Why do we see pigeons as lowly urban pests and how did they become such common city dwellers? Courtney Humphries traces the natural history of the pigeon, recounting how these shy birds that once made their homes on the sparse cliffs of sea coasts came to dominate our urban public spaces. While detailing this evolution, Humphries introduces us to synanthropy: The concept that animals can become dependent on humans without ceasing to be wild; they can adapt to the cityscape as if it were a field or a forest.
Superdove simultaneously explores the pigeon’s cultural transformation, from its life in the dovecotes of ancient Egypt to its service in the trenches of World War I, to its feats within the pigeon-racing societies of today. While the dove is traditionally recognized as a symbol of peace, the pigeon has long inspired a different sort of fetishistic devotion from breeders, eaters, and artists—and from those who recognized and exploited the pigeon’s astounding abilities. Because of their fecundity, pigeons were symbols of fertility associated with Aphrodite, while their keen ability to find their way home made them ideal messengers and even pilots.
Their usefulness largely forgotten, today’s pigeons have become as ubiquitous and reviled as rats. But Superdove reveals something more surprising: By using pigeons for our own purposes, we humans have changed their evolution. And in doing so, we have helped make pigeons the ideal city dwellers they are today. In the tradition of Rats, the book that made its namesake rodents famous, Superdove is the fascinating story of the pigeon’s journey from the wild to the city—the home they’ll never leave.
A willing and observant person can gather some extraordinary insights about the natural world in the most unlikely places. It can happen in the short time that it takes to blink an eye, no matter if that eye belongs to you, or to something else. Nature abounds with beneficial lessons and the teachers of true meaning are everywhere. I just happen to gain some of my clues from the clear-eyed and attentive stares of my backyard pigeon flock. You can learn a lot from an otherwise ordinary and common creature.
I spend a fair amount of time with this captive audience of one hundred in their outdoor aviary. I am their provider, and their lifeline from the outside lands. I supply them with their daily ration of grains and clean water, irregardless of the weather or the many other duties or time constraints I may have. I fill their pickpots with grit and minerals. I break ice from their bowls in the winter, and suffer the same stinging snows and biting winds of the day. I clean their flypen and pigeon-house, and keep a sharp eye out for the telltale signs of distress or disease. I study them closely, and through it all, they watch me too.
I am a constant in their lives, and a spoke in their wheel of life. I have come to know of them and their world just a little bit, and they of me. It could be said that they would rather prefer that I was not involved at all, but I am a necessary intrusion they must tolerate, at least for a brief time.
Yet, they wait for me each morning and afternoon, the anticipation building as I drive up to the entrance doors. They mill about excitedly as I approach, ready to perform just for me. I touch the door handle, and they begin their wild jig, dancing like ecstatic puppets on hidden strings. They hop about and swirl their wings like crazed whirligigs, or slap their wingtips smartly as they launch from their perch for a short flight across the pen.
They chant their pigeon talk and coo even louder as I step in through the inner doors, to become completely surrounded by frantic birds, eager to fill their crops before the other’s. They push and shoulder for each speck of grain as if their life depended on it. Perhaps they bicker and fight to establish or maintain some imperceptible pigeon pecking order, or maybe just to remind themselves that life can be a struggle. You would think that they would know by now that their will be enough food for all comers, but it is a wild ritual that they simply must abide for reasons known only to the pigeon.
We have repeated this madcap scene a few thousand times and more, the pigeons and I. It has become routine, with little deviation from the usual suspects. That is until yesterday, when our normal interaction abruptly and inexplicably changed.
It was immediately obvious when I pulled up in my truck. The absence of sound or flashing wings struck me first, and what pigeon heads I could see sat on top of outstretched necks, alert, with searching eyes. They crouched in the classic manner of all prey, with feet tucked under their bodies, coiled and ready to spring out and away from impending danger.
The birds stood frozen and paid me little mind as I entered and searched the ground for an animal intruder. I investigated the pigeon houses and the nest boxes and found nothing. I checked every nook and cranny of their limited world and came up empty. I paused to scratch my head, and ponder this puzzling circumstance.
Hand on chin, I stared at the closest pigeon and wondered, determined to discover just why he would not fly. And then he cocked his head, and I saw his eye focus on something high as he grounded himself more tightly to his perch. At that moment I spied a wide, dark shadow moving across the dirt floor, and smiled. I knew exactly what belonged in that kind of shadow, as did my fine feathered friends. All I had to do was look up, to see just exactly what it was that had struck such all-consuming fear in their hearts.
I had no doubt that the shadow maker was an eater of birds, but there were several possibilities in this category. A red-tailed hawk maybe, or a gleaming eagle from the nearby river. In this case the black shadow belonged to an animal of equal color, with a distinctively naked neck. It was not what I expected to see.
The Turkey Vulture, or Buzzard as it is sometimes called, is quite common to the American West and many parts of North America. A six-foot wingspan casts a long shadow across the land, and he covers a lot of it as he travels. That great red and bald head is immediately recognizable from afar, and known by all. His sentinel like posture and hovering demeanor create and perpetuate his iconic image. It is a form often associated with death, and it is a meaning not entirely lost on my domesticated, but anxious, pigeon flock.
The Vulture is classified as a bird of prey, after all, even though he finds most of his meals by smell after they are already dead. I suppose that it is a distinction utterly lost on the brain of a pigeon.
His generic name is Cathartes, which means “purifier”. It is an appropriate name, as the Buzzard is the sharp-beaked “tearer”, and recycler of flesh and feather. He is part of nature’s cleanup crew, and a perfectly ordained sanitizing unit. His kind is often referred to as “carrion eaters”, as if it were a derogatory term used to define the sordid parameters of their defective character. Nothing could be father from the truth.
I, for one, am a defender of this homely yet beautiful animal. The manner in which he makes his living should not be used to demean or degrade his standing in the larger scheme of things. His shadow may strike terror in the souls of countless scurrying and furtive creatures, but he has not come for them. Not now. He is where our lifeless bodies might naturally go, may we all be so lucky. There are far worse fates to suffer than those borne through the belly of a bird.
Still, it makes me wonder about the sensibilities of the pigeons in my charge. None of this buzzard business should be of any concern to a bird so far removed from a natural environment. It may be true that their only protection from flying marauders is a thin, nylon mesh that forms the roof of their cage. But what of it?
Most of my birds have never known anything else than the limited boundaries of the aviary. They were hatched here, reared by their parents and brought to adulthood without having to worry about danger and death from above. They have never enjoyed a truly wild moment in their lives, and I doubt if the thought of escape and a different kind of life has ever occurred to them.
Likewise, their parents have grown up in much the very same way, as did their parents, and their parents, and so on and so on. In fact their domestic lineage goes back for thousands of years, to the days when the first man-made his first hopeful departures from the relative safety of the caves. They are mankind’s first domestic animal partner, and their history is our history. One would think that very little of the wild would be left in the soul of a pigeon. On the contrary, it would appear that the thin margin of safety above their swiveling heads provides little comfort.
It makes me wonder about the level of domestication in the so-called domestic pigeon. How much wild is left in an otherwise non-wild creature? What does he remember of his life on the cliffs? Is it some latent genetic memory, or something else that keeps him looking skyward? Something tells me that there are some wild yearnings left behind, and that it might not take them very long to surface if given some small opportunity.
Truth be known, the story of the vulture and the pigeon is a tale as old as time and one not so easily forgotten. Each has something to tell us in their own way. Their interactions remind us that the primordial spark of life burns on as brightly as ever. They beckon us to live fully while we are alive, no matter the circumstance or the crosses we bear.
They tell us that danger is but a heartbeat away, though we try to deny it by surrounding ourselves with shallow and petty distractions. The realities of life and death lie closely behind the delicate veil, no matter how hard we may try to separate and protect ourselves from the natural world with the cages of our own clever designs.
The Turkey Vulture occasionally wishes to feel like a master predator on the wing, and a hunter of live prey. Perhaps he flies over our birds to feel the power of his blood and history. He dares us to be watchful, yet hopeful, lest we gain the finality of his steady gaze. We all must eventually return to replenish the elements of the earth. We are needed, we are welcome, but perhaps not today.
