Sunday - September 14, 2014
This morning we let ourselves sleep in. We wore ourselves yesterday chasing after the elk herds yesterday. With two full weeks of hunting ahead of us, one morning of recuperation doesn't hurt anything. We woke up late, had egg and cheese bagels, sat in the sun, repacked our back packs ... water and food were depleted from the day before.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife guys stopped by our camp and checked our tags and bows. It was nice to see them on the mountain, and we told them we appreciated them being in the area (we haven't seen them many of the years hunting here). We chatted with them for about an hour discussing ...
We slowly began our hike. The spot we were headed to was a couple miles in. The temperature was warmer than optimal for elk hunting; therefore, we took our time, making sure not to work up a sweat. As we rounded the first section of timber, and made our way across an open track, I noticed birds circling above and thought maybe there was a carcass in the area. Sure enough, I looked up and saw two bears take off through the woods, a mere 50 yards above us. We crossed a wallow and made our way up to check out what had the bears attention. It was a young calf - really young. The front quarters were gone and the back quarters still partially in tact. Either someone shot the calf and took only a portion of the meat (hoping that's not the case), or someone shot it's mom and left the young calf to defend itself against the bears. Either option didn't fair well for the calf.
Again, bears are not our priority, so we continued down the trail, another mile to go until arriving at a wallow. Troy settled in on one side of a drainage, and I crossed over to set up directly across a trail, hoping to get a 20 yard shot. As the sun sank further down on the horizon, the temperatures finally began to decrease slightly and we were hopeful that a bull would make an appearance soon. Then I heard a twig snap. I quickly motioned to Troy that I heard something and scanned the thick brush, trying to see through it as best I could. There he was! Coming down the trail, but it was the WRONG trail! He was headed straight for me, headed down the trail I was sitting on. You might be asking at this point, "What's the problem with that?" Let me tell you ... This "trail" is not a trail as in a hiking trail, but a game trail surrounded by thick brush. The kind where you have to push through it, moving branches out of the way so it doesn't smack anyone following you in the face. So .... as he got closer and closer, then stopped at 7 yards away, I found myself drawing my bow back when he looked the other way. It would have to be timed perfectly and I'd have to find an opening through the branches. At this point he was still above me and I actually had a broadside shot, if it wasn't for all of the stinking branches. However, if he decided that he wanted to continue down the trail, he would take a 90 degree turn and walk over top of me. After a minute that felt like an eternity, he finally decided something wasn't right, did a 180 turn and disappeared into the brush. I now know what it feels like to be eyeball to eyeball with a bull elk.
I looked over at Troy, and he shrugged his shoulders, making a gesture indicating he didn't know what happened. I think from his vantage point, what played out moments ago must have looked a little strange.
Since we didn't spook the bull off, we assumed he was still in the area. Troy let out a bugle, and the bull responded back. Then two other bulls from below chimed in, and we could tell they were getting closer. We were about to be surrounded by three, maybe four bulls! Troy began cow calling and the bulls proceeded to "scream" back and forth at each other. It seemed like a stand off of sorts. We waited, ready to take aim at whichever one decided to commit. The young bull up above came in again, but nothing materialized. What an experience! It is moments like this that leave a grin permanently planted on your face all evening.
As we were walking out, one of the screamer bulls had made his way to the meadow to the east of our path. Troy spotted him in the tree line at roughly sixty yards out. I couldn't see him unfortunately, so Troy backed up hoping to suck him down the path towards me. Either he spotted Troy or winded us because I heard him take off.
The bulls continued bugling to us as we made our way out that night. We were sad to leave the party, but daylight had given into the approaching darkness. It was time to leave. Oh, yah ... and the bears were feeding on the calf again. There was just enough light to make out a black blob on the hillside, forty yards above us. We could literally hear them ripping into the carcass. Troy got out his Hawke binoculars and confirmed what we already knew. BIG bear happily feasting away, reminding me that my stomach is also empty ... time to get back to camp, fill our bellies and crawl into our sleeping bags. Another adventure is waiting for us tomorrow.
Thursday, September 4
We got a little late start this morning because Troy was tired after helping pack out Curtis' bull the night before. After the tough day of tracking my bull, I guess the good Lord knew that Troy needed a little comic relief. As Curtis plowed ahead, anxiously looking for his bull, Troy walked maybe 100 yards from the wallow, looked over and called out into the darkness, "Hey Curtis, is this your bull?" They thought he was kidding at first, but as Troy once again said a little more serious this time, "No really, there's a bull laying right here. Is it yours?"
