It was a complicated summer leading up to the deer hunt this year. Early in the summer a long standing lawsuit between landowners was settled and the number of huntable acres that I previously had access to was dramatically reduced. As part of this deal, the ATV trail that would lead me within a reasonable hike distance to access one of my favorite spots for elk was now posted “No Trespassing” and I was on the outside looking in. Combine that with a bit of a family feud that left me with a sour taste in my mouth and little desire to spend much time at the family cabin throughout the summer. It honestly wasn’t until I started seeing the limited entry early rifle elk success pictures posted around that I began to feel those twinges of excitement welling up inside again.
My friend Cody arrived in town from New Mexico late Tuesday night and I loaded up my car and headed to pick him up after getting my kids in bed. We arrived at the cabin at about 10:30pm where my dad, brother, uncle, and grandfather were waiting for us. We got ready for open morning, and called it a night.
A DEATH MARCH
For opening morning, we decided to use other hunters to our advantage knowing that a couple of groups would begin working down one of the canyons on the property at first light. We arrived early and discretely hiked about two thirds of the way down the canyon and waited. Within just a couple minutes six bucks made their way a mere 20 yards from our location, being pushed by hunters above them. The plan worked great however, we were not up to the task. One was a very nice 4x4 that never presented much of a shot because he was moving pretty quickly, however two 3x3s and a small 2x2 stopped and stood in the head high sage staring at us. With only their heads visible and standing directly in front of Cody, I elected to not shoot simply because it didn’t feel right to be pointing my gun in the direction of my friend. Cody had completely neglected the 3x3s after seeing the 4x4 buck and was determined to give chase, so off we went for the rest of the morning pushing through the aspens attempting to get another glimpse of the biggest buck. We were able to get one last look at him as he high tailed it away from us now two ridges away. We decided to abandon this canyon for now because we could see a number of other groups also working the ridges around us.
We wanted to try to get to the area where we were able to kill a cow elk and fill an antlerless control tag last year, we knew the hike would be long but we knew there would be elk there and we again had a couple cow tags. We drove the ATVs over to a small parking area where the creek turns west and heads into a narrow canyon and down the bottom of that canyon following the stream we went. As we negotiated the steep rocky trail alongside the creek, being also an avid fly fisherman I couldn’t help but peer into the clear pools of this small mountain stream. The number of trout found in each of these pools was really fun to see and made me wish I had my fly rod in my hand.
We reached the confluence of two forks of this stream, crossed and began climbing the opposite side. We found an excellent game trail that followed the ridge and as we began climbing the ridge a bugle rang out from the pines directly across from us. We stopped and scoured the thick pines and eventually glimpsed a herd of elk making their way up and over the top. We decided that going much further up the canyon would not be a wise move because we were at our physical limit in the event that we were successful at putting a cow elk on the ground. So we picked out a saddle just ahead and decided to make our way up to that point, take a break, and slowly work our way back. We reached the saddle at about 1:30pm and sat down in some scrub oaks to take a break for a little bit. I peeled off my boots, hung my socks up in the tree and tried to take a quick nap on my pack. I would have been successful… if it weren’t for the several different bulls within a half mile that were bugling regularly.
I laid there basically until my socks were dry and we decided to try and work our way into one of these elk herds nearby, fortunately there were at least two bulls that were below us and would essentially be on our way back. We got to where the closest bull sounded like he was screaming from and I let out a locator bugle. I received an immediate response from the bull in the pines directly across the canyon. Try as we might we were not able to get eyes on him. Then Cody spotted a herd of elk moving through a small clearing casually feeding about 350 yards further down the canyon. The race was on because we could clearly see that there were several cows in this herd… and with those cows were calves. The plan would be to shoot a calf to facilitate the pack out. The hillside we were on had very little cover but we went for it trying to keep any piece of cover, any tree, and rock between us and the elk to help us close the distance. When we hit about 300 yards the herd caught our movement and began to make their way up into the pines. But we kept closing the distance hoping that by some small miracle there would be a straggler or two that would give us a shot. Another 50 yards closer and we spotted a cow elk and her calf still feeding in the trees below the clearing where the rest of the herd was. I had a clear line on two little scrubby trees that would get me within my range and allow me to close the last little bit of distance with the trees blocking my approach. I eased between the two trees and found a perfect seat on a couple rocks, set up the shooting sticks and waited for Cody to get into place. It felt like he took forever, and I finally looked over at him and told him I was going to take the shot. I settled the crosshairs, accounted for the slight breeze coming up the canyon and applied a slight holdover on account of the distance and pulled the trigger. The calf that was standing broadside disappeared from sight. The shot felt perfect so I figured it had just dropped in its tracks. The cow hurried up out of the trees, through the small clearing and into the pines with no calf in tow. I began to mentally prepare myself for the task ahead, we would have a 2+ mile pack out on a rocky and brushy trail.
