As a Police Officer, planning on attending the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Conference in Denver, I noted that the First Rifle Season immediately followed the conference. I talked my friend Scott, who would also be attending the conference, into joining me for the hunt of a lifetime.
At the time of our initial discussions, Scott was not in good shape, weighing near 300 lbs, and suffering from back pain, I had my doubts as to whether or not Scott was in shape for a hunt like this. I started doing extensive Internet research on what I would need and what I could expect. The more I learned, the more I worried about Scott’s ability to make this hunt. I carefully planned the trip, researching areas to hunt, statistics on taking an elk and what we might be facing. I started getting myself in shape, running 3 miles per day, and asking Scott to do the same. While Scott was not big on the exercise part of my plan, to his credit, he did lose more than 70 pounds.
I thought of the many local police departments and Sheriffs’ offices I had contacted in preparation for this trip. I alerted many law enforcement agencies that I would be coming to attend the IACP and that I would like to try to harvest an elk following the trip. Some responded. Some did not. One Sheriff’s Office did respond and put me in touch with one of their deputies. He had his doubts as to whether or not I could even pull a non-resident elk tag for Game Management Unit (GMU) 38, where I indicated I would like to hunt.
I had chosen GMU 38 because of its proximity to Denver. It was about a 45-minute drive west. I had contacted the Colorado Department of Wildlife (DOW) and had spoken with Wildlife Officers about my trip and what my expectations were. I told them that I wanted to try and pick a GMU where I was likely to pull a non-resident tag, might actually see an elk, and that although I was not overly hopeful, I would be thrilled to actually have a shot at an elk.
Todd Schmidt spoke with me for over an hour. He represented the DOW very well. He was patient and gave me a ton of information and advice. He gave me hope that I had a good chance of pulling my tag and at least seeing an elk. The statistics for this area were not great. GMU 38 had about a 12 percent success rate. In fact, of the 68 hunters that pulled tags the previous year, only 6 bulls and 2 cows were taken. Nonetheless, as my plane prepared to land I was excited. I looked out the window as we touched down and snow was coming down hard. Just six hours earlier it was 93 degrees in Fort Lauderdale.
I called Scott as the plane’s wheels hit the runway and we were given the go ahead to use our cell phones. He let me know he was waiting for me in an all-wheel drive Ford Escape. I thought back on how my trip to the IACP was cancelled at the last minute, but how I still had been determined to make the trip. This was my 50th birthday present to myself. Armed with my wife’s blessing, I stepped out through the terminal doors and into the cold.
If looks can be deceiving, the Ford Escape was certainly misleading. Small and shiny, I wondered if it would be up to the challenge. Scott met me with a big grin and a diet coke. “How are you doing my brother” he beamed. “Great,” I answered. I cast aside my doubts about our little “4-wheeler” and gazed out at the snow. I wondered whether it would help our hinder our hunting.
The snow began to fall harder and harder as we made our way out of Denver. Traffic was heavy and it seemed to take forever to make it out of the city. Finally, traffic began to ease up and we began to ease into the mountains. I began to see deer everywhere, Mule Deer, 5 or 6 at time, then small herds of elk, as many as a dozen. Wow, was I excited. I began texting and calling everyone to let them know I had made it and that the hunt was on.
Over the many months of planning and preparing for this trip, we struck a great friendship with the deputy we had been introduced to. It seems we had a lot in common and we were invited to stay with he and his wife. Arriving at our host’s house we knew we were in for a treat. Our host and his wife live in a beautiful mountain home that is new and tastefully decorated.
Scouting for elk was different from that which I expected. Unlike deer, which typically have a range of 2 miles or less, elk herds move quite a bit and migrate. The elk are either there, or they are not. Our host’s method of scouting consisted of driving a wide range of mountain, forest and mining roads, looking for elk in pastures and at tree lines with a spotting scope and a pair of binoculars. On Friday, we drove for almost 2 hours, without seeing an elk. Our host was not worried however; he knew we would find them.
Our host prepared a wonderful elk lasagna for our welcome dinner. It was a treat for us and quite delicious. His wife was pleasant and quite used to having guests during hunting season. We promised to be gracious guests. Following dinner, one of our host’s friends joined us and we made plans to begin hunting at 6 am on the following day.
We drove for about twenty minutes going through some valleys and climbing other mountains until we ran out of road. We climbed another 1/3 of a mile to the top of our second mountain; still nothing, although the views were spectacular. We rested at the top and spent some time spotting for elk. Then we saw them. About two miles from our current position we could see a small herd of about 12 elk on the side of (name withheld) Mountain. Two bulls and a number of cows made up this herd. We made our way to the top of the mountain via old mining roads, which put us in close proximity to the herd.
As we made our way through dirt trail after dirt trail we positioned ourselves above the herd. The mountain was steep and we began inching ourselves quickly and quietly down the slope above them. We were within 220 yards. Our plan was the three of us would shoot at the same time. Our host would call out, “one, two, three,” and we would shoot. Our host had a bull tag and would aim for the bull, while Scott and I would each aim at a cow. I would try for a cow on the left, and Scott would aim for a cow on the right.
