Published by admin on 16 Nov 2009 at 12:08 pm
Bulls in the Peak
Bugling up elk during Colorado’s mid-September rut
simply epitomizes the rush of bowhunting big game.
By Joe Bell
We trudged along in the 7,500-foot elevation air, moving upward along an old two-track. This trail would lead us to a good access point before we ascended to the high oak brush hills to intercept the elk. It was still inky dark when we heard the distinct sound of elk antlers racking a tree. The noise was coming just near the roadside. We moved in to 50 yards and set up.
Kevin, a good friend and Bow & Arrow Hunting’s advertising director, was my guide. Before he began his tenure at the magazine Kevin guided for Eagle Spirit Outfitters, the outfit we were hunting with, for several seasons.
Kevin was at my rear, 20 or 30 yards back. We waited for a bit, then I heard cow mews coming from Kevin’s diaphragm call. It was still very dim, so I strained my eyes looking for movement. The thrashing halted but then sliced the chilly air once again. The bull wasn’t moving.
I felt the desire to move, but with it still dark and my guide squeaking his mouth, I couldn’t move. But this could be the easiest elk hunt ever, I thought. I could creep up, wait for shooting light and arrow this bull.
Moments later, the situation solved itself as the bull silently walked off.
Over the years I’ve pursued elk off and on but never really seriously. I did have a tough, unforgettable experience hunting elk on a drop-camp hunt a few falls ago in Colorado’s flattop wilderness. After four days of wandering the alpine meadows and ridges, I got lucky, came across a rutting bull chasing three cows and fell in between. The shot came fast, as they usually do, but I nailed the 6×7 bull with a 40-yard shot. I was awestruck by the entire episode and became seriously hooked on the challenge of hunting elk.
Last summer, after putting in for several premier out-of-state elk hunts, I came up empty-handed after the draws. This directed me to Eagle Spirit Outfitters, which runs elk hunts amid some of Colorado’s best elk-rich areas. The great thing about this outfit’s hunting areas is that permits are available over the counter! Besides that, I’ve heard of Eagle Spirit’s excellent quality and success over the years, plus Kevin told me it was simply the place to go to hunt elk. I was sold and I was “fit in” during the second week in September.
Baffled by the bull’s reaction, Kevin and I continued our march up the mountain. We could hear several bulls bugling in the distance. With every step the sounds boosted our excitement.
Following a well-beaten elk trail to a stand of aspens, we set up immediately as the bull responded to Kevin’s cow sounds. The bull seemed as hot as they come, but to out disbelief, he hung up 125 yards out—only barely visible through the gap in the trees. He was a nice 5×4. Gosh, I hate when they do that.
As cows shuffled around him, he galloped to the side and spun the females up the incline. They were moving away from us. But suddenly, we saw another bull, but this one was only a spike. Then we heard another up the draw. Was this one heading our way?
Kevin and I hustled upward. We chased and chased, but our effort proved useless. Before we knew it, the temperatures were beginning to heat up and the prevalent elk sounds that surrounded us earlier on were all gone. The morning hunt was over.
We laughed and talked excitingly about the morning’s events as we drove back to the lodge. The hunting was so exhilarating I felt numb. I wish we could’ve stayed up there with the elk, but a warm breakfast did sound good.
I’ll have to say, for the most part, I’m a bowhunter who usually enjoys “roughing”it. Meaning, I don’t mind a Spartan camp with a tent and no running water. Usually, this kind of campsite brings you closer to the game, especially when you’re hunting backcountry animals like elk. In fact, all my elk hunting has been done from rustic camps.
That was until I came on this hunt. We were staying in a ski-resort-type lodge that was nothing short of elaborate (really exquisite), with all the bells and whistles you could imagine. These bells and whistles include full-time gourmet cook, cozy bedroom suites (one to two hunters per room) with our own bathroom/shower, and daily cleaning and laundry services. How’s that for elk hunting!
But don’t let these fancy features fool you. This outfit is all about quality elk bowhunting, first and foremost, and the main concern is providing you with a first-rate elk-hunting experience. They just like to do it in style.
In the next several days Kevin and I became a synchronized hunting team. We got into plenty of elk, including bulls that would score in the 280s and 290s—fantastic bulls for this region. We just kept having tough breaks.
On one particular morning, we set up along a ridge top—on one side was all oak brush with a big pond down below, and the other side was aspens intermixed with dark timber. Upon scaling the hillside, Kevin bugled and got a response—several responses from different bulls. The sound of an entire herd of cows and three or four bulls grew closer and closer.
