My 2019 DIY CO Elk Hunt "A First"

thamesj

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Decided to write a story about my first archery elk hunt. Wrote it mostly for myself, friends & family to keep the memories but thought I would share it here. I appreciate all the info & knowledge shared on this site. As a disclaimer, I'm not a writer or a photographer, and its long.

There’s something radically alluring about the idea of a first road trip out west to chase the mighty Wapiti in the Rocky Mountains. While I have been hunting since I was old enough to climb the ladder on the tower blind ove CO 1.jpg rlooking our oat patch in the Texas Hill Country with my dad, this would be my first trip out west to hunt elk with my bow.
I was fortunate enough to have a family friend who had moved up to Colorado 20 years ago and was kind enough to answer the phone when I called for some tips. Drew had hunted with my dad and I on a small deer lease in Central Texas and I remembered that he was an avid stick bow hunter. As luck would have it, not much had changed other than the size of his prey and the terrain in which he hunted. Drew gave me some great tips on general elk hunting strategies and said he would meet up with us and show us around when we made it to the mountains.

To learn as much as possible about hunting elk on public land, I spent hours upon hours watching YouTube videos and reading through forums. I found that several exceptional teams create and display fantastic content for free on YouTube. Hush, Born and Raised, Shed Crazy, Elk101, Randy Newburg and Pure Elevation are some that I found most helpful in terms of showing real hunting. These guys focus on showing the full hunt typically posting day-by-day videos with ups and downs, successes and failures that make hunting trips the priceless adventure I have always loved. I also spent a tremendous amount of time on Rokslide, which in my opinion is hands down the best CO 2.jpg forum for western hunting info. I will admit that I spent a pretty good portion of my time in the classifieds section looking for bargains on technical hunting gear. As a fair warning to others, it can become a serious addiction. However, I do not regret a single penny spent because when you’re several miles into the backcountry, and temperatures swing from below freezing to sunny and 75 every day, the extra comfort provided by quality gear is all worth it.

I found that preparing physically is also critical to success. While I spend most of my day working behind a desk, my free time is spent farming and ranching so I feel that I’m generally in decent shape. To prepare for the hunt, starting in June I spent 3-4 days per week running bleachers and climbing a steep hill at our city park with progressively increased pack loads. I also spent hours practicing out to 70 yards with my bow releasing 30-40 arrows at least 4 days per week.

At last September 20th had arrived, our day to head out for Colorado. After spending the first few hours of the morning putting fertilizer out on some hay fields in hopes of rain (that never came) and a last cut before frost we were set to leave. Only to then find that our trailer wires had been converted to a rats’ nest! An hour later, minus a roll of electrical tape and a few cuss words, we were on the road. We soon found out that Aaron’s F250 with its 25-gallon tank didn't like the box trailer we had in tow, forcing us to stop for fuel every 200 miles. Finally, at around 3AM we pulled into a Walmart parking lot for a trailer.jpg quick nap, hunting licenses, and last-minute snacks that we probably didn't need. After some tasty breakfast tacos from a roadside food trailer, we checked into our kick-ass little cabin on the banks of a beautiful river, sure to be loaded with trout. If sleeping in a nice warm cabin with hot showers and full kitchen doesn't sound rough enough, our cabin also happened to have a massive hot tub on the porch that turned out to be clutch after the 8-10 mile-per-day hikes to come.

That first day we met Drew around noon on the forest service road and spent an hour or two riding around seeing the country. We basically learned that we needed to find the steepest-looking spot to bail off the road and hike until we found the elk. Drew left us that afternoon with a “Good luck and let me know when you find them!” We geared up, crossed the creek and climbed straight up 900 vertical feet to a small bench on a north-facing slope to see what we could find. We held up 100 yards or so below the bench, waiting for the thermals to change and put the wind in our face. As we eased up to the first set of wallows and marsh, I let out a few cow calls. Nothing. So I decided to rip a bugle. As the echo faded, we were blown away to hear a faint but clear bugle in response. I am unable to describe the pure awesomeness and excitement that response to my call brought forth!

1.jpg We proceeded to sneak across the marsh and trade bugles with the bull up the mountain. This began our real education on elk hunting, and here we had our first lesson. Watching YouTube, I had the perception that we would be able to hear elk bugling at 800 to 1000 yards and you might be able to in the right conditions and terrain. But we were on a big mountain and the elk were above us. We estimated that the elk were 600 to 800 yards above us and with the sun going down, we didn’t have time to get there. Later after going to the top and a few more close encounters, we figure that bull was only 150 yards above us when we called it quits and headed back down the mountain before dark. Still, we left the mountain that night with a huge sense of accomplishment and motivation for the week to come. We had climbed a steep mountain, heard our first elk, and made it back to the truck with a little energy to spare.

