It’s hard to believe it has now been over a month since my first archery elk hunt. The vast expanses of the back country, untamed wilderness, and of course, the sounds of bugling bulls. I periodically catch myself daydreaming of sitting on top of a ridge glassing for another bull. I now know what everyone means when they say that elk hunting gets in your blood. It’s 100% true.
My Dad, Brother and I had always talked about one day going on a DIY archery elk hunt. This spring we finally got the push we needed, due in large part to my Brother and his friend Anthony starting to put plans together for a Fall 2015 trip. We haphazardly put together a few dates that would work and began gathering up gear we would need. Collectively we spent hours upon hours gathering information, researching Colorado OTC regulations, scouting aerial and topography maps, and training ourselves physically to prepare ourselves before making the trip. The Rokslide forum and the Western Bowhunting Gallery sub forum on the Archerytalk forum proved to be extremely valuable in providing information on hunting tactics and gear selection as well. Unfortunately about a month and a half before leaving for our trip, Anthony had to back out due to work obligations. It was now down to a father and son trip.
The day had finally arrived! I showed up at my dad’s place around lunch time, and as always happens on our trips, we hit the road much later than we had anticipated. The ~20 hour drive had begun and even though it was late, we were looking forward to it. Other than stopping for gas, it was non-stop/pedal to the floor until we reached Denver. While in Denver we made a quick trip to the local Cabelas’ to pick up a couple necessities and to purchase our OTC archery tags. We loaded up again and continued west. It was roughly 2 hours prior to sundown when we finally arrived at the Unit we were hunting. After glassing for a while, setting up a quick camp and chowing down a Mountain House meal, it was time to crawl into my tent and catch some sleep before our first day of hunting.
The next morning, after having a local hunter stop by our camp, we headed off to a nearby glassing spot and quickly spotted up 3 bulls. Two nice 5×5’s and a smaller 4×4. All legal bulls in the unit we were hunting. They were working across a semi open slope towards the dark timber to bed for the morning/afternoon. We waited for them to disappear around the ridge before circling around on top of them and dropping in to the dark timber to see if we could find them. No luck. There was an intermittent spring nearby, so we slowly worked through the dark timber until we made our way down to the spring. Since the area was dry, we took the opportunity to fill up all of our water bladders before climbing out. We spent the rest of the afternoon driving roads and pulling off to glass canyons/ridges. As it got later in the afternoon, we headed back to the spot we camped the night before and setup camp. Calvin and I headed off to where we spotted the bulls earlier that morning. Within 10 minutes, he spotted a bull, then we spotted another, and another…all in all we spotted up 6 legal bulls. It was starting to get late, and in hindsight we should not have gone after those bulls. Thermals can be your friend, but not late in the day when you are trying to come in from about 900′-1000′ elevation above them. Lesson #1 learned. Lesson #2…get in better shape before going on an elk hunt in the thin mountain air. The hike back to the top was rough…I was in for a long week.
That evening a storm moved through around 3:00 AM. Thunder erupting around, lighting crashing, followed by about an hour of intense rain. Luckily I stayed completely dry in my Tarptent Protrail setup. After spending the morning glassing, and only seeing a few mule deer, we decided to pack up and take a road trip up north to a new area. When we pulled into the new area, you could immediately see the terrain/landscape difference. Previously we were hunting in elevations around 8,200′-8,700′ with deep canyons and dark timber. This new area was arid, portions burned, and with very little vegetation except for thick oak brush. We drove the winding roads up the mountain for several hours and the only fauna we saw was a few wild horses. Several times on the drive up we had to stop to fill in deep washouts with rocks, sticks, branches just so we could pass by. When we finally made it out, we decided this wasn’t the type of area we wanted to hunt so we headed back to the camp spot we had stayed the last 2 nights. By the time we made it back, another hunting group had ended up setting up camp where we had stayed previously. We debated on moving to a brand new area, but decided to set up about 200 yards away instead and regroup in the morning.
Like we had done every other morning, shortly after crawling out of our tents and throwing our Sitka Gear on, we were sitting on top of a ridge glassing and snacking on our breakfast. For the 2nd morning in a row, we struck out glassing anything up besides a few mulies. We decided we’d venture into another area that was only a few miles away and I’m glad we did. After hiking in over 2 miles, we spotted up a cow and spike a few hours before sunset. Dad and I decided we’d drop down into the canyon and try to come up beneath them since it was starting to get late and the thermals would soon be changing. Calvin stayed up top with the spotting scope to try to direct us to them using hand signals. Long story short, Dad and I covered over 1,500′ in elevation and never saw the elk. We ended up losing track of Calvin and by the time we made it back up to the top of the ridge where we had begun, he was nowhere to be found! Lesson #3…always have a game plan, and stick with it. We were sitting up on a mountainside, miles from our truck, with no idea where he could have been. Finally, my dad turns on his cellphone and surprisingly has service to make a phone call…after the 2nd ring Calvin picks up and is back at the truck already. It was well after midnight before we finally all made it back to camp and Dad and I were exhausted. We quickly fixed something to eat and hit the sack. It was a relief Calvin was OK, but I think Dad and I both could have rung his neck for leaving us out there with no idea of where he’d be when we got back.
