Icing on the Cake
I did a lot of complaining over the autumn of 2010 about the job that severely limited my ability to hunt (sorry guys!). But thanks to some great co-workers who were willing to cover me for three separate weekends throughout the fall, I was able to take my mule deer, pronghorn and elk. The elk hunt did not fall together until very late in the fall.
A quick check of the Colorado leftover license list in late October informed me that there were still tags available for 4th season. Specifically there were cow elk tags for a unit of Colorado that I have hunted many times... but not nearly that late in the year. We have gotten three feet of snow in this unit during the 2nd rifle season. So I knew the potential for serious snow fall. 4th season fell even later than it normally does this year and therefore we planned to be good and ready for whatever mother nature would throw at us. And oh yeah... this would be my mom's first hunt ever!
The 4th rifle season in Colorado is not structured like the popular 2nd and 3rd seasons. Both of these hunts include two weekends and the week in between. The 4th rifle season however starts on a Wednesday and ends on that Sunday. You only have five days to hunt. And to make matters worse, I had to lead a discussion on a paper in my wildlife disease ecology class at 3PM on that Thursday. This meant that I was going to have to miss the first two days of the season and make the long drive in the dark that night. I had loaded all my gear into my truck that morning and parked it at the Division of Wildlife office just off campus where I thought it would be safe. As soon as I finished up my discussion I ran to my truck, swung through Qdoba and picked up a burrito, and then hit the road. The weather let me know right away that it was not going to cooperate though.
I had planned to take a route through Wyoming to get to camp quicker but I had failed to look up the road conditions on the stretch from the Colorado/Wyoming border to Laramie. Just before the state line, things started to get nasty. There was no new snow falling but there was already snow on the ground from a storm that had pushed through the day prior. The wind is what was turning this normally uneventful drive into a white-knuckle roller coaster. Blowing snow turned conditions into a ground blizzard. Visibility was cut to 50-75 feet and there were trucks jack-knifed and flipped over everywhere. It took a long time to make it to Laramie at 20 miles per hour.
After departing Laramie, conditions improved a hundred fold. My parents had left early that morning and had made it to the unit around noon. They had hunted until dark and then located the camp that I had marked on a map for them to find. I was the only one in the group to have hunted the specific area of the unit that we would be camping in but they were able to find it without a problem. I made it to camp around 8PM and my parents were both already in bed. I asked if everything was alright and my mom said that it had been an interesting day. They had been driving on the highway and had actually driven past a herd of 6 elk that were only 50 yards off the road on public land. My mom spotted them but my dad was not able to get the truck pulled off the road in a place to make a suitable stalk and they could not relocate the elk. They had made an escape down a steep walled creek bottom. My mom was a little bit bummed but I told her things were going to be better in this part of the unit.
I had predicted that the snow that the area had gotten would have pushed the elk into the low country and that we could possibly intercept them moving between hay fields on private land and the steep terrain that they often use during the day. I knew a couple spots that would be easy enough for my mom to hike to in the snow that would put her in pretty good position for an ambush. I pulled out a map and explained where I wanted them to hike that next morning. We would be going into an area where motor vehicles are not allowed. I got them started on a well marked trail and they were able to make it to the predetermined ambush site by shooting light. I was set up on the same ridge, just about a mile and a half further from camp. As luck would have it, there were no elk in the hay fields below us. And there were no elk glassed on the mountain adjacent to us. But that does not mean that we weren't seeing anything. The mule deer were going crazy! I have never witnessed the mule deer rut quite like this. It was a sight to behold. I probably saw over 100 deer that day with a handful of very handsome bucks thrown in. Their necks were swollen up and they were running does hard. I was able to stalk my dream buck around 11AM that morning. I glassed him up in a bowl on the mountain about a half mile above me. It was in the general direction that I wanted to go anyways in search of elk so I decided to see if I could get within range of him. I was able to get within 150 yards of him and his posse of six does and one forkie buck without any of them scenting or spotting me. I got to watch him run one of his does around for nearly 20 minutes. If I would have had a tag in my pocket, I would have finally taken a fantastic mule deer buck. He was a 4x4 with eyeguards that would probably have taped around 26 inches wide. His main beam turned downwards out at the tips on both sides. He was awesome... but a tag, I had not.
I reached the top of the mountain and found where a large herd of elk had bedded during the storm that had brought snow to the area. There were oval patches of dry ground in the snow where each elk had bedded as the snow was falling. There were elk pellets on the edge of almost every bed. I now knew there were elk in the area. But it was approaching the time that I told my parents that I would meet them back in camp and I had over two and a half miles to cover. I was also on top of a mountain in a foot of snow. I covered the ground far too fast for my own good and without the aid of trekking poles, my knees took quite the beating. That night in camp my right knee gave out on me... twice. I loaded up on ibuprofen, put on a knee brace and hoped that a long night of sleep would do it some good.