Daylight found us parked in the same spot and headed back up the same trail. We cow-called our way up and let out an occasional bugle. Mid-morning found us 500 feet above the same bench and it was just getting steeper and thicker with blow-down but we got our first bugle. Again guessing him at 600 yards or so, slightly above and to the right of us, we studied our OnX maps and saw what appeared to be a slight bench one contour line above us. With the wind coming down the mountain, we moved up 50 yards or so and heard the bull crack off again. Still figuring he was 400 or 500 yards away we circled up in a small clearing to make a plan.

With our plan in place we only made a few steps out across the bench before the bull and a few cows busted 50 yards into the trees! We just couldn't believe they were that close. Since we had the wind and the elk didn't seem to be that spooked, we pulled back about 100 yards and ate some lunch. About an hour later we eased back up to where we had bumped the bull and let out a few cow calls and a bugle. We were quickly answered, and while I still felt like he was a ways off, we were learning and stayed put.

That was our first real set up and it was a bad one. We had made no real plan on setting up and trying to call a bull in. The bull ended 2.jpg up coming into 40 yards but did not present any of us with a clear shot. Had I been set up calling 50 yards behind designated shooters, we may have been successful. This was lesson #2. We backed out again and tried to circle around to find the bull again the rest of that day with no luck. It was an awesome day, full of bugling action and our first full-on encounter with a big bull. We put 9 miles on that day, climbing 1,600' from where we left the truck. Worst part was we had to go back down.

On our third morning, the miles and late nights were starting to catch up to us and daylight found us moving a little slower and making coffee at the Cabin. We decided to try a new spot around the mountain. We found an old logging road closed to vehicles that wrapped around the mountain at roughly the same elevation we had found elk the previous two days. We called our way in enjoying the relatively flat trail we had to walk on. We could see 4wheeler tracks but nothing looked fresh. 3 miles in at about 10am we got our first bugle. We had just rounded a bend in the trail that led back into a deep drainage with open meadows below us. Not knowing what the terrain really looked like we eased down the trail 50 yards and our two now designated shooters moved down below the trail as I began to exchange bugles with the bull below. This one was fired up and his cows were going nuts to the point that we were convinced that we had found another group of hunters. As it turned out they were elk but were further than we thought and across a big meadow that apparently they were in no mood to cross. After finding their tracks we paused for lunch and made a plan to circle for the wind and try to relocate the elk. About an hour later we got a familiar response. After looping around a ridge for better wind we made another setup. The bull was responding but seemed to be circling us for the wind as well. It turned out to be a race to the top of the mountain to win the mid-day thermals and sadly the elk won. We made it to a place 80 yards from the top of the highest ridge where we ran out of cover. We held here as the bull came screaming across the top at 80 yards followed by immediate silence as he made it straight above us and caught our wind. We had hoped he would cross below the top and within range but it was an awesome experience to watch the big mature bull move across the top of the ridge bugling his head off. Our lesson here was the wind and terrain are critical and you can't outrun the elk.
 

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thamesj

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We decided to give that group of elk a day of rest and went further around the mountain on our fourth morning. We climbed up the noticeable dryer South facing slope of the mountain with not so much as seeing elk track. Once we topped over the ridge onto the north-facing slope we found all kinds of elk sign in marshy areas full of wallows but we didn't see or hear any elk that day meadow.jpg though we did jump 3 different Mule Deer bucks. Towards the end of the day, we came out into a beautiful meadow full of wallows. As we made our way to the top of the meadow to top over the ridge and head back down to the truck we came upon a large dome tent and what appeared to be a long term camp spot. While it was a great looking spot we marked it off the list. This day we learned that the elk aren’t always where you think they should be.