I made my way over to where I fully expected to see a small elk piled up only to find nothing… no elk, no blood, just tracks. So for the next hour and a half Cody and I scoured that hillside looking for any positive sign but to no avail. I grid searched the area while he followed the tracks that led from the spot where the calf was for several hundred yards. Admittedly, I’ve got to say there was a slight sense of relief when Cody and I met back up again and determined that I had missed and we would only be hauling our own sorry carcasses off the mountain that night.
We were near the bottom of the canyon and we knew we would have about a two hour hike out so we started towards the creek and then made our way back to the ATVs. I would never fully recover from the strenuous nature of that hike for the rest of the week… I was tired but could not sleep and I was hungry but nothing sounded appetizing for the remaining days of the hunt. It wasn’t until I got home and went back to work on Monday that I was finally able to get enough water in me to feel like I was coming out of it. I did come across a small moose shed which I picked up and brought home for the kids.
Thursday morning found Cody and I both wanting, rather needing, to take it a little easier on our bodies. Feet were raw and legs were sore so we decided to hop on the ATVs and ride up on top and just do some glassing. Well, we both knew that “just glassing” was a nice idea but nothing that either he or I were really capable of doing. Three hours later we again found ourselves just about a mile away from the ATVs slowly stalking along the bottom of a canyon. We saw a good handful of does and fawns but no bucks so we returned to the ATVs and went back to the cabin for a late breakfast.
We milled around the cabin for a bit and chose to hike up into a bowl that I had hunted several years previously but hadn’t visited in the previous couple years. The plan would be to simply sit and watch this bowl for the evening. We parked the ATVs and made the short climb and found a place to sit. We sat there for the next several hours just talking about anything and everything… our families, work, past hunting trips, future hunting plans. Finally the shadows began to lengthen and the temperature began to drop, and the action started to pick up. Concealed from my view for the previous 5 hours, the angle of the sun was just perfect to illuminate the left antler of a small 2pt buck bedded in the shadows about 230 yards directly across the bowl.
We debated, Cody was on him and ready and we discussed where to aim to account for wind drift at that distance. Ultimately the decision was made to wait and after several minutes the small buck stood and made his way out of sight.
A doe appeared and made her way to a spring that was directly below us. I continued to scour the area looking for any more sign of movement. The doe left the spring and began working her way up the opposite hillside, I would lose her then relocate her just trying to keep tabs on her. Then I spotted movement below her moving in the direction of the spring. It was a buck so I told Cody to get ready and shoot. I didn’t get a good look at antlers but I could tell as the buck made his way through the aspens towards the clearing that he was a nicer buck. As the buck stepped into the clearing near the spring he briefly turned broadside and I was telling Cody to shoot. He was insistent that I get ready in case a follow up shot was needed and waited for me. By the time I was steady on the buck he had turned and was now walking straight towards us. Cody began to panic because there was now a cluster of trees blocking his view and he had no shot. I still had the slightest little gap where I could still see his body but could no longer see his head and knew that it was now or never. It was a shot that they always tell you to never take… the buck directly facing me, steeply downhill from me. .. the margin for error extremely small. The trigger broke and the buck lurched in the air then was gone from sight. Everything went silent… no running, no bounding, no brush moving or twigs breaking… just silence. So we made our way down to the spring and to the spot where the buck was standing when I shot and like the day before with the calf elk we found nothing. Cody went uphill and I went downhill on the trail and as I came around a small clump of aspens I noticed an odd white rock several yards down the trail in some high grass. I pulled out my binoculars to inspect the rock and saw that the rock had antlers. I called Cody over and I finally got my first good look at the buck. He was bigger than I had expected. We both marveled at how this buck just appeared out of thin air, how we hadn’t seen him until he was nearly to the spring.
Light was fading quickly so we began to skin and quarter the buck. We got about halfway through before needing headlamps. With loaded packs we began to make our way back down the mountain towards the ATVs. I had walked into this bowl a number of times and knew the trail well, which was a huge benefit and we negotiated our way down the mountain quickly. It was the smoothest pack out I have ever experienced and we pulled into the driveway of the cabin just a few minutes after 9pm. A search party was assembling to come and find us and make sure everything was ok so everyone was just walking out the door when we pulled in. Cody and I shared the story, hung the bagged quarters, and devoured some dinner (which still wasn’t even remotely appetizing to me but I knew that I needed to eat something).
AN OTHERWISE UNEVENTFUL END
We hiked around some more on Friday and Saturday and the only buck sighting was a small forkie, I thought he was a doe until he skylined himself on a ridge. We did spot a half dozen elk on Saturday morning just above the cabin but from the very brief glimpse that I got of them they appeared to all be bulls so my cow tag remains available for the muzzleloader elk hunt in November.