The great purifier embraces the rising thermals and circles ever upward, hanging on the edge of consciousness to remind us that a little bit of wild remains in the most cowered and tamed of the earthly realms below. We shall all have plenty of time to rest, and to watch, in our time.
For Todd, it is a fitting end to a 26 year quest to draw a tag in one of Colorado’s Best Game Management Units.
I can’t wait to hear more of the story, but it certainly looks like it was well worth the wait.
Congratulations Todd. If anyone deserves a great bull elk, that would be you!
And to Ian, have patience, for no doubt, you will hunt there one day too…
We were all young once too!
“In my mind’s eye, I see young elk calves frolicking and playing tag on the green grass of summer, some with light spots on their skin. I see a mystical creature walking in and out of view among the flickering shadows of a frost covered, autumn meadow. I see hunting camps and friends, animated and laughing. I see tired men sweating under heavy loads of meat and horn, winded and worn out from a hard day, but energized. I see impossibly large steaks sputtering on a hot aspen-wood fire, next to a glass of good, smoky whiskey and some cold, clear, creek water to wash it down. I see a young boy, now a man, describing his first kill while beaming with a grin so wide that it fills the sky. I see a father standing behind a boy who is so proud that he can not speak, but says it all with one look. I see more than I can comprehend. I do not have the words. I see way too much, and maybe not nearly enough”. – From Sacred Ground, by Michael Patrick McCarty
Widely known for his exploits as a gunman, hunter, and ballistics expert, Elmer Keith’s writings on hunting and guns have instructed and inspired countless devotees—and no one has ever been more qualified to do so.
Keith lived his entire life in the wilds. And after decades of ranching and dozens of hunting trips to remote corners of Alaska and northern Canada, he built a tremendous body of knowledge about guns, game, and life on the trail, which he has generously shared in the pages of this one-of-a-kind book.
Like all of Keith’s writing, Elmer Keith’s Big Game Hunting is pragmatic, factual, and immensely informative. Here is the only big game hunting book that will explain how to:
Look for game
Judge trophies before shooting
Properly select and care for your rifle
Track wounded game
Properly outfit for a hunting trip
Furthermore, Keith includes detailed profiles of the appearance and behavior of a range of American game, including chapters on bear, caribou, deer, elk, antelope, bison, arctic game, and more. A crucial book for active and aspiring hunters as well as anyone who appreciates a good fireside hunting story, Elmer Keith’s Big Game Hunting is the definitive work on hunting game from a bonafide American legend.
This unique collection of new nature essays forthrightly addresses the environmental conditions and concerns of the 1990s. The contributors include an anthropologist, a filmmaker, and several novelists and fly fishermen and -women as well as established nature writers like Wendell Berry, Gary Nabhan, and Bill McKibben. Subjects range from hiking in Alaska to viniculture in France, and the tone and style vary from the Swiftian satire of Robert F. Jones to John Murray’s personal meditation and Wendell Berry’s passionate biblical rhetoric. Yet these diverse essays are bound by a single theme summed up succinctly by Mary Katherine Bateson: “Ethics follow efficacy.” Because we humans have become so many and so powerful, we must become environmentally responsible; we must reform our greedy, exploitative relationship to the natural world and learn to share the planet’s wealth with other species and future generations. – Joan S. Elbers Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Sacred Ground, Sacred Trust
By Michael Patrick McCarty
Animal signs and tracks have always fascinated me, no doubt encouraged by the knowledge that a living, breathing creature just laid them down and might be standing just over the next rise. Tracks are a record of nature’s wanderings and little doings, scratched and scribed on mother earth’s own back. They are placed there, as new each time, for those who wish to follow and investigate.
Temporary and ephemeral, they sing with animal promise and life eternal, bursting of meanings far greater than their small impression would indicate. They speak of purpose and plan, reward and desire, and adventure for all.
Tracks lead, I must follow. I aspire to ponder the possibilities of their message, and to attempt to practice what they may wish to teach. I wish could read them better. Maybe I can decipher them in this lifetime. I am determined to try.
I am a particularly fond of elk, and I am a dedicated student of elk tracks. Their shape intrigues me, and I like the way they cut deeply into the ground as if searching for the planet’s center, releasing the earth’s rich, dark aroma to mingle with their heavy musk. There is nothing subtle about the way that an elk marches through life, churning and slinging dirt and mud while becoming even more solidly rooted to the ground. It grounds my wandering boots as well. They pull me deeper into the ground with each step. I feel freer, calmer, and more fully connected to my life.
Their tracks tell their story, and I gain insight and know the characters more intimately through the added layers of each successive chapter. It is a long and complex tale. I have trailed along wherever and whenever I could. Later, my mind wanders, and I am on the move again, reliving old trails and experiences even when my body is somewhere else.
The characters in this tale are many and varied, each with their own unique qualities, motivations, and point of view. I can read the developing plot on the ground, at my feet, and just ahead. Here are tracks large and small, first meandering slowly, then running. Some are evenly spaced and calm, some are random and hurried. Yearling elk lay them down, as do old dry cows, new-born calves, and antlered bulls small and large.
They document the every day struggles, their hopes, their fears, joys, and occasional sufferings. I can picture in my visions the upturned head of an alert mother, nostrils quivering and searching for unwanted and dangerous scents. Ahead of her, I see a battle-scarred old warrior bull, standing tall in its last footprint, bugling and aching for a fight. It’s all written upon the ground, in the signs of animals and tracks.
Tracks have led me to vibrantly green, sundappled forests so beautiful it was difficult not to cry. It was tempting to lie down there forever, quiet and unmoving, until my body turned to stone, left to weather and crack and fall upon the earth.
I stood again, to wind my way through sage covered flats, with pounding rain and fog so thick that one is forced to look only down, watching the rain drops from your hat land squarely in the elk track below. Shielding my eyes from stinging, wind-driven snowflakes, I have waded through the unbearable snows of a terrible winter to find a calf’s last struggles against barbed wire and fence, too high.
More than once I have explored an anxious trail of tracks patterned by a solitary elk, and observed the paw prints of a mountain lion, or a bear, on top. Moving on intently, I have found only piles of hair or a few shards of bone in the last impression, with no elk left to pursue.
Backtracking upon tracks I was stepping on, I have been confronted with the reality of mountain lion or bear tracks covering my tracks, in turn. Tracks have led me to the center of nowhere, and back again. On the way I found myself, staring back. I am always looking for the next track to chase, eager to discover where it may lead.
My life is surrounded by elk and their tracks. apparently, I’ve made sure it worked out that way, without fully realizing it. Tracks lead past my house on their way to hay fields below, and I often stand in them on my way to our garden. Even at work, I look for them out of the corner of my eye, knowing that they are often just yards away from my comfortable shoes.
I work as a security guard, and my “office” is a “shack” at the main entrance of a golf course, country club, and home development. The sprawling property is interspersed with large homes on small lots, with much open space, and for now, many vacant house lots. A river runs through it. Public lands are near and expansive. Elk and mule deer are a commonly seen, along with a variety of smaller animals, birds and waterfowl. I am a most fortunate person.
You might say I have a room with a view. Red rocky ridges, sparkling clear water, and manicured greenery wrap around and fill the big windows of the small building. To the south, Mt. Sopris looms above us and refuses to be ignored. Broad shouldered and solid, with a long, deep blanket of shimmering snow fields below her twin peaks, it is one of my favorite and most comforting friends. The Ute Indians revered her first, and named her “Mother Mountain”.
Somehow I feel that she is watching, and that she is caring and protective of the many beings down below. I look to her often, and wonder what she would have to say about our human doings. She already knows that all is not always well in paradise.
“Mother Mountain” has a grand view of the “eagle tree” on the property, and a section of the development has been declared off-limits to all activity in an effort to honor the pair of bald eagles that raise their young here every summer. It is a grandfather of all trees, a towering ponderosa with heavy, thick branches, perfectly placed on the bank of a sweeping curve in the shallow river.
The eagles have been raising their young here for decades, perhaps millennia, or more. They have seen a lot, these eagles. The place would not be the same without them and it is a credit to the developer and others who planned it.
In the spring and summer people talk of them and wish to see them. They call for the daily eagle report. They are famous, they are legend. Homeowners and club members can see them whenever they wish. Outsiders cannot. We must protect the eagles from disturbance, we say. To appease the general public, we occasionally host a coordinated observation tour to show everyone that all is well in eagle world. It’s the least we can do.
