Few activities conjure up feelings of nostalgia quite like hunting does. As a young boy, I grew up in rural central Illinois and was introduced to archery and bow hunting by my uncle Kirk. Kirk was a hard working stone mason, that spent his life dedicated to becoming a master traditional archer, bowhunter, and fisherman. Ill never forget the day we came to visit him and my aunt Patti, my eyes wide with excitement as he handed me a left-handed recurve. "Place your hands in front of your face and make a circle," he said. "Now close one eye, can you still see?"
Uncle Kirk was testing my eye sight for "dominance", and as it turned out I was right-handed, but left eye dominant. Eye dominance is important, as it dictates which "hand" a person should be using while hunting for best shooting results. It was impossible for my uncle to know at the time, but he had just cemented a life-long passion for hunting, deep into my soul. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a big game hunter, just like my uncle. He would tell us wild stories of chasing elk through the mountains and shooting a "snuff" can at 75 yards with nothing more than a bare longbow. Uncle Kirk was the kind of rugged hunter, you would read about in the western bowhunting magazines of the day, a real bowhunting legend.
Growing up surrounded by corn fields and huge whitetail deer, I had a dream of harvesting a record whitetail deer or maybe even a bull elk. We lived about 20 minutes outside of the closest major town and my folks didn't have a TV. I spent a lot of time wondering through the small patch of timber on our 15 acres, dreaming of the day I would be hunting elk in the Rocky Mountains. One Christmas, I asked for and received a brand new Sheridan pump-style pellet gun. I would spend hours upon hours putting the stalk on unsuspecting rabbits and squirrel, or hoping to kick up a pheasant, all the while pretending they were big game. It seems like only yesterday when I harvested my first animal with the new pellet gun. I remember a bird flying down and landing on a branch about 20 yards away. I focused my breathing, aimed, and squeezed. The pellet connected and the bird was down instantly, leaving me with a profound feeling of respect for the animal who's life I had just taken. Looking back, these were some of the best times of my life.
At the age of 16, I went to work for a traditional archery shop and was trained in the skill of making traditional arrows and the basics of running a small business. I learned vast amounts of knowledge about traditional bowhunting, and in addition, I also learned a bit about making custom-made recurve bows. Black Widow recurve bows were a favorite of my family, but by now, I was more of a "compound guy." Somewhere around 1993, I got my first compound bow. It was Hoyt-Easton, I think. In 1993 using a release was not very popular, so we shot mostly with a finger tab or a glove. I could spend hours at the range, and sometimes would spend all day shooting round after round, using arrows I had mostly sourced from the scratch and dent bucket at the archery range. As they say, "time flies when you are having fun," and the fond memories of my childhood hunting adventures were quickly replaced with the everyday stresses of being a teen.
Being young and ready for adventure, I moved out of my parents house the day after high school graduation, and set out to make my mark on the world. The first few years were tough, but I was young, and "in love." As the saying goes, "The days were long, but the years were short." In typical teenager fashion, I started spending more time chasing a girl, than chasing big game. In 2000, I gained access to a private, 250 acre farm, in Northern Illinois right on the border with southern Wisconsin. I didn't have to spend much time scouting as I was the only one with permission to hunt the property, and the place was loaded with trophy quality whitetail deer. I was 20 minutes into my first hunt, when a group of 10 does walked by my tree stand. I had 2 tags in hand, and I remember asking myself as I was drawn down on the largest doe in the group, "do I really wanna pack this thing out and throw it on the top of my 'new' BMW?" Like many teens do, I had just overextended my resources and purchased a used car, way out of my price range. The thought of tossing a dead deer on top was not very appealing, so I let my bow down and hiked out at dusk. Little did I know, I would not hunt again for almost 15 years.
I joined the Navy a few months later and began a new chapter in life. Anyone that has ever been a member of the military knows that the second your "boots hit the ground" at boot camp, your life is forever changed. Ironically, I would feel that same feeling again years later when my "boots hit the ground" on my very first elk hunt. I spent 3 months in the spring and early summer of 2021 going through boot camp and then was shipped off to my "A" school, to learn my job. Luckily for me it was not too far from where I grew up, but it might as well have been another planet. Life felt very foreign, and the memories of trudging around in the freshly fallen snow with my Sheridan pellet rifle, were all but forgotten. Then came 9/11.
