Gunn-ing for Elk
Marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms, forest fires, and wolves are Colorado’s latest trending topics. Not trending are the lifetimes worth of memories and hunting opportunities outdoorsmen have long been accustomed to in the state. Before quickly closing your mind to the blue voters and green weed, let me bring to light a current issue which you may be missing: Colorado is quietly shifting gears, turning once over-the-counter hunting units into quality draw-only areas, perhaps with a valid purpose in mind, perhaps not; and it’s happening under our noses.
As this story begins, we find ourselves in the final five days of archery elk season, which many would consider to be the best five days. Aspen groves are a visual prism of warm yellow and gold. Bull elk are full tilt in rut, murdering innocent pine trees, fighting amongst one another, cows squealing as bugles abound. For the outdoorsman these divine moments of the season are anticipated with fervent promise of adventure and success.
I’m on this hunt with a longtime friend Jon Gunderson. We first met years ago as I was guiding him in this same unit in the Gunnison Basin. Glancing over Jon’s gear I smile to myself as I look at the worn-out compound bow. The graphics are seriously faded and the string is frayed. I think it may be the same bow he used 12 years ago... heck I think it may even be the same Gold Tip arrows! Originally an OTC area, this unit now costs a person the time and effort of applying. As a result this opportunity took Jon years to acquire as a non-resident. I didn’t draw a tag but was excited to go regardless.
It’s 2020, a year we’d prefer to forget, yet we won’t, and this Colorado elk season will be no exception. The Colorado Division of Wildlife turned the entire southwest corner of the state to draw, severely limiting OTC hunting options and ultimately over-crowding my usual haunts. If Unit 62 was statistically estimated by the state as the busiest unit before, now it’s a madhouse.
Away From the Crowds
We find ourselves here by years of sweat and experience. No technology has aided our decision to pursue this path, but rather boot leather and following the rule handed down from hunting mentors: following the water will lead you to wildlife. Years of stumbling around chasing elk take you into these unexpected holes of hunting Eden.
This area in particular is known only to the few local ranchers and maybe one or two obsessive hunters that are tougher than smart. It’s driven by and overlooked by just about everyone... a true honey hole. I smile as my boots climb without any sign of human activity before each step. With three more hours of walking ahead, I find comfort and satisfaction traversing these rarely traveled ambitious trails. It’s a theme that reflects my choices throughout life; always taking the tougher path.
Cresting into our intended hunting location at 11,000 feet, the first bugle catches our ears and we sit, wait and strategize. Breaths come ragged as the crisp morning air and elevation burns our lungs. A break from the strain of the ascent is welcomed.
A Close Call
As an elk hunter and caller my technique is to give each setup 45 minutes to an hour. Without pressure from hunters and a stable wind direction, time is your friend. At 10:00am we start feeling the bull out, tenderly approaching and calling, trying to get an idea of his location in the dense quagmire of trees. After 15 minutes of silence, the bull responds. Checking the wind, I watch the puff of powder rise from my indicator bottle in the direction of the bugle. It’s going the wrong way.
Forced to readjust we climb some more and slide over the ridgeline. Years of failed set ups have taught me that positioning yourself at the same elevation or above the target works best for successful call-ins. On the ridgeline the wind still isn’t great, but it’s better. The sky is overcast with an unremitting haze of orange smoke from the fires up north, which is affecting today’s wind shifts. Visibility is minimal as we move in silently. A quick glance of my surroundings reveals that we are suddenly in his bedroom, as there are rubs in every direction. It’s the most significant elk rut staging area I’ve ever seen, so I put it in the memory bank for next year.
I throw out a locating bugle, and he hits me back with a deep, nasty full throttle response. I like the sound of this one... a lot. I guess his distance to be roughly 500 yards, and Jon agrees so we push further into the woods as stealthily as we can. My goal is to cut the distance to less than 200 yards before making another sound. Suddenly Jon whispers the dreaded “HOLD”, the kind that tells me we’ve been spotted. After what seems like an eternity in a mid-step freeze, Jon sighs while dropping his head and says “That was a big damn elk.”
Immediately I’m crushed inside, but I try to hide it. It’s my mountain, my calling, and ultimately my mistake. This country is immense, and physically demanding. It’s one of the few places in Colorado that’s so big it was intimidating to me the first time I set foot into it years ago. Even from the air, I’m always taken back by its vastness. Simple mistakes hurt like hell at the top of a big mountain. The bull was on a rope to us, and I just made a rookie error that I was consciously trying to avoid. “Don’t do stupid twice”, rattles in my head. We emotionally recover and realize we’ve still been walking through thrashed trees for the last 45 minutes.
