It was the second weekend of archery season and I still didn’t exactly know how I was going to get to my tree stand.
How’s that for a start? Just wait. It gets better…or worse, depending on how you look at it.
I can’t remember why, but I didn’t get up to our backpack-in campsite until a little after 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, and I still had to set up the tent. An hour later, the tent was up. (I had to find a flat spot.) Then I started planning the rest of the day. Looking back, it was obvious what I should have done, but I’ll get to that later.
I decided to go down to a saddle in the trail leading to my buddy’s (Jonathan) stand and see if there were any sign of him packing out a bull. I geared up before leaving camp. This included packing all the necessary items one would need in the event he were to run into that monster bull we all dream about -- a mostly full bottle of Gatorade and 1 (ONE) bottle of water.
I headed down to the saddle, bow in hand, and took a moment to get a lay of the land. The trail leading down to my buddy's stand was also the same trail we use to get to my stand, and it goes smack through the middle of “elk haven.” So, going that way wasn’t an option ... tromping straight through his hunt; that’s a bad idea, right?
I’m going to break away for a minute to help explain this story. This isn’t the story about how I killed my first bull; which, incidentally, was not a bad 6X6. No, no. This is the story of how the new guy (me) made one bad decision after another and got lucky - very lucky. There will be details including bugling, a 5yd shot a blind man couldn’t miss, and a renewed appreciation for H2O. So hang with me.
Back to the story. I stood there glancing back and forth between my Garmin and the landscape, trying to find an easy route to my stand that was quick (did I say easy?) and would not take me through Jonathan’s hunt and the elk sanctuary. The elk sanctuary is amazing. It is under-hunted, over-populated (elk), full of water, food and ladies – elk ladies.
Oh, I screwed up. Now all you can think about is this little piece of paradise, and you want to know where it is. Keep reading and I promise I’ll give you coordinates.
Where was I … "easy route" … right? Wrong! There is no easy route. Long story short, I spent four hours and my last two bottles of liquid refreshment traversing less than one mile of steep, slippery slopes to reach my destination. Remember when I said I was planning my afternoon and, looking back, it was obvious what I should have done? What I should have done was go back to the truck, get the case of water, and not die of dehydration! DEATH. Ok. That’s a little extreme, but I would be spending the rest of that long night wishing I had gone back to get more water!
Once there, I sat in my stand for 25 minutes when I heard a faint bugle way behind me to my right. I thought, "That’s cool, but he's too far off." He bugled again and was a little closer, then I realized if I can hear him, surely he could hear me. I used two different calls, just playing with them, and he rapidly responded. It was so fast I wondered if it might be another hunter. He would bugle, I would mew. All the time, he was closing the distance. I could finally hear him breathing and stomping up the hill like he owned the place. Eventually he passed by, just out of view under the tip of the ridge adjacent to me.
Then I heard another bugle to my left, a new guy, and he was close! I scurried to grab my phone to video the first bull elk I had ever seen closer than 100 yards (Besides those from behind the windshield!). He strutted in without hesitation and walked right beneath my tree stand. About that time I realized I probably should put down the camera and pick up my bow. I remember thinking, "What are you, a wildlife photographer?"
He took a few of minutes trying to figure out the scent on my tree. He glanced around, gave the hallmark "whatever" guy-shrug and proceeded up the hillside seep to take a drink.
At this point, the only shot I had was directly down on top of him. I knew that was a bad shot and kept telling myself, "If he knows this seep, he'll go to the top where all the good pools are." The trail at the top made a "T" and if he would only continue along one of those paths, my shot would be perfect.
While he was facing away, I took the opportunity to draw my bow. This drew his attention. At a distance of ten feet, I sat staring straight into the eyes of this magnificent animal. I had my sunglasses on and thought for sure he would notice a reflection or something odd and bolt. But he didn’t. Once again, he shrugged it off and continued up to the pools at the top. He was mostly broadside to me, giving me a perfect shot at about 5 yards. He put his head down to drink and … "THWACK!"
He stumbled back down the hill and stopped when I mewed at him. Then I heard him fall off the trail. That was it. My first bull was down! It took everything in me to stay in that tree for the next 30 minutes.
Tracking and Packing: Lessons Learned.
Lesson One: Follow the blood trail! Unless you see the animal, don’t assume you know where it went - I lost my bull.
Lesson Two: Do Not Panic/Stay Focused. When faced with trouble, take a minute and think about it. When you don’t stay calm, you make bad decisions. Without a lot of luck, you will probably end up in worse shape than you were to start. I got lucky.
Lesson Three: Drink water and lots of it! And take more than you think you’ll need. You never know when you’ll be back to your car for more. I got thirsty – very thirsty.
Lesson Four: Prepare yourself. This last lesson is crucial, and let me tell you why: I screwed my friends big time. Jonathan had also shot a bull earlier that day, meaning we had 2 (two) bulls to pack out. Luckily, he called his dad, Gary, to help along with a good friend, Troy. They helped me find my bull and pack him out. I was so parched and in so much pain (from lack of preparing myself) that I was unable to go back in and help with Jonathan’s bull. They were gracious and sent me to town to empty the coolers and get some breakfast for everybody while they persevered and went back in - I got good friends.
Don’t get me wrong, there is so much about this hunting trip that makes for a good story and an enjoyable memory. Just know that I cannot look back on that day without thinking about how unprepared I was and that I was lucky. I was lucky to have friends that were prepared and knew the difficult tasks that they might face, and that they’d spent time getting ready for it. My friends have forgiven me, but I will never let that happen again. We have found what might prove to be good hunting grounds for years to come, but I know that in order to hunt it, I can’t just wait for the season to start and go get my elk. I, too, must prepare myself, both mentally and physically, for the challenges of elk hunting in Colorado.
I promised coordinates. Here you go:
Decimal (WGS84): 11.350113, 142.199993
Decimal Minutes (GPS): N11 21.00678 E142 11.99958
Degrees Minutes Seconds: N 11° 21' 0.4068", E 142° 11' 59.9748"