2020 CO archery Elk recap

FlyGuy

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I’ve seen this type of write up done a few times but I’ve never taken the time to do it myself before now. I feel like I want to document all this for my own future benefit as much as anything else, but some of you might enjoy the read. It’s a story that has just about everything IMO...

First, some background. I live in TX and I just turned 47. My 1st archery elk hunt was in 2016 and I’ve been completely obsessed with it ever since. (Obsessed is the word my wife would use, I call it passionate or dedicated). But either way, it really has been life changing for me. It gave me the motivation I needed to focus on my health and I’ve been doing CrossFit for the past 4 years. I train and read and practice and buy way too much gear all year long while eagerly awaiting September to arrive. I turned the training up several notches during covid lockdown, and I was going into September 2020 in the best shape of my life.

For the past two seasons prior to this I’ve hunted with 2 good buddies from work, Trevor and John. Both of them are a good 10 years younger than me so I have to work twice as hard in the off-season to keep up with them in the mountains. In 2018 I drew an OIL NR Moose tag in Idaho. After not seeing a single moose for 9 days I was able to call a bull into 20 yards and take it with my bow with these 2 guys there to help. In 2019 we drew an early Archery Gila tag in NM, and John took a huge (360”) bull on the last hunt day of a 16 day trip. We’ve had really good luck drawing tags, and thus far had managed to dig out good bulls after putting in many miles and many hard days.

This year we drew a CO tag. It was our back-up plan. This was one of those San Juan units that CPW converted to limited entry this year to help out the elk herd. The main reason for choosing it was because John had hunted it several times for Mule deer so he was familiar with it. We really didn’t think it would matter, but after blanking in all other draws we set our sights on southern CO. We knew it would be tough but we were determined and confident in our plan and our abilities.

Day 0 (9/10/20) - The Pack in:

We all Met up for a final breakfast in a diner off of Route 66 in NM and laid out some pancakes! After months of planning and waiting this was finally happening! One last pregame meal and we were on our way. The big cold front was just now clearing our hunt area and the snowfall would soon be wrapping up. We should arrive to clear blue skies, but we were uncertain what the road or hiking conditions might be when we arrived. That's me in front with the long hair/Covid Cut. Trevor is back left and that's John on the right in the sitka jacket.



6 hours later we roll up to the trailhead. No one there! I’d spent a good bit of time e-scouting and felt like I’d found an area that might be overlooked by most. The plan was to hike in ~ 3 miles that evening and set up a basecamp on a long flat top ridge that we could day-hunt or spike out from. Primary target areas were a few miles further West on the opposing ridges of a deep canyon, but we thought we could glass from here before committing. Our plan A spot also provided us with a lower elevation start, kicking off at only 7K. Coming from sea level, this starting point gave us a better acclimation period. Plan B was not thoroughly defined, but it would start us out at anywhere between 11K - 12.5K, but we had high hopes that Plan B would never come into play.


(Look at that hair!) Although we were not truly expecting to stay in this area the entire hunt, we each still packed in all 10 days of food. I’d much rather deal with packing the weight in and back out than to have to leave elk and spend a day hiking out to the truck and back for more food. The packs were loaded down to say the least. I was trying out a few new pieces of gear, had a couple comfort items (camp shoes, BTR stool, etc), and was trying out a much higher calorie/day target, so my pack was at the most ridiculous level I’ve ever packed it to - 77 lbs!!! (including 10 days of food and 5 liters of water). But I’d been training hard and was sure I could make the 3 miles without issue.



We left the trucks at 3:30pm and the hunt started. Very quickly we came across some very large and very fresh bear tracks.



John and I each had bear tags, and we thought the chances of seeing a bear might be even higher than elk! But the walk to our 1st campsite was extremely uneventful. No fresh sign of any kind besides the bear tracks. Zero bugles. But thankfully we had the area to ourselves. We eventually made the 1000’ climb up to the top of our flat top ridge and found it to be covered in thick oak brush. We staggered around for a while hoping to find a nice, flat, open location to set camp that would also gave us a nice view of the opposing ridge from our tents, but as the sun and the temps began to quickly fall we finally settled on a small clearing in the oakbrush that was sort of flat. I was ready to get that damn pack off by then and wasn't being choosy. It was getting cold fast and we were all beat so we were all in out bags by 8pm!







You can’t cheat the mountain
 
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FlyGuy

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Day 1

Awoke at 5am and got some water boiling. I discovered on this trip that mixing one packet of dark timber coffee with one packet of dark chocolate hot cocoa is a wonderful thing to wake up to in the Mtns!

We'd had a really rough trip in NM last year and we'd pretty much sworn off calling as a tactic this season. That previous year we were surrounded by bugling bulls almost every day, but if we bugled - they would run. If we cow called, they would run. If we raked, they would run. It was so frustrating, but we stayed committed. It was impossible to stalk in an endless sea of blowdown, they would pick you off and run. John was finally smart enough to sit a wallow and drilled a monster on our last day. This taught us that we needed to be more adaptable and less reliant on one way of doing things. But we were really call shy going into this hunt, especially knowing the pressure these elk had been under. Instead we planned to use spot and stalk as our primary means of hunting, and our strategy was to glass areas of low pressure. Most of this target area didn't have the best habitat, lots of South facing and lower elevation. The part that did have good habitat looked to be near impossible to reach, but we were hoping it might prove different once we saw it in person. I'd also packed in my 15x and OD tripod, something I never usually bring on an elk hunt. But since we planned to rely less on calling I felt like the glassing tools would be necessary for success.

