Last year Lodovico contacted me through Instagram and said “I stopped by your house to say hi.” He had been reading my stories on Instagram and occasionally commenting in perfect English. I have terrible memory and was scratching my head trying to figure out how I knew this guy. I googled “Lodovico Antinori.”
Turns out Lodovico is the Marquis Lodovico Antinori. Any wine connoisseur would have immediately recognized his name. His family, has been one of the biggest and most renowned wine producers in Italy for over 400 years. Obviously I didn’t know the guy and he was just an instagram follower. Unlike me, Lodovico is celebrity. How and why the Marquis was at my house in Bozeman, Montana? A little surprised I replied “How did you find my house?” Turns out Lodovico is a curious person, with connections around the world, including Bozeman Montana, and sure enough we have mutual friends. He replied “I would like to meet you, I would have always loved to live your lifestyle. I also would like to invite you and Argo to bird hunt a property I have access to near Bozeman.” He came to my house and I expected to meet a stuffy, aristocratic man but instead Lodovico is a humble and passionate man who loves to hunt and the wild west the way I do. We have a lot in common. Including tattoos on our forearms, which is somewhat rebellious for an Italian of his generations and social class. We both traveled in remote Baja. However he did it in the 70s, as he says “With a Californian young lady in the show business” and later with a girlfriend. I am sure they were both hot, because I saw pictures of Lodovico as a young stallion and I am sure he had the pick. Lodovico loves adventure the way I do, immediately I was drawn to this man. He inspected my trophies and I quickly realized I was talking with an expert. In fact, he has hunted around the world. However, what I didn’t know at the time, is how good this property really was, not for birds but for elk and that a year later, Lodovico would let me experience it all for myself. If all my writing did anything good to me this was going to be by far the highlight.
Lodovico and the property owner have worked together for the past 18 years to protect and manage this land specifically for elk. A little paradise in beauty and a place where elk feel protected and thrive and come back year after year. Every season, only one unlucky elk gets a bullet, sent by the Marquis. Lodovico tells me, the old bull is the trophy, is not the big rack you should seek. Let the big, strong, young bull breed and spread the good genes. This is the European game management philosophy that ensures hunters don’t screw up natural selection.
The property is a place every hunter would dream to hunt but there is only one catch, it’s only 2000 acres. Plenty of acres for you and I but in elk terms is very small. About 3 miles by 3 miles. It takes an elk about three hops to make it past the fence line and outside of your reach. It’s truly a jewel but a delicate one. If you stomp in it too hard you can say goodbye to all the elk. Lodovico, with incredible kindness, offered me one week to hunt this delicate place. A very generous offer and a great responsibility for me. I couldn’t just go in there and mess it up for me or him. We all know that bowhunting can be very intrusive if done incorrectly. I see bowhunters chase elk away all the time by hunting them too aggressively. Too much calling, too much walking, too much of everything and they wonder why the elk run. In 18 years I was going to be the first bowhunter to hunt the property and I had all these plans but the most important one was not to mess up this little paradise and scare all the elk away. Three miles, three hops and there they go across the fence.
HUNTING WITH ARGO OR NOT?
I had this once in a lifetime opportunity to hunt the most perfect property I could hope for. My friend Rod Zullo, who is the most knowledgeable Montana hunter I know, once told me “Do you realize Paolo, that this is the best elk hunting you’ll find in Montana?”
Now I have this incredible opportunity and the big question is. “What do I do with Argo?” When you are hunting public land you have millions of acres to hunt and you end up spending most of your time walking. If you screw up an elk you find another elk in another million of acres. Here, there was no room for error, and Argo is still a young dog, jacked up with energy. A very good young dog but a young, inexperienced dog, nonetheless. Two years ago, when he was a pup and learning from Tobi to bow hunt, he barked at a bull that was coming into my call. I don’t blame him, it can be pretty freaking scary and intense. They are beasts. Last year, he made a couple of mistakes that might have caused me an elk. Including barking. Then, the elk I finally shot, we found a grizzly on top of it and it sure made an impression on him. Will he associate being after elk with grizzlies? Will he associate noise with predators or something to bark at? Will he move or run if a bull comes in? When you bow hunt with a dog you need to rely on the fact that the dog will do the right thing when you are in the middle of the action. You need to trust your dog.
