2014 OTC/DIY Archery Elk Hunt – Day 6, 7, and Drive Out
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That night we pondered long and hard our next move. Lug meat ourselves and hope to have it out 72 hours from now – it was definitely feasible but it raised the all-important question of – will the meat still be good? Run out to town and try to rent horses or find someone to pack our meat for us – again, definitely feasible but if we came up empty we would put ourselves further behind the 8-ball and virtually guarantee that we lose the meat. Then again, if successful in that venture, we’d be out of the mountains soon and headed back East with heavy coolers. Decisions, decisions.

Option B won out. At dawn, we packed camp after double-checking that our meat bags were hung properly in the best ventilated and shaded spot available. 9 miles and 3 hours later we strolled into the parking lot and bummed a ride in a pickup truck bed down to the dude ranch about 5 miles further towards town. A very helpful lady was able to make some phone calls and get us hooked up with an outfitter armed with 1 horse and 2 mules. He would meet us at 5 PM the following evening at the top of the switchbacks. That was all well and good, but we still had to get back in to the meat and antlers and move everything 2-2.5 miles further to the top of the switchbacks. On our hike out that morning, the reason for absent horse/human traffic was obvious – treacherous deadfall EVERYWHERE! It would be a grueling push to our finish line, but we’d have horsepower from there.

(The elevation profile of the total pack-out suggests that we did do something right…kill up, pack down!)

Long story short, we did the rough hours of effort calculation and figured we better make tracks back in that evening. We made it 4-5 miles deep before darkness and ominous storm clouds stopped our progress. After a long night of rain interspersed with lightning, we woke soaked and gloomy but with one mission in mind. Hike the remaining 4 miles to the meat cache and shuttle those 2 loads down to our rendezvous point by 5 PM. 9 hours later, we arrived at said point at 4:45 PM. We heard the clip-clop of hooves just 15 minutes later. We were on time and he was on time. 6 miles later, we were packing the Nissan for the long haul back East. We drove 2 hours to find a hotel and a much-needed shower and rest. Refreshed the next morning, we tackled the 24-hour through drive back to Columbus, OH, and reunited with our families – 2 days ahead of schedule I might add.

We had a lot of miles to absorb the events of the last 7 days. We were admittedly confident going into the trip that we would get into elk and likely have adequate opportunity to fill our 2 tags. Were we expecting the kind of elk hunting we had experienced? By no means. The action – both in terms of quantity of bulls encountered and quality of bulls encountered – surpassed our wildest expectations. 2012 was definitely not an outlier, no anomaly there. 4 for 4 was backed up with 2 for 2. Heck, in 2 true days of hunting, we had taken 3 shots, Pete had passed up 1 cow, I had passed up 1 bull and multiple opportunities at cows. We had turned our nose up at other bulls – simply waiting for them to bypass us. Over-the-counter DIY elk hunting on Colorado’s public lands. We had proof of concept and validity of strategy. We also had plenty of time to re-evaluate certain aspects of our strategy, such as, is the “kill a bull first, figure it out later” strategy really a strategy at all – or is it just fool-hardy? We’re both leaning towards the latter. Plenty of other observations were made, so I won’t let all the cats out of the bag just yet as I’ll follow up the blow-by-blow recount with gear reviews, some things we learned, and maybe a few other tidbits.

(Sorry for the lack of pictures from the last 2+ days of our adventure, but the weather was abominable – just drenching wet for a solid 48 hours. )

2014 OTC/DIY Archery Elk Hunt – Day 5
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About 2 hours of daylight, we were back at Pete’s bull. The first task was an attempt to remove the antlers from the rest of the skull. It worked, almost! So close to success, but the wire saw snapped. As we were getting ready to load packs for the uphill ascent, I said something to the effect of “I’d be mad at myself if we didn’t at least make one more loop in hopes of smelling him dead.” Honestly, it wasn’t an easy decision as we knew the meat had long since spoiled, but decided it was a day without a deadline so we dropped the negligible elevation to where we thought he was most likely to be laying.

Miracle of miracles, we found him. It was definitely bittersweet, but we had finally solved the mystery.

From shot to his final location was probably 250 yards as the crow flies, but given what we knew about the blood trail and understanding the lay of the terrain, the mortally-wounded elk traveled a minimum of 400-450 yards. When we rolled him over, this seemed even more implausible!

Right there on the crease, slightly quartering forwards and 2/3 up into both lungs was the cut left by my Slick Trick. I have no explanation for the wild goose chase other than to say – ELK ARE TOUGH!!! We both decided we couldn’t have done anything different and I went to work removing the skull for the pack-out. Given the bull’s state of decomposition, that was no pleasant task. I wouldn’t get to enjoy the meat, but I would have some 5×5 antlers to remember this trip by – a small but tangible consolation prize that once more solidified our 100% success rate of DIY archery elk tags in over-the-counter Colorado.

