Colorado received 4 payments for archery either-sex elk licenses from our hunting party last year, but overall, elk hunter numbers are down by 38,000 during the last 5 years in Colorado. That is surprising as many states are becoming more difficult to hunt elk over-the-counter and Colorado maintains the best opportunities (quantity-wise) for people wanting to test their mettle against public land elk. I suppose it could be attributable to the tough economy and the shrinking pool of discriminary income which has lead more former hunters to stay at home. Regardless, it is a surprising statistic. To help stimulate elk hunter numbers, the Colorado Department of Wildlife went on a media blitz to recruit hunters and started a useful website feature called “Elk Hunting University”. Personally, I would recommend folks considering their own elk hunt to consult the many posts made by myself as I documented our DIY elk adventure last fall, but there are certainly many things I didn’t cover. Follow the link and see if the “Elk Hunting University” fuels your desires for a Colorado elk hunt in the future. Non-resident hunters make a big contribution to Colorado local economies and I certainly anticipate doing my part again in coming years.
Amazingly, the gear that we researched and subjected to the abuse of our Colorado elk hunt basically help up flawlessly. I’ll take 3 or 4 posts sprinkled throughout the next couple weeks to tell you what I liked and didn’t like about my own gear list.
As an overview, minus a couple extra insulating layers and maybe a lower temperature-rated sleeping bag, I confidently feel like my current gear repertoire would enable me to tackle any Lower 48 big game hunt west (or east for that matter) of the Mississippi River. I honestly was so satisfied with my gear preparation that you are going to hear an awful lot of praise and adoration and not much whining or complaining about the products I took afield in Colorado…so without further ado…
My Coleman headlamp was the lightest weight out of all 4 of our selections, wasn’t the brightest, but didn’t ever require a battery switch, and performed flawlessly throughout our time afield. A set of Li 2032 replacement batteries had virtually no weight penalty to carry along for reinforcements. The Energizer headlamp you’ve seen me rave about before was much heavier, but may have been worth the extra 2 or 3 ounces when climbing over deadfalls well into the night working our way back to camp a couple of times.
Duct tape found its home wrapped securely around one of my trekking poles. Amazingly, and I think a true testament to the quality of gear we used on the hunt, I never had to use it. Over the course of 2+ weeks and well over 100 miles that seems impossible, but it’s true.
1st aid kit – thankfully I never had to use my actual first aid kit but a few additional items I kept stowed away in the same Ziploc bag did come in handy. Super glue made instant work of a few minor scrapes and cuts I sustained through the trip. Chapstick in the high country is PRICELESS! I applied at least 6 times a day and it was one of the few items I kept in my pockets at the ready at all times while on the move. Also, sunscreen was a necessity. Just take a look back at some of my mug shots from the trip and you can see that I still didn’t apply often enough especially to my nose. Tylenol PM was a godsend! I will never take a hunting trip without them. Just make sure you wean yourself on them once you get back home, it was easy to see how a sleeping pill addiction could get started!
The Swedish Firesteel - just take a couple lighters! In the comfort of Alabama, it was nice thinking about starting a rustic fire with some flint steel but when you stumble in from a long day’s hunt on the mountain, it boils down to efficiency. A pinch of Vaseline-soaked cotton ball, handful of sticks in the Ikea wood stove, and a lighter = efficiency!
Last, but certainly not least, my Titanium spork worked perfectly. But yes (I can already hear Pete saying “I told you so”), a longer handled product would have been better for extracting those last spoonfuls of broth from the bottom of a quart Ziploc bag.
I must say that since picking up my iPhone for being able to use my Spot Connect device, I’ve found a couple useful apps – one being the Joby Gorillacam App. Among other things, it’ll let you set up your iPhone’s camera to take time lapse photography. This is a sequence of pictures taken on 120 second time lapse as we used the quick-quarter method to break down Clint’s 5×5 bull elk in Colorado.
At this point, I cut my phone off before we were completely finished with the second side to conserve valuable battery but you get the idea. With 3 guys wielding knives, you can burn through an elk in fast order. From first cut to all meat boned out and in game bags took about 75 minutes.
Well before daylight, we were up and packing camp into our bags in preparation for packing out my bull. Split 4 ways, we managed to get off the mountain at break-neck speed.
