Last One in the Pool is a Dead Spike!


By Frank Shipley


Franks Elk

I’m used to being skunked by elk.  Since I started chasing elk with a bow in the 1980s, I’ve always been one of those nine out of ten hunters who eat their elk tag at the end of each season.  Plenty of blacktails, whitetails, and other game have fallen to my bow, but elk have been my nemesis. The harder and smarter try to hunt, the more they jinx my attempts.  Each night in camp when I turn in, if I listen carefully between the coyote howls right before I drift off to sleep, I can hear the elk laughing.


The 2004 elk season in eastern Oregon was no different.  My partner Bill Seitz and I made seven camps in eight days, finding elk only on the last morning. In the midst of a drought, the woods were noisy and fire-prone.  The herds were deep in hiding.  Both of us being new to Oregon hunting, neither of us had local experience to fall back on and so we ate our tags that season.


Now it was September, 2005.  We had a year’s worth of homework under our belts. Bill, newly retired in Oregon, was starting to network with experienced hunters between his nearly daily fishing trips.  Living in Washington, I poured over maps and aerial photos. We had a new location and a new plan.  But after nine days of hard hunting in our new location, with just a couple of days to go, it seemed to us we might strike out again. 


It wasn’t that we couldn’t find elk; in fact Bill and I had been into elk every day but one on this very hunt.  The rut had not kicked in yet, but the cows, at least, were talking to each other, and responding to our cow calls. Once, we dogged a herd on their way to bed in thick timber.  I thought I could cut off the stragglers with the wind in my favor, and almost did.  I had a cow at 40 yards, walking at the tail of the herd.  The way she kept looking behind her, I was pretty sure there was another animal following.  I cut the distance to 25 yards to the path they were taking, but the last elk was a phantom and never showed up.


Another time we teamed up on a nice herd of about 35 animals with a six point herd bull and 13 spikes.  I paralleled them through three drainages, while Bill took the other flank.  In the last drainage, the wind direction in the depths of the canyon was opposite to the wind on the ridge.  When I dropped over the rim rock on the trailing flank of the herd, they winded me and ran right back into Bill in the previous drainage. He passed a shot because of the danger of multiple hits on a pass through, as the elk bunched and milled right in front of him.


On that morning of the ninth day, though, our hopes were higher than ever.  In fact, I was soon to experience a change of luck in an elk encounter of the spectacular kind. We had split up that morning and searched different parts of a large mesa being used by a big herd. I had seen nothing but a lone spike traveling too fast to bushwhack.  But Bill had done better.  Some eighty animals, he related during lunch, were bedded in an out-of-the-way corner of the mesa.  We knew the drainage, and they were near a stock pond that seemed certain to be their first stop when they moved in the evening.  It was just too hot and dry for water not to be on their minds.


What’s more, we had made friends with another experienced Oregon hunter camped just down the road, Ed Dew.  He too knew the drainage, and had good advice.  He believed the water would attract the elk early, about five o’clock.  And so the three of us put together a plan.  We would spread out near the pond in makeshift ground blinds, taking as much wind angle as we could get away with, anticipating that they would come straight to water and give one of us a shot. I had actually hunted this same pond several days before (the elk were elsewhere), and already had a great setup in a root wad 25 yards up the drainage from the pond.  Because Ed and Bill were just as anxious to get the skunk off me as I was, they graciously allowed me this premier position.  Bill was 50 yards to my right, and Ed a hundred to my left. The pieces of the puzzle seemed to be in place. I was not fussy—any elk would do.


We were set up by 5:20.  Only 10 minutes later we began to hear cow talk several hundred yards to the east—just where Bill had put them to bed.  So far…so good.  The elk were still there, and they were restless. I listened to them talk—squeals from the spikes mingled with the cow and calf mews.  Once there was a deep gurgle from a big bull far in the timber.  They seemed to be slowly moving our way.  As the adrenalin started to hit my bloodstream, I projected ahead: about 15 minutes for them to make the clearing, and the lead cow would carefully and reluctantly move from the timber to the pond, I predicted.  Boy was I wrong!


