Many hunters turn into solitary folks while they are in the woods. Bowhunters even more so. And traditional bowhunters, those of us who limit ourselves by hunting with longbows and recurves, are perhaps the most solitary of all. We rarely meet other hunters while carrying our bow. When we do conflicts seldom occur. But maybe that has more to do with how we handle ourselves when the odds eventually catch up with us.
After 40 years of climbing poles and working on telephone equipment, I was 63 and decided to retire. Soon after, I also decided it was time to return to Colorado from my home in Pennsylvania. I would bowhunt once again for elk. I enlisted my longtime friend and hunting partner Matt DiNardo to come with me. We would hunt do-it-yourself style on public land in southwest Colorado. After some research, we settled on the Piedra River area of the San Juan Mountains.
Matt and I parked at a trailhead. As we prepared to pack in, another pickup pulled in. Its occupants were a man, a little younger than me, and a woman who appeared to be in her 30s. We introduced ourselves and discovered they were Fran and his daughter Allie. Both were compound bow shooters. Matt and I were traditional guys. Allie was smallish but athletic-looking. I hoped to myself that she knew her lethal range limit with her bow. We talked for a few minutes. Then laid out our maps to define the areas we each favored, so that we hopefully would not interfere with one another’s hunting. We all wished each other good luck and were off.
On the third day of hunting I was near the top of a tree-covered ridge. I had seen elk below, and was moving quickly to get ahead of them for a possible stalk. While passing through a small stand of aspen I could hear elk running through the trees on the other side of the ridge. Right to me. I moved to the edge of the trees and nocked an arrow. A nice bull and several cows came over the top and slowed to a walk. With a light breeze blowing right from the elk to me, their scent added beats to my already racing heart. I wanted that bull!
I saw immediately that the bull had an arrow that wasn’t Matt’s a little far back for a double lung hit. It likely hit the liver, probably fatal just not as quick as we like. As the animals kept moving slowly in my direction, I picked my spot on this nice bull. I drew and released my arrow without a thought, except for that small spot, a hair, on its side.
The small herd was off again, but the bull crashed down still in my sight, not 60 yards away. I walked, nearly staggering from the adrenalin rush, to the downed bull. Whose trophy was it? I would have loved to claim it, but as I examined the first arrow shaft in its side, I knew it was Allie’s, because I’d noticed her distinctive arrows at the trailhead.
I climbed back to the top of the ridge where I knew Allie and her dad would be following blood and tracks. We met on the ridge, and with a huge smile I greeted them. Fran asked me if I had seen a bull elk come over the ridge. I said I had seen him and had put an arrow through its lungs. After a slight hesitation, I said to Allie, “He’s down. He’s down there and he’s yours.” Allie chased everything off that mountain with her joyful screams as she ran to her first elk. Fran shook my hand and offered a sincere thank you. I replied with the old hunting adage: “First fatal hit owns the game.” We walked down to Allie and her elk and started the hard work part of our hunt.
Over the next three days Matt and I killed a cow and a small bull, both fine archery trophies. The real thrills of the whole trip were not our elk but helping a young bowhunter and her father live a dream. Plus we’d made some new friends to share campfires with.
Joe McMahon lives in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania. He started shooting a recurve in the 1970s, switched to a compound, but has since returned to his roots to shoot a recurve.