The Adrenal Gland

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Lots of big elk owe their continued existence to a small piece of human tissue, the adrenal gland.  Our guide takes us through a week of archery hunting where adrenalin overload causes a number of misadventures for his hunter. Although the elk are plentiful and respond without hesitation to cow calls, our hunter's reaction to the big bulls that come way too close, ranges from pure, muscle locking paralysis to a black out caused when a fire breathing bull comes storming into close range.  Hunting experience and shooting skills are left far behind as our hunter falls victim to his own adrenalin.

The big 6x6 answers my cow call with a screaming challenge, tears up a good-sized tree and begins to move toward our position. As the bull works his way through the timber I whisper, "He's right there Frank, just inside the screen of pines about 200 yards up the canyon. Get behind that big Pondersoa. When he gets close enough for a good shot, take it!" Those are words a guide loves to say to his hunter. But, what happens next is often the function of how a little three inch piece of human tissue behaves within the confines of the hunter's body.

When everything works out, the shot is taken and two huge smiles fill the canyon in this part of elk country. But, when that little piece of tissue secretes an overabundant flow of juice, the resulting chemical reaction overrides common sense, reason and muscle function. When chemical confusion takes over that big bull will walk past my hunter, look me in the eye then turn and walk away unscathed and his bugling will continue to fill the canyon with elk music for the rest of that day and well into the night.

I am a retired tech teacher with a great job in the heart of elk country. I guide during the archery season in a hunting paradise known as the Floyd Lee Ranch, located in central-western New Mexico. Could you ask for a better job? I get to hunt every day throughout the season, call big elk into 10 yards, watch them react to other elk, my calls and my hunters. What is most enjoyable is being able to share my hunters' reaction to their first experience with a screaming, growling, head shaking bull that's come way too close for comfort.

I'll change the names here to protect the afflicted but my hunter will recognize himself, while probably a number of others might think I'm telling tales about them. What I'll explain is a common problem caused by a tiny three-inch piece of human tissue called the adrenal gland. The body actually has two triangular shaped adrenal glands with one being located on top of each kidney. These glands have two parts and each segment produces a set of hormones. The outer part, the adrenal cortex, produces hormones called corticosteroids that regulate the salt and water balance in the body, the body's response to stress, it's metabolism, the immune system, and sexual development and function. The inner part of each gland is the adrenal medulla, which produces catecholamines such as epinephrine. Catecholamines have the more influential effects, which are wide ranging; epinephrine has a marked effect on the heart and metabolic rate.

It's the epinephrine that is the culprit! Epinephrine, also called adrenaline, is the secretion that increases blood pressure and heart rate when the body experiences stress. You won't read about bull elk induced stress in any medical journals but a Google search will explain the adrenal gland's location, size, function and problems that develop. Nowhere in the literature did I find a single reference to bugling, growling, head-shaking elk and the human body's response to adrenal gland secretions so I'll pass along Frank's medical-hunting history to illustrate specific adrenal problems that develop in elk country.

Frank was an East coast whitetail hunter who arrived in elk country after spending countless years participating in Catskill mountain deer drives while carrying a gun. He spent almost as many years sitting in a tree stand with a bow and had practiced diligently to develop an excellent skill level and proved it with four-inch groups of arrows in a 3-D elk target at 60 yards. Frank maintained the tranquility of a granite boulder while shooting at camp and I had high hopes for quick success.

First day out, in a one on one situation, we moved up-wind towards constant bugling that I explained to Frank came from satellite bulls worrying a big elk that probably had a hot cow sequestered in the oak brush. Keeping the wind hard in our face we advanced slowly and Frank proved to be an excellent stalker. When we were close enough to solicit a response I put Frank about 50 yards out in front, kneeling behind a big Ponderosa pine as I stepped back. When he was in position I cow called and received an immediate answer. I saw the bull's feet, below the vegetation, coming straight towards us and Frank sat there as still as could be. I remember thinking, "Great, he won't get nervous and spook the elk." As the bull approached closer, shaking his head and growling, Frank still hadn't moved a muscle, if fact he was still holding the bow tightly to his left leg. The bull kept coming. When it walked past a big tree offering a 14-yard shot I watched Frank's mouth drop open as he turned his head to follow the elk. The bull finally stopped just 15 yards from me and, not finding a cow, turned and walked back, past Frank, who still had his mouth wide open. The bull then turned right and walked by in front of Frank at 15 yards before wandering back to the rest of his group.

The adrenalin overload: Everything would progress smoothly until a bull got
this close and the catecholamine's started pumping into the blood stream. Within
just a few seconds Fred wouldn't have any chance of ever getting a good shot.

