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Chance blown: Bowhunter can’t forget missing ‘easy’ shot at elk

Bowhunters dream of getting a clear, open shot at a bull elk during the rut. (Brett French / BILLINGS GAZETTE)
Bowhunters dream of getting a clear, open shot at a bull elk during the rut. (Brett French / BILLINGS GAZETTE)

In the Japanese lore of the Samurai warrior there is a term called seppuku, better known to Americans as hara-kiri.

As part of the bushido code of the warrior society, seppuku may be performed by a Samurai because they have brought shame to themselves. Seppuku is ritualistic suicide, a self-performed disembowelment with a knife.

One autumn day years ago I wanted to fall on my arrow out of shame, my Montana-modified form of elk hunter atonement.

At the time I had been bowhunting for only a few years and had yet to shoot an elk, although I’d harvested one whitetail doe and lured in a small whitetail buck to my doe decoy.

That fall, however, I was hell bent on bagging an elk, and one day I stumbled upon a scraggly “brush bull.” Unfortunately, I spotted him after stepping into a small clearing. The only reason I’d brazenly walked into the opening was because a small group of range cattle had spooked. With their running and caterwauling I figured my hunt in that spot was over.

It was only after walking about 10 yards into the clearing that I looked left past the moving cattle and saw the bull. He stood so much taller than the cattle, like a llama among sheep, that he looked like an awkward adoptee, some shirttail relative just stopping by to see the cows for a visit.

Our eyes locked at the same moment, freezing me in midstride as I calculated how to get a shot off from my exposed position. He considered me with some curiosity before ambling off in no particular hurry into the thick aspen.

My shoulders sagged. If I had a crest it would have fallen. I had been so dang close to fulfilling my goal of arrowing a bull elk. He’d stood only 35 yards away, easily within my comfortable shooting range, and I’d completely and utterly blew my chance.

Hunters, like anglers, have to live on eternal glimmers of hope, though. So that night I nurtured the frail ember of my hunting tenacity at camp, planned a new stalk and hoped that maybe I hadn’t scared the bull so badly that he would completely vacate the area. I was counting on him being faithful to that spot.

At the break of dawn the next morning I eased into the same clearing, setting up in a shallow depression in the ground that would help hide my camouflaged profile, a small tree at my back to break up my outline, but not so large as to obstruct any shot. Then I waited, and waited, and waited some more, which is a long time for me to sit in one place.

Lost in thought about what a stupid idea it had been to return to the scene of the previous day’s crime and about ready to go to plan B, I heard a soft almost imperceptible rustling of fallen leaves behind me. Slowly I swiveled my head around almost 180 degrees and beheld the same scraggly bull – nose to the ground – step out from behind some aspen and into the open only 19 yards away. I know the exact distance because I took the time to use my rangefinder.

With my heart hammering so hard it felt like a herd of wild horses were stampeding through my chest, I slowly turned and began to draw back the bowstring. Then it happened. I hit the release before reaching full draw and the arrow fluttered awkwardly past the bull’s nose as he nibbled the grass.

The noise of the arrow was almost infinitesimal, a slight ffflltt like the flutter of a sparrow’s wings. But it was enough to catch the bull’s attention. He raised his head and looked in my direction as I fumbled to nock another arrow, praying to God that he wouldn’t bolt.

Then the bull barked, not unlike a startled dog, and ran into the thick aspen as I yelled after him: “No! Wait!” as if he were a pet and would listen to my command.

The feeling of dread was overwhelming. I felt physically and emotionally ill. How could this have happened?

Unfortunately, I knew only too well how it had occurred as the images played over and over again in my mind on an endless loop like some dark, dreary black and white movie. Maybe this is how people go mad.

The incident left me so devastated, my ego so shattered, that I’ve never spoken of it until now.

I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned, possibly by the ghosts of my ancestors who haunt hunting camps. While shooting practice shots with my compound bow into a Styrofoam cube target I accidentally hit my release before I was at full draw. The arrow flubbed to the ground awkwardly and weakly.

It was a mistake I had never, ever made before, not in all of the thousands of practice shots I had taken over the years from a variety of positions meant to mimic actual hunting scenarios. So I shrugged off the error, giving it no particular weight.

If only I had paid closer attention. If only I had registered the mistake more firmly in my mind.

I hate “if onlys.”