Colorado Elk Hunt 2016 – Days #6-7
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We jumped off trail within a half-mile of the trailhead and began our bushwhacking ascent. It was a grueling climb, hand over hand grabbing vegetation and shrubs, two steps up 1 slide down on scree, nasty kind of hike. But it was the price of admission to a secluded series of basins that was over 9 miles hike through similarly unforgiving terrain from another direction – it seemed a cost worth paying.

Some mid-climb raspberries gave us a needed boost and we were tramping through decent elk sign and closing in on the top with 2 hours remaining in daylight. Perfect timing, now to be rewarded with some elk rutting action!

Our hope was to hunt over a trail that appeared to connect 2 massive basins via a tight saddle. 4 years ago, one of our buddies hunted this spot and had a cow walk by within archery range. Unfortunately, the connecting trail didn’t appear real active and a closer inspection revealed an even worse type of sign. Boot tracks!!! Morale crushing discovery. We bailed on our “stand” hunting idea and started to canvas the mountain throwing cow calls and bugles into every nook and cranny…no response. NO RESPONSE!!!

We were physically high on a mountain but emotionally and mentally low as a valley. There was nothing to do but find our old camp spot from 4 years prior and hope a few bugles would echo through the night, perhaps indicating some semblance of promise for the morning.

The one bright spot of the day’s hunt was stumbling onto 19 bighorn sheep rams. Some bruisers, many 1/2 and 3/4 curlers, and a few sickle horns. 2 of them were definitely book-class animals though. Spread out over a 200 yard stretch of alpine meadow, we enjoyed close interactions with a few different subgroups for almost 45 minutes.

We climbed up on top of the mountain after dusk, peaked out to watch the lunar eclipse and touch base with our wives via sketchy cell coverage. It was quite the sight, but the evening air was also eerily quiet. Nary a bugle to be heard. We slept soundly and woke in the morning to descend back to the truck and come up with a Plan C. Somewhere down the mountain, we bounced 2 cows from their beds and heard a bull pipe up within 2 minutes. He was screaming – as hot as we’d heard in almost a week and he was coming! Cow call, cow call, he’d bugle. At one point, we could hear his huffing breath as he rolled off the last rise on the steep slope. We were going to be rewarded with a shot opportunity, and I was pretty sure he was coming in on a string.

Nope.

He was following a hot cow, nose on her rump every step of the way. Bugling, huffing, glunking, all worked up… We knew instantly we were at the mercy of the cow’s next dozen or so steps. Unfortunately, she lined out down the mountain instead of closing from 75 yards to within a reasonable shot distance. He was gone before we knew it – a good bull that left our hearts pounding with excitement, so CLOSE!!

So close yet so far. Nothing to do at that point but hike down the mountain, hoping for another chance encounter, but knowing deep down that we needed a mental break from the hunt. Hotel time. We arrived back at the truck by late morning, found some real food, and bunked up in a hotel that night to recover physically and, more important than that, mentally. We had to hatch a Plan C and fast.

Colorado Elk Hunt 2016 – Days #4-6
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Back from WY…to finish up the elk hunt recap before moving on to speedgoats.

Thankfully we awoke to much clearer skies. Our spirits were much improved after being nearly broken by the unrelenting weather the day before. Heck, even a few elk were bugling up in the drainage we knew to hold a great bedding area. It was a zoo last hunt, let’s see about this time.

Hiking up into the crease, we had a few smaller sounding bulls bugling below us and one deep bellowing bugler above us. We went up. Pausing a few times for 10-15 minutes to make some calling set-ups, we didn’t receive any response as the bugling began tailing off just an hour into daylight. Never mind though, we had a great bead on the bull above us and we slipped into what we figured was 100 yards of his last bugling location. Even though it had been 20 minutes since his last bugle, we figured he was bedded and committed to a lengthy session of cow elk dirty talk and eventually worked in a few subordinate bugle squeals. No response. Frustrating.

We decided to check another pocket on the mountain to see if he had gone over the top. Within 50 steps, the same situation we had already encountered on the trip replayed itself in insanely frustrating fashion. We busted the bull out of his bed. Now why in the world a bull that had been bugling decently hot would be content to sit on his butt and listen to a “harem” of cows be courted by some infiltrating and inconsiderate smaller bull is more than I’ll ever know…but that’s the kind of mood we found the elk in. Perplexing and frustrating.

