I had been muzzleloading for several years in North central and Northwest Colorado for several years with reasonable success, averaging a harvest every other year or so. The hunting was fun and the time of year was hard to beat. If I had to choose hunting weather, I’d choose beautiful sunshine and high’s in the 50s and 60s for sure. Many other hunters would opt for the colder weather, but I prefer the early seasons. The other major bonus to the early seasons is the elk rut.
However, in 2008 I decided to accompany a group of new friends on a rifle hunt in October. This was a second season hunt so the rutting activity was nonexistent, but it was a great opportunity for myself to hunt for a bull. I had been collecting points for 6 years with the idea of trying to hunt in one of Colorado’s trophy units and all of my muzzleloader tags had been second choice cow tags. Don’t get me wrong, cow elk eat just as good as bulls. And, most of the time I was hunting with the goal of bringing home some of the best tasting, leanest, and highest quality meat possible. My family loved eating elk and when I didn’t harvest, we sure missed it. But an opportunity to hunt for a bull was something I did want to do, I just never followed that desire.
The new group of friends hunted in the Elkhead Mountains Northeast of Craig. I had only been to this area one time before and thought I’d always like to return. This was my chance in 2008.
It was truly a great hunt that year and I really enjoyed the new group of friends. It was also a very successful hunt, 6 of the 8 tags were filled by hunters in our group with 4 of those tags bulls. They weren’t huge bulls; all of them were raghorns, but they were good animals. I had my opportunities to harvest as well, twice! And both times I had somehow botched it. Missed cleanly on the first opportunity, at 60 yards. Talk about buck fever, I couldn’t get steady and comfortable and just pulled the shot horribly. I knew it as soon as I pulled the trigger. No sooner had I gotten over that failure, when I had another legal bull within 100 yards but had laid my gun down about 15 feet away while I was preparing to relieve myself. No way to get the gun in time to shoot.
I was glad I made the trip and had a great time, but this was not one of my better performances while hunting. I vowed at that time to return to this area again and give it another shot the next year. This experience had bruised by ego a bit and, of course, my confidence.
For 2009, I made a decision to cash in my points and get off the trophy unit treadmill before I had invested too many years to be comfortable with changing my goals. This would also be the first season in several years I wouldn’t be hunting a muzzleloading season. I compromised and decided to use my points to hunt a September rifle either-sex season on an RFW ranch just North of Craig. The season was September 19-26 so I would still be able to hunt the rut and there were only 4 tags for this ranch and season so it seemed the hunting pressure would be significantly less than the previous year when I hunted the second rifle season. I put in for the tag and got it.
After such a disappointing performance the previous year, I was eager to prove to myself that buck fever had passed and I wasn’t going to botch another opportunity. But inside, I was nervous and a bit unsure. One of my new friends from the previous year agreed to accompany me and we decided to bring both of our kids with us on the hunt. The ranch was very accommodating with our 10 year old boys as well. So the 4 of us would make the trip and do our best to find a nice bull.
We began our hunting in some dense timber that bordered the national forest. Although we had seen elk, the bugling activity was slow and we really wanted the boys to experience the thrill of elk bugling and cows talking. We didn’t know if trying a different area would make a difference in the vocal activity of the elk, but we decided to ask to move to a different area. Again, the ranch was very accommodating and placed us a bit lower in an area of think scrub oak and aspen groves. It was our third day, of a planned 4 days hunting, when we decided to climb to the top of small foothill and use the middle of the afternoon to scout the hunting area from a 360 degree vantage point. Again, the elk weren’t too vocal, but we had heard more bugles earlier that day than we had heard in 2 days at the other location.
We made our way up to the top of the small mountain following a gradual ridgeline. Once there, we got out our binoculars and began carefully scouring the surrounding terrain. The view was truly spectacular. We could see for several miles in each direction. Not knowing exactly what to expect, we fed the boys a snack and planned to watch and scan for awhile.
It was late afternoon, about 4:30pm when we heard a bugle. We had been on top for about an hour. Unable to locate the bugle’s source, we all eagerly panned the oak brush for movement. It was my friends son who spotted the first elk wandering slowly through the scrub oak. After we all were able to locate and identify it as a cow, it seemed elk began pouring into the small grassy open areas between the thickets of oak brush. Small groups of cows and spikes began moving--and they were consistently cow calling. I grabbed the cow call and began making a few calls myself. It didn’t take long before a small 4-point came out of the brush and gave us a full bugle about 300 yards away. It wasn’t an ear-piercing bugle that shook the ground, but both boys began to get excited at the drama being played out by the elk just below our vantage point. Soon after his bugle this same small 4-point began chasing cows as well. We watched for another 15 minutes as the elk activity continued to increase.
It was about 5:30pm and finally a bull appeared about 500 yards away that was bigger. Not a monster, I’m not sure there are many monster bulls in the area we were hunting, but a decent 5x6 bull that was certainly bigger than both bulls I had missed my opportunities the year before. I set up on a large rock using my pack the steady the gun. Although the bull was out of my comfortable shooting range, he was moving straight toward the small group of cows being harassed by the small 4-point about 250 yards below us.
It was difficult to keep the bull in my scope as he approached. The oak brush was very thick in places and the elk would move into these thickets popping out in what seemed like random places. As the bull approached we could ocassionally see horns above the brush, bobbing and weaving as he navigated his approach. He then bugled and moved quickly through a small open area about 350 yards away into a large thicket of brush that was directly below us. We all intently scanned the brush trying to locate the bull again.
Finally, 2 cows stepped out of the brush and began grazing on some dry grass 230 yards away. They moved slowly, completely unaware of our presence on top of the mountain. The 4-point then emerged and stayed right behind the second cow. His interest was clearly not grazing. After a minute or 2, out came the bull we had been waiting for. This was my chance for redemption.
Time seems to stop when you are focused and waiting for just the right opportunity to take a quality shot. Although it was less than a minute, I held fast on this bull as he walked toward the 4-point and cut him off from closely following the two cows. The 4-point didn’t leave, but backed off and watched as the larger 5x6 bull took his place directly behind the second cow.
The 2 boys were both completely focused with the binoculars on this entire scene. I was nervous, but calm and at ease with the set up and shot. The bull stopped, let out a full bugle and gave a few raspy chuckles. As soon as he finished, I fired my shot and hit the bull direclty behind the front shoulder delivering a lethal blow into his lungs and heart.
He quickly retreated to the brush but was unable to proceed more that 30 yards before falling dead. It wasn’t my first bull, but it was the biggest I had ever shot. With a slap on the back and a couple of hugs from the boys, the buck fever demons were laid to rest. Although not a huge bull, it was a great hunt and gave me back the confidence I had lost the previous year. The boys also got to experience a great hunt and watch it in close up through their binoculars.
Oh, and he tasted great too. In fact, we got to savor the success for a whole year.