We had a long talk and I explained about reaching full draw when the elk's legs became visible beneath the heavy cover. That way any movement would be hidden. Then, when at full draw, hold the appropriate pin right on the vitals so when the bull finally clears the heavy cover all you have to do is release. I even had him bring the bow to full draw and hold it while I timed him. He held the compound rock steady for over 90 seconds and I assured him there should be no problem holding accurately on an elk. He listened intently and I didn't say anything about needing a shot of antifreeze!

A no adrenalin situation: Fred had the composure of a veteran while enjoying the
scenery in the high meadows but the composure evaporated when the elk got close.

That afternoon we found two bulls about 150 yards apart that were screaming back and forth at each other. I put Frank 60 yards out front and between them before I cow called. Rolling rocks on the hillside signaled a moving elk and a big cow came running out and stopped just 17 feet from me. I was pinned down but could still watch Frank. He was staring at the cow. More rolling rocks announced a big bull looking for his lost cow but Frank was so engrossed watching her look at me, he let the bull trot into the open before he reacted. A man moving when a bull is in the open creates a spooked elk! We had another long talk then went back to hunting.

Even after having suffered through a number of adrenalin soaked disappointments
during the day, nothing can beat an elk country sunset.

The next morning we located a bull bugling on the mountain and worked towards the sound while heading uphill into the wind. His cows were between us but Frank was a picture of stealth as we worked our way through the group and into position. I whispered, "The bull is right here somewhere. Get an arrow ready." I called, the bull answered then came trotting down an old skid trail. I whispered, "Draw! He'll come into that opening and I'll stop him. It will be about 12 yards." Frank came to full draw and just before the bull reached the opening his arrow streaked across the gap and came to a vibrating stop in a pine tree. "What was that?" I asked as the bull stopped and actually looked back and forth at the arrow's path, probably wondering the same thing! Frank answered, "It went off by accident!" He had such a death grip on the bow he had grabbed the trigger and suffered a premature release - so to speak!

The tree with the arrow hole: After Fred had his "premature release" he refused
to let me take a photo of his arrow lodged in the tree. I was amazed at how the
bull actually looked back and forth at the arrow's path. Fred was holding the bow
at full draw and his death grip got tighter as the bull got closer. Milliseconds
before the bull entered the opening the arrow whizzed across the bull's path and stuck into the tree.

That evening we located two more bulls in the brush above us. There was not much cover so I sent Frank to a clump of tall brush and told him to watch both ways, whichever bull came closest first - shoot him! Both bulls approached on a V-shaped line with the bottom of the V located right where Frank was crouched. It proved way too much for Frank to have more than one big bull coming that close. His head got snapping back and forth trying to watch each bull and he spooked them both at almost the same time!

We located a good-sized herd of elk just before dark and came back before daylight to get into position. Nothing worked and, as we were walking up a canyon, Frank got a bit upset, either with himself or me and wanted to go back to the truck. I took a GPS reading and when we reached the truck he said he wanted to try to spot and stalk. I explained we should have started that at daylight as it was getting too late to find elk standing in the open. As we drove back the two-track an elk bugled right alongside the roadway and we went after it. We made a big circle downwind but it spooked before we could get close. Best part was we could hear more elk further off. We crossed the canyon only 300 yards from where Frank had gotten grumpy an hour before and set up under the rim of a small hill. Frank got into position, took out his range finder, hit all the trees then signaled, OK. I called and almost immediately a bull answered and started in. As the bull walked down the hill Frank came to full draw then, when the elk was broadside to Frank I called, stopping the bull for a shot. Frank released, the bull spun, stumbled then went back up the hill and it looked like he went down. I was elated and when Frank turned and looked at me I signaled him to be still. I was so sure everything had gone right this time I even punched up my GPS to pack out his bull.

When I walked up to Frank he turned and looked at me with a long, sad face and said. "I think I missed!" "How?" I asked. I was sure it had been a lethal hit. It was only 18 yards! Frank responded, "When that bull came down the hill there was smoke coming out his ears and fire coming out his mouth. I think I blacked out!" He was right, the arrow hit low, the bull stumbled when he rolled a rock from under foot and where I thought the bull went down is where he stepped into an arroyo. Smoke and fire then your hunter blacks out - that is adrenalin!

When a bull got this close poor Fred would lose it. In the worst case of adrenalin
overload he encountered the bugling, growling and head shaking became a vision
as,"... there was smoke coming out his ears and flames coming out his mouth" which
caused poor Fred to comment. "I think I blacked out!"