Finally, the moment of truth, Scott and I had our shots lined up waiting on our host who was having a hard time getting lined up on the bull. As our host readied himself, he whispered, “One…. Two…. Three… Two shots rang out – Our host’s and Scott’s. As I pulled the trigger on my 30.06 rifle, nothing happened. The safety appeared off, the red dot was visible, but the safety was not completely off. I took the safety off and took aim. I fired. Nothing. No cow down. I ejected the shell and took aim again. I fired. Again, nothing. No elk down. I fired a third time and watched the cow I had been trying for. The herd was off and running, my cow was not. It was walking very slowing, as if trying to follow the herd.
We re-grouped and started down the mountain slope. Our host had missed his bull. Scott had hit his cow with a perfect neck shot. She dropped where she had stood. We watched as my cow slowly slipped under a fence, about 2,000 feet down from the top of the mountain. I made my way down the mountain. We slipped under the fence and found a small amount of blood. Our host told me we could go no further. While the Colorado Department of Wildlife requires you to make every attempt to retrieve your animal, you cannot enter onto private property without permission from the owner. Fortunately, our host knew the owner.
While hiked back up to the top of the mountain to try and get a cell phone signal. The property owner was not home but our host was able to leave a message. Our host was somewhat doubtful that permission would be given as the owner was very protective of his land. We had other things to worry about however. Now that Scott had gotten his elk, how were we going to get it out?
Our host was concerned that the recent snow would make the slope too steep and slippery for his ATV. Faced with few other choices, a decision was made that he and I would go back to his house for his truck and ATV and Scott would field dress the elk. The hike back up the mountain was killing me.
By the time we had retrieved the ATV and gotten back, more than an hour had passed. Scott had field dressed the elk and we had gotten permission from the owner to conduct a very limited search for my cow. The owner specifically did not want us traveling far onto his property unless we were certain the elk was mortally wounded.
After having helped load Scott’s cow onto the top of the ATV, I began my way down the mountain for a second time, trying to find signs of my wounded elk. Unfortunately for us we could not find the elk. Now came the arduous task of climbing back up the mountain. Running at sea level does not prepare you for hiking at 10,000 feet. Our host had gotten Scott’s elk up the mountain on the ATV, but was not willing to risk coming down again for me. It was a long hike back up. I stopped every ten steps to catch my breath. I am feeling very fortunate that my partners were so patient with me.
Later that night, our host, Scott and I went out scouting for elk again. Two elk were sighted near a location that our host knew, a piece of National Forest Land accessible from a private ranch. Our host knew the owner and had permission to enter his property. We had to open a gate and be careful not to let loose any horses on the property. As we entered the property, the horses came running. Quickly closing a second gate behind us, we entered the National Forest Land.
We quietly exited our vehicle and walked about 50 yards. There in front of us stood a massive bull and his cow. The bull would turn out to weigh about 800 pounds. Our host motioned for us to come forward. He took aim. He fired. The bull just stood there. A second shot rang out and we could see that the bull was hit. The bull stumbled forward about 25 yards and lay down. Our host shot again, this time in the neck. The bull rose up and walked about another 25 yards before crashing to the ground. We approached this magnificent bull and watched as it took its last breath.
We were shaking with excitement as we called for friends to come help us. We had to move this bull out of the trees where we could deal with it better. This was no small undertaking. Because this was a 6X6 trophy bull, our host knew right away that he was going to mount this bull. He wanted to take great care in preserving the hide. It was dark, we were tired, but somehow we found the strength to get this animal into the back of a friend’s truck and we were able to get the bull back home.
As we field dressed the bull we found a small hole in the hide at the neck. At the time we surmised that the elk had encountered another elk during the rut and perhaps received a puncture wound as the result of a battle over a cow. Later that night we found the true cause of the puncture wound. Scott and I were de-boning and preparing the neck roast. In cleaning the meat we came upon a broad tip arrowhead lodged in the neck. Apparently, another hunter had tried for this trophy bull before us, during archery season. Our host told us he remember the property owner, whose property we crossed to get to the National Forest, had missed a shot at a trophy bull. He could not wait to show him the arrowhead and let him know the trophy had been taken.
Sunday came and went. We went out scouting for elk in the early morning and evening as we tried to fill my tag. I was worried that it wouldn’t be filled. I was very happy to have been able to participate in this great Colorado wilderness experience and would not have been disappointed had I not seen another elk, yet a part of me still longed to fill my tag.
We made arrangements with our host to get up Monday morning at 6 am. We drove by an old graveyard and our host made us stop the car. He pulled out his binoculars and looked at the top of a hill. Elk, he stated. “Where,” I asked? “To the right of that house,” he replied. I couldn’t see it, but we began our ascent up an old mining road that weaved its way up the hill. We stopped about 150 yards from the elk. I still couldn’t see it. “Get out,” our host said. “Where is it,” I asked? “Its 75 yards to the right of the house, between those trees,” was our host’s response. Here was a magnificent cow elk, and my chance to fill my tag. As I held my breath and gently squeezed the trigger – nothing! I looked down at the safety. I could see the red dot, but the safety was not pushed forward enough. I pushed it forward, and looked for the elk. Gone. “She’s moved 10 yards to the right,” our host advised. I sighted her in again, held my breath and fired. I watch the bullet make impact just at the edge of her right shoulder. She took a few steps and when crashing down through the Aspens. Halfway down the other side of the hill we found her. Our host immediately recognized that she was bigger than Scott’s, a respectable 420 lb. cow. I marveled at the beauty of this magnificent creature and of a hunting dream come true.