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When Retired Soldier Returns to Elk Hunting

July 25, 2023

Connor Merritt

Connor Merritt

Darin Hardy knew growing up he loved the outdoors, having gone hunting for the first time at age 12 he knew then that it would be a passion that would continue for the rest of his life. Growing up, he moved up from animal to animal, before finally finding his true calling: archery and elk hunting. However, just two years later, Darin joined the military wanting to do his duty; unfortunately, this made hunting a bit difficult.

His military career didn’t consist of any long-term plans, but the deployments just kept on coming and before he knew it, he found he had spent nearly 20 years serving his country and it was time for him to retire from active duty.

With more time on his hands, Darin found the period in his life to return to his first love: bowhunting. Bowhunting for elk is his favorite.

compound bow elk hunting

“The intimacy of archery makes it best. Generally speaking, when you have to have animals within 40 yards of you — you have to do so much work and preparation just to get there and be in tune to so many natural systems in order to put yourself in the best position where you have an opportunity.” Says Darin.

For Darin, disassociating from technologically-driven life, going to remote places, not seeing people for days, and not hearing traffic all combine to create an almost meditative state where he feels most connected to the natural experience.

Elk Hunting in the West

When it comes to connecting with nature, Darin says there’s no better place than out west. A lot of the places he’s been hunting on the east coast are just too busy and crowded for him to really relax in the natural world. Whereas the western style of hunting suits him more, offering big open spaces, a greater challenge, and less competition from other hunters — he can easily avoid the pressure of beating dozens of people to a spot. All these factors coalesced into one sublime hunting experience last year when Darin killed his first-ever bull-elk with a bow.

The Elk Hunting Trip in Montana that Almost Didn’t Happen

Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Backcountry hunting elk hunting

Darin was in rehab after tearing his ACL and was nearly ready to give up last year’s elk season, when one of his buddies helped him out and convinced him to keep on going. The process was difficult, but the two of them were in it together and determined to do anything they needed to make it a successful hunt.

“Everything had to be slowed way down to fit my speed because of my rehab plan. It’s a whole big mental game too, it’s hard enough to create opportunities with these massively intuitive and smart animals even when you’re healthy let alone when you’re rehabbing a serious injury after a surgery.”

Darin faced some difficulties, and after the second day he was even questioning his decision to go elk hunting that year. The limits his body placed on him and the effect it was having on his mental game frustrated him, but he pushed through and made some changes to his style to adapt to his capabilities. This turned out to be the key to his success.

“My buddy and I slipped in real quiet, let out a couple bugles and heard one really lazy bugle back. My natural instinct would have been to aggressively run right at him but my physical capability — I think it actually worked in my favor because it forced me to slow down.”

Making the Shot

Darin and his buddy headed towards the sound and found a mature bull all alone in his sanctuary. To get in the elk’s head, Darin tried to match his level of intensity — over aggressiveness meant they might bust the elk out while being too passive meant they wouldn’t trip the elk’s trigger to come and fight them. It’s a tricky balancing act, but it’s one that Darin was well-prepared for.

Elk in field

A couple cow calls and bugles later and Darin was splitting the distance between him and his harvest. When he heard the final bugle from the bull, Darin was less than 100 yards away. Darin heard the animal walking through the timber towards him.

“He wasn’t looking for a fight, he was curious what this cow was doing in his bedroom. Long story long, I called him right to my toes, I shot him at 12 yards broadside.”

The coolest thing about this for Darin, and one of the biggest reasons he loves archery season so much, was that the bull was completely relaxed throughout the entire process, “When you can call them in relaxed like that, it’s like affirmation that you actually do know what the hell you’re doing, and that’s what it was for me.”

This was a momentous occasion: Darin had been elk hunting off and on for more than 20 years but had never once managed to kill a bull. “That’ll mess with your head, going that long and never killing anything. Like, ‘maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was or maybe I’m not good enough to be a Montana elk hunter. It doesn’t seem to be this hard for anyone else. Have I spent so much time in the military banging hammers that I lost sensibility in wild places?’”

Maybe I’m not good enough to be a Montana elk hunter. It doesn’t seem to be this hard for anyone else. Have I spent so much time in the military banging hammers that I lost sensibility in wild places?

Everyone experiences uncertainty and self-doubt at some point — it’s an inevitable part of being human — but what’s important is how people overcome difficulties to find success and regain confidence.

The Return to His Elk Hunting Roots

More than anything, Darin just wanted to be the person he was so passionate about being before he joined the military, and this hunt created a monumental shift in Darin’s attitude toward hunting elk. Darin overcame his doubts when he hunted this bull and proved once and for all that yes, he is good enough to be a Montana elk hunter.

It wasn’t just the killing of an elk; it was the culmination of my life. To touch that human passion inside — a certain amount of callouses go into the heart and soul of a person once you’ve engaged in mortal combat — to touch the human side of yourself that you were passionate about is powerful.

“I cried like a baby. When I saw that arrow fly, when I saw the first pool of blood, relief came over me and I collapsed. It wasn’t just the killing of an elk; it was the culmination of my life. To touch that human passion inside — a certain amount of callouses go into the heart and soul of a person once you’ve engaged in mortal combat — to touch the human side of yourself that you were passionate about is powerful.”

That day, Darin reawakened something inside himself that was long buried by his many years of military service; now, he is massively interested in creating real natural connections for other veterans so they can experience what he went through that day.

“Military guys are ego driven, but nature is humbling and potentially lethal. Hunting makes you go introspective. It teaches you how capable you are, that you can adapt, and the only way to adapt is if you ground yourself to where you are. Good hunters learn how to adapt quicker in nature and in their own life, and they have better relationships with others and with themselves. At least, that’s what it does for me.”

Good hunters learn how to adapt quicker in nature and in their own life, and they have better relationships with others and with themselves. At least, that’s what it does for me.

Where They Are Now

To help other people have this experience, Darin set up a bear camp in the spring to help small groups of hunters get out and connect with nature. Despite not having a shot opportunity at the bear camp this year, he still considers it a success and wants to make it an annual tradition.

Learn how to hunt elk like a pro on iSportsmanUSA.

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