We really wanted to get eyes on the vast opposite hillside so the plan for the morning was to just hike north along the flat top we were camped on and glass from a few spots nearby. We couldn’t see anything from camp but after moving about 200 yards away we were finally able to get our first (partial) look at our target area. We still hadn’t seen the 1st elk track or scat, and hadn’t heard a bugle all night, so we were not yet mentally in full hunt mode when we stopped at that 1st glassing location. It was just at sunrise and My two partners were boiling water for their breakfast. I’d thrown out a few calls and location bugles with no response. I Hadn’t seen anything after a few minutes of glassing, and I think we were still talking a little too loud when John perked up. “Did you guys hear that...?” “Hear what?”, we asked. “I don’t know. But it sounded like elk?... Maybe it was just a limb?” So, a few minutes later we pack up and move towards the area where he heard the noise and I’ll be damned if there aren’t fresh elk tracks right there, maybe 40-50 yards from where we set up!



I couldn’t believe it. We’d had elk come in to our very 1st set, but we were so sure there weren’t any elk close by that we weren’t even watching the only direction they would come from! We felt quite stupid to say the least. It was both discouraging and encouraging at the same time. Discouraging because I know on a hunt in a unit like this you just don’t get many opportunities and we’d just blown a gift; but still encouraging because we were already into elk and the e-scouting had worked. We followed the tracks through the snow for a couple hundred yards more before seeing another good opening to glass the opposite hill from. As I slid the aluminum legs out of my OD tripod I heard the unmistakable, sickening sound of scrambling elk hooves only 50-60 yards away. I guess they didn’t really spook much the 1st time and we had crept in much closer to them than we thought, but the metallic sound of those tripod legs put them in full scramble mode. Very disappointing to have now blown 2 opportunities in the 1st hour of our hunt.

We changed plans and decided to hunt the rest of the ridge we were on instead. We followed tracks a while longer and made our way along the ridge without much more excitement. We found some fresh elk beds (likely from the ones we had just blown out) and stopped to try some cold calling but didn't have any takers. It seemed like we had spooked the handful of elk that were on this small ridge. We finally topped out on a knife ridge that provided one of the best glassing stations that I’ve ever seen.


After quite a while behind the 15’s I was finally able to locate a group of 5-7 cows slowly feeding up a North slope towards a giant, triangular aspen flat that looked like an elk Mecca. No way to get there before dark today, but I knew the plan for tomorrow. We continued North and down the backside of the peak we were on towards the remnants of an old trail that appeared to circle back towards our campsite. The way down though quickly became sketchy. Although the topo lines appeared to be identical as the way up, this backside was MUCH steeper of a decent and the deep snow was making it worse. Lots of falls and lots of hairy, uncontrolled slides later we finally reached the saddle and the old trail. We were able to make good time along the old trail, stopping occasionally to bugle but never getting a response. We had melted some snow earlier, but just before abandoning the trail to bushwhack towards camp we found a small damn in the trickle of a creek we were following where a quantity of water had collected. We filtered some fresh water for the rest of the hike and filled up 4x 6 liter bags of camp water.


Now dark and a mile or so to go with heavy packs full of water we set out and VERY quickly found ourselves in an impenetrable jungle of deadfall and thicket. My favorite. The temps were again falling fast and we were soaked from our long trek and all the falling in the snow. Somehow, we stumbled upon an old unmarked trail that led us directly back to within a couple hundred yards of our campsite. That was such a godsend and quickly lifted our spirits! It seemed luck was on our side this trip. We again quickly got out of our wet clothes and into our bags to re-warm. The fire ban in the unit was a real bummer as that is such a fun part of the experience, but at that moment I was just happy to be out of the wind and the wet clothes.

So day one came to a close with two encounters, one siting of elk thru glass, and no bugles. I’ve certainly had worse 1st days....

Total miles = 6.7
Total time = 13.30 hrs




You can’t cheat the mountain
 
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FlyGuy

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Day 2:

With our rush the night before to get dry and warm in our own individual shelters we didn’t work out a plan for day 2 so we debated that over breakfast. I was set on making the long hike down, over, and up (way, way up) to that big ole aspen flat that I just knew held dozens of elk. To me it made no sense to make that hike for a day hunt, it would be far too intense of a hunt and IMO we needed to spike out there for a few days. I also couldn’t imagine making that decent back down to Basecamp in the dark. My two partners were less convinced though, and they wanted to just make a day hunt to be certain before committing to packing up camp and relocating across the basin. We cussed and discussed these options for a while and eventually came up with the plan that the two of them would make their way across and day hunt the area just south of the aspens, while I would grab 3 days of food and make the climb up to those aspens and spike out there for at least the night and next day. If I got into elk i’d let them know by inReach, if not I’d climb down the next afternoon. This would give us the ability to check out both of the areas I felt were most likely to hold elk in the shortest amount of time.

