Colorado’s 2011 third rifle season arrived with the first real snowstorm of the winter. Saturday morning we woke up to fog and rain turning to snow at our camp. We decided we didn’t want to start off the elk season by ATVing and hiking around in the slop to places where we couldn’t see through our binoculars. So we drove to higher elevations pursuing the slim chance of eyeing a break in the storm and different places to glass.
Oh, and Murphy’s Law showed up opening morning too. Dan could not find the keys to his locked truck (and rifle) anywhere in his gear. We helped him hunt for them for a bit and finally opted to let him rummage through the camper, end-to-end, on his own while Shawn and I drove up for a better look.
No luck, the higher we drove, the more things looked like an episode of Ice Road Truckers. After stopping high at the pass and chatting with another hunter having a similar internal debate to ours, we turned around back down the trail. Neither of us was too excited about tromping around in the slop only to get soaking wet and possibly be miserable for the next few days.
We made it back to the camper to an even more frustrated Dan. He found no keys after tearing everything apart. Shawn and I each scoured our gear and rigs to no avail either. Without much persuasion, we decided today would make a good “snow day” and we would head back into town. Since last year’s elk season, Shawn had been pining away for another meal of Starvin’ Arvin’s biscuits! Plus Dan had resolved to just get another key made for his new GMC truck.
This would probably be a good point in the story to mention that Shawn drove a Chevy truck…I’ll just leave it at that for now.
First stop was the GMC dealer in Grand Junction. The whole trip in we were debating whether he should just get a non-chipped key made in hopes that his keys were inside his truck, or spring for whatever ridiculous fee they would present for a fully functional new ignition key. Dan had resolved to the latter and we three engineers were all throwing out ideas for rationalizing the added expense to an already not-cheap hunt.
I pulled up in my noisy Dodge diesel and an intrepid salesman met us at the curb likely hoping I had eyes for one of his new Duramaxes. We gave a quick explanation for our visit, to which he replied we were S.O.L. because the service department didn’t work weekends. Just then Shawn piped up with “Never mind, I have your keys right here!” pulling them out of his coat pocket. He had apparently grabbed Dan’s in the camper thinking they were his keys to his Chevy.
Right there I was thankful for three things: we had all been friends for close to 20 years, the weather was crap for hunting, and we all were hankering those biscuits anyway. Had one of those three been missing, I think there would have been some severe butt-chewing going on.
We ate our biscuits, gave some financial support to the Cabela’s through their Grand Junction store, and stopped by my house for a few other odds and ends. With a couple hours of daylight left, we motored back up to camp. From there, we decided to take another run up high to see if the weather might break a bit enough to glass.
It didn’t. The snow was well over a foot deep up top. So back down to camp we went, resolving to hit it hard tomorrow.
Sunday morning was clear and the ground was frozen enough to get around without getting too sloppy so we headed up a closer trail. We hiked and glassed at a few spots on the way up the mountain. We spied a small herd way down on some private land. We knew they were un-huntable from our terrain today, but they were fun to watch nonetheless. We spent the day working our way up, seeing a couple pairs of cows here and there way off the trail. None of us was too excited about packing a cow elk very far this early in the season.
The shadows were growing long as we worked our way back down the same trail in the late afternoon. We opted for one last stop and hike out a spur ridge closer to where we had seen a few cows this morning.
We hiked to a spot that was about as far as I wanted to go that afternoon. Just then, as I was glassing higher where the cows had been this morning, Shawn spotted something below us. “There’s a bull…There are THREE bulls together! One of them is nice.”
Dan and I both had bull and cow tags in our pockets, Shawn just had a cow tag. Dan and I each sat down and readied for a shot while watching the elk walk away from us. I passed my rangefinder to Shawn and asked “What do you think, about 400?” The elk were walking quartering away, getting further with each step through some sparse trees, but not spooked either.
Shawn called out the ranges: “520 to the far bull. The middle one is the biggest.”
Dan was having a hard time getting situated, plus that was a bit on the far side for shooting off the cuff. Living in Grand Junction gives one the luxury of shooting desert rocks at 1000 yards as often as one cares to practice. Dan and Shawn, living on that evil overpopulated Front Range, haven’t had that luxury. He handed me his shooting sticks. I wasn’t going to argue with him if he wasn’t going to shoot. I still wasn’t positive I was going to get a decent shot either. I got them set up and watched the bulls through my scope.
“540” called Shawn. These elk were still walking so I dialed my scope turret to the 550 yard mark. The air was calm, I wasn’t winded from the hike, this could work. I flicked off my safety and just followed that center bull in and out of the trees. He was pretty nice, a big five or even a six-point. There…an opening…he stood apart from the other two…BOOM!
