After 12 years of applying for a Black Hills, SD Archery Elk tag, I finally received that "You were successful" email from the SD GFP!!! My husband was the first person I told...by excitedly making a gesture of drawing a bow and doing a little happy dance! He knew right away what I was trying to tell him. We were going to be chasing bulls this September!!! I had seen a few ads for the Heads Up Decoys & loved how the easy to carry, lightweight design would pack thru the elk woods with us. I ordered one.
Preparing for my hunt was bittersweet. One of my Sister-In-Laws had been battling cancer for many years and her latest admittance into the hospital was proving to be one she would not walk away from. All our family had been gathering at the hospital for many days, giving support and spending short visits with Dawn. I was having a tough time juggling my feelings and not really making a definite decision to leave for the hunt. But, as I was sitting near Dawn's bed on the evening of Aug. 28th, she asked, "When do you leave for your elk hunt?" I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and told her it was a month long season. She knew I was hesitating to commit to leaving and told me to "Go kill a big one." Leaving her room that night, she smiled that beautiful smile as I walked thru the door.
My husband, Rick, and I left the next morning, Aug. 29, for the Hills. We hadn't been out to do any scouting yet, so thought we'd make the 6 1/2 hr. drive and get a couple days of searching out areas where the elk were hanging out, before opening day.
We weren't seeing many elk and the heat had everyone pretty quiet. We did encounter a couple herds and spotted a couple nice bulls. Sunday morning, the 1st of September arrived...with temps in the 90's. We hunted hard that day and the morning of the next, but with no responses to any calls and ridiculously hot temps, we decided to travel back home and make a plan to return as the weather cooled off & the locals reported bugles being heard. We arrived home late that night and didn't drive up to the hospital. The phone rang early in the morning...Dawn had passed on to Heaven around 3 am. She never gave up the fight, but her body just couldn't handle any more. She was laid to rest on Saturday. I thank God the last picture in my mind was seeing her smile as I walked out of her hospital room that last time.
I was determined to fill this tag in her honor. On Sept. 15, after lining up someone to do chores while we were gone and my Mom to watch our 3 kids, we headed west again. For the next couple days, we definitely saw an increase of rutting activity. Bulls were bugling early mornings and evenings, with dropping temperatures making it better each day. We had a close encounter with a very nice 6x7 which never offered a shot. He had been splashing in a waterhole below us and not expecting him to come running directly to me when I cow called, my set up wasn't the best. We had no time to get moved into better positions and utilize the decoy like it should be. He ran up the hill directly at me and instead of taking a path towards the left of me, giving a perfect open shot at 25 yds, he went to the right of me. Stopping directly on the opposite side of a short cedar tree I was sitting behind. I could hear him breathe and see his right eye stare thru the branches, right into my eyes. I spun on my knees as he took long strides past me, & hoped to find a window to draw on him, but it wasn't to be. He disappeared silently. Leaving me in awe of what just happened and a bit disgusted. But, that's hunting.
Another encounter that proved to leave us in awe again came on an evening hunt overlooking the same waterhole. A growling bull was on the far side across the draw, still hiding in the trees, but answering my call...alot!! When he stepped out around 300 yds away, we could tell he was nearing that 400" class! He talked back to me for nearly 45 minutes and showed off his rack as he laid his head back and hit himself in the rump! He wouldn't come across the draw. He hugged that treeline, just screaming and growling to every cow call I made. Rick was up behind me and to my left 30 yds or so. In all the excitement and trying to videotape this bull, he didn't get the decoy up and visible. Not really sure this bull would have seen it that far away anyways and thru the darkness of the timber as light was fading fast. He was one of those majestic bulls in my dreams and I'm happy we got to witness that show!