With that settled, they set off and I set to packing up for a longer stay. I had my Supertarp set up here as a basecamp and planned to leave it. For a spike camp I was taking my OR bivy sack and Sheep tarp. I knew it would be a steep descent down to the creek and then a VERY steep climb up to the aspens, so I did something that I almost never do during the daytime - I strapped my bow onto my pack. Everything was ready to go, I just needed my solar panel to finish recharging my battery bank so that I didn’t need to carry both of them. It was taking longer than I’d like, but it was worth the time to wait. So I was standing there right next to my tarp in that little clearing in the oakbrush checking inReach messages on my phone when I heard a curious rustling sound and looked up to see this good sized bear step into view just 15 yards away...



It’s amazing how fast you can literally feel yourself slide down the food chain. He popped out directly beneath one of our poorly hung food bags. We’ve never had bear issues and we were admittedly lazy about hanging our food - especially with two bear tags in hand. Yet, here I was with a nice bear 15 yards away - but my bow was 10 yards away and strapped to my pack.

The bear looked dead at me then put his head down as if to say to himself “Crap, they’re still here! I was sure I heard them leave! Now, what to do... what to do...”. I didn’t move a muscle, but realized that I did have my phone in my hand so I got some video of him. He looked at me and back at the food bag a few times. I thought for a second he might let me ease over to my bow since he seemed to know I was there and hadn’t left yet... but I took one tiny step on that dry, crunchy ground and he immediately whirled and bounded off down the hill towards the creek bottom.

My heart was racing! I quickly grabbed my bow and knocked an arrow and crept over to the edge to see if I could put eyes on him but saw nothing. I gave it some time, maybe 30 minutes, to see if he would return but it appeared he was gone for the time being. I figured that he would come back after I left and destroy our food cash if I didn’t do anything so I set about hanging our food bags proper. I found a spot 100 yards from camp and got all the bags hung 10’ high from limbs that were 10’ from the tree trunk. This took much longer than I thought, but it was finally done and by now my battery bank was fully charged so it was time to go. I Decided that before hiking out I’d better get more food in me for this trek, so I set my bow down on my pack again and then sat down against the base of a big pine tree and ate a bar and messaged a few people about the exciting encounter I’d just had.

It was right about then when I heard a faint shuffle of leaves, like a small bird... or when a small, leafy limb falls softly to the ground... my senses are still on high alert and I look to my left to see that bear had circled around 180 degrees to come in from the southeast. He is now 20 yards away from me. I can just see his head popping up above the oak brush as he sort of stand on back legs. He's looking right at the tree that previously held the food bags and making big sniffing motions. And, of course, my bow is once again not within reach.

Once his head dropped back down below the brush I made an attempt to quietly bear crawl over to my bow, but once I was nocked, clipped in and stepped out from behind the pine tree ready to draw he was long gone again. It is truly amazing just how quiet those bears can be. That was some noisy, dry-dry ground and I still never heard him until he was within spitting distance from me.

I decided right then and there to change my plans. Today, I was bear hunting. With the hope that he would make one more attempt I set up a ground blind and waited out the remainder of the afternoon. Sadly, he was apparently gone for good. I should have brought a predator mouth call along with me but never thought I would actually use it. I'll fix that for future years. But, it was an exciting morning and an inadvertent rest day. My buddies arrived just before sundown after a long day on the opposing hillside with bad news. They had seen no fresh elk sign the entire day. They had also gotten eyes on my intended path up to the aspen flat that I was intending to go to the following day and reported that the climb would be impossible. Several sheer faces that would require true climbing gear to ascend.



So, with that news we decided it was time to move on to plan B. In the morning we would break camp and hike out to the trucks and relocate to another part of the unit. I wasn't as familiar with these areas and did very little e-scouting in them, but John knew these places well so we would be relying heavily on his experience for the remainder of the trip. So we were leaving our plan A earlier than expected. But, it was still an exciting start to the hunt with legitimate elk and bear opportunities on the 1st two days of the trip.

Total Miles = 0





You can’t cheat the mountain
 
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FlyGuy

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Day 3:

We awoke that morning a bit surprised at how well we all slept, given that we were sure that bear was going to come back during the night. But there were no signs of trouble to be found. Still, not a single bugle had been heard by anyone. So, with our number one spot having been determined to be unreachable, and our number two spot not having any elk sign, we decided it was time to pack out and move on to plan B.

I am always shocked at how long it takes to go through this process, but eventually we were all loaded up and ready to fight through the oak brush thickets and make the 3 mile trek back to the trucks. The hike back was rugged but uneventful until we got back to the trailhead. 1st, we noticed what appeared to be muddy dog prints all over Trevor's truck, but upon closer inspection realized that the were the muddy footprints of a curious bear. It went all around the cab, jumped into the bed, and out the other side, leaving scratches in the paint job.