To finish up Frank's saga we got onto two more bulls an hour later, he put a super stalk on them then missed twice, once at 40 then at 60 yards. That evening, the last of his hunt, we were joined by his two partners and their guide and found two bulls fighting. His two partners stayed with the truck and we finally caught up with the bulls just before dark. We got Frank into position for a 40-yard shot but a cow saw us and actually pushed the bull away. When the bull came clear we hit him with the range finder at 68 yards and told Frank to hold his 60-yard pin right on the bull's back and release. The arrow sailed over the bull by at least by two feet. You'd have thought Frank's adrenalin supply would have run out eventually!

Elk country can be enormous but the elk are only in the areas that
suit them the best. Locate that area and you are in elk.


Retired2hunt's picture

 I have to say I had that


I have to say I had that same adrenaline push through my body this past 1st rifle season... but I didn't have enough time to allow it to get in the way.  My bull jumped a fence and came trotting right up to me.  I had no time for anything but a reaction to a bull 15 yards away - I shot him right in the chest and blew his heart and lungs out.  Afterwards a different story.  That is when the adrenaline finally took hold of me!  I was in such elation that it was almost impossible to text everyone that I had just harvested my very first elk.  The hands were shaking so much I couldn't type.

Anyhow - a great read and I too could see me in the midst of these hunters and what they were up against.  Now that the first one is in the freezer though I see no problem with the cow here in a couple of weeks.  Maybe next year when that giant 6X6 I saw is within my sights.  Well see.


arrowflipper's picture


All I can say is WOW!  I loved the story and could visualize every step you took.  I could also feel the adrenaline of the hunter.... and the pain.  If I didn't know better, it seemed almost like a fairytale of missed opportunities.  But I know those things happen.

At about 15 years old, I went hunting with a friend and his dad in Northern Idaho.  We were briskly walking down an old logging road on our way back to the truck, when all of a sudden; we rounded a bend and came face to face with a monster whitetail.  He wasn't any more than ten yards away.  We both missed a couple of times before that buck decided he'd seen enough "buck fever" and headed to parts unknown.

At 17, I told a friend of the family that if he got me a shot at a buck, I would harvest it.  He did his part.  I'll never know how I missed that huge mule deer buck at twenty yards.  I just stood and shook.

I could tell you about a fellow on this site that had his first shot at a mule deer buck at 20 yards broadside.  He missed.  The buck ran out to 60 yards, stopped and turned broadside for another shot.  The shot rang out.  The buck decided he'd had enough and didn't want to catch this "buck fever". 

I can't tell you how the process works, but I can tell you that it does.  I enjoyed the story immensely.  It was almost as if each situation got worse.... a buildup to something great that was going to happen.  Is there a cure for this dreaded disease?  I'm not sure you can talk yourself through it; it's just getting out there and seeing those animals over and over until it doesn't bother you anymore.    Though I'm sure the author still isn't laughing, the story got a few good laughs out of me.


jim boyd's picture

Wow my first thought is how

Wow my first thought is how did you see that many elk in such a short time????

The medical desription was sort of over my head - but i get the gist of it!

I pray that I am never Frank - but the authour is right - adrenaline has saved many more animals than elk... it has definitely either prolonged the life of several whitetails from my arrows and bullets!

The extent to which Frank took it is a little extreme however... you have to feel badly for him becuase it sound like he could do everything else correctly... from target shooting, to stalking, to sitting still (ok, perhaps too still a few times) - so for him to choke so badly and so many times is pitiful, at best!

I can only imagine a hunt of the proportions described in this article - the close calls, elks everywhere, the scenery and the absolute excitement of such a fantastic adventure - we should all be so lucky...

This is food for thought as I start to prepare for the day I will hunt out there but how do you predict how badly the adrenal glands will affect any given hunter when that "moment" finally arrives?

Like I said, I hope I am not Frank!

Great article, Brian, I loved it!!!

jaybe's picture

LOL - I'm still laughing!

I'm still laughing at the different ways that Frank reacted to having those big bulls in close to him!

I'm not saying that I would have reacted any differently, but it's always funny to see how these things have played out in someone else's hunt!

"Smoke from his ears and fire from his mouth" - Holy Cow - it doesn't get any better than that!

I'm reminded of a chapter in a book on deer hunting that was entitled, "Buck Fever".

In it, stories are told of hunters who stood watching deer pass by without taking any action whatever.

Another hunter pointed his rifle at a buck and made shooting noises ("Bang, Bang, Bang!"), but never fired a shot.

Still another one calmly levered all five bullets from his Winchester onto the ground, then complained to his partner that his rifle must not be sighted in properly because the animal didn't drop.

Too funny!

Thanks for the great story!


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