-out opening day isn’t how anyone imagines starting a hunt, especially one that haunted my dreams through my dead-broke guiding years. But, given a choice, I’d rather hunt the morning after a three- or four-day storm than the opener.
By 3:00 the following afternoon, we had mixed it up with six different bulls, one of which was a beautiful 5×6. His main beams stretched beyond the 50-inch mark and finished in twists resembling wisps of smoke. I cut loose a long, lonely cow call mid-afternoon, and this bull erupted out of his bed on the opposite canyon wall. I may have woken him so suddenly that his drive to reproduce erased all other cognitive function and drove his 600-plus-pounds out of the safety of his bed, down the steep ravine, and up the opposite mountainside.
His singular focus drew him to the high, thin alpine cover where I hid. He just kept coming, despite a much larger six-point bull emerging from the timber to challenge him. The two bulls locked antlers in a deafening crash. With a single twist of his head, the larger bull pivoted clear, and the five by six continued uphill in pursuit. Jon set up 50 yards behind me to play the role of cow. The bull, ears and head high, chest and stomach heaving from his fight and climb, stopped 25 yards away, studying the hillside above me. He turned, cautious now, completely broadside, twisted pine limbs blocking his vitals. I relaxed, knowing that I had put myself in the wrong position, and watched as he regained his faculties. As adrenaline and testosterone flushed from his blood stream, his brain started to function again.
As the bull with the smoke-like main beams turned back down the mountain, an unexpected arrow from Bryan hit high on its chest, exiting his back near his spine. I made 10 quick steps to a rock outcropping above the pines to try to keep eyes on him. Then the evening monsoon arrived. Sheltered under a sparse pine, Bryan relocated the bull back on the opposite hillside. We watched him climb a rocky saddle and disappear into the next drainage. The scouring, torrential rain erased all evidence of the shot and subsequent situation. There was nothing left for our trio to do but cuss the weather, cuss our luck, and grind up the mountain toward our tents.
There was no bourbon passed around a campfire, no stories, no Jack O’Connor or Hemingway scene—just food, thanks, and restless sleep.
In the dewy morning haze, Bryan set up on a high glassing point, hoping to find the previous night’s bull on his feet as he moved from feeding to bed. The sickening alternative, of course, would be finding a cloud of ravens and turkey vultures. He wished Jon and me luck as we headed toward the valley with the bugling bulls.
Jon and I stayed below the crest of the ridge, following the bugling in the basin. When we achieved a clear line of sight, we found two groups of cows separated by a series of small, steep grassy ridges. Large bulls paced within each group of cows. Satellite bulls hovered around the periphery, thinking better of crashing a party they hadn’t been invited to. One particular bull drew our interest: He stood close to the largest bull and his cows, punishing a tree with his long main beams. He sported five points on one side, six on the other and they seemed to wave at the tails almost like wisps of camp smoke.
“I think that’s Bryan’s bull,” Jon said.
“That is Bryan’s bull!” I replied. “Imagine having an arrow go through your chest and out your back one night, then waking up the next morning and using your neck to try and tear a tree out of the ground”
We praised the bull’s ability to survive, praised his strength, but never said what we really meant. We were happy the bull lived, happy our suspicions that Bryan’s shot was fatal were wrong, happy Bryan would not find circling buzzards.
The two groups began to drift toward heavier cover, and the bugles lost some pace and intensity. Long, pointed, angry screams became parting remarks.
“Do you think we can sneak through this meadow without being seen?” I asked Jon.
“I don’t know, but it’s worth a shot. If we do, we’ll be right in between those bulls”
The slope resembled a football field tilted on its axis, yellow bunchgrass dotted with bristlecone and foxtail pine. We began our decent, keeping the twisted pines between us and the elk as best we could. While my chest tightened with adrenaline, I realized that this was just another day in the mountains for the pines, likely a thousand years old at the birth of Christ. I’m not the first hunter to use them as cover to cut the distance on game. How many have these trees shielded? How many have they yet to shield?
Jon and I paused at the beginning of each stretch of exposed ground, encouraged by the wind in our faces and the continued bugles below. As we crept into the bottom of the drainage we ran out of cover, and the bulls moving to higher ground would soon gain the advantage. We had no choice but to try to lure the bulls from their bedding routes. One bull had already passed above us, and stood hidden atop the first of the short, steep ridges, but another remained below. That’s the one we turned our attention to, hoping to catch him as he worked up the hill.