On the morning of the 19th, we decided to go back to that lucky waterhole. We sat right up on the edge of the water near some deadfall. Rick was about 10 yds. to my left and behind me a bit. He had the decoy ready. We heard 2 bulls bugling to the NW, up in the trees. I let out a couple calls & they responded immediately. You could tell by the bugles that one was an immature bull and one was a mature, growler...maybe that 400" class bull! They both kept answering my calls, but the younger sounding of the two was getting closer. He finally stepped out of the trees and headed our way. He was a rather goofy looking 3x4. It was like we had him on a string as he walked right to us. He saw that cow head decoy and fell in love instantly! He came to about 6 yds. of me and then noticed me, but didn't bolt. He stared me down and looked back at the decoy, then back at me. Finally he had enough and slowly trotted back toward the spot he exited the trees. I kept calling, trying to coax the other bull from his hiding. But, instead, this same young bull came back a second time. I guess he just couldn't resist the "Love Doll on a Stick", as my husband named her!! About 2 hours had passed now, and it sounded as the older bull was going deeper into the woods, NW away from us. I decided we were going to meander up into the woods and try to follow him. Not knowing what excitement lay ahead!
We got back into a tall, lush grassy area full of elk beds. This is where he had been talking back to us from earlier. As we traveled on, we started hearing cows and calves talking...then more and more different bugles. We topped a ridge that had a pretty sharp drop off into a small, narrow drainage. It was mass confusion as cows were running back and forth as younger bulls were trying to steal them from the herd bull. We could only catch glimpses as we tried to stay back and hidden, as not knowing where a set of eyes might detect us. Then, I heard a bark. Another young bull, I'd say a 2x3, did just that....detected us intruders! He ran right into the herd and off they went. Not completely blowing out, but disappearing into an Aspen thicket. We gave them a couple minutes and continued on our pursuit. I kept cow calling every so often as I was walking. At times you could hear the herd stop and then the sound of satellite bulls rushing into the herd. They kept the boss bull on the move almost constantly. We ended up coming to a intersection of 2 old logging roads. We were going to sit down for a quick rest, but just then a cow came running by about 50 yds. in front of us, with a young satellite on her tail & a bigger, nice satellite behind him! Things were getting really vocal again, so we found some trees to get set up by and began calling pretty much nonstop.
Knowing there were several more bulls in the area and a herd bull somewhere, we hoped to lure one from the outskirts of the herd. All of a sudden another young, small bull noticed the "Love Doll"! He was in love, too. Even after getting directly down wind of Rick, he still had to get as close to her as he could. Close enough to blow elk snot on my husband! Oh what fun we were having!!!
After that unbelievably close encounter, we headed up a hill that would top out and then descend as quickly into another narrow, deep gully. But, before we could reach the top...surprise! Another young satellite falling in love with the decoy! Rick was about 25 yds. walking behind me, holding her in front of his face. This bull, again...looked at me, then the decoy, then me, etc. He knew it wasn't right with me in the path to the gal he was making googly eyes with, but he really didn't care! I think there were so many satellite bulls dogging the herd bull and his cows, that they were getting so worked up from anticipation of getting close to a cow, they started losing their good sense! This bull was directly above me about 10 yds. as we were sitting on the side hill, about half way up. He took another step right at me, then another and another. Finally, he was about 5 feet from me. I had an arrow nocked and my release on the string, but having no intention of shooting this 4x4. As he was looking right over top me at the decoy....I watched his eyes...he'd have an intent look of love as if the potential to get close to this "cow" was possible. Then a look of "What the heck is happening to this gal?!" Then, that love struck look came back across his expression again! Later, to find out Rick was playing with him a bit...moving the decoy in front, then to the side of his face. No matter, this immature Romeo didn't care, he was going to check out this cow! He looked down at me for a last time and began to step right on me!!! I threw up a rock at him quickly, which only made him sidestep a bit. He finally lost interest when we walked toward him, hiding