However, limited and brief access does not satisfy the public demand. Most of the excited, would be visitors arrive by vehicle unannounced, without appointment. They wish to watch the eagles and they want to see them very badly. They are curious about their eaglets and they can’t wait to take their picture. One of the parent’s may return with a freshly caught and wiggling trout to feed the young, and they want to encourage them on. For their own reasons they are humans who want to be part of something else, something wild.
Birders and eagle lovers can be very determined folks, and they do not like to be turned away. But we do, because we must, and we can. After all, it is private property, you see. Members only, I’m afraid.
The private in private property can define and expose some harsh realities. It means that something, in this case the eagles, belongs to someone else. They are not for you. When I deprive someone of the eagles, I know that it was not my idea and that I am only doing my job, but that does not make me feel any better. I must wonder, as I turn to Mt. Sopris and ask, what would “mother” say”?
My head is out of the office as much as it is in, and when I slide the door open to greet a guest I cannot help but look in the direction of the river and the eagle tree. Perhaps I can catch a glimpse of that distinctive white head flashing in the light of a low sun, as it soars calmly over the back of an elk on its return to the comfort of the family nest.
After sunset, the night belongs to the elk, particularly during the long, cold nights of winter. I often can hear them calling back and forth to each other, conversing in a language as old as time. They paw and crunch through the snow just out of range of approaching headlights. On moonlit nights I can spot them weaving around the trees near the building, a ghostly apparition that begs me to leave my confines and join them. Unobservable to the casual traveler and yet so close, it is our little secret, the elk and I.
During the worst days of our long winters, the elk congregate on the property to escape the heavy snows of the high country. Skiers on their way to Aspen, most of them apparently from elkless places, slam on their brakes and leave the highway. They can’t believe their eyes. They shower me with questions. Is that an elk? How many are there? Where did they go? How long will they be here? They want to see the elk, and they want to see them very badly. They need to see them. Why are the elk here, they ask? I do not know the answer to that last one, but I am glad they asked. That is the million dollar question, after all.
I want to grant the them access, because I love the fact that they are so completely enthralled with an animal that I love too. Instead, I must say no, and turn them away. It is that private property thing again, rising to rear its ugly head. The elk are standing on private property, I explain. It is a private subdivision and a private club. The message is clear. They are “our elk”, not yours. They may wander about on public land most of the year, but they are “our elk” now. They are not for you. I cannot let you past. I cannot accommodate your request.
Most of the time they look past me and through me as if I’m not there, eager for another elk sighting. They plead and they reason, hoping to gain some toehold to hang on to and work a crack to break my resolve. They cannot believe I am blocking their way, incredulous at my lack of compassion and understanding regarding their need. I stand uninvolved, professional, resolute. They do not know that I wish for them to see them too. I cannot let them see the inner workings of my conflicted mind. If I only could…If they only knew…
The west is not the west that I came to 35 years ago. More populated, yes, but different in ways apart from the addition of people. Attitudes have changed. Colorado has become more and more like…other places. It has never ceased to amaze me how people come here to escape the problems of the place they have come from – and then promptly try to change the new place back into the old place they just worked so hard to escape. Too often our stunning views become valued most for the picture through the picture window in the great room of the palatial house on the new hobby ranch estate.
Here, as in many areas throughout the west, the trophy houses perch like sentinels above the river, on guard against the boatman who pass on the public waters below. In Colorado only the navigable and flowing water is public; the river bottoms and shorelines are private. May the heavens part and jagged thunderbolts smite the poor, unwashed soul who touches the river bottom with the metal of boat or anchor, or wader covered foot. They are watching, and the fish policemen are but a moment away. I should know. I am one.
The fish, of course, belong to the public. The finny creatures are managed by people who work for a public wildlife management agency, which is funded with public funds, paid primarily by private citizens who purchase a public fishing license with their private dollars, which pays for the public fish managed by the public wildlife management agency. Yet, there seems to be some confusion over who owns the fish.
The private property proclamations and numerous no trespassing signs are placed strategically and obviously to remind the boatmen not to stop. The signs imply the desired message. You may pass but do not enter. Wet your lines and be on your way. The area is designated as catch and release, the sign says, so put our fish back too. Like the elk, and the eagle, they are “our fish”, and not for you. I blissfully fished on these river banks many, many times over the years, with the eagles over my shoulders. There were no signs or houses then. I quit fishing here, a lifetime ago. Somehow all of the joy has long since been squeezed out of these troubled waters.
I like my job well enough. Like many people I have too many bills to pay, a mortgage to service, and promises to keep. I must work, but the duty does not particularly suit me. I struggle with my inner wranglings, and find it difficult to relate to people on equal or near equal terms, in an effort to provide what they need. Mind reading and the decoding of a person’s unspoken and true desire is not one of my strong suits. Oh how I wish that it was.
On the other hand, my desire is clear. I would prefer to be glued to a hot track, or directly connected to a pulsating and surging fish. I want to be the eagle, to fly away, circling ever upward and screaming fiercely in a bold, blue sky. I do my best to smile. No one has ever asked my opinion about anything substantial. In the end, I am a glorified Walmart Greeter, waving contentedly like a trained and tethered circus monkey, guarding a lifestyle at my back that I could never attain financially, but would never chose if I could.
To be fair, many of the residents love the elk and respect and cherish the gift of wildlife around them. They wish to help much more than harm. Most of the rest are nice enough. Some of the others, not so much. Some of the not so nice have long since moved away. Selling out, they were eager to move on to the next better place and conquer new-found worlds. Godspeed. I wish them well. Continue reading Sacred Ground – The Fate of Elk & Man→
This is not your father’s venison cookbook. Buck, Buck, Moose is the first comprehensive, lushly photographed, full-color guide to working with and cooking all forms of venison, including deer, elk, moose, antelope and caribou. Buck, Buck, Moose will take you around the world, from nose to tail. The book features more than 100 recipes ranging from traditional dishes from six continents to original recipes never before seen. You’ll also get thorough instructions on how to butcher, age and store your venison, as well as how to use virtually every part of the animal. Buck, Buck, Moose also includes a lengthy section on curing venison and sausage-making. Peppered throughout are stories of the hunt and essays on why venison holds such a special place in human society. Venison is far more than mere food. It is, in many ways, what made us human.
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“For the wild animal there is no such thing as a gentle decline in peaceful old age. Its life is spent at the front, in line of battle, and as soon as its powers begin to wane, in the least, its enemies become too strong for it; it falls.
Ernest Thompson Seton, Lives Of The Hunted, 1901
“Obsessive pursuit finally led the bull of his dreams. Then something else took him over”.
There is a place I have been that many elk hunters must eventually visit. The mountains may shine amidst spectacular landscapes and it may look like typical elk country, but somehow things are different there. It is a land of mystery and natural forces inaccessible by horseback, jeep or other conventional means. Inward rather than outward, it is a journey of the heart on a path unique to each individual. It is a place you only know once you get there.
I found myself in such a place some years ago, while archery hunting in the high desert country of northwestern Colorado. Elk hunting had been my passion for a couple of decades, more often than not with bow and arrow as the weapon of choice. I’d hunted more than a few of Colorado’s limited-entry units with a fair amount of success. And my overwhelming concern had always been the pursuit of the big bull – the bigger the better.
He filled my dreams and consciousness and became part of my daily motivation for living and working in Colorado. I would find him, and I would launch a broadhead deep into his chest. Of course, with that event, fame and fortune would soon follow.
I have always paid attention to “The Book”, and to who shot what where. I wanted very badly to be one of those fellows with the 27 record-book entries, who had just returned from Montana or Mongolia, or that private ranch many hunters drool over. You know the ranch of which I speak, the one with a Boone and Crockett bull on every other ridge. I wanted all of it, the recognition from my peers and the life that would come with my great success. The more entries the better and as fast as possible. I ran for the goal and rarely looked back. I can’t say nothing else mattered, but by god it was close.
Then, one long-awaited day, I found myself hunting a special-permit area in Colorado. It was indeed the land of the big bull, a trophy area of epic proportions and about as fine a spot as one could hunt without paying the big money. The animals were there. I had a tag, and I would fill it. I would take what was mine and move on.