Since there was no tracking involved, Troy jumped in, helped gut and carry out the meat. The original agreement was simply to come find the bull. I think he arrived back at camp around 2:00 A.M. I let him sleep in until 5:30, which meant we left around 6:00. Since it took us an hour to get to our hunting spot that morning, we arrived a little too late. Funny - sometimes things work out when you least expect them to. Since it was light as we walked in, we could easily glass the open pasture before heading in. We ended up getting into elk. In fact, it was the same bull we chased the other night. He bugled at us a bit and then proceeded down the mountain. We climbed back up to the truck, looked for grouse, relaxed a bit, had coffee and then slowly made our way back down the mountain. A comfortable tree was located, and we easily dozed on and off. At one point, I looked down the lane of dark timber and stared at a strange blob. It looked like a huge turtle from a distance. Then a bird landed on it. Then another "camp robber" joined in, dancing on top of the blob. I had a feeling I knew exactly what it was, as I reached for my Hawke binos. Sure enough! There was an elk gut pile about fifty yards from where we were sitting. I looked back at Troy to whisper, "If we sit still long enough, we might fill our bear tags before our elk tags!"
A decision was easily made to move over several hundred yards. Elk meat takes priority over bear. After a few more unsuccessful set ups, we decided (or I might have convinced Troy) to try and go after the bull we heard this morning. He MIGHT head back up the mountain later that afternoon. We eventually made our way over to the same general area, but all was quiet.
On the drive back to camp that night, we came upon a 4-wheeler that was parked in the middle of the road. First instinct was to get annoyed. Then we realized another bow hunter had seen a deer just off the road, and decided to put a stalk on him. Not long after we sat waiting for him to return, an out of breath hunter emerged from the slope below us. Troy quickly asked, "Did you get him?" Skylark said, yes, I think so. He's a small buck, but I couldn't pass it up. We helped him track his buck, but unfortunately the blood trail ran dry.
So ... after helping another fellow hunter, we once again arrived back to camp late. Sleep came quickly.
Friday, September 5
The last couple nights took a toll on us. We were TIRED this morning. The combination of the alarm clock and uncooperative bulls wasn't enough to draw us from our slumber. We ended up sleeping in, then going to town to restock our ice, and get a few other "necessities" ... rope, donuts, apples, and a strong cup of coffee!
When we got back to camp, chores were started. Troy filled the water jugs from the fresh water pipe in the side of the mountain. A fresh water source that we learned from the PA boys. As I saw Troy, pull in with the four wheeler loaded down with water, he had a big grin on his face. As he sat waiting for the water to slowly filter out of the mountain side, he passed the time scouring the plentiful clover growing nearby. A four leaf clover was found, and he now held it out proudly, giving me a good luck charm for our afternoon hunt. Ahh.... so sweet!
We'd be ready for an afternoon hunt, after a few more chores: Camouflage sprayed down on the clothes line, torn pants stitched, a few rounds of arrows through the bow, and lunch made.
Since we slept in, we were ready to hunt early this afternoon. Arriving at our entry point around 2:00, we slowly worked our way in, sat through a small rain shower, and then moved further along the mountain side. It was quiet in the woods tonight. Finally around 7:00 we heard a chuckle from a couple bulls coming up the mountain. It almost sounded like a growl.
Heading back to camp under the cover of darkness, it was a slow ride up the mountain on the four wheeler. Tonight we simply enjoyed the time spent together in the elk woods, breathing deeply the experience of all it brings. With each September day passing, the rut action lay waiting for that magic moment to awaken it. Soon. Hopefully soon!
Saturday, September 13
We woke up early this morning - early enough to get ahead of the boom stick hunters. It's opening day for black powder and there are camps speckled with an orange glow everywhere. The plan is to drop in deep, find the nastiest part of the mountain where the elk will hide as soon as the first shots begin to echo across the mountain.
With headlamps guiding our foot steps, we journeyed down the mountain slope into a corner pocket of the mountain. An area that holds beaver dams, and steep drainages. It didn't take long before we heard the first bugle and we worried that we weren't deep enough in and others might hear the bugle, breaking the morning air. I was tempted to tell the bull, "shhh... we hear you, but do you know how close you are in giving away your location to the multitude above us? And they have guns!"
We dropped down a couple hundred more yards, quickly set up our decoys, then let out a few soft cow calls. He answered immediately. After a short call sequence we set realized he was gathering his cows and moving further down. We followed. Another set up attempt was made and with the wind not in our favor, we had to bid farewell to the herd, but we knew where they were headed. We paralleled them down the slope and waited.