At this point, we decided to leave the general area, drop down across a series of drainages and try another basin that we hadn’t been to in 4 years. 4 years ago though, it was nuts! On the way over, we bumped into a small bull with 8 cows in a burned off section of country and watched helplessly as they side-hilled up and over the mountain. Midday – nothing we could do about it.

It was a slog up into the basin, but we found it exactly as we remembered it. All except one important ingredient – ELK! No fresh elk sign within several weeks in the basin, nothing but deer and moose sign and that wasn’t even that fresh. It was head-scratching time as we went to bed that night. Where to go? Where were the elk? Why the strange mood?

We knew the answer. The answer was up and up and up. There was a basin that we had researched for several years but never had the excuse, reason, or desire to attempt and reach. It was time. All next morning and into afternoon, we climbed some brutally steep terrain but were finally rewarded with this view.

Our plan was to stay high and watch the wallowing playground until the thermals threatened to start shifting. We knew we were in the chips. And that’s when we saw it. Candy bar wrapper. Fresh and right at our feet. Teasing us if you will. That was all we could take, and our next several hours confirmed our worst fears. We were finding people sign in places we had never found people sign before. Even worse, there was no elk sign in areas that had looked like zoos in the past. For whatever reason, the area was a bust.

It was clearly time to pull out and try Plan B which was 25 miles away. It was a long, head-hung down trudge out that evening and continued into the next morning. Nearly 50 miles in the entire 5+ day loop and nary a legitimate chance to kill a legal elk.

Oh well, that’s hunting and quite frankly – we were experiencing Colorado as most people experience Colorado – frustratingly few bugles, scattered elk, too much hunter competition. It was a world we weren’t familiar with and it sucked.

Plan B held our hopes in its hands and we recouped in town for a couple hours before striking off on a 3,500′ vertical gain of bushwhacking.

CO Elk Hunt 2016 – Day #3
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Our third day on the mountain dawned cloudy and with a cool mist in the air. It also dawned with a few bugles echoing off the mountainside and through the timber. The bulls weren’t firing on all cylinders, but there were a few talking and we made haste to close the distance. On the way up the mountain, we bumped into another hunter – actually one we had spoken with briefly and in passing the day before at a much lower elevation down in the adjacent valley. We made quick small talk and decided there wasn’t enough room for both us and he to chase the little group of semi-vocal elk. We veered off to investigate another basin and he kept on trekking towards the elk. (Turns out we ran into him a 3rd time the next day and he reported that he had an opportunity to shoot a small 4×5 bull but passed).

As the cool mist continued falling, heavier bouts of rain and even some hail began to mix in. Hop-scotching between clumps of live timber, we managed to stay dry while canvasing some great looking country but nothing was talking. A little while later, we bumped into an orange-clad muzzleloader hunter stalking along at timberline. He reported decent action 3-5 days earlier but things had slowed dramatically for he and his partner – 1 bull and 1 cow tag between them. By his physique, we figured he had been pounding the high country which had the more established trail network running through it. An executive decision was made to drop into the steep nasty stuff below and check out a ravine crossing we discovered 2 years ago.

Then it hailed some more.

We found the crossing just as we had remembered and while there was some elk sign it wasn’t smoking hot like it had been 2 years prior. Without any vocal elk and midday to kill, we still decided to sit the crossing until evening when hopefully some elk would be talking.

Then it hailed some more.

And more.

And more.

And somewhere in there, we threw up our tents and spent the next 6 hours hunkered down.

Then it hailed some more.

Then we saw blue sky for 10 minutes, so we scrambled our gear and ran 200 yards downhill to find some flatter ground for the night’s sleep.

Then it hailed some more. And then we heard a few elk sounding off on the hillside above us, but we didn’t chase them because it was hailing even more.

Then we went to sleep as it hailed some more.

Day 3 = MISERABLE DAY IN THE ELK WOODS.

CO Elk Hunt 2016 – Day #2
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The morning of day 2 dawned still and clear…and quiet. The herd that was creating such a ruckus deep into the night had either shut up or left the premises or both. We made a joint decision to backtrack up into the basin we had hunted the prior evening and then peel around further into the wilderness area – side-hilling some steep terrain for most of the day and poking our heads into a few isolated basins along the way.