Unfortunately the animals crossed 90 yards down slope, way out of effective range of my Mathews Q2XL. First the cows passed, then two bulls, one a 4×4, the other a 5×5. Once they were out of the clear, I scampered behind brush and dashed from bush to bush trying to sneak close. All the while the bulls were shattering the mountain air with sounds of dominance.
I was nearly within bow range when I heard the timber below come alive. From the sounds, there were three bulls in the patch of aspens. My breathing quickly sped up, and without notice out came a giant bull. He was caked in mud from hoof to antlers, clearly the dominant bull of the pack—the herd bull. His 6×6 rack glittered in the morning sun. He would score near the 300 mark.
With some other elk in the open, I couldn’t move. As he walked out of sight, the others followed. Eventually, it was the fifth and last day of the hunt. Jim Sanchez’s son, Jacob, 25, had tagged his clients out and would be helping Kevin guide me. Jacob and his brother Joe are astute elk hunters, bowhunters themselves, who know this elk country like their own two hands.
On the final day, Kevin, Jacob and I hiked along an old road in the early morning blackness. We wanted to reach the base of the mountain before light. The elk would be moving fast from the flats to high bedding areas.
Just before reaching the location, Jacob challenged a bull in the distance with his Primos Pallet Plate diaphragm bugle call. The bull’s interest level seemed right, so we raced closer and set up. When he didn’t come on strong, we moved closer again. We were mimicking a real bull.
It wasn’t too long before we spotted two bulls, one was a 5×5, the other a 4×4. The bulls appeared to be in a sparing match—nothing heavy but surely ticking their horns together.
Jacob signaled to follow and we moved quickly but silently until reaching the edge of a clearing. Jacob cow called, and cow called some more. The bull’s bugled back. Jacob called again.
“There he is,” Jacob whispered as the five-point bull darted up the hill away from us. “He’s leaving.”
Meanwhile, the other bull let out a throaty, raspy cry, “The other one’s coming!” Jacob hissed. “Get down!”
Seconds later the bull appeared, about 80 yards away, and was coming straight on. He sounded off then dropped out of sight in a small gully. I quickly estimated distances all around with my eyes, and drew my bow. I figured he’d come up near the 40- to 35- yard spot.
About 10 seconds later, he popped into view, at about 45 yards away. He blasted the air with a throaty roar. I held and held as he stopped, bugled again and took slow steps forward.
Holding the bow for nearly a minute, I was beginning to creep at full draw, fatigue surely settling in. I was on my knees and out in the open. The bull stopped, stared hard at my outline with glowing eyes and gave the look every long-time bowhunter knows. It was now or never. I knew if I let down, he’d surely swap ends and explode away.
With the bull facing me, roughly 35 yards away, I felt confident of placing the arrow in the soft spot below his thought. I snapped the pin on the spot and shot.
I watched in a split second as the arrow flashed near my line of sight and smashed into the elk. He barely staggered and walked off. I loaded another arrow, but there was no chance for a second opportunity.
A half-hour later, we were at the hit sight. Strangely enough, my arrow was lying on the ground, coated only with a bit of blood and hair. I felt utter disgust, as I knew the arrow had hit off center and glanced off heavy bone.
We tracked what blood there was for 500-plus yards. It was obvious the hit severed no arteries or vitals, surely a superficial wound the elk would quickly recover from. In fact, we believe we heard him bugle again, while in pursuit of cows.
The following evening we found ourselves on high ground, looking downward with binoculars at a dozen elk, including a couple fine bulls. Knowing the elk were quite far and we only had very little daylight left, we ran as fast as we could to intercept the moving animals. Jacob knew where they were headed.
It’s amazing the amount of ground a hunter can cover when the pressure is on. Eventually we find ourselves within near striking distance. We crept silently through the noisy vegetation. There were elk all around; we just couldn’t see them.
“This way,” Jacob commanded.
He’s right up there. “Go as fast as you can!”
I darted forward, dodged a bush here and there and spotted the bull. I came to full draw as he stopped. But there was no shot. Twigs obscured my shooting lane. I stepped sideways, but shooting opportunities at live animals come and go in milliseconds. A millisecond had gone by and this one was gone. The elk took a couple steps and entered the brush.
Though I didn’t arrow an elk during my five days of hunting, I had an unforgettable time, plus I learned many essential lessons. First, never take a frontal shot on an elk unless it is at point-blank range. Second, there’s no such thing as an easy elk hunt. There were many times I thought this “lodge” elk hunt on private hunting ground was going to be a cinch. And three, no matter what happens, good or bad, remember, elk hunting during the peak of the rut is as good as bowhunting gets, so soak it in and keep it fun— no matter what.
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