Every hunt is a success by Grant A Hughes
April 2000: Washington, USA.
I suppose everyone has done it. I know every male has, at least judging from TV sitcoms and listening to stories from all of my mates. I'm pretty sure what I'm talking about is commonly referred to as "foot in mouth disease." The classic, "would you think before you speak" is commonly known to be spouted off at high decibels, coming from an angry girlfriend or wife, in a tone that sends Fido in the back yard running to his kennel to avoid the shrill, ear-piercing scolding being directed at his trusty master.
Well, I have had more than my share of these moments. A couple stand out more than the rest, one being when I ran into a family friend at the supermarket and politely asked, "When's the baby due?" She replied, "He was born the middle of July". Luckily for me it was the end of January so I only looked like a minor tool, yet felt like an implement that could take the lug nuts off of a dump truck.
Unfortunately, I have another, "Wish I'd never said that" moment and believe it or not, to this day it still knots up my stomach when I think about it. This particular instance where I wish I would have thought before speaking, dates back to one of my first years in the woods chasing game with a bow. Although young, I was no stranger to the outdoors. Since I was able to be placed in a child's back pack and had the ability to be somewhat quiet, I had followed closely behind my Dad, Uncle or Grandfather, as we pursued various species depending on the season.
As a youngster I took it all in, the sights, sounds and smells of the hunt. One can learn a lot by doddling behind an elder whilst trying to outsmart the prey at hand. Lucky for me, I had some great teachers, who took the time to be patient and show me how to, not just hunt, but how to appreciate nature.
One gains many life lessons growing up in pursuit of game. Non-hunters, I feel are at a loss for not learning these lessons. One of the most important lessons that a young hunter learns is a respect for life. As an animal falls to a hunter, there is celebration. This same celebration leads to respect as that animal is dressed and prepared to sustain the family for which it was harvested.
Patience is another lesson learned, as long drives to get to that secret spot, lengthy waits for turkeys to fly from their roost, or the hours on end spent silent and motionless, all share the same common denominator.
I can even go deeper, throwing ethics and morals into this hunting equation. Being taught only to take ethical shots and having the self-restraint to see an animal walk away rather than risk a marginal shot.
From a young age, it was instilled in me and practised that no matter the size of the trophy, it's not worth risking safety, integrity or to sacrifice ethics. As a young hunter, even though I mightn't have been partaking in the actual harvesting, I was still allowed to be a part of the process. A short title for this process could be hunting. To an outsider, hunting is all it is.
So back to the point where I wish I would have just stuffed a sock in it. My Father and I were in pursuit of my first turkey. It was late in the season and we hadn't taken a bird, so we decided to try a new area. I'll never forget having everything packed and waiting for my Dad to get home from work, giving him enough time to change and get back in the truck for the 3 hour drive to south western Washington.
We arrived just on dark and decided to sleep under the canopy in the bed of the truck, so we rolled out our sleeping bags, took note at how cold it was and tried to catch some sleep. Waking up in the middle of the night to rain, I wasn't overly concerned. How hindsight is 20-20. It was time to arise, so I poked my head out of my bag taking note that it was cold enough in the night to freeze our breath to the ceiling of the canopy, the aroma of fresh brewed coffee was wafting about and being young enough to not appreciate coffee, I could appreciate being warm so I accepted a cup. Dad and I got dressed and went to open the canopy, envisioning flocks of turkeys and long beards. I was trying to push Dad out of the truck. He turned around dryly to me and said, "We've got a problem." I was now frustrated and urged him to open the lid of the canopy and let me start hunting and then he showed me the issue.
The rain had frozen in the night, building a layer of ice over the truck, including the hatch to the canopy, so we were unable to simply lift the lid and get out. After about ten minutes of slight manipulation, sitting on our butts and kicking the lid of the canopy, the ice broke and freed the door. Away we went, the branches on the trees were covered in ice and the reflections this caused in our headlamps should have been displayed in an art exhibit. After walking down the ice encrusted ridge for about a half hour, the woods began to awaken.
