COEUR D’ALENE — Sometimes it takes the Cape Canaveral launch to get out of bed.
Rain patters the roof like migrating lemmings and the morning is black as an iron skillet.
The woods are sodden, and not something a hunter looks forward to. The inclines are steep and slippery and the cold will eventually sneak, snakelike under soaking wet garments.
By then, the pickup truck with its thermos of coffee is parked miles away and the gray light of dawn opens like an eye as the surrounding forest comes into focus under a smoky sky.
It was one of those mornings that John Partridge of Coeur d’Alene killed his first bull elk with a bow.
It would have been easy to stay in bed, to go back to sleep and blame the weather, but Partridge, a Coeur d’Alene real estate agent, went the other route.
He launched himself out from under the covers, however methodically, and placed his feet on the floor.
By the kitchen light, he made sure he had all he needed for a day in the woods, then walked outside in the dark and drove into the Coeur d’Alene Mountains.
He wasn’t alone. His archery equipment was at his side, and all the advice he had heard for more than a decade about hunting bulls with a bow bounced around in his head as the wheels of his pickup left the blacktop.
“I just said to myself, you’ve got to go,” Partridge recalls. “You’ve got to do this.”
When he arrived at the spot he’d been hunting for several years, he parked the pickup truck and went for a hike.
Most of it was downhill.
Since moving to North Idaho a decade ago, Partridge had not killed an elk or a deer with a bow, relying instead on his rifle to put meat in the freezer. Harvesting a bull elk, one that he lured with a mouth call, or a bugle, one whose white-tipped antlers he would see first as the bull quietly zeroed in on his calling; a sneaky, big-shouldered bull elk, the top quarry of Panhandle hunters, was still the game animal that topped Partridge’s bucket list.
To harvest a bull with a bow was etched at first place.
After many unsuccessful seasons he had given up on archery for a while, returning to rifle hunting, then within the last couple months again picked up his bow.
“I had let the bowhunting thing flip,” he said.
He started pegging a target last summer and generally began to mentally prepare to kill an elk during the archery season.
As he headed downhill that morning earlier this month to a series of benches where elk often browsed or bedded, Partridge recalled the advice of fellow hunters.
“Don’t worry about making noise,” one hunter had told him years ago. “Elk make noise.”
There was the perfunctory sitting in the dark as eyes adjusted to the blackness like a cat.
He used his cow call, waited, then let out a squeal on a bugle.
“Don’t bugle big, you may spook away smaller bulls, or even big ones,” another hunter once told him.
Partridge had gone through these motions many times before, following the advice of others, using a call to chuckle and squeal and mew.
“So that’s what I did,” he said. “The rain was coming down, and I was soaked.”
And then a bull answered back.
“Close the distance,” was the advice of the hunters he knew.
And he did that too. He worked his way closer to the bull and then as day broke, the wind changed.
“It was blowing uphill, in may favor,” he said.
The bull responded quietly to Partridge’s calls and then fell silent.
Partridge waited. He teased the bull with some whispers.
“You’ll usually see antlers first,” a hunter had told him.
When he heard something sneaking, popping brush, he questioned the noise. It wasn’t a big animal, or was it? The rustling seemed too dainty a noise for a big, hoofed bull elk.
“He wasn’t loud. He was quiet,” Partridge said. “And then I saw antler tips over the top of the brush and I knew I was in business.”
Partridge drew his bow in anticipation and remembered that when bulls sneak in, they often have a hunter pinpointed, knowing the exact location of the source of the calls they have followed.
When that happens, Partridge knew, a bull elk will stare down a hunter.
When the 5x5 nosed its way into the opening, it turned to Partridge and their eyes met.
“He looked at me,” Partridge said. “It was a stare down, and I didn’t have a shot.”
He expected the bull to grunt and jump, turn tail and in a huff of spraying leaves vaporize into the emerging morning.
Instead, something wonderful happened.
Another bull faintly bugled, just loud enough to distract the 5x5 and it stepped into an opening at 25 yards and turned, quartering away from the drawn bow and razor head arrow.
Partridge squeezed the release.
“It was a double lung shot,” Partridge said.
The bull still did not run, but walked, leisurely, back downhill toward the bugler and Partridge slipped his cellphone out and called his wife.
“She didn’t believe me,” he said. “She thought I was razzing her because I was bored.”
And then he called his pals and learned if your best friends aren’t elated when you tell them you killed a bull, it’s because they know you’re asking them to get their boots on, and step away from whatever plans they had that day.
“The next four or five hours we spent packing meat up the mountain,” he said.
Checking an item off a bucket list can be anticlimactic. It can bring with it the realization that sometimes chasing a goal is more rich than meeting it.
Not for Partridge.
Harvesting the 5x5 was sort of an end game. If he is not able to kill another bull, he’s fine with that.
“I don’t think I can top that experience,” he said.