October 28, 2010
By Steve Zabransky
My Easy Path To A True Trophy Elk Took 26 Years
By Steve Zabransky
To fully appreciate this hunt, we have to go back 28 years. It was 1977, the first year I purchased a nonresident Montana archery license, a year I'll never forget for two reasons: It was the year I missed on a bull elk and hopelessly became hooked on hunting elk forever, and it was the year I married my wonderful wife, Marilyn.
Marilyn and I live in Washington State, but my elk expeditions have led me to places such as Idaho and Montana nearly every September. Marilyn, to her credit, has never complained once. How could she? She knew I was an elk hunter from the get-go -- I had already secured my Montana license before we even got married, which was in July of that year.
The four-yard elk happened on September 15, 2003. I was hunting in Montana with my longtime friend, Jerry Bianchi. Jerry had been with me on nearly all of my Montana and Idaho hunts. This particular adventure occurred on the very first day of our hunt.
The day started normally -- us eating our morning cereal, making sandwiches for lunch and leaving camp before dawn. Because this was the first day, we decided to stick to a trail and not attempt to gain too much elevation. We weren't down the trail too far when we heard a bugle from across a drainage. It was 7 a.m. and shooting light was starting to appear. We needed to be on higher ground to confirm the direction of the bugle before committing, so we quickly proceeded to climb. The bull bugled again on his own, which gave us a fix on his position.
We hurried across the creek in an attempt to gain elevation on the other side. Climbing higher, I let out a bugle and received an immediate response. We quickly moved toward the bull. I bugled again to confirm distance and direction. I got the response I needed. We were moving in each other's direction. Soon, the finesse of cow calling would come into play.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the story, I have become hooked on calling and hunting elk, preferably large elk. Back when I first started there were only a few elk calls available, with barely any instruction on how to finesse the large beasts in close. I used the traditional elk whistle, and when grunting through various tubes became the ideal method, I thought I had found the solution to taking big elk.
Then bugling and cow calling with turkey-diaphragm calls became the primary method. Using the turkey call came fairly easy to me, because I am also an avid turkey hunter. Now I had even more weaponry in my arsenal to challenge the mighty elk. Since then, I have tried numerous elk calls. However, I still rely on a traditional-sounding elk bugle for initial contact, followed up with various cow calls for close-in work.
WAITING FOR THE BIG ONE
I had taken a four-point elk -- my first Montana bull -- and several small six-point elk, but then I started to pass on these smaller elk to seek the challenge of big bulls. I was ready to come home empty-handed, if need be. I had passed on five- and six-point elk before because I was set on finding the ideal trophy -- a bull in the 300- to 325-class range -- and ended up with nothing.
A good example was the year Jerry and I elk hunted in Idaho. Walking across a steep ridge, we heard an elk answer my bugle. The wind was blowing in the bull's direction, so we quickly circled around and got below him. As soon as we got into position, I let out a cow call. The five-point bull headed straight for us, stopping a mere seven yards in front of our natural blind. I never got a shot off, but ever since that elk-hunting incident, Jerry and I have referred to that spot in Idaho as the "seven-yard hole."
Another elk, which also happened to be on the first day of a hunt, came our way in Montana. Jerry, again, was with me. We worked uphill, stopping occasionally while I let out a few soft cow calls. On maybe the second or third stop, a bull answered quietly and I knew he was heading our way. Jerry and I promptly dropped to our knees, which we do almost instinctively any time a bull is near. Soon a nice, symmetrical six-point bull stopped broadside in front of me at 20 yards. Unfortunately, the bull wasn't very large. Jerry and I had not worked out any signals at that point. I wasn't going to shoot, and poor Jerry was wondering why I wasn't taking this perfect broadside shot. He could have gotten off a shot, but not knowing what I was thinking, we both just knelt there and watched the six-point walk off! You might think that we always hunt together like this, making these blunders, but we actually separate and hunt individually during most of our hunts. Jerry has taken two very nice six-pointers by himself over the years.
BACK IN MONTANA
After the bull's last response to my bugle, I knew we were headed in the right direction and would be able to get close to him. We continued toward the bull, closing the gap. I then stopped and let out a couple of excited cow calls. The bull responded with a soft and slow bugle -- he was getting closer and I knew things would happen quickly. I scurried toward the bull and found a kneeling place that had a small opening in front and to the left. Jerry knelt about 20 yards behind me. I let out another series of cow calls through the grunt tube, hoping the sound would get the bull's attention.
It worked! The bull's heavy breathing grew louder as he drew nearer. But instead of coming toward the middle of the opening, where I was poised for a perfect shot, he came in on the near side where the smaller of the two openings was located. I could barely make out the bull coming in, but I did see plenty of branched antlers coming my way. Fortunately, there was a tree between the two of us as he approached. With his head behind the natural obstruction, I decided to draw on the bull realizing that he was going to be really close, really quickly. As he stepped from behind the tree, I took a quick glance at the end of his antlers and saw that they were deeply forked. The bull then stopped with his left leg back, quartering slightly toward me and unaware of my presence. It was now or never. He was only four yards away.
I aimed at his lower chest and to the right of his leg, then released. Instantly my arrow buried to the fletching as the bull lumbered off. I must note that I shoot instinctive with a compound bow that I cant to the left -- in my opinion, the perfect combination for a shot like this. I immediately let out a cow call, forcing the bull to stop momentarily at 25 yards before running off. Next, I let out a bugle to keep things as natural as possible, attempting to let him know it was only another bull that had surprised him.
I gave Jerry the thumbs-up as I figured it was a good shot. Jerry saw the whole event unfold as the bull ran right in front of him. He emphasized that it was a "big bull." We quietly discussed the situation, and because we didn't want to take any chances, we decided to wait a while before we went after the bull. We left the immediate area, taking our human scent with us. We were even able to flag a good trail out of the timber for the pack out. Normally, in this rugged area and the distances we sometimes hunt, we usually figure on hiring an outfitter to pack out the elk by horseback. Because this was only the first day, and our spot where we felled the big elk was close to the main road, we decided to pack out the elk ourselves.
First we had to make sure the elk was down. After about two hours, we returned to the scene and began looking for sign. We spotted a good blood trail a short distance from where the elk was first hit. The trail was easily followed to where the elk dropped, less than 80 yards from where I shot it. The arrow had penetrated all the way through with the broadhead protruding out the other side. I unscrewed the broadhead, which was still sharp, and pulled out the arrow. The arrow had gone through the rear lung, angling rearward. The broadhead had done its job. The bull was an impressive 6x6 and very symmetrical. The right and left beams measured exactly the same -- 52.75 inches. His number five and six tines were nearly 15 inches long. After the required drying time, the bull scored 363 7/8 gross with a net of 359 5/8. We were able to pack him out that day by 6:30 p.m. Because there was still time left in the day, we also decided to take the meat into town, 30 miles away. What a first day of hunting!
I shoot instinctive, as I mentioned, using a tab. I also might add that I'm one of those funny fellows who's right-handed but left-eye dominate. I switched to shooting left-handed many years ago, which wasn't as difficult as I had first anticipated. Several people have asked me if I was afraid or shaken up with a big bull that close. I can honestly say no. Because I have had many close encounters over the years, I seem to be able to just settle down and make the shot when needed.
I don't mean to make these moments sound easy. They are not. This trophy class bull, taken in the first hour of the first day, had actually been a 26-year venture for this elk hunting archer!