I hunted a grueling 10 days. The terrain was rocky and mostly open, with occasional brush patches and stunted cedars. It looked like a moonscape compared to the timbered high country I was used to hunting. Getting close enough for a shot was tough, yet I was able to pass up smaller bulls and often found myself within arrow range of elk that would make most hunters lightheaded. They made me lightheaded. They were the biggest-bodied elk I have ever seen, with towering, gleaming branches of bone. They looked like tractors with horns.
As so often happens in bowhunting, however, something always seemed to go wrong. I made so many stalks and had so many close calls, the events are just a blur. I eventually missed not one but two record-book animals. Each time a shaft went astray, I screamed and wailed with self pity, cursing my rotten luck and the useless stick and string in my hand. The prize was so close, yet always so far away.
Toward the end of the season, I glassed a small herd a couple of miles below me. Two were big bulls. One had cows, and the other wanted them. They were bugling back and forth and generally sizing each other up. I hurriedly planned a stalk and rushed downhill toward my dream.
I stalked and weaved and became enmeshed in a moving, mile-long skirmish line. More than once I slipped between the two animals as they worked their way through the brush and cedars. I saw flashes and patches of hide but was never able to loose an arrow. I knew that within few minutes a monstrous set of headgear would be laying at my feet. I felt I had been waiting for this moment all my life.
Soon the largest bull swung into the open sagebrush a couple of hundred yards below me, followed closely by a small herd of cows. Words cannot describe his magnificence. He was one of the finest specimens of elkness I have ever seen, with muscles that bulged and rippled under his skin. He was a bull of unique and exceptional genetics with a massive and perfect rack that appeared to stretch behind forever as he laid his head back to bugle. He was certainly at his absolute prime and, if the truth were known, perhaps a bit past it and didn’t know it. He took my breath away. Then I remembered why I had come.
Meanwhile, the smaller and closer of the two bulls had become even more vocal, and soon it became obvious he would pass very close to me on his way down the hill. He was not quite as large as the old bull, but he was big enough all the same. My bow was up and my muscles taut as I began my draw – and suddenly he was running and he was gone. I watched spellbound as he broke into the open and headed for the elk below us.
It was one of those unexplainable moments when time stands still, and you become something more than yourself. I could have been a rock or a tree or an insect in flight. I was at once both an observer and participant in the great mystery, a part of something far larger than myself.
The air was electric and my body tingled as the two warriors squared off. The cows felt it, too, and crashed crazily over the ridge. It was as if they knew something extraordinary was going down and wanted no part of it. The bulls screamed and grunted wildly at each other from close range, with quite a bit more intensity than I had ever witnessed. And suddenly they were one. They would have made any bighorn ram proud, as they seemed to rear up on their hind legs before rushing and clashing with a tremendous crack. I watched as they pushed and shoved with all their might, a solid mass of anergy and immense power surrounded by flying dirt and debris.
They showed no signs of quitting. Soon it dawned on me that they were too preoccupied to notice what I was doing, even though there was virtually no cover for a stalk. My legs carried me effortlessly over the rough and broken ground, and I was giddy with the exhilaration of the end so close at hand. The larger of the two was obviously tiring, and I remember feeling a pang of sorrow for an animal that would soon be beaten, probably for the first time in a very long time, and would now have to slink off humiliated and cowless.
They pushed and they struggled and, for a few moments, seemed to have reached a stalemate as I neared bow range. The old bull hesitated, then pushed, and when the other bull responded, the old bull spun like a Sumo Wrestler, took the uphill advantage and charged. I stood dumbfounded as the two hit the top of a shallow ravine and disappeared from view.
When I reached the edge of the drop-off, the fight was over. The old bull crawled slowly out of the ravine, managing to keep the only two trees between us all the while. He moved sorely and looked like he had just survived 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. I was probably the least of his problems.
I found the other bull where I knew he would be. I sent a shaft his way and ended what remained of his life, although his fate had already been sealed. A very long tine had done its job as well as any arrow ever could.
I collapsed by the side of that marvelous creature as if I were the one who’d just been beaten, and in a way I had. I stared off into space, confused, a little angry, and barely able to grope around in my pack for a gulp of water, half laughing, then crying. I don’t know how long I remained there before a distant bugle brought me back into the moment, reminding me of the work at hand and the long uphill walk back to my truck.
His head hangs in my den now, and I still stare at him in wonder and amazement. When my friends and family ask why I didn’t have him officially scored for the record book, I usually mumble some vague and incoherent answer, as the right words never seem to come.
For some reason, antler measurements have ceased to matter to me. It has something to do with realizing animals are much more than the sum of their parts. Hunting and the hunted remain a significant part of my life, but my reasons for hunting, and my life in general, have changed in some way I have yet to fully understand. Perhaps more than anything, I realize just how much I love to hunt. And that in itself is more than enough reason for doing it.
The bull’s proud head on my wall will always serve to remind me of that special place I have visited and hope to never forget.
I am, and will always be, forever humbled. Perhaps you have been there yourself.
“Elk hunting runs deep. Not that it’s always fun, because it isn’t. It’s a contrast in superlatives, ranging from agony to euphoria, and it will stretch your senses to the limit. It raises you higher, drops you lower, deep into your body, mind, emotions, and soul. You may like elk hunting, you may not, but definitely you won’t forget it”.
Dwight Schuh, Game Country, October, 1989
“A Bowhunter is a Hunter Reborn – Forever…” – Michael Patrick McCarty
Directly above is a photo of an original print from my personal collection. I have owned it for several years, and in fact found this at an antique store not long after I wrote this article. As you might imagine, it means a great deal to me.
I am unable to translate the title, nor identify the artist. I would love to do both, and also give proper attribution to the artist.
Can anyone help?
—”Michael Patrick McCarty, longtime bowhunter, buys and sells rare tomes and texts from his bookstore in Glenwood Springs, Colorado”
–Originally published in Bugle Magazine, May-June 1999.
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Like many things in the world of sporting gear, the choice of a proper fitting bow, arrows to match, and the appropriate accessories to make it all work well together is a highly selective and personal choice.
It can also be a bit intimidating, for the combinations available in today’s bowhunting world are virtually limitless, if not mind-boggling. One person could not possibly try out even a small fraction of the more popular products, though it would surely be a whole lot of fun to try.
So what’s a conscientious and inquisitive bowhunter to do?
Well, my strategy of late has been, in many ways, to return to the archery days of my early youth. Mine was the days of Fred Bear and Frank Pearson, to name just a couple of the more obvious icons. It was long before Mr. Allen, or Mr. Jennings, appeared on the scene.
To be honest, I had already given up on those things with wheels a few years back, along with many other items of the mechanical kind. Not that there is anything wrong with that type of equipment, and power to you if you prefer the compound bow and some miscellaneous gadgets. It’s just no longer my particular cup of tea.
Still, it took me several decades to fully and unapologetically embrace the fact that I simply love the elegance and simplicity of the stick and string. In my view, archery has always been much more about art and intuition than science, or physics. Pull it back and let it go, I say, and watch the arrows fly.
Today’s modern recurves can offer all of that and more, with some remarkable engineering to go along with it. They can also be shot with surprising precision.
Lately, my current setup consists of a 60″ Hoyt Satori Traditional Recurve at 50# draw weight, Easton 340 Axis Traditional carbon shafts (with three pink 4″ parabolic cut left-wing feathers and Fred Eichler Custom Cap Wrap from Three Rivers Archery), and a 200 grain Helix Single Bevel Arrowhead (in left bevel to match the left-wing feathers).
I chose a Selway Archery Quick Detach Quiver to complete the package.
The Satori is available in several riser and limb configurations, and in this case I selected a 17″ riser and a shorter limb package which works very well in the confines of a ground blind or tree stand.
If pressed, I might agree that the 50# draw weight may be a little light for a big game animal like an elk, but then again, perhaps not.
I am a big believer in the use of heavy, weight forward shafts. With that in mind, I have attempted to compensate for any draw weight deficiencies by adding a 75 grain insert up front, with a big chunk of steel on the pointy end. The end result is about 610 grains of quick and unadulterated death.
However, as you might guess, it is pretty slow by compound bow standards, and it is definitely a close range affair. But in the end it is very stable, quiet, and target bow accurate. It also hits very hard, with penetration to spare.
