Bloodtrailing: Mistakes made and lessons learned.

The past 3 years I have had the fortune/misfortune (depending on your outlook) of being on several very difficult blood trails during archery hunts. Most all of these have been on elk hunts. Without question it has helped me become much more proficient and resilient while blood trailing, but in the process I have made my share of mistakes along the way as well.

Prior to the last few years, I had very good and quick success with finding downed elk. Arrows seemed to kill almost instantly, and rarely did I need to spend much time at all on a blood trail. For some reason however, I decided to keep tinkering with bow and arrow setups. This was largely due to my infatuation with archery, and the nerd type mindset that I approach it with. Along the way, this has definitely caused me some problems, and has taught me that equipment and designs are not all created equally.

This one mistake though, stems from a specific encounter and its outcome which took two years for me to fully process and understand.

September 2016

Glassing for Elk

I laid on the couch three days after I had planned to be leaving for my archery elk hunt. This year had been comprised of big plans, where I was to hunt a new spot that was quite a bit farther from the trailhead in comparison to my typical spot. Usually, I had hunted a location about 6 miles from the truck, and I had done exceptionally well there over the past 5 years. I was looking for something new though for this season.

Unfortunately those plans fell through as I came down with giardia the night before I was supposed to leave. I carried on with things as planned the next morning, but two hours from the house I had to turn around and return. I just didn't have the strength to drive the rest of the way, let alone make the 13 mile hike I had planned. I laid around for the weekend, and after a dose of some brutal antibiotics, I was starting to mend.

Monday rolled around, and with three days burnt on the giardia bout, and still being far from 100%, I opted to hunt my typical spot instead. Monday afternoon found me at the trailhead, and a slow hike in took me around 4 hours in comparison to my average 2.5.

Things were slow for the most part during the week, but I had a week and a half of time still to hunt. I figured I'd spend the first 5 days or so hunting here, then if things were still slow I would relocate to the deeper spot for the second week of my trip. For the most part the elk herds were lacking mature bulls, and bugling was non existent. The first day I was able to put eyes on a great 7 point that I had hunted the previous season, but I wasn't able to do much about it that night.

Wednesday barely produced an elk sighting at all, and by the end of the day I was starting to feel a bit more like myself. After a slow morning Thursday I moved my camp in the afternoon and spent the night a couple miles farther up the drainage.

Friday morning started off eventful with the first decent bugling I had seen from a herd bull was visible from camp. I made a move on him, but the distance was too far, and the herd got out in front of me a bit farther than I could manage to make work. So that afternoon I moved back down the canyon in hopes of taking another look for the big bull I had seen on Tuesday evening.

That nigh I climbed up into the same basin, and shortly thereafter I spotted the bull and his herd. They were high up against the cliffs above treeline, and with the wind direction there was no real play, so I opted to sit and watch for a couple hours incase an opportunity presented. While sitting, I kept hearing the sounds of a bull raking a tree a few hundred yards to the east of me around the sidehill.

His direction was an area that is thickly timbered, and holds a good amount of game trails and travel areas for elk between the basin I was in, and the next one over. With about 30 minutes of light remaining, it had become clear that I wasn't getting an opportunity to move in on the big bull that night, so I decided to investigate the other situation to my left.

Within short order I quietly moved a couple hundred yards, and let out a cow call. That was about all it took. This other bull screamed back and came on a run. I moved another 25 yards closer to help hide my position since I was calling solo, and got ready. At 4 yards, and on a dead frontal run, the bull saw me and whirled to take off. One more cow call stopped him at 32 yards and he turned broadside to take a second look. Quick evaluation had showed he was a decent 6 point.

Light-writing

I let the arrow go, and it found its spot behind the shoulder and exited the offside in the same place. The elk crashed off and within a couple seconds I could hear nothing more. I walked over and found my arrow and the initial blood spot, which I marked along with the location I had shot from. I wanted to give him some time, and with how cold the nights had been (below freezing) I opted to come find him in the morning as there wasn't much daylight left. I moved down the hill quietly for a couple hundred yards, then retrieved my headlamp from my pack, and headed back to camp.