The next morning we went to a different part of the unit and you bet I had my trekking poles with me. I was pretty much a gimp but I was able to cover some ground and see some interesting terrain. I found a lot of elk tracks but nothing that was as fresh as what I had seen the day prior. There was a stretch of 10 minutes when we heard 43... count em 43 shots all coming from the same direction. We could see a couple hunters about two miles away. They ran (read that as sprinted) to the top of a ridge and to the best of our knowledge, got in on the massacre. I am not sure what all that shooting was about but I interpreted it as a bunch of guys getting into a very big herd that was getting run around like ping pong balls. We were a long ways from this though and by noon, the steady 25-35 mile per hour winds had whipped my mom pretty good and she needed a break. We hopped in the truck and drove back to the area that we had hunted the day prior. We went to an area where we could see the opposite side of the mountain that I had hunted on day one. I pulled out my new spotting scope and glassed up the first elk that I had seen during the trip. The problem was that they were so far from the nearest road that we would not be able to get to them by nightfall. We saw a couple hunters hiking down a different ridge towards the trail head. We drove over into the area to see if they had any success. There were five guys in the group and they were finishing up packing out their fifth elk! Now that is some serious success. They gave us some good information and we headed back to camp to discuss the next days plans. Upon hearing the weather outlook (freezing fog, 16 inches of snow, high winds and very cold temperatures during the night) she decided that she would just wake up whenever she woke up and hike out of camp if conditions presented themselves. She told my dad, "go with your son, hike to the top of that mountain, and bring me back an elk." That would be no small feat... but it is what we did.
That night was wicked. The wind seemed like it was going to knock the camper over. When we opened the door in the pre-dawn darkness, we were greeted by more than a foot of new snow and it was still coming down... hard! We saddled up and drove to the trail head but since we had never hunted this side of the mountain, we had to wait for the sun to come up so we could plan a smart assault on the mountain. There was another truck parked at the trail head but there were no tracks in the snow on the way in. The mystery was solved when an old man hopped out of it and started wiping the snow off of the truck. As the sun rose, the gentleman came over to our truck and greeted us. He let us know that him and his son had gotten their two elk the day prior and had quartered both of them and packed one of them out. They lost daylight before they could get the second one out and therefore were going to pack it out that morning. They gave us some tips on the best route to climb the mountain and told us where they had seen elk. It was like clock work... as soon as the sun rose, the snow and wind stopped. We couldn't believe it, we had perfect tracking snow (a little on the deep side if you ask me) and the weather was absolutely beautiful. And now my dad got to witness the mule deer circus. There were bucks running their does all over the mountain. It was amazing.
We reached the top and were greeted by a ton of scrub oak. I was not exactly hyped on the situation and I wanted to get into a position where we could glass into it. We started towards a rise where we could see into the thick scrubs. Before we could get there though my dad said, "I see the right color." Now after seeing so much "mule deer gray", I was about ready to see some "wapiti tan". He was seeing a patch of tan through a hole in the scrub oak about 900 yards away. I had just found the hole that he was talking about in my binoculars when a cow elk's head moved through it. I dropped my pack so that I could move through the scrub easier and with just my rifle, took off for a ridge that connected with the one that she was on. I had only made it about 150 yards when I looked up and there was an elk stepping out from behind a patch of scrub oak at about 100 yards. I froze. When it put its head down I brought the rifle up. It had antlers... darn it! I only had a cow tag. I waited for the young, raghorn bull to get out of sight and I had to adjust my course slightly so as not to spook him. I popped out on the other side of a the large swath of scrub oak and was able to once again see the ridge that she had been on. I got set up and waited for her to step out. She didn't. "Where is she?", I thought. I waited fifteen minutes and it didn't seem like she was there. Things didn't feel right. I took off once more for a saddle in the ridge that she had been on. I worked down the spine of her ridge looking for where her tracks had crossed it. They never did. She must have been in the scrub on top of the ridge and not on its slope.
I knew what I had to do... but I didn't like my odds. I was just going to have to walk into the scrub in the direction that I thought she had been. The good thing was that this scrub was slightly more open than the rest but it was still going to be up close and personal. I had only made it about 30 yards into the scrub when I heard something stand up. This is where my normal "hunter brain" turned off and my inner Neanderthal took over. Without any thought, I just took off running in the direction of the sound. I had only made it about 20 yards when I ran into three elk beds. I turned and followed their tracks, just seconds behind them. Then all of a sudden, there they were. On the opposite side of a patch of scrub, only 20 yards in front of me, were a spike, a cow and a calf. Even my .338 Winchester Mag was not going to punch through the limbs and take one of them out. They stared back at me with a look on their faces like, "These two-legged things never actually chase us! What the hell is wrong with this one?!" They then dove off the steep side of the ridge. I ran around the patch of scrub and started skiing (best description of running down that slope in the snow) down the ridge in their tracks. Out of the corner of my eye I caught brown. I slid to a halt, brought my gun up and took two big steps backwards up the hill. My eyes were met by the sight of the cow and the calf standing between two junipers. The cow's vitals were shielded by one of the trees and so I quickly painted the calf's vitals with the crosshairs and let the big gun belch. She slid down the slope and an old juniper stopped her decent.
My dad got on the radio and being the packing monster that he is, brought both his and my gear to the site of the kill. We drank some water and threw down some snacks before starting to field dress her. The weather had been amazing up until about half way through quartering her and then it got nasty. The wind and snow moved in and visibility was cut considerably. It was one heck of a nasty pack out but I am glad to have had my dad there for it. Without trekking poles, I would not have made it off that mountain with her on my back.
It was an amazing hunt. Not many hunters can say that they have literally chased down elk on foot and I can say that without an ounce of exaggeration. Of course if they hadn't stopped to look back things would have turned out differently but it is still a very unique hunt. The time spent with both my mom and my dad was also priceless. Although my mom did not get an animal, she had a blast. She wants to do it again next year... but much earlier in the year due to the weather we received. I do not usually get to hunt shoulder to shoulder with my dad because we are usually hunting for ourselves so this was a great opportunity to do so. I will never forget it. And for a year when I only had about half the time I normally have to chase big game animals around the west... it was just icing on the cake.