As you can see from the photos below, first hand experience has shown me that the combo is very effective on big game from pronghorn to elk, for example. Both of these animals were literally dead on their feet when the broadhead hit them, and were recovered within one hundred yards of the shot.
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The Ute Indians called her “Mother Mountain”, because of her twin summits; the Roaring Fork Valley’s early settlers knew it as “Wemagooah Kazuhchich,” or “Ancient Mountain Heart Sits There.”
No matter what name you use, Mount Sopris, located in the Elk Mountains Range near Carbondale, Colorado provides one of the prettiest vistas in the rocky mountains.
Without a doubt, her heart beats strong. The Mule Deer feel it too.
And maybe it’s just me, but it’s even prettier when Mule Deer are standing below, and upon it.
And I can’t think of a more spectacular place to hunt! I plan on doing just that, very soon.
The Leupold Gold Ring 20-60x80mm Spotting Scope optics deliver a high magnification, incredibly bright, high resolution image across a wide field of view, all with best in class eye relief for easy, full field viewing with or without eyeglasses. The prism-less Folded Light Path (FLP) system uses mirrors to compress a long optical system into half its length. The magnesium housing make this high powered optic lightweight and extra rugged.Features:- Digital Camera Compatible- Xtended Twilight Lens System- DiamondCoat 2- Magnesium Housing- Front Focal Plane (FFF)- Tripod Ready- 100 percent Waterproof and Fog Proof- Folded Light PathSpecifications:- Actual Magnification: Low 20.00 x, High 60.00 x- Linear Field of View (foot/1000 yard): Low 121.00 foot, High 42.00 foot- Linear Field of View (meter/1000 meter): Low 37.00 meter, High 13.00 meter- Angular FOV (degrees): Low 2.30 degrees, High 0.80 degrees- Twilight Factor: Low 69.30, High 40.00- Exit Pupil (mm): Low 4.10 mm, High 1.30 mm- Eye Relief (mm): Low 30.00 mm, High 30.00 mm- Objective Clear Aperture (mm): N/A- Length (inch): 15.50 inch Length (mm): 394.00 mm- Weight (ounce): 61.80 ounce- Weight (gram): 1752.00 gram- Close Focus Distance: 25.00 foot- Close Focus Distance (meter): 7.60 meter
A seasoned and wise old billy of the mountain goat kind is many things, yet above all things, an extreme and elemental force defined by chilling winds, lightning, and mother nature in all her raw and naked glory. He can be found, if you dare, in that dizzying land of avalanche chutes, jumbled boulder fields, and rarefied air far above timberline. And find him you must, for he will not find you.
Add to this mix a man who longs to do just that, yet wonders if the body will still follow the wishes of the mind. Somehow the mountain slopes have become even steeper over the years, and the realities of the inevitable aging of flesh and bone are fast approaching like ominous, black-dark thunderheads over the peaks. This combination of animal and man may or may not be a match made in heaven. But it is a miraculous association none the less, built solidly upon a foundation of hope and lofty dreams.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I was successful in Colorado’s annual big game application lottery this year, and I don’t mind saying that I must have been a perplexing sight at the Post Office a few weeks ago. Only another big game hunter would recognize the shell-shocked posture, wide open mouth, and classic thousand yard stare of a person holding that coveted, newly printed tag.
Ten years are a long time to wait for a hunting permit, so I hope you will forgive me for not being able to think too clearly just yet. The receipt of what is most likely a once in a lifetime permission slip has a way of immediately reorganizing one’s pressing list of priorities.
You might say that the mere thought of this adventure gives me considerable pause, as well as a strange and vague uneasiness in the innards. After all, mountain goat hunting is not for the faint of heart under almost any circumstances. Stories of its practical difficulty and sheer physicality are legendary, and in fact, sometimes terrifying.
Just two years ago a goat hunter died not far from where I will be hunting, and I doubt that I will be able to discount that kind of fact. He had been successful too, but then fell from a cliff while packing out his goat.
My license is for Game Management Unit 12 in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness Area near Aspen, and it would be hard to find a more picturesque backdrop for a backcountry expedition. It may also be one of the more challenging units in the state due to limited access and other factors. In other words, it is brutally rugged and unapologetically unforgiving. The goats are a long, hard hike with a heavy pack from most almost any trailhead.
Legally, I may harvest a male or female goat, and it is a rifle tag. However, in Colorado the regulations allow me to hunt with a bow & arrow if I so choose, and I do. I was born a bowhunter, and a man must stay true to himself in matters such as this
Perhaps it is testing the fates to leave the rifle at home, since it is not easy to get the job done no matter what the weapon. I would also like to locate a mature billy and place myself within range of my recurve bow, a short-range instrument to say the least. But I’ve never had trouble creating boundary stretching goals for myself, and there’s nothing wrong with setting the sights on high.
It would be easy to become overwhelmed with all of the logistics involved. A great deal of contingencies must come together to be successful, which means of course that a lot of things can also go wrong. It would be fair to say that this hunt begins when you open that long-awaited envelope, and I suspect that I will never really feel fully prepared. And the fact is, even though I hunted them in Alaska forty years ago, I really don’t know all that much about goats.
Luckily, Douglas Chadwick does. A wildlife biologist, Chadwick spent many years studying this fascinating animal and famously called him “The Beast The Color of Winter”, in his book so aptly named. He was the first biologist to immerse himself in their everyday doings so completely, and to read his words about his life among the goats leaves one in awe and admiration of an animal that frolics so easily upon a place of such majesty and formidable beauty.
Every aspect of a mountain goat is improbable. At first glance their outward appearance can severely contrast with the splendor around them, for they do seem to be built from an odd and incongruent collection of body parts. They perform highly impossible, unbelievable feats in impassable terrain, clinging to tiny footholds on cliffs where even angels fear to tread.
Few people get to spend much time with them, if at all. If you do the encounters are more like the desperate escapades of a tethered astronaut who must return to base after a measured length of time, or face terminal consequences. To hunt them is a hard-won and precious gift.
Yet, Chadwick also refers to them as creatures of habit, perhaps to a fault. Throughout the year they move from winter and summer ranges as conditions dictate, returning to the same areas each season. In late summer and early fall they will often feed in the same sunlit meadow in the early morning, and then return along a well-worn path to bed for the day on the same protective ledge.
That’s a very exciting bit of news, since I am a creature of habit myself. I also have a large reservoir of patience, gathered over a lifetime of hunting experiences.
There’s some other things I know too. Concealment and ambush are the bowhunter’s stock in trade, and it is an extremely effective hunting strategy under the right circumstances. It is one of the few advantages in our little bag of tricks, and if you know anything at all about the severe limitations of archery equipment, you will know that we need and welcome any advantage that we can find. It’s not much, but it is…enough.
And so, the time is at hand. The exercise program and the preparations have begun.
“Let the games begin”, I cry, and I pray that the arrow flies swift and true. I plan to savor every breathless, lung-busting, leg-muscles-turned-to-jelly thrill of it all.
You can believe that I will be in that special place called mountain goat country this September; watching, high on a ridge where brilliant blue sky crashes hard against rock and snow. I shall sit with back to granite, eternally waiting for that great white beast to turn in my direction. Hanging there on the mountain, part of it, with a shining smile upon my face and a razor-sharp shaft on the string.
Wish for me to possess, if just for a moment, the fortitude and wilderness spirit of the goats themselves. Wish me the providence and predatory skills of all high country hunters everywhere, be they two-legged or four. I am no doubt going to need all the moral support I can muster, and perhaps a portable oxygen tank to go.
It is what mountain dreams and big adventures are all about, and it looks like I am on my way at last, god willing…
…An elk bugle echoes down and around us in the half-light of early morning, as the towering walls of Dark Canyon take over the skyline. The high, whistling notes are nearly overcome by the falls above, the waters now airborne, flying from the cliffs towards Anthracite Creek. We catch our breath as we climb up the Devil’s Staircase, towards the great unknowns of the Ruby Range and the perils of the Ragged Mountains…
No, this is not the scene of some campy, dramatic flick, as mysterious and foreboding as it may sound. But it was the backdrop, with some poetic license included, of a monumental event in the big game hunting world. It is here, in 1899, that John Plute of Crested Butte, Colorado looked down his rifle barrel and laid down one of the largest set of elk antlers ever recorded.
