After ten years of being patient my quest for an elk began to require more persistence than patience but with any luck persistence, patience and preparation would finally come together this fall. Those are the positive thoughts that an archery elk hunter's dreams are made of.
Luckily for the dreaming elk hunter, the Colorado Archery season is positioned on the calendar to coincide with the time that a bull elk's hormones change from 'hanging out with the boys' to solo aggression. Daytime and nighttime temperatures combine with shortening daylight to trigger an increase in testosterone. The velvet dries and is rubbed from the antlers and medium size trees begin to take a beating. The bulls leave the company of their male summer friends and begin to round up their harem of cows as the bulls have one thing on their mind: breeding. After the dominant bulls gather their herd they check regularly for readiness to breed. During this time the bull is constantly running off other bulls, defending his harem and gathering more cows when possible.
This is also the period that has occupied every archer's dreams since the last season ended. During this period archers have the advantage; the bull's mind is distracted and he is constantly moving with his herd of cows. The rest of the year you deal with the opposite situation as the bulls concentrate on looking for danger.
With prime time rapidly approaching, August became special for this archer. It was time for final preparation after a summer spent shooting in archery leagues and checking at my local bow shop to assure that my Matthews Solo Cam is tuned to perfection. Countless hours have been spent reading bow-hunting articles to learn and perfect any new techniques that might give me an edge on these majestic animals. Plus, more time was spent on long distance phone calls with my life long, best friend, Jay Gartrell. Finally, the day arrived and we are once again in the middle of the real calling contest; Buglefest, which was being held in the Colorado back country.
This year started out a little different than previous hunting seasons as Jay chose to not purchase an elk tag. He said his primary goal was to get me the bull of my dreams. Jay is excellent with an elk call, but when I called him my guide he would say, "No, I'm just your chief cook and bottle washer." Bow hunting elk with Jay is a high point in my life.
After three days spent bugling from sunrise to sunset while constantly looking for sign I had yet to nock an arrow. On the fourth morning Jay convinced me to take a different route to our hunting area. My initial feeling was that he chose the new route because it was easier walking than the way I suggested. I did not argue against this route since he was my 'chief cook and bottle washer' and those people know what they are doing. Plus, my legs were content with his decision as they were quite sore from the previous three days of hiking up and down hill. There was nothing flat in the Gunnison Basin.
It was still dark as we climbed into a large meadow where a lot of bugling activity had taken place each morning. We reached the upper end about 6:30 and heard the first bugle. It sounded like a large bull up the mountain on the North Slope. We slowly made our way in the direction of the bugling, keeping the wind in our face and trying to stay quiet as church mice as we picked our way through the downed timber. The deeper we went into the heavy timber the more elk sign we saw.
The bugling continued as we crept closer to where we thought the elk were located. Jay stopped, looked at me, and whispered, "What do you want to do?" I cupped my hand around his ear and whispered back, "I would like to just sit still and wait to hear the bull again before we start our stalk." I thought he was close and expected to hear sticks breaking anytime.
One thing I have learned about elk hunting is patience, patience, and patience. You can be very close to elk but so far from where you can shoot, an arrow that you can't believe both conditions can occur in the same place. When this happens you have to find them before they see or smell you. An elk can see you twice before it registers as danger and they spook, but a bull only needs to smell you one time before leaving the country. We were prepared for this as much as possible, wearing full camo with scent block, so we kneeled down listening and waiting for something to happen.
After less than three minutes of waiting, we heard a crash coming from a stand of brush just 30 yards away. I quickly nocked an Easton Axis arrow, covered my face, and locked my release around the string. No sooner did I get ready and a calf came out of the brush. It was acting as if something was pushing it as it kept looking back. We were now frozen and all we could do was watch and hope the calf did not move down wind of us. As the calf cleared the brush we could see the antlered bull that was pushing him but he was back in the shadows of the dark timber.
The calf came through my shooting lane on a trail I hoped the bull would follow. My question about antler size was quickly answered when the bull stepped from the shadows into the sunlight. He was coming along the path the calf had taken. The polished tips of his 6x6 antlers lit up bright white in the sun then his chest expanded and he let out a full bugle. It is one thing to bugle for elk and exciting to hear them bugle back, but when they bugle in your face at 35 yards, the chills that run up your spine feel like a whole swarm of red ants coming up the back of your pants.
Since I had correctly anticipated the bull's path I knew there was a tree he would cross behind before entering my shooting lane. I hoped the calf would be far enough away by that time so I could risk coming to full draw without being spotted by either elk. The calf had not completely cleared the shooting lane when I drew and anchored. I came to full draw just as the bull came out from behind the tree. The movement spooked the calf and it quickly turned away from us. The bull saw the calf spook and headed in the same direction. He headed straight away at just 40 yards but offered no shot whatsoever.
I think my heart stopped but I did not lower the arrow nor let the bow down as Jay, with almost no movement, made a soft cow call. The bull heard this and stopped before turning back to see were the cow call came from. As he turned his vitals were exposed at a 45-degree angle instead of broad side. This was the best opportunity I would get before he got back into the dark timber so I put my pin just behind the shoulder and released before the thought of matrimonial bliss could clear from his mind.
I'm telling myself to just stay calm and FOCUS. It's a good thing
I was on my knees because if I wasn't they would have been knocking.
I watched the arrow fly and then there was nothing but fletching visible behind his shoulder. Knowing a Thunder Head three blade broadhead on a 29 ½" arrow was at the opposite end of the visible fletch made me smile. I looked over at Jay and he was grinning ear to ear. We saw the arrow, heard the hit, and watched the bull quickly disappear into the heavy, dark timber. Moments later we heard him try to bugle as if admitting defeat. Branches breaking above us confirmed what we hoped was happening.
We were still in 'quiet mode' as Jay whispered the obvious to me, "I think you got him." I whispered back, "If not, there is something else making a hell of a lot of racket up there."
We waited 5 minutes before moving from our position. If the bull was not dead, this would give the Thunder Head time to do its job. Five minutes seemed like an hour as we listened to nothing but silence. Your adrenaline charged mind starts to run scenarios through your head like, 'The bull got up and ran into the dark timber leaving no sign'. Patience is tough at a time like this.
We began tracking the bull only to find that he had left the dark timber and blow downs where he had initially run. He changed course onto the open trails through the timber that had been opened up by regular elk travel. The open trails made it much easier to follow his tracks and blood trail. The places where he rubbed against a tree left good blood sign and after 150 yards I saw an antler sticking up through a downed fir tree. The bull had tried to jump through it and collapsed in a heap.
This is what it is all about. I have been dreaming of this moment for 10 years.
The result of many years of hard work, dedication and patience!
Jay shook my hand with congratulations, and then he said, " Not bad for an arrow nocker'" and I answered, "Not bad for an 11th hour cow call from the chief cook and bottle washer." We both laughed about it as we started the chore of getting the elk to the truck, which was three miles away at camp.
We put ourselves into a situation where we could be successful using the knowledge we have acquired over the years. It has taken me 10 years to harvest my first elk and the number one thing I learned in those 10 years? Patience, patience, patience.
Yes! It's heavy, but I certainly wasn't complaining. This is a labor of love, I would have loved to start doing this 10 years ago.
Frame packs are a life saver! My last load. (Notice I'm still smiling)
As I think back, elk hunting, like any hunting success, depends on being in the right place at the right time. Luckily, that success in many states is the result of the conservation efforts made by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The elk habitat management work required to provide huntable numbers of these majestic animals in Colorado is something all Elk Foundation members can be proud of.