Warning, long story, you can just skip ahead to the pictures if you want:
In my never ending quest to find less pressured, and more productive hunting grounds, for 3rd season three of us checked out yet another new unit for elk hunting this year. I hadn’t put the scouting effort in to this unit that I had with others, outside of a brief scouting run back in April to more or less visualize the country and do some ground truthing with aerial photos. Despite the lack of on the ground experience in the area, I felt confident that this spot was an overlooked elk hunting hot spot. My stats had shown the place to have less than 0.5 hunters per square mile of public land and the trophy potential seemed incredibly good with less than half the bull pressure of most OTC units. I was a little worried about the elk numbers, as this was lower elevation area that depended on snows at higher elevations to improve the hunting in this area, very little of which was over 8,000 feet. And of course we couldn’t get out there until Friday night, with the season starting Saturday morning. So no last minute scouting either. However, the snows this past Tuesday through Thursday dumped a pretty heavy snow here on the Front Range, but we were uncertain of how much our unit would receive as it was a long way from any official weather station that we could find. As we climbed the mountain late on Friday night we happy enough to see about 2-3 inches of snow on the ground, which would be more than enough for decent tracking, should the need arise.
Saturday morning found us hiking down into a large burn area that used to be primarily pinyon-juniper country. On our descent, which we decided to do just before dawn because we were essentially going in blind, we found numerous elk tracks in the snow from the day prior, but nothing that morning. The freshest track we cut was of a decent black bear. After dropping 1,000 feet down the slope, we finally cut a fresh track of a large herd moving through the burn. After following it for about 2 hours, it lead over a cliff into toward private lands and a heavy stand of P-J. We glassed the pinyon-juniper from the cliffs for a while before trying to find a route down the cliff, not willing to attempt the elk trail, which was too dangerous with the melting snow and lack of handholds.
After an hour of walking along the cliffs, we gave up on that idea and decided to head to higher ground out of the burn to hopeful bedding areas on the north slope where we might cut a fresh track or kick an elk out of his bed. Found some incredible rubs, including one over 8 feet high (I’m sure the tree bent some as he was rubbing it, but it was pretty impressive nevertheless). However, our meanderings showed us nothing of interest, and after several miles of uphill climbing we were pretty worn out and slowly made our way back to the truck by dusk, not finding a great place to sit for the evening.
Sunday morning we went back down towards the burn, but stopped at a natural flat meadow for an hour before dawn where we saw a fair amount of old sign, plus the bear sign, but nothing showed it’s face. After that we climbed back out to head up to the main east-west running ridge in the area, which was also the highest elevation spot. It had a lot of logging roads which worried us slightly, but since we hadn’t seen another hunter yet, I figured the pressure wasn’t too bad up there. After taking a logging trail on the north slope (the most snow still remaining after highs in the 50s and 60s the past three days) to a clearing, we finally cut a lone elk track that we were certain was from this morning. It wasn’t very large, and I wasn’t excited about trailing a raghorn or a cow, but we knew this was fresh and one of the guys had never taked a bull before, so figured this was a good opportunity and should be a lot of fun. After an hour and a half we came across a scrub oak flat the elk had fed in, still not knowing whether it was a bull or cow. It was difficult staying on the trail as it fed around the flat, whose snow was mostly melted. Thankfully we found where the elk exited the feeding area and we were back on its trail. We noticed the tracks becoming closer together, but were getting worried as we no longer had the wind in our face. Not being familiar enough with the country, we were afraid to loop around the track to get the wind out of our backs, so we pressed on anyway, hoping to catch him napping. None of us had cow tags, so it had better be a “him”. Sure enough we found his bed and extremely fresh tracks leading out of it by 10am. It was hard to tell whether or not we had bumped the elk, but it seemed probable. With a lack of better ideas, we decided to press onward. Interestingly, not 100 yards from where we bumped the elk, we now had confirmation that it was indeed a bull. He stopped to rub a sapling, pretty well destroying it. I have no idea why he was doing this on November 1, but I had seen raghorns bugle late into the season and so I was now certain it had to be a young bull. However, after the rub, he made a beeline, back across the clearing where we first cut his track, across three logging trails, and into a scrub oak thicket along the side of a ridge 300 feet above a bench before the ridge plummeted another 1000 feet into a canyon. When his track hit the main game trail with additional fresh tracks on the side of the ridge, we had an incredibly hard time following it, but the most likely path seemed to go straight down the ridge. Even the elk tracks were slipping as they went down it, but at least we had oaks to hold on to as we desceded. When we got to the bottom, it seemed almost all of the tracks were the same age and then as the flat went further north, away from the shade of the ridge we lost the snow cover to track them and ended up just wandering aimlessly along the bench, hoping to kick something up. After an hour of wanderings we decided to climb out, which was an adventure. It would have been nearly impossible without two free hands and holding onto the scrub oaks and mountain mahogany, most of whose roots thankfully held our weight as we climbed up.