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The second thing that happened was that John got an inReach message to call home. This turned out to be the call we were all dreading. John's mom had just passed away back in Midland, TX. John's father had passed away just about 2 months ago and his Mom's health had been suffering ever since. He told me several weeks ago that "I just hope she doesn't pass while we are on the elk hunt", but sadly, 3 days into our annual adventure his somber prediction came true. It was a very emotional moment. Lots of hugs and apologies. The one, albeit extremely minor, positive is that he got the message the moment we arrived at the trucks and not hours later after packing into a new backcountry camp, but I know that did nothing to ease the pain and loss.

Pretty quickly we were all loaded up and John pointed his truck South for TX while Trevor and I headed further West to look at a new area. Things were going to be very different now. John is the comic relief for the group, I tend to get too serious w/o him around so its nice to just laugh at his jokes and put things into perspective. And he's a damn good hunter with the best game eye of the group. But most of all our "guide" was now gone. The guy who knew the unit, knew all the other areas that we would be going into, what the roads were like, etc... Almost all of my e-scouting had been focused on the area we just left, so I was suddenly aware of how underprepared I was for this next stage. I just hadn't planned for this contingency and I knew that our inexperience in the unit would result in us making mistakes and generally slow us down. All these factors start to add up and you can feel the odds of success get longer and longer with every setback. Another thing was that his departure had essentially cut my trip short by ~ 3 days. Trevor had a hard stop and needed to be on the road back home on the morning of Friday the 18th, while John and I had planned to stay until the morning of the 20th. I'm not opposed to hunting solo, and do it often, but I was aware that killing a bull solo at the very end of my trip may require me to take several more days of vacation to pack it out, and I was already pushing my limits. I decided not to worry about that for now, but it was weighing on my mind and increasing the pressure I was feeling to utilize every remaining minute as efficiently as possible.

We headed next to an area that John had mentioned to us that wasn't terribly far away. Trevor and I didn't discuss a plan much before getting into our trucks at the last trailhead as I guess we were both still kind of processing the change that had just happened. It was still early in the day and it felt like we had plenty of time to talk it over and decide exactly what to do next after we got to this next destination and laid eyes on it. What we didn't know is that this relatively short drive would us over 3 hours to complete! (Inexperience!).

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We finally pulled up to the top and parked about a quarter past 3 pm. We were well above treeline and everything was covered in fairly deep snow. We still didn't have much of a plan yet but we were really feeling a huge sense of urgency to "do something". Since it had taken us so long to drive back here we decided we better give it a go. We left the last TH in a hurry so it took some time to get our packs reorganized for another long pack in. Again, this ends up taking me so much longer than I ever plan for, something I really need to work on! But around 4:30pm we set out with camp and enough food to last us through the 5 days that Trevor had left to hunt.

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The trail we were on followed the Ridgeline of some tall mtns and it appeared to be some steep drops down from there to the ridges we would hunt. We had a goal to hike ~ 3 miles along this trail before dark and set camp in an area that looked like we could drop down from. It was a stupid plan from the start, we just didn't know it yet. Fueled by a sense of urgency to stop wasting any more time and the impending sunset, we set out with heavy packs at a brisk pace. On the positive side, it was one of the most beautiful hikes I've ever had. And dumb decisions often make for good stories.


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So, we made it just shy of our 3 mile goal before realizing that this plan was just never going to work. We were still well above treeline, and would not be able to safely climb down any of these ridges from the peaks to hunt them unless we hiked another 3 miles or so to reach more suitable terrain. Then, even if we did that, we would still have to drop down another couple miles and lose thousands of feet in elevation to reach elk habitat, so the prospect of getting an elk out of here looked damn near impossible. Well, maybe not impossible, but stupid for sure. So, with the sun quickly setting, we swallowed our pride and admitted defeat. After a really tough 2.75 mile speed hike through snow at ~ 12.5K', we turned around and headed back to the trucks. I've only felt that stupid a few other times in my life, but that was a real low. The lack of pre-planning, the distraction of trying to reorg my pack while thinking about my trip suddenly being several days shorter, the better part of the day unexpectedly being consumed with a 3 hour Mtn drive - all pushed me to fall victim to the sense of urgency in my head to "GO!", instead of stopping to really think. We wasted a lot of energy carrying heavy packs on that completely useless 5.5 mile hike. There wasn't a lot of talking on the trip back to the trucks, but the views were spectacular.


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We made it back to the trucks just after full dark, exhausted and soaked. Made dinner in the cab and then made the long drive down the mtn in the dark. There was another spot not too far away that John had mentioned seeing elk in every year so we decided it was as good of a place as any to hunt in the am. We pulled into a parking area around 11pm and just tilted the seats back and slept in the trucks. I hate sleeping in my truck seat but I was way too tired to set up a camp to only be used a couple of hours. It was a long night of restless sleep and it felt like a completely wasted day.

Total Miles = 8.5
 
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FlyGuy

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Day 4:

We awoke at 1st light on the morning of Day 4 pretty haggard. Very little sleep sitting in the driver's seat and not being able to stretch out. My truck looked like a bomb went off. Every bit of interior space that isn't the drivers seat is littered with a mass of hunting gear, clothing, food bags, optics and tripods... I feel like we really wasted a day yesterday, and we don't have much of a plan for today. But 1st, coffee.

