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"Pocket Kings"
Written by David Blenker

Pocket Kings
David's 2007 Bull
Our bow hunting party had spent the morning together, hiking through a part of Idaho's wilderness country we hadn't tried before in hopes to filling our elk tags. We eventually were drawn into the depths of a densely wooded canyon by the lour of one bull's very vocal bugles, only to be stood up -- spending the remainder of the morning working our way out through the maze of deadfall and steep terrain that seemed half as challenging on the way down. After returning to camp, we each went our separate ways. I had lunch and a long nap, and then found myself drawn back to a familiar meadow, an easy half-hour hike from camp. It was during the peak of the rut on the evening of September 22, 2008.

I sat in the long golden grass, leaning against a tall fir tree, gazing across the meadow at the mountain I had hunted the year before with my friends Tim and Marie. Tim had called in a bull with his convincing imitation of a cow in heat, and I was fortunate enough to get a killing twenty yard shot on that love sick bull. As I sat there a year later watching the clouds pass over the mountain tops -- the sun breaking through the clouds to illuminate distant slopes -- I thought about the many hunts I had been on alone. How I enjoyed the feeling of freedom solitude brought -- being in sole control of my destiny -- and the total awareness I had of being alive and part of nature. My thoughts were my own and my actions were guided by instincts I had tuned over many years a field. For these reasons, I liked hunting alone.

I also enjoyed the companionship of other hunters, especially around the campfire after a long day. The night before, Tim, Ted, Chris, and I sat at a card table next to the fire while Marie watched us pursuing one of our other passions -- poker. Like bow hunting, poker is fraught with frustrations and challenges. Unpredictability, experience, and skill all have a part in the game. That night we played "No Limit Texas Hold'em", tournament style with a ten dollar buy-in -- winner-take-all. These were meager stakes for the four of us, but they were just enough to make the game real; and of course, there were also the bragging rights that went to the winner.

Chris didn't play as much as Tim, Ted, and I had played together; but with either the luck of the draw or our unfamiliarity with his playing style, Chris amassed a sizable early lead. Though, it wasn't long before patients and a little bit of luck evened out our chip stacks. The end came for me when I was betrayed by a pocket pair of kings. I tried to push Chris and Ted off of their hands on "Forth Street", but they both stayed in with flush draws that filled out on the river. Chris had queen high, and Ted held the ace of hearts to take both of our chip stacks. It's all part of the game -- the risk balanced by the possibility of reward is what makes the game exciting.

Back on the edge of the meadow, it was now about 7:00 pm, and I had been day-dreaming and enjoying the evening for about an hour. There was another hour left before dark -- this is what elk hunters referred to as the "magic hour", the time of the evening when elk are most active. But, not a single elk had presented itself in the meadow or on the adjacent mountainside. The mountain seamed dormant -- almost dead, scarred from decades of natural fire that had left patches of open terrain littered with snags and deadfall -- though still alive with a variety of vegetation, including a spattering of new pine trees in their infant stage -- the beginnings of future old growth forests. Even if there were elk on that mountain, they would be difficult to spot.

It was time to let loose a few cow calls and a bugle to try and elicit a bull's response. The sounds made with my favorite mouth reed and 25 year old bugling tube echoed through the meadow, breaking the silence of the previous hour. Then out in the distance, several hundred yards to my left at the base of the mountain, a bull instantly responded with his own bugle, declaring his dominance to all that would listen. This was his mountain -- his meadow.

The weather had been mixed with rain all weekend long, and now the wind had picked up, blowing at a fair gust in the direction of the bull. I would need to plan my route to keep the wind in my favor. An island of trees directly in front of me to my right would provide the necessary cover to traverse the meadow to the leeward side of my prey.

In no time, I found myself at the base of the mountain, weaving through a maze of ten-foot-tall pine trees -- stepping over deadfall strewn on the hillside like giant matchsticks spilled across Mother Nature's kitchen floor. Going was slow, but I would have to act fast if I were to have any chance at this bull. As I reached the open hillside on the upper end of the stand of young trees, I bugled again. The bull immediately gave up his location with his dominant reply followed by a series of chuckles. A cow stood on the hillside a few hundred yards in front of me to my right. The bull was lower down on the far side of the maze that lay before me.

As I worked through the sea of dense trees and deadfall, cow calling and softly bugling on occasion, the bull would respond but not come closer. Finally the trees gave way to a fifty yard wide expanse of tall dry grass leading out to the main meadow, a secluded alley where my challenge would ultimately be met. With another plea from my cow call and bugle, the bull answered again as if on queue. This time I saw him on the base of the mountain; he was beginning to turn and head down the hill in my direction. I had finally entered his personal space, within range of his cow. The cards were dealt, and he was coming to play.

The wind was right. I quickly checked distances to surrounding trees with my range finder, knocked an arrow, and sat down on a log at the edge of the grass. Then, only moments later, a cow appeared, stepping through the wall of young trees on the far side of the opening to my right. She was walking directly toward me as thought the sound of my calls were etched in her mind. A million thoughts raced through my head as she approached. Would I take her if I have the chance? Surely she could see me sitting here. Her eyes were so huge, yet she was totally oblivious to my motionless camouflaged body. Finally she veered to my left, walking within only twelve yards of me. The bull was coming, but he would be more cautious.

Within seconds of the cow passing, the bull stepped through that same magic opening in the trees, like a star performer stepping through a curtain on a stage. My heart began to race, the pounding echoed through my chest and ears, filling my body with adrenaline. His head was outstretched as he slid a myriad of glowing polished tines that lined his antlers through the trees. The trailing tines of his impressive headset wrapped back toward his spine in perfect symmetry. This was no average rage-horn bull. This was the type of bull every elk hunter dreamed of -- a once in a life time opportunity for most. The cow and bull were the only elk to appear; the players were there and the game had begun.

The cow was now out of sight to my left, and rather than follow the cow toward the meadow, the bull stopped and assessed the surroundings, then slowly turned broadside to my right, as if to strike a pose similar to a peacock or turkey displaying his feathers. He checked the wind, raising his head and drawing air from all angles. My mind was racing. How should I play this? My adrenaline filled body had me on edge. I had lured this magnificent animal in like the rivers of this mountain valley seduce the salmon to return and spawn each year. I've played upon his instincts, done everything right. I've made my play with a winning hand.

Will he catch my scent? Should I wait and see if he walks closer? Will he walk into the trees on this side of the opening or turn and leave as quickly as he came? He was standing there broadside at forty yards for god sake -- I had to take the shot. I knew he would see me draw my bow, but it was a risk I had to take.

He remained motionless in the fading light as I drew and trained my bow sights on his chest, then squeezed the release. His body was tense, his senses alert. NO! With the sound of my bow's release, the bull crouched in one fleeing motion as the arrow streamed over his back. He quickly disappeared, leaving me holding the losing hand. Feelings came over me similar to the night before when my pocket kings were busted -- only a hundred times more intense. The stakes for this game were much higher. My heart was filled with disappointment for a moment as I realized he had won, though the excitement from the challenge filled my sole with lasting energy.

As I walked the road back to camp that night in the dark, caught in the ensuing rain (surely Mother Nature's way of telling me I was all wet), it occurred to me that the cards were stacked against me the whole time -- after all, I was hunting in Poker Meadows. This was their card room. This time, that bull elk was holding the ace high heart flush, and the cow was holding the queen of hearts. Adrenaline had gotten the best of me, and my pocket kings were busted again. The news that there was a new fish in town must have traveled fast -- for off in the dense timber across the creek, on the other side of the road, another bull voiced his challenge -- not a half-mile from camp.