Elk NetworkSituation Ethics – How do you respond when a shot goes bad?

Bugle | September 7, 2021

Relinquished by Ashley Delonas

This article appears in the September/October 2021 of Bugle Magazine

There were only two hours left before sunrise to make the long, steep hike to the pass we named “Six-Point Saddle,” for the bull my husband Blake arrowed there a few years ago.

The saddle is dotted with mountain mahogany, pines and chunks of fractured limestone. It is a well-used travel corridor for elk between feed and spring water, with bedding areas on both sides of the canyon. I strode forward over the frozen ground with Blake at my side. Even in the dark I knew this terrain well. It was peak elk rut in September, and I’d been hunting here with my bow for almost two weeks.

My legs began to burn as I tackled the next incline. I was suddenly grateful for the chill in the fall air. As I hiked, I thought back to how I’d come to be chasing elk with a bow. Eleven years ago, I was a single mother to my son, Tripten, and a self-supporting college student in my 20s working on “the impossible dream” of becoming a professional artist.

At 32, I married a man with a passion for bowhunting elk. Blake’s excitement and love for the pursuit was infectious. I was raised in an outdoor family but never hunted. Some aspects of it, however, I knew I already relished.

I love the physical challenge of climbing mountains. While ascending peaks in our home state of Idaho’s Lost River Range, I found abandoned crowns of elk, moose and deer, relinquished to make way for new growth. Each shed came to symbolize the beauty of nature’s regenerative powers. I adopted this annual “shedding” ritual as my central theme as an artist.

With these antlers as my medium, I built a thriving, sustainable art business, creating unique chandeliers and stained-glass art.

But as much as I loved shed hunting and mountain climbing, hunting was very different in its end goal. I was unsure how I would feel about the kill. To be more specific, the killing part. Not the part after an animal is dead, but the moments it’s wounded, suffering and dying.

In 2017, one shot from my rifle brought down a pronghorn, and a year later, another single bullet felled a cow elk. I was relieved these two kills were fast and clean. But these hunts left me hungering for more. I wanted to get close to the animals and feel the same sense of connection and intimacy in my hunts as I do when creating my art. Bowhunting seemed to offer that chance.

In 2019, I first packed my bow into the mountains. I listened to screaming bulls, tracked elk for countless miles and helped pack out friends’ heavy loads of meat. But I had yet to make my first bow kill. In 2020, I brimmed with even more determination to make it happen.

I’d done my homework during the off-season. I put in countless miles in the field, launched countless arrows at targets scattered throughout our backyard and took an online educational class: Elk101: University of Elk Hunting. I could feel it all coming together.

At first light, we had the last and steepest part of the climb to finish before we would arrive at Six-Point Saddle. As we came out of the wall of timber, we stopped and glassed the surrounding hillsides. My binoculars settled on a telltale, tan body. A spike fed toward the saddle. Blake and I locked eyes. We knew it would be a race to get there before the young bull.

Out of the spike’s sightline on the opposite side of the ridge, we sprinted up a steep scree field. I tried to breathe quietly as my heart raced and my lungs burned for oxygen. While I ran, I mentally reviewed the steps I needed to take once I got to the saddle.

With just enough time before the bull entered the timber, we topped out.

I pulled out my rangefinder and ranged my only two shooting lanes at 23 and 44 yards, respectively. Just then, I saw velvety brown tines cresting the skyline to the left with the sound of panting breath and thumping hooves. The cool thermals were in my face, Blake was by my side and the spike didn’t have a clue.

I could feel my heart pumping, my breath shaking and the sweat dripping down my face. The spike stepped into my first shooting lane right at 23 yards and stood perfectly broadside. I drew my bow, and then…clack! My arm gave out and my arrow fell out of its rest. I was still exhausted from the wild climb. The spike instantly jumped back. My husband let out a cow call to help cover the noise. The bull stood perfectly still with his nose sniffing the air. The cow call worked, but we were pegged. He stood there for what seemed like hours, assessing the situation, deciding if he should proceed forward.

I could feel what he was thinking with every fiber of my being, right down to my bones. His curiosity was getting the best of him, and he started walking toward the next group of pine trees. Only a few more steps and he would enter the last clear shooting lane. This is your last chance, I thought to myself. Breathe. With his nose to the ground, he stepped forward.

I slowly pulled back my bow. Just as I reached full draw, he stopped. Thick pine branches blocked his view of me, and I could tell that his intuition was trying to warn him. Now 43 yards away, he stared in my direction, ears up, sniffing the air again.

My arm started to burn. My arrow began to slowly shake. Time was running out. This is the longest I’ve ever held my draw, I thought. What felt like a full minute passed, then two. Just as I was about to let my bow down, he stepped out from behind the last tree, quartering away in direct line with my 40-yard pin.

I took a breath, slowly exhaled and released my arrow. Thwack! I knew instantly that it was a bad shot. I cow-called, hoping to help calm him, but he jumped, wheeled around and ran into the timber. I had a clear view of my arrow in his right hindquarter near his ribcage.

