We decided that a final hurrah up the first drainage we hunted was the wisest use of our remaining time and energy. We decided to wait until afternoon to slip up into some areas that had heavy signs of feeding a week prior and then hunt our way into the areas with more rutting sign as the thermals shifted downhill later in the evening.
Only one-half mile into our hike, I glimpsed movement off to my left and could see a cow elk and calf standing just 30 yards away. Pete kept walking and they seemed calm enough that I may have a chance to knock an arrow and take a shot. I dropped my pack, got an arrow, nocked it, drew my bow, started to swing my bow back on the cow elk, and…spook, crash, crash, spook. No shot. 2 more seconds, maybe 3 and an arrow would have been on its way. SO CLOSE!!!
Now it was officially the bottom of the ninth. Upwards and onwards to the base of a rock slide above some wallow-infested meadows, a stand was made where we spread out 100 yards and cow called off and on for the better part of an hour. Thirty minutes in, Pete caught movement 100 yards down below him and a cow elk was picking her way into the rock slide. However, instead of coming up to investigate the new “herd” on the mountain, she laid down behind a few small conifers and made herself invisible. Through a series of hand signals, we communicated and hatched a plan to sneak downhill and toss a few rocks to get her to stand back up. It ALMOST worked. Unfortunately as the saying goes, almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades – NOT elk hunting, that’s for dang sure!
With no bugling anywhere on the mountain – I mean none, zero – we decided to bail off in the twilight, tuck our tails between our legs, and begin the 24-hour drive back East. Defeated, exhausted, frustrated, confused, and two very expensive bowls of tag soup was the results of our 2016 elk hunt. So our original expectations – shot opportunities at legal bulls, probably multiple chances per guy on the first massive loop we had planned…pipe dream. We had no shot opportunity to kill a legal elk. We saw a quarter of the bulls that we’ve seen in past hunts, and we never got caught up in the “merry-go-round” rut-fests of prior trips. I wouldn’t have believed it based on our prior experiences in OTC Colorado, but the elk won this time. Hands down. Elk in a weird mood, post-wildfire hangover, dry high country, rut late, full moon, too many other hunters, excuses didn’t matter at this point though our brains were racing to explain our unfilled tags.
One thing’s for certain though, and sometimes it takes a few weeks for the initial bitter taste of an “unsuccessful” hunt to wear off, the success of a hunt doesn’t depend entirely upon a notched tag. Sure it’s nice, especially when you’re talking about having or not having 200 pounds of elk steaks in your freezer. But it’s a cherry on top. Nothing less, nothing more. I had a great hunt, I hunted HARD, the mountains were still beautiful, the weather still fierce, the elk bugles still enchanting, fellowship with a great friend still sweet, my legs still sore, my heart still content, my mind still planning the “next time”.
No elk steaks, but memories – you bet!