"Nothing less than a six-by-six," my buddy, Dale Sundblom said. For some strange reason I agreed. Somehow such a commitment, on an elk hunt, made sense that evening over sundowners. Nine days into a 10-day hunt, I started to question my reasoning.
Things had started out well enough. Dale and I had taken our modest pack string along the banks of Pine River, trailing along upstream from its junction with Vallecito Lake near Bayfield, Colorado. My partner runs Champion Outfitters out of Durango, but this time he was taking a holiday. No guide-client thing, just two old friends going hunting. As we rode through the newly-gold aspens there was the sound of a light breeze ruffling the "quakies", water gurgling over rocks where trout were no doubt hiding, and occasionally the exciting multi-note challenge of a bull elk somewhere on one of the surrounding ridges. We bedded down that night, with as much confidence as any two hunters ever had.
Colorado's early elk season for black powder hunting is a special time, well worth the wait to accumulate enough preference points during the state's permit drawing process. The rut is usually in full swing and the big fellows spend a lot of time proclaiming how tough they are, so it is hard to get bored, wondering if there are any of the critters in the part of the world that you are visiting. Usually. The first day of our hunt, the weather turned unseasonably hot and the woods became unnaturally silent. Dale and I decided that we were going to have to break some rules, if we wanted to fill our tags.
Common logic said that we should head for higher ground, but I recalled a similar outing in Idaho's Selway-Bitterroot area when such conditions had put the bulls into low-lying thickets that had both shade and water. We moved lower, and on the second morning after the switch, Dale pulled off a spectacular stalk on a fine bull that had put together quite a harem. Getting within fifty yards, with all of those eyes watching for danger, was quite a feat. His trophy scored over 300 Boone & Crockett points.
The days slipped away all too quickly. We continued to hunt hard, but the only wapiti that we could see, within stalking distance, were cows. Naturally, since I had not purchased a mule deer license, we practically had to shoo bucks out of the trail in front of us. One magnificent 5x5 stood broadside within rock-tossing distance. I still think that he smiled at me.
With one day left to go, I started it the same as all of the others. I popped two percussion caps on the nipple of the Thompson/Center New Englander, to clear any oil or moisture that might have accumulated there, dumped in a 120-grain equivalent charge of Pyrodex Select, then topped things off with a 400-grain .54-caliber T/C Maxi-Ball. While many hunters have decided to go modern and use plastic sabots and jacketed bullets, I have taken enough big game on three continents with the big chunks of lead to put my faith in them. This rifle/load combo regularly shoots inside a two-inch circle at 100 yards with the original square-blade factory sights, plenty good enough for primitive weapons hunting. With a muzzle velocity of around 1,450 feet per second it also delivers quite a wallop.
In true hunting yarn fashion, we came down to an hour of daylight on the final day of season. Dale decided that we should check an isolated meadow where he had seen bulls on two previous occasions, so we clicked the mile or so off at a fast clip, blow-downs and all. We were just approaching the opening when a bull ripped loose with a full-blown challenge from the other side. Below us and no more than 100 yards away, another answered.
"Get to that rock, quick," Dale hissed, pointing at a lone limestone boulder in the edge of the clearing.
It took only a few seconds to do so, and even then I was almost too late. The closer of the two bulls was advancing across the lower end of the meadow, intent on checking out his rival. The range was about 125 yards, so I squared the sights up high behind his left shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The bull sagged instantly, made three attempts to lunge, then piled up in a heap. We later recovered the bullet, well mushroomed, under the skin of the opposite shoulder. The heavy lead projectile had done its job perfectly.
When the season ended, and all the statistics recorded, it was found that we had taken the best two bulls harvested in that hunting unit for the entire year. Not too shabby for smokepoles in the high country.
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