Around 9 AM, we heard one bull bugle a few times but determined he was unreachable due to some cliff faces above his location. About the same time, we stumbled upon some really fresh sign – left within the last hour or two – of a herd moving from one basin to another. We were able to follow the fresh scuff marks for close to a mile and they eventually dead-ended into some live timber around an avalanche chute. Despite a couple calling sessions, we could elicit no response.

No response though didn’t mean there weren’t elk nearby. We hadn’t taken 100 steps past this chute where the sign was ultra-concentrated when we trounced a pretty solid bull out of his bed. He wasn’t so spooked that he jumped off the mountain though, and we were able to coax him into about 75 yards before he finally had enough. Frustrating encounter with a nice bull – suppose his temperature just wasn’t right. With us cow calling within arrow flight distance for the previous 20 minutes, he should have at least come in silent to check things out, at a minimum!

We flattened out our hike by mid-afternoon and made a steep climb up into country where we tagged 2 bulls in 2014. Our hopes were high as we entered what we consider the best area of our long list of great areas. Resting after the climb and waiting for the thermals to shift, we actually had a cow come walking close by. A solid omen of things to come.

As afternoon shifted to evening, we heard a few bugles up top and decided to pursue them even though the herd seemed to be carrying up and away from our location. We silently played catch-up for the better part of an hour and got within a couple football fields distance several times, but never could quite close the distance. 3 or 4 individual bulls were screaming at a pretty good pace, and one bull was clearly dominant – low growling on the front and back end of his bugle. As a last ditch effort but without throwing the kitchen sink at the herd (no sense educating them when we still had 8 days to hunt), we set-up below a bench and did a raking session mixed with a full immature subordinate bugles.

He got pissed! Unfortunately, not so cranked to storm down the hill and put this newcomer (AKA, us) in his place. Eventually, his bugles and the rest of the herd pushed away to the meadows up top. Too fast for us to keep pace as darkness was creeping in.

Despite not having a close encounter with the rutting herd, we knew we had a solid plan for the morning. We knew where these elk typically moved afternoon to evening, as well as their back-to-bed pre-sunrise to mid-morning movements. We would be right in their path. We listened to bugles as we pitched camp, ate a quick bite, and settled in for the night.

CO Elk Hunt 2016 – Day #1
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With a great night’s sleep under our belts, we drove off the mountain and circled around to a bend in the highway where we planned to bushwhack into a high country basin that would open our self-coined “Ultimate Loop”. With 10 days supply of food and supplies, our plan was to encircle a couple prime basins that we’ve had tremendous success in before – nearly 45 miles marked on Google Earth. We were going to hit all the “unreachable basins” along the way, stockpile a dead elk or two, hike out when all tags were filled, then start the process of guiding hired mules in to our waiting meat caches. That was the plan.

The sun illuminated our next “hunt of a lifetime”, we pushed further up into the basin. We were hopeful that the steep terrain, abundant deadfall, and lack of any obvious human/horse trails would up our odds of finding elk close to the road.

As elk sign grew in abundance and freshness, we slowed to throw some bugles and cow calls up into the surrounding country but with no response.

At around 1,500 vertical feet into our ascent, we finally reached the bench where we supposed elk would be most likely to bed. Taking our time to get the thermals in our favor, we swung up, around, and onto the bench to set up and give some enticing calls. We found a NICE bull elk that had died during the previous month or so, but that didn’t deter us. We were interested in the live elk that we hoped inhabited this rugged basin.

After 5 minutes of calling and no responses, we decided to slip further along the bench employing a stop-and-go strategy. Mistake…should have waited 10 minutes. At the very next bend in the terrain, we were almost freight-trained by a couple cows and medium-sized 5×5 bull elk homing in on our setup. It was definitely frustrating to misfire on our first encounter of the trip, but getting into elk just 2 hours into a 10-day hunt had our confidence skyrocketing.

Within an hour, we decided to trek up through the remainder of the basin and conquer the last 1,100 vertical feet before midday temperatures made hiking too hot. On our way, we got sidetracked by a north-facing slope full of ripe currants.

This last picture bears an explanation. While scarfing down currants, we watched a cow elk pick her way up through the boulder strewn hillside and bed down in the patch of timber cliffed in in the background.

