An Empty Quiver: Chapter 14. A Field Guide to Elk – Pt 3




By: Dr. Dave SamuelMy bull was a 6×6 and scored 300 inches.  Not one of those New Mexico monsters, but a good first bull for anyone.  You can take big elk in many states, but there are three states that rank above the others; Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.  All are draws, and all are hard draws.  After this 2000 hunt, I applied for New Mexico every year, but never got drawn again.  However, you can buy landowners tags and that’s what I did in 2005 and hunted with Ken Swaim again.  Now this approach is expensive as a tag in a good area will cost as much as $4000.  Then add the $3500-4000 guide fee plus the regular license and air fare, and you have an expensive hunt.  But I did it and had a great time.  I got close to several really big bulls, but never got a shot.  My financial resources, even though I retired with few bills to pay, only allowed one big hunt a year, so I haven’t chased elk in New Mexico every year as I’d like to.  I have joined my good friend, Steve Fausel, and bowhunted three-four times for elk on his ranch near Silverthorne, Colorado.  They’ve implemented a size restriction on what can be harvested in that area, so the bulls are getting bigger, but I have yet to shoot an arrow on those hunts.  The nice thing about it is you can buy a tag over-the-counter, so no draw is involved.   Plus I get to stay at Steve’s home at 9600 foot elevation and visit with him and his family while I bowhunt.  That is a real plus. 

 An interesting thing happened as we gutted the elk.  Bill had just opened the diaphragm and reached in to pull out the lungs and heart.  “Ouch” he cried, and jerked his hand out.  “Your broadhead is in here” he said.  “That’s impossible Bill, I found the arrow on the blood trail near the spot I shot him.”  Bill slowly reached in and pulled out nine inches of carbon shaft with a 100 grain three blade broadhead attached.  He then hand scooped a pulverized clotted lung from the chest cavity.  An examination of the outside of the elk, showed a healed over small scar high on the rib cage.  It was obvious what happened.  Someone shot this elk about two weeks earlier from a tree stand, probably located over a water hole.  They’d gotten poor penetration, probably because of the light weight equipment, and even though the elk lost a lung, he survived. In fact, he not only survived, he was still the herd bull and still rutting and mating cows.  Now, would the loss of that lung have hurt his chances for over winter survival?  We’ll never know. 

 A sad note is that as of 2008 my elk hunting days are over.  A surgical error during a surgery for my rapid heartbeat, caused me to lose a lung and I no longer can do strenuous hunts.  Plus, I cannot fly, and must drive to all destinations.  West Virginia to New Mexico is just too much for me.  And so, as I write this, the above-described elk hunt will be my last and greatest elk memory.  So be it.  Probably more than I deserved, and I thank God I had the opportunity. 

 That’s what I thought in 2008, following my extended illness.  The paralyzed diaphragm is still paralyzed today, and flying is still not an option, but I learned that I can still shoot my bow if I am sitting, so water hole and wallow elk hunts are possible.  So in 2011 I took Amtrak and went to Montana.  I slept in a roomette that proved to be okay. Three meals a day and a 2 day train ride. A bit expensive, but not bad.  A car rental, plus a 4-hour drive, and I reached my destination in rural mountain country.  Friends who hunted this ranch described great elk in vivid detail.  Elk come to wallows, so why not?  This was a far cry from what I envisioned an elk hunt to be, but it was all I could do so here I was.  Maybe this could work for me, so with some trepidation, and a lot of enthusiasm, I hiked the mile from the truck to the wallow, and settled into the ground blind I’d constructed the previous afternoon.  I view hunts as adventures, and elk hunts are definitely in that category, so maybe this wallow would lead to something special.  I’d seen the videos and photos of big bulls rolling around in wallows, and those images had me a bit excited.   

 The wallow was in a canyon, with thick cover on the west ridge and rather open terrain on the east mountain.  The wallow was muddy and freshly used, so I was optimistic about my chances of seeing a bull.  It was the early rut, prime time for bulls to use wallows. Yes, there was no doubt that this would work and I’d have a way to hunt elk in the coming years. 