I watched elk sniff Tobi while he stood there immobile. When an elk is at bow range, right before you draw, you are not moving an inch of you body so that the elk doesn’t detect you and you can’t tell your dog to “STAY”. You dog has to be steady and solid without you saying a word. You rely on him to be by your side and not fuck things up. You dog has to be perfectly trained but also has to have judgment and the same desire that you have to get the elk. Now the big question “Do I risk the opportunity of getting an elk and go for another elkless year or do I leave Argo at camp?”
After leaving Argo at camp, for my first morning hunt, and feeling miserable about it I decided that my relationship with my dogs is more important than getting an elk. Argo will come and if I don’t get an elk for another year, because he messed up, than be it. One day he might learn and one day I might get an elk. If not, than I will stop elk hunting for good. I spend too much time in the woods chasing them and I will not leave my dog behind.
One of the biggest issues that I have with Argo when bow hunting is that he is loud. He walks loudly, he breathes loudly, he even farts loudly. On top of that he has a strange grass allergy that makes him clear his throat, often, repeatedly. I am concerned about this problem as I have watched a cow elk, we had at 30 yards, perk up her ears and watch our direction after Argo did some loud mouth work. I started letting him know that is not ok to make any noise and have been giving him Benadryl for the allergy. It helps and he seems to be aware now that clearing his throat is not ok. Hopefully he’ll learn not to fart as well, that’s disgusting. I started giving him the “STAY” command to keep him at a distance when needed. I can raise my hand and he will stay in place until I come back, even if it’s an hour later.
This would have been impossible with Tobi. He had to be right by me when I made a kill. He and I would crawl together and he would walk low like a panther and not make a sound. He was perfect at it but nonetheless he was there and not always what I wanted. Being able to make Argo “STAY” is a great asset if I need to quietly sneak up on an elk. I am starting to feel more confident about having him with me. I have noticed in previous posts that I am still saying my dogs. I was going to correct it and then realized that it will always be my dogs. Tobi will always be by my side when I sneak up on an elk.
MY DAYS HUNTING WITH TOBI
Tobi started doing what people thought impossible. Hunting at my side when bow hunting. He was a bird dog, but the smell of elk turned him into a different animal. His intensity, focus and skills for hunting elk, came out of deep inside him, it was in his blood. He was not there to go on a stroll, he was there to kill. He knew we worked together, that I was the one shooting the arrow and his focus was on me and the elk and he made sure we made it happen. He followed my moves for every step I made, we worked in synchronicity. A grouse could walk in front of his nose and he wouldn’t budge. Elk is what he wanted and not just an elk, a dead elk. We have been smack in the middle of herds of elk and managed to be invisible. In all the years that I hunted him, not once he made a mistake that made me lose an opportunity. He moved like a four legged predator and acted like a human. He showed me the boredom of slow days and the excitement when there was action. When I bugled, trying to locate an elk, his forehead would wrinkle up in hope of an answer. When the answer came, it was game on.
When he tracked the Sun Salutation Bull in this picture; named after the 100 sun salutations I did the day before I shot it, in my camo, just to be with the hippy girlfriend I was crazy about; he sat next to it and started frantically barking in excitement. There was nothing in this world that made him more excited than tracking an elk I shot. You could not lose a mortally wounded animal with Tobi. He would track it down, miles from where you shot it. Tobi did what people thought was impossible and now I am expecting Argo to do the same. Argo is a bird dog and he wants to run looking for birds. Am I asking too much of this young, energetic pup who loves bird? Can I train a dog to do the impossible?
TRAINING ARGO, TRACKING AND STAY
Probably the only hunting advantage of hunting with a dog is the tracking. I had to track a few animals and I don’t have the patience for it. It sure is easier to put your dog on the leash and say “TRACK IT” and let him do the work. Unfortunately I haven’t had access to elk or deer blood and I have been training Argo on elk hoofs I get from game processors. Yes, I am that weird guy who digs in the trash behind the building and pulls out elk hoofs. They probably wonder if I make Italian elk hoof stew.
For the training I always use the same red rope that comes with me in my hunting pack. I put on my rubber boots so he can’t follow my scent, I tell Argo to stay, unleashed, so he gets used to the “STAY” command and I drag the elk hoof around where he can’t see me. If he has moved when I come back we don’t do the tracking and we start all over again. But he never moves, he is a good boy. All the training work I do for elk is done with hand signals, no spoken commands, no collar and no leash, expect the tracking rope so he associates the rope with fun and the reward at the end. Yes, I let him chew the hoof once he finds it. With this training exercise he learns to track and to stay. Now let’s see how we make the “STAY” command a little harder to follow.
TRAINING ARGO TO THE “STAY” COMMAND.
