By Rev Armstrong |IG: @rev.armstrong
Elk hunting is something magical. It does something to the spirit that only the act of pursuing these majestic creatures can provide. It pushes us to engage with these warriors of the wilderness, on their terms, in their territory. There are so many tools and resources on how to become a better elk hunter, since elk hunting blew up roughly a decade ago. We have technology that can pinpoint us to an 8 digit grid on our cellular devices, technical clothing that can keep us comfortable, dry, and in the field for days on end without spoiling, and weapons that can outperform our own capabilities ten-fold. So what makes this article different from every other elk hunting resource? Let me break it down for you.
With all the ability and opportunities we are afforded as hunters in this day and age, it makes it pretty tough to accept defeat in the field. We spend thousands of dollars on our equipment, we train and shoot during the offseason to become the most proficient predator we can be, and we indulge a generous amount of our time and energy in planning and dreaming of the experiences ahead. The first element that anybody in this game needs to realize, is that success is measured very differently across the spectrum. Some hunters are seasoned predators, counting inches on every animal they glass up until they find the oldest, most genetically sound bull within the unit. Others are looking for the most aggressive and responsive animal within their current location. All too often, I am seeing hunters trying to find their niche or define their success based on others expectations, and skill set. I see people seeking validation and opinions from strangers who have no idea what is in their best interest.
First and foremost, I digress by saying that I personally have been in this position. I was hesitant on how to approach and execute my efforts as an elk hunter. I asked a lot of dumb questions, and followed along on plenty of social media superstar accounts beginning to think that I was one of them. It took me a good 2 years of solid experience in the field (20+ days per season) to realize a lot of what I was told and shown, was far from the reality of elk hunting. I busted my ass year round to get in the best shape possible, I shot my bow 30-50 times a day, I spent my hard earned money on high end gear to fit the part – it got me nowhere, and ultimately had me hanging my head heavier than I had before I got caught in this centrifugal trap of delusion.
I killed a mature branch bull on my first morning ever elk hunting, in ScentLok Realtree camo, and a cotton t-shirt. I had cheap Cabela’s tactical boots, a Badlands day pack, and a 5 year old flag ship bow with 395g arrow that were general use target builds. I sent a single arrow at 42.5 yards, straight through the boilermaker on a full frontal shot. That animal made it 50 yards before expiring, and laying to rest. I visit that same exact spot every time I am on that mountain. I do so, because it takes me back to a time of ignorance and innocence. A time where I didn’t know what was cool. I didn’t worry about if this animal was big enough to get me the pats on the back from people I hardly knew. I was out there with my Pops, and brothers, chasing some of the most magnificent creatures to ever roam this earth. We spent our nights huddled around the fire eating hot home cooked meals, and slept on our cots trying to sleep through the bugle wars that would echo throughout the night. This was the seed that was planted in me, that became my obsession with elk hunting.
Where I went wrong, was how I produced this seed once it was planted. I became obsessive, but in all the wrong ways. I became focused on all the glitz and glamour moments associated with being a successful elk hunter, but lost sight of the principles I cherished in the beginning. I indulged in all the social media, events, and user groups we see on a daily basis. I wanted association with all the cool guys and “killers”, and to obtain every ounce of knowledge that they had. What I quickly came to realize was these guys were a different type of hunter than I was. No less, but no more than what I was destined to be in my fair chase. Many were endorsed to tell me what I wanted to hear, and even more were willing to pass me off as just another fan. Regardless, I kept engaging on the forums, buying up every piece of clothing and gear I was told was “the best”. I spent 2 whole years of my life trying to live up to false expectations, and fit in with the Joneses.
The turning point came after my third season ever archery elk hunting. I worked harder than I ever had in my entire life in the field. I was averaging 10+ miles a day trucking through drainages and skimming ridgelines by myself. I had bought all that fancy gear, so sure, I stayed comfortable throughout the process. I was fit and embracing the taxation of pursuit; but my spirit was empty. I had zero opportunities to draw my bow back, I was becoming redundant in my efforts, and distancing myself from friends and family to hunt harder for my own gain. I blew out a few drainages, got winded by multiple harems while trying to slip in on the herd bull, I was getting pounded with defeat. It was at the closing of this third season that I came home and made some serious reflections on what I wanted out of elk hunting.
My wife greeted me upon my return from the Wallowa’s, after a long 10 day hunt. I was short, and cold. She wanted to know everything about the trip, and how it went – I couldn’t say much. I was angry. The further I reflected on everything I poured into that hunt, the more upset I was with the outcome. Sure, we all figure out elk hunting is a very challenging task pretty quickly; however, this was not the root of my frustration. It took me weeks of playing the season over and over in my head before I finally started to understand why it left such a bitter taste in my mouth. I had completely given up the genuine passion and principles I was taught as a young man, in pursuit of what I thought would make me successful. I gave up those priceless moments of laughter with my loved ones, those unforgettable views on the mountain top, all to chase a ghost. I lost 2 years of what would’ve been some of my most prized memories, all because I was measuring my expectations off of some facade.
I feel as though I witness many others stuck in this same struggle, and it becomes so defeating, that they lose the passion for their pursuit. They keep buying nicer, newer things hoping it will increase their odds. They indulge deeper in the source of misconception, hoping to find answers. One concept I have carried with me throughout my life that always keeps me grounded is, “there is always somebody with less, doing more”. Quit seeking validation from folks who are all in the same rat race as you. Quit asking “professionals” what is best for you. You and you alone can answer those questions. You are responsible for defining your happiness and success. Get out and enjoy the process of transformation. Embrace the crappy boots you should’ve spent a little more on. Take notes on that arrow you sent a little too high on that perfect broadside shot. Remember the ache of hauling out game in that pack that was not designed for your build, and embrace the lessons and character building process of failure.
I am here to tell you this, every second you spend away from the foundation of why you started hunting, is a second of lifelong memories and lessons you can never get back. Every second we get on the mountain and in the field, doing what we love with who we love, is something we can’t replace with any single thing outside of those experiences. If your goal is to become an elite trophy hunter, earn your stripes by living by these values. Help others along the way, and engage with others who are yearning for those experiences. The best hunter is the one who does not go out to provide for himself, but who is there to provide for others, and his tribe.
This season, go further than shooting your bow, acquiring nicer gear, and learning the behaviors and language of elk. Remember why you got out there in the first place. Cling to the moments you are afforded to spend doing what you love, and include others in that process. Do not lose yourself in lieu of measuring success by others terms. Get out there, battle it out with mother nature, and hunt with an undying passion that spreads to those you share the mountain with.