I remember it being late morning when I got back to the barracks from class on 9-11-2001. There were 100 sailors packed into the TV lounge, and the room was dead silent aside from the noise coming out of the TV. I asked one of my "shipmates" what was happening and he told me about the terrorist attack on the first tower at the World Trade Center. We watched in horror as the second tower was hit, and both towers subsequently fell to the ground. I remember the feelings of anger, immediately followed by an slight sense of fear of what was to come in the following months. I finished up my schooling for the Navy and was shipped off to Naval Air Station, located in beautiful Coronado, California. Few memories stick with me more than stepping off a plane for the first time and breathing in that warm, moist, California air. If I close my eyes, and breathe in deeply, I can still smell the salt in the air to this day.
I was assigned to the nuclear aircraft carrier CVN 68, the USS NIMITZ as my first duty station. Jobs were assigned once you got to the ship, and as luck would have it, I was assigned to work in Combat Systems. It was a pretty easy job where I was eventually assigned to the "TV shop" and used my skills as an Interior Communications Electrician or "IC'man" to replace and rewire every TV onboard the ship. There were over a thousand tv's onboard. Myself and a crew of 4-5 other people walked every inch of the ship, and visited every space onboard USS NIMITZ, aside from the actual nuclear reactor. The days were long, and the nights spent "out on the town" were even longer, with now lifelong friends, Byron, and David. Dreams of chasing elk in the mountains had all but been replaced with long nights of doing what every other 21 year old sailor was doing at the time, partying.
My military career was short lived due to a very extreme hearing disability at high frequencies. I had to get a waiver to get accepted into the military due to poor hearing, and after a year of being assigned to an aircraft carrier, my hearing loss had gotten worse. I was given the choice to take a desk job on "shore duty" for the next 18 years of my career, or to separate from the military all together. I chose the latter and was immediately transferred to the JAG office on 32nd street in San Diego. I leaned about military law, and worked closely with this unit to track down and apprehend military deserters who would often time go AWOL, and head for hiding in Mexico. My boss was a "dead-ringer" for Vin Diesel. These were exciting times filled with anticipation of life to come, after the military.
As my military career came to an end, I used my skills I learned while in the Navy and went to work for the largest independently owned oil company in the world (at the time) Hunt Oil. Hunt oil had just started a power division, Hunt Power. I was hired to train the new users on the functionality of the software as well as verify the installation. These were exciting times for a young man fresh out of the military, with no family of his own.
Time marched on, the job ended, and I found myself relocating to Las Vegas, Nevada in the fall of 2005. I was a new father, and found the dream of being a western hunter slipping further and further into the past. Fast forward to 2012, and I started thinking about getting back into the sport of bowhunting. I was so excited at the prospect of hunting elk or mule deer in the state of Nevada, until I pulled up the fish and game regulations on my phone and was hit with the stark realization that permission to hunt big game in Nevada is only granted to hunters through the Nevada Big Game Draw. As my luck would have it, the draw had already happened for that year. I remember telling myself I was going to apply the following year, but was quickly discouraged by my lack of knowledge of HOW TO DRAW A BIG GAME TAG. I didn't even bother to apply.In the fall of 2014, my dad invited me for a whitetail deer hunt on his property, located in Southwestern Missouri just an hour or so from the Bass Pro Shop's world headquarters. Over the next few years we would hunt the fall rifle season together, and made hunting together annual event. Most years we would harvest a decent size 8 pointer. My dad who had more time to hunt, would usually get a good buck with his bow every year. As the years piled up, so did my desire to once again become a western big game hunter. I purchased a small parcel of land in Missouri and spent the next few years re-adapting to the idea of hunting. A lot had changed since I was a young boy trudging thru the snow with that left handed recurve bow.
In the fall of 2018 a co-worker and friend, Josh, sent me a message and insisted I check out the show, MEATEATER, on NETFLIX. I ignored it. MEATEATER? It sounded like a cooking show to me and I completely ignored his recommendation. A few months later he sent me another message and told me again to check out the show. As I navigated my chrome browser to Netflix.com, I would have no way of knowing my life was about to change forever. Listening to Steven Rinella break down hunts, and talk to me on a level I completely understood, using regional dialect I had not heard in 15 plus years immediately took me back to my days of trudging around in the snow with my trusted recurve, or Sheridan pellet rifle. There was only one problem at this point, I was weighing in at over 300 lbs. I could barely walk around the block, let alone go an a back country elk hunt!
2019, came and went like a whirlwind. I somehow mustered up enough discipline fueled by the desire to hunt elk, and managed to lose 80+ pounds between February and November 2019. I spent the entire year obsessing over fitness, running, and working out. I started following legendary bowhunter and runner, Cameron Hanes, on social media and was inspired daily to "keep hammering". I spent every waking minute not at work, studying every piece of information I could about western hunting, and running. In November of 2019, Josh and I headed out for deer camp in Southwestern Missouri, where we successfully harvested our limit of whitetail deer. The fire of wanting to be a western elk and big game hunter was now at fever pitch.
