We hunkered down along the trail as the leaves crunched in the distance. Something big was moving, then it bugled again leaving no doubt what it was coming our way. Seconds later, another bugle, this time behind us. Adrenaline poured through our veins. Today was off to a great start.
We’d left the truck barely thirty minutes ago. I hadn’t even thought to pull my bugle call from my pack when we heard the first elk break the morning stillness. We couldn’t believe our fortune when seconds later we heard the second bull answer.
After hearing the bugles, we ventured quietly as possible through the thick brush to a path full of elk tracks. There was no way to see what was moving our way. Our ears told us that we were between two bulls competing for territory and attention. It felt like we were sitting on a curvy country road waiting for two semi-trucks to come barreling around the corner and into each other.
I checked that my buddy Chris was set and ready to shoot. He was facing the downwind side of the trail, but there was movement from that direction and it had been getting closer. I took the initiative in the lull in the action to put my new cow call to my lips.
The sound my call created was an abomination. It was only forgiven because both Chris and I were new to hunting elk during archery season and I was the only one who owned a cow call. Despite the rattling desperate sound that made me think of a duck sneezing and farting at the same time, the upwind elk bugled in response.
Shaken and embarrassed, I found courage in the bugle response. After a few minutes and a bit more movement from both directions, I put the cow call to my lips again. A better tone this time and movement from the downwind side of the trail. Moments later the two bulls bugled at each other again, closer to us than they had been before.
Time passed and the vision of two bulls arriving in our clearing at the same time and Chris and I scoring our first archery elk on perfectly synchronized shots started to fade. I put the cow call to my lips once more and winced immediately at the embarrassing sound that once again filled the air.
Minutes passed without event. Some noise continued towards where we had heard the upwind bull, but as the adrenaline faded, we couldn’t ignore the fact that what we heard now was far more likely squirrels making a racket than a trophy elk. Finally, I bugled and was met with silence.
We spent the rest of our day scouring over the evidence of elk throughout the area I was so excited to show Chris without another encounter. We exhausted ourselves and our possibilities in the rugged terrain.
As the imaginary scene of both of us shooting a bull at the same time faded, the reality of an amazing encounter with two incredible creatures set in. No amount of imagination can recreate the full range of emotion that we felt in that moment. Shooting even one of the elk would have provided welcome food for our families and friends, but nothing can replace the lessons learned between those two bugles.