Golden Horseshoe

Jess elk

My brothers, especially my younger brother Travis, always say I have a Golden Horseshoe… The first time I pulled my bow back not in practice, I killed a deer. Sure, it was a doe and my brother Cole had to search the better part of 48 hours to find her, but a kill is a kill. And I should say “the first time I attempted to pull my bow back,” because I’m pretty sure I pulled a muscle in my back and almost went in to cardiac arrest. Regardless, it was a liver shot, and although I heard the deer crashing around in the woods seconds after arrow impact (a good sign she’s fallen and can’t get up), my brother Cole and I didn’t wait long enough to go after her and we jumped her up. Her adrenaline kept her going for a half a mile, and it is almost impossible to find a deer when this happens. But my brother was determined for me to be able to claim my first bow kill and he really went above and beyond to find the doe. To me, this doesn’t scream “Golden Horseshoe” but I was nonetheless proud of my kill and grateful to my brothers and dad for all the help to get even to this point.

Jessica with her first bow kill.

Jessica with her first bow kill.

Fast forward to my first elk hunt. My dad asked if my now-husband and I would be interested in going to Idaho to archery hunt for elk and to meet BJ Sande, a legend in our family for his outdoor skills and generosity. I was really scared, as I only had a few measly bow kills under my belt, but felt I just could not pass up the opportunity. I had my bow tuned, bought a new pack of arrows with pink fletchings, and practiced a couple of times every week to prepare for the hunt.

Jessica in Idaho on her first elk hunt

Jessica in Idaho on her first elk hunt

When we arrived in the gorgeous Dworkshack Reservoir area of Northern Idaho, we were told that the elk hunt this year had been particularly unsatisfactory. It was 2011 and this area of Idaho had been suffering from a predator-management program that introduced Canadian wolves in to the area. The idea was to bolster the local population of Rocky Mountain wolves. Not only did the Canadian wolves, who are much bigger, immediately annihilate the remaining Rocky Mountain wolves, they also started sport hunting for elk. There were stories of pregnant cows being attacked by wolves and only the fetus eaten. It had been a real problem and as a result, the elk had stopped bugling as much as usual, which of course makes them harder to hunt.

My first elk hunt was the very last week of archery-only season in 2011. No one had killed an elk all season so my expectations weren’t high, especially since many of the other hunters were very experienced bow hunters. Despite the lack of elk bugling, I was able to hear a bull bugle my very first hunt. I was hooked.

For the second evening hunt, I was all set up in my spot with my Hoochie Mama. After a few hours on the stand, I heard the distinctive “snap, crackle, pop” that signifies that a large animal is on the way. My heart was about to pound out of my chest when two cow elk approached my stand, grazing broadside right in front of me! I picked out the larger of the two and pulled back. I knew the shot was around 40 yards because I had used the range-finder earlier to map out my field of view. Thump! My shot looked perfect to me, although the reason I had a clear view of my shot is because my arrow was sticking out of the elk…not a great sign.

Within a few seconds, however, I heard a tremendous crash in front of me and a very loud, very eerie wail or moan. I had no idea what this meant but it didn’t sound good for the elk. With trembling hands, I radioed my dad to tell him I had shot an elk. His response was, “What?!?”

As it turns out, the elk had been angling toward me instead of truly broadside. I struck her in her aorta, so she died very quickly due to internal loss of blood. It was a lucky shot – the aorta is the width of a pencil – and I was so grateful that I hadn’t wounded her or embarrassed my Dad or BJ, who had let a rookie hunt on his patch. I was the only person in the camp that year to kill an elk during archery season, so the Golden Horseshoe moniker stuck.

Jessica with her first elk

Jessica and BJ Sande

Jessica and BJ Sande

Two years later we were blessed enough to have BJ invite us back to Idaho (or maybe we begged?) for a quick hunt over Labor Day weekend. It was the opening weekend of the elk archery season and still very warm in Idaho, with one of the days’ highs being 90 degrees. I was out of shape, out of practice, and not too sure this hunt would yield anything. But I was determined to enjoy the company, the beautiful mountains and reservoir, and time being off work. I even had to miss the first day and first hunt because of my work schedule.

At this point, the elk hadn’t even begun bugling. Many of the more seasoned hunters had been hunting and not seen anything more than a few whitetail deer. It was long, hard, hot, and fruitless hunting. I spent every hunt I made that weekend sitting in a lock-on at the edge of a well-known watering hole dubbed “Spike Pond”. I sat there over 12 hours the first two days and didn’t see anything more than a chipmunk. It was so fruitless that I decided not even to hunt the final Sunday morning. I slept in, went for a stalking hunt near the camp, and took a dip in the lake. I decided that was the way to go and was seriously considering skipping the evening hunt too. But BJ reminded me that over the years, the Spike Pond had been very productive and I simply needed to “grind it out”.

I begrudgingly gathered up my gear and headed out with my dad, the only other hunter that evening. I hiked the 30 or so minutes to the tree stand, which I had come to associate with numb legs and an aching back, to settle in for the last 3 hours of my 2013 elk hunt.

There had been a slight change in the weather that Sunday, which was good. Instead of sunny and warm it was cloudy and slightly cooler. I knew we would have less time to hunt because the cloud cover would cause daylight to expire sooner. An hour and a half in, a doe and a very young fawn came up to drink from the pond! I was so excited to see them! They frolicked right under my stand and never knew I was there. It made me feel good that my presence had gone undetected.

After a 20-or-so minute interlude with the deer, they walked off and left me with the quietness of the pond. At this point, I knew I only had about 30 minutes of shooting time left, max. I began to hear that distinctive “snap, crackle, pop” in the woods in front of me! I had experienced false alarms before so I tried to calm myself and focus on what I would do if an elk stepped out.

I continued to hear what I considered an elk or large animal walking through the woods around the periphery of the pond. First in front of me, then to the right of me, then behind me. I turned as far as I could to my back left and I saw a lone elk approaching the pond! I could not believe my luck!

As the elk came closer, I noticed antlers! I could not believe I was going to get a shot at a male elk – a spike! As the spike approached the pond, I noticed one of his antlers was hanging limply in front. It didn’t matter to me! I wasn’t going to squander this opportunity because of a defective antler. Besides, he was only 20 yards in front of me totally broadside!

I pulled back, and a loud thump echoed through the forest. But the elk just stood there! I was certain I had made a good shot, but for a few seconds I thought something had gone terribly wrong. As I went to reach for another arrow, he took off quickly in the direction he came. Shortly thereafter, I heard the distinctive death knell of the elk.  To me, this is the most assuring sound in the world. I could not believe I had killed another elk!

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As it turns out, I was the only hunter that weekend to even see an elk while hunting. Maybe I have an extreme case of beginner’s luck, or maybe there is a Golden Horseshoe somewhere in the picture. I will never be sure, but I do know I have been blessed beyond what I deserve. It is definitely nothing I do, but rather a series of fortuitous events in which I am in the right place at the right time, have excellent friends and family to help me, and in which God smiles down on me for a bit. May He continue to do so!

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Jessica’s bull had seriously injured it’s left antler and may not have survived the winter. That just makes the kill that much better that the animal needed to be removed from the herd. The antler may have been damaged but, the meat was delicious!