I think every elk hunter wants a picture of an antler/meat laden pack out.
Halfway down the mountain, we shed layers and it seemed like a perfect excuse to take another picture.
In a little over 3 hours, we got back to the truck and the only rest we took was to drag my butt back off the ground after my mind and feet got mixed up which led to my crushing my shoulder on a big tree trunk. Good thing though, I was just starting to get my forward momentum in action… Nasty fall.
From there, it’s a blur. Drove to the local airport, almost missed my flight, connector to Denver, connector to Philadelphia, final flight to Raleigh, hour drive with mom and dad who dropped me off where Kara and Raelyn were staying, then trying to sleep in a normal bed…that part wasn’t hard!
But what was going on back in the Colorado mountains…
Check out Pete’s blog posts here for the finale finish of our hunt. Day 15 Day 16
Here’s a picture of Chad’s bull – our 4th and final tag filled on backcountry public land archery CO bulls!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading along, looking at the stunning pictures, and watching/listening the video clips that we brought home from our elk hunt. But we brought home alot more than that – a truckload of elk meat, 5 elk racks, bumps, bruises, cuts, scrapes, sore joints, tired bodies, memories etched in our brains forever, a tremendous sense of accomplishment, a renewed appreciation of truly wild places, and friendships affirmed through a 7-8 month process of physical and mental preparation and final execution.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke with one mission in mind. Crest out into a high altitude basin and find a bull for Chad.
We hiked up about a mile or so from camp and ran into my bull’s cows from the night before.
They didn’t seem to mind us being around and we looped beneath them to head for the mountain pass that would hopefully allow us entry into a remote flat-topped basin.
As we closed in on the pass, we all started to get real excited because we had talked at length how awesome this basin had the potential to be.
Visually, “elk heaven” didn’t disappoint.
We hiked about 500 yards into the upper meadow calling along the edge of the dark timber but couldn’t drum up any interest. We did find a graveyard of elk from prior years. Seems this might be a resident’s first rifle season honeyhole as there were capped bull skulls right and left.
There was plenty of sign, but after 3 or 4 hours of probing around the basin we hadn’t seen or heard a single elk. The decision was made to kick back, relax, and wait for late afternoon to loop back to camp another direction hopefully stirring something up along the way.
As we started losing elevation to work our way back around the mountain, up the basin where we had killed the 2 bulls the night before, and back to camp, it didn’t take long to run into this lone cow feeding way below us in a narrow meadow.
A mile later, we bumped into a small herd of cow elk which turned out to be the best possible thing for us.
Within minutes, there were at least 3 different bulls bugling and we quickly held a strategy session. I would follow Chad with the video camera while Clint and Pete would shadow us and call to hopefully bring an elk into archery range. It almost worked as we pressured the herd and brought the herd bull to within 45 or 50 yards. The only problem was that he was just around the corner of a small knoll and the wind got shifty at the exact wrong moment and blew our cover. The entire herd spooked but as we looked around we were amazed at the quality and quantity of sign we were surrounded by – wallows, droppings, beds, overgrazed open patches, rubs…
Before we could even get down on our luck, the bulls started bugling again. This time it sounded like they were headed back towards camp and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that the 3 initial bulls had created an old fashioned showdown when they pushed their harem into another group of bulls and cows in the next basin. Pandemonium ensued!
Bugles, bulls raking antlers, rocks clattering down the hillsides, cows whizzing by within 5 yards, bulls fighting, chuckling, growling, mewing… It was an elk hunter’s dream. 5 or 6 bulls trying to iron out the dominance issues that arise when you throw 2 previously separate herds together.
We waded into the fray for at least an hour. I dare say there wasn’t a 30 second stretch in that time period that at least one bull wasn’t bugling and it was a constant roller-coaster ride of Chad clipping on his release and putting tension on the string only to have the herd move one direction or the other. Re-position to keep the wind in our favor. Repeat.
Enjoy the next video.
Finally, towards dusk, we had separated one bull off from the herd and he was working towards a little meadow tucked into the mountainside. Unfortunately, he beat us to the meadow by about 90 seconds and the video tells the rest of the story.
It was a long and tiring hike back to camp and everybody went to bed thinking about the pack-out that we faced in the morning. Oh joy!