Jon tucked deep into the shade of a foxtail pine, and I hunkered 40 yards below him, between the last bugle and Jon’s cow calls.
At Jon’s first soft, pleading mew, that of a lonely lady who had split from the herd in search of the bugling boys, the bull above us responded. This was not part of the plan. No matter, I reasoned, a little competition often leads to mistakes. The bull below erupted with a long guttural chuckle and a series of choked notes.
Easy, I thought, be patient and see what happens. Listen for any hint of the path this bull will take. Patience, patience, remember to breathe.
Another cow call from Jon brought a resounding bugle from below, a long, hoarse chuckle, then the choke of the bull spitting wind. Movement caught my eye from above. The uphill bull stood on top of his steep ridge, surveying the scene. My position exposed, I resisted the impulse to grab the binoculars for a closer look. Stay still, I reminded myself.
Then the bull dove off the ridge toward Jon’s lonely cow call. I hadn’t anticipated him coming down and had no available shooting lanes. Time to move. Ten steps put another gnarled pine at my back. I estimated the bull’s path, the likely intersection of elk and arrow, at 25 yards.
Rocks tumbled downhill and the bull from below responded with an angry bugle. Again, I caught movement, not from above on the path I had predicted, but to my side. The bull stood panting with his head behind a tree only six yards away. Despite the proximity, this scenario was not a “gimme.” He had stopped short; the gap was too narrow; he’d have to move and stop again in a perfect position to offer both a chance to draw my bow and a clear shot to his lungs.
The bull screamed and stepped forward. I diverted my eyes slightly, as though he might somehow feel my presence. He stopped and I looked up—only five yards away but standing just a step too far forward. I drew back but only had a shot at his guts.
This was the moment when I finally ran out of patience, the moment when I broke, the moment that would ultimately lead to a hard lesson.
I stepped to the left, forcing the situation. The bull, startled by movement or sound, spun and headed uphill. I could tell by his body language he would stop, just for a moment, but he would stop. I attempted to pivot with him, attempted to hold, then I let the arrow fly too soon, let it fly seemingly without my full consent, jumped the string.
Instead of finding the crease behind the shoulder, the arrow hit high and back. The bull launched from the clearing, arrow dangling from his side. As the nausea spread, I pictured a bull fight. I’ve never been, but I’ve read Hemingway, seen pictures of small spears, pics, protruding from the shoulders of a frightened, furious bull. That’s how my arrow looked as the bull ran, not fatal but sad, not deadly, but painful. Heated by self-disgust and rising bile, I started removing clothing, jacket, bino harness, calls. I placed my bow gently on the ground, controlling a toddler’s urge to throw it or break it over my knee.
Jon found me in the gullet of our painful little valley. He had watched the elk fly over the small series of steep ridges and disappear from sight.
“Shot looked high and back,” said Jon.
“It was; it was a really bad shot,” I replied. “Congratulations though, that’s the first bull anyone’s ever called in for me.”
We waited, listening to the bulls down the valley. Eventually I put my harness back on and stuffed my jacket roughly into my pack.
“Let’s go grab my arrow,” I suggested. “Should be within 10 yards or so. I watched it hanging off his side as he made the turn around that tree.”
The tracks were easy to find. The monsoons we cursed had wiped the ground clean, making new prints stand out in slick dirt. Still, it wasn’t a continuous line. We’d hit some hard ground, or a patch of brush where the tracks disappeared, and we’d pick them up again 15 or 30 yards later. Jon and I working together, one walking ahead while the other methodically stayed on the prints. Leapfrogging I always called this method.
No blood, just long, stretched out prints like I imagine a thoroughbred horse at the derby makes. No breaks, no beds, no standing around, no decision making, just flight. And no arrow. Eventually, we crossed a rocky spine, and the tracks vanished. We searched, in retrospect half-heartedly, telling ourselves that nothing about the shot looked fatal—the dangling arrow, the stretched-out tracks, the lack of blood. We’d tracked a quarter of a mile without finding a single drop of blood. After the scouring monsoons, we were in a tracker’s paradise, but no damned blood and no damned arrow. He’s gone, we told ourselves, hardly wounded.
We decided to keep hunting, and in so doing we eventually cut the bull’s tracks again. Still no blood.
