We are excited to share this throwback hunt, from a friend of ours, with you today. It’s an exciting story and we think you will enjoy it.
By: Christopher Burns
It was a cool-crisp Saturday summer morning on September 3rd 2011, the first day of Montana bow hunting season. My friend Matthew Phillips and his brother Joel accompanied me to the Highwoods National Forest in search of elk. We had gone out a few times the season prior and had seen plenty of elk but we were never able to get close enough to get a good shot off on one. The archery bull tag for the Highwoods is a special draw elk tag for bow hunters. We got up to the spot where we would hike in at dark. First shooting light was around 6:13 am. So we wanted to be in position far before the elk started moving around for their morning feed. The first thing we did which we always do before the hike up was say a prayer for the Lord’s blessing on our day, for our safety during the hunt and, God willing, a successful hunt. The hike in was short and easy as we got into position in the pitch dark under a small patch of pine trees. As soon as the darkness started to turn a dark blue tint Matthew gave out the first bugle of the morning to see if there were any answers. The first one fell unsuccessfully without any reply. The elk talk very little in the beginning of the season before the rut starts. The cows were not chirping nor were the bulls bugling.
After a few more minutes in just the waning moments of darkness early on this cool clear morning we could still see glimpses of stars shining when Matthew let out another bugle. This time we got several replies in about two or three directions. The farthest bugle was so far up the mountain that it was hard to tell just how far away it could have been. The closest reply sounded like it could have been within 300 yards away which this early in the morning on opening day is extremely close to the bottom of the mountain and quickly forced the adrenaline through our veins. As subtle light began to illuminate the peaks of the surrounding mountain tops to bring separation between darkness of the ground and the lighter tint of the sky, we waited for shooting light to arrive. Sitting under the low hanging branches of a large pine we sat in anticipation of the chase. Around five minutes to shooting light we headed in the direction of the closest bugle. We had heard what sounded like a cow chirp responding to nearby elk.
Nearing a patch of Aspen trees, Matthew made the motion for us to trek around the aspens by just hugging the tree line. I made a quick suggestion that quite possibly changed the course of our entire day. I motioned that we cut straight through the middle of the aspens. This was a very risky move because rustling the branches or leaves through the thick of the aspen trees could very quickly and easily scare off any elk that may be close by. Matthew checked his watch and the very minute of shooting light had arrived. We slowly started making our way through the patch of aspens, which was possibly eighty to a hundred yards thick, avoiding every branch and leaf that we could. About three quarters of the way through the aspens all three of us stopped dead in our tracks because we each immediately saw the same thing. A head with a mass of antlers appeared through an opening through the aspens. It was a beautiful 6X6 bull elk and at that moment it seemed almost too perfect to be true. As it was now just after shooting light his body created a perfect silhouette through the break in the trees. Quickly following close behind him was a slightly smaller rag horn bull and two cow elk. Matthew and I both immediately nocked an arrow. I was holding my Mathews Reezen 6.5 as I could feel the adrenaline welling up within me. I intended on watching Matthew, who was about 5 yards ahead of me, draw back his bow and take a shot but he quickly turned to me and said, “I don’t have a shot.” He had no shooting lane from his vantage point and there was no time to move or reposition because the slightest move would spook the small herd and they would be gone in no time and so would our hunt.
Here was my moment, that moment that every bow hunter dreams about all year. Remembering back, it seems to have happened in slow motion from this point. With my bow nocked with an arrow I made a range calculation instantaneously in my head that the bull could only be a mere 40 yards away. I had been practicing for this scenario the whole year in the off season. In moments like this sometimes there simply is no time to take a range measurement because if you even stop to take that moment to make the slightest movement then that window of time to take the shot may just as quickly be gone. I drew back the bow and placed the 40 yard pin of my sight in the vitals area just behind the front shoulder of the bull. By this time the bull was peering directly at us with his body perfectly broadside with his left side toward me through the opening of the trees. He looked majestic with his antlers broad and tall which were beautiful beaming brown towers that made him have such an appearance of power and grace. This was the perfect scenario…opening day, opening light, with a 6×6 bull elk in my sights 40 yards away. What an amazing thrill and pleasure it is to have the opportunity to be this close to such a beautiful, yet powerful, creature. When all seemed perfectly silent and still, I released the arrow on its flight. Instantaneously the bull bucked his fore body upward thrusting his horns straight ahead and began a full sprint to the left around and behind the aspens and eventually out of sight. We stayed still and could hear him as he ran down a wooded coulee across the stream we had trekked up and then up a wooded hillside. We could not see him but could hear his fleeing charge. There was a brief moment after I took the shot at him that Matthew could have taken a shot at the rag horn but his initial concern was tracking two bulls at once. After all it was opening day, at opening light and Matthew chose to pass on the shot.