Well, enough with the suspense, I’m back behind the keyboard after a 4 day trip to Arkansas for a conference…
The 13th day of our Colorado archery elk hunt started much the same as the others. Cold and reluctant to take those first few moves to get out of a cozy sleeping bag. It was by far the coldest night we had spent in the tent and we were all ready to get moving and get our bodies warmed up. The day started with a pretty silent basin and it took until around 8:30 to finally hear our first bugle. It was located on top of a bench below this meadow and because of the suspect wind, we decided to sit and wait for the thermals to change before making our final approach to try and call in the bull.
The bull was perched above this impressive array of waterholes and we thought we had a good chance to call him in since he was calling sporadically enough that we were able to hone in on his location pretty well.
For whatever reason, he clammed up tight as soon as we attempted to set-up and call so we started climbing towards the next pass in the mountain range from mid-morning until early afternoon. Here’s some video and pictures from the ascent.
An array of wallows in the back edge of this alpine meadow.
Observe the guy in the back in this picture. Gives some perspective on how extensive these rockslides were.
Long story short…lots of footsteps later, we reached the pass and started dropping down the other side.
About 500 feet into the descent, we spotted a lone cow up in the middle of a rockslide. Couldn’t really decipher if she getting water or licking up some salt or minerals from the boulders, but it really didn’t matter. We had tags to fill and we weren’t going to pass up this opportunity at a stalk. FAIL. Terrible wind, noisy ground, no chance. She disappeared and we started falling in elevation towards a flat spot in the terrain where we figured camp would probably be established that evening.
BEAR!!! As the shadows were just starting to lengthen, I saw a black blob moving on the far hillside and we all watched as a big bruin ambled about 20 feet into an opening and lay down to sleep behind a big tree trunk. If you’ve been following along for the long haul, we tried to get black bear tags for our unit but to avail. This was the one and only bear we saw, but the set-up couldn’t have been more conducive to a stalk. Made us all wonder what would have happened…
Only 100 yards past our glassing point, we decided on a flat camp spot and pitched our tents. After camp was established, we decided to walk around and get our bearings for the morning since we only had about 90 minutes until dark. Less than 100 yards from camp, we spotted this disconcerting sight…bear den!
Then it happened… A bugle from right below us. We went into scramble mode running back towards camp to get our bows, calls, and packs. Clint almost stayed behind in camp but reluctantly decided to tag along for what would likely be another unsuccessful attempt to call in and arrow a bull.
Each passing minute the bugling got more frequent and we were able to drop in silent on the bugling bull. Bugle, drop 30 yards, bugle, cut off 40 more yards, bugle, sneak 10 yards, bugle set up and start calling. With Clint in the rear and the 3 archers spread in a gauntlet, we knew that any interested bulls would be in danger, but we just hadn’t encountered a bull that would rush into our web. That all changed.
After just a few cow calls, the bull rushed up hill towards our location, bugled his interest and trotted in to within 20 yards of Chad. Having only a straight on shot to the young 4 by 5 bull, Pete meanwhile had the perfect angle. Here’s the video.
Only we can appreciate the emotions that took over at that moment, but we soon realized that the bull wasn’t alone in the drainage as another bigger, deeper sounding bull started chiming in. Pete had drilled his mark and the bull went a mere 125 yards before crashing.
The next video is recorded as we pin point Pete’s downed bull’s location and the other bull cranks up his attitude. At the end you can see Chad and I race up the mountain to start closing the distance.
I’ll never forget the events of the next 30 minutes. Pete stayed at his bull’s side cow calling on his open reed call, Clint trailed along behind Chad and I, and we pushed the envelope. Every time the bull would bugle, we would steal into position right at the edge of where we thought we should be able to see him and start cow calling. The bull would bugle, start breaking branches, raking his antlers, and appear to be coming in to round us up, but then the next bugle would be 150 yards up the hill. We repeated this sequence at least 5 or 6 times until I caught a glimpse of a rump around 75 yards away. This had to be him… Nope – a cow elk.
It all clicked. He already has cows. He thinks we are cows that are just lagging behind but following nonetheless. Why would he waste energy to round us up when we are still moving the herd’s general direction. Time to switch tactics.
