There are 28 varieties of big game in North America, and only a handful can be archery hunted in classic sit-and-wait fashion. Most species like sheep and dangerous bears move around a lot and require ground-level hunting. Such bowhunting is always interesting. At times, it can go beyond downright difficult with quirky twists of fate or genuine danger.
Don’t Look Down
On my last bowhunt in quest of a Grand Slam on wild North American sheep, I found myself perched on the very edge of northern Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Far below my glassing location, across a yawning abyss, was the desert bighorn ram of my dreams.
Mario, my Hualapai Apache guide, told me there was a way to the sheep. “We’ll use ropes and climb down a crack in the face of the cliff,” he explained. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled at the very thought.
But we did it. Eventually, with body and bow still intact, I tiptoed along an eyebrow-wide trail between vertical drop-offs. I peeked beyond a ridge, located the sheep in his bed and then put an Easton aluminum arrow through both of his lungs from 30 yards.
The ram leaped into space. Several sickening seconds later, I heard him hit below with a loud liquid thud. We did more rope climbing and found the remains of my sheep. The meat and horns were salvageable, the carcass presentable enough on one side to take a few photos. Not the ideal way to finish the fourth-ever sheep slam with a bow, but I was happy. I was alive, and I knew my taxidermist could perform miracles.
My 1989 bowhunt for polar bears occurred on Baffin Island, Canada. After flying to a remote Inuit (Eskimo) village, my guide and I set out across the Arctic icepack on a heavy cargo sled pulled by a dozen husky dogs. Four days later, after mushing across 50 miles of frozen ocean bays and snow-packed peninsulas, I saw my first bear.
My guide let loose several dogs to bay up the bear, but things quickly got out of hand. The bear took one swipe at the dogs, and they ran back to the sled and hid behind it with their tails tucked—not a good thing, since I knew the only polar bears shot by modern bowhunters had all been bayed by dogs!
As I watched through my binoculars, the huge bear ran off and climbed a peninsula in the distance. He stopped under a high cliff, flopped down and went to sleep. He obviously wasn’t scared of us!
Later that day, I shot that bear as he growled, popped his teeth and lunged at me from the base of a bluff less than 20 yards below me. A grueling climb in minus-40-degree temperatures had put me in position to take that bear-—one of my toughest bow-and-arrow trophies.
Another giant bear also gave me fits that very same year. The Alaska brown bear left a front track about 10 inches wide and a back track about 17 inches long. My guide Brent Jones and I hunted hard for 15 days to get one glimpse of the monster bruin. Meanwhile, we endured daily rainstorms on the Alaska Peninsula, a 2-day typhoon that hammered our tent with winds more than 100 mph, and the spookiest bears Brent had ever encountered.
We discovered why the 36 bears we saw on the trip were skittish when we stumbled across a half-eaten, freshly killed yearling brown bear near the beginning of the hunt. Massive tracks around the carcass told the tale. Contrary to what anti-hunters might tell you, brown bears are not cuddly fuzzballs. They eat other brown bears whenever they can, and the monster bear with the big feet had feasted on one of his compadres. At mid-hunt, Brent and I found a second 400-pound brownie that had been killed and eaten.
On day No. 15, I finally laid eyes on the big-footed cannibal, stalked close and shot him at 12 yards in heavy brush. And you’re absolutely right—that’s too darn close! Fortunately, he ran away with an arrow through his chest and piled up less than 200 yards away.
According to Alaska game officials, he was the largest bear taken on the entire Peninsula that year with a squared hide of 10 feet 81/2 inches. His estimated live weight was 1,400 pounds.
Sometimes danger lurks in the shadows. In 1998 I was backpacking caribou meat in Alaska when the unthinkable occurred. I crossed a tundra valley, began to scale a grassy slope and suddenly the turf under me collapsed. I plunged to my shoulders in mud.
I believe the 100-pound pack full of meat saved me. There was no bottom under my feet—only ooze. The pack held enough air, and had enough surface area, to keep my head above the slime.
I jackknifed my body and struggled 5 long feet to the edge of the bog. It’s hard to swim in mud with heavy weight on your back, but I had no choice. If I’d taken the pack off, I would’ve disappeared forever. I was soaked to the bone, looked like a swamp monster and didn’t quit shivering for hours. But at least I was alive.
Near misses with the Grim Reaper sometimes go hand-in-hand with serious bowhunting. Just 3 years ago, two pals and I camped for 10 days on a patch of sand between a big lake and a swamp. Our bush pilot had dropped us off in bad weather, vowed to return the next day and winged away across the Alaska Peninsula.
We saw no caribou—our intended quarry—despite hard hunting for several days and repeated wades across 3 miles of thigh-deep mud and water to reach distant hills. We didn’t see our pilot again, either. The day after he dropped us off for our hunt, he crashed in bad weather with another load of clients. They all survived—barely—with broken bones and concussions. Bush planes can be a godsend—or a death trap.
When you put such things in perspective, hard hunting and a few unfilled game tags aren’t that big a deal, and the reward when you do overcome obstacles and bag an animal is all the sweeter because of hardships that went before.
The way I see it, unless you’re dead, things can always be worse.