At one stage I noticed large brown clumps emerging from what seemed like nothing as we were trying to hike down the canyon top. I took a moment and then realized that we had woken a herd of elk. At no more than twenty yards and in unison, this 20 strong herd stood and shook, causing the frozen rain that had accumulated on their spring coats to hit the ground. The sight of the ice crystals flying through the brisk air and reflecting the sunrise before shattering on the frozen ground was magnificent. Then taking note of the several bulls, still forming their antlers and the way the velvet on them was shimmering, covered in frost and drenched in the sunrise. There wasn't time for pictures, or even words as the herd vanished and Dad and I continued our search for a long beard.
We both heard it at the same time, the unmistakable gobble of a mature tom in the spring. Dad and I started scrambling to get set up. I was pulling decoys out of my pack, only to find that I had somehow managed to lose the stakes for them and Dad was focused on gathering a bit of brush to break up our outline in case one of us was able to draw on the bird. Frantic, I ended up just jamming one decoy over a wild rose bush and settled in on Dad's left, about twenty yards from the lone hen decoy.
Being startled is an understatement. A gobble came from what seemed like paces away, but how? I couldn't see the tom that caused this ruckus. Then I saw Dad's eyes widen and his fingers wrap around the string of his recurve. Slowly I clipped my release aid on and thought that I might be able to back him up if he were to get a shot. The bird gobbled again, now I could see just the top of his bright red head. At that moment my heart was working overtime, but I tried to stay focused. Every time the tom would gobble, my heart rate increased exponentially. I can still remember talking myself through the unfolding, just five more yards, I thought.
The bird hung up at about thirty-five yards and just wouldn't commit. The limb-hanger would walk off and Dad would coax him back in, but for some reason, coming inside of thirty-five yards wasn't happening. Who knows, maybe it was the crooked half inflated decoy jammed on a rose bush, but that tom had it figured that he had more fluffy, less pokey, feathery and inviting offers and made it to another thanksgiving.
Dad and I hunted the rest of the day, running into a few more turkeys but nothing ever panned out. We were able to glass a couple more herds of elk. One particular bachelor group had some good looking bulls. We both took note of that specific ridge in hopes of getting back during the Fall in elk season and with any luck, when they were bugling.
Just on dark as we were making our way back to the truck, Dad stumbled upon an elk shed from the year before. It was a pretty heavy six point shed and hadn't been weathered. The previous year, that bull would have been a tremendous bull. The cast antler was full of weight and a pretty exciting find as neither of us had found an elk shed yet. We both admired it for a few minutes and then kept trekking in the direction of the quickly sinking sun.
And this is where it happened. Dad was leading the way, recurve in his left hand, dandy elk shed in his right and out of my mouth flowed these words.
"Well Dad, another unsuccessful hunt."
He didn't say anything, he didn't have to. The look on his face expressed his thoughts crystal clear. I felt about as big as the field mouse that had ran across the trail in front of me only moments before.
From that point where words didn't have to be exchanged, I have never let a hunt be judged on trophies taken. A successful hunt is not defined by how many inches of antler you end up packing out. Yes, a big bull or a mature stag is quite an accomplishment. If you end up being in the right place at exactly the right moment enabling yourself to harvest an animal while bow-hunting, chalk that hunt up to a blessing.
Of course scouting, going in further, understanding your prey and hunting smarter than anyone else will up your odds. However luck is one of the largest factors. Personally, since that hunt with my Dad and everything that transpired during it, even without taking a bird, I will not deem any bow-hunt where I walk out of the woods alive and not defeated by the elements, packing meat out or not, unsuccessful.
Fred Bear probably said it best. "A hunt based on only trophies taken falls far short of what the ultimate goal should be... time to commune with your inner soul as you share the outdoors with the birds, animals and fish that live there." For me this hunt with my Father, where I, as a young boy, had the wrong idea of what a successful hunt consisted of made me realize and will never let me forget the true definition and the makings of a successful bow-hunt.