An elk hunt six years in the making
Last year, after our hunt, I called my friend, Dustin, to tell him that he was one lucky guy. But, wait, let me bring you up to speed with a summary of my first three years of elk hunting, so you see what I mean.
I started hunting elk as a spry 20-year-old in 2000 with my dad, uncle and cousin. We traveled from Alabama, pulling two horses in a horse trailer attached to the truck the entire way every year for three years in a row. We would stop in Pampa, TX (my hometown) and stay the night with my grandparents before driving the rest of the way, arriving the next day in Platero, CO. Each year, we hunted Units 80 and 81 do-it-yourself (DIY) style with either first or second rifle season tags.
Year 1 — 2000
During my first year of elk hunting I learned that elk on public pressured land are not where you would like them to be. I spent day after day getting up and saddling horses at 4 a.m. to ride to the pretty valley about one hour from camp, hoping that at any minute a monster was going to filter out into the valley with his harem and meet his demise from my rifle. Well, that never happened. In fact, we all went home empty-handed. Yet, we were filled with the newfound knowledge that elk hunting is nothing like deer hunting.
Year 2 — 2001
Following the same routine as the year before, we showed up to set up camp before heading out the next morning in search of the elusive wapiti. The difference this year was that I had spent time reading a lot of magazine articles with tips and tactics on hunting elk. I felt more prepared. This time, my father, uncle, cousin and myself decided to get up, saddle the horses and head to the top of the mountain to catch the elk being chased back up the mountain by the day hunters. When we got to the top of the mountain one hour after daylight we split up into two groups and got set up in some open parks on top of the mountain. We hunted morning and evening for the entire week and never saw an elk. I did notice one thing the last day I was there: there was no water where we were hunting.
At least I gathered more valuable knowledge in year two, including:
1. Elk will flee to nasty cover when pressured.
2. Elk still need water somewhere fairly close to where they go to escape pressure.
Year 3 — 2002
Well…you know the story by now. After reading even more articles on elk hunting, I set out this year more determined than ever. My cousin and I headed out on day one, riding our horses in the dark, determined to make the hour and a half horseback ride to the top of the mountain. We began by scouting for water and, when we found it, we immediately found elk sign. I knew this was the year I was finally going to seal the deal and bag a trophy elk. Well, five days later, we had yet to accomplish that task. However, I did catch two 6x6s bedded on top of a ridge; the only problem was when we saw them they were 50 yards away and I was on horseback. By the time I dismounted, they were gone. That was the end of my elk hunting in my third year.
Year 4 — 2012
Year three of chasing trophy elk occurred in 2002. I did not get a chance to elk hunt again until 2012. My new hunting buddy, Dustin, had the same dream as me, but had never been elk hunting so we decided to go to northwest New Mexico in 2012.
We contacted a guide and booked two cow elk hunts on private land. While we were successful, we were left feeling like we did not work hard enough to get those two cow elk.
Year 5 — 2013
In 2013, we purchased two bull elk private land vouchers for northwest New Mexico for an unguided hunt. To me, an unguided hunt brings out the natural hunter from inside and allows all of my instinctive senses to be at full power. The hunt was for five days and we decided to go in early December, hopeful that the elk would be pushed onto the private ranch from the surrounding public land.
The day before the hunt we flipped to see who would get the first shot and, of course, Dustin won the flip (beginners luck, right?). We started off on day one scouting the property and looking for sign, but all we found was old sign from late summer or early fall. We continued scouting the property for any sign. Finally, on day three, we found a single set of tracks from a bull elk. We hunted the area where we found the tracks that afternoon without any luck. At this point, we had just about decided that we’d been had.
We decided to go back on top of the mountain to retrieve the game cameras that we had put out on the first day. Dustin had all but given up at this point and was driving the Polaris Razor like a mad man; he was ready to go home. When we reached the top of the switchback where we began to put out cameras I told him to stop. He did and I said, “Look. We’re out here so we might as well make the most of it.”
I reminded him that elk hunting was nothing like deer hunting, which he had done for years. Elk hunting can be hit or miss. The elk can be completely absent from an area one day and then have the place covered up the next. My pep talk seemed to breathe a little life back into him and I knew he was back in the game.