I have trained Argo to stay, when I raise my hand, no matter how excited he is, without saying a word. One of the things he loves the most is to wrestle me. Oh, he loves it. The harder the better. Just like wrestling a big dog that can challenge him. The bigger, the harder they fall, he learned. The other day he took down a 100 pound mastiff. Playfully, but hard, several times until he put it to submission. He was satisfied and the owner of the mastiff embarrassed that his manly dog was dominated by a skinny, long legged dog. But he doesn’t know Argo, he is a little monster. The exercise on this video is to teach Argo to stay at my command and control himself no matter how excited he is. Now is time to test him on the field with steadiness on big game.
TRAINING ARGO TO BE “STEADY” ON DEER
Many people ask me “Aren’t elk afraid of your dog?” In truth big game don’t seem to ever have been afraid of my dogs unless, of course, my dogs chase them. Furthermore, if your dog is perfectly still, behind you, they won’t even detect it. “Don’t they smell your dog?” then they ask. In truth, you have to hunt with the right wind, if not, I can assure you, they will smell your stinky butt before they smell your dog. Since I harvested two deer last year and started feeding Argo raw deer for a 1/3 of his diet he has become crazy for them, he loves eating deer and is always looking for them. He will sniff them before we even see them. He has been know to chase them when he is not under my tight supervision. When he runs wild in front of me in the woods, that’s what he is looking for. Deer. If I am not within sight, I will hear a quick, high pitched “YEP! YEP! YEP!” which means, he has found one. He goes for a quick, wild chase but he is very aware he is not supposed to. Normally the chase goes 50-100 yards and then he comes back as if nothing happened. “Who me? Chasing deer? You must be mistaking me for someone else” However, if I am right by him he is as steady as you can be. He likes to follow the rules, he is a good boy. I train his steadiness on deer all the time because I know how strong his desire to chase them is. Now, deer is just a smaller version of elk right? Would he act the same if we are in front of a screaming bull coming at us to kick our asses? Now is time to find out, let’s go hunt.
LET THE HUNT BEGIN
After training Argo for two years, he is now ready. In truth, I didn’t do the most important part of the training, teaching him to follow my moves. Tobi trained him, just like he trained him to hunt birds. At 4 months, Argo came hunting with Tobi and me, and watched the old master at work. He started following at my feet, just like Tobi did. After Argo learned to hunt elk and birds, Tobi never hunted again, he self retired from hunting. I swear, he pushed himself to his last big energy until Argo learned, it was his last present to us.
On book Argo is working perfectly, following my moves, and as we hunt, I have to trust he will do the right thing. If the bull shows up, I will not be able to speak or give him any commands. Argo will be on his own and it will be up to him to make the right decisions. If he moves, barks or make noise and the bull runs we need to start all over. Or maybe forget elk hunting altogether, I think I would be ok with it. Our first day we have been mostly walking and glassing, trying to figure out what is going on in our little paradise. In my 3 mile by 3 mile hunting grounds there is one major group of elk run by a huge, old, herd bull. Several satellite bulls, on the outside, circling, trying to get some action. Getting close to these elk would be a risk, with easily hundred of eyes. If we blow it, I will push them all out, past the property line.
I decided to play it safe and look for isolated bulls, outside of this herd. We need to move lightly, be invisible, we can’t put any pressure on these animals. For 18 years Lodovico has managed this property making sure the elk feel safe so they come back year after year. I certainly don’t want to screw that up for him. If an elk comes, it has to happen naturally, without me forcing it. My first priority is to not disturb this heaven, my next priority is to enjoy its natural beauty, then spend time with my dog, at last, try to get an elk. Don’t get me wrong, I want an elk really bad but it should never be the first priority.
When I picked up Tobi’s ashes at the vet and opened the box I couldn’t help but falling apart. That’s my Tobi in a box, dust and small chunks of bones. Why do we torture ourselves like this? Isn’t it better to bury your loved ones and move on? This was going to be my first hunting season without Tobi. I don’t consider myself particularly spiritual but it felt good to get his ashes on that broadhead. I am now glad to have them, knowing that Tobi will be there in our hunts, maybe not the way he would like to be but there nonetheless. If there is even a small part of him alive, if it’s just in spirit, I know that arrow will fly straight and Tobi will get the ride of his lifetime. Or maybe I should say, afterlife time. After putting the arrows back in my quiver Argo smelled the ashes, he paused and looked at me, I wonder if he knew it was Tobi. I wonder if some of Tobi’s magic was transmitted to Argo in that moment, giving him what it takes to be an elk hunting dog.
