Early Season Fortune
Research and sweat create their own luck.
All I could see were velvet tines and ears in the willows. He was tucked in tight, but I had a window to keep a visual. There was a game trail weaving through the willows towards his bed’s location. Using it, I felt I could make up enough ground to be within range.
Keeping my eyes on him, my right leg found a small seep I hadn’t noticed and went mid-calf deep into the muck. Trying not to fall, I instinctively pulled my leg up. It made a loud sucking sound that was loud enough to wake every deer within ear’s reach. How could I be so careless?
By chance, there was a small, lone pine snag immediately in front of me. I could see through it enough to tell his head was up and ears were focused my way. He was at full alert and staring directly at me. It took near half an hour for him to settle back into bed.
As his head slowly slipped down into the willows, I did as well. I crawled as far as I dared. If it was going to happen, it would happen here.
“NO WAY!” I thought as I read the results from Colorado’s drawing results webpage. I had drawn this same tag the year before, and with zero points, I didn’t expect to draw again. As luck would have it, I was one of a couple hunters that drew with no points.
The year before, I had spent a few days scouting before the season and it helped me take a 180 archery buck on the second day and a bull elk (the area is OTC for elk) on the fourth day. I knew exactly where I’d start scouting for the 2015 season and I’d be doing it alone.
Drawing this tag would complicate my plans, as I had burned my Wyoming points already; not to mention I had Montana general tags as a backup to Wyoming!
Living in the Midwest presents a few issues to this plan. For example, I’d need to care for hundreds of pounds of meat if this was going to work. I’ve used a combination of coolers and a chest freezer in years past, but those trips weren’t nearly as long in duration. After a few phone calls to friends in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, I had a place to plug in the freezer in each state.
Scouting turned up plenty of good bucks and bulls in each state. The forage in both states was amazing. There were flowers and grasses that came up to my waist in many basins. I would be in Colorado for the start of the archery season. Plans were made for opening morning after finding several really good deer in one large basin. It was an area that I had never seen another hunter, but that was about to change.
Three’s a Crowd
With my Kifaru packed with seven days’ worth of food, I hiked into the chosen basin. The eve of opening day found me behind glass a half-mile away watching the basin I would hunt. Several of the smaller bucks that I had seen were there, but none of the older-class animals were showing themselves.
As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, I caught a glimpse of something in the willows up high on a steep slope. It was the buck I wanted, and the only thing exposed was his velvet antlers. I snapped a few pics through the Swarovski spotter as light faded. He got up just as glassing was becoming difficult at that range. I packed up my optics and turned to head back to my tent.
Then came a shock - standing just 400 yards behind me on the same ridge were two hunters! One of them was looking through a spotter in the buck’s direction. The other was scanning with binos and saw me as I stood up. He waved at me as if to say, “Where did you come from?” This changed things and I didn’t get much sleep that night.
Reaching my glassing point in the darkness, I didn’t notice any other headlamps. Still, I felt I needed to find the bucks before anyone else did.
It wasn’t long before I found the bucks from the night before. They were lower in the basin and would be very stalkable if they bedded there. My wind was good as I moved up to a closer vantage point; one that would allow me to see in the area where I expected them to bed.
I watched as the bachelor group fed up to a small creek. It was looking good until the deer snapped their heads up and stared downhill. They had spotted the other hunters, who were walking right up the basin.
Soon, the bucks were bouncing away. I was in a good position to watch them as they traversed the basin. They slowed to a walk just before going around the next spine ridge. They didn’t seem spooked and actually fed as they moved out of my sight.
I now had to make some decisions, but I also wanted to figure out what the other hunters were going to do. Should I go to plan B, another basin five miles away? Although the bucks didn’t seem overly spooked, I didn’t expect them to use this basin again.
One of my questions was answered shortly as the two hunters appeared out of the pines. They were walking right up into the area where the bucks had been standing. They proceeded to follow the same path the bucks had taken across the basin, stopping a few hundred yards from where I lost sight of the bucks.
I was leaning toward plan B and another area when the two hunters sat down in the willows. Being fairly certain the bucks weren’t coming back there again, I packed up my gear. I needed to move to a spot where I could see down into where they went.
To do this, I needed to bail off the ridge I was on in the opposite direction the bucks went. After descending to the bottom and across another basin, I’d climb up the next peak over. This peak was much higher and would give me a bird’s-eye view. There was no debating it; I just went.