After the long night last night, I decided I’d sleep in a bit. After getting some breakfast, we broke camp and headed back to the area we were the day before. We had come across a great camp spot, away from public roads, and we decided we would setup camp there for the remainder of the week. Running low on water, and not wanting to climb back down in the canyon to fill up, we headed off the mountain to a nearby town to grab some water, lunch, and fill up the truck with gas. We got back up in the mountain in the middle of the afternoon and still hunted the dark timber that evening until dark. We followed trails the best we could on the way through the dark timber when we heard a branch break below us. We worked slowly that direction but never did see or hear anything else. The place looked very elky, so I’m sure there was an elk in there. We made our way down another 100′ in elevation and came across a rub next to a trail. We decided we’d setup close to the rub and wait for darkness to fall as it was now getting close to 6:30. Dad and I had a close encounter with a mule deer at ~5 yards, but the rest of the evening was a bust.
We followed the same morning routine this morning. Get up, get dressed, grab our packs and head to the ridges. We split up this morning heading in different directions with intentions of meeting back in camp around 9:00 AM. I made it back shortly after 9:00, took care of a couple of blisters I had obtained a couple of nights ago and waited for my Dad and brother to get back. Dad made it back first around 10:00 and Calvin didn’t get back until closer to noon. He had glassed up a bull and had actually walked up on one bedded about 70 yards away as he worked his way through the timber. After giving us the down low of all the details, we treated our Sitka Gear in Carbon Synergy, grabbed a bite to eat and took a quick nap to refresh for the afternoon. That afternoon we headed towards where Calvin had spotted the bull that morning. We dropped Dad off on a little saddle along the ridge line, Calvin setup close to where he spotted the bedded bull, and I headed down the ridge to where Calvin had glassed the first bull that morning. It took about an hour to make it to the point of the ridge, but once there I setup and started glassing the opposite canyon side. It was probably an hour after getting setup when I hear a bugle. I threw up my Vortex Razor HDs and spotted a nice 5×5 bull pretty close to where the cow and spike a couple of evenings before. He wasn’t alone. I spotted a cow, and he wasn’t too far behind her. I dropped my pack and grabbed my bow and GPS and worked down the ridge a couple hundred feet until I was approximately the same elevation as the bull and cow on the other side of the canyon. The bull bugled again, so I decided I’d try to give calling a shot. I called 3-4 times and shortly after the bull looked across the canyon in my direction and bugled again! He was obviously interested, but there was no way he was coming without his cow. We traded calls back and forth a few times when I look down near the creek at the bottom of the canyon and see a spike poke out of the dark timber at the edge of the meadow. The spike ran a short distance my direction, stopped for a while, then again worked his way my direction. He crossed the meadow and started coming up my side of the canyon until he got to about 60 yards away. About that time, I look to my right and a small mule deer doe is standing not 20 yards away. I sat as still as I could but eventually she spooked…and when she did, so did the spike. He took off back where he came from and worked up the canyon towards the bull and cow. Had spikes been legal, I may have had my first elk. I sat for a while longer and saw two more elk off to the north. Around 7:45 PM the cow decided she was ready to head down to the meadow and the bull followed. I watched them as darkness fell over the area. He followed close behind bugling and chuckling every minute or so. It was a beautiful sight as I watched under the moonlight as they worked off towards my left. It was by far the most exciting hunt I have had yet!
Our last full day of hunting. We followed our same routine again this morning and before I could even take a bite of my blueberry granola Mountain House breakfast, I had caught a glimpse of an elk on the mountain side where I had spotted the elk the night before. It was getting late in the morning and I had no clue what to do next. The elk was obviously heading to bed for the afternoon. We reconvened at camp and checked out the map. We noticed we could drive up the road about 2 miles and there was a short road that followed the ridge above the elk we were seeing. We drove in as far as the road went before a downed log stopped us, grabbed all of our gear and hiked in the last 3/4 of a mile. Calvin slipped down the mountain and Dad and I continued another 1/4 mile or so and started our way down. We came across a lot of sign, so Dad stayed and setup while I worked my way down to get closer to where the elk were yesterday evening. I was in position with about 1 1/2 hours left of daylight but the elk weren’t anywhere to be seen and none were talking. Finally, about a half hour before sunset I hear a bugle off the right down below me. He was several hundred yards away at that time. I gave a few calls and worked down the mountain side a bit more to try to get closer, stopping every so often when I had a good shooting lane. I heard him bugle several more times that evening before dark, but from the sounds of them, he was already in the meadow at the bottom of the canyon. Defeated, I scaled back up the mountain side and picked up my dad before meeting Calvin at the top of the ridge. He had heard a different bull bugle, but didn’t make a visual. We made it back to camp that evening, knowing our chance of killing an elk this trip was over.
With a 20+ hour drive a head of us, and Calvin having to be back by a set time on Sunday to get to on his flight back to Virginia, we decided we’d take the morning to organize our gear and pack up for the long drive East. After making it down off the mountain, we stopped at a truck stop to take our first shower in over a week. Feeling fresh, we continued on until we made it back to southern Indiana the following morning.
Although we came back empty-handed, it was still a successful trip. We knew going in that the odds were going to be stacked against us. Success rates for OTC archery in Colorado is below 15%, and with all 3 of us being greenhorns to elk hunting, it was going to take a lot of luck to get it done. We made life long memories that week and now have a little extra motivation to succeed on our next trip.
Make sure you subscribe to the SELFILMED Blog to receive all of the latest updates from the SELFILMED crew this spring!