We had just taken a couple steps away from the bright green juniper when the big bull’s head emerged over the ridgeline. Pat, my guide, bleated a soft cow call and the bull screamed in response. As he raised his head to bugle, we slowly took a couple steps back to the cover of the juniper. Pat bleated again and then whispered he was fifty yards. I was directly behind my guide and could not really see the bull. In short order Pat whispered, “Thirty five yards, shoot!” I stepped out from behind Pat and the muscle memory from months of practice kicked in as my bow seemingly came to full draw automatically. The bull was rapidly closing and quartering toward us. He would soon spook. I had rehearsed this moment a thousand times in my head – Don’t look at the antlers. Focus on the target. Aim small, miss small! I placed my thirty yard pin just to the right of his breastbone and squeezed the release.
Anyone who has archery hunted big game knows that many factors must work in your favor to achieve success. Most of the time these factors frustrate our efforts, but that is part of what makes it so exciting and fulfilling when it all comes together. While I have enjoyed my many big game rifle hunts around the world, they are not quite as gratifying as a successful archery hunt. The additional physical elements combined with the intimacy of the game bring even more aspects of fate, or luck, into play. At the very top of my hunting bucket list had always been a bull elk responding to a call. This is that rare story where everything fell into place for one magical moment.
Fickle Finger One – I met Cole Benton on an Alaskan brown bear hunt in 2012. I had been talking to another hunter who showed me pictures of a couple 350-class elk he had taken with his bow. I asked him where he had hunted, and he pointed across the room at Cole. I spent some time talking to Cole on our flight down the peninsula. He provided me the contact information for his company, Grizzly Outfitters, and I followed up with Cole in early 2014. My son, Dan and I applied for Montana archery tags. As it turned out I was successful, but Dan was not as lucky. I arrowed a beautiful 14 1/2-year-old bull that scored 351 on that hunt.
Fickle Finger Two – In 2016, Dan and I applied for a Montana archery tag again, but were not successful. Those points increased our odds for 2017 and we applied as a group. When the drawing was announced, we had successfully drawn elk tags, but the system indicated we had not been issued licenses. Technically, that is impossible since a license is required to apply for the tag. I contacted Montana Fish and Game and was advised that there had been some type of computer glitch impacting about twenty applicants. They indicated we would indeed be granted licenses but would have to wait several weeks. Cole was obviously concerned as he wanted to make sure he filled his hunting slots, but unsure we would have licenses. When the licenses were issued in late May, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
Fickle Finger Three – After months of practicing, both Dan and I had equipment problems the week prior to the hunt. His sight cracked and my D loop broke. Thankfully, these were easily repaired. I shudder to think if that had happened as I drew back on the bull of a lifetime.
Fickle Finger Four – Cole’s hunting area straddles the Wyoming and Montana border. He takes hunters on both sides. Typically, he has Wyoming rifle hunters while a few others are hunting archery on the Montana side. A couple of weeks before our scheduled hunt, a huge brush fire was started by lightning on the Wyoming side that burned more than 130,000 acres. The fire was extinguished just a couple days before our arrival. Most of Cole’s lease on the Wyoming side was burnt. Fortunately for us, the Montana side was less damaged. In effect, the fire pushed many of the elk across the border into the area we would be hunting!
Fickle Finger Five – On arrival we were introduced to our guides. Pat Monroe had guided me in 2014. Since we were familiar with one another, he agreed to guide me again. Pat suggested we take a few practice shots with our bows and then head out to look for elk as there was still several hours of daylight remaining.
Fickle Finger Six – I launched the broad-head tipped arrow at the block from twenty yards. It struck about six inches left of my field-tipped practice arrows. I had shot my broadheads prior to leaving home and they flew fine with my practice arrows. Eventually, I determined that the premium hunting arrows I had used with the broadhead were slightly smaller in diameter and flexed more. The solution was simply putting the broadhead on my tried and true practice arrows. I’ll always appreciate Pat making me go through that exercise.
Fickly Finger Seven – It is not supposed to be 96 degrees in mid-September in Montana. We sweltered through that heat for the first four days of our hunt. We saw plenty of elk, but the dry conditions and lack of steady wind made any aggressive approaches almost impossible. If the elk didn’t see us or smell us, they would hear us. There were two or three unsuccessful stalking attempts each day. We also tried to ambush the elk, similar to hunting whitetails from stands. That approach also proved less than fruitful. If the wind didn’t change and blow our scent to the elk, another bull would distract the one we were targeting and change his course.
Fickle Finger Eight – We had been averaging over twelve miles a day hiking up and down the ridges and by the last day my feet were feeling it. We had attempted an ambush on a huge non-typical bull that was all alone, but as the other elk moved up from the meadows below, he went to meet them rather than heading toward the bedding areas. We decided to head back to Pat’s truck for lunch and to make a plan for the last afternoon.
Pat knew I was tired of hiking and suggested I could take a short-cut down to the meadows and he would drive around to pick me up. I considered it, but I had come for the hunting experience and opted to walk back with Pat the three miles to the truck. During the walk back, it was difficult to remain upbeat, recognizing that the morning had likely been my last good opportunity on this hunt.
Fickle Finger Nine – As we made our way back to the truck, we moved as quietly as possible as we had spooked elk a few times on our traverses over the ridges. Pat periodically cow called to help cover our noise and perhaps entice any lonely bull that was around. As we hit a well-used game trail that would take us the remaining mile to the truck, Pat cow called. We were shocked when a bull screamed back a response from the heavy timber not more than one hundred yards away. We both dove for the cover of the nearby juniper.
My index finger squeezed the release trigger as if I was firing a rifle for precision. As the arrow left the bow I remained focused on the target area near the center of the bull’s chest. The arrow flew true and struck exactly where I had aimed with that hollow “thunk” that archery hunters recognize. I could see about six inches of arrow protruding as the bull spun to his right and headed back down toward the timber.
The next few moments seemed to pass in slow motion as I wistfully hoped for a sign the bull was mortally wounded. At fifty yards I saw him falter. At sixty yards he collapsed. We knew he was down for good, but Pat suggested I stay near the juniper and observe him while he climbed to a higher elevation to contact Cole. I pulled my inReach satellite communicator out of my pack to text my wife that I had shot an elk, mostly just as a distraction to steady my nerves. I also shared the news with a few hunting buddies. There were a few responses in short order and all wanted pictures, but I had not even had a good look at the bull yet!
Pat made his way back and we walked over to check out the bull. We were both in shock when we had a good look at him. We knew he was a big bull, but we found he was a really big bull! We took a few photos and Pat pulled out a tape measure. He measured one antler roughly at 179 inches. Assuming the other was about the same and a reasonable width gave us a quick estimate at about 395 inches. Neither of us wanted to believe that number, so we just kept it to ourselves.
When Cole arrived to help us load the elk into his truck, we asked what he thought about the bull. He said he thought it would go 370”. Back at the ranch a couple of the guides offered their estimates. The consensus was that 370” seemed reasonable, but one thought it was closer to 390”. Finally, we could no longer take the suspense and Cole brought out a score sheet and tape measure. After taking and rechecking all the measures, Cole took the score sheet into the kitchen to add up the score. He returned with a grin on his face. I was about to ask for the score, but I could clearly see it upside down on the sheet in his hand. The bull green scored 400 5/8 inches! He had massive G1 and G2 antlers on both sides. He also had good main beam length and inside spread. Lastly, the antlers had excellent mass. He’ll be officially scored after the drying period, but he will be a tremendous trophy in my book regardless of that result.
Dan was not successful on this hunt, but I reminded him to remember when you believe fate has turned against you, she can be a fickle friend as well!