You can actually see her butt in the lower right in this picture. Whether it was the oozing confidence in our 10 more days or if neither or us were all that excited about punching our tag on morning 1 on a cow, we bypassed what would have been an almost certain shot opportunity. There was ZERO way out of that timber patch except by coming back down the exact trail she had used going up. It was an archery elk hunting slam dunk if there ever was such a thing. Oh well, hiking onwards and upwards.

Before exiting that basin, Pete got a glimpse of 9 bighorn ewes and lambs in the scree-littered high country. It was a heck of a hike for our first morning, but I was feeling no ill-effects of altitude sickness – very thankful for the sleep acclimatization at high elevation!

The midday consisted of ridge-running some mountain tops in search of a safe route of descent into another secluded and rugged basin that held tons of promise. I won’t say that we ever found a safe way down in the basin, we found a way. Probably the steepest descent I’ve made to-date and on small boulders that were shifty and quite frankly scary.

It was so steep it was dizzying at times and I took quite a while to pick my way down the rockslide. Amazing how innocent something can look on Google Earth, terrifying in reality!

Within 30 minutes of reaching “flat” ground, we were greeted with our first dose of precipitation. An angry thunderstorm rolled through from the southwest and we each took shelter in our tents for a couple hours. Great excuse to take a nap! At one point, Pete poked his head out to glimpse a few cow elk beating a retreat to a patch of live timber for shelter.

Around 5 PM, the weather cleared off, we had spectacular and inviting country below us, and hopes were high. It didn’t take long to locate a bugling elk, but he never gave off more than a half-dozen half-hearted bugles. Possibly calling from his bed, he never fired up and worked our calls even though we setup on him for a half hour or so.

We peeled off quite a few more steps before dark – running into a band of 4 mature bighorn rams and going to sleep while watching/listening to a really nice herd bull corralling his harem almost 1,500 vertical feet below us in an avalanche chute cross-canyon. It was a great way to end the day and hopes were high that in the morning he would still be in the area. We had plans to interrupt his party!

2016 CO Elk Hunt – Expectations and Drive-out
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Normally I’d have articulated my expectations of an upcoming hunt of this stature, but I didn’t get around to it pre-hunt. That said, this hunt is in the regular rotation at this point, and my expectations had not changed any from the prior adventure in 2014. Any legal elk with a few extra parameters thrown in was my goal, and the expectations were high. Put in the time/work, opportunities should present themselves. Just in Pete and I’s elk hunting history together, our last 6 either-sex archery elk tags have gone on 6 archery bulls. AKA: expectations were high!

Physically, my back has recovered from this spring’s firewood cutting incident, and I was confident that I’d be able to survive whatever the mountains could toss at me. Mentally, it was a whirlwind of busyness to get ready for this hunt, and even now, on the backside of the trip’s return, I’m swamped with responsibilities as the Wyoming antelope trip looms on the horizon. Not sure my killer instinct was on its razor-edge heading out, but nothing a little fresh elk scat and screaming bugles won’t inflame.

The drive out started at 4 PM on Saturday September 10th, leaving my in-law’s house in North Carolina. Pete stopped in from his place in VA and we struck out on the straight-through marathon drive to SW Colorado. Somewhere along the way, we pit-stopped to purchase our elk license from a Colorado Walmart, and the trip was without incident. No vehicle issues, no traffic, safe driving despite the bumpy road sleep, a good trip.

Our was to, and our successful road trip out enabled us to, climb a nearby mountain facing into several of the drainages we hoped to hunt with a couple hours of daylight left. This was a great idea on several fronts. (A) We were able to spot a hunting camp, a train of pack horses, an orange-clad muzzleloader hunter, some mule deer, and a veritable absence of elk from over 2 miles away – relevant and recent information for our route planning. (B) We had a nice warm-up climb with acclimatization sleep at 11,000′ elevation before our hunt officially started early the next morning. I had a ferocious headache by the end of last trip’s first day, and I hoped this proactive step would help alleviate my concerns of a relapse/repeat.

Despite the lack of elk sightings from afar, we were excited to sleeping on top of a mountain, and we went to sleep expecting great things of the next 8-10 days.

Caltopo / Google Earth Mapping Integration
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I’ve sang the praises of Caltopo before on the blog and it’s time to do an update on a couple things.

“Maps on the Cheap”

“Caltopo – More Online Mapping Features”

First off, they’ve gone to a “free to try/pay to play” approach. Paying the $20 annual fee for complete services – a Jackson I’ll happily part with – enables you to print PDFs larger than 8.5″x11″, save more than 10 maps online, and a few other critical features.