 As dawn approached, my body was on full alert, and I stayed that way for several hours.  The wind was perfect, coming down the canyon, and it remained that way all day, every day, lending further credence to my optimism.  Around noon, I grabbed a sandwich and took a book from my pack.  I sat on a cushion, leaned back and read a bit.  Bulls would come.  With late afternoon, I still was anticipating the sight of my first bull, or a cow.  And I did see several cows, on the far hill, but they were cow cows, of the Black Angus variety. 

 At dark I slowly hiked back to the truck, a bit disappointed, but knowing that hunting isn’t a guarantee.  There was always tomorrow.

 At dinner I learned that the two other hunters in camp, and their guide, had been into bulls all day.  It was fun listening to the close calls they had with some really good bulls.  Ah yes, tomorrow would be a new day, and the weather forecast was good.  On six hours sleep, I crept to the blind before dawn.  Again I spent an optimistic day in wait for the sight of an elk.  But it was not meant to be.  The hike to the truck after 13 long hours seemed a bit longer than it had the day before.  As always at the end of any day, my rib cage pain was severe, and again I listened to my fellow hunters tell stories of close encounters and bulls fighting.

 Day three I sat a new blind in an area the ranch owner said was hot for elk sightings.  The small water hole looked enticing to me, but again I saw nothing.  Well, that isn’t quite true.  Around 11 A. M. a small black bear ventured in for a drink then quickly departed.  No sense repeating the stories of missed opportunities and bulls seen by my new friends.  They also saw their second fight between two bulls.  Sounded pretty neat.  It was neat.  However, I listened to their stories with little emotion.  The rib cage pain from sitting those long hours was there, but I’d come to ignore it fairly well.  The pain from not hearing or seeing bulls was a bit harder to ignore. 

The fourth morning I was drawn back to the wallow.  It was like sitting in a hot spot for deer or at a bear bait.  The longer you were there, the closer you were to seeing a great animal.  As I exited the truck, a bull bugled close by.  Finally.  I quickly moved in that direction, and cow called.  Within seconds a cow passed by at thirty yards, followed by a small four-point bull.  I lowered my bow and although he passed out of range, I wouldn’t have shot anyway.  But the sighting gave me new enthusiasm as I trudged down the canyon to the wallow. 

I finished my book, watched my resident chipmunk nibble on the banana peel near the blind.    Mundane stuff.  Dark arrived with no elk heard or seen.  Day five was the same.  The magic of the wallow dispersed into the wind as my energy and enthusiasm dwindled.  The spark was gone. The light was out.  I had one more day, but at noon, I left my blind for the last time. 

 Since the bad surgery, at the end of each day, I ask myself if the experience was worth the pain.  If it wasn’t, then I don’t try that again.  For the wallow hunt, the answer was clear.  The experience was not worth the pain.  The lure of the wallow was drained.

The train ride home was a time to reflect.  We all do that after any hunt.  By the time I reached West Virginia I was thinking about the wallow and what bulls might be there right now.  Would I let a flicker, a spark, creep into my body, into my mind, my heart, again?  Not yet, but maybe by next fall?  Who knows?  Who knows what will be next fall?  One thing was for sure.  The wallow would still be there.  

Dr. David Samuel spent 30 years as a professor of wildlife management at West Virginia University. He is now in his 44th year with Bowhunter Magazine, where his Know Hunting column still appears. He currently writes the Know Whitetails column for the Whitetail Journal, The Future of Hunting column on and writes a weekly outdoor column for WV newspapers. His activities on behalf of wildlife are diverse: from initiating the West Virginia Bowhunter Education Program to helping get bowhunting legalized in many European and African countries.

He has won honored lifetime achievement awards from the National Bowhunter Education Foundation, the Wildlife Society, the Quality Deer Management Association, and Whitetails Unlimited. He is in the SCI Bowhunter’s Hall of Fame, and his greatest honor was being inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame in 2007. He has written 9 books, with his three most recent books being Whitetail Advantage, Whitetail Racks, and the one being presented here, An Empty Quiver – A Lifetime of Bowhunting Adventures which is now SOLD OUT. You can find the table of contents for the two whitetail books, and get autographed copies of all three of these books on Dr. Dave’s website,

For more please go to: The Future of Hunting

For more also go to: Straight Talk Interview: Dr. Dave Samuel

Be sure and visit Dr. Dave’s website, Know Hunting