It's Saturday July 11, 2015 and the clock just struck 1:00 a.m. - I am wide awake. One may wonder that my thoughts might be that I was getting married, having a baby, or maybe buying a new car the next day. Those are good thoughts for most people, but not me. Archery season starts in 48 days and I am already in full rut. Elk tags are over-the-counter and I was guaranteed a license. My father and I have hunted together for as long as I can remember and this year would be no different other than including a long time friend, Rob. We are fortunate to live close to elk country. An hour drive puts me in prime locations. Even though the season opener was over a month away, I wanted to locate the elk and try to get a pattern on their behavior.
Resting at the bottom of a canyon was a pond that I have seen elk before. I also knew of a water tank at the head of a different canyon that was easily accessible. I strategically placed my game cameras and hoped for the best. Since archery elk starts in August, I knew it would probably be warm and water was the key. Every six days I went to the hills and checked my cameras. The first time I checked we saw nice bulls in velvet, a few cows and several lumbering black bears. The bears were curious and knocked over my cameras more than once. They were entertaining to watch as they took their afternoon swim. But, elk was what I was after and every time I saw a bull my heart would skip a beat. Every week added a new level of excitement as different elk were being captured on my cameras.
The day that gives avid hunters sleepless nights was tomorrow. We had comfortable beds in our trailers but got little sleep that night. Finally August 29th, 2015 arrived. I got up long before light and Rob and I headed to the tank where my game cameras had shown the largest concentration of elk and several legal bulls. We had previously built a blind near the water tank which would allow that perfect shot should a bull show himself. To our dismay, another hunter was going in just before us. We talked to the hunter and explained I had cameras on the tank and had a game blind built. It was obvious he couldn't care less that I spent hundreds of dollars on gear and fuel and not to mention time while checking the cameras and building a blind. He said, “I don’t care; you should have been here earlier.” I wasn’t going to argue so Rob and I left for our backup plan. We headed to the pond in the canyon where we saw elk and had a good morning hunt.
During the middle of the day, I was thinking about my game camera and the hunter that went to the tank. I thought it be best to pull the camera. As I approached the tank, I could see someone had driven a four-wheeler within 30 yards and put a portable blind in the same meadow that I had been observing all the elk. I also saw that my blind had been taken down and discarded. The game camera was still in place and I watched video as the hunter walked to my blind. I grumbled and took my camera down. I wasn’t about to let this inconsiderate hunter ruin my season.
A week later Rob and I devised a plan to go past the water tank and overlook a huge canyon. We had not heard any bugles but knew if the elk were going to fire up this would be a good place to hear them. It was about a mile hike but this was early in the season and although sore from the morning hunt, we headed past the tank to the canyon rim.
I had been practicing my most affectionate cow call and tried coaxing in a love-sick bull. From atop the canyon, I started a call sequence and it wasn‘t long before a curious spike came into sight. He crossed a hillside to investigate and at 12 yards decided he was just hearing things (In that area, you can only shoot a bull that has a minimum of four points). The canyon looked very promising and we knew we would be back.
The next morning, well before light, dad, Rob and I headed to the canyon rim. We setup at the top of the ridge when sunlight peeked over. The sound of a bull bugle broke the silence and raised the excitement level. We couldn't see elk but knew where they were. I convinced dad and Rob that we needed to drop off the edge and look over the next ridge. They were skeptical about climbing down the steep oak-filled mountainside. As I was trying to convince them we would only go a short distance, a bull ripped out a long low pitched bugle followed by a deep grunt. The bull did my talking and away we went. The bull continued to bugle for the next hour but stayed far enough away so we couldn't see him. It was obvious he had cows and was moving to the bedding area. Around noon and five miles later, we decided to give it up for the morning and return that evening.
We went back to camp and developed a game plan for the evening. That morning we stayed close to the top of the canyon. Dad and Rob thought there was no way we were going to the bottom because it was steep and full of oak brush and thick timber. They joked about bringing a frying pan with us. I knew the elk would feed to the bottom that evening and I was going to go with or without my partners.
We left camp that afternoon to look over the canyon and listen for bulls. At 4:00 we sat on the rocky canyon rim looking into the deep, dark, nasty man-killer canyon. At 4:30 we heard our first elk bugle, then another and another and another. The elk seemed to be challenging us, “Come get us if you dare.” I looked at my dad and said, “Let’s go.” He argued even if we didn’t get an elk we wouldn’t be able to get out of the canyon until way after dark. Rob just shook his head no. I continued to argue my case in hopes of convincing them it wouldn’t be bad, knowing all along it was going to be a grueling adventure at best. Then Mr. Big piped in. This is the elk that leaves no doubt that he is king of the herd. His deep call echoed through the canyon and could be heard for a mile. And that was how far he was. The big Wapiti was at the very bottom of no man’s land. I looked at dad and Rob and said, “I’m going” and headed down the deep slope. Of course, they followed as I knew they would.
