For this hunter, there was only one elk

  • Jim Posewitz

    Franz Camenzind
  • Book cover, "Beyond Fair Chase"


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Unarmed but dangerous critics close in on hunting.

It was mid-afternoon and the bowhunter found himself working up a small knob covered with thick, second-growth lodgepole pine. The knob was part of the north slope of a larger mountain not far from the Continental Divide. The only openings in the cover were rock slides and a few grassy parks and wet meadows. The place had elk, lots of them.

The rut was on, and although the wind was strong, the hunter could catch the smell of elk as the cows, calves and a handful of excited bulls whistled, grunted and snorted. The bowhunter knew the place well. In previous years he had taken elk there, and again he stalked the mountainside, listening to the elk around him. It was a technique he often used, and he preferred it to trying to call an elk with his own imitation. Stay hidden, stay quiet, stay patient, and stay with the milling elk - opportunity will present itself.

Sure enough, after a time the hunter caught a glimpse of elk legs moving through the dense second-growth lodgepole. Suddenly the animal dropped its head to pass under a leaning tree, and the hunter saw the heavy rack of a six-point bull. Slowly, the archer drew his bow as the elk moved forward, exposing its rib cage. The arrow flashed through the space between hunter and elk, then disappeared into the bull's side. The hunter knew it was a good shot, and he knew he had killed this bull.

The bull bolted with a grunt, disappearing around the curve of the hill. The hunter followed the bull to a meadow; just as expected, the bull was down, and the archer retreated to let it die.

Other elk, unaware of the bowhunter's presence, continued to challenge one another for dominance. Suddenly the piercing bugle of another bull rolled down the mountainside. Almost unbelievably, the sound of that bugle gave the mortally wounded elk a charge of adrenaline. The bull rose and took off in response to a challenge it had no doubt heard before.

The hunter sat in stunned amazement as the bull disappeared into the timber.

The hunter had enough experience to know the wounded elk could not last long. The arrow had disappeared into its chest. Internal bleeding was sure to drain the animal's strength, and the adrenaline rush would soon wear off. The hunter followed the bull's trail and was still tracking spots of blood and fresh tracks through heavy timber when darkness gathered and swallowed the mountain.

The next day the hunter resumed tracking. Certain the animal was dead, he had returned without his bow. The hunt went on as the tracker, often on hands and knees, followed the fading trail. Time was the enemy, erasing the tiny clues that might lead the hunter to his quarry.

He was no longer looking for any elk; he was looking for the elk he shot. He told himself he must find that one elk or there could be no peace in his mind. There is a point in life when people make rules for themselves, and this hunter now had a new rule.

The search went on, and each new day, without exception, the hunter returned to the mountain. Word of his daily, determined pilgrimage to the high country in the face of the gathering winter began to be known. His friends tried to talk him into giving it up; a few questioned his sanity. The animal was gone; the meat was beyond salvage. There was no point in finding the remains. There were other elk, his elk license was still valid, and there was still plenty of hunting season remaining.

Yet each day he returned to the mountain, sometimes with his dog to help look for the dead bull. For this hunter, there was only one elk.

As the days passed, the search changed. Now the hunter watched the ravens, looked for the tracks of coyotes, and listened for squawking jays - all signs from scavengers that might lead him to the elk. Over and over he traversed the hillside, covering land he had covered before. He knew that somewhere up there in the gathering winter an elk lay dead and he had to find it. He promised himself that if he didn't find that bull, he would never hunt again.

Exactly 30 days after he sent an arrow into the chest of that six-point bull, the odyssey ended in a snowy, high-country alder thicket. He found the dead bull. Not much remained - some hide and backbone, the scavengers had taken most of it. The skull and antlers were still there - and so was the arrow. The arrow had done what the hunter knew it would do.

The bowhunter sat a long time in the snow and thought of the many times he had passed within yards of this bull in the last 30 days. He thought of the other elk he had killed and the elk that were his constant companions throughout his solitary search in this still wild place. He thought of many things, then slowly he reached into his coat, pulled out his elk license, filled it out, and attached it to the bull. This hunt was over.

After a 32-year career as a biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Jim Posewitz founded Orion - the Hunters' Institute, in 1993. The nonprofit organization works to "preserve and sustain hunting." Jim Posewitz's small-size paperback, Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting, from which this essay is adapted, is used in hunter education classes in 38 states and five Canadian provinces. The publisher is Falcon Press, Box 1718, Helena, MT 59624 (800/582-2665).

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