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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Idaho Bull Elk Helps Feed the Family

SODA SPRINGS, Idaho -- You know you raised your three daughters right when receiving text messages like these minutes after sharing a photo of your bow-killed elk:

“Yay! Tasting that elk steak already!”

“Nicely done! Congrats! I’m selfishly excited for some fresh elk meat!”

“Nice job! Congrats! Looks like a good bull!”

And you remind yourself you chose wisely 39 years before when your wife texts:

“Great job! Glad I cleaned and reorganized the freezers last week so we have space for an elk!”

Funny how quickly and happily a week of slow action, scant bugling and sweltering heat can end on a bowhunt’s seventh day.

My friend Mark Endris and I arrived in Idaho on Aug. 29, one day before its archery-elk season. Late in the afternoon of the opener, I skulked along the edge of a mountaintop meadow 1.5 miles from camp, debating whether to keep still-hunting or set up a lightweight treestand.

Given the day’s 85-degree temperatures, and feeling tired from the 1,400-mile drive and camp set-up, I hung the stand in an aspen and sat, half-sandwiched by a neighboring Douglas fir’s boughs.

An hour before dark, a bugle blasted from thick woods 200 yards across the meadow, as if announcing the entrance of two cow elk and a calf that soon followed. The bull walked out minutes later and bugled again before following its three companions into the meadow.

The bull’s 4- or 5-point antlers still carried velvet. I gripped my compound bow, double-checked to ensure my arrow was tightly nocked, and clipped my release-aid to the bowstring.

That bull would do just fine if it walked into range. The foursome browsed through sage brush and arrowleaf balsamroot plants, slowly working my way. But then the mountains’ air currents swirled and cooled my sweaty neck, wafting my scent toward the elk. The bigger cow started jogging, and led the group back into the dark woods of the Targhee-Caribou National Forest.

Those bugles were the first and last I heard all week.

I spotted a spike bull in velvet at dawn Sept. 1, but then saw no more elk until sitting near a wallow the evening of Sept. 2. That’s when twigs and branches started snapping uphill from my treestand a half-hour before dark. As the sounds neared, elk calves called from farther back in the procession.

Before long I spotted the creamy sides, burnt-butterscotch rumps and chocolate-brown neck and heads of elk weaving among firs, pines and laurel brush, heading toward the wallow. My adrenaline surged, and I again checked the arrow’s nock, locked my release-aid to the bowstring, and positioned my feet to shoot.

The lead cow surprised me by veering from the game trail and walking within 5 yards of my tree. The angle at that distance was too steep for a good shot, and so I waited, my eyes darting from her to the other elk, searching for antlers. I counted six animals, but snapping sticks farther up the hillside said more were nearing.

Meanwhile, the herd cow below me grew nervous. I suspect she got a whiff of my backpack, stashed beneath a nearby log. Turning stiffly, the cow retraced its steps quietly for 30 yards and led her group elsewhere. I monitored their retreat by the calves, which called continually in the darkening woods.

While still-hunting the next evening, I heard what sounded like a bull feeding on leaves and raking trees with its antlers. When I closed to 50 yards, however, a leafy branch sprung upward and bobbed until still. Something had been holding it down a long time. How could an elk do that? I lifted my binoculars to look, just as a black bear stood tall and snatched the branch again.

I returned to the meadow before dawn Sept. 4, and waited near its edge to listen for bugles and nearby elk. Nothing, save for wind-rustled aspen leaves. I quartered quickly across the opening to my treestand in the gray-light.

A cow elk appeared uphill an hour later, followed by two yearling cows and a calf. Again I prepared to shoot. The lead cow looked like a Hereford heifer, so I lifted my bow arm and prepared to draw. Before I could apply pressure on the bowstring, the calf stepped in front of the cow, blocking its vitals. The group then turned straight away and moved off, never offering another shot.

The next morning I repeated that pre-dawn approach, listening session, and hasty scamper across the meadow’s corner to my treestand. My heart started hammering around 7 a.m. after I heard hoofsteps uphill to the northwest. Minutes later a cow elk walked through a 5-yard gap in the firs and pines. I grabbed my rangefinder and marked the distance when two cows and a calf paused there seconds later.

I quickly adjusted my sight to 40 yards and got poised to shoot before the next elk appeared. Antlers flickered between boughs farther uphill, headed for the gap between the trees. I pulled my bow to full draw and waited.

I touched the release-aid’s trigger when the bull paused in the opening. The shot was lethal; the bull mine. I spent the rest of the morning skinning the elk, boning out its meat, removing the ribs and heart, and carving out the tongue and tenderloins. Meanwhile, Endris packed in my two freighter backpacks and returned to camp after lunch with my hunting pack and other gear I no longer needed.

I packed and hauled elk parts till dark, hung everything in tree branches overnight, and finished the pack-out by early afternoon Sept. 6.

That’s no easy chore, but I knew my wife and daughters appreciate the effort.

Patrick Durkin arrowed this bull elk in Idaho while bowhunting Sept. 5. -- Patrick Durkin photo

Patrick Durkin’s pack-out of elk antlers, meat, heart, tongue, hide and rib cage took 13 hours. -- Patrick Durkin photo

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