“Better Late Than Never” – Dirk Durham

“Better Late Than Never” – Dirk Durham

“Ah yes, 2009. This season was going to be the best ever! I finally have these elk figured out, their secrets have been exposed to me over my last 20years of bugling big bulls…….”

These were the thoughts of a naive elk hunter (me). If I have learned anything in the last 20 years, it has been that elk have many predictable habits when calling them in, & they also have twice as many unpredictable habits. My son Austin was turning 12 on September 24th, he would accompany me every chance he could this season until he was able to legally carry a bow. I had been dreaming for the last 12 years about the stellar season my son & I would have!

The first half of September can be fickle in my area. It can be great, or very quiet, you just never know. This September’s first half turned out to be a flop. We didn’t even here a bull until the weekend of the12th. We heard three bulls give us one bugle each, just enough to get our hopes up. Austin did put the smack down on four grouse that weekend!

Dirk's son, Austin, with dinner!

Dirk’s son, Austin, with dinner!

I was able to sneak away from work on the 17th – a cooler day was in the forecast & I was sure to have a good hunt. Drainage after drainage I called into with no response. 10 am found me bugling down into a hole most sane people wouldn’t dream of. After my second bugle I heard a response from deep down in. After his second growl I knew there was no holding back. His bugle had no high scream, just a low wheezing growl from years of damaging his vocal cords during the month of September. I strapped on my pack & plunged in several hundred yards. The slope was much steeper than I had anticipated, but I pushed on.

A look at the deep drainage Dirk was dropping down into

A look at the deep drainage Dirk was dropping down into

Going as far as I dared without bumping the bull, I set up with perfect shooting lanes & began my calling sequence, very delicate at first. No answer. I began escalating the tone & excitement of my calls but no answer. After about 40 minutes of a make believe rut fest, I fell silent. I would wait for the creeping silent bull to investigate for left over’s. Two hours have gone by now since my first sequence with out a peep. I know this game…….I will wait. The weather man should be fired, today is hot as yesterday. As 1pm approaches I ready myself for “midday madness”. That’s when bulls get restless & stretch their legs a bit. I repositioned myself further yet down in the hole & begin another rut fest….no response. After another 30 minutes I decide it’s time to go.

I get back to my truck after much sweating & panting. After a quick lunch & a nap I’m ready for an evening hunt. Moving to another area not wanting to disturb that growler bull, I drive to a new location. I hear one response to my calls. Moving on I find another big draw to call into. After a while as darkness draws near I get a single response from two more bulls. Time to go home, head hanging low.

The end of a long day in elk country

The end of a long day in elk country

Sept 20th & I’m ready to go again. Austin has plans with a friend so I will be going solo. My first attempt for the day would be the growler hole. After exploring & calling through that bull’s hide out I had no encounters except for a lonely yearling calf who thought I was her mama. Next, I went into another drainage & struck pay dirt. It was about 10 am & an aggressive bull screamed at my every call. I grabbed my pack, bow & plenty of water for the nasty hike ahead…….Did I mention that bull was at the bottom of a hell hole? I closed the gap to within 200 yards & set up my calling sequence. I figured if I could call him up to my side of the draw I could pack out his meat that day. If I had to drop down , cross the creek, climb the brush covered hill side & take him there it would add more work than I could handle in one day as I had to be back to work on Monday. We exchanged bugles for the next 4hrs. During that time I dropped further & further toward the creek. No matter what I did he would not budge. It might have been the 80 degree weather or the fact of my advantageous position would leave him vulnerable if he committed. Perhaps he already had more cows than he could handle. Finally the bugling slowed down & I began sweating out all the donuts I had eaten the past 6 months while hiking to the truck.

I drove to my brother-in-law Randy’s camp & had lunch. We swapped stories, recharged our bodies, & got ready for the evening hunt. We drove to a different area & hiked out an old gated logging road. I bugled & was answered immediately. Positioning ourselves to call in the bull, we found that the wind was not on our side. Down the hillside we went plunging head long into one of the thickest, nastiest brush pockets I’ve encountered. As luck would have it we found an old over grown logging road. Wind in our favor we kept calling to the elk. As the bull drew near he began to circle to get our wind. Game Over. Darkness fell upon us as we ascended the mountain back to the truck. I dropped Randy off & headed home.

September 22 found me distracted at work, ready to head out for the rest of archery season. I finally pulled the plug & headed home early, finishing my last minute shopping list & “panic packing” the rest of Austin’s & my gear. Austin got out of school & we headed to the hills. Pulling our camper trailer makes for a very slow trip through the mountains. We stopped at likely spots on the way to camp & bugled. We had 3 different bulls answer our calls on the way in. Finally after three hours we met up with Randy & set up camp. I hardly slept that night, anticipating the next 8 days of hunting. The best was yet to come.