I laid my bow down, arrow still nocked, and grabbed a branch to make my best bull impression. As I started stomping around, breaking branches, and thrashing the nearest spruce tree, the bull decided he could not abide with this new intruder and started coming. At 60 yards, he broke into view as I knelt on the main trail. I thought for a second that he might walk right into me, but at 46 yards he stopped to rake a tree with his antlers and when he did, he turned broadside.
I got a range, drew my bow, settled my pin, and touched the release. Thwack! Uh-oh. I could see blood appear on the elk’s chest, but not where I wanted. The arrow had pierced the bull down around his elbow and the wound seemed too low. Having been interrupted by his raking session, the bull climbed quickly around to my side and stopped right by a stump I had ranged previously at 50 yards.
This time my aim was dead true and the arrow flew right where it needed to go. He raced up the hill as I looked to Chad to confirmation as he had seen the entire thing transpire. 15 seconds later, we both heard the bull collapse and the celebration started in earnest! 2 bulls in 30 minutes! Unbelievable! Emotions ran strong! Back slaps bordered on painful! Pete left his bull’s side and ran the 1/4 mile to where the other 3 of us were reliving the last half hour and we just shook our heads in disbelief.
Time to recover my bull!
He was a great 5×5 with high-turning fronts and sweeping thirds and I couldn’t have been happier! (for those curious, he scored 246 and missed P&Y minimum by 14 inches).
The next 3 hours was a combination of sketchy reception text messages and phone calls to loved ones, knives that dull too fast and too easily, lifting heavy game bags, and toting a monstrous elk tenderloin back to camp for a supper none of us would soon forget.
Words can’t explain the emotions of that night and they were unlike any I had experienced to date. So much hard work, so many moments of self evaluation, second guessing ourselves, near shot opportunities, so many elk, such good friends, such sore bodies, such little sleep, such monotonous food, such beautiful country…a backcountry double that will be hard to top!
After a sluggish morning leaving the hotel, we struck out from the trailhead into our last location a bit after lunchtime. We had 6 or 7 miles to cover on the main trail before we planned to cross the river and start hunting that evening, so we made sure to push the pace and cover ground quickly.
I had long ago made friends with the deadfalls littering the ground, but with the difficult terrain we had to climb to access our first drainage there was no choice but to put your safety in your balance’s hands a couple times.
Did I mention there was some steep ground to cover.
We finally got out of the steep stuff and could hear a bull bugle just to the right of this avalanche chute a couple of times as afternoon was transitioning to evening.
We were trying to gain elevation to possibly put a play on him when the flattened out valley in front of us erupted with a couple of extremely fired bulls. Totally unprovoked, 2 screaming elk started closing the distance on each other as we threw ourselves into hunt mode and start cow calling as we entered the mix. Before we could even move 100 yards, Chad ran into a feeding spike elk which spooked towards the 2 bulls but thankfully it didn’t booger the situation.
I will say that we worked bulls extremely aggressively from a positioning standpoint. Even if it sounded like a bull was headed our way, we would sometimes steal 10, 20, 30, even 50 yards of the distance in between us every time he would bugle. This seemed to work out in our favor each time except this one. We did wade into the 2 challenging bulls, but unfortunately I got caught slightly upwind of the bull as he charged in the last 50 yards to Chad’s location. It wouldn’t have been as big of a deal except that the bull was a MONSTER!!!! By far the biggest bull we saw the entire trip with long beams stretching way down his flanks. It looked like a 310-330″ 6 by 6 to me. He still got as close as 15 yards to Chad, but he never had a shot due to the thick vegetation at ground level. As the seconds ticked by, the bull threw up his nose and then bolted back in the same direction he came in from. Though we couldn’t see the other bull, he had to be within 50 yards and he too caught our scent.
It was yet another case of going to bed that night wondering how did we not kill a bull today. That feeling was getting old, but thankfully we could hear several different bulls bugling as we fell asleep on top of a saddle overlooking that valley and the drainage we were going to focus on in the morning.
We got up early the morning of Day 11 and decided to disregard the thermals and focus on getting a bull fired up. We’d figure out the wind direction later. We had covered about a mile and were dropping into a new drainage when we ran into the only 2 hunters we encountered during the entire trip. Sure there were plenty of guys chasing elk, but all from the main trail which was a distant memory to our feet. Those 2 hunters were the only 2 guys that felt like competition to us. We exchanged information and parted ways to drop back in on the bull we had encountered 2 days earlier when ascending the avalanche chute up to the summit. We continued to get no response and eventually wound back up at camp around noon with nothing to show for our efforts.