Once we could no longer hear his galloping hooves, my body melted into the ground and my eyes welled with tears. A flood of emotions overcame me; shame, disappointment, sadness and soul-gripping guilt. I kept replaying the scenario over and over in my mind. Blake quietly congratulated me and tried to reassure me that it was a decent shot and that he didn’t see or smell us, so we just needed to give him time.

It was one of the longest, most painful waits I have ever experienced. We sat quietly for 20 minutes listening for any sound. Through the trees, we finally heard faint, blood-curdling coughing and wheezing. I was relieved that the bull was still close, but tormented by the sound of an injured animal, suffering because of me.

What have I done? I should have waited for a better shot, or not shot at all.

These thoughts spiraled through my mind. But it was too late. I could only hope that my arrow had penetrated his hindquarter deep enough to puncture his opposing lung, and his misery would soon end. For another four grueling hours, I listened to him struggle for breath, wishing I could take the arrow back. Every pained sound from the young bull resonated inside of me.

Finally, the only sound in the air was the wind pushing through the trees. We started to track my bull. I stalked forward, watching for signs and paying attention to the wind. I was hoping that he had finally expired and was not just bedded down in the security of the thick pines. The blood trail was spotty, but it followed a well-worn game trail that wove through brush and scattered pines.

After an hour of tracking, I spotted his hindquarter, my arrow sticking out of him. He was alive and occasionally flinching. I wanted nothing more but to put him out of his misery with a clean shot.

He was bedded behind one of the biggest pine trees in the forest with his head out of view. I ranged him at 44 yards. Just as I started to skirt around a small group of pines to get above him, he stood up. I scrambled to the next clear shooting lane. He started to walk, and I came to full draw. My arrow sliced through the air. I watched it connect right in the center of his vitals. Again, he bolted off through the trees and up the trail. He met his final resting place 40 yards on in a muddy wallow.

I turned to my husband, conflicted. Tears of joy and sadness overcame me as I walked toward the downed bull. I felt overwhelming relief that I had found him, and I was proud that I had finally killed an elk with my bow. But he shouldn’t have suffered.

I also felt a sense that he was too young, that I robbed him from this land and his herd. Bowhunting brought an intimacy to those final moments that couldn’t be ignored. I felt the bull’s death in my guts in a way that I hadn’t during my rifle hunts. Was the pain worth it?

Later that night, I shared my struggle with Blake and the other men in camp. They all offered the typical responses: “Congratulations,” and “You should be proud of yourself,” or “At least you found him.” These men viewed it as a rite of passage. Sometimes having to take multiple shots was “just part of being a bowhunter.” I knew that there was some truth in the words, and they were meant to comfort and console me, but I could not shake my sense of sadness.

I’m not embarrassed by my reaction to the kill. Watching in horror as my arrow struck too far back demonstrated the power and the conflict of the choices I make as a hunter.

I slept fitfully that night and kept waking with it churning in my mind. Ultimately, I vowed to increase my stamina to hold a bow at full draw. To spend more time shooting my bow. To be patient and wait for the best shot, not just the next shot available—even if it’s the last opening and the end of the opportunity.

But no matter how much I practice, no matter how discerning of shots I become, the chance of a bad shot will always exist. I had to decide whether or not I could live with that.

Early the next morning, we set off to retrieve the rest of my meat. It was a cool morning and the previous morning’s urgency was gone. Instead, the pace was leisurely, and a sense of peace found me. We loaded our packs with the remaining meat and hide and headed back to camp.

As we turned to leave, I took a long last look at the spike’s carcass. I felt the sadness again, but this time there was a sense of acceptance mixed in. This was by far the most connected I had felt with nature and the food that nature provides. As I had hoped, archery hunting had allowed me to experience a deeper connection to the animals, the land and the kill. It required me to become an extension of my surroundings.

To continue bowhunting, I had to be willing to accept all parts of it, including the mental toll of making mistakes. As we loaded up camp and headed out of the mountains, I knew I’d be back with bow in hand.

My first bowhunting kill left an imprint on my artistic soul. I came home and spent hundreds of hours working on what has become my most prized artwork to date. I gave six abandoned elk crowns new life by building a chandelier from glass and bone which tells the story of my pain, followed by acceptance and finally inspiration. My chandelier includes over 400 pieces of stained glass, Idaho gemstones, quartz crystals and copper imagery, all soldered between the tines of bone.

When welding the antler frame together, I felt a twinge about how that spike never had a chance to reach the age of the bulls who’d dropped these sheds. When soldering stained glass to bone, I heard again the bull’s struggling breaths. Even in these memories of pain I affirmed my decision to continue bowhunting. The bull’s life and ultimately his death gave birth to this art. It was my attempt to honor him.

Experiences, good or bad, hold opportunities to teach us and carry the power to influence future decisions.

I named my muse “Relinquished” meaning to “voluntarily cease, or give up, and let go.” We all have something we need to let go of, that no longer serves us. Learning the value and freedom of “shedding” is essential if we are to make way for new growth.

Ashley Delonas is an artist, passionate shed hunter and avid outdoorswoman, who has summited all of Idaho’s nine tallest peaks.