Heeding to our guiding principles of determination and perseverance, G and I continue to push our personal boundaries and elevate our elk hunting abilities. The 2014 West Elk Wilderness hunt was a true testament to the progress we have made over the previous seasons, and everything from our physical training, to our pack list, to our hunting philosophy seemed to nearly all come together this year.
We decided on the West Elk, which is a limited draw with a high probability of drawing a tag, because it would be close to G’s cabin in Crested Butte and be easy for some summer scouting. Sure enough G drew a tag and the game was on! Our excitement and anticipation leading up to each year’s hunt compounds and we were both having great difficulty talking or thinking about anything else (not that I’m complaining, but our wives sure were!). G went up to the cabin in July and spent one night in our expected hunting area. He saw a large herd of cows and no bulls, but more than anything, he got a really good feel for the terrain. In addition, G struck a friendly conversation with a man in town who had hunted to same area several years in the past, and gave us some great advise on where they found elk and more importantly where the guides generally went. This man’s reassurance gave us tremendous confidence and G & D were more determined that ever. With some summer boot work and many hours of studying topo, we developed a good game plan of where we were going to hunt first, and what our backup plans would be.
Meanwhile, I was not able to do any summer scouting with G, but I remained focused on being the most prepared I could be to cover some tough mountain miles. My training this year took a slightly different approach by focusing mainly on leg strength before cardio. I wasn’t sure if this was the best plan, but I figured that if I wanted to keep up with my ox hunting partner I better get my chicken legs into better shape. I am very independent in nature, and would much rather do things on my own if I can, so I did all my strength training at home instead of going to a gym. I quickly became a huge fan of burpees, along with lunges, squats, and cleans. These few movements were the basis of my leg strength training, which I would do many rapid reps with body weight or add some kettle bells for more resistance. I did strength training about three times a week for roughly an hour and quickly noticed my skinny chicken legs bulking up. Between strength days I would either run a short mile or grab the mountain bike for a 6-8 mile ride. Then a little more than a month out from our hunt, I switch gears to focus on cardio, realizing that my cardio endurance was not up to snuff. Instead of lifting three days a week, I was now running, biking, or hiking with a weighted pack. I was extremely pleased with the results of my exercise regimen; I felt very strong in the legs and was able to run three miles (a lot for me) pretty smoothly. Now don’t worry about my arrow placement! Throughout the spring and summer I was shooting my bow regularly at 20 yards in the backyard and going to the Austin Archery Club as often as possible. I also managed to compete in several local 3D tournaments where I was scoring around the 300 mark.
FINALLY!! September arrived. Friday, September 5th G picked me up in Austin at about 5:00 to hit the road. We arrived in Gunnison, Colorado Saturday morning around 10:00 am for our pre-hunt lunch and beer tradition, and then we were off to the trail head. It didn’t take long for our tires to meet dirt, but the dirt road to our hunting area was a long and treacherous one. There’s not much of a feeling than to putter down a rocky road lined with aspen and pine trees, the windows down, and some Merle Haggard on the radio. With a wintergreen pinch tucked snugly under lip and heading deep into the elk woods, the world seemed to stop and I felt fully alive and blessed to be where I am with my good ol’ hunting buddy. We arrived at the end of the dirt road after nearly 2 hours of 4-low crawl to find three other trucks, which was a huge relief after finding the hundreds of pack horses tied up at last year’s trail head. We like to take our time to lay out a tarp and all our gear to make sure we have everything and we aren’t hauling anything double. This way we can also nicely organize everything into our packs. Once we were just about all set, it didn’t take much convincing for us to take a quick bath in the nearby mountain stream to wash off the road trip. Man, that water was cold, but after the first dunk it was so refreshing! We locked the truck and headed in.
We chose a heading off the main trail that crossed a mostly open slope and would allow us to gain some altitude pretty quickly as we made our way to the predetermined area. Immediately I could tell that I was in better physical shape than any years prior with the ease that my legs powered my weight and pack weight up the slope. That’s not to say it was easy, because after about a mile and some major elevation gain I started feeling sick. I knew that the road trip with little sleep and junky food was repaying me now, and with my legs hammering up the mountain my body was feeling depleted of nutrients. G was concerned about altitude sickness so we rested for a while. I drank some water, ate some jerky and bonk breaker, got rid of whatever was causing problems in my stomach, and was feeling strong again. The coolness of night was approaching and we didn’t want to push too hard for fear of altitude sickness, so we hiked another couple miles to a good vantage point to camp for the night. While we were setting up camp, we glassed the slopes across the valley and saw two large herds of elk feeding. Knowing that the rut was starting to pick up, we figured that there had to be a few bulls around all those cows. Then I glassed up the slope immediately behind us and saw a big bull strutting the ridge with the sun setting behind him. It was incredible being there on the first evening and seeing 30-40 elk across the valley and about 10 elk on the ridge behind us.