I told Dustin I wanted to walk out and glass over the ridge where we stopped. We took off on foot approximately 100 yards from where we stopped the Razor. Of course, neither one of us believed we would see anything because we had seen nothing for four days now. Of course, we didn’t even carry a rifle with us! When we got to the edge of the ridge I started glassing down in the bottom of an open area trying to find movement. As I was glassing, I heard Dustin say, “Don’t move.”
I didn’t and asked him, “What do you see?”
“Big bull,” he replied.
I asked where and he said it was across the canyon. I glassed that way and, sure enough, a nice mature 5x6 was at 500 yards on the other edge of the canyon! Dustin had already left to get his rifle. He’d been practicing long range shooting and was shooting sub MOA groups out to 800 yards. It was a good thing that he had first shot because I was only good out to 400 yards at that point.
He set up and got his readings from the Kestrel wind/weather meter, then dialed his dope into his scope. The bull was at 564 yards when he shot his gun. I was watching in the binoculars like it was a hunting show on TV. I saw the bull buckle as the bullet hit him. We recovered Dustin’s bull later on that day. I was almost sick when I got to put my hands on that bull and I still couldn’t believe that Dustin had killed a trophy bull on his first hunt.
Year 6 — 2015
Fast forward to the third rifle season in 2015. We decided to try our hand at public hunting a unit in southeast Colorado with another hunting buddy of ours, Harley, who had a cabin about 30 minutes from where we would set up base camp. All three of us bought over-the-counter (OTC) tags and brought our horses to try our a DIY OTC bull elk hunt. We had scouted earlier in the year (July) and thought we had found the best hunting spot on the planet until we arrived in November and it was bone dry! There was no fresh sign in the area. I made the hard decision to tell the team that we needed to move camp because, otherwise, we were wasting our time hunting an area with no water.
We moved camp the second day of season and got set up at our plan B area based upon our previous scouting trip. We saddled the horses early the next morning and took off up the mountain trail that a local had turned us onto—Mountain Man Dan is what he would soon be known as.
Unfortunately, Harley is not the most skilled horseman and, as we were making our way up the narrow trail, Harley’s horse decided he was going up and, long story short, rolled backwards a full flip down the trail. Luckily, Harley had stepped out of the saddle right before he rolled or this story would have been a bad one. He still received a blow to the nose as you can see in the pictures—another lesson learned! When we got to the top of the mountain, a storm pushed in and immediately drove us back to base camp.
On the fourth day, we hung around camp and waited for the storm to push through before heading to Harley’s cabin where we showered and spent the night.
On the fifth day, we decided to look for fresh sign from the snow the day before. We drove up a switchback trail in a vehicle this time and glassed several drainages from afar.
I spotted four mature bulls almost a mile away toward the top of the mountain where we were the day before on horseback. I decided that I was going to get to the top of that mountain by daybreak come hell or high water and that’s what we did.
Harley and I set off early on day six, leaving Dustin behind at camp with a slight case of altitude sickness. When we arrived at the drainage that topped out near the peak, I started glassing the opening into a big park near the top as I rode my horse.
We were about halfway up the drainage when something caught my eye immediately to my left. As I looked I could not believe what I saw: A huge 6x6 standing broadside on the side of a hill at 11,000’ elevation, according to our GPS. Immediately, I remembered what I read in Mike Eastman’s book Elk Hunting the West Revisited. He said if you spot elk on horseback do not stop and dismount, but, instead, keep riding and move into the nearest tree line. Then, tie up your horses and come out in a different spot than you went in. The elk should continue to stare at the spot where you entered the tree line. So that’s exactly what I did and I came out approximately 100 yards further up the mountain; the bull was still staring where we disappeared.
I found a small sapling to use as a shooting rest and I centered the crosshairs on the bull right behind the shoulder. When I fired I watched the bull drop in the scope and I almost fainted! The bull rolled onto his back as I chambered another round. I knew he was down at that point, but could not resist putting another round in him because his feet were still kicking slightly and there was no way I was letting this one get away.
We gave the bull 30 minutes while we waited, watching him in the scope. Then, we remounted the horses and made our way to bull, which was laying on a 40 degree slope. As I approached the bull there was no ground shrinkage. Instead, he kept getting bigger and bigger!
He turned out to be a 6x6 with a kicker on his left side. He scored 354” Boone & Crockett at my taxidermist later on and was estimated to be between 12 and 15 years old. I had finally sealed the deal on a trophy bull and couldn’t be happier. As we took pictures I started to remember all of the lessons I had learned over five years of hunting bull elk and I knew that I still had a lot to learn.