John sent us a pin on where he had seen elk so we pointed the trucks in that direction, slow going down this narrow mountain road. We eventually made it to the spot he pinned and we glassed the mountainside while making breakfast and getting our heads together. We saw an older hunter returning to his truck and talked to him a while. He was hunting MZ bear. He talked about how good the elk hunting used to be in this unit, but that it really fell off 4-5 years ago and it was flat terrible now. Still, he gave us some spots to check out where he had seen them in the past. It wasn't feeling right tho. It was dead silent and just plain hot where we were. Lower elevation and all southern facing. We broke out the map and spent some time going over our options, something we should have done the day before. After a good bit of back and forth we came up with a plan. It required a good 40 mile drive North, well outside of our Unit, and a drive up another sketchy mountain road to the same ridgeline we tried to hike the evening before, but about 20 miles North. It was 10am, and we figured it would take us until about 3 pm to get there.

The road up the mountain that we were concerned about turned out to be the worst yet. It was very skinny and super rocky and just made for extremely slow going. At one point we had to pass a dually truck that had made the mistake of trying to come down this road and that took a lot of conversation and figuring to get the trucks past each other. The last thing we wanted was a flat tire up there so we took it really easy and 2 hours later we had finally made the 4 mile climb up to the top. With every hour wasted I can feel the pressure in my mind build.

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We laid out the Tut as a basecamp/truck camp as quickly as we could and then spent the remainder of the day driving along the ridge and glassing into a large burn hoping to catch a glimpse of elk moving and giving us a solid starting point for the next morning.

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At one of the glassing locations we ran into some hunters from Arkansas that had been hunting this same location for 30 years. They basically repeated what the last hunter told us, that they had pulled a lot of elk out of this unit over the years but it had gotten really bad the last few years. They had been up here for almost a week now and had yet to even locate any fresh elk sign! That was some depressing news, but the area looked much better than where we had been previously and after this we were totally out of ideas anyway.

Unfortunately, no elk were glassed up that evening, but once again the views were amazing. We road bugled all the way back to camp just hoping for something to answer us, but nothing was talking even in the dead of night. Still, shitty elk hunting is still way, way better than being at work!

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That night in the tent we worked out a plan for the next day. In the morning we would drive down the mountain and drop a truck in the bottom at a TH. That trail ran alongside a creek in the bottom that paralleled the ridgeline we were camped on. After dropping the truck we would drive back up to the top and, once the thermals switched, we would work our way down one of the long finger ridges several miles down to the creek. Then take the trail out to the waiting truck and drive back up to camp. It felt like a good plan. An Efficient plan. And it felt really good to have a plan again after spending the last two days spit-balling and really not hitting on anything. We picked a good long ridge that appeared to be fairly easy walking, marked some good looking bedding locations to check out, and crashed for the night.

Total Miles (Hiked) = 0
 
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FlyGuy

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Day 5:

We were in the trucks early and heading down the mtn to drop the 1st vehicle per the plan. After getting thrown by John's unexpected departure and then spinning our wheels charging into areas without any plan, it finally felt like we had our heads back on and were really hunting again. Being an out-of-stater, these elk hunts are far too short and take so long to get here. I hate to waste a moment of daylight being ineffective, but I knew we'd done just that and it had cost us 2 days. This was now Tuesday morning and my partner had to be on the road on Friday morning, which left us with just 3 days to find and kill a bull. Our tags were only good for 4 points one one side or better, no cows, no spikes; and in a unit like this it was going to be a huge challenge.

When we got to the bottom of the valley it flattened out and there was a large parking area that had dozens and dozens of trucks parked in it. :mad: We really hadn't run into much hunting pressure at all thus far into the trip, so it was shocking to see that this is where all the hunters are, and it immediately had me second guessing our plan. Turns out that trail through the bottom had ATV access so it pulled in the hunters from far and wide. It took us a good 50 min to make the drive down so I threw gear into Trevor's truck as quickly as possible and we were on our way back up. On the drive up we did 1 round of Rock/Paper/Scissors to determine who would be the 1st shooter. I chose paper, Trevor chose scissors...

Back at the top we used an existing trail to get going but broke off from it after just a few hundred yards as it followed the drainage down and we were holding to the ridgetop. The trail would give us a quick way back up if needed, or down as it eventually connected with the ATV trail at the creek in the bottom. It really took a while to get going. We waited until we felt the thermals change and started slowly working our way down the ridgetop, but shortly into the trip some cloud cover came in and had our wind heading down in front of us again. We ended up waiting that out for over an hour under some junipers and trying to nap. I recall becoming quite frustrated in that moment. It finally felt like we were back on our game and doing the right things, but bad wind had us once again sitting on our asses and not making any progress. Still, I knew that waiting it out was the right call, and as much as I wanted to get moving down to lower elevations where we expected the elk to be, there was no point in forging ahead with the wind at our backs. I took some comfort in knowing we were being smart and being patient, but being patient is not my greatest talent.

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Eventually the temps rose enough that the thermals were back to doing what they were supposed to do and around noon we were once again feeling like predators. For the extreme steepness of this entire area this ridgeline was surprisingly easy walking. My thoughts that I was such a great hunter to have come up with this idea were quickly crushed though as I began to notice the carved aspens all along this ridgeline! I'd never seen anything like it. There were literally hundreds of carved aspen trees along our route, many dating back to the 50's. With a few even older than that! We were certainly not the 1st guys to think this ridge looked like a good place to hunt!