About 30 seconds to a minute after I took the shot we heard what sounded like my bull give a gurgling attempt at a bugle from the other side of the coolly which was just on the other side of the stream that ran down the center of the coulee. We all three believed that this was the sound of blood building up in his lungs and we thought we would possibly hear him collapse in the trees at any moment. By this time the rag horn and two cows that were accompanying him had vanished out of sight around the aspens just as quickly as he had. After giving it several minutes we decided to survey the location where the arrow had impacted the broad side of the bull. I had very high confidence at this point that I got a very clean and good positioned shot on him. Upon examining the spot where he was standing there was no blood and no arrow.
After some time we walked down to the bottom of the coulee where we believed he had ran but there was no sign of him and no blood. With nothing in sight we did not want to push him any further than he had already gone so we decided to hike back to the truck for the game cart in case we did find any sign of him. After a while at the truck we set off to find some sign of where he had gone. We came upon a path in between the aspens that we were in and the creek bed. It was a small open field. After sweeping and surveying the area we finally came upon some hope. We found my blood stained arrow which was covered from G5T3 broad head tip to nock end. It was very exciting to find this and it picked my adrenaline back up. From the spot of the arrow drop we discovered that the blood trail began. We followed the faint blood trail up the creek a ways, across the creek, into the trees, up the tree covered hillside which switched back and forth all the way up. Half way up the hillside we came upon a paper plate sized pool of curdled dark blood which was a sign that the blood was building up in his lungs. Most likely this was the spot where he had stopped to give the blood curdling last bugle after he was shot.
We followed still a faint blood trail up the rest of the way, across a small clearing, into another thick tree line which was just the beginning of the thick of the forest. We followed the trail for hours and at some points we were even on our hands and knees looking for even the faintest sign of blood. By now Matthew’s oldest brother Jeff had joined us in the search. At times even finding a pin head sized blood spot kept us going to the next blood spot. After over eight hours of searching and tracking for the bull that I thought I was going to harvest, hope started to fade to a sickening feeling of defeat. The thought that I had lost this bull was overwhelming and frustrating. The perfect and ideal opening day hunt had turned into a nightmare. The last sign that we had of him was high on the mountain-side. In the thick of the trees it appeared that he had laid down and as the blood pooled underneath him it may just have been enough to clot the wound and enable him to begin healing. It was now evident that his lungs had gone completely unscathed. He was gone.
I went home that night frustrated and disappointed. Yet, I was absolutely amazed at the survivability of this animal. I had just shot an arrow completely through the body of this massive bull elk in what I thought at the time was a vital area shot and yet he had survived. Questions and doubt were haunting me and I had trouble sleeping for the next several nights. I have always touted my belief in a good, clean, ethical kill when hunting. The thought that I would merely injure an animal that I was hunting and not be able to harvest it is a nightmare because of those hunting morals that I hold true to. There was no doubt that my arrow had gone completely through his body because it was blood soaked from tip to tip. How could anything survive that? What incredible creatures elk are. If anything, this experience gave me much more of a respect for these animals.
Five days later on Thursday, 8 September, Matthew and I decided to go out to our same spot for an afternoon hunt after work. We made it out to the woods at just after 5:00 p.m. which gave us just about 3 hours for the hunt. After hiking up a ridgeline halfway to the peak of the mountain top that we were shooting for we stopped to scout the open clearings. While we were glassing the peak top clearings Matthew immediately spotted a small herd in a clearing where we had spotted them while scouting before the season opener. We were in such a rush to get up to this point we never really established who would be taking the shot if we got within range. By this point we both had an opportunity to take a shot at an elk this season. We decided to take a democratic approach; we played paper, scissors, rock. I won. So, Matthew agreed to call for me if we could get in on the herd. By this point we had only about one and a half to two hours of shooting light. We decided the only option was to sprint to the top. We took off. It was like the scene at the end of Last of the Mohicans when they were charging up the mountain side. We had no choice but to push hard. We were losing light by the minute.
