By Krista Larson EBS Contributor

I tell everyone I took up archery hunting for a challenge—so I could get close enough to elk to smell and touch them—but I also got into it to stay active and out in the woods while pregnant with my second child. I wanted a new sport to learn and enjoy with my husband Caleb and we wanted to acquaint our son, even at age 1, with hunting as a fun family sport.

Archery hunting is providing other benefits: it’s helped me experience a sense of freedom I hadn’t enjoyed, even briefly, for at least a year; and it’s allowed me to fill my family’s freezer with meat and participate in what I believe to be the most responsible practice for a carnivore.

Sept. 22 was a wet, foggy day with a constant wind that made Caleb and I work tirelessly to stay downwind at our favorite, quiet parcel of public land west of Missoula.

After hearing elk bugling and making our approach, we realized the bull we were bugling with was moving up the ridge. We climbed up after it. This meant sneaking slowly up another 600 feet of ridgeline through wet brush, mixed conifer stands and open meadows. The next two hours of pursuit led to encounters that leave you tired, weak in the knees and squinting through the mist to catch a glimpse of this incredible animal.

Three times I watched golden-colored antlers move toward me over the tops of new growth conifers and heard the thrashing of trees and brush between chuckles. Just as those antlers reached the edge of trees, I pulled my bow back to full draw and tried to remain calm and steady, thinking this is it, the moment I’ve been waiting for—only to hear another chuckle and watch the bull slowly vanish into the fog up what seemed like a never-ending ridge. Enter old friend: discouragement.

Despite exhaustion and feeling defeated, we decided to give it one more push after once again hearing a bugle not too much further ahead. We decided to change our tactic by moving forward more aggressively together, but the cover became thinner and it was harder to sneak around, despite the fog.

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Larson said her first successful elk hunt is the most challenging and rewarding thing she’s done.

I crept up to stand between two fir trunks that were only about 8 inches wide and barely concealed my midline. As Caleb bugled behind me, a beautiful five-point bull came out of the mist and walked straight toward me. He walked slowly, pausing once to turn his head slightly, and I finally got a good look at the animal we’d been pursuing for over two hours.

Just 20 yards away and out in the open now, he looked right back at me and began moving forward, stopping at the tree trunk right in front of me. My only move was to put my bow between the trunk and myself, face my bow straight out, and pull back as quickly and steadily as possible during the split second his eyes were behind the trunk.

He stopped for a brief second because he caught my left arm movement out of the corner of his eye—they say elk have a 270-degree field of vision—but after hearing Caleb bugle again below me, he slowly stepped past the tree to my right. This was it! I slowly moved my sight on his vital zone. At 3 yards away, he was so close I could have touched him as he walked by. I held steady and then released.

That’s when everything switched from slow motion to fast forward.

He began running quickly, like a bucking bronco. After hearing Caleb cow call to him, he rounded the ridge and slowed to a trot before dropping down the edge, just out of sight. I caught a glimpse of my arrow sticking out of his vital area, and there was bright red blood already visible. This was encouraging, about as good of a scenario as an archery hunter can practice and hope for, and it appeared he wasn’t going to run too much further.

We didn’t want to celebrate too much yet, but an immediate wave of excitement brought us to an emotional embrace that summed up the months of preparation leading to this moment—the practice shooting sessions in our yard, the instructional and inspiring videos, the 10.5-mile training hikes with 30-70 pound packs while pregnant.

All of it led us to this moment of success that we will both remember for the rest of our lives.

Krista Larson is a fourth-generation Montana mama exploring nature and seeking new challenging ways to enjoy it and share it with the next generation.