At one point as we were making our way down through some timber, a twisted up limb lay broken and hanging across a beaten down path. An angry bull took out his frustration on a tree branch and it now lay twisted and raked to shreds. It was clear that bulls were in the area!
We could hear distant bugles below us - not far enough to deter us from chasing them, but far enough that we knew it was going to be a long day hunt (and even longer hike out that evening)! Glassing the mountain terrain below us, we spotted a bull emerge from the quakies. He was big! I could clearly see several inches of ivory tips ... 6 points for sure on one side and it looked like a messed up right side. I wouldn't hesitate drawing my bow and releasing an arrow if the opportunity presented itself. We watched him for a bit to see where he went, and felt confident that he made his way into a patch of dark timber directly below us, for an afternoon siesta.
As we were getting ready to sit down for a cup of coffee, we realized that in our excitement to begin the hunt this morning, complete inventory of our pack supplies had not been performed ... no COFFEE. We discussed trying to make tea from pine needles. H e l l o caffeine headache all afternoon.
We quickly forgot about the throbbing in our heads due to the lack of caffeine because a bull below us started bugling from his bed around 11:30 and proceeded to bugle all afternoon. It was most likely the big 6 I had spotted earlier. After the first 30 minutes, we decided that it would be worth it to make a move instead of waiting him out until evening. Each time we got closer, he would get more and more upset. A throaty bugle would emerge from the pines below us. We made it as close as we dared without him spotting us from his bedroom. Each cow call sequence was returned with a bugle. At one point we watched one of his cows walk just across the ravine, make her way down, get a drink of water, then mosey on back to the "bedroom." Once again it was perfect timing as we were in need of some comic relief. Before seeing Mrs. Bugle, Troy and I actually thought there might be other hunters working their way to the same bull we had been chasing all morning. In an effort to suppress our irritation, we moved in to "cut off" the new intruders and make sure they knew we were the ones calling back and forth to the bedded bull. Then we saw her and the strange cow call she was making. Simultaneously we looked at each other and asked, "was that really the cow?" Turns out she was the intruder ... a real live cow elk that now had us pinned down. The sounds she was making sounded like someone was calling through a bugle tube. We quickly realized she was not alone, as we watched several other cows mill around across the edge of the drainage we were now perched on.
Feeling confident that we were the only ones down in this hole, with an entire elk herd, we sat and waited. It was now 2:00 P.M. and everything turned quiet as the elk bedded down a few hundred yards from our location. The bull most likely decided it was time to get a little shut eye and we were content to wait a couple hours, knowing that it wouldn't be long before he decided to get up and play. We were in perfect ambush position. Wind was in our favor. It was only a matter of time. Snuggled in under a pine tree, we found ourselves nodding off as the afternoon sunshine warmed our faces.
Suddenly the peacefulness of the afternoon was broken. A sound, similar to thunder but more like a tidal wave of broken branches, erupted from the nearby trees. I nudged Troy, "Did you hear that?!" Before he had a chance to answer, the misplaced crash of thunder quickly gave way to the sight of the trees seemingly coming to life. As we looked across the ditch, a plethora of legs and bodies were moving quickly up the mountain. Something was pushing the entire herd of elk. Not yet sure what was happening, we cow called, hoping that they would run our way (and not run us over). They ended up skirting the ravine and making their way up the mountain. Then the reality of what happened became apparent ... florescent orange appeared and my heart sank. A guy with a rifle tag for bear was riding his horse RIGHT THROUGH the bedded elk.
I couldn't help but feel a bit frustrated and irritated that we had 1) hiked in on foot, 2) worked our way into a perfect position for ambushing a huge bull, and 3) now someone rode their horse right through the entire elk herd. We packed up our bags and moved up the mountain where we could get a good vantage point, hoping to see where the elk were pushed to. After a mountain house meal filled our bellies, and not spotting any elk, we were about to let defeat wash over us.
Then, a bugle was heard -- right in the same area the elk were pushed out of an hour ago!!
Our bull was back in his bedding area, calling his cows back to him. The hunt wasn't over after all! We quickly made our way back to the last spot we were calling from. It was now or never. Since he wasn't budging, we decided to get aggressive. As we inched closer, we learned why he wasn't crossing the ditch that separated us. It was more like a ravine. It was deep and steep. Finding some cover right on the edge, we quickly ranged distances. I'd have a 40 yard shot if we could lure him close to the ledge. However, he still wasn't showing himself. Troy looked at me, "Your call. Do you want to try and cross over to get closer?" I looked down and doubted if we could safely cross, then looked back at Troy. He saw the look on my face, and replied, "We'll be fine, just take it slow and we can cross over there." So we ventured down. It turns out that it looked worse than it was. Navigating down wasn't that hard, but climbing the other side, I quickly learned that it is better to get momentum and not stop. I told myself, "Think like a mountain goat."