Second, I’ve recently begun utilizing the built-in integration features with other mapping applications – handheld GPS units (import .GPX extension files) and Google Earth (import .KML extension files).

For users who are more comfortable with Google Earth’s map navigation functionality, this opens the door to use Google Earth as your primary map exploring device and then connecting into Caltopo to utilize its superior map management and printing capabilities.

I estimate Caltopo will save our Wyoming antelope hunting crew at least $50 in map expenses this fall, all while putting better maps that are fully customized and higher resolution into our hands.

Elk Bed = My Bed (Gatewood Cape Tent/Poncho)
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I’ve had some really good nights of sleep on the top of a mountain, I’ve also had some terrible ones. Occasionally, the reason for a lackluster night of shuteye is because lightning threatens to vaporize you and all your belongings or perhaps there is a nosy mouse that is continually rummaging through your Ziploc of trash (all the while sounding as if it’s a 300 pound bear). But most of the time, it’s because you’re trying to stay on top of your sleeping mat without rolling down the mountain or there is a root that will not stop jabbing you in the kidneys. The frustrating thing is that finding an optimal spot for one person to sleep isn’t generally the problem, it’s that finding a spot big enough for 2 comfortable sleepers often seems impossible.

Enter the Gatewood Cape.

Now every elk bed is a potential human bed, every spot that used to be frustratingly perfect for a single person but insufficient for the needs of a two-person tent approach – those issues are resolved. The weight savings are exciting too as it replaces a heavier tent, replaces my rain gear, and serves as an effective pack cover. To be almost 5 years deep into a minimalist approach to backpack hunting and be able to shave a whole pound from my gear list is huge. All at a reasonable price tag too – a Happy Meal over $100.

Shoot over to Pete’s blog for a more complete “backyard” review that he posted last week.

2016 Archery Elk Gear List
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September is creeping closer and with that slowing advancing calendar is the onset of dreams filled with steep beetle-killed timber slopes and bugling bull elk. Last night I emptied out the tupperware containers and did some minor revising to the gear list. Major additions since our 2014 adventure…(click on links below to check out our last archery elk hunting adventure)…

Day 1
Day 2, AM
Day 2, PM
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Conclusion

…include the Kifaru Mountain Rambler pack (which comes at a significant weight cost but infinitely more comfortable and bomb-proof than my Badlands 2800), Clip-Shot camera accessory, exchanging a roll-out Tyvek groundcloth for a Tyvek-constructed bivy sack, trading my Stoic merino 1/4 zip for a MEC quilted hoodie, and going improv on my whiffle bat bugle.

All told, my naked carry weight is 40.78 pounds for a 7-day pack. Minus a minimum wearing weight (boots + base layer + outers; 5.09 weight) and bow (5.56 weight), pack weight is within ounces of 30 pounds flat. That includes a pound and a half daily allotment of food (x7) and a liter of water. If you’re wondering where the stove, kettle, and fire starting materials are, Pete is carrying that – I’ve got the shelter.

DIY Whiffle Whistler (AKA Elk Bugle)
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Cheap, lightweight, effective, DIY – count me in.

An $8 kid’s whiffle bat that I found at the local Walmart and $3 of digital camo ace wrap delivered by Amazon. Throw in a razor blade to make a few modifications, and that’s all you need to create a big volume, lightweight elk bugle. Dimensions don’t matter a whole lot, but I suggest starting at maximum size and then trimming away material until you reach balance between bulk and performance.

Using your choice of diaphragm, a bat bugle will carry your volume past that of many market products. It’s loud! That said, a diaphragm lets you control not only pitch but volume, so you can keep it in check when low-mid volume calls are in order.

The one downside I’ve seen mentioned on some forums was that bat bugles sometimes have a weird vibration in their tone. Whether it was the compression camo wrap or the choice of bat brand – I didn’t experience anything but sweet elk music. On the same forums, I saw multiple mentions that many elk calling competitions have gone so far as to outlawing some bat and “bucket” style bugles. Gives an unfair advantage, makes the elk music too sweet – hmmm…sounds like a winner in the elk woods.

At 3.5 ounces and $11 all in, this is a new addition to the arsenal that I can’t wait to try out this September.

Infolinks 2013