By Mat Sturtevant
Elk hunting has been a passion of mine for the last 4 years and by passion, I mean total obsession. In 2008, on a whim, I began elk hunting again. Originally a whitetail hunter from Maine, I dropped out of the sport after only harvesting one dear (a doe) in 12 years. I was 23 and just wanted to do something else.
By 2008, I lived in Montana and the thought of chasing something as majestic as an elk was appealing so I took up bow hunting! I bought a 6 year old Fred Bear from my wife’s uncle, shot it a few times and went out to try my luck. On the last day of my first season, I spotted two satellite bulls on the side of a ridge bedded in a foot of snow watching a couple cows feed. I was ecstatic and made my best attempt to put a stalk on them from above. I went up the ridge from roughly a half a mile away and came down on top of them.
When I got close enough for a shot, the two satellites were standing up, but hadn’t noticed me yet. I looked to my left and the herd bull was only 30 yards away feeding quietly, I was literally in the herd. The fresh snow and wind blowing wildly made it impossible for the elk to even hear any noise. I peered around the pine I was hiding behind and ranged the closest satellite bull at 30 yards and decided to go for it. I pulled back and released so quickly that, I don’t think I even took time to anchor, focus through the peep, set my pin, release and follow through. It came as no surprise that what happened next was not pretty. I heard a really loud ‘thwack’ and the two bulls took off.
Then out of nowhere 30 cows appeared and they took off too, followed by the herd bull. I checked the spot where the bull was standing and there was nothing, not a single trace of blood. I looked around totally confused and that’s when I saw the arrow. It was buried in an old stump nowhere near where the bull had been. I couldn’t believe I had missed my first nice bull! I was disappointed in myself for a lot of things that day, but mainly my poor preparation. I vowed right there on the spot that I would never let these things be limiting factors again. This is how I got hooked on elk and bow hunting.
Leading up to the 2011 season I shot my bow year round and ran 20 miles a week. This is the second season where I have been really into elk. I had one chance in 2010 to take a spike, but I passed on him so I have yet to harvest an elk. It was time to crank things up a notch and do what I was reading about for the past few years in all the magazines, a solo bivy hunt for my elk.
A solo bivy meant not only physical preparation, but mental preparation as well. My goal was to be ready to stay in the woods for up to 7 days. I also spoke to wildlife biologists primarily for Region 3 of Montana. It’s no secret that 50% of the elk harvested in Montana each year are done so in Region 3, so I wanted that area to be my focus. From hunting in previous years, I knew exactly where there’d be elk in Region 4. But, I wanted to do this right and hunt an area that was sure to have 300+ bulls. Grizzlies, wolves and needing time to scout out where the elk were bedding, feeding, etc., was the downside.
I was so concerned about being successful and filling a tag, I decided at the last minute to ditch the Region 3 idea, and go back to where I’d hunted the previous year in Region 4. Not only was I safer camping there, but I knew where there’d be elk. There might not be many 300+ bulls, but filling the tag became my priority.
Just like that, I repacked my pack for the last time, made my favorite peanut butter and bacon sandwiches and loaded everything in the truck to head out. I got to the trail head at about 2 p.m. I had about 3 miles to do the first day. As soon as I got the pack on my back I knew I was in for trouble. It was pushing 60 lbs and within 2 hours it hurt like hell. To top it off, the thermometer was hovering around 75 degrees. I was in the woods that I had been dreaming about ever since I had left them, but the straps on my pack were absolutely killing me. To make matters worse, there was one thing I had never even considered that was going to make this bivy a whole lot harder, water.
At the elevation I was hunting at, roughly 6800′, there wasn’t a single drop. At the bottom of the canyon was a decent creek, but that was at least a mile or two away from where I’d be camping. I just assumed that the mountain sides I had picked out would have water running in the streams, but this year they were bone dry. A mile or two from where my camp was would not be convenient either considering I needed to be hiking where the elk were, not where the water source is.
All the air traffic in the area had me worried also. Across the canyon was a raging forest fire, sounds of wildlife in the timber were accompanied by the thumping of helicopter rotor blades overhead. I was concerned that the nearby fire and lack of water was going to make this hunt even more difficult.
Figure 1 “Photo” Mat Sturtevant’s famous bacon and peanut butter sandwiches.
Figure 2 “Photo” Mat’s rucksack weighing in at a whopping 60 pounds.
After two hours of hiking I learned a lot about the area. I wasn’t going to abandon elk hunting for the season, but this hunt might not be the right idea after all. If I were to back out now, at 4 pm, I’d lose the rest of the day. If I pressed on, I’d probably only last a couple days and without a water source. I was coming out the next day regardless. The next thing that came to mind was what the biologist told me earlier in the year, “The elk will be at the tops of the drainages on the north side of the mountain” due to its isolation and cooler temperatures at the higher elevations.