I am only a couple of days into my hunt and the action has been insane. It appears that I hit the rut just perfectly and the bulls are fired up and looking for a lady. Hopefully an italian “lady” with a french dog. I am only working small pockets in the property, away from the main herd and I already called in four mature bulls; but for one reason or another I couldn’t close the deal. One guy coming in hot, decided to stop and rake his antlers 45 yards from me, he was there for 40 minutes with a small pine tree covering half of his vitals. Looking at the terrain, there was only one logic path for the bull to take which would have put him at a clean 30 yard shot. When he moved he did what was completely illogic and walked into a thick patch of trees and disappeared. Argo was hidden 20 yards from me on the “STAY” command. No idea what he was doing but when I went back he was right there where I had left him. “Good boy Argo”.
I then had two bulls fight over my sexy cow calls. I can be pretty cow elk sexy. In the end one started coming in hot to my call. It seemed like a done deal but at 50 yards the bull busted. Not certain what happened, maybe the wind switched, maybe he saw us and decided an Italian cow and French dog was not in his menu. Maybe he didn’t like my accent on that last call. You’ll never know what happened and that’s the beauty of it, is not meant to be easy. After the bull busted, I moved back and disappeared. Both bulls started bugling nearby. I could have gone after them but when hunting 2,000 acres you really need to keep the pressure light. The temptation to chase them again is there but reason needs to prevail. Remember, three hops, and they are out of the property line. Argo seems to be working well, he hasn’t made any noticeable mistakes and he hasn’t been the usual loud self. Maybe he is really getting it… Maybe he wants an elk as bad as I do… Maybe smelling Tobi’s ashes on the broadhead spilled the magic and turned him into an elk hunting pup. We still have plenty of time but you always wonder if these are the last chances you get. Please give me one more chance.
MY BAD FLINCH
I have been curing a subtle flinch, when shooting, caused by what people call, target panic. Since Tobi was such a good tracker I stopped using broadheads a while ago and shot expandables for years. Expendables fly like field points and were not affected by my slight flinch. Broadheads are and I was not happy seeing my arrows not going where I wanted them to go. I had to retrain myself to release my bow differently. Using back tension instead of my finger, I sure wish I started shooting this way a long time ago, it really is the way to do it. My grouping at 40 yards is back to where I want it to be but will I be able to do it under pressure? I will not shoot past 40 yards. I sure don’t want to be the one messing things up after spending all this time training Argo. I have been shooting a million arrows and mentally talking myself through the shot. “Knock arrow, draw, relax hand, breathe, pin on target, hold breath, don’t fuck up, back tension” and the arrow flies unexpectedly, no flinch. It works and it works great. But is a new way of shooting that is not as instinctual as I’d like. I just have to remind myself “Don’t fuck up”.
THERE IS A NEW BULL IN TOWN
This morning things turned nuts. A lone bull came down from the mountains, I could hear him screaming from a mile away. He meant business and wanted to challenge the big herd bull. He just made a straight line for the main herd in the property and never slowed down. Both bulls screaming at each other as he approached; once he moved in, hell broke loose. Elk running in all directions. The herd bull trying to move his cows away and into the woods. Satellite bulls taking advantage of the situation and trying to get a little action with the ladies. It was complete havoc and hard to figure out what was really going on and who was in charge. Once the elk moved into the patch of woods I heard crashing of antlers. The new bull wanted all the cows and the fight was on and nothing like I have ever witness before.
This was the real deal and not just a scuffle. I could hear antlers banging, it was like a train wreck over and over. Massive bodies, massive antlers banging against each other with brutal force. I decided this gave me a chance to get close to the herd and possibly have a shot at one of the bulls. I was going to move in slowly. As I got close, I realized it was not going to be an easy task. Elk, everywhere I looked. If you stay perfectly still, they will not detect you, you use stillness to become invisible. At this point leaving Argo on the “STAY” command, somewhere, was not an option. He had to follow and hopefully do it right. As soon as we entered the patch of woods we were stuck in front of a small 5×5 bull that came up to us at 5 yards. He just sat there staring at us forever. He was not the bull I wanted. I could see cows walking nearby. If I spooked him it could have been all over. I stayed still until my body started cramping, I couldn’t see what Argo was doing but eventually the bull moved on. I looked back and Argo was behind me shivering in excitement. “Good boy Argo”. We moved on and what we were about to experience is probably one of the most incredible things I witnessed in my life, not just as a hunter but as a human being.
