This is a brief hunting story. It is written to inform on the topic of hunting ethics. It shares insight into an imperfect human being. I hope that the whimsical lyrics elicited by stunning wild country and humorous hunting partners deliver you a message worth sharing.
My hunting mentor would state, “If you are wondering about the outcome of the shot, then you should not take the shot”.
Dawn broke on the high alpine ridge and we struggled through the thin air at eleven thousand feet. We tiptoed through crackling pine understory onto a barren moonscape covered with a rainbow of lichens and cryptobiotic soils. Looking across the vast expansive mountainside it was clear the elk had moved on.
We sauntered over to the edge of the mountain and took reprieve too close to the edge. We set about drying the previous night’s rain off our tents and sleeping bags. I snatched at my tarp. It slipped. I watched bemused when the first bounce on the ground gave it a springing leap over any other nearby object and it cratered towards the valley bottom 1000 feet below. Luckily a smooth red kinnikinnick slope led to a scraggly catcher’s mitt pine. It stopped a brief 400 feet below.
We stoked the Jetboil and brewed an alpine blend. We settled into the craggy outcrop to glass the far side of the cirque. In a moment’s time we rejoiced at seeing a small group of elk feeding late into the morning sun, and quaked at the idea of falling down to the valley floor and then up the other side. We watched until the elk were engulfed in shadows and disappeared into a dark timber frame bed.
The day was long and ours to use. Our next engagement lay 9 hours, 2 miles, and 2000 vertical feet away. We cooked a lean breakfast of cookies and tortillas and set about trying to not fall down the mountainside. Luckily a smooth red carpet of kinnikinnick led to a catcher’s mitt pine, which held a wet tarp, which led to a break in the cliff face and we meandered through loose stone to find our way safely to the valley floor.
Midday found us near the creek, which hides its meandering banks under a mixed wood canopy. We sat and took in the shade of a large fir. Letting our guard slip we chatted about the treacherous descent we could now see in full view. A meandering cow slipped within ear shot and held our gaze. Out of sync with our mission we scrambled to put bow to hand and arrow to bow. She scattered away as wild things do. We had been reminded of our goal.
The daily patterns began to play and the setting sun whispered to the wind. He swirled his flow and set about cooling down the mountain side. We slipped into position and stood about waiting. The position of an archer is much different than that of a rifle hunter; a bow is best shot standing up and plenty of room is needed to move the bow side to side. A clear path ahead is mandatory as arrows easily ricochet. Standing and waiting without fidgeting might be the archer’s second greatest achievement.
We tire of waiting and begin calling. First, some soft cow calls which elicit only a howl from the wind. We let a bugle rip and almost on cue the bull responds, a deep guttural breath becomes a high pitched scream. This is the first time I am hearing such a voracious scream directed at me, enticed by me, coming for me. Our setup is not perfect. It's the first time my dear friend and I have danced to this tune. We are still stepping on each other’s toes as we try to dance with a bull. The bull comes to the dance floor on a string as if his favorite song was being crooned. He hits the edge of the dance floor and finds he is a little nervous to show his ability to shake a hindquarter. We call and he paces the perimeter. He circles into a small clearing and I see his antlers bobbing. He is getting ready. He lets loose another bugle, far from eloquent, but full of piss and vinegar. I am crouched behind a spindly 4ft pine. I can’t move much. I am starting to hear my breathing. I am trying to find the range of the tree in the middle of the meadow as a reference. I lock on, 54 yards. Now my mind races towards the end, the pictures we will take, the admiration of a eager community. More calling, he finally decides to gather his grit and come dance. He trots to the middle of the meadow and peers into the trees looking for someone to dance with. I know he won't wait long to find a partner before his courage will wear off and off he will go. He takes a step.
This is my first season as an archer. Having hunted for 8 years I have finally been coerced to pick up a bow instead of a rifle. A new friend had decided he needed a new hunting partner and delivered a used bow to my hands, ready for hunting. Months spent learning at the shooting range had yielded good results. I was confident shooting the decoy elk at 60 yards. I would consistently drop 6 arrows into the ethical kill zone.
Now I am in full-on young predator mode. My breathing is hard and labored, my position is crouched and shooting lanes are limited. I can feel my grip tightening on my bow handle. He takes another step. I stand up and move a foot to one side. I raise my bow, fist clenched. I draw back and take aim. I am guessing he has moved to about 60 yards. I want this successful moment more than my ethics concern me. A brief whisper glances over my shoulder, “Are you certain of the outcome?” “No,” I reply, and I let the arrow fly.
While the arrow and I are debating my skill set the bull has taken two more steps. My arrow punches hard into the rocks, grasses and lichens. It soared so far off its target that the bull glaces back and wonders. I watch him trot away and into the night.
I slump over, my grip releases my bow, and I am instantly bummed out. My ethics lost in a battle against wanting success. The only positive is that no animal suffered due to my lack of integrity. This first encounter has sealed the deal. I’m hooked, bugling bulls have taken the top step on my podium of fun, adventure and living wild. Now it's time to reflect and incorporate my learning.