The morning’s rising sun found us September 23 calling into our favorite spots. No answers. The morning was very warm, in the mid 60’s. After a long morning of coming up short we had lunch & made a game plan for the evening hunt. The mid day temperatures were in the high 80’s. Things looked bleak. Austin & I set out at 4pm & hiked a couple miles down a gated logging road. We set up & called at likely places but it seemed to be too warm. No elk answered our calls. Finally at about 6:30 pm we had our first reply for the day. The bull was about a mile away as the crow flies so we started hiking. The bull answered our every call, but would not budge. Darkness came & it was time to go………A long dark walk back to the truck. Austin was having a blast. I let him bugle at the bull in the darkness & the bull answered…..pretty cool.

Randy had a great evening hunt across the canyon from where I heard the growler. He had six bulls sounding off all around him but none would charge in. He watched through binos as a monster bull pushed cows up towards the top of the growler ridge. We all knew where we had to be in the morning.

September 24th we split up & headed down into the hole a little after day break. Not one elk returned bugles until 9:30 am. Two bulls fired up & the hunt was on. They were close to Austin & I so we started pursuing them. One bull who’s bugle sounded like a younger bull clammed up after a short time, but a larger sounding bull screamed back & forth with us. The bull would bugle & run, bugle & run. Soon we were out-distanced as he hit the bottom of the drainage & crossed to the other side. We regrouped with Randy & made a closer play towards the bugling bull. No matter what we did we could not coax the bull back to our side. By now the temperature was beyond warm. Randy said if he stayed on the side of that mountain much longer, then he might spoil. We all laughed & headed back to the truck. I didn’t know if Austin was going to make it. The blow downs, huckleberry brush & steepness were taking its toll on his short legs. We finally arrived back to the truck. It was 87 degrees. Way to hot for these fat boys. We headed back to camp for some refreshment & rest. Austin had a poppy seed muffin for his birthday cake & was rested way before us old guys, riding his dirt bike up & down the dusty road. We headed out from camp for an evening hunt, but were disappointed. No action was to be had. It was still very warm & no bulls were crazy enough to answer our hopeful calls in the unseasonably warm weather.

Dirk with his hunting buddy, Austin

Dirk with his hunting buddy, Austin

We had planned to go to town & buy Austin’s elk tag on the 24th, but with hot weather in the forecast, & slow action he & I decided to hold out for a rifle tag for his first year. September 25th was still hot & miserable, we found no responses to our calls. The animals were only moving at night. Randy, Austin & I decide to pull camp & head down to the lower country to see if we can find some cooler weather. September 26th we moved camp. On the way to our new camp we stopped by our home, picked up our families & took Austin out for his birthday dinner. Our new camp would be a long ways from our first one. It was 9 pm when we settled in for the night at our new camp site. The thermometer read 45 degrees to our delight. Sleep came easy that night.

September 27th sunrise broke & Austin & I had a hot bull getting all sorts of worked up. We headed up a draw closing the gap into the bull’s red zone before we fired up with our calls again. He screamed insults at us but would not budge. We could hear cows with him so it was time to push up our position & test his metal….. He was a chicken. I repeated the phrase “ hurry up Austin “ as we dogged this bull. It was a fast pace foot race as we followed & challenged this bull. Thank goodness the ground was a lot more forgiving than the mountainous terrain we had been in a couple days ago. The bull stood his ground for just long enough for us to catch up, then they were off again. He pushed his cows up on a ridge & turned back to us for a fight. Unfortunately this four point bull stood his ground out in a open meadow, pacing & bugling at 70 yards away. After not seeing his rival, or his rivals cows he headed back to his cows. “Come on Austin”! now we have him frustrated. We circled around, got the wind right & charged into him again. This time he went silent & waited for us. Uh oh, there he goes. He had caught a glimpse of me popping over the ridge. As he fled I screamed a challenge to the coward & stopped him.

Sometimes bulls will bust out when they catch a small piece of movement they don’t like. But this is the perfect time to scream a challenge & run up a few more yards if cover allows. This, more times than not, fools the bull into not believing his own eyes. That’s just what we did. We sprinted 75 yards through the dense cover screaming our challenge. Sorry to say this time it didn’t work. He grabbed his cows & headed to the next county not wanting to fight. We went back to camp after hitting some more of the normal spots but no bugles were to be heard, just lots of other hunters. Later that night we set up by a pond until dusk waiting for the elk to make their way down for water. A big wind storm blew in & seemed to lock up the elk, as we didn’t see any & it was way too noisy to hear any replies to our calls.

September 28th we headed to a high country hot spot where we found lots of elk sign in the early season. Dawn found us calling into some places where elk tracks beat trails up & down the ridges. Draw after draw we had no response. These elk had either been hunted hard by other hunters, or the hot weather was keeping them out of the mood. We hunted through the midday hours. Lots of elk tracks, but no sight or sounds of elk. We hunted until dark without any success. Heads hanging low we headed back to camp. We talked it over & agreed that I would go solo the last two days & Austin would return home. I would hit the hell holes where he could not keep up with me before.

September 29th finally a cold front was moving in. I was primed & ready to go. I called into a drainage we had hunted earlier. Two bulls responded immediately. One was close to me, the other at the bottom of the drainage. I repositioned myself to the closer bull, but he stopped responding. The other bull sank deeper into the bottom, so I pulled back to try & get a better angle. Soon the bull was out of ear shot & I was on my way to find the next one. Back in the truck beating down the rocky old mountain road, I heard a big swoosh.