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This one was my favorite - "I Killed Roy's Elk"

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We made our way down the ridge, taking our time, throwing out a few calls, but it was silent. We were just not seeing any fresh sign at all even though we were reaching the lower elevations where we expected to start picking it up. At one point we heard a distinct cow call and got really excited, but it eventually turned out to be another hunter making his way up the ridge. We didn't have a chance to talk with him but assumed he had just walked, with his wind going the wrong way, right through the area we intended to hunt. To make matters worse we were now getting within walking distance from that main ATV trail in the bottom, so we expected to start running into more pressure and fake bugles at any moment. Things were definitely not looking good for elk killing, but there were some nice looking benches and protected drainages still waiting below us that just couldn't be seen unless you were standing right on top of them, so I still held out hope that we could come across something before the end of the day.

We soon reached a point on the ridgeline where it split into a giant "Y" with one ridge going to our left and one to our right, and opening up directly below us into a beautiful bowl between them. It was a great spot, but it was also a heavily used outfitter camp for the past 1000 years apparently as firewood was piled up and more and more trees were carved! It felt like we were the last ones to the party, but we still stopped to glass the bowl for a bit before making our way down the ridge.

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FlyGuy

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After a snack, we through out a few bugles which were answered by complete silence; then we through our packs back on and took the ridge that went to our left. Around this time Trevor thought he heard a quiet chuckle, but after listening for a while decided it must have been a bird. Just a bit further down the ridge our path became quite narrow and each side dropped off steeply to the bottoms below. This looked like a great spot to locate bugle from so I through in the Phelp's black AMP reed and gave it a go. To our amazement, my call was IMMEDIATELY answered with a nasty challenge bugle from the ridge face across the bowl! Huh??? 1st thought - "No way that's an elk". 2nd thought - But damn, that guy sure would have to be quick on the draw to cut me off like that. His tube must have already been in his hand?? I hadn't even gotten the tube away from my lips before he was bugling over me. Had to be a good caller.

We sat down on the ridge and glassed across to the opposing face for a good 10 minutes before making another sound. "What are the odds? We've been running around for 6 days without hearing a single damn bugle, Not ONE. And then the very 1st one we hear is a mature herd bull that's ready to fight us from all the way across the valley?? No way. That's got to be a hunter". Finally I throw out another locator bugle and same thing! He jumps all over me with a raspy, angry bugle with a big throaty umph at the end. Trevor and I look at each other with big eyes and say, "Damn, that dude is a GOOD caller!"

So I through another call at him and he comes back. We do this for a good 15 minutes. I am in no way believing this is really an elk, but I am growing more and more convinced that I just ran into Corey Jacobson! He is by far the best sounding elk caller I've ever heard. There are so many things that just aren't adding up to me. Why is he so angry, I'm not even close to him? We are ranging the patch of timber that the bugles are coming from and they are over 280 yards away? Yet he's fired up like I just walked into his bedroom? But, on the other hand, why would a hunter be calling from such a perfect bedding spot? It was a small patch of extremely dark timber in this tiny little fold of the only bit of North slope in the ridge, with a small bench in otherwise very steep terrain. In my mind I rationalized that he must have been still hunting through that area and just happened to be in that timber patch when we happened by.

So we kept it up. I'd bugle, he'd challenge. I'd challenge back and he'd challenge back something ferocious. It was all a perfect script right from the ElkNut's playbook. I told Trevor, "If he starts raking next then I KNOW its a hunter!". I swear to God, 5 seconds after I said that we hear the limbs breaking and him thrashing away! But man he sounded so good. I was honestly feeling a little bashful about my calling abilities! I mean, I think I'm pretty good, but this guy was on a whole different level! I was sort of embarrassed at how much better he was than me! I just did my best to do what he was doing and tried to keep up!

We are now a good 30-35 minutes into this screaming match and we still haven't moved 3 feet. Trevor is just not buying any of it. He told me, "I can't believe you are falling for his crap, why are you letting him play you?", and he's just standing there waiting for this guy's buddy to come creeping in below us looking for a shot. I tell him, "you should probably go over there." but he isn't budging... No way Trevor's getting called in by a dude. Pride. Next I tell him, "If you don't go over there this minute, then you're going to wonder for the rest of your life whether or not this was a real bull." I could tell that made a dent, but he still hadn't moved yet. We bugle back and forth some more, and with each response we both continue to be amazed at the volume this guy could achieve with his calling. What freaking tube is he running? Finally I say to Trevor, "There is no shame in getting called in by this guy. In fact, I want to know his name! I want you to go over there - tell him he's the best damn caller I've ever heard -and shake his freaking hand for me". That did it. Trevor was finally moving.