I had one thing taken care of already. I was on the correct side of the mountain. However, I was nowhere near the top of the drainage. So, I checked that out first before pulling out entirely. I took a look at my GPS to determine where a good tent site might be at the top of the drainage I was in before climbing higher. I hiked up the drainage slowly for about an hour. When I decided I had enough for the time being, I took a break. I found a nice log next to a large scree field with a view in some open timber.
Every year I find myself in a similar situation while hunting, the plan that I have thought about all week at work goes wrong. Something happens right away that’s totally unexpected and it always seems to turn my original plans upside down. 99% of the time I keep pressing on with the original plan and it always ends in unfilled tags. Today, on the biggest hunt I had ever been on, I decided to change that mentality. I took the biologists advice and went up the drainage to find a new camp site and see a different area. I abandoned my plan to cut across to the camp site at a lower elevation for something higher up and it felt good. I also felt a little more confident in this new plan after it sank in for about an hour or so.
While sitting on the log, I took off my pack to cool off and reached for one of my favorite hunting snacks, PEACH-O’s. I needed a little pick-me-up from all that had happened or wasn’t happening. I was on the second or third Peach-o when I heard it. My first bugle of the season and it was just before 5pm. I’d been in the woods for almost 3 hours and after experiencing a slew of emotions, I was starting to have some luck. Surprise does not even begin to describe my reaction.
That first bugle came so fast, I thought what I always think, maybe it’s another hunter. Another hunter was unlikely given the time of the week and where I was, so I threw a bugle back to verify. The bull responded almost immediately and this time with a louder, more intense border line scream of bugle. I knew he was fired up and my hunch about there not being hunters in the area was correct. The only thing going through my mind was don’t screw this up, so I waited. A lot of times where I hunt, bulls immediately take off as soon as I bugle either because I scare them off from being too aggressive or because they know I’m a hunter. This guy was different so I wanted to make sure I did everything right. If I’d learned anything in the last four years of not filling tags it’s that patience is the key, especially up to the very end when you’ve got bulls that may want to dance.
I threw a bugle a few minutes later. This time he bugled again even louder, so I knew he was moving in. I tried to see something through the few trees in front of me and across the rock scree, but nothing appeared. Then out of nowhere I saw him. He was moving up the rock scree on the opposite side. I caught a glimpse of some antlers and they looked big! I started looking for my range finder and trying to get my gloves on to cover my hands. My pack was leaning against the uphill side of the tree in front of me with all the pockets facing away from me, making it difficult to get to anything else I might need.
I never thought I would be hunting before I set up camp so everything was tucked away. I looked up again trying to locate the bull when I noticed he had crossed the scree already and come up behind a tree about 40 yards below me. He was scraping his antlers on the branches like crazy, so I cow called. He screamed, loud enough for me to feel it in my chest. I decided to knock an arrow, never mind having all my gear on or using the range finder. I shot my bow for seven months preparing for this moment and he was close so I felt confident I could guess his distance. Still scraping the branches I gave another cow call and he came out from behind the tree and stepped into view right in front of me.
He was staring straight at me and I was sitting behind the tree against my pack so I had a little bit of cover. It was pretty clear that this bruiser was searching for the cow and bull that he heard. My arrow was knocked and my release was locked on the d-loop, but I was losing my mind. I had never been this close to a raging bull that looked so pissed and majestic at the same time. I had not paid much attention to his antlers either until now. I glanced at them quickly and noticed he was sporting a perfectly symmetric 6 points on either side which was totally awesome!!!
Instinct took over. I analyzed the situation quickly and was ready to shoot, but I had to wait until he went broad side. This only took seconds, but it felt like ten minutes. All of a sudden and without warning he looked left, away from where I was crouched to his right, uphill. He took a step forward simultaneously moving his body broadside to me. I automatically drew the bow back, guessed the range to be between 20 and 30 yards, anchored and released. It felt so much like that arrow I fired four years ago, when I knew I did not look through the peep, but this was different. I fell into an automatic mode of shooting that I almost had no control over, it just felt right.
When I looked at the bull after releasing my arrow I could see the impact of the arrow and actually hear it. I immediately let out a few cow calls to keep the bull from taking off. The bull only went another 30 yards and expired. When I approached my trophy I realized first what an incredible creature he was. His rack was more amazing the closer I got. He was going to provide plenty of delicious meat for my family.
The next thing I noticed was that the arrow had never passed through. Later inspection would reveal that it had rammed the rib on his opposite side so hard that it exploded in his vitals. The impact was so solid the steel broad head bent and chipped in three places. I gained an entirely new appreciation for these amazing animals. My hunt was over in only three hours, but that short time created a lifetime of commitment for me to the conservation of these beautiful creatures.
Figure 3 “Photo” Mat Sturtevant and his 6 x 6 Elk.
Figure 4 “Photo” The tag that Mat finally filled