Love Doll. As we quietly slipped down the hill into the drainage, you could feel the damp, cool area we were entering. The grass was tall & there was moss hanging from the spruce trees & lots of deadfall of pines from the beetle infestation the Hills are experiencing. It became darker and cooler as we walked deeper into the area. Perfect elk area!!! We could hear the cows, calves and bulls talking. We literally crawled under the low hanging spruce and came up on a thicket that contained a growling bull. It sounded like the herd bull. Rick sat back behind me about 30 yds. and I got sat up, tucked into a spruce behind me. All of a sudden...chaos! The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up as an earth-shaking bugle, growl and scream projected right into my face!!! The herd bull was only about 25 yds. from me, but all I could see was a glimpse of his horn and brown/tan hair! A younger bull rushed into the middle of the thicket, then a calf came running out and almost ran into me. I heard cows talking as they ran the opposite way to my right. I quickly cow called, trying to make the herd bull think he'd left a cow behind. Then, suddenly, a younger bull appeared above me about 35 yds. away. He started walking right at me after noticing that decoy Rick was holding! I took a quick look at his rack, noticed he had some decent width and figured he was at least a 5x5. His head was behind some branches at about 20 yds. so I drew my bow. I focused on the kill spot in the front chest that I'd studied on a photo of elk anatomy...just in case this was the only shot I was presented! And, this is all he was going to give me! As he got to 12 yds. from me, he stopped and noticed something wasn't right. He looked at me, then the decoy, then me, and as his legs quivered a bit as if he was going to bolt, I release my arrow. I watched the arrow and pink lighted nock disappear into him...he spun, with blood squirting, staggered 3 steps and fell a little over 20 yds from me...all 4 hooves reaching for the sky!!! I ran up to him as he was taking his last breath. I turned and yelled to Rick that "He's done!" He couldn't believe it as he ran up to me and lifted me up for a hug! In less than one minute from the time I released my arrow, he was dead!!! "I did it!!! This one's for you Dawn!!!"
We had hiked about 6 miles following this herd and didn't know how close we could get the pickup to haul him out. I began opening him up to retrieve my arrow. As I looked inside, I could see my pink lighted nock glowing next to his heart. Sort of fitting as a tribute to those fighting and those who have lost their battle with cancer. My broadhead was situated right above his 'tool'. I had severed the top arteries of his heart, stopping him so quickly. I'm so happy I had practiced a shot like this and researched the spot on the chest that was needed to kill an elk. It wasn't a shot I ever wanted to take, but I was confident in my shooting ability and knew at 12 yds., I would have a better chance for a clean shot.
An unexpected thing happened as I was quartering him. We heard a strange moaning, almost screeching noise in the woods near us. Rick and I looked at each other, both wondering if it could be a cougar, as some people had warned us of after getting the smell of blood in the air. Then all of a sudden, less than 30 yds. from us, a 40 ft tall pine slowly fell and uprooted another big pine on its way down! Thank God they fell parallel of us and didn't fall over top of us and my elk!! We both asked each other at the same time..."Is this some sort of sign? Good or bad?!" Maybe it was someone's way of telling us from up above that they knew we'd succeeded!
After I got my bull quartered up, bagged and ready for hauling out, we took off to try to find a trail or log road we could use to get the pickup in as close as we could. We found an old log trail that needed a few branches cut to be passable and hiked a longer, but easier walking way across country to the truck. By the time we got drove back in as close as we could and packed him all out and loaded, it was dark. I shot him right at 11:05 and we were finally driving out by 8:00. We hiked over 15 miles that day and worked our butts off...loving every second of it!!! Borrowing Dawn's motto of "Life Is Good" couldn't be more fitting. The memories will last forever. Even if I didn't kill a really big one, he's still a trophy and means a lot to me in more ways than one.
I had so much fun using this Head's Up Decoy...aka..."Love Doll on a Stick". We can't wait to use her again and have told all our friends the amazing success it brought. I'm planning on taking the mule deer doe decoy I bought with me this year on a bow hunt out west. Excited to see the outcome!! Thanks for a great product!!!
-Shauna Woodward. Tulare, SD