Suddenly, with the elk talk still coming from well within the timber, I heard galloping hooves and a tremendous splash.  Peering through the root wad, I saw a calf that had just plunged into the pond like a Labrador retriever after a winged duck.  If elk can grin, this calf was doing it now—he was going to cool off, come hell or high water!  Right behind the calf, a mature cow and a yearling cow both did practically the same thing.  Within seconds, another dozen elk were on the scene.


They never stopped to drink. The herd ran for the water like a pack of kids just let in to a swimming pool.  Some did belly flops, others trotted into the water.  A few were sputtering and snorting from too much water in the nose as they finally began to noisily slurp water while they cooled off. Several cows held back and looked around dubiously from the far bank of the pond, but the bulk of the herd lined straight into the water from the timber.


Now I was fit to be tied.  I was on the opposite side of the pond from where the elk were emerging from the timber.  They were too far away and moving too fast for a shot.  When they hit the water, the pond literally filled with elk, forcing some to within 30 yards of me on the near side of the pond.  But the water was deep, and I would have needed a torpedo shot to double lung one of the critters.  Bill had once described a torpedo shot he had taken at an animal already hard hit, and the results did not seem encouraging in the penetration department.  And, stacked up as they were, hitting just one animal could be tough.  I came to full draw in anticipation of a positive turn of events.


On my knees, with a couple of dozen elk now right in front of me, the angst began to build: would I get a shot at all?  How long could we remain undetected?  How could I be buried in elk and not have a shot?  How could I hold at full draw with my arms starting to shake?  I had to let down.  Slowly, slowly…finally I was able to let down without being detected.  Now the adrenalin was really surging.  What to do?


The elk were still pouring out of the timber.  A skinny old cow on the bank was starting to look at my root wad cross-eyed, her mind working…she was suspicious.  A fat cow in the water was being pushed to the right edge of the pond by the rest of the gang, and in the shallows, her forequarters started to emerge above the water line.  Might be a shot…draw the bow again…yes…she showed me vitals. Aiming right handed on my knees around the left side of the root wad and putting the 30 yard pin on her, I released.  Contorted as I was, the string hit my forearm and the shot whiffed wide right. The herd bolted a few yards but more elk moving from the timber never heard the shot and the herd settled down with many elk still in the pond.  Thank you Hoyt for the quiet bow!


But the skinny old cow was now sure something was wrong.  Thankfully, the other elk were still more interested in the water than her suspicions.  Shortly the pond was once again so full of elk—some thirty animals—that those on the bank couldn’t get into the water.  Along came a spike…he looked for a place to jump in, but the herd was in the way.  He began walking around the right bank of the pond looking for an opening.  My arrow was on the string.  I drew the bow again, this time upright and steady.  He came broadside right in front of me…


My time finally came. All the years of elk-chasing focused in the moment. Mind on auto pilot, body taking over…release….WHACK…he’s down…tips into the water, thrashing…elk and water everywhere.  He’s spined…stand up, draw, release…THUMP…double lung.  Dozens of elk milling, panicking.  The spike thrashes in the pond…struggles to the far bank…on the bank…he’s down and out!


A few elk lingered after the last shot, so eager for the water that they were almost ready to put up with the strange waterhole events.  But the herd cows prevailed and they were off in a cloud of dust and flying water, down the drainage.  My bull remained motionless on the bank while two arrows bobbed in the muddy pond.


Some say after the first bow-killed elk, the other kills come easier.  Others say elk are tough to hunt all the time, no matter what.  I say perseverance counts.  Experience counts.  Good partners count—it turns out Bill had passed a sure shot on a cow to allow me the honor.  And the right place at the right time comes when perseverance, experience, and strategy among partners finally come together. 


When the packing out of my spike’s quarters was complete, and the stories over dinner were finished and we had turned in, I listened very carefully from my sleeping bag before I drifted into sleep.  All I could hear that night was the wind in the pines and the wavering howls of distant coyotes.