It took several hours to get to that next peak. It was midday and the clouds that promised a cool day were now dropping considerable rain. Glassing across and into the far basin, I could still see the two hunters sitting in the willows. Their entire upper bodies were exposed. I remember shaking my head in disbelief. If those bucks did come back, the wind was dead wrong. I figured if I didn’t find them in the next basin, these two would eventually blow them out for good.
Finding the Needle in the Willows
Glassing with a couple of hours left of daylight, I got a lucky break. One of the smaller bucks was up and not far from where I had lost sight of them. He was just over the spine of the ridge that separated them from the other hunters.
It’s amazing how they can hide in those willows, but pretty soon I could see most of the bucks. There was one deer that I could only see one side of his rack, but it was a good side! If they stayed in the willows, I might be able to sneak right up on them.
I made as many landmark references as I could remember, knowing that once I got over there, it was going to all look the same. Off I went, down, across, and back up the other side. This time the pace was faster.
The landmarks I made worked better than I had hoped; I came up over the ledge in perfect position. The first deer I saw was the one that I had only seen half of his rack. It was him! The reason I was hunting this basin was bedded 100 yards from me in four-foot-high willows with only the top of his head exposed.
My wind was good and when the thermals would soon switch, they would be even better. Unfortunately, the other hunters’ wind would be coming down the mountain and over the ridge…straight to the bucks.
This brings us to where I started this story. I was crouched in the willows within range, but couldn’t risk crawling any farther. I had a shot if he stood. Soon, the sun began to set and the thermals began to shift. Sure enough, the same hunters that spooked him that morning now had their wind drifting down to his bed.
It didn’t take long before his nose pointed up in the air and he slowly stood to test the wind better. The sloppy hunters’ position worked to my advantage. I drew my Hoyt and settled my pin, pulling through the shot. I clearly remember the arrow’s flight meeting the spot I was focused on and he piled up within 30 yards.
The hard work hiking to the next peak to glass him again had paid off and he was mine. After pics in the fading light (which is always fun running solo), I deboned him and started the long hike back to the truck. I wouldn’t reach it until 3 a.m.
More Tents than a Flea Market
With the buck in a freezer at a friend’s house, I was hiking back in search of elk the very next afternoon. The area I choose to start wound up being a popular one. I ran into more hunters and hikers than I had seen the entire time I had been in Colorado. I found several herds scouting and wasted no time in relocating after a few days of running into other hunters.
Second Choice is the Correct Choice
By day four, I found myself in a new drainage that had previously held elk. There wasn’t much bugling happening yet. I spent the day shadowing elk, moving from one small herd to another. I had seen enough mature bulls before opening day to be confident in passing up opportunities on smaller raghorns.
I found an area with many wallows showing heavy use. Just then, a distant bugle broke the silence. It was all I needed.
The bugle had come from a steep, heavily timbered slope that looked like a great bedding area. With a couple of hours left before dark, I decided to still-hunt through the timber in hopes of crossing paths with elk that were getting up to feed.
I found cows almost immediately and had to wait for them to feed up and out of sight before traversing farther into the timber. Moving slowly and glassing every few steps, I searched the thick, dark timber for any part of an elk.
With the wind in my face, the strong smell of a bull filled my nostrils. I knew I was close, but the thick forest made it hard to see 30 yards.
Creeping along, I stepped around a spruce and found a lane that opened up downslope, revealing a massive, old bull bedded and looking away. A quick range and I was at full draw.
Just as I was pressing my mouth reed to the roof of my mouth in an attempt to get him to his feet, he stood and turned his gaze in my direction. The arrow was on its way before he realized what I was.
He crashed downhill and came to rest less than 40 yards from where he had bedded, becoming lodged in a downfall that would make it impossible for me to roll him in any direction. I was on cloud nine, but I was in for a long night just to get him deboned. He was by far the largest-bodied bull I had ever stood by. I felt very proud of my OTC public land bull and was overwhelmed with emotions. It’s a feeling that all elk hunters crave.
The weather was cool and the dark timber made for a great spot to hang up my deboned meat as I made trips back to the truck. I love hunting alone, but packing meat out of the backcountry solo isn’t so much fun. Still, I was leaving Colorado with a full freezer and memories to last my lifetime.