After an hour and a half of slipping, sliding, climbing and face-whacking oak brush fighting we made it near the bottom of the canyon. We devised a plan to sit and cow call and see if we could get the elk to talk back. The bulls had stopped bugling and seemed to disappear off the face of the earth. We separated with Rob in the back, dad approximately 50 yards down the hill and me another 50 yards below him. Rob mewed like a small calf on his call. My dad cow called and every once in awhile he'd let out a short squeal imitating a small bull or spike. I did my best sexy cow call. After 30 minutes with no response, I knew dad and Rob were going to give me a thrashing for talking them into this muscle aching, knee breaking, brush scratching, canyon of hell. I also knew there was no way we would be out before dark. We had come prepared with flashlights and had the proper equipment to get out.
I was preparing to leave when I heard a faint elk squeal. I thought it was on the other side of the hill from me. I peered through the brush and saw an elk. It was peeing on itself about 40 yards away. I knew it was a bull but couldn't see his head. The bull appeared to be walking past so I gave a faint cow call on my reed and he turned and headed towards me. My dad let out a short grunt on his bugle and the elk came on a string my direction. I had sat my bow down and was completely unprepared. I slowly reached down and grabbed it. The bull was now 30 yards and coming fast. I came to full draw and pressed my tongue against the reed I had in my mouth. I'm sure I must have sounded like a dying cow but the bull stopped and faced me. I've read many articles saying to only take broadside shots. I had practiced all year and knew the capabilities of my archery equipment. At 17 yards I could place that arrow deep into the bull’s chest. I anchored my release against my cheek and picked the spot on the elk. I sent the arrow and saw the red lighted nock disappear deep into the chest of the dark horned mammoth of an animal. Visually, it looked like a perfect shot and the sound it made, when it hit, ensured the shot was good. The elk spun and was out of sight. I started cow calling and I could hear my dad vigorously calling on his reed as well.
After five minutes of nonstop calling, I got my dad's attention and let him know that I had hit one. He and Rob came to my location. They were unable to see what transpired but heard the commotion and my excitement told them to prepare to pull an all nighter. I told them the story and they held me back and wouldn’t let me start tracking. We tried working another bull that was bugling a few hundred yards away but I was too excited and wanted to confirm what I already knew. After what seemed an eternity, but was only an hour, I went to check for blood or my arrow. I found blood and a lot of it. It was obvious this elk wasn’t going far. My camo was now covered in blood from the brush and less than a hundred yards later we found the nice six point bull piled up. The wow factor set in as I reached the bull’s antlers. I held them up and admired what a beautiful animal he was. With lots of abnormal horn growth on the bulls left side, Rob immediately recognized the bull from our trail camera, which brought even more excitement to what had just played out. We quickly did the Kodak moment as it was getting dark and we still had to skin, quarter and hang the bull in a tree away from bears and get out of the canyon. We would return the next morning to pack the elk out of the forbidden hole in the earth.
Getting a bull with bow and arrow on public property takes skill and a lot of luck. Climbing out of the canyon in the middle of the night takes a miracle. We did climb out and the miracles continued. I was able to get out on my cell phone from the top of the ridge. Cell phone service in the Colorado Mountains is a rarity. My first call was to a good friend Jay. When he answered the phone his words were, "How big is he and how deep do we have to go to get him." I just laughed and gave him a brief story. Jay said he would be at our camp by daylight with two horses.
With two horses, pack frames, Jay and his wife and my recruited brother, dad, Rob and I headed back into the canyon to retrieve the elk. The canyon was so nasty the horses could only go half way. Jay’s wife stayed with the horses and the rest of us plunged into the canyon.
We found the undisturbed elk and secured him to our frames. Out of the gorge in the earth we started. With every step the elk seemed to get heavier. The last hundred yards were straight up the hill through clothes-grabbing oak brush, but every step I took I had a smile on my face. It was worth every minute. We finally made it to the horses. The horses took over and almost seemed to enjoy helping us. They may have sensed or seen the pathetic look in our eyes with the elk strapped to our backs.
With every elk hunt comes memories. The camaraderie, planning, preparation and of course the elk will all be burned into my mind as the best experiences of life. Surviving the canyon from hell to achieve a trophy elk will also be etched into my brain.
Several years prior to this hunt, my friend Jay asked me why I liked hunting so much. I thought about it that night and when I woke up that morning I still didn’t know. Jay and I went hunting that morning and harvested two nice bulls. We pulled into camp and everyone saw our stained red clothes and hands. They ran to us to hear the story and ask questions about our hunt. At that moment, I knew why I loved hunting so much. It's the memory that you get to share with your loved ones. I don’t have to harvest an animal to have a story. Just being out there is a story.
With next elk season in Colorado only 10 months away, it’s time to start planning. I asked my dad and Rob where we were going to hunt in 2016. Of course, we all agreed a good spot would be hell canyon. Somehow, the memory of the treacherous canyon doesn’t seem as bad now.