By the fifth morning, we were starting to move pretty slow and our sore legs were letting us know that we were still flatlanders. We decided that hiking the 3 to 5 miles out of the good hunting spots each evening was wasting a lot of our time and energy so we loaded up our light-ish weight camping gear and set off back down the old logging road that we had gone in on the third day. We picked a spot off the trail about a half mile before we reached the elk in the meadow two days earlier. We set camp, ate lunch and took a nap before heading into the drainage around 3 that afternoon. We called our way in again and jumped a big bull not far from where we had found the herds tracks the day before. As we called and attempted to get this bull to stop and come back for another look we heard a bugle off to our right. We were now in the middle of the drainage about 50 yards above the meadows and couldn't quite figure out where this new bull was located. He sounded close but yet far away. As we eased across the drainage maintaining our elevation I came to within 40 yards of a rock finger ridge jutting out into the drainage we were in. About the time it occurred to me that the bull was probably just on the IMG_0413.JPG other side of this finger Aaron who was about 20 yards behind me said pssst! I looked back and he was standing frozen staring below and ahead of us. I said “what”, he whispered "bull" and moved his finger pointing down below. I turned to look but could see nothing. Since Aaron was behind me he had a view down the old trail that we had followed in and the bull had come down around the rock ledge and was trotting down the trail. As the bull turned off the trail on our side of the finger I heard a stick pop and eventually caught movement. At the first mention of bull, I had already knocked an arrow and checked a few ranges before coming to full draw as the bull moved up the slope between me and the finger ridge. He paused for what seemed like an eternity behind a tree a few steps short of my shooting lane. He finally stepped clear and I let out a squeaky cow call to stop him. Instead of stopping broadside he took a half step to me and stopped with his forward foot in the air. I settled on the crease of his shoulder and let it go at 32 yards. I heard the arrow thwack but it looked forward as the bull whirled back down the slope and crashed out of sight.

At this moment my emotions were running so strong I had to sit down to keep from floating off the side of the mountain. I was beyond excited to have made it come together on our own on public land on our first elk hunt but at the same time worried sick that I had made a bad shot and hit the shoulder blade or leg bone. I let the arrow fly at 5 that evening so we waited about 45 min before going to look for blood before dark and hopefully find my arrow to get a lung.jpg good read how much penetration I had got. We picked up pretty good blood about 10 yards down the trail and found a dime-sized piece of lung about 30 yards in. He was traveling right down the old logging trail and after seeing the piece of lung I was positive we were going to find him right off the trail. About 200 yards further down he left the trail and angled up the slope, I thought not good. It was almost dark now so we backed up a little and gave him another hour. While we were on the trail and as we sat there waiting we had two bulls in the drainage popping off every 5 minutes. Donning our headlamps we got back on the trail and only made it about 100 yards before we jumped something. I was sure this was the bull as it had exploded up about 30 yards in front of me but I had covered my light as not to spoke him further. We pulled out and went back to camp thankful that we had already set everything up and didn't have to make the 5-mile hike out to the truck or the hour drive back to the cabin.

It was a great evening to be camped out on the side of the mountain but I was a nervous wreck worrying about finding my bull. We boiled up some water and enjoyed our freeze-dried meals while we stared up at the millions of stars that seemed close enough to touch. It was a nice and chilly 30 degrees at first light but I was raring to get started as I sat by the fire impatiently 6.jpg waiting for my buddies to get moving. After some oatmeal and instant coffee, we were back on the trail. As we came to the spot we had bumped the bull I began looking for the spot where he had bedded still in hopes of finding my arrow. As I searched further down the trail a nice little Mule Deer buck jumped up, stood there and stared at us. I am now sure that this is what we had jumped the night before as the trail was good and we never found a bed. We continued on and the trail became thinner and thinner. At times we would lose blood, follow tracks and then just follow trails instinctively each time finding another drop of blood. Around noon we finally found a bed where the bull had been up and down, changing positions several times. In each bed, there was a pool of blood and foamy saliva. As we surveyed the beds I suddenly saw a flash of brown moving through the trees 50 or 60 yards up the slope. I circled high and came back around on our elevation but never saw anything more.
 
