By Israel‘Izzy’ Walls
I have heard varying opinions on the importance of fitness to today’s hunter. On one side is the mindset of extreme training (i.e. Cam Hanes and company) and on the other are those that symbolize the mainstream perception of us [hunters] (i.e. the ‘good ol boy’ with a frosty beverage in one hand, a family heirloom rifle in the other, and a midsection that has a value higher than their I.Q.). There is nothing wrong with either individual but the truth is that most hunters fall somewhere in the middle.
Most hunters that I know want to be in better shape for each upcoming season, but fail to find the time or motivation to do what it takes. I, like most people, tend to find motivation in the form of failures and successes. Experiencing both of these the past two seasons have demonstrated to me the practicality of needing to do as much as you can to put yourself in the best position to succeed.
Most years, I make plans to train like the ‘extreme’ side of the fence but probably land closer to what would be characterized as consistent, diligent, and intense training for the ensuing hunting season. During the year 2010, however, I would say that I didn’t live up to my normal standards of weight training and cardio-vascular conditioning. My lack of training was not without good cause, mind you, as my wife and I prepared for the birth of our first child. Not to mention the fact that I drew my once-in-a-lifetime Shiras Bull Moose tag here in my home state ofIdaho. All of the good luck must have lulled me into a false sense of security.
I soon learned my lesson. The first week of September found me in one of my favorite areas with my bow in one hand and both a Bull Elk and a Bull Moose tag for the same unit in my pocket. Three days of hiking and searching various spots with two great hunting buddies, produced several good encounters with elk and only a couple small moose spotted. I ascended a narrow finger ridge at daybreak by myself. Waiting for my serenade from above or one of the timbered canyons to either side of me, I paused at about two-thirds from the top waiting for ample light to gain the remaining elevation.
Legal shooting light found me moving again. Shortly thereafter, I caught movement ahead of me at the plateau I was heading for. It was a mature 5-point bull and he was heading away from my direction. With good thermals and the methodical ascent, I knew he wasn’t leaving because of me so I sprinted up the hill, quickly cutting the distance in half. I dropped my pack and continued to hustle my way up to a single pine just below the precipice of the plateau. My first set of cow calls revealed the reason the 5-point was high tailing it out of the country. A monstrous bugle echoed out of the timbered canyon to my left. My doubt that the new bull would reveal himself caused me to stay in my current position and continue to try to lure the first bull back in my direction. My second session of cow calls didn’t reveal the original bull either, but sparked another series of chilling screams from the bull to my left. His third series of bugles set off an alarm in my head that this bull was, in fact, heading up the drainage in the direction of my calls. It was time to make a move.
Still laboring from my initial race up the hill, I left my position at the base of the pine, dropped down a level, in an effort to keep my scent below the charging bull, and sprinted back towards him at an angle up the hill forming a ‘fish hook’ with my path. I soon reached the edge of the timber and took a knee just in time to see the buckskin animal moving right to left through the morning shadows up the hill in front of me. I reached for my rangefinder and attempted to find a landmark in his path that would give me an accurate reading. My heaving chest and lungs made it hard to make sense of what the rangefinder was telling me. Finally, as the giant 340 class six-point bull crested the timberline, I stopped him with a gentle ‘chirp’ and was able to get an accurate reading on the single tree that was directly in front of his hind legs.
My mind quickly replayed the hundreds of practice shots I had taken at sixty yards during the off season and here was this massive target standing broadside at fifty-eight. ‘I can make this shot in my sleep,’ I recall thinking. With that I raised, and drew my bow in one steady motion only to realize that my breathing pattern was bordering on asthmatic. My sight pin bobbed & weaved like a prize fighter and I was powerless to get it under control. My lack of conditioning would not allow me to make an ethical shot on this monarch. I would have to let him walk. As he trotted off another fifty yards and stopped to look back at me one last time, he barked in my direction as if to say, ‘What is your problem?’ I knew what my problem was, and I would not be doomed to repeat it.
The third week of September 2011 found me in the same unit but in a different spot from where my heartbreak occurred the year before. My pre-season routine had been better than ever and I was in the best shape I had been in since my final year of college football. I was cruising the mountains and the miles with an ease that I faintly remember experiencing many years ago. At one point, I remember my hunting partner, Doug Somsen (who is my mentor and an amazing hunter) saying, ‘I am glad you have been sick this week or I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with you at all!’ Between his back injury from earlier in the year and my severe head & chest cold that made breathing next to impossible, we were a sorry sight but we were still hunting hard.
