The first rule when you're tagging along on a hunt is be the quietest one in the group.
The second rule when you're tagging along is don't quack like a duck when your friend is hunting for elk.
My friend Patrick had put plenty of offseason work into his archery elk hunt, and was kind enough to invite me to join him for a day while my wife and I were in town. I wasn't sure whether he would fill his tag that day, but I knew damn sure I wasn't going to be the one who blew the elk out by breaking branches and stumbling through the woods.
For simplicity's sake, I won't even mention which state Patrick lives in. But, we had to cross a body of water to reach this particular patch of north-facing public land that Pat wanted to hunt. Crossing a body of water with your pack and all of the necessary—and some unnecessary—equipment for a hunt of this scale is no small feat, doing it with a headlamp on at 4:30 in the morning just adds to the excitement.
The good news about using a water vessel to access this area was that it meant we were immediately "in the elk", meaning there was no 5-mile hike back into the high country to reach our hunting destination.
Within minutes of daybreak, I was privileged to experience a memorable first—Pat got a bull to bugle back to him. I had heard an elk bugle before, but never in direct response to a diaphragm + bugle tube call. It was exciting for me as a passive observer, and telling for Pat as we decided where we would start our march.
We moved at a pace that wasn't as slow or quiet as one might expect.
We tried to duck the big dried sticks, but there wasn't much you could do about the endless maze of brush that we had to navigate. Game trails, though heavily traveled, were relatively few and far between. Any stretch of the hike where a game trail was present was a welcome reprieve.
As we closed the distance on where we thought our bugling bull was, we stopped before a clearing to set up and see if we could call this bull into view. The plan was that Patrick was going to let loose another bugle, and then we were going to follow up with a varied chorus of cow calls.
Pat had handed me an external reed cow call in the truck on the way there. I had my diaphragm call buried in my pack, but once your pack is on its not overly-tempting to take it off and put it back on every time you think of something useful.
Pat let out a bugle and we waited a few moments to listen for a response—which we got. Then Pat started softly mewing and throwing his voice in multiple directions.
Now was my time to go from passive observer to active contributor.
I raised the cow call to my lips, trying to remember to put alot of pressure with my top lip before cutting loose, but in reality all I could think was "don't mess this up, don't mess this up..."
Naturally, any time you go into something repeating "don't mess this up" in your head, there's only one logical outcome.
I choked up too far on the reed. If Daffy Duck had been in the woods that day, he would have been coming in hot.
Fortunately, my blunder didn't blow the entire day, we saw 7 elk before lunchtime and were within bow range of three different spikes at various parts of the morning. As I learned this day, there is a HUGE difference between being in bow range, and being set up and ready for a shot.
We ate lunch on top of the peak and watched a storm roll in—a storm that made for a very wet, yet fairly warm hike back out.