Pulling over I found that I had cut the sidewall out on one of my brand new tires. Dang! Everything happens for a reason I told myself, were still in the game………..that’s when I discovered I had taken my lug wrench out of my truck & had no way to remove my flat. As luck would have it, I had my atv in the bed of my truck. I jumped on, grabbed my gear, & tried to salvage the rest of the morning. After riding to a new spot, I parked the atv & walked down a ridge . I tested the silence with a long location bugle & had a reply instantly. “Game On”! The wind was perfect as I silently closed the gap to the bull. Just as I hit the low ridge the bull was on, the storm that had been working its way in kicked up a notch. The wind switched so I backed out a safe distance & waited it out.

Waiting out the storm...

Waiting out the storm…

After about 45 minutes, things calmed down, the wind was right, & the temperature had dropped about 15 degrees. I made my move & set up for the calling. I started out slow with a few quiet cow calls. Little by little I escalated my calls but no response. Now in a make believe rutting frenzy I pushed my imaginary cows down the ridge. This only drew bugles from a young sounding bull across the drainage, well out of my reach. The other bull must have caught my wind early on & vacated the area. I headed the 17 miles out of the high country on my atv to a friends house were he loaned me the proper tools to put on my spare. By the time I had my truck up & running the sun was starting to dip in the west. I headed home to take care of my tire issue & prepare for the last day of season.

September 30th the final day of Idaho archery elk season. At this point a lot of thoughts of failure & negativity have set in. Only the desire to succeed & knowing the facts are what keep me going. I had shot several other bulls on the last day of season before & I was going to do whatever I had to do to get a bull within bow range . Rain pelted my filthy truck on the way to the mountains. As I wound my way up the bumpy road I began to see light white flakes of snow. The top of the highest ridges had 3-4 inches of the first snow seen since early spring. Knowing this day could be phenomenal, or a flop, depended on how the animals reacted to the new weather. I took a positive attitude & set in to enjoy a day of hunting.

At every favorite spot that I called into I found only silence. I had been saving one spot in particular for today. I drove out to that spot through the roughest darn roads in Idaho for about two hours one way. It was 10 miles. I arrived strapped on my pack & headed off down the snow covered hillside very carefully, not risking a nasty fall. After getting way down in, I found the perfect spot. I began the same conservative calling sequence that I had employed earlier. It was 1:30 pm & cold as could be. No answers. I started hiking down a game trail mimicking a rut crazed bull with cows. No answers.

This was it...Dirk's last chance for an Idaho archery elk

This was it…Dirk’s last chance for an Idaho archery elk

After about a mile I turned & headed back towards the truck still calling sporadically as I went. No answers. I arrived at the truck cold & broken. I ate a hot mountain house meal & had some coffee. I felt better. Well I’ve got just enough time to head back toward home & try a spot where I had not hunted before. I beat my way back through the rock laden road for several miles, took another road that was twice as good & picked up the pace. I was running out of time. I parked the truck, took a short walk out a ridge & let fly with a bugle. Way off in the distance I heard a bugle. Running back to the truck I sped off in the direction of the bull hoping the road would take me close. It didn’t.

I kept driving & found a likely spot. I gathered my things quickly & headed out an old road on foot. I bugled & got an immediate response. I called again & was answered as quick as the first time. It was 5:45 pm…I had to act fast. Every time the bull would bugle I would cut him off. I soon saw him, he was about 400 yards across a canyon & headed for me. I knocked an arrow, readied my equipment & ranged all the likely shooting lanes. Crash! Here he comes. My heart is beating out of my chest & my breaths are shaky. I closed my eyes took a deep breath & got straightened out. Now the bull was in sight, just a few more yards & I’ll have a shot. NOOO! The wind is changing! Just a few more steps……That’s when he stepped into my shooting lane, raised his nose & took a whiff. Something is wrong, he starts to turn away & I stop him with a cow call. No shot. One more sweet sounding cow call turns him quartering away just enough for a shot. At that I sent my 460 grain G-5 tipped arrow into his boiler room. He walked few steps as I cow called & bugled to slow him down.

It worked, as he stopped just in the edge of the brush & stood for about 10 min. Then he slowly walked away. I had lost sight of the arrow after the release but was pretty sure it had found its mark. 6pm. I struggled to wait at least 35 min, then took up the trail before it was too dark. No blood, just tracks. So I crept along looking for blood following the tracks. 6:45 pm Its getting quite dusky out & I’m getting a little nervous. No blood. I walk further down the steep brushy hill & come upon an old log skidding road. There he is! He had passed. Now the work began, just as the last light of day faded away. Four trips to the truck & he was loaded up, ready to go home.

Dirk's 2009 Idaho archery elk...once again, persistence pays off!

Dirk’s 2009 Idaho archery elk…once again, persistence pays off!

No matter how grim your season looks don’t give up until its over. Besides, I’d rather get my bull late , than never!

-Dirk is a 2-time RMEF World Champion Elk Caller. He lives in Moscow, Idaho with his wife, Jessica, and 2 children, Samantha and Austin. He is the assistant manager of the Moscow Les Schwab Tire Store.