Thankfully, we had reception and I was able to check the weather on my phone and the forecast indicated we might be in for a wet afternoon and evening with a possibility of snow. I kid you not that as I was reading the forecast, the sky started to cloud up, and within 30 minutes we were racing snowflakes to pack up camp and make a hasty descent down the mountain…not just to safety, but back to the truck. It was a bold move that none of us knew if it would pay off or not, but we were leaving an area that had 4-5 bulls in it for another area we had no prior experience in. At the time, it certainly seemed like a decision that could easily backfire bigtime!
Simply put, the descent was scary. It was the steepest terrain we encountered the whole trip that was covered in deadfalls make slicker and more dangerous by the falling precipitation. About halfway down, Clint greatly complicated his downward hike by finding this monster of an elk. Presumably it had been shot the previous fall by a hunter who hadn’t been able to recover his bull.
Between the lightning popping around us, the snow making everything greasy slick, and the steepness of the terrain pounding our knees on every step, it wasn’t fun but we made it back to the truck safe and sound. It was a unanimous decision to get a good night’s sleep in a hotel before tackling our last spot the next morning. 3 tags left to fill and the time is running out fast!
I should mention that we did bump into a nice bull that was bedded on that steep hillside in our hasty descent. It made no sense how an animal that big could cover ground that nasty in such a short period of time!
We slept good in our high altitude camp that night and thought about what the next morning was likely to bring. One thing we knew for sure, there were bulls bugling to our north, south, east, and west and expectations were high for sunrise. Because of being camped on top, we decided the most prudent thing would be to get an extra hours sleep and wait for the thermals to reverse and start pushing up before trying to get on any elk. We had not had any issues getting elk to bugle during all hours of the day – and that was true throughout the duration of our entire hunt. I suppose the constant forum complaints of bulls only bugling first and last light are a product of people hunting pressured elk – these were not pressured elk (and as a reminder, this was all an over-the-counter, 0 preference points required, public land hunt).
The morning started with the same 6 by 6 bull herding his harem well over a half mile away in the same meadow. I sat in the shadows of some boulders for well over 30 minutes, watching the show, and waiting for the thermals to switch.
By the time the thermals had finally switched, we had already watched the big bull lead his harem away from the meadow to bed but we had to get more drinking water and by the looks of the pools in the meadow we might as well head over there to re-tank and try some light cow calling. Maybe make him think a cow was straggling behind and entice him back for a shot.
When we finally set up, we did in fact call in a bull but he wasn’t the one we were after. This spike came running in and we got some cool video and photos of the encounter.
Look carefully for both the spike bull and Pete in this picture.
We gave this spot some time but eventually decided to leave it for the evening hunt and drop through a saddle into a basin we hadn’t explored yet.
We were surrounded 360 degrees with BIG country and this was probably the prettiest place I had ever hunted in my life.
Just before losing elevation into “Sheep Basin” (you’ll see the reason for the nickname in a minute), we tried one last locator bugle but got no response. Pay attention to the end of the video and you can barely make out the green outline of Pete’s GoLite Hex 3 on top of the mountain.
After about a 500 foot drop in elevation, we got a growling bugle response to an open reed cow call. As we tried to approach from above to keep the thermals in our favor, we rounded a bend to see…sheep! 6 bighorn rams! We wanted to sit around and enjoy the moment but we had a bugling bull located and hoped they would still be there when we came back through – hopefully with a load of meat on our backs!
After negotiating a couple tricky rockslides, we got in position. Chad, Pete, and I were lined up with Clint remaining in back to film and call. The fateful words were “Should I get just past this rock to get a better shooting lane?” Unfortunately, we decided the answer to this question was yes and when I tip-toed around the corner a Pope and Young bull was staring at me just 40 yards away. Somehow, he wasn’t that boogered but over the course of the next 90 minutes we had him within 50-60 yards a couple different times with multiple opportunities to take one of his cows if we had so chosen. Here were a couple pictures I took of the elk as we pressed the situation.
In the shadows you can see the bull’s third tine and main beam highlighted by the sun and a cow’s body pointed the opposite direction just over the bull’s body.