We found a good spot to set up and saw a cow a hundred yards off, making her way down the trail. Unfortunately, the bull decided he didn't want to "play" and continued to move further down the mountain. Troy called him a "coward" out of frustration, and we decided it was time to start heading back up. It was going to be a long climb out of here! Plus there were still some bulls above us. If we started now, we could hunt our way back.
It didn't take long and as we followed a game trail up, I heard a bark and cow calls. We froze. After not seeing anything for several minutes, we decided to move up for a better vantage point. Slowly and cautiously we crept up the trail, then stopped and cow called again. Something was moving above us. I got excited when I thought it was the big lead cow, but after a closer look, realized it was a big spike (young bull). Since we can't shoot spike bulls in Colorado, we sat and watched him for a while, thinking maybe he'd lure in something else. I thought I heard more movement, but never saw anything. The problem now ... we didn't want to spook him off, giving us away, but also wanted to keep moving up the mountain, to hopefully get closer to a bull above us. Spikes are curious, and sometimes not very bright. He wouldn't leave us alone! Finally we had to start walking down the trail. He literally followed us for awhile before finally running up along he ridge to the right of us.
As we made our way through a patch of trees, we were about to walk into an opening. "Stop! Don't move. Cow looking right at us," Troy whispered authoritatively. She was 150 yards out and grazing along a pine tree. Unfortunately, we were stuck in the open. With a few aspen trees behind us to break our silhouette, we stood still and watched. Troy cow called with his mouth reed. She moved closer, then momentarily disappeared below us. I first saw a yearling cow dance right into the opening in front of us. She stopped at 30 yards and looked back. The cow I saw earlier came running up to her and stopped. I had decided I would shoot a cow if the perfect shot opportunity presented itself. However, I couldn't bring myself to shoot this cow. That calf was right by her side, and knew she was probably still wet. So I watched as they proceeded to walk right toward us. 20 yards. 15 yards. I heard movement behind her. We were now in close proximity to a herd of elk. The cows looked back over their shoulders and we watched what they were looking at ... several other cows with a bull following behind them. Unfortunately, the cow and calf spooked a little as we were standing right on the pathway they wanted to walk along, which contributed to redirecting the herd to cross right above us, out of bow range. The spike, that wouldn't leave us alone previously, then came trotting up the clearing, stopped and stared at us. Why couldn't YOU have been the bull, Mr. Friendly Spike? Oh well ... another close encounter with elk in the books. That is a good day in my opinion.
I'll get my elk someday. It simply wasn't today.
Btw - Here's your elk hunting tip of the day: Never. I repeat never go to the bathroom next to itch weed. Not only were my legs on fire from all the hiking today, my bottom was also burning due to not recognizing the obnoxious stuff.
Journal Entry #5 - Wednesday, September 3
Today was bitter sweet. I shot a bull. I thought I had my first bull kill; however, after tracking him for eight hours and losing blood, we bid him farewell with the hopes he would recover from the wound I left behind. Here is what happened ...
We arrived at the meadow just as the early morning light broke the veil of darkness. With enough light to let us peer into the meadow before us, Troy noticed that elk were already grazing up through the open. The original plan was to cross the meadow and nestle in a corner pocket. It's amazing how plans quickly change. We dropped our gear, unloaded the cow decoy, unsealed the new packet of cow wafers and I nocked an arrow. It all happened so fast! Troy situated himself directly behind me, tucked inside a big pine tree that I was using for cover. As he began to cow call, the bull quickly responded with a sing-songy bugle. It sounded like he was either love sick, or couldn't remember how to get his bugle voice working. I started to laugh a little, as I thought to myself, "that was the most unique bugle I've ever heard!" The calling sequence went back and forth for several minutes. Finally, Troy let out an authoritative call cow, that could only mean one thing ... "Come HERE!" The bull started running right at us.
Troy promptly let me know, "Emily, get ready! He's running toward us. I can see him!"
I took two deep breaths and sat at the ready. If he came high, I was going to have to time when I drew my bow back as he crossed the pine above me, which would give me about a 30 yard shot, depending on where he stood. If he came low, I would have to be quick with drawing back and hope he didn't see me. I had my 60, 50, 30 and 20 yards clearly marked on the lower section. I knew the top pine was about 37 yards with the lowest tree at 20 yards, so it was going to be a 20-37 yard shot, depending on where he stood.