Day five of a seven day bivy hunt revealed a herd of elk within a couple hundred yards of our modest dry camp. Unable to get around them and into position undetected, we poured off the north face of this drainage towards the bottom of the canyon. One consistently vocal bull had grabbed our attention as we flowed down the timbered slope across the creek in the bottom and over the next ridge.
As we neared the bull’s ‘bedroom’, Doug held up to stretch his back and sent me after the quarry like he would his Labrador retriever. Hearing the persistent bull beckon once more just a couple hundred yards ahead, I saw no reason to complain or argue. I eagerly moved up the draw, careful to keep my approach hidden and quiet but at a pace that would have me there in no time. I soon had a visual on the elk; he was bedded down by himself about seventy yards ahead. He was a magnificent six-point that was comfortably above the 350 mark. We were separated by a diagonal row of quaking aspen trees so a shot from this direction was not possible. I took a knee trying to assess the situation when I noticed his cows to my left at about fifty yards. They hadn’t seen me either so my focus returned to their leader. He then bugled once more from his bed in response to another bull well up the ridge who had been making noise non-stop this whole time. As his bugle tapered off, he stood up, left his cows, and made a bee-line up the hill towards his vocal challenger–leaving me there bewildered.
I walked up the timbered slope to my right and met up with Doug who was looking at me in a way that asked, ‘what on earth just happened?’ I replayed the story for him in short order and he confidently revealed that the lower bull was probably headed up to start a fight with his antagonistic adversary. We decided to take chase but the pain in Doug’s lower back was going to slow his usual long-legged pace so I told him I would run up this ridge to the right of the action and try and cut off the elk. He would come up behind the group in case they busted me from the other direction.
I took off up the hill as quickly as I could, trying once again to move swiftly but quietly. After what seemed like a significant distance I began to see the shapes and colors I was looking for a little farther up the hill and to my left. I continued to gain elevation in order to get parallel with the elk and quietly moved in closer to the herd, now directly to my left. I settled in next to a pine tree in order to break up my figure. I was now fifty yards from one of the most amazing sequence of events I have witnessed in my hunting life.
The large bull from the bottom of the hill charged into the dense timber and locked horns with the vocal bull we heard from the bottom. The large five-point held his ground and fought for all he was worth to keep this dominating figure from taking his harem in its entirety. The battle echoed through the trees, sending cows and smaller bulls scattering out of the cover and off of the hill in order to protect themselves. There were elk headed in every direction and I was right where I wanted to be…right in the middle of them!
The two bulls separated and danced around the forest in front of me occasionally stopping to catch their breath and survey the damage. My rangefinder picked up one tree near a popular spot that was forty-eight yards from me. Immediately after that, the impressive five-point came through the modest opening and provided a view of his vitals giving me my first opportunity. Even with the highly intense and taxing chase I had just completed I subtly drew my bow with no issues and was just about to settle my fifty yard pin with confidence when the action picked back up and the bull sprinted off to defend one of his subjects once again.
A few moments later, the larger bull retreated back down the mountain with a few new prizes. The big 5 points was now hustling around trying to take account of who he still had so as not to lose any more. As he worked his cows up the hill to my right I snuck onto the dusty battlefield in an attempt to come up behind the scattered herd. I could hear him dart down a canyon finger to my right looking for stragglers. As he bugled his way back up to the cows that were now right in front of me I got into position and took a knee, once again ready for my opportunity. My sixty-eight pound Carbon Element drew back with ease. He continued his ascent up the canyon working from my right to my left; his antlers followed by his impressive body materializing right in front of me at a mere twenty-three yards.
Unlike last year, my weapon was solid in my hands, even with the much more intense scenario that had just played out. There was no heaving of my chest, all of my facilities were under control, and my pin was as steady as a rock. All of that off-season effort was just about to show its worth. The squats and lunges, the circuit training in the gym, and all the miles on the treadmill, gravel, and pavement were about to pay dividends. My raspy voice did it’s best to create a subtle cow call in such close quarters. The bull stopped almost instantly, completely broadside, and looked right at me. I could hear him breathe as I settled my thirty yard top-pin tight to his left shoulder and released my arrow in his direction….
I mentioned earlier that we are motivated by our successes and failures. My failure in 2010 motivated me to work harder than ever to succeed in 2011. For the most part, it worked. But, as my 393 grain Gold Tip skipped off of a microscopic branch that had eluded my vision, I realized I would have another source of motivation for the upcoming off-season. Not only to continue training the way I had for the previous nine months but also to always make sure that my shooting lane is clear. Hey, that’s hunting.