As a disabled vet, I have always strived to represent not just myself but my fellow veterans and disabled veterans with dignity and honor. We are our own community, but the outside world watches us continually. We are not all perfect and many of us have our own issues, physically, psychologically, physiologically, and so forth. Finding our own peace and happiness can be a daunting task, but I found a new one for me, archery hunting elk in the pre-rut in the mountains of eastern Arizona. As hunters we are also continually watched by the public and as a lifelong hunter, that adds to the persona of both hunters and disabled vets, an often-misunderstood lot.
In July of 2018, a fellow disabled vet told me about this nonprofit organization he had just come across, Changed By Nature Outdoors (CBNO), and sent me the link to their Facebook page. After reading about them I started following them and then saw where they held drawings for disabled vets, law enforcement and kids with severe health issues to go on donated hunts among other things. They had an archery elk hunt donated for September 2018 and put in for it to see if I could get drawn. August 11th, I got a message and a phone call from some guy named Justin Youngman out of the blue. I did not know him or that he was the founder of CBNO and at the time I was visiting one of my vet buddies, so I did not answer. The next morning, I messaged him back and he broke the news to me that I had won. I had just turned 52 the week before and was stunned and excited at the same time! Talk about a belated birthday present! For several days afterwards, I was STILL surprised that I had won such an honor and that I was going to be representing my fellow veterans on the hunt of a lifetime!
Never having hunted elk before and only having a month to get ready I had a steep learning and preparation curve to get into. Many restless nights, hours of shooting practice, checking and rechecking my gear, reading books and articles on archery elk hunting, hiking with a backpack, and the anticipation of the hunt, made that time a concentrated blur. Where I live the elevation is 325 feet, we would be hunting at 7500 feet so that would take some adjustment. In the middle of the short time period before the hunt, I caught the flu which hampered my preparations. Adapt and overcome, just like when I served. Mixed emotions daily of September 16th not getting here soon enough and not having enough time to get ready were abundant.
I made the drive from Texas to Arizona and finally linked up with Justin who was going to be my volunteer guide. We got camp set up in about an hour and actually made it out to drive around and scout the unit a little. The excitement and nerves I felt was like a kid waiting on Christmas morning! We saw elk daily and it took two days to find the prime area we would spend the next week and a half hunting. Some elk we saw from the main road and some off the smaller backroads, a few only accessible by 4 wheelers/quads or our Toyota Tacoma. Every morning we would get up at 4:30 am and head to the woods by 5:15 am.
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To try and describe what it is like to bow hunt elk during the pre-rut cannot truly be put into words in my opinion. All of your senses are alive at once and on overload. Being able to hear multiple bulls bugling near and far, the smell of the woods and the rutting elk, and the sight of the cows and bulls in their annual ritual was truly something to experience.
To add to the challenge of this being a bowhunt, we also had to compete with other hunters as we were hunting in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. We had at least 5 stalks blown by running into other hunters. Sometimes we could tell where they were by their terrible calling which was comical. Other times, we would just see them after the elk we were chasing disappeared.
During the hunt, wind was usually our biggest obstacle to getting close to elk as they have a phenomenal sense of smell. Anytime we felt the wind change and hit the back of our necks, we knew that particular stalk was over. We had close encounters with little bulls, spikes and a few cows which was always fun, but my first serious shot attempt did not come until six days into the hunt when a beautiful bull finally came in without cows, with the wind in our favor, and no other hunters nearby. As he came into Justin’s cow calling, I started to draw and unbeknownst to me my kisser button had been knocked loose during our stalk. It wound up on my cheek instead of at the corner of my mouth, slightly rattling me. At the shot I watched my arrow sail under his chest into the grass. He turned and ran back the way he came, and Justin immediately started calling again and he came back, this time further out. I was able to calm down and focus using my peep site and take a second shot which hit a limb I did not see about 10 yards from the bull and it deflected over him and into a Ponderosa Pine. The trials and tribulations of a rookie elk hunter.
To say I was a bit dejected the rest of the day was an understatement. After we got back to camp, I started looking at my bow and found the issue which I was easily able to fix and took some practice shots to make sure my accuracy was dialed back in. We tried multiple techniques over the next few days to get our elk from stalking, sitting in a ladder stand, and hours in a ground blind overlooking water/mud holes, having encounters with bulls using each method. We hunted every day, morning, and evening, and rarely did not get into elk. Arizona’s elk population is definitely healthy!
Finally, on day 10 our luck changed for the better. Around noon we set up a ground blind over a big water hole and brushed it in. Sign was all around the water hole where the elk had been coming into water and wallow. After brushing the blind in we left and let the area rest and had lunch. About 2:30 pm Justin took me back out to the blind and I got settled in for the evening. At 4:32 a cow, calf and a 5X5 bull came in to drink at the far end of the water hole from me at 74 yards, but two big trees blocked my view of the bull’s vitals. The bull casually drank, the calf played in the water and the cow’s head was on a swivel, drinking and looking around nervously. She finally had enough and took the calf and left with the bull following her.
An hour later I heard the sound of rocks being kicked just to my left as another 5X5 bull walked up the back side of the dam around the water hole. I looked up from the blind and could see his feet about 10 yards away above me as he paused for a few seconds on top of the dam and then began walking to the water. I remember thinking “Wow, this is actually going to happen!” The bull walked down and stopped to drink, quartering away and I ranged him at 27.7 yards. Coming to full draw I settled my 30-yard pin behind his shoulder, took a breath to settle the pin, and triggered my release. As I watched the arrow sail on its way it seemed to float in slow motion and then disappeared into the bull, completely passing through him. The sound of THWACK came back to me as the bull ran out into the water and turned around, looking back at the way he had come. I saw him cough and knew it was a good hit. Then he ran up onto the bank opposite from me in a big U turn, staggered and crashed behind a couple of trees, and was down for the count as I yelled YES! I was recording the hunt with a video camera built into my stabilizer which I forgot to keep pointed at the bull after I shot him but from the time I shot until he went down was only 16 seconds! It was a fast, humane harvest which I was very thankful for and was my goal. I immediately called Justin who was just down the road and he was surprised my bull was already down so early in the evening.
The excited shakes set in as I tried my best not to hyperventilate as I was thrilled beyond all recognition. This was a lifetime dream and achievement that I could not believe had finally happened. Justin showed up a few minutes later with a huge smile on his face as we slapped high five’s and hugged after I pointed to where the bull had gone down. We walked up to see him, and I was just in awe at his size. After some photos Justin drove back to camp to pick up some butchering equipment and I got to spend a few minutes alone with my bull, taking in the entire experience and saying a quiet prayer for him. Justin and Lupe’, another hunter we had made friends with during the hunt, showed up and we began the process of breaking the bull down to get him to the local meat processor. Justin and I worked on the bull while Lupe’ sharpened the knives as we dulled them. I wound up with about 170 pounds of steak and burger that I shared with many people, and everyone has enjoyed it.
This hunt of a lifetime would not have been possible without the help of many people along the way that donated their time, effort, and money. Several friends helped with hunting advice, lodging, and encouragement but first and foremost on the list is Changed By Nature Outdoors and Justin Youngman the founder, and my guide. Without this organization and the huntress that donated her tag, this hunt would never have happened. I will be eternally grateful to them all. I would like to believe I represented all hunter’s and veterans well on this hunt.
I learned a ton about elk and elk hunting but most importantly, found the peace I enjoy that only Mother Nature can provide. These are memories I will always carry with me and fondly look back on. Now I am looking forward to many more elk bowhunting adventures, I am hooked!