It's steeper than it looks, trust me.
Now certain that bull knew we were trailing him, we decided to head back towards the only opening we knew of for a dusk sit. We left Jason on a stump in a grouse filled area with lots of elk tracks, while Adam and I went back to the clearing the bull crossed through twice that day. Dusk came and went uneventfully.
Dawn on Monday morning found us overlooking the scrub oak flats, meadows and the game trails below the main ridge. We froze our tails off and saw nothing. By 10 it was time to move on. Cruising down the logging road to get off the ridge, we spotted a handful of grouse in the road. They had eluded yesterday’s brief attempt to take one, but today they were a little more cooperative. Adam took one with his .38 after it took off and roosted in a tree not 20 feet off the road.
The next two spooked before we found them, with one landing on a bare branch 60 yards off. Adam handed the pistol to Jason, who had never taken one. But as we approached it looked like it was about to fly off, so I shot it at 40 yards with my rifle. Big mistake, the .264 Win Mag didn’t leave much, other than a few pieces to put together for pictures. I really didn’t think it would do that much damage, figuring there wouldn’t be much bullet resistance. I was wrong. Next year I’ll pack some reduced load FMJs for this kind of thing. Still, Adam took a nice large male, and didn’t damage the breast at all. It was a fine eating bird, which we browned on both sides before simmering in Cream of Mushroom soup later that night. The rest of the day found us trying to cut tracks and/or push timber to no avail. But everywhere we went we saw recent sign of small bands of elk, which kept us sharp and kept us motivated.
Tuesday morning we were on a better vantage point to overlook the game trails and flats below the ridge. But nothing moved. Dejected, we went back along a logging trail discussing options regarding moving camp, investigating area further away, or in different nearby OTC units. None of us wanted to move as were seeing fresh sign. While discussing our possibilities, Adam said, “Elk! Antlers!”. I looked up as a bull was staring at as through the thinned timber, perfectly broadside. I knew he was little bull, but having not seen an elk for four days, I quickly reduced my standards and shot him three times offhand with the .264 Win Mag and 120 grain Barnes TTSXs at 3515 fps. There was no reaction to the first shot, which went through the near shoulder and far ribs, the second shot was fired as he quartered away, through the ribs and far shoulder, this time visibly staggering him. On the third, I knew he was wounded and hesitated a little as I pulled the trigger with the elk no fully going away, but thankfully missed the hams and hit him in the front right knee, dropping at last. At the shots, two other bulls trotted back to our left paralleling the ridge. Neither Adam nor Jason got off a shot. Adam continued to parallel the elk on the logging road while Jason and I took off directly behind the elk, right on their trail, Jason occasionally catching glimpses of them up ahead. Suddenly we hit additional tracks, and silhouetted against the sun was another herd 50 yards to our right, just at the lip of the ridge. As the elk began to filter by with the sun in our faces, we had no shots through the timber. All I saw were cows, about 20 total, but Jason said he saw a small bull with them. That bull may have been one of the ones we were following. We quickly ran to the edge of the ridge and found their trails, with some of them going straight down the cliffs. But we saw nothing come out on the flats below. At that point we gave up and went back to my downed bull, but Adam was still walking along the old road. When the ridge narrowed and the road approached the south end, he saw one elk, unsure of sex bail over the ridge below him. My bull was just a 2 year old 5x5 raghorn, but I was awfully happy to have him. While it may have seemed like dumb luck for him to just be standing there watching us through the timber, we did everything we could to put ourselves in a position to succeed. We made our own luck by putting ourselves where the elk wanted to be. Were we lucky that the elk was just standing there? Yes. But he clearly hadn’t figured out what to do yet and quick shooting brought him to bag. Thankfully, he was within 100 yards of the road and the pack out was the easiest any of us had ever experienced. We even kept the hide for Adam’s wife to make leather goods out of.