CAN’T TAKE IT BACK
Once in the woods things got crazy. Elk everywhere running in all directions. I could hear the two bulls fighting. I had to move in and somehow be invisible to hundreds of eyes, when all eyes lined up behind a tree I took a step. When I was lucky, two steps. This process went on until I lost consciousness of time, my focus directed on all the elk around me. Moving only when I could. I felt the pounding of my heart and the pounding of antlers of the two bulls fighting. At every blow the ground shook, my heart stuck in my throat. Who knows how much time went by. One hour? Two hours? I kept moving, one step at a time. Finally I could see them, the massive herd bull and the new bull just going at it. “Paolo breathe” I kept telling myself. I knew I had been in the middle of the herd for a very long time and I hadn’t heard Argo once. Was he still there? Did he just run away scared? Behind me was dead quiet but I couldn’t afford the movement to look back. I kept going, I was in the zone. “Paolo breathe”. At 70 yards from them I decided it was time to stop and hope the bulls would move my way. Trees everywhere, shooting over 40 yards was not even a possibility. Elk running right by me, I stayed still, I was invisible to them. I could only focus on that one bull. Then the impossible happened.
After hours of fighting the massive herd bull walked away and bedded down 45 yards from me and collapsed exhausted with his head down. The new bull rounded up all the cows and left. I was alone with the massive bull, I had just watched him lose the battle and his herd. “Paolo breathe”. I started rehearsing the shot, my heart stuck in my throat. “Knock arrow, draw, relax hand, breathe, pin on target, hold breath, don’t fuck up, back tension” I needed 5 more yards, I was not going to shoot over 40. I took 4 steps and a branch snapped under my foot. The massive bull jumped up and started walking my way attracted by the noise. His blood stained antlers gleaming in the light. My heart about to explode, at 30 yards I had a shot. I made a cow call sound to stop him and then talked myself through the motion of the shot trying to forget everything else. “KNOCK ARROW, DRAW, RELAX HAND, BREATHE, PIN ON TARGET, HOLD BREATH, DON’T FUCK UP, BACK TENSION” The arrow with Tobi’s ashes flew and I couldn’t take it back.
THE LEGACY BULL
The arrow with Tobi’s ashes flew straight. The bull ran, tried to lay down, ran again and stopped. I watched him fall and listened to his heavy breathing come to an end. Only seconds went by. I had just killed a huge 7×9 bull, the elk of a lifetime, but I couldn’t help but feeling heartbroken for this majestic creature as I watched it happen. He lost his herd and now he lost his life. How can an animal lover like me hunt? Will I one day break and never hunt again? I looked behind me and Argo was right there. He had been at my feet the whole time, completely silent, perfectly following my moves all these hours. Had Tobi’s magic spilled on him when he sniffed his ashes on the broadhead? I would like to say that I am Robin Hood or a hunting super hero with my super hero dog but we are not. How is it possible that I was able to get right in the middle of a herd of elk, with my dog at my feet and kill this bull? This was a gift to me and Argo and I like to think that it was Tobi’s gift to us, to let us know he is still alive. Without a doubt he will always be alive in my heart and will always be by my side when I hunt. The bowhunting legacy had been pasted from Tobi to Argo. Argo was now a bowhunting dog and I couldn’t help feeling so proud for this long legged bird dog who had done the impossible to please his master. A dog who is born to run and found the patience and the obedience to follow every step I made, day after day. The arrow with Tobi’s ashes killed the bull in seconds. I feel thankful for his life and the special meaning it has for me. This is not just a bull, this is Tobis legacy and Argo’s first bull and prize for his amazing work. Argo is a spectacular animal that I feel so fortunate to have at my side now that Tobi left. I couldn’t have asked for more. “Thank you Argo for being the companion that you are, you filled a void that I didn’t think was possible to fill”.
Red Bull OCR and Endurance athlete Fernando Casanova went from being, as he likes to say “a smoker, a drinker and a 210 pound fat man” to a sponsored super athlete. “If you asked me 12 years ago I would have never believed I would be doing what I do now.” 12 years ago the doctor told him “If you want to make it to 30 you better change your lifestyle.” Next day Fernando quit smoking, drinking and became a different man. To see the whole gallery on Fernando click here.
Pretty excited to be featured in the Communication Arts Photo Annual for the third year in a row! To check out my other recognitions please check out the AWARD pages on my website. And to learn more about this image find out how it went VIRAL and the pros and cons of going viral.