The next morning we watched a herd across the valley return to their bedding area, while the elk on the same side as us did not give us any direction of where they might be, so we decided to cross the valley. We had a long way to go and were giving up the elevation we gained the day before, only the gain it again. We made it to a clearing where one of the herds cross the day before and decided it was a good spot to camp and hunt from. That afternoon we hiked up into the aspens with plenty of sign and trails, but no elk. We pushed higher and higher as the sun set lower lower, but didn’t see or hear any elk. We targeted an outcrop as a vantage point where we could at least watch and listen from, as the elk moved out to feed. As soon as we reached the rocks, we heard a big bugle not too far away. He had a very deep and commanding bugle that immediately got our hearts pounding as he moved down the slope towards us. G and I sat on that outcrop as we watched several cows emerge from the darkening pines only 200 yards in front of us, but several hundred feet down and back up to meet them. We decided to watch and pattern their movement this evening, and we would get them the next day. It was an incredible moment to share with G, as we remembered the passing of his father two years prior to the day, when a massive 6×6 bull came out following his cows! This guy was everything you could imagine in a mature Rocky Mountain Wapiti. He walked with such confidence behind his cows, glunking to them for reassurance that he was close behind. His shoulder muscles bulged with every step, highlighted by a transitioning dark brown around the neck to the light tan of his back. He was the pinnacle of our dreams and carried 300 inches of heavy ivory that completely silenced G & D until the sun completely set. We hustled back to the tent, eager to rest and tear after this bull the following day.
The next morning, we rose well before the sun and tightly laced up our boots. We tromped straight up through the aspen dead-fall with our headlights on low beams, as to not spook any game or alert any hunters of our or our bull’s presence. Talk about getting those quads pumping before the sun chases the frost back into the shadows. We set up on the trail where we watched the bull and his cows cross the night before, hoping that they would retreat to their bedding site on the same trail. When the sun broke, it revealed intimidating face paint jobs on both of our faces that surely would stun the bull if he happened to look us in the eyes. We feverishly checked the wind as we awaited the big guys arrival. Just as we hoped, we heard him bugling over the ridge, but he stayed high and flanked the trail we were prepared to ambush. Not to fret though, we continued to learn his daily pattern and we were getting closer. We found another rock outcrop that allowed us to see directly into his backyard, and from the high vantage we got a better understanding of where they were feeding at night and how they must have returned to the heavy timber. We sat against the rocks as the bull and cows slipped into a sliver of think timber near a running spring at about 10,500 ft. Again, we were sitting in a steep ravine watching this bull from 200 yards away! We watched them for several hours that afternoon while we relaxed and ate some trail mix and jerky. The plan was to catch them on their way out, just as they did the previous evening, on the trail a few hundred feet below us. Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan when in the elk woods.
We watched this group of elk on their bedding site for several hours and were surprised by how much they moved. We watched them get up several times for water and browse under the cover of the pines. Then a bold cow and calf decided they wanted to move out, and the others began to follow, but they were leaving on a trail that we couldn’t get to. The bull came out and looked like he was following too, but he called the girls back into the timber with him. Everyone returned except for the initial pair that left first, who headed down into the aspens. I started getting nervous that they wouldn’t take the trail we wanted them to and we convinced ourselves we had to make a move now. We geared up and slowly stalked towards their bedding ground, constantly checking the wind to be sure they wouldn’t smell us. We got to within 100 yards of where they were, but still couldn’t see them though the dense pine branches. Then all of a sudden, one of the cows bolted up the slope and the others followed. We caught another view of the bull as he stopped to look back just before hopping over the ridge. We checked the wind again, angry to see it had begun to swirl as we got closer to the timber. We gotta learn from our mistakes and persevere.
This blown opportunity allowed us to walk in their bedding area and note what was desirable about it. The heavily timbered slope faced northeast, causing the forest floor to remain very cool and damp, evident by the moist dead wood and abundant moss. Also, it was only a few steps away from a running source of water, which we saw them use several times during the day. I tried to absorb everything about this timber that made a good bedding spot for elk so that I may recognize another one when I see it. That evening we tried calling to locate the bull, but didn’t have any luck. To this point we had not heard a single cow mew and only sparse bull bugles. Our experience each year has been that elk on public land in Colorado don’t talk much, and it was our thought to not call too much if they are not.
The 5th day of our hunt was spent trying to find our bull again, and the possibility of tag soup was creeping into our minds. We encountered some grouse during the day, and enjoyed some surprisingly delicious meat cooked over a camp fire seasoned with jerky pepper. We figured that the elk were not pushed too bad and were just higher up in the timber and we needed to move camp to get closer, so we did. This allowed us to get further back into where they might be hiding and reduced the amount of ground for us to cover in the morning dark. The next morning we glassed from one of our rock outcrops and found them headed back from the same feeding area, but retreating to higher timber as we suspected. We were now silently exploring timber above 11,000 ft and discovered even more well-worn elk trails. People have always tell us you don’t have to go that high, but each year that’s where we find them. We set up for them that evening and again the final morning, but each time we just couldn’t close the gap. At one point we were on a timber ridge with bulls bugling within 100 yards on both sides of us. I suspect that we got within 60 yards of the 6x but couldn’t see him through the dense timber, and he just vanished without a sound. Like I said in the beginning, everything nearly came together this year.
Even though the score is now Wapiti – 3 and G & D – 0, we drove off the mountain elated. This hunt was incredible and we felt that we left everything on the mountain each of the 7 days we hunted. That in itself is something to be proud of, and add on top the fact that we were chasing a monster 6×6 on public land equates to a win in our books. We had a very rewarding hunt that revealed much of God’s beauty in his land and within ourselves. I am extremely blessed to be able to do this each year and have such a trustworthy hunting buddy and lifelong friend. G & D out.
Hard Work and Fearless Faith