The curse of the wapiti: every Bowhunter knows, or should, that failure is never a good reason to quit trying.
A curse that spans 30 years, and includes nearly 20 attempts to take a bull elk with archery equipment. There may be others afflicted with such a curse, but I maybe the only bow hunter on the planet whose curse has lasted nearly half a lifetime.
For some, a curse such as this wouldn't consume them. Mam hunters would simply walk away, they would move on to other hunts, other species, or other pursuits entirely. But not me. I am haunted by elk. Rarely a day goes by when I don't think about their tan shadows ghosting through the aspens. Their bugles, grunts and chuckles fill my dreams, mocking me with every note.
Don't get me wrong--I've killed plenty of elk. My first bull fell to an old .58-caliber Haw ken replica muzzle-loader, a gorgeous 5x5 taken on public land in Colorado. My biggest bull, an ancient 7x7 taken with a rifle in Wyoming, adorns our living room. Others have helped ease the curse's pain and, more importantly, filled my freezer. But the haunting is always there, just under the surface, patiently waiting for those times when I pick up my bow and head into the high country.
Ironically, my curse started with something quite opposite--a tremendous stroke of luck--essentially winning the lottery. In 1986, with elk numbers growing in my home state of Nebraska, the first-ever elk season was established with a lottery for licenses. Ten tags were designated for bow hunters. My number came up. I was one of the 10.
That's where my luck ended. My first archery elk hunt yielded not a single bugle, or even a single elk sighting. The curse had officially started. Of course, as with many victims of curses, I was oblivious to the fact I was cursed.
Back then, most of the bowhunters I knew hunted elk on public land in Colorado, so I joined them on their hunts. Two years after winning the elk lottery in my home state, I found myself in the Colorado elk woods with two buddies.
My curse could have ended on that hunt, but I missed a small bull. A clean whiff. It has been so long ago that I don't recall the specifics--just that I missed--and it would not be the only miss on my elk-hunting resume.
The decade of the 80s gave way to the 90s, where there were more hunts in the public lands of Colorado with buddies. There was another miss in there sometime during these annual forays to the high country, this time with traditional bowhunting equipment. I used traditional equipment through most of the 90s, before switching back to modern gear due to landing my dream job with Cabela's at its corporate headquarters in Sidney, Nebraska.
It was the same old song and elk dance into the decade of the 2000s--the new millennium. When the clock struck midnight and Y2K came and went without the world ending, all was right in the elk woods. Except for the curse.
I was well into my third decade of bowhunting elk, and still in denial that I was living under a curse. It wasn't until I had the opportunity to go on my first outfitted elk hunt with a bow that I sensed a dark cloud.
It was a hunt in southern Colorado with a well-established outfitter. TV cameraman in tow (by this time I was hosting Cabela's TV show), we hunted hard on an early season hunt. It was hot, the elk weren't talking, and our tactics switched to mainly sitting waterholes. Still, not even an elk on camera for the week. The curse was starting to rise to the surface.
My second guided hunt was in a new state--New Mexico --again for TV/work, and again with the same results. I was fully aware of my curse after that hunt.
And so it continued throughout the 2000s, and into the current decade.
Fast-forward to 2012, when I knew my luck was about to change. The guys at Bowhunter Magazine invited me on a hunt with the incredible Cross Mountain Outfitters. A property in the Ranching for Wildlife program, outfitter Doyle Worbington holds the best weeks of the rut for bowhunting on this incredible ranch south of Hayden, Colorado. By now the curse was public, and this was the place to break it--and capture it on camera for Bowhunter TV and our Cabela's show. It was a perfect plan. Except for the curse.
Cross Mountain was loaded with elk, and we had plenty of encounters. But when you are cursed, things happen. Mostly it just wasn't the right shot for the camera, or a bull that went one way when we needed him to go another. It was a great hunt--one of the best of my life--but my tag, and my curse, remained intact.
Following that hunt, my curse seemed to gain newfound allies. My guide at Cross Mountain, Craig, and outfitter Doyle were now on board with helping me get this curse broken. They encouraged me to come back and hunt, and I did so in 2014. This time it was on my own dime, with no cameras or work obligations--just a regular client on a guided elk hunt.
It was a tough week. The elk were there, and they were talking. But the bulls were not very interested in coming to our calls, or in playing the game. Craig was again guiding me, and again we had some incredible encounters I could relate if space allowed--the best one being a face-to-face encounter with a beautiful ivory-tipped 6x6 inside of 10 feet, but I never drew my bow. It makes me cry to tell that story. Let's just leave it at that curse thing.
Last season found me back at Cross Mountain Outfitters, again at the invite of this publication, to try and finish the TV show and story we started in 2012, and break my curse that started exactly 30 years earlier. To the best of my memory, 2016 would be my 17th archery elk hunt.
