I've never been in a position to plunk down the big bucks for a guided elk hunt. I also didn't feel that I had the knowledge to strike out on my own, so archery elk hunting in Colorado has been on my "some day" list for as long as I can remember. One of the great things about the innocence of ignorance is that when you get two people in the same boat, you can convince each other to leave the shore.
My partners in this adventure are my 14-year-old son, Andrew, and a coworker, Derek Fortna. Derek is new to the west, but an experienced whitetail hunter. We reasoned that elk are no different than any other animal in that they have habits that are easily determined. With vacation days committed around the second weekend of September, we were hanging our hats on the prime bugling season. After several nights of research into the many hunting zones, success rates, and numbers of animals, we selected a region to target and set out on our first scouting trip.
After our arrival, several hours later than planned, we hurriedly pitched our tents and hit the woods. From our research, we knew that the elk would be high, and with the drought that we were experiencing in the west, we figured that water would be an important factor. What we didn't know was that the end of August and early September in the Rockies is monsoon season. It rains every day. We didn't take much rain gear.
Bolstered by the possibility of taking either a cow or bull was an encouragement, but even with the option to take a cow, success rates for archery statewide are about 18%, so I figured my first trip would probably be unsuccessful, but one that would amount to an expensive lesson which would pay dividends in following years.
We considered adding a deer tag for this outing, but the deer harvest history in this zone was very poor, so we opted not to spend the extra dollars. On our drive into the woods, we hadn't driven more than a mile from the hard road when we saw a young 2x2 mule deer buck standing on a hillside not 30 yards from the road. Without a tag, I decided to bag this one with my camera. I expected to have him bolt at my first movement, but I stepped out of the truck and walked around to the other side and he just stood there. I shot two pictures, and he turned and walked off slowly, stopping to eat as he wandered back up the mountainside. Wow, I thought, if elk are this docile in Colorado, we might get lucky!
Two Different Animals
We split into two directions, and set out for our first scouting sortie. Since the season was open, we took our bows. We're a very optimistic group. Our first afternoon of scouting produced only old sign for my son and I, but Derek went higher up the mountain and reported finding lots of fresh tracks and droppings. With his success, we were all encouraged and very anxious to get back into the area the next morning.
When daylight came, we were well on our way to the summit when we spotted two separate herds of elk. One group of approximately 30 was about a mile away, high atop an open meadow. The other group was just above us, about 1,500 feet higher. While the climb was significant, their proximity was attractive, and upon glassing the herd we saw five real nice bulls. We started our climb, staying hidden in the dense tree line.
The closer we got, the more we realized the huge size of these magnificent animals. As we stopped to catch our breath, we began to contemplate the difficulty of getting one down the mountainside. Staring at the depths below, I recalled one bit of advice that I had been given by a veteran elk hunter. "The fun is over once you make your shot," he said. Before that would become an issue, we had to make that shot, and after 20 minutes of steady climbing we were still 500 yards away. As we closed the final distance between us and the lower edge of the meadow where the herd was feeding, it became very obvious that the elk are not as dumb as mule deer. When we peered out into the meadow, it was empty.
While we were scratching our heads and trying to decide what to do next, a nice 4x5 satellite bull walked out of the tree line about 200 yards above us. He was walking slowly up and away from us, but none of the other animals in the herd were following him. Now we had a tough decision to make. He was obviously not the herd bull, but he had a rack that any of us would be proud of. With every step he took our prospects diminished. We could wait and see if more of the elk herd would follow, or we could try and call this bull to us. Problem was, neither Derek nor I had ever called an elk. We were both comfortable with calling other animals, but neither of us had ever played at the big dance.
The Primos Payoff
As a matter of fact, I had just purchased the Primos Elk Hunter's Master Pack only two days before we left. It contained two cow calls, a diaphragm call, a bugle and a how-to video. Our planned hunt was still two weeks away, and when we left for our scouting trip, I thought there would be plenty of time to practice. I had watched the video, and tooted a few times in my shop the night before we left, but this was a lot different. This was show time!
After Derek and Andrew got into position along the edge of the meadow, I prepared to take a deep breath and blow, unsure of what might come out the other end of the call. By now the bull was at least 300 yards away. Raising the "Lead Cow and Calf Call" to my lips I blew softly and hoped for the best. When he heard my call he turned his head and looked, but quickly went back to eating. I blew again, and got the same response. Since he didn't bolt and run, I decided to pull out all the stops. In the Primos video, one of the most important things I picked up was the cow in estrus call. All three of the video's presenters agreed that this was the call that would set bulls on fire. At this point, I didn't even have glowing embers, so I took a deep breath and blew a mournful series of notes on the hyper-lip single.
When the bull heard this call he immediately turned and started walking in our direction. I sat behind a tree watching in awe. It worked! With every step he took my heart pounded faster. After walking about 50 yards, the bull stopped and started eating again. I blew another "come over darling" and this time he started trotting toward us. Now my heart was really pounding. I looked down at my son, and as he looked back at me, his eyes were as big as saucers. I'm sure that mine were in an equally enlarged condition.
At 100 yards the bull stopped, sniffing the air, and started eating again. So close yet so far away for an arrow. With each call I was gaining confidence, but now we were at a critical point. I knew my next call would be a make or break blow, and I was in a quandary. If I did nothing, he might decide to come anyway, or he could walk or even run away. I decided to try one more time. Raising the call to my lips, I hit another series of notes that pleaded for companionship. Immediately, from higher in the trees, an unseen herd bull bugled and gave a deep grunt.
While I'm not exactly sure what he said, I think it was something like, "leave the cows alone, I'll get to that one later." What ever it was, that was the end of our relationship with this beautiful bull. He turned and walked back into the trees toward the voice of his master. It was over as quickly as it had begun, but man what a ride!
We still don't know if it was the herd bull's bugle that ended our hunt, or if we were winded. There was a very slight breeze blowing, but at the last minute, it had changed to blow straight in his direction. He didn't bolt and run, so I feel like he didn't want to incur the wrath of a bull that had probably already whipped him at least once.
After regrouping, we moved higher and tried to cut off the herd, but were unsuccessful. The herd was gone over the top. With the herd of 30 still grazing in the distant meadow, we moved toward them, but they were spooked by another hunter and made their way over the top as well.
Looking down at my watch, I realized we were out of scouting time. We stood there for a few minutes and took in the splendor of the Rocky Mountains. As far as the eye could see there were peaks covered with blue spruce, pine trees, and thousands of elk; but they would have to wait.
As we made our way back down the steep incline, I turned and looked back up the mountain several times, pained by one terrible fact. It was going to be an awful long two weeks until we could return. That's a lot of sleepless nights reliving that last 100 yards.
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Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.
When he's not out hunting down another interesting story, Frank can be found near his home in western Nebraska where he now spends most of his time guiding his two sons and teaching them how to be successful in the field. "It's part of the responsibility we all have as outdoorsmen, to share what we have learned and pass on the passion. I take the same tact when approaching a story. How can I help someone be better at what they love to do?"