In late 2019 and into early 2020 I spent approximately 400-600 hours studying every single piece of film, every article, and every book I could find related to elk hunting. I started following some of the industry leaders in western bowhunting such as Corey Jacobsen, Remi Warren, and a few other Vegas locals like, Mr. Lorenzo Sartini whom I greatly respect and admire. I remember watching a video titled, "THROUGH THE BURN - A New Mexico Archery Hunt" on YouTube and instantly making up my mind, I was going to become an elk hunter. To this day, "THROUGH THE BURN - A New Mexico Archery Hunt" on YouTube remains my favorite elk hunting video of all time!
I spent all of 2020 absolutely obsessing over preparing myself physically, and obtaining all the necessary gear, to put "boots on the ground" for my first elk hunt. I spent the entire first quarter of 2020 learning how to properly navigate state fish and game sites, and how to properly apply for hunts. I had applied for tags in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, and was lucky enough to draw in my first year applying for RIFLE ANTLERED MULE DEER, and ANTLERLESS RIFLE ELK in my home state of Nevada. Unfortunately, the elusive ACHERY ELK TAG did not come so I set my sights on Utah's over the counter elk tag. Utah, Colorado, and Idaho offer over the counter or OTC tags for hunters that did not draw or apply for a tag. I was totally overwhelmed by the amount of information available online on how to plan hunts, and which hunt to chose, which area to hunt, etc.
After another 40-60 hours of research and making friends with another fellow first year elk hunter Matt, we changed our minds and headed for the beautiful state of Colorado. Matt had done "next level" amounts of research also, and after all the investment in gear (another article coming soon on gear), studying of elk rut cycles, elk calling methods, and all other things elk, we finally put "boots on the ground" on Sept 16, 2020. I can remember wondering all year, "what will it be like when we finally get there and my boots hit the earth for my very first elk hunt." This day will stick with me as long as I live. The air was cold, a crisp 34 degrees. The sky was cloudy, and rain eventually gave way to snow flurries. Before you know it everything was covered in a light dusting of snow, and I was finally living my childhood dream of chasing elk in the Rocky Mountains. I would be quickly humbled by the magnitude of what was required.
Within 24 hours, we were "on the elk", on public land. As I stood across a steep ravine and belted out my best impression of an elk location bugle, 3 bull elk immediately answered and my body was filled with a rush of adrenaline I had never experienced before. As darkness fell, we "talked" back and forth with the 3 different bulls for a solid 15 minutes and made up our mind to return in the morning. As morning came, I slipped into the bottom of the ravine and started out to locate the group we had heard the night before. Within 15 minutes I came across another hunter, and had no idea what to do, except keep moving. I made my way through the ravine, and navigated to a finger of the ravine that went to the left. As I pulled out my new Vortex binoculars and had a Grim Reaper tipped 5mm FMJ arrow knocked up and ready to go, I spotted what appeared to be an elk walking through the trees. I slowly approached and checked the wind. It was morning, and thermals were perfectly in my favor as I headed up the narrow draw.
40 Yards up the trail, I could see an elk laying out on the ground and could barely make out someone quartering it out. I approached and asked if it was ok to check out the fresh harvest. The hunter and I spoke for a few minutes, I congratulated the hunter who said he had hunted for 5 years before getting this cow elk. It was his first elk, and I just happened to witness it moments after the harvest. I proceeded up the draw and stopped to have lunch.15 minutes later, I had my first face to face encounter with 2 bull elk, and a cow. The whole incident happened so fast, I barely had enough time to react, and by the time I had a shot lined up, they were ranged at 88 yards and almost straight uphill. I lowered my bow, waited a few minutes, and gave chase. The next morning, I passed up an opportunity to harvest a cow elk, and never saw elk again the entire hunt. I can remember thinking how much more I had to learn, and how I couldn't wait to learn it. During this hunt, I became friends with another Utah based hunter, Mr. Clint. My hunting partner had managed to get lost in the dark and could not find his RZR. Clint helped me find and rescue my lost hunting partner. I didn't know it at the time, but knowledge I learned from Clint would be key in my elk hunt the following year. Clint and I kept in contact throughout next year.
Later that fall, I did my best to fill my remaining tags for Nevada, but ultimately was left with only "tag soup". Tag soup is what some hunters call it when they don't fill their big game tag. Lack of practical elk knowledge, western big game hunting knowledge, combined with a lack of proper basic gear left me feeling overwhelmed but I was determined to get back at it the following year. I did manage to harvest the largest whitetail of my life that year with my bow, so there was somewhat of a silver lining to all the preparation and work I had put in. I cleansed my "wounded ego", and dusted myself off and became more resolved to harvest an elk the following year. I shot my bow daily and learned everything I could about hunting elk and other species of big game.