Once again, Craig would guide me. I sensed he was as vested in breaking this curse as I was (or he drew the short straw, as no other guide wanted the cursed hunter). Either way we were determined to see it through together.
The first morning was magical. In fact, I thought--the curse would end within the first few minutes of the hunt. It was September 17, and the elk were on fire that morning, with bulls screaming at us from every direction on the mountain.
We got set up at first legal light, and Craig began calling. He immediately had a bull coming in from above us. I saw the scrub oak moving as the bull maneuvered his way through the tangle. He stepped into the open 75 yards away and screamed his presence. The heavy 5x5 quickly closed to 40 yards, where he stood broadside, covered by buck brush. No shot. Sensing the excited cow was not coming to him, he did what every smart bull does--flanked us to get our wind. Even knowing his plans, and repositioning on him, I could not get an open shot and the encounter ended with him below us, catching our scent. What a start to the first day!
We moved a few hundred yards up the mountain as the morning elk symphony continued. As we topped a spot to look down into an aspen bowl and some beaver ponds, a bull pushed his cows out of the aspens below us and the first cow nearly ran us over. I could see antlers at the back of the pack, and I came to full draw as cows and calves passed within 15 yards of me, but the bull would not stop. He was trotting by the time he crossed in front of me, and despite Craig's best pleading on his cow call, the bull kept moving.
We bailed off the mountain into the bowl, and there were seemingly elk everywhere. We were in the middle of them, but we couldn't get a single bull to come within range. Still, it was an incredible morning.
That evening we were back in the same bowl, sitting near a wallow. A rag-horn came in, and I drew on him more than once, but he never gave me a shot I was comfortable taking.
We hunted a different area the next day, and it was a tough morning with minimal bugling. We made a plan to be back in the area for the evening hunt, sitting in a ground blind over a waterhole I'd hunted previously. It's a great spot in a tiny valley at the base of steep, scrub-oak canyons on both sides. The scrub is thick, and you will hear approaching animals as they dislodge rocks on the steep canyons long before you see them.
The first noises came early, as two spike bulls came in for water. They stayed most of the afternoon, and never sensed our presence.
As the spikes wandered back up the valley, another sound came from above, and I could see antler tips moving through the scrub. It was the last hour of light, and a bull was coming down the hill. Craig, who was sitting outside the blind and well hidden, saw him first and whispered to me it was a small raghorn bull. I think my response was something close to, "I don't (insert favorite expletives here) care!" And I didn't. Any elk was legal on this hunt, and if the opportunity presented itself, I would take it.
The bull was a 3x4, and to a cursed hunter he was as gorgeous as any branch-antlered bull I'd ever seen. He came down perfectly, albeit cautiously, to water. He was alone. We had not heard a bugle or any calling all afternoon, and I had already made up my mind before he ever stepped into the waterhole. If he offered me a shot once he left the water, I would take it.
Time moved to that slow-motion state every hunter knows, when your head pounds and you can hear as much as feel the rapid beating of your heart. My bow came back, but I have no recollection of drawing. When the bull stepped out of the water, he was quartering away at 22 yards. I don't remember the release--I only watched like a disconnected observer as my arrow sunk into his chest.
He ran uphill 40 yards, and then stopped behind the scrub. I could see my lighted nock heaving up and down with each labored breath the bull took. Then it happened. He lost his footing, tumbled down the mountain, and it was over.
After 30 years and 17 bowhunts, my first elk with a bow was lying dead within sight. There were no wild screams or war whoops in that silent valley as the last light faded. Just raw emotions pouring out as Craig and I shook hands, and then bear-hugged each other before walking the short distance to the magnificent bull. I was in shock, and would not come out of the fog until later that night, with a camp toast from a bottle of 12-year-old Jameson I'd been carrying with me for many years to mark such an occasion. That bottle was much older than 12 when the cork was finally pulled.
In the world of elk, this bull is just a footnote, with little meaning to anyone. It's a small raghorn--barely a bull at all. But to me, it's the biggest trophy of my life. The curse was broken ... And I can't wait to start a new one.
Caption: That's me on the left with a hunting buddy on a DIY elk hunt in Colorado, circa 1990. The curse was already in effect.
Caption: As I planned each elk hunt, I worked hard to prepare my body and my gear so I would be ready for any opportunity. I searched for elk in several states, including here on the Cross Mountain Ranch in Colorado. I just didn't know it would take decades to finally make it happen.
Caption: Even after 16 unsuccessful elk hunts, I was obsessed with arrowing an elk. Despite the adversity, I kept smiling and kept trying.
Caption: Here I'm hiking to a ground blind over a waterhole. This isn't the blind I killed my elk from, but it's a similar setup and an effective tactic.
Caption: Exactly 30 years after my very first archery elk hunt, I was finally able to wrap my hands around the antlers of my own bowkilled bull. He is a beauty!
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2017|
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