After seeing the blood on the log, we made a half-hearted attempt to understand the context of the situation by forwards- and backwards-tracking the blood trail 30 or 40 yards. Who knows? Probably a goring wound from one of the many bull fights that had gone down on this mountain in the past several weeks. Dropping another 100 yards or so, we found an open meadow where we spread the tent back out to dry from the morning’s earlier dew and sacked out for a couple hours worth of rest.
“Cows!!! Pete wake up! Right above us, right on the slope above us!”
False alarm – a couple dudes side-hilling just above the meadow where we were hanging out. We flagged them down and soon were having a conversation which eventually led to this…
“Ya, we’re up here looking for a bull we shot yesterday afternoon, but we lost the blood trail about 1/4 mile away and are just combing the area.”
Long story short, their eyes got big as saucers when we told them about the blood trail we had found just 75 yards from where we were having the conversation. Longer story short, we ran into them later in the hunt and they were not able to find the bull. Still, totally bizarre coincidence.
Back to the hunt – rain clouds were building as were talking to the South Dakota guys, so we decided to pack up our drying gear, don the packs, and head back up the mountain towards the meadow where the silent 6 point bull had pushed his cows earlier in the morning. We hadn’t messed with him yet, and we wanted to be in a good position when the rain slacked off as we knew this would likely be the trigger for the afternoon’s action. The rain really set in after 45 minutes of easing up the hill, so we hunkered up under 2 massive trees for cover. As we waited out the storm, we kept hearing some suspicious sounds that we eventually decided was some sort of game coming uphill to meet us from below. We split off about 15 yards separate and got ready. Stampede! I had a 5 point and 7 cows come storming past me simultaneous to Pete having 2 cows being pushed by yet another bomber 6 by 6 bull. The bull on my side came straight in and even though I had my top pin buried on his throat at less than 15 yards, I decided to pass. Pete’s bull acted just spooky enough to avoid stopping in the one good shot opening he had…lucky for him because Pete was once again drawn with his eye centered behind the peep.
For about the 4th time that day, it took us a while to settle back down, and we did so as the rain slacked off and the mountainside erupted with bulls singing. Down, down, down into a steep canyon we went. Total chaos with at least 5 bulls in the fray. Every other tree was rubbed. Trails cut so deep you’d think there were livestock present. Droppings and wallows in every level spot. It was ridiculous. The first elk of the descent was a small raghorn that appeared ignorant of the fact that all the action was happening just 150 yards up the hill. We lost precious time in catching up with the herd in silently and carefully working around him. By the time we gained enough ground to setup on the main herd, they were pushing out towards a fresh burned area. We pulled a big loop on them and cut them off. Within 60 seconds of our first setup in the burn, I could see a massive tail of the 5th and 6th point of a bull coming down the slope towards us. Unfortunately, he must have had cows just past our visibility as we could not pull him within 60 yards though he lingered for a good 5 minutes trying to make up his mind.
When he finally drifted back up and over the ridge, we pulled out the topo map and realized that we had one solid chance to catch the herd if they were headed where we thought they were. A long, vertically-walled canyon would force the herd up and around a pinch point, and if we could just beat them to the punch…
We beat ourselves down for a solid 30 minutes trying to outpace the herd and other than a couple front-runner bulls out front, I think we cut the majority off. Just as we decided to pull up the hill to setup and challenge the herd bull, I looked behind us into the meadow above the pinch point…BULL!!!
There lying on the side of the meadow was a long-beamed, heavy-massed 6 point bull with blood perfectly positioned behind his shoulder. It took a few seconds to process exactly what was happening, but there was no time to waste. Bulls were bugling in steadily closer and we wanted to kill our own bull, not just help other hunters find their bulls that had already been killed! We slipped uphill and were dead-ended by a small wad of vocal cows. Positioning ourselves about 40 yards downhill of them and on a major trail that led to the pinch point, we waited for maybe 10 minutes before we heard limbs crashing and saw antlers floating down the hillside. Pete yanked his bow back as the bull exploded into view. We threw every call we had to stop him. Pete was looking back over his shoulder at me asking “Should I shoot him?” I replied “YA!” Zip…clean pass through, but was it too high.
The bull crashed off without missing a beat and we de-compressed for a little while as the elk continued their bugling all around. Was it low enough to catch both lungs? I didn’t see blood appear right away, did you? What tree was it that he ran by over on that next ridge? Over the next 90 minutes, I tried to ignore the furious bugling of elk just upslope as we searched for blood and started running trails deeper into the mouth of the canyon where the wounded bull had surged. No blood, following scuffs was pointless as everything had been destroyed by elk sign, …
Midway into the search, we solved the mystery of the dead “meadow” bull. The South Dakota guys again! They had stumbled onto this same pinch point and decided to take a break while watching the crossing. Massive 6 point bull literally walks right by them. Unreal! They were still looking for blood themselves and we let them in on the secret that we had already discovered. To say they were ecstatic would be an understatement. That being said, Pete and I had an increasingly deep pit in our own stomachs and the reality of our situation was setting in. No blood, no ability to follow the trail, high suspicion of a high and non-lethal hit, and so much deadfall as to make grid searching nearly impossible. Conflicted emotions to say the least.
Pete was feeling bad that his 15 yard shot (he thought it was 30) was cramping the rest of the evening’s hunt, so I went back up the hill to chase the elk. This account is already growing long, but long story short is this – I chased the elk for a solid 90 minutes passing up a spike (not legal anyways), a couple different cows (too far back for that nonsense), and had a couple close calls with 2 bulls. The herd bull was glunking for all he was worth as he rounded cows and ran satellites off his harem.
Then I was 1 mile from everybody else and it was dark and I didn’t have a light and I didn’t have my compass. I had left my pack at Pete’s shot impact location and now I was in a pickle. Keep calm, think logically, and keep trudging. I kept pushing out thoughts of doing jumping-jacks every 15 minutes all night long to avoid hypothermia, and clear thinking and decent location-awareness prevailed. I re-united with Pete and the South Dakota guys nearly 2 hours after dark. Talk about unnerving – for me and them!
No further luck for Pete, but we did our best to show the South Dakota guys’ bull the admiration it deserved. We camped 30 yards downhill from the carcass and would systematically grid-search the canyon for Pete’s bull in the morning. All the while, we had a sneaking suspicion (especially after doing some comparative anatomy inspections on the 6×6′s carcass) that the hit had been non-lethal high through the backstraps. Not exactly sure how it missed spine, but that was our only reasonable explanation at that point – hopefully the morning would convince us otherwise.
First full day of hunting – 9 mature bulls within 100 yards with another half dozen or so bugling in the background. Over-the-counter Colorado. Do-it-yourself backpack hunting. Single best day of hunting Pete or I had ever experienced…ever. Such conflicted emotions though…elk hunting can be brutal…a roller coaster…600 bugles heard today?…800?…1000?…No way of knowing…we fell asleep with bugles still ringing in our ears.