The plan was I would basically stay put and try to keep this guy (bull?) talking while Trevor dropped down and hooked around downwind of him, got on the same level and worked his way in for a shot (or, more likely, for a selfie with Corey and maybe even get him to autograph a bugle tube). At this point I started applying more pressure. I really started putting the anger in my calling and giving him some loud, loud Grunts. I noticed that the bugles were now imitting from different locations so he was on his feet. Still on the same hillside, but some distance had been quickly covered. I thought to myself, "man, this guy can call AND he's in damn good shape!" It was fun, way more fun than we'd had at any other point thus far on the trip, but I was 80% sure this was a dude on the other ridge. Still, I figured that the two of us sounded pretty damn good, so if there were any real elk in this valley at all then they should be coming in for peek at us. I decided to knock an arrow just in case.



(To be continued.... LSU is kicking off)
 
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WoodrowCall

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Great story/recap so far. Enjoying it.
This part of the story is reminding me of the recent thread about telling the difference between a bull and another hunter, and when to chase each. The consensus was “chase every single one!” Haha
 

lotsofshots

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You’ve got me on pins and needles FlyGuy! Can’t wait for the rest!


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weeble19

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Loving the detail of the story. Also glad to hear that the downtrodden thoughts and despair that creep into my head aren’t just isolated to me. Can’t wait to read the rest.


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FlyGuy

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Day 5 Continued.... (sorry about that)

Trevor slips off down and to my right, 1st away from the action and towards the head of the bowl but will continue to follow it around back to the left and towards the dark timber and the bugles. He wants to stay above or on the same level as the bull. It's about 4 pm now and thermals are still moving up the mtn and there is a pretty strong and very steady South wind that is hitting me square in the face so I like our chances there, but no telling what the wind might be doing down in the bottom of that bowl. Once Trevor committed to a stalk I set my mind that this was a bull. In reality I figured it was 50/50, but I didn't want my doubts to play into my calling, so from then on this was a bull until proven otherwise.

I didn't want to get skylined on the top of that finger so I moved down into the bowl about 40 yards, found a big heavy stick and started smashing dead limbs off of a pine and raking the bark. That small movement in his direction really got him pissed and I felt him change his tone even more. Next I did some Glunking with the big Phelps tube, mostly b/c I'd been calling like crazy for over 45 minutes now and I was frankly just running out of elk sounds that I knew how to make. That must have sent him into orbit because the next thing I know this guy is sounding off on my side of the drainage! I'm thinking to myself, "No way a guy on two legs could cover distance like that and still have the air in his lungs to blow that loud?" And that's about the time that I saw him. I never got a look at his rack, but I saw the unmistakable tan, muscular body of a Bull elk slowly moving from left to right through the brush down below me. Suddenly, shit got real. My adrenaline levels immediately spiked and now I've got cotton-mouth and I'm feeling confused about what to do next. I think for the next 2 minutes I sort of froze up, just breathing heavy and my hands are shaking and I just keep whispering to myself "Oh shit! Oh Shit! Oh shit!"

I tried to range the spot where I saw him pass but it was just a tangle of downed trees and young aspens, best I could tell he was about 120 yards away but he was coming! I no longer had eyes on Trevor but I assumed his trajectory had overshot the bull's current location. We had a decent signal in that area so I quickly sent him a text that said "REAL BULL!!!!" and I went back to calling. My throat was raw by now, but I gave him the nastiest stuff I had left. Keep coming baby! This was by far the longest marathon calling session I'd ever experienced. He was coming in! Up hill! With the wind at his back! He'd had enough and he was coming to Kill me and it was exhilarating! At some point it registered that I'd heard a cow call in the mix. Forgot about the cows! Don't get busted by the cows and blow this! Cows make sense. Of course there are cows, that's why he's so touchy! He has a hot cow and he wants me out of here.

Then, suddenly, I catch glimpses of him again through the brush, back down in that same area where I saw him minutes before. But this time he is moving from my right to left, reversing course. quickly. What???? NoNoNoNoNo! What happened??? I give out another loud growling bugle. Absolute Silence. This is the first bugle he hasn't answered in almost a full hour of calling. I do it again. Still Nothing. WTF??? I know the wind didn't swirl! I know he didn't see me!! I didn't see or hear any of those cows bust! I keep calling, I keep getting nothing. I pull out my phone to text Trevor and see....


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Jubilation!!! It worked! I mean, I was really looking forward to meeting Corey or Paul Medel or whichever elk calling champion it was that I thought was standing on that Ridge. But I could deal with the disappointment!
We just sucked that bull - who seemed to be the only damn bull in the whole unit - all the way across the canyon and into the shooter! Holy Shit it worked!

I put my arrow safely back into my quiver, gathered up all my stuff and made my way down into the bottom to find Trevor. He'd kept his head, probably better than I would have. He hadn't moved from the spot he was standing when he let the arrow go and he is not taking his eyes off of his mental mark of where the bull was standing when he shot. We drop a couple of pins and talk about it.