As we approached the clearing that was through the tree line where we saw the herd we heard a bugle call out and we could tell it was somewhere within 150 to 200 yards away. Chills ran down my spine. Matthew explained that he would stay at least 80 yards behind me before starting to call to the herd. We spotted movement through the trees. Matthew got into position while I positioned myself further up in the trees edge by the clearing. I now was in full stalk mode. I knew that every movement, sound and breath I made was crucial. Matt gave out a few cow calls. A bull started barking back. Not giving a full out bugle but instead small short barks. Yet, they were loud powerful barks that emanated through the trees. As I quietly hunkered down inside the tree line I finally spotted the bull that was calling back to Matt. He was a nice mature looking bull. There was a patch of trees that the bull was hugging. This patch of trees was only a few hundred yards from the top edge of the mountain ridge in a beautiful clearing cradled in the midst of the thick forest pines. I could just make out his figure and then he walked out from behind the trees and stopped to look in our direction. I made no movement yet because he was out in the open and still about 100 yards away. Matthew did an amazing job of keeping this bull’s attention and curiosity up. It was as if I was listening to a conversation between a bull elk and a cow elk. Bothered by the call he walked into the thick forest tree line. Now out of the bull’s line of site I took this opportunity to advance my position. I gained a few more yards. Matthew continued his talking back and forth with this bull. I will never forget the resonating sound of the bark that the bull would let out. Being so close to a bull elk and hearing the sounds that they give off truly sends chills down the back of my neck making every hair stand on edge. There is no other sound like it.
The daylight was quickly fading, as was my window of opportunity. I watched as the bull walked back behind the small patch of trees. At about 80 yards away, I knew that I had no choice but to try to get within shooting range if I was going to get a shot at this bull. With my Reezen nocked with an arrow I began to slowly creep up the steep incline toward this small group of trees. Moving slowly up, my thighs were burning; not just from the hike up but also from slowly creeping up at a snail’s pace trying not to spook this bull. Adrenaline was keeping me going as I continued to stalk forward. I approached the edge of this group of trees and the bull was staring in my direction. I finally got right up behind and against a tree on the edge. The bull jerked around to the right in a short charge as if he was about to run away but he stopped. He was curious and did not know what I was. He turned back to the left with his left side facing me. All I was waiting for was for him to walk a few yards to the left and I would have a clear broad-side shot through the trees. He began to walk to the left as if he was going to head into the thick forest tree line and into cover. As he began to take his first steps to the left I drew back on my bow. Light was fading and I knew it was almost last light. If not for the fiber optic pins on my sight I would have had trouble sighting in on him. After taking a few steps he curiously stopped and looked directly at me. He was majestic, just like the bull I faced five days before. It was a perfect opportunity, as if the Lord was giving me a second chance at success in one week. Just as before, I had ranged him in my head. I put him at 60 yards. He was now perfectly broad side and looking at me. With my 60 yard pin on the same spot as before I relaxed, took a breath and let the arrow fly. It felt like minutes before the arrow reached him, the moment that took only seconds felt like forever.
The arrow penetrated his side, he immediately charged to the left and into the thick tree line of the forest. After seeing him run into the tree line about 80 yards away all I could do now was listen. I heard him stop, followed by a short pause. Next, I heard branches rustling, crashing and then silence. I knew that I had just shot and taken down a beautiful bull elk. Matt was still down the hill. I wanted to yell for excitement at the top of my lungs but I composed myself. I called out to Matt and said, “Matt, I got him! He’s down. I got him!” Matthew later told me that at that moment when I called out to him he looked down at his watch and it was 8:12 p.m., the last minute of shooting light. I shot a bull at the bottom of the mountain on opening day, just after first light and lost him. Five days later I shot a bull at the top of the mountain at last light and this time I got him. We walked into the thick tree line and found my bull with his 6X6 rack up against a tree.
The most amazing part of the story is what we discovered next. While field dressing the bull we pulled out the front half of my arrow that had broken off inside him during his fall which penetrated his lungs and brought him down. Less than two inches from my arrows entry point, in his left side, was another entry wound just an inch outside of the lungs. The other wound was recent but older by only a few days. There was an exit wound on his right side that clearly was the exit wound from the older entry wound on his left side. This was the same bull that I had shot five days prior on the same mountain. I shot him twice on the left side but only the first shot from five days prior had an exit wound on the right side. Not only did the Lord give me a second chance at success, he gave me a second chance at the same bull that I had shot just days earlier. I was exuberant with joy. I would not have wanted it any other way. What a blessing this was. This truly was a hunt of a lifetime. This is one I will never forget and maybe never surpass. This was my first bull to ever harvest and what a special one to start off with. It took Matt and I all night to drag him out of the woods quartered with our friends Dale Langendorff and Adam Reathaford. I will always be grateful for Matthew’s help calling in that bull and sharing that experience with me. What a great hunt.