He came high. I waited for the right time to draw.
As soon as he slowly crossed the 20 yard pine tree above me, I drew. As he walked past, Troy stopped him with a cow call. I settled my pin and chose red. It was my 30 yard pin. I watched as my arrow sunk in perfectly as far as left and right goes, but knew instantly that my arrow found a mark that was a little high. Instantly, I wanted to throw up. With the upwards angle, I knew that a high shot was not a good thing.
My sweet husband stayed optimistic for me all morning and afternoon, as we searched for hours on end, finally concluding he was still alive. He never laid down to rest. He walked for over a mile. We found my arrow around mid-morning, covered in blood, laying on an open trail. The bull had reached back and pulled it out. Feeling a mixture of emotions at this moment because with the shot placement and blood trail we were working with, it was likely that the shot wasn't fatal. We reviewed the video footage over and over again. Initially I was hoping I caught that top lung, but even if I did, it was most likely only one lung. A shot that a big bull elk can certainly live through.
It was a tough day! After circling and griding the area where we last found blood, and coming up empty, I agreed to start heading back to the truck before the cover of darkness closed around us. I hate to see an animal suffer and that is what happened today. My heart was heavy, weighing me down. Steps filled with sadness carry more weight than that of a pack frame filled with meat. The good thing is that my bull will most likely live through the experience, but the encounter from this morning will leave us both with scars. I could hardly sleep last night because I was so excited to hunt today, now I'm wondering if tonight I will get any sleep at all ... I keep seeing that arrow hit high and replaying it over and over again.
As we were sitting around the campfire, the PA boys showed up. Curtis shot a bull and needed help finding him. After filling their bellies with elk lasagna, I wished them good luck and crawled into my sleeping bag. Troy grabbed a flashlight, knives and gps, then ventured off into the darkness in search of another blood trail. He came back to camp around 1:30, with a sore back and bloody hands. This time, the bull was recovered, quartered and hung, like it is supposed to happen.
I drifted off to sleep, with a wound on my heart and sadness for a bull out there somewhere on the mountain slope, wondering and hoping that he would bugle again.
As fate would have it, this wasn't the last encounter we would have with this bull.
The story continues ...
Before heading out today, a few chores around camp had to be done ... Troy fixed the leak on the top of the camper, then drained gas out of the old generator into the new generator, while I sewed a rip in Troy's First Lite pants. A quick breakfast of burritos consisting of eggs, wild hog, potatoes and cheese were consumed. I could get used to living like this!
Once our morning chores were completed and bellies filled up, we were excited to get back out there and see if the elk were ready to play. So far, there hasn't been much talking, and I was ready for some bugling action!
Since we had missed out on a hunt this morning, we left a little bit early and drove to the top of the mountain with the hopes of catching some grouse before it was time to play with the elk. We had seen lots of birds in the same area on Saturday, but Murhpy's law struck and now that we were prepared with blunts on the end of arrows, the birds didn't want to cooperate. However, we soon found out that a bull had his game face on and was ready for the afternoon action to begin. Game on!
Around 2:30 PM we dropped down to the first tier on the mountain and sat there for thirty to forty minutes until dropping further down onto the lower aspen ledge. After sitting for another hour or so, we heard something ... cow calls! If you can hear cow calls, then you are close to elk! They were awake and hopefully grazing our way. We let out a few cow calls and then Troy ripped off a bugle. A bull answered back immediately. He did NOT like that another bull was close to his cows. This was the first bugle that we heard this year and we got excited! It seems like each year when that first bugle is heard, remembering how to respond to the challenge gets blurred by the adrenaline rush threatening to overtake your senses. Should you keep calling and sit tight? Move closer and put the pressure on, but risk getting spotted? Bugle or just cow call? It is definitely a challenge!
Since it was still early in the game, we decided to stay put, hoping they would come to us. We called, patiently waited and listened. Eventually we could tell that they moved just below us. Each response from the bull gave his location away, and we noticed a pattern. He was moving up and down the mountain with no commitment to come all the way up to our location, so we decided it was time to put some pressure on this bull. We dropped down a tier and continued to bugle. Troy raked a tree. The bull responded back immediately, giving us the opportunity to close the distance a little more. Back and forth this went all evening. We made it to within 100 yards of this bull, just above his bedroom, but never caught a glimpse of him. I nicknamed this bull "Mr. T." since he teased us all evening, staying just out of sight.
I left the mountain that night with one thought in my head ...
"I know where you live Mr. T!"
Watch the video version of this Elk Journal entry:
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