He has quite a history, this bull, and I can only imagine that his story only survives because of luck and some divine providence. It is said that Mr. Plute was a good hunter, and he often traded wild game for the goods that he needed. More than likely, he was usually not too concerned about the size of a bull’s headgear. Perhaps, in this case, he was.
He was also known to be a colorful character. An inveterate bachelor, a miner, and a mountain man, he traded the head to the local saloon keeper in payment of an overdue bar bill. It later passed to the stepson of the saloon owner, who dragged it out of storage and submitted the first unofficial measurement of its antlers in 1955.
The formalities took a little longer yet, until it was officially recognized by the Boone and Crockett Club as the new World’s Record Elk in 1961, The final score came in at a jaw-dropping 442 3/8 points.
Photographs simply don’t convey the magnificence of this specimen, and you can barely fit it within the view finder anyway. In person it is very nearly overwhelming, and it takes some time to evaluate its true size as the eye struggles to gain perspective.
The rack at its greatest spread tapes at over 51 inches, with 7 points on one side and 8 points on the other. One antler has a basal circumference of over 12 inches, and two points are more than 25 inches long. When first mounted many years after the kill, it was fitted with the biggest elk cape to be found. It was probably not quite big enough.
I have been fortunate to hunt some of the nation’s top trophy areas, and I have come across some big bulls in my time. A 325″ class bull is bigger than many elk hunters will ever encounter; a 350″ elk will really get your attention. I have yet to ground check a Boone and Crockett class elk, though it has not been for lack of trying.
Once, on a Colorado bowhunt, I very nearly harvested a bull that most certainly was approaching that magical 400 point plateau. The memory of that guy can still keep me up at night, and I doubt that I will ever forget the sense of awe he installed within me. I can hardly imagine another 40 or 50 inches of bone on top of his skull.
The Plute bull was the World Record for over 30 years, and many thought that it would never be beaten. The glory days of elk hunting appeared to be long gone, after all, …or were they?
In 1995, the elk hunting world shook once more when an antler buyer purchased a head that he had seen in the back of a pickup truck. Killed by an Arizona cattle rancher in 1968 and never measured, it was eventually determined to be bigger than the bull of Crested Butte. Even then, it only beat out the existing world record by less than 1/2″ of total score.
Obviously, Mr. Plute never knew just how big his elk really was. It does not sound that it would have mattered much to him anyway, though I probably should not speak as if I know. Very little has been passed down about his everyday doings, or his end. Some have said that he died while breaking a spirited horse; others have said that no one really knows. Perhaps the truth of his ultimate fate is lost upon the winds and snow fields of the wild lands that he roamed, like many men of his era. In my way of thinking that only adds another layer to the legend, and to the mysterious nature of a place that once held a bull such as this.
It is impossible to know the full extent of this elk’s legacy. No doubt his genetics still warms the blood of his countless descendants, banked for the day when they can fully express their immeasurable potential. Who knows how many elk like him, have lived, and died, without being seen?
The head now hangs at The Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce, which might seem an ignominious end to such an important animal. Perhaps it may not be the best place to honor him, but I do not get to make that kind of choice. For most, he is a curiosity and a fine tourist attraction, though I doubt that the uninitiated can grasp its true significance. For my part I am grateful for the opportunity to admire him in any way that I can.
The Dark Canyon of Anthracite Creek has yet to hit my eyes for real, but it will. I am drawn to it, curious too, and my hunter’s eye wants to see what it will see. Hunt there, I will, just to say that I did. I hope that John Plute would approve.
Most of all, I would like to think that a giant elk like him still roams those mountains. In my dreams I see him there, hanging back in the dark timber just out of reach of mortal men, suspended on the edge of time and the longing of hunter’s soul.
If you would like to read more about trophy elk and mule deer, we suggest that you acquire a copy of Colorado’s Biggest Bucks and Bulls, by Jack and Susan Reneau. We generally have a copy or two in stock. Feel free to Email for price quote and other details.
The original big-man stand, the Summit Goliath SD remains a huge favorite among hunters, and with good reason. Featuring the same comfort-engineered design as the Viper SD but with a wider top, the Goliath SD allows larger-framed hunters a little more room to move—with only a minimal gain in weight. At 21 lbs., the Goliath SD is still lightweight and portable enough to go everywhere you go and also boasts a larger, more comfortable seat. PROVEN RELIABILITY: Built to last, the Goliath SD Tree Stand is covered by Summit’s 5-Year Limited Warranty. DEADMETAL SOUND-DEADENING TECHNOLOGY: Critical parts of your tree stand’s platform are filled in with a custom-engineered expanding foam to reduce unintentional noises. QUICKDRAW CABLE RETENTION SYSTEM: The simplest, fastest and quietest cable attachment system ever invented, no fumbling with pins, knobs, nuts or bolts necessary. Size the cable to your tree’s diameter, insert the cable into the retention bracket, and the QuickDraw trigger locks securely in place. Pull the “trigger” to remove the stand from the tree. SUMMITLOKT STRUCTURAL ENHANCEMENT: High-quality extruded aluminum and precision welds provide maximum rigidity and strength. Each joint is “locked” into place before welding and designed so that stress its welds is minimized, for a stand that’s strong, safe, secure and silent. RAPIDCLIMB CLIMBING STIRRUPS: A standard feature on all Summit climbing stands, RapidClimb stirrups are easy to use and adjustable to fit any boot. Designed to keep your boot securely attached to the platform, these ergonomic stirrups allow you to quickly and safely climb to your desired height.
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READY OR NOT
The young whitetail buck bounds proudly into the field of newly planted winter wheat and stops, and I know that I must remember to take a breath. Just moments before it had magically appeared from the heavy shadows at field’s edge. I saw first its jet black nose, then it’s eyes, followed by searching ears, and horns.
For some mysterious reason I had been staring intently at this very spot amidst the tangle of heavy vines, the bright green leaves of sassafras trees, and the yellow of remnant persimmon fruit hung on bare branches. It is as if I already knew, somehow, that I would see a deer this morning, and was simply waiting for its arrival. It’s a huge moment when you are thirteen. Why it’s as big as the world.
Just before daylight I had wedged myself into the crotch of an old, dead tree on the more open side of a small, protected field. It was more than cold with a biting, mid November wind, but the tree was big, protecting, with thick, comforting limbs radiating from its base. It was like a fort, and it was great fun just to sit there, hidden, listening.
Morning in the eastern deer woods has a rhythm and cadence all its own. Once heard, it remains indelibly recorded on the heartbeat of your mind I can still hear the stirrings of squirrels and small creatures in the dry leaves and forest duff below, the twittering birds, the scornful proclamations of Blue Jays and wandering crows above. I miss it so.
I remember feeling that the buck knew I was there, would be there…watching. Perhaps he had seen a small, slow movement from me, or perhaps he just, …knew. Will he come? Even If he suspects nothing there is little reason for him to continue across an open field on a bright, sunny morning during gun season, with plenty of heavy cover in the trees of the wood lot behind and around him.
I wait. The buck hesitates for a brief time, an eternity, and then trots calmly and purposely along the edge of the trees towards me. I am paralyzed. Though mostly ready, I’ve not yet had time to assess the situation or remember my role in it. My feet are only about six feet from the ground, and I know that he will see me and swap ends quickly if I move too fast. Still, I feel that he knows I’m there and can not change his course, and can somehow see himself moving, thru my eyes, as he crosses in front of my stand.
It’s now or never, and in one motion I come from behind his track and start to swing my shotgun bead towards his shoulder. He stops as if on command, as if this is his part in the choreography of a primordial dance, and this is the selected spot to place his feet. His body is perfectly broadside, with his head turned towards me and up, his nose shining in the sky.
There is no sound, no mind, no time, just our breath frozen in the air as I settle behind the gun. He waits patiently, gracefully, and completely at peace with what is about to come his way. Both parties share something all-knowing yet incomprehensible, without judgement. It is agreed. We have done this before and may do so again, god willing.
I don’t remember pulling the trigger, yet It ends as it must if you are a hunter. A life taken. I am too young to comprehend the full meaning of the act, yet somehow I know there is something more. It is an end, perhaps a beginning, I do not know. The circle complete, we are bonded. It is a gift of the deer and it is sacred.