In 2021, I made up my mind, I was going to go at elk hunting alone this time, Remi Warren style. Inspired by my success during the Missouri Archery Deer season, I again poured myself into gaining every practical piece of hunting knowledge possible. When my boots hit the ground for elk season in 2021, I was ready or so I thought. I made it into camp a few days early and loaded up my pack to go out scouting. Day one of scouting was nine grueling miles hiking through public land, simply trying to locate any signs of elk. I found nothing.
Day one of the 2021 archery season for Colorado saw no signs of elk, but it was hot, there was little water to be found in the area, and conditions were tough. Days and nights at camp were made more enjoyable by the company of my mom, Susan, and dad, Russ. Dad came along with on a few hunts, where we saw many mule deer and started finding more signs of elk. Hunts with dad are always the best. I saw plenty of elk, and even managed to call in a small bull, but ultimately came up empty handed. After 10 days, in the mountains I packed up camp and headed back to Las Vegas. My pride, again taking a hit. I had thought for sure, 2021 was my year to harvest an elk, but had not even come close enough for a shot opportunity. I called my aunt Patti and she told me, "Uncle Kirk had that happen one year, he ended up going back by himself and harvesting a big bull." What's this you say? Go back to Colorado? I'm not sure how exactly, but I managed to convince my wife to let me head back out, and left just in time to make it back for the peak of the rut. I had 2 weeks to figure things out and harvest a bull.
Returning to Colorado, completely solo, was a humbling feeling. There is no way for me to accurately describe the isolation you feel, and how small the mountains can make you feel. Its almost as if you are insignificant. I immediately headed for familiar territory and was seeing elk within 20 minutes. I talked with a local farmer who steered me to an area that was always in need of fence repair from the elk crossing and breaking down the fence. The next morning I hiked in but didn't see any elk. There was a lot of elk sign, but no elk. Later that night I talked to the farmer again, and he said "no, you are doing it all wrong. Just hike in just before first light and sit. Wait and call." I hiked in the next morning, sat down, and let out a short elk "mew" just as legal shooting hours started, and the entire hillside erupted with elk. I had never seen anything like it, on film, or in person. I had somehow managed to hike straight into the middle of an entire herd of elk without spooking them. There were elk running in every direction. I counted at least 15-20 cow elk, but didn't see any bulls. I pulled out my bugle and let one rip to the best of my ability. An angry bull immediately responded.
Since I had been following Mr. Corey Jacobson's educational training platform, I knew exactly what to do and fired off an "challenge bugle" of my own, immediately cutting off the bull every time it would bugle. These two hours were the most intense testosterone filled exchange of my life as the bull and I screamed at each other from about 75 yards away. There was a lot of oak brush between the bull and I. Another bull could be heard close by, coming in to get a piece of the action. I could hear one of the bulls get close, but when he got to a point where they thought the other elk should be, and didn't see another elk, he retreated. After about two hours, and as the sun continued to rise in the sky, the thermals started to shift and I decided I would get some rest and try again in the afternoon.
I hiked out and called my friend Clint for advice. His exact words were, "sometimes when a bull hangs up like that in the thick stuff, you just gotta go in there and get nasty with 'em. Just get nasty with 'em and go on in there and get after him. " It was all I could do to wait out the heat of the day. I wasn't exactly sure how to "get nasty" with a 800 pound mature bull elk, but I was going to give it my best shot. At about 3 pm, I packed up the truck with essentials only, and my "kill kit". I drove out to the trailhead, said a prayer, and headed in to "get nasty" with the bull I had been bugling at all morning. As I made it to the spot I had been bugling from earlier, I could hear both bulls from the morning. I fired off a bugle of my own, they answered immediately. I immediately moved in position about 50 yards to the south and headed down the draw. I could see one bull though the aspen grove, a very large 6x6 about 150 yards away. He was headed right for me, but eventually got hung up and retreated when he didn't see another bull. I issued a challenge bugle, and thought to myself, "its now or never."