Back in the truck and eating lunch by 12, we stopped at an overlook where we could look south on the burn we had hunted on Saturday. Jason and I went back to the truck after quickly glassing the more open areas to finish our lunches, while Adam tried to peek over the much thicker north rim. “BOOM!” His .300 Win Mag went off sending a 200 grain Accubond into the woods below. Jason and I looked at each other in disbelief, saying, “you gotta be kiddin’ me.” Turns out, in the only opening, not 20 yards wide below the north rim, was a small bull feeding at 12:30 in the afternoon. He was a later GPS measured 200 yards out, but at a steep downhill angle. We hung a spare orange vest in the scrub oaks from where he shot so we could find the area he hit the bull from. It took about 20 minutes to get down, then another 20 or so to send me back up to the top to redirect Adam and Jason after not finding the site of the hit. No blood was seen, just tracks from where the bull had wheeled around and ran back into the timber at the shot. At first, I doubted Adam ever hit the bull, but 100 yards later on the trail I found the first speck of blood on the patchy snow. Several more tiny blood drops verified that the bull was indeed hit. It took us over an hour to cover the next quarter mile, frequently losing the trail, only to find a blood drop on a log or the occasional snow patch with fresh tracks. Then we lost it again and began to circle. 20 minutes later (at least 2 hours after the shot), I heard crashing in the brush and saw a light antlered raghorn dash out in front me through an opening in the trees. I didn’t have my rifle on me (I filled my tag, so when I went down there, I still thought we were just retrieving a dead elk. I kick myself now, it won’t happen again, although it would of course be illegal). It took a while to find his track and after backtracking it, we confirmed it was indeed Adam’s bull. There was a spot in the oaks where the bull must have been standing for quite some time, listening to us approach, as there were numerous small drops of blood. The blood was neither pink, nor dark like liver blood and we hadn’t found any evidence of rumen content or anything else in the trail. At that point we decided to back out as evening was approaching, hoping he would bed down and not continue much further. We went back to the site of the shot and found light colored hair that we missed during the initial search. So now we knew he wasn’t hit in the neck or down low in any of the dark-haired areas on a bull, confirming suspicions that the shot was high, due to the steep downhill angle. But with the few blood specks we had, it indicated the bullet exited as they were on the left side, while the bull was facing right.
Wednesday morning we were back in there as soon as it was light enough to find blood and made our way back to where I last saw the bull. The warm weather and patchy snow made it difficult to continue the trail, but we stayed with what we believed to be his track, never finding another drop of blood. By 10 am, we were completely dejected and certain we lost the bull. We were now nearly ¾ mile from where he had been hit, there were no more tracks to follow, no blood to be found on the oak leaves and pine litter, no snow, no mud, no crows or jays or coyotes calling, nothing to give us any more hope of finding the bull. It was sad, but true. And once again, you make your own luck. To some degree, it was dumb luck finding the bull standing in the one opening below the rims, but there may have been a recovered animal by aiming lower or further forward on the shoulder, or being more prepared to follow a wounded animal by carrying a gun with me. Without ever recovering the bull, we won’t know what happened. He may even have survived, we just don’t know.
So what was a great day early on Tuesday, turned somber by midday, making it difficult to celebrate the one bull we had, knowing there was another out there that we may never find. All we can hope now is that the wound wasn’t fatal, however unlikely that may be.
Thu, 2009-11-05 15:48
Make Your Own Luck
Warning, long story, you can just skip ahead to the pictures if you want: