For months we dream about opening day. Where exactly in our given unit we’ll be hunting is usually a decision that comes after much scouting, pouring over maps, checking trail cameras and a little bit of following your gut. Preparations are made in the final weeks as you tweak gear, upgrade some pieces of your gear and let go of others that have served you well in seasons past. When opening day finally comes, we clear the calendar and eliminate any distraction that will keep us from what to many hunters is more anticipated than Christmas morning.
Living in Utah, opening day comes sooner than most states in the west as our archery elk and archery deer seasons began August 16 this year. Some say elk season starting that early is a disadvantage while others say it provides better opportunities to pattern elk before the rut, to watch water holes during August heat and in some years there’s the slim chance of harvesting a bull still in the velvet. Regardless of when opening day arrives, the anticipation is almost unbearable and it’s arrival is heralded. For me opening day signals the beginning of my year.
This year’s opening day and the months leading up to it were anything but storybook for me. A mid summer foot injury side tracked my running and training ambitions while an over commitment to a new landscape and fence for our home ate up every spare moment of scouting time I would normally be able to squeeze out of an already busy work/family schedule. Family vacations were enjoyed and cherished, all the while knowing that time in the mountains preparing for the season was taking a back seat. As opening day came closer my shooting wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be and then the bomb – I had committed to lead one of the community service projects that our little mountain town has each year, all before I realized that it was to take place the morning of the opener.
Comments like “you’ll kill a big one” and “you’re a good man Kendall” didn’t seem to help ease the selfish pain I felt knowing that opening morning would have me miles from elk country with a rake, shovel or paint brush in hand rather than my bow.
So opening morning came…and went. Four hours were well spent helping an older gentleman in my neighborhood as family and friends helped paint a deck, trim bushes and other efforts. After the project, I had a few of my own yard to-do’s that I cleared off “the list” and when 3 o’clock rolled around I was ready to go. Sort of.
The usual gathering of gear had yet to take place, unlike a typical opening day when the three or four days before are spent meticulously piecing together your pack, gear and clothing so that it’s an unconscious decision come opening morning. So I hurried and grabbed a pack, tossed in some food and water, threw on my Sitka Core Hoodie, my trusty Sitka Cap and my Sitka Mountain Pants. I couldn’t help but think about how these were the same pants I had worn 4 seasons ago when I arrowed my first bull. I wondered if today they may bear some luck for this odd opening day excursion.
My plan was to venture into a place I call Hollywood to pull the three trail cameras I had set up a month ago but hadn’t made time to check. (I call it Hollywood because “that’s where all the action happens”. I’m sure you also get creative with your hunting spot names in order to be able to talk about them without disclosing their true location) I figured checking trail cams with a bow in hand was the best I could do for this opening day evening hunt and from there I could better determine what my next move would be for the following weekend. As I was loading up to head out, I thought I’d better throw in my kill kit, just in case.
Pulling up to the trailhead at 5pm I quickly shouldered my pack, turned uphill and set off at a brisk pace. As I veered off the trail into Hollywood, I felt the wind in my face and realized that my intended route to round up cameras wouldn’t take advantage of the wind coming down canyon. I opted to continue up canyon towards the first camera and would then ascend the adjacent ridge to retrieve the other two before circling back to the truck. Weaving through stands of aspens and pines, I noted the taller than usual grass and the lack of game trail traffic over the 2 1/2 miles I had covered. I wondered if the thanks to the unusual amounts of rain this summer, the elk had abandoned Hollywood’s water and solitude for greener slopes elsewhere.
Just before 7pm as I slowly approached the first of two small meadows I heard a snort. I couldn’t believe I had been busted by a deer with the wind in my face! I thought if this deer bolts up canyon then any opportunity at an elk in Hollywood would be lost. On the verge of frustration, I opted to quietly proceed in hopes that I could get past the unseen deer. About 20 yards later a second snort snapped me back to attention. Hanging on the right edge of the meadow I paused to survey the area, only to catch a lone cow elk feeding to my left. As I watched her she shook her head and snorted again, apparently sneezing or perhaps shewing an unwanted fly away. Watching her slowly feed, I contemplated the scene. With Idaho and Montana OTC elk tags in my pocket for the second half of September and the freezer void of elk of which my wife had informed me just two weeks previous, I decided it was time to fill the freezer.
Twice drawing on the lone cow, I couldn’t get the right shot at 35 and 60 yards as she fed away in a horseshoe pattern from left to right. Assuming she’d come through an opening to my right, I ranged and prepared for a 27-40 yard shot through a lane she would come through after emerging from behind a thick stand of pines. Waiting, glancing, waiting…and glancing to anticipate when to draw I caught movement to my left and realized she had doubled back, still unaware of my presence, but lazily feeding back into the meadow behind the handful of mature aspens. Turning my body to this new shot opportunity, ranging and beginning to draw on her for the third time, I once again caught movement to my left.
Antlers! I thought to myself, “Better yet! This will do” as I quickly turned and prepared to draw. Feeding out of the thick pines into the meadow this branched antlered bull fed head down, munching on the lush grass. It’s amazing how many thoughts can run through your mind in such a short period of time. “Is it really going to go down just like this?” I thought. “Branch antlered bull in the Uintas?! I’ve had this goal for 5 years now. Is this really going to happen on opening day?!!??”. “Maybe doing that service project really was the best decision for my opening day.” These were the thoughts that raced through my mind as I came to full draw and settled pins on this bull as he fed towards me, head down. Then he stopped, twice, and stared right through me. “How could this be?! I’m in the middle of this meadow with no cover” my bow slightly shaking in my hand as I held at full draw. Down his head went, feeding yet again.
“Turn, turn, turn,” I chanted in my mind, with all 4 pins covering parts of his body. As if on queue he turned broadside and I released, hitting him mid-ship. He did his own horse shoe shaped trot and stopped at about 40 yards, staring into my direction, conveniently exposing the opposite side. I quickly knocked another arrow and let it fly, piercing his shoulder blade a little high. He busted into the trees as I looked at my watch…7:06pm.
I was elated, yet silent as I watched this amazing animal stumble and then painfully bed down just 50 yards from me as he commenced the process of dying. I’ve seen animals go down from a quick killing shot, but I’ve never had the opportunity to watch the process an animal goes through as they die. For twenty minutes I watched with respect and a hint of sadness as this bull elk took his final breaths. Sad only for the pain he had to endure at my less than perfect shots. It was a humbling experience, and has left me with even more respect for these amazing animals we pursue.
As I walked up to my first brand antlered bull in the Uinta range of Utah, ready to notch my 2014 OTC elk tag, I knelt and gave thanks for the opportunity, my health and strength, as well as the way in which this Opening Day had commenced and was now coming to a close.