Still in route to the original hunting location I remain optimistic. There’s an incredible amount of sign every step, and with so many tree rubs, it looks like they have disease from the ground level to seven feet up – my new favorite tree contagion. Once overlooking the next drainage where we can see and hear, I let loose on the call again. Five minutes later an elk bugles. I breathe a sigh of relief and the early mistakes are not as painful now as new opportunity greets us. This time we move in slower with determination, being stoic not to make another silly mistake.
As we creep in, I can tell there’s more than one bull as the action amplifies within the 200-yard bubble, and I switch up calls for the situation. Calf calls and bugling are my favorites in close-quarter situations. Calves get away with murder on the mountain; no one pays them any mind, and the mature cows don’t feel pressure from them in competing with the bulls. I start light with my calf calls, and the woods light up. Trees begin to shake, and two separate bulls sound back. It’s a fantastic thing to hear an elk bugle under 100 yards in the woods when it rattles you to your core and you can feel it in your feet. The ground literally tremors, and trees vibrate.
Jon and I share a look, and instinctively move into the set-up without a word being spoken. The thermals are not favorable and going the wrong direction, but hopefully we can manage it. Jon moves ahead of me 25 yards as I stay put, pulling any of the elk’s attention. Less than one minute later I see Jon draw and hold his bow looking downhill. I can only catch glimpses of elusive tan hide and antler flashing through small windows in the trees. It’s been two or three minutes at full draw now. The anxiety is heavy and builds into the final seconds in this make or break moment, seven years of waiting, time away from your kids and wife in addition to money spent.
I bugle as pinecones fall out of the trees, and the bull’s loud response reverberates through the timber. Seconds later I hear the sweet sound of a bow released and the distinct KAWHAPP as the arrow finds its mark. All hell breaks loose in a collision of trees, dirt and lingering dust. I scream a bugle hard in the bull’s last direction to calm the situation, and the crashing slows... more crashing follows, then nothing. Moments later I hear death groans that remind me of a black bear in his last moment. In the same moment Jon stares downhill like he’s lost something, bobbing up and down left and right, trying to steal some confirmation in the moments of chaos. He starts heading back with hands raised in a V in what we both expect is a triumphant moment.
Same Bow Confirmed!
Upon uniting, Jon recalls the whole sequence: A small 5-point at 20 yards, then a big 6-point walks up to 10 yards leaving him a full-frontal shot that he chose to take in the close proximity, and with the unpredictable wind it seemed the best choice given the situation. A minute later the adrenaline hits Jon, making him shake. A few seconds ago he was Joe Cool handling the whole thing like the seasoned hunter he is. Now he’s reminded of why we’re here.
We sit in a reprieve for 30 minutes. Sure enough, Jon brags on his old bow, confirming it’s the same bow he had last time. I appreciate the simplicity and the admirable humility that goes with not buying the latest and greatest of today’s techy gear.
Making our way down the hill we find a deluge of blood on the trees and ground, and soon see Jon’s 6-point pressed under a tree with his feet in the air. It’s a crash that we can now see fits what we heard in the final moments of chaos. We do our work to quarter and de-bone the meat knowing we have a long way to hike down, while also trying to preserve the moment. Jon has me dig around and pull the arrow out of the bull, hoping to recycle it... yep, same old arrows too apparently.
Good hunts like this are appreciated as they are few and far between. I still have 15 years before I’m 60, I know it’ll be different for me in the future as challenging hunts like this are undoubtedly tougher on older bodies. These moments are hard earned, and we’d stay here all day to soak it in if we could. Maybe it’s an awareness from working in an ambulance and experiencing people’s worst moments that I’ve learned that we don’t all have tomorrow, so appreciate today.
Smiling Through the Pain
It’s 3:30pm as we point downhill, glancing back at the meat hanging in the trees, knowing that we have a second round-trip to make. Jim Carrey’s movie line “I’m kicking my own ass, do you mind?!” plays in my mind knowing what’s to come.
Five hours later, the last of daylight passes in imminent obscurity. We trudge out uttering profanity, stumbling in pitch black, unable to retrace the trail. Tree branches in the face and deadfall tearing at my shins, I know the trail is right next to us, but I’ll be damned if we can find it. We are earning it now, crawling back to the truck on the last of our legs.
Once there I slam an old bottle of water left in the back of the pickup. I ran out 5 hours ago as soon as we left the top of the mountain. I’m nauseous, my head hurts, feet are on fire, and my traps feel worn... everything hurts. We crawl into our bedrolls at last, feeling the exhaustion of putting it all out there, readying for the final round two in the morning, still with smiles on our faces.
By Marc Carlton