I heard more cow elk vocalizations in that time span that had heard previously in my life and we were privy to some unbelievable sequences of the bull “glunking” (Google it…) as he rounded his cows and led them away from us. Eventually, we got more and more aggressive and finally resorted to full out charging in amidst the herd like they were fall turkeys in Virginia or Pennsylvania. We were running out of terrain and the bull had grown more and more unwillingly to cooperate so this was a last resort. It almost worked, but we only had shot opportunities at a couple cows as the harem disbanded.
Gaining back all the elevation we had just forfeited, we hoped the bighorn rams hadn’t left their location and we weren’t disappointed. This video is UNREAL!
Finally, we worked our way back to our original starting point and decided to split up into tandems for the evening hunt. Chad and Pete would wait for the 6 by 6 to lead his harem into the meadow and Clint and I would descend to the lower waterhole meadow in hopes that the wallowing bull from the night prior would make a repeat performance.
Descending into the waterhole meadow.
It was infinitely bigger than we had expected the meadow to be so we had a hard time choosing a spot to cover as much of the wallow and waterholes as we could. Once we got settled, we had quite the view and it didn’t take long before a howling pack of coyotes was joined by a sporadically bugling bull just below us maybe 300 or 400 yards away.
For the next 2 hours, we listened to the bull bugle but it seemed like he must be bugling from his bed because he never got closer and never got further away.
Towards dusk, I caught movement way up above us and Clint and I both made the decision that we would forget about the bull we had below us and try to make a play on this mountain monarch. He was alone and fired up! If this video doesn’t make your blood boil, check your pulse!
We huffed and puffed easily a half mile to pushed within 200 yards before starting to cow call. We got some very aggressive responses, but the bull never committed to us. Rather it seemed he had dinner plans on the other side of the mountain and despite our best efforts, we just couldn’t convince him to come down and play. We trudged back up the mountain to camp and enjoyed a spectacular sunset on the way. Yet another day of unbelievable elk hunting. Yet another night of laying awake and trying to figure out how did we NOT kill a bull today. Something had to give. Wasn’t going to be us!
Pete and Chad’s night was relatively uneventful as the 6 by 6 didn’t lead his harem back to the upper meadow that evening.
I’m a little behind and because Pete has already done a good job of synthesizing these 2 days of hunting, I’ll just supplement what he has to say with some additional photos and videos that I think you’ll find interesting.
Never mind the labels on his Day # for the hunt. It’s right, I numbered by day in Colorado and he numbered by day actually hunting in the woods.
After calling in the raghorn that Pete described at the mineral lick in our second location, the rest of the morning was spent reversing the territory we had covered the day before in the elk wasteland. At mid-afternoon, our group of three had grown to four and we headed into spot #3. We could watch this face of a mountain from camp and I glassed up a couple cows and a bull with my binoculars as dusk fell. Surprisingly, we didn’t get any bugle music to sleep to that night but I suppose that was a good thing. Demanding, brutal climb in the morning.
Fortunately, we tanked up on water first thing in the morning before tackling our access avalanche chute for the next 3 to 4 hours. Water was non-existent once we left the creek.
About halfway into our 2,000 foot ascent, we began to close the distance on a bugling bull and stopped to gameplan an approach. He was above us, the same direction the thermals were carrying our wind, so we had to swing around this rockslide and then descend in for the kill.
Here’s video of our calling sequence to the Growler.
We call a single leaning tree out East a “widowmaker”. Not sure what to call this…
Finally, the top is in sight!
Camp “on top of the world”
We developed good methods for smoothing out our Tyvek ground cloths.
Elk from camp. NICE 6 by 6 bull and his harem!
These saddles around camp were animal highways!
Here you can actually see one of the highways connecting 2 saddles.
It was a challenge deciding where to sit there was so much sign.
Clint ended up with the catbird seat for watching elk this evening. Bull wallowing in the mud straight below him and a 3 hour show put on by the 6 by 6 and his harem of cows.
If you’ve lost count of how many elk and how many different bulls we had been close to, you aren’t the only ones. Every day that passed we just couldn’t believe we were still getting into elk and legal bulls day after day after day. What a great problem to have! Even at this point in the hunt, the action had far exceeded our expectations!
Day ended with this owl (terrible picture) dive-bombing Clint and I as we watched the light fade on a great day of watching elk and witnessing BIG country!