He said he was repeating to telling himself on the way over - "don't stalk to failure" - something we recently picked up from a Brian Barney podcast. He was working his way around the bowl taking it slow and deliberate, but when the bull got out of his bed and crossed down through the bottom he found himself well past the bull. The bull was now between us so he slowly worked his way back in my direction, being cautious not to spook anything, when he looked up and saw antlers just 15 yards in front of him! He said all he could see above the brush were antlers and eyes, which were staring directly at him. He said, "I just remember that he was pretty, but I wouldn't let myself look at his antlers. I just counted points 1, 2, 3, 4... he's legal! After that I was only looking at vitals" He said he was able to knock an arrow since his lower body was blocked from the bull's view. The bull just continued to stare at him but then I bugled again and the bull lost all interest in him, turned away and moved in my direction. Trevor drew back and had him at 20 but no shot, eventually he had to let down. The bull caught some of that movement and got nervous. He started arcing away from both of us, back towards his bed, but was walking not running. As the bull passed behind some brush Trevor was able to draw a second time but had no time to range anything. He let out a cow call when the bull hit a TINY opening between two young aspens, guessed it to be 40 yards, and let it fly.

I was elated! This was my first time to successfully call in a bull for a shooter. It felt amazing! Trevor was worried about the shot. He didn't know if his yardage guess was correct. Heard the arrow make impact but didn't see where. While we were whispering all of a sudden we hear what sounded like multiple gunshots going off close by! We both wanted to duck and cover but it hit me that it was a tree snapping and falling. Weird. Not much wind. After 30 min i walked out to the spot where he thought the bull was standing when he shot and immediately see blood! He ranges me at 44 yards.

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(stay tuned for more...)
 
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FlyGuy

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The Shot was at 4:30pm, it is now 5. The blood trail is massive, but secretly I don’t love the color. I tell him that I will work on the blood trail but I don’t want him looking at the ground at all. I know his mind isn’t really working in the present right now. He’s playing everything back and thinking about how much he wants to just get to the end and find him, and about how terrible it will feel if we don’t. I tell him to knock an arrow, move slowly and quietly right behind me, and keep his eyes focused up and ahead looking for the bull in case we bump him or see him bedded up. I have to tell him this 5 or 6 times over the next 20 minutes. Not much is registering, but we move ahead.

The blood this bull is losing is shocking. I keep expecting to see him piled up at every turn but it just keeps going. I’ve seen a brisket hit before, and that’s what I’m most worried about. Massive amounts of blood for 75 to 100 yards that fill you with absolute confidence and has you picturing yourself skipping gleefully up to a giant carcass at any second… then little by little the blood slowly starts to peter out, and your stomach begins to knot… and the trail gets smaller and smaller, and the drops are spread farther and farther and your confidence completely evaporates… then you are on hands and knees frantically searching for that next drop… until finally the realization sinks in that you just won’t find him… and all those images that have been playing in your head of rolling back into camp, chest out, big smile, giant elk rack peeking out from the truck bed... are now just an added insult to amplify the sickening disappointment. No one ever wants an unrecovered elk, but far better to have never believed the arrow was true than to experience the depth of disappointment of falling from the highest of highs.

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After 150 yards I am concerned. After 250 yards I am worried and very confused.

We take a break. In my entire life, this blood trail is by far the easiest to follow. No bending over at all. If you stop you can just follow it with your eyes for the next 10 – 20 yards, walk up and do it again. This bull is bleeding, but something is not right. Its 5:30pm. Let’s think about this. It’s only been an hour, Maybe we give him more time? Maybe we completely back out and come back in the morning? Neither of us are ready to pop smoke just yet, but we can both agree that giving him another hour is for sure a good move. I pull out a snack, my last one. For whatever reason my food bag for that day seemed to be several hundred calories light and I’m starving. We still hadn’t found Trevor's arrow so I told him he should backtrack to where he shot the bull and look for it, that it would keep his mind busy doing something productive or else this was going to be the longest hour of his life. He says he’s fine and sits down beside me. In less than a minute he says, “That was a good idea, I’m going look for that arrow”, and bounds off. In less than a minute after that - out-of-nowhere I hear a HUGE crack of thunder! To my complete shock, I turn to see the sky behind me is now completely black with storm clouds! Then Trevor comes back over the rise and into view and says, “Screw that arrow, let’s go!”

I have no idea where that storm came from but it is almost on top of us. We have no choice now but to push ahead on this blood trail, even if we risk bumping him. A hard rain is coming and it will wash away every last bit of this blood and we’ll never find him. So we are off, a little faster now. a good bit Less stealthy. At some point the blood passes right next to a freshly fallen tree, and we realize it’s the one we just heard falling earlier. The bull must have gotten wobbly and run head-on into this dead tree, uprooting it and completely knocking down! Its amazing the power these animals have.

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At 450 yards the blood trail is still strong and the rain seems to be moving to the East of us. We were back to a stalking pace, ready to see a bull slowly stand at any minute. I was still so confused by this blood trail. I don’t proclaim to be any sort of expert, but it wasn’t frothy lung blood. It looked like muscle blood to me, or maybe liver, but there was way too much of it for it to be either of those. Trevor still had a signal and I told him to send this picture of the blood on this wide leaf plant to John for his opinion on what type of hit this was. I really had no idea what we would find at the end of this, but I was thankful for the volume he was shedding that made the tracking so easy.

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Trevor takes the blood pic, sends the message to john... I stand, turn and take one step up the short rise in front of me and.....


BOOM! He is all piled up 25 yards away!



Here is youtube link to an extremely amateurish video that I shot with my phone of the walk up...

"Roy's Bull"
 

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