“That elk is hauling ass for the next county,” Jon said.
“Man, I wish I could find that arrow,” I responded.
We worked a couple of other bulls that night, got close to a beautiful, long-tined, young six-point and managed to cut off a massive old bull who passed by at 45 yards. We guessed he would measure somewhere in the 370-inch range, a true once-in-a-lifetime elk, but I was in no hurry to fling another arrow.
Jon and I walked up the steep slope leading to the saddle and camp, bulls ringing in the valley below. We talked about food, we talked about how damned close we’d come, and we talked about how this elk activity—their responsiveness to calling—was not going to last.
The next morning found us in that saddle well before daylight, joined again by Bryan who seemed to step a little higher knowing that his bull had been located and deemed healthy. We listened to bugles, fewer than the day prior, but the big bulls were there and that’s what mattered.
The little valley went to sleep quickly that morning. We shed layers and made a plan to work the steep, timbered sides of the ridge for bulls that weren’t quite ready to bed yet. We walked into the wind, toward the bedding area where I had the big bull at 45 yards the previous night. At every opening, the three of us would call back and forth with light cow and calf calls, sometimes in unison—pause, pull grass, pop branches, imitate a small group of cows talking amongst each other as they browsed in the timber. We’d be patient then move.
On our second setup, I caught the smell. At first, I thought it was me, and made a mental note to bathe in the next stock tank I came across. When we moved again, the smell hit me, not in my nose but in the back of my throat. Jon, who had been walking just ahead of me, reacted at the same time.
“You guys smell that? Something’s dead,” he noted.
I thought back to a story Bryan had mentioned a few days earlier, that a hunter he had bumped into had shot and lost a bull somewhere in this area. Maybe this was it?
Then Jon turned, excited, and said, “I see it, Cal, it’s your bull!”
It couldn’t be. My bull was still on his feet. He hadn’t been fatally hit. We went over it. Case closed.
The smell was stifling, heavy; it hung above the animal and mixed with my sickness. The bull lay with his feet underneath him, antlers up to the sky, chin on the ground. On his left side, too far back and too high, was my arrow, not at all how I had remembered seeing it last, not dangling from his hide like a limp picador’s spear, but angled sharply forward and buried maybe a foot deep. The bull’s eyes were closed, like he had just found a nice spot in the sun, laid down to nap, and never woke up. There was no blood on the bull’s hide—my bull’s hide. The only liquid appeared to be bile, and it had left a champagne-glass-shaped stain down his hide about ten inches long.
I slid a knife down the spine, thinking that if some meat were to be salvageable it would be on top. If not, the least I could do was open the hide so the scavengers would have an easier time eating the 600 plus pounds of spoiled elk carcass that lay bloated and whistling in the New Mexico sun. My bull.
For some, archery hunting carries a negative stigma. More than once, I’ve overheard bow hunters referred to as “wounders,” disrupters of elk herds who poke them with sharp sticks before the general season rifle hunters come in and clean up the mess efficiently and ethically. Wound loss is a real byproduct of any form of hunting. The state of Colorado estimates that for every 100 bulls in a unit, 15 are going to get wounded by hunters, die, and never be recovered.
Those are real numbers, facts, statistics that I’ve read and believed. But you can’t smell them, can’t lay your hand on their bloated hides, can’t wiggle your own arrow back and forth inside of them listening to the putrid gasses escape with the sound of a balloon deflating.
This type of stuff doesn’t happen to me. I don’t take bad shots. I pass up good situations until I get perfect situations. I’m not one of those numbers. Yet, here I sit.
I cut the head off of my elk and left his meat to a host of critters that aren’t me, my friends, or my family. It is awful. It is a waste. I feel like a poacher. I feel it was avoidable. The antlers will remind me of this lesson. Separating the carcass from the head took all of five minutes whereas, the separating of the meat from bone, the packing and strain of hiking the meat up through the saddle would have taken the three of us into the late evening. The aching muscles would have lasted days and the meat the better part of a year. Antlers are trivial.
Call it hubris: I let my cumulative knowledge get in the way of the basic rule of tracking. If you shoot at or shoot an animal, it’s your animal. If you have sign, you follow it. I can hear an old outfitter I used to work for saying through his cigarette and mashed nose, “Pard, that old bull deserves a hell of a lot more than that.”