Persistence would be the word that sums up this fall 2016 September archery season. It’s easy to roll back over in bed at 4am and snooze, but the guilty realization of potentially missing that opportunity or encounter is the driver to lace up those boots. Montana holds a special place in my heart as I spent 22 years of my life enjoying everything the state had to offer. Now that I live in the people’s republic of California, I realized just how much was taken for granted as a kid. Having the ability to come back and enjoy the outdoors every year is what I look forward to.
It all started on a long bumpy and turbulent road back into the high mountain country of the Rocky Mountains. Every year, five friends from all parts of the world, clear their busy work schedules to enjoy each other’s presence all while chasing rutting elk during the early days of September. The Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest is considered to be some of the best public land elk country the state has to offer, but it also comes with its challenges. As we exited the truck, just a few minutes past 5:00pm, the western sky was filled with the shrill piercing sound of mature male wapiti. Not only does that make the hair on your neck stand, this was the noise we all had waited 12 months to hear. The hunt was officially on. As we navigated our way down the mountain, the bugles began to get closer and closer, almost to the point where that bug in your stomach starts to make you nervous being in their environment. At that same time, across the meadow, multiple elk showcased themselves feeding and calling to each other. Longtime friend and RnA athlete Tyler Houston decided to talk offensive with the bugling bull and challenged him with every ounce of intensity he could conjure up. They traded calls off and on for almost an hour until the bull conceded and ran off with his harem of cows. Although we did not let any arrows fly, it was obvious after the first night of action, we were in for an exciting journey of elk hunting.
September 11, 2001 (9/11) holds a courageous significance in the hearts of Americans who were alive to witness those events. For me, I recall sitting in the Benefis West Great Falls Hospital watching my father before us leave earth to greener pastures. To see the man who taught me so much about outdoors, lay there motionless was the hardest experience I’ve had to endure in my short time. The good Lord had better plans for him and that is how I have been able to find peace with his passing. Not a day goes by when I’m at one with nature that I don’t think about the lasting effect he left on me and so many others. And I know he’s right there with me every step of the way.
The evening preceding proved to be another illustration of being in the middle of elk country and being in the right place at the right time. On every trail that had some sign of hoof traffic, fresh rubs on the undeveloped pine trees proved to be a sanctuary for bulls trying to rid their summer time velvet and polish up those white tip points. As we followed the distant bugles, it became evident that it was going to be a repeat of the previous evening. Once we edged our way in, it was apparent the elk were very vocal, but not very responsive to the calls we pitched their way. Being in this situation before, I knew the calls were not as effective so it was time to get aggressive versus sit back and wait to call them in on a leash. With that said, I left my two partners behind and worked into the herd of rut action and kept my ground to wait for a shot. There were eyes all over as multiple cows and calves were in the meadow feeding while the bulls were busy bugling and trying to rid each other off from the herd. As it happens, elk began to push out 35 yards from where I was standing pushing fast through the site window for a shot. As I counted 10+ cows/calves pass through, I continued to wait for that mature bull to walk by in plain sight. All the sudden, a branch antler bull walks out from behind the pinyon and stops 38 yards to feed. My pre shot sequence started subconsciously with taking a deep breath, draw, front shoulder, follow through.
After marking ‘Hit’ in my OnX Hunt application around 8:20pm, I was concerned with pushing the animal if I pursued him. After being in this situation many times, I decided to back out that evening and attempt to recover the following morning. It was a long stroll out all by myself under the bright three quarter moon, but the sound of that arrow making contact with the bull was enough for me to know I had made a lethal shot and would find the elk expired the next morning.
After a sleepless night running the same scenario multiple times in my mind, our group was back on the path at first light, eager to notch that first elk tag of the year. As we approached the shot location, it was evident more elk had frequented that area since the previous night as bugles continued to screech through the cool morning air. I ran the same sequence in my mind and scoured the ground for signs of life near the point of impact. After ten minutes or so, I heard the sound of exhilaration come from athlete Tyler who had walked up the draw about 50 yards to find my bull on his side. As I walked up, I could see the right tall branch antler which looked consistent with my recollection the previous evening. I was overfilled with joy knowing that I had done my part for conservation and ethically retrieved the animal I had arrowed the night before. The next few hours were spent getting the elk cared for and meat properly cooled and prepared for pack out. As my father use to always tell me, “Hunting elk is only half the battle… killing, cleaning, and packing out is where the work really begins”. In his definite wisdom, he was right as the four of us loaded up the remaining meat into our packs and started the voyage back to our vehicle.
As we packed out that beast of an elk, I thought about my father and it struck me that it had been 15 years to the day since we had spent those last times in the hospital with him battling his bout of cancer. It also made me realize time is not free and that we need to covet our minutes here and leave the same impact as he did. I walked out of the woods on that memorable 9/11 day smiling and happy to know how proud he would have been of me...
09.11.2001 - We Will Never Forget!
R.I.P. Richard J Paugh
You can hear more about this story and our adventure on the RnA Podcast webpage www.rnaoutdoors.com/podcast.
Episode #1: Boots on the September Ground in MT