Back at camp, I met up with a friend hunting the same drainage. We tend to hunt solo, but meet up every day or two for a night and chat about what we've been seeing. We made a plan for the next morning where he would go hunt, and then around 10am, if he wasn't in the action, he would come meet me to help pack some meat, after I had broken the elk down.

I got up just before daylight and made the 30 minute hike back to the shot location, but things started to go south for me. I quickly found the initial blood, shortly followed by my arrow, but after that, I couldn't seem to locate anything but tracks.Tracks aren't the most useful tool in a corridor traveled by dozens of elk per day, but it was what I had. I resorted to following some game trails looking for blood, but ended up back at the site of the shot starting a grid search.

A couple hours later my buddy showed up, and with still nothing to show for it, we started working from the last spot I had seen the elk as he ran the night before. We spent the rest of the day grid searching the entire side of the mountain from timber edge to timber edge. We worked 30 yards apart from one side to the other (about 3/4 mile), and then would drop some elevation and repeat in the opposite direction.

At the end of the day, still nothing to show for it. By this point, with warm days, I started to figure that meat recovery was essentially a hopeless endeavor. I returned a couple more times in the coming days, still with no luck, and then went with a different friend in a new area to do some calling for him. Later that week I called a bull in for him which he shot, and which also quickly fell over.

2017

Mule deer hunting 2017

I spent time hunting elk in come new areas, but also back in the same area as well. The couple days I was there I made it a point to wander around some areas that I hadn't checked, some farther than I thought realistic, but none the less worth keeping an eye open for. Still, with no sign of the bull I had shot previously, I was baffled by what could have happened. I have always held faith that a well placed arrow will kill regardless, but now I had some second guessing.

I wandered around in this same spot 3 or 4 times total, largely due to still chasing around the seven point at times when I could find him. At the end of the season though, I was no closer than I was the year before. I had still had no idea where he may have ended up.

2018

Adam after an evening of close calls while elk hunting.

My new spots from 2017 hadn't panned out quite as well as I had hoped, and I was back to the usual drainage that I like to hunt in. The first week of the two I had planned to hunt was spent with my friend Adam, who had come to hunt from out of state. This was the second time Adam had been here with me, but that story is best suited for its own post. Either way, after some close calls on some great bulls, we found ourselves walking by the mark for my shot location from 2016.

For whatever reason, I decided to peel uphill from the game trail between a little resistance in the rocky cliff band. Another 80 yards farther, I saw leg bones. Immediately I was hit with some overwhelming emotions, and knew it was going to be him. Happy, sad, frustrated, all came into the mix. A couple more steps around some trees blocking the view revealed the antlers.

Finally I was able to take a look at this bull that had consumed my thoughts for 24 months. In fact, it was Sept. 10th, 2 years to the day from my day spent initially blood trailing and grid-searching for this bull. My arrow had exited about 50% through the offside on the original shot, and the other 50% was left inside the elk. I quickly found my arrow with its fletches intact as it laid among rib bones. The legs were scattered about from bears, but I also confirmed that neither shoulder was hit. In Oregon, it is illegal to take a dead head, but at least now I know where he is.

Where this elk lies now is only 110-120 yards from where I shot. I feet terrible, and stupid at the same time, but here is what I have learned in hindsight.

The bull and my arrow


Assume Nothing

This is long story, and a lot of effort to learn this one lesson, but this is mostly it. The problem stemmed from what I assumed. After the shot, this bull took the same game trail he had approached on, and promptly left. This was where I last saw him. Above the game trail is a small cliff band that runs the hillside, about 10 feet in height. I assumed because of this feature, and because of his fatal wound, that the bull would die on his feet while travelling on this trail. We started here, assumed he couldn't make it through this obstacle and uphill, and worked everywhere from this location down.

The bull made it across the one and only barrier we took for granted. Looking back on it now, its embarrassing to see that the entire time we were walking within 100 yards of an elk that died within minutes if not seconds.

From here on out, when a blood trail is tough, I wont take any direction for granted again. If we had resorted to circling outward, we probably would have found blood, and if not, we still would have found the elk within an hour or two.