Now with packs loaded and only the grunt of hard work between us and a trip back East, the hunt became a mental and physical grind. Shuttling loads of meat through the mountains with nothing but the ticking clock of meat spoilage as a scorekeeper.

We leaned into our packs all day long until we had shuttled the last load of meat down to the marked trail. We were ahead of schedule, but we had also discovered that something was out of place with the marked trail. It had NO sign of human or horse activity on it. The realization that we might be screwed started to creep into our minds. Nothing to do now but sleep through the night and start improvising a new plan in the morning.

2014 OTC/DIY Archery Elk Hunt – Day 4
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Knowing that the next morning involved a search-and-recovery, we weren’t too keen to make sure our stopwatch’s alarm was properly set – not that we needed one. We had bulls bugling within 150-200 yards of camp from 5 AM onwards, and we decided to make a quick play on them at twilight before the sun would give us full light in resuming the search for my bull.

We pursued the elk herd for about 30 minutes before their climbing and our chasing led to a high country meadow framed by a deep canyon below and a steep mountainside above. They were nearly pinned down and I dropped back to start cow calling. It quickly became apparent that just being another cow was going to get us nowhere as there were plenty of other cows in the herd and they were being very vocal. Using the bugle and arming myself with “antlers” to start wailing on the nearest beetle-killed pine, I took on the role of challenging bull. It worked. Within seconds, a bugle arched over the ridge and was drawing a bead on my location. Realizing the situation, I dove downhill and pulled in behind Pete’s location to draw the bull on a better line. Somehow, the plan worked. Pete sent a perfect uphill arrow 40 yards to the big bull, and we watched as the bull bailed off the edge and down into the deep canyon below with his last gasp.

We back-slapped, high-fived, and took some quick pictures before hiking back down the ridge to resume the search for my bull as it was now an hour after sunrise. It almost seemed like disrespecting the unbelievable hunt that had just occurred, but we both had discussed it the night before. My tag was cut – recovery or no recovery. All the signs added up to a dead bull – the sound of lungs popping, the angle of the shot, the bubbles in the blood. No part of the equation suggested anything otherwise, it was just a matter of finding the bull. We’d give the recovery a solid 3 hours of effort before turning back to Pete’s bull for butchering. It wouldn’t be long before the rising sun would be glaring down in the deep cut where his bull now lay, so we really had 2 clocks working against us at this point.

(I just have to point out our camo patterns…lol! We love being those granola boys with the bows and then rolling back through the trailhead parking lot a week later under a heavy pack-load of meat.)

We spent about an hour around the 15-20 yard blood trail looking for that next spot of blood, but we never found it. We then starting running 25-yard wide transects up the mountain, around the mountain, and back down again. Eyes to the ground and to the side. Nose to the air hoping for a whiff of rutted-up bull. Ears to the wind expecting a raven to short-circuit the haystack search at any moment. Here’s a picture of the thick spruce regeneration that we forced to search in. Even 10 yards away, an elk could remain undetected. Just about the worst area on the entire mountain for this to be happening.

Around 11 AM, we knew that the other bull was now top priority, and we re-climbed the mountain, drew our knives, and start butchering. To quote some words we heard later on in the hunt, we “made the bears and coyotes mad!” We took everything. Neck, shanks, rib-roll, heart, everything. Pete joked that there wasn’t enough meat to stick your knife in when we got done with him. You’d have thought the elk was laying 1/4 mile below a 2-lane road except we knew the truth – we were 10-12 miles back! Ugh, reality…

We finished our task, hung the meat in the shade, and went back down to resume the search for my bull which we knew by now was probably spoiled. One time for just one or two seconds we both got a whiff of something foul. However, the wind was shifty and gusting and we couldn’t pin down a definite source direction. Now I was the one on the roller coaster. On one hand, we were packing meat off my buddy’s great bull, but on the other, I knew my hunt was done with but without a bull in hand. Elk hunting mostly sucks and is basically one giant roller coaster, don’t ever let someone tell you anything different.

After a couple more hours of discouraging and fruitless searching, we had a topo map brainstorming session. How exactly are we going to get this bull off the mountain? There were 2 obvious choices, and after much debate, we opted for Plan A. Haul meat straight up, through one saddle, through another saddle, run the ridgetop, through a final saddle, and descend 2 miles to a marked trail. We figured it was roughly 5 miles total one-way, but we would also be double-hauling loads which meant 2 days sounded like a reasonable goal. From there, we would still be 8-9 miles from the trailhead, but bumming a ride out on some horses and or hiring an outfitter to complete our pack-job should be just a formality at that point.

The rest of that day was spent packing one load about 2 miles up to a timberline campsite. Threatening storms kept us in camp the last few hours of daylight, but we were able to finally unwind and process the events of the last several days over heaping portions of campfire-roasted elk sirloins.