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thamesj

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As I came back to the bed, Aaron was taking a nap and we were on the verge of turning back. As I prayed for answers and what to do my phone suddenly got service and I read through encouraging text from friends and family. This absolutely gave me the determination to push on. After 30 minutes or so of searching, we finally found a few drops of blood leaving the beds. As we moved in that general direction searching for any clues I suddenly heard quick footsteps and whispers from Aaron telling me to come quick. I moved up 10 yards or so and saw the bull laying in the shade on a ledge with his head up staring across the drainage. I eased around the last little pine that was between us and saw the bull turn his head in my direction as I lifted my range finder. My heart was pounding in my ears as I feared he was about to bolt, I remember seeing 32yds as I pulled my bow settled the pin and released. The arrow sounded like it hit a rock but the bull didn't flinch. I quickly knocked another arrow and heard Aaron whisper 44, I settled the pin a second time and saw the blood pour out of his side as the arrow passed through behind the shoulder. The bull stared at me for a full second before making his final lunge over the ledge rolling some 50 yards straight down the slope before hanging up on some blowdown. As I ran to the edge and watched him come to rest against the tree below I let out a whoop and hit my knees thanking God for pushing me forward and finishing the Bull.
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I found that my first arrow was still buried in the bull with about six inches of fletching exposed in front of the shoulder blade confirming that the bull had finished his step toward me as I released the arrow. I am still amazed that he made it over 1200 yards climbing 400 feet and was still alive 22 hours later all with an arrow through one lung. My second shot that sounded like it had hit a rock 8.jpg actually hit the bull right in the leg bone around his knee as he had it folded underneath his chest and I shot low. He must have been about out of gas to withstand that impact without a flinch. It was quite a challenge quartering the bull as he lay wedged on the side of that steep slope but we got it done and packed all the meat out to the truck in two trips. Throughout the hunt, I had felt pretty good about my physical preparation until the pack out. My bull was by no means large but one hind quarter on top of the days hunting gear in my pack made my hips scream for relief. Luckily it wasn't far to the old logging trail and from there it was relatively level walking though the trail was littered with 9.jpg blowdown to either high step over or go around. I can’t thank my pack mule/hunting buddies enough for their help throughout the hunt but especially on that pack out. All I can say is the bourbon tasted extra good that night.

The following morning would be our seventh and last day to hunt. We decided to go over to 10.jpg Drew’s house and get a map into a new spot as we figured we had stomped around long enough in the area we had been hunting. Drew put us on a neat spot where most folks probably wouldn't go. We crossed a pretty swift-moving little creek and then climbed straight up 4 or 500' to an old irrigation ditch going across the face of the mountain. Hard to believe someone could have cut a ditch into the side of the mountain at that elevation and by the looks of it, it Creek.jpg was way older than me. We split up and went opposite ways following the ditch and then lopping up the slope eventually meeting back up in the middle. We never heard a bugle but once as we climbed up on a small bench we jumped what appeared to be a group of cows. Had we been a little more stealthy we may have been able to connect but they slipped away into the pines without a shot. The creek crossing on the way out in the dark was a little harry and we were all pretty glad that we didn't have heavy packs.
We loaded up the next morning and started the long trip back to Texas. It was an awesome week and we all wished we had planned to stay through Sunday.

Lessons Learned:

  • The terrain greatly affects how sound travels making it difficult to pinpoint a bugles location when you’re not familiar with what lies ahead. It’s safer to assume they are near than far.
  • Make a good plan with your hunting partners on who is shooting and calling. Talk about hand signals and have a few scenarios planned out so that you can react together.
  • The wind is critical and must be perfect, walk the extra mile to get into a better position.
  • The terrain is also critical to your setup as elk won't likely cross natural barriers and you can’t outrun them.
  • Each hunter should be proficient at calling.
  • Find an area with elk and pack camp in. Next year we plan to either hunt with camp on our back or leave it set up in a central location to where we want to hunt on the mountain. Don't waste time and energy hiking in and out every day.
  • All it takes is one to run in and give you a shot.
  • Always stop your target. Then try to wait for another half second and make sure it is going to stay put.
  • Never give up on a trail and always be ready for the follow-up shot.
  • Cardio is important for stamina during the hunt but strength is also important when strapping 80 -100 lbs. on your back.
  • Nylon stretch pants are a must-have for hiking in the mountains stepping over thousands of blown down trees.
  • Merino is awesome. Down is great for the early mornings and late evenings.
  • Lightweight gear is expensive but lbs. & oz. add up and where on you day after day.
  • Feet care is very important. Quality boots that fit, good socks and leuko tape are a must. Trekking poles and gaiters are also a must have. Camp shoes/Crocks are great.
  • Take lots of pictures.
  • Bring cheap waders to cross creeks to access areas others won't go. Bring a tube or raft to float meat back across.
  • "Use OnX.

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Dvidos

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Looks great
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ShakeDown

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Congrats! Most people don’t find success for years. Way to work hard and get it done!
 

sandhillhunter

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Aug 4, 2012
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Congratulations on your success! Thanks for sharing the story!


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GunsAreFun

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Apr 18, 2019
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Freaking awesome story. Thanks for the detail and pictures! Gives us other first timers some naive hope lol
 

el_jefe_pescado

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May 8, 2019
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Awesome story. Way to persevere...it’s amazing the kind of ground those things can cover even with an arrow in them.


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