I pray I will not forget, both then, and now.
“No Sound. No Mind. No Time…A Hunter’s Mind” – Michael Patrick McCarty
*Few moments in my hunting life have held more importance, my first whitetail buck – a sleek 6 pointer. It was 1971, and I was Thirteen. A hunter, I am.
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Ode To The Pronghorn
“Plainly speaking, a Pronghorn is nothing more than ‘prey on the prairie’, in the natural scheme of things. Just ask the prowling coyote, or one of his peers. Yet, he is not so easy to capture or kill. His speed is most obvious; his eyesight legendary. Still, you might just say that he just doesn’t look all that tough.
Well, you would be wrong…
Hunt him fair, and hard, and you may begin to discover an entirely different aspect to his personality. Hit him well with a broadhead or bullet, but perhaps just not well enough, and you will learn what he is truly made of.
For in his veins roars the blood of the fiercest warrior. His heart is the heart of the lion, and it will not stop beating so easily. May we all fight for life, all life, as tenaciously. It has been an honor to pursue him, all of these many years…”
What do antelope, wily coyotes, and wild fires have to do with each other, you might ask? Well, since it seems to be the year of surprise and big adventures just let me take a minute to tell you about it.
Let me also say right from the start, that no – I’m not making it up. Ernest Hemingway once said that the secret to his writing was that he had no imagination, and that he had to experience a thing to be able to write about it. Or something like that, said he, I am quite sure.
I would not be so brazen as to compare myself to Hemingway, but I can relate to his predicament. My imagination has never been that well-developed, and in some cases it just wouldn’t matter. No one would believe you anyway.
I had decided to treat myself this year to an unguided, private land archery pronghorn hunt in northwest Colorado. Bowhunting for the king of the high sagebrush desert is one of my absolute favorite endeavors, but years of public land hunting have taken their toll on both body and spirit and have worn me quite thin. Tags are increasingly more difficult to draw, and competition for a prime waterhole has become fierce. It has become, quite literally, more than I can bear.
And so, reluctantly, I yield. I yield to the younger guys, and gals, and to those much hungrier and more aggressive than I. Private lands held the key to my peace of mind, and a waterhole all my own.
I found the right place.
Mine was a very special slice of mother earth, a true oasis, home to pronghorn, and sage grouse, mule deer and a myriad of small and furtive creatures. To sit there, relaxed and hidden, even for part of a day, was worth every penny that I spent.
The antelope on this particular ranch were plentiful and had been only lightly hunted for several years, creating a healthy supply of trophy class bucks.
Weather conditions were perfect. It had been hot, dry, and windy for several weeks. Water was in short supply, and they were very, very thirsty. Cautious and still careful when coming to drink, but not wound like a heavy spring as they so often are on more heavily hunted ambush spots.
So, as you can see, all factors suggested that this would be a very special bowhunt, and indeed, it was. You could say that I was more than successful by standard measures, though perhaps not exactly in the way I would have liked. Still, “success” is a very special word in the life of a bowhunter.
Yet, this is not so much a story about success, or strategy, or any of the many things involved in a great antelope hunt. This is a tale that begins after the shot. It is a story about follow-up, pursuit, and… recovery. I made a great shot, but not a clean kill, though deadly in the end. It happens, and when such circumstance lays its burden upon you it is always bittersweet.
But to backtrack a bit, there had been one major glitch in my gittyup, which was my choice, or lack thereof, of a bow for this hunt.
I am a traditionalist at heart, and I almost hate to say it but I prefer to shoot a finely tuned compound bow with a sight and release when hunting trophy pronghorns over the water. Archery has always been a game of inches, and those inches are particularly critical when a live target is involved.
Yes, the distance is short and you can generally pick your shot, if they stand still long enough. The reality is that an antelope presents a relatively small target with an even smaller vital area. More importantly, they can jump a string like no other animal on the planet. Their reactions to the sound of an arrow coming out of the bow can stretch the outer limits of acrobatics, and belief. Arrow speed and precision rule the day.
Unfortunately, I was unable to follow my own advice this time. To put it plainly, I am injured. My shoulders have not been working like they used to for quite some time, and a fall on the mountain a month ago really shook me up and has left my joints out of whack. At this point I am still unable to draw my compound or my heavy recurve, but I had booked this hunt a year before and was just unwilling to admit defeat.
I filled my tag with an off-the-shelf 40# Samick recurve named the Spirit II, with no sights and three leather-covered fingers on the string. It was like being twelve years old again.
I had positioned my pop-up blind on a mild slope above the stock pond one week prior, to let the animals adjust to a new-found element in their world. First light on opening day could not come soon enough, and the action began right away.
The first two small bucks came to drink at 7:30 a.m., stared at the blind for just a moment, and had their fill. They strolled about without a care in the world, and I knew right then that things were going to go well.
From then on out I was visited about every half hour by does and fawns and bucks of all ages and sizes. It was my own little wildlife show.
At one time I had a juvenile buck at 16 yards to my left and his brother at 16 yards to my right. The buck to my right must have been really parched, and I had to laugh as he worked himself out to the center of the pond and sprawled out like a half-drunk teenager. He slurped and sucked the murky water like he had never tasted anything so good.
I passed twelve legal bucks that morning, and there were five or six that would have easily qualified for the Pope & Young record book. Two of the bucks were particularly nice, but they approached from directly across the pond and left without giving me a perfect shot.
Time just flies along when you are so completely entertained, and it was 1:00 p.m. before I knew it. It appeared that the action had slowed down, but as I reached for my thermos and my last coffee of the day I heard the sound of thumping hooves in the hard-packed dirt behind me. It was a buck, and he flew past the blind and dropped his nose in the water before I could grab my bow.
This buck was big – old and solid and my mind screamed “shooter”. That on-board computer that we all call a brain only took a moment to calculate and prepare.
The arrow was gone as if someone else had released it, and I remember being somewhat amazed as I saw it hit within a millimeter of where I had been aiming. I knew immediately that it was over, though I stifled the urge to celebrate, just yet. Still, I knew that within mere minutes I would be working to get that wonderful meat that I love so much out of the hot sun and into my cooler. Or so I thought…
The buck bolted away from the pond, and then…just stood there, barely out of range, stock still, but a bit wobbly. He stood, and I waited, and waited…, a couple of minutes stretched to five, and then ten, and then I knew that something was terribly wrong.
I ran the image of the shot over and over in my mind, and I knew that without a doubt I could have not placed the shaft any better. It was simply impossible for this not to be a fatal wound.
The buck obviously had other plans, though it was another 45 minutes before he finally began walking again and disappeared over the hill. Certainly, it was simply impossible for him to go very far.
And again, as so I thought…
I peeked cautiously over the top of the hill and found him bedded at about 35 yards, looking away. One more little half-step, and I watched in horror as his head whipped around and he stood…and then ran like he was never hurt down the hill and across a wide open valley.
He didn’t stop until he was 700 or 800 yards away, and for the first time I felt that terrible pang of anxiety of a great hunt gone bad. A bowhunter’s worst fear is to leave behind a wounded animal, and I was beginning to seriously doubt that I would be able to recover this wonderful trophy.
And then, he stopped, and again, just stood there. I stared, took a good like through the binoculars, and prayed that he would just give it up. And then, he laid down, gingerly, and there was hope again.
By now it had become obvious to me that somehow my shaft had penetrated one lung, but not both, even though the buck had been standing fully broadside when I released the arrow. Perhaps the broadhead had hit a rib or other bone, or he had somehow twisted before it had arrived. Either way, it was a deadly wound, and this animal was in big trouble.
Unfortunately, this buck did not get the memo. Before long he was on his feet again, heading for an area of tall sagebrush far up the ridge. I could do nothing but sit helplessly and watch him go. Hope can be a fleeting thing.
A couple of miles later I was on top of that ridge, having made a long, winding circle out of his line of sight. I gave it my best guess, and I tried desperately to locate him as I peered through the brush.
It was important to see him before he saw me, which can be a tall order to fill when dealing with pronghorns. I finally saw him about 80 yards below me, head up. He saw me first; he was up and he was gone.