I was located about 70 yards higher in elevation than the bull. He was now somewhere below just out of site. I quivered my arrow, and literally ran as fast as I could down the hill, through the fallen timber. Kicking up dirt and sliding on my butt down the hill, I did my absolute best to close the distance between the myself and fired up bull. I remember feeling like it was a scene out of a the movie Rambo, and the moment was as intense as they come. As I made it to the bottom of the hill and headed for where I had last seen the bull, I jumped the largest mule deer I had ever seen in my life. It looked insignificant compared to the size of the bull elk I was chasing. I laid out the best impression of an "angry bull" I could, and the bull immediately answered right back. I could tell he was coming toward me. Adrenaline surged and I kept repeatedly telling myself, "this is it." I repositioned myself about 30 yards from where I had just bugled from, and set up for a shot. The bull walked in to view at 40 yards. I quickly ranged him at 44 yards, but he was on a line, and headed straight for me. I crouched down to avoid being seen, and the elk continued to walk directly toward me. I drew my bow and held it for what felt like an eternity. I remember thinking, "should I re-range him? Should I adjust my Hog Father single pin site?" A voice inside me said, "nah, if he's good at 40 yards, he's good at 20." This would prove to be a major miscalculation in the heat of the moment. I was thinking in terms of rifle hunting, and not in terms of bowhunting, a critical mistake.
The bull is heading in directly in front of me, still approaching me, using the trail I was crouched down upon. At 15 yards, I decided to give him a 450 grain 5MM FMJ right to the brisket. As the arrow left the bow, and the bull swung wildly to the side, I just knew that I had buried that arrow deep into his brisket. He stood broad side at 20 yards. I knocked another arrow and let it fly, without taking the time to adjust my site. I hit him high just above the vitals and a few inches below his spine. I could see blood squirting out, and was sure he was going to pile up right in front of me. I knocked a third arrow, once again not taking the time to adjust my site, this time aiming a little lower, but fatigue set in from the first shot being held back for almost a minute and I was shaking like a leaf on a tree from all the adrenaline pumping thru my veins. I let the arrow fly and was sure I had hit the animal all three times. I had just called in shot a massive bull, for the first time in my life. I remember thinking it went down EXACTLY how it does on film, and it being such a weird and surreal feeling.
I waited about 20 minutes, and slowly hiked out to the truck. I waited and made a few calls. By now it was getting dark and I wanted to give the animal ample time to expire. I was hunting the border of some private land, and when the elk turned and ran after the shot, it ran straight towards private land. I did not want to push the animal, so after an hour or so, I headed back in to find and process my elk. It was dark, and as I approached the site, I could see light emanating from my orange Lumenok. I approached the light and reached down to pick up "shot number one." There was not a drop of blood on the arrow. My heart sank! I foraged around for signs of blood, and came across the spot where the elk stood after I shot him the second time. There was hardly any blood on the ground. Desperation set in to find the spot where shot 3 took place, and I see another orange glow of hope, from about 20 yards away. I rush over and find arrow number 3 laying there without a single spot of blood on it. My gut hurt. "How is this even possible?", I asked myself. I did my best to find a blood trail, but shot number two hit too high to cause mortal damage, and the bull had retreated to private land.
I was crushed the instant reality set in, that I had simply blown the opportunity of a lifetime. I should have had the discipline and the mental fortitude to adjust my single pin site. I called the farmer, and told him what had happened. He encouraged me to get back in there the next day and go after him again, but my better judgement said otherwise. I punched my tag, packed my things, and started driving back to Vegas. I can't remember a time in my life where I felt more defeated, ashamed almost that I had blown such a perfect opportunity to harvest such a magnificent creature. On the way home I called my Uncle Kirk and Aunt Patti and told them the story. My uncle calmly reminded me, that I had "gotten my money's worth out of the tag" and reminded me of how far I had come as a hunter. He reminded me that its not always about the harvest, and told me to continue to build on the experiences I had in the field, the memories I made, and the new friendships I developed while on the hunt.
Elk hunting, like many things in life, requires a certain amount of grit I wasn't sure I had. It takes a lot of courage to chase after an animal four times your body weight. Hiking into a place you have never been before, in the dark with bear and cougar roaming the area, requires a level determination that pushes you much farther than you previously thought possible. Simply put, you have to want it more than you want anything else! There is a certain level of danger, mystery, and excitement found in elk hunting that can be found nowhere else in the world. The sounds of a bull bugling in the wild is simply unmatched in sheer beauty and splendor.
So... back to the original question... Ok, so you've watched MEATEATER on NETFLIX... Now what?
In the words of Mr. Jocko Willink, the only thing left to do is "Get after it." In the words of my uncle Kirk Thornton, "Elk hunting is a young man's sport, don't waste any time getting started." In the words of the legendary, Mr. Cameron Hanes, "KEEP HAMMERING."
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Disclaimer: This article uses the name MEATEATER and NETFLIX for informational purposes and descriptive purposes only. We hold no affiliation with either company and are merely using the names to tell our story.