2014 OTC/DIY Archery Elk Hunt – Day 3
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We rolled out of bed whenever we felt like that next morning. No hunting, just searching.

The mission was simple – solve the mystery of Pete’s bull from the night before. 4 hours later we forced to deal with the facts. We both saw the hit – high. We hadn’t found any blood – not a drop. We had searched a 250 x 350 yard grid intensively – nada. We had listened for birds – nothing. We went back to the 6×6′s carcass and did some more amateur CSI work. We both came to the same conclusion – non-lethal hit perfect east-west, terrible north-south. For several more days, we had forays lead us back through the same area and we never detected sign of anything different. A tough deal, but now I was up as shooter. Time to find some more elk.

We were climbing straight up out of the canyon by midday and headed for the timberline to slip through some saddles and send some locator calls down in a couple hanging basins. Along the way, we were able to connect via cell phone with our wives and give them an update.

The next 4 or 5 hours consisted of spreading out camp, making a hot meal, grabbing some shut eye, and poking our way through timberline saddles. Around 4 PM, we bumped a group of 6 lonely cows that bailed off the mountain in a thundering gallop. Well, we found elk but it wasn’t quite in the right fashion or form we would have liked. By 5 PM, we had come full circle back around the mountain and started losing some elevation towards where we had encountered all the elk action the previous morning. Finally, the first bugle of the day rang out – a loonnnnggg ways off but on our elevation. We gave pause to another small herd of cows that were heading down to a green meadow and continued towards the first bugle that had been joined by another and another and another. And another. And another.

The merry-go-round of bulls was once again in motion. On about our 4th setup, we had finally pushed our ways up into the herd and I was instantly deafened by a bugling bull closing to within 50 yards. For the next 30 minutes, I got brief glimpses of him as he paced back and forth at anywhere between 50 and 75 yards. A great 6 point bull that would just lose his mind with every series of cow calls that Pete would throw his way. BUT, he wouldn’t commit. Never really figured out what his deal was but I have 3 theories – too much deadfall for his trouble, he had already gotten his tail whooped once that day, he already had some girls locked down further up the slope.

I was losing patience, the bull wasn’t showing signs of breaking, and darkness was starting to creep down into the timber – it was time to make a move. Every time he would lean his head back and bugle, I would scramble 4 or 5 yards uphill and through deadfall. I repeated this 4 or 5 times and thought I had put myself in a great position when he flat disappeared. No clue where he went, but I never saw that bull again. No worries…

Raghorn downhill and another barreling down the ridge straight into my lap. The lower one circled in pretty tight to Pete and the other was already within my bow range and closing. I took a half-step backwards and positioned my body as I drew my bow and waited for the bull to get broadside on his approach past me and towards the caller. Just about the time I started squinting through the peep and walking through my pre-shot routine, the dense deadfall caused the bull to re-route. After a quick 3-point turn, he was now headed on a path that would take him within 6-10 feet of the end of my arrow. As he passed behind a giant tree trunk, I shuffled my feet to re-position and kept telling myself to pick a spot even though it was going to be solid brown through the peep. 3 more steps, 2 more steps, 1 more step and he’s dead…and he locked up. Never looked my way, never swung his head about in the air, just locked up. 30 seconds…60 seconds…the hillside exploded. He’s dashing uphill as I’m squealing something with my diaphragm calls to get him stopped – which he did.

Possibly the worst Photoshop of all-time but it gives you an idea of the shot I was presented with.

I did some quick range estimation and guessed him at 20. Overlapped my top pin (30 yards) with the top of the nearest log, double checked to make sure my windage was in line with his front crease, and touched my release. It was too dark to see impact, but my ears told me all I needed to know…POP! Music to our ears as the sound of a lethal hit echoed down to Pete, and we listened to the different elk on the mountainside scrambling for safety and momentarily silencing their bugles. That didn’t last long as we had another bull come within 40 yards as we whispered in hushed tones about what had just transpired. I had killed my bull!

Now to find him… It wasn’t hard to pinpoint where he was standing and within 30 yards we had a strong blood trail with obvious bubbles in the drops. At this point, recovery seemed just a formality. The next hour was baffling. The blood trail lasted literally 20 yards, we had conflicting opinions about where the last sounds of breaking sticks had come from, and the mountainside was so torn apart with elk sign that following scuff marks of a dying bull elk was out of the question. At some point, we had to concede that recovery would have to wait until morning. We were beat and we were smack in the middle of an elk motel, but we didn’t care. Out came the tent and we slept to the music of bugles once again.

2014 OTC/DIY Archery Elk Hunt – Day 2 PM
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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.

“Mewwwww, mew-mewww”

“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.

Infolinks 2013