It had become obvious that the only way to recover this antelope was to forget about stealth and push him hard and fast. The key now was to keep him in sight and deny him any chance to rest and recharge. Of course, that is easier said then done.
The air was desert-lizard dry and dead calm, with shimmering bands of heat rolling ahead like a mirage. I was beginning to feel like one of the bushmen of the Kalahari, and I thought of a documentary film I had once watched.
For the bushmen the hunt really didn’t get started until they had lodged an arrowhead in the body of an animal. Arrow placement was not always so important to them, because it really did not matter where it was hit. A non fatal arrow still takes its toll, and pursuit is what they do best.
Always moving, tracking and trailing, never quitting. Here, the earth becomes quiet and still. Perception slides into the realm of discernment and immaculate vison, and most of all human concerns vanish upon the wings of an ancient prayer.
But, there was an ill wind on the way that day, and things were about to get very strange…
The first thunderclap went off over my right shoulder, causing me to stop suddenly and stare up into a slightly hazy but otherwise cloudless sky. I looked far to the southwest and saw the darkening horizon of an approaching storm, as the wind came up and another boom of thunder rumbled over my left shoulder. I took a step and saw a bright flash over the near ridge in front and to my left, as the sun burned the sage through a faltering sky.
It took some time, but I found my buck. He was really tucked in the brush this time, but stalkable. I did my best to use the roll of the hill to close the distance. At forty yards, I nocked an arrow. One more step, I thought, and then he was up, again, and pounding down and away along the edge of a rough-looking ravine.
Not to be outdone, I quivered my arrow and made a run for it. He looked tired and stiff, and I remembered thinking that this would be his last good run. I was ready to put this cosmic misadventure far, far behind me. I was not planning on telling too many people about it either.
It was then that I saw two coyotes rise from the shadows and come to rapt attention as all hell broke loose.
They had been bedded in the shade under a deep cutbank, and they must have been shocked out of their paws when an obviously wounded and otherwise compromised antelope practically bowled them over.
From that point on it was all just a blur.
They were on him in a flash, nipping at his heels as one coyote really poured it on and outflanked him to his right. The buck turned and gave one last burst of speed as the other coyote swung to cut him off. He turned again, but it was too late. He began to slow, then stopped…and waited for what was surely next to come.
I had some catching up to do, and the last thing I wanted was to watch a pair of big, snarling coyotes rip and strip my precious prize. I screamed for all I was worth as I stumbled down the draw, racing to insert myself into that classic standoff between predator and prey.
One coyote stood in front of the buck, looking up from under his nose. The other hung back and behind, sliding back and forth and looking for an opportunity to charge and hamstring the buck in one quick, surgical slash.
I wished that I could tell you what happened next, but I can’t. I had to go down again before I could climb to the other side, and for what seemed like forever I was out of sight of the action. When I reached the top the buck was down on his side, and still. The coyotes circled, ready to dive in and tear. I was almost there…
I screamed at the top of my lungs and screamed some more, and they either could not hear me or were simply too focused on the kill. Finally, when I was about fifty yards away they spun around to face me, in obvious shock and disbelief that I had seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Both hesitated just enough to make me a little uncomfortable, and then they turned-tail and bolted like their hair had exploded.
Half-stunned myself, I followed their progress while gasping for air, sighting down my sweat covered nose, and saw…fire.
Oh my God!…
Thick, billowing clouds of black smoke rose steadily from behind the next hill. Now it was my turn to be jolted with a wave of electric current, and I practically dropped my bow in the dirt right then and there.
A blast of wind snapped me out of it, and I turned behind me to see a wall of black clouds and dust headed my way. I dropped my pack at the downed animal and stood, a bit confused and unsteady on what had suddenly become very shaky ground.
But not for long, for I had some decisions to make.
The quickening wind buffeted and swirled, and I watched with almost morbid fascination as the plume of smoke twisted to the east, then to the north and away, and then back around – towards me. Could this really be happening, I mumbled?
More than once I put down the urge to step away, and run. I have seen wildfire in action, and I know how fast it can move and how rapidly things can go seriously wrong. I began to cape and quarter, and I can tell you that my knife was cutting along much faster than normal.
I suppose the next decision was not really all that tough at all. I was over 1 1/2 miles from my blind and another mile from my truck. To carry out everything in one load in my small pack was not possible, as much as I had wished otherwise. I wondered what might be left when I returned to gather up my second load.
A bow or a pair of binoculars can be replaced. Antelope horns are funny looking things that stand upon the head and are made out of hair, and I am pretty sure that the coyotes didn’t care much about them either. Meat is meat, red and real, made of fiber and protein, and in death, gives life.
I took the meat.
It took what seemed like forever to arrive back at my waterhole, and then another tough bit of time to return with my truck. The wind flew steady and the rains came, hard and wild, and then were gone as fast as they had appeared.
The fire laid low, for a while, and then took off with renewed vengeance as I marched back towards the cape and horns and other gear. I saw the flashing lights of trucks and other emergency vehicles in the distance, approaching fast. It was going to be a long night for a whole lot of people.
I cannot fully explain that series of cascading events that occurred on that day, and the images on my mind are still close at hand. I could find no tooth marks or punctures on the buck, so I can only assume that having a coyote in his face was finally enough to push him over the edge. The arrow was broken off deep inside his chest just exactly where it needed to be. It should have been a very swift demise right from the beginning.
I have never encountered a tougher animal.
I am also quite certain that those coyotes are also a bit perplexed. After all, just how is it that a big, easy meal could literally appear in their bedroom, die without apparent cause, and disappear just as fast into the hands of a raving, two-legged lunatic? Like I said, some things you simply cannot make up.
A native american friend once listened carefully to a somewhat similar story of mine and said that what had happened had been the universe talking to me. I didn’t understand it at the time, and his words have stuck with me for a good, long time. I would like to think that I am beginning to understand it now.
I have learned a few things about my role as a hunter.
It’s all about respect, for life or death is a most serious business and there is no going back. Life is precious; hard-won and even harder kept, considering that so many factors conspire to take it away.
It is the hunter’s responsibility to kill quickly and cleanly, and in most cases, that is exactly what occurs. The topic of wounded game is never pleasant to talk about. It will never be politically correct, and it is a conversation most often avoided as if it had never happened. When discussed at all, it is usually spoken of in hushed and guarded tones, even among friends.
But truth can be stark. Realities must be faced, even when they are hard. It goes without saying that it is even harder on the animal. Perhaps that is never more evident than when a big game animal simply refuses to succumb.
A wounded animal deserves much more than concerned consideration. It deserves our full attention, and all of the resources that we can muster. We owe them that, and more. We owe them everything. They give up their lives so we may live.
Call it God, or Grandfather – the creator of all things. Call it Spirit; call it whatever you will. There is a life-force which permeates every living cell of every living thing, dancing and vibrating with everything there is and ever was. It is wide-eyed wonder, a masterful mystery, and a gift of all gifts.
It can speak to you about the eternal spark of elemental and sacred things, in a way that simply cannot be ignored. You may hear it, if you listen, in a place where the hunter meets the hunted within the heartbeat of the world
Occasionally, you need a little help from your friends, even when they didn’t intend to offer it. It also helps when they have fur and fangs and a lust for a belly full of meat.
Sometimes, the universe can play clever tricks on the cleverest of all creatures, called coyote. I see them now, in my mind’s eye, pacing and pondering, howling at the heavens in hunger and unfulfilled need. Strange things can happen in the land of fire and new beginnings.
“Lightning across northwestern Colorado is suspected of sparking about 30 fires over the weekend, keeping firefighters running from one blaze to another… More than 4,000 lightning strikes hit northwestern Colorado on Saturday and Sunday”.
The biggest fire eventually grew to more than 1.5 square miles before being contained. “The fire was pushed in multiple directions by erratic winds from passing storms”.
There is a good chance that I witnessed the very first lightning strike that started it all.
—-From the Glenwood Post Independent, Tuesday, August 18, 2015, and from 9News.com, Denver, Colorado,
The front cover illustration for Run, Light Buck, Run: The Adventurous Life of a Lone Pronghorn and a Man on Arizona’s Paria Plateau by B. F. Beebe. Illustrated by Larry Toschik. Published by David McKay Company, 1962. Written for the juvenile audience.
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A Journal of Wild Game, Fighting Fish, and Grand Pursuit