“He’s down!” said Shawn. The bull dropped, but his head was up. I could still see his antlers moving a bit. The other two elk had turned a 180 and were heading back up the ridge getting closer now.
Now Dan was down with his sticks readying for a shot on one of the other bulls. I told them “I’m watching mine, I saw him moving yet, you’re on your own, sorry guys.” I stayed glued to my bull. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going anywhere, but didn’t want to risk missing him get up and then losing sight of him.
I could tell what was going on just listening to the other two. “They’re working their way up the ridge. Shoot the one in back, he’s got a big drop tine, he’s cool!” Shawn was still calling out the ranges as they got closer. But the closer they got in yardage, the thicker the trees got and the worse the shooting opportunities got.
At about 250, the other two bulls slipped into the trees never to be seen again. Dan never did get a clean shot. Bull #2 did have a big funky drop on one side in addition to a smallish antler. It looked like a dark droopy baseball bat hanging down well below his jaw. I was proud of Dan for not shooting and risking a bad shot. I believe you’re better off not shooting if things don’t feel right.
Shawn guided me into the bull while Dan went back to the rigs and got some gear. We figured we’d be out here well after dark now. I made it to the elk and then called Shawn in. My 180 grain Nosler Partition bullet hit him a little high and broke his spine. We took a couple pictures then got a closer look at the antlers. The bull is a six-point, but just barely. Plus his brow tines are weird, it looks like he beat them up, or down, on something when they were developing. One goes straight forward like a unicorn and the other droops down like, well, we dubbed him the Viagra bull. You can draw your own conclusions.
We were about halfway done by the time Dan worked his way up from below. Dan’s trip up turned out to be tougher than it looked from the top of the ridge. A foot of snow, oak brush, Juniper, and pitch dark will make the most pious of hiker cuss like a sailor.
Strange ideas come to a man while butchering an elk in the dark, especially in the afterglow of a huge adrenaline rush. At some point in this work, we thought it would be a dandy idea to each simply rope-drag a quarter across the snow down to the trail. We thought it could be only about a half mile as the crow flies…piece of cake.
About four hours later back at camp, when I got feeling back in my hands, we all swore over a bottle of Jack that we’d never, ever, pull a stunt like that again. Packing elk meat on your back is surely way better than dragging a quarter through the snow in the dark. Somehow a nice round elk shoulder transforms itself into a sage-clinging barbed grappling hook that will fight the dragger every inch of the way, even downhill. An old Army lesson came back to me too: parachute cord makes a great tourniquet, neither the elk quarter nor my hands bled a drop on the trip. In fact, I could have left a finger or two out there and not known about it until hours later.
Monday morning we went back up and carried the rest of the elk meat down to the trail. Dan and Shawn kept hunting while I had to bug out by noon to run into town for a work meeting that night. I loaded the two quarters onto my ATV and headed downhill.
I learned long ago to pack heavy loads on the front when going uphill and the back when going downhill. At some point prior to that Monday, I unlearned this important fact. I still don’t know what I was thinking as I motored down the mountain willy nilly with one load on the front and one on the back. Probably something to the effect of “Yeah, I killed a big bull, I’m bulletproof, laws of physics don’t apply to me.”
I do, however, remember what I was thinking the instant my front right tire slid down a wide flat rock and the rear end rose like a teeter-totter under me. “You @#$% moron!” It all happened in ultra slow motion. The ATV was going over and there wasn’t any stopping it. So I hopped off and let it go. Then it rolled at me like the big rock from Indiana Jones!
Sitting there on my butt, there was no running away down the tunnel like good old Indy pulled off in the movies. At that point all I could think about was my friend Mark who really busted himself up on an ATV while elk hunting last year. I gave my Honda a kick and it rolled past me. Then…it kept going! Now my mind’s eye was playing out seeing this thing tumble a mile down the hill. Thankfully it just gave another half roll and stopped.
I radioed the guys to come give me a hand tipping the rig back up. We all got a chuckle CSI-ing the crash scene, butt print here, elk meat print there, etc. We loaded all the elk meat onto the back of the Honda, and down the mountain I went.
Coincidentally, on the short work road trip that night over to Moab, my work colleague and I had to drive through the single largest game check I have ever seen hosted by any state wildlife agency. The white Jeep Cherokee towards the end of this news clip is us:
I had no idea the DOW even had that many employees around here. I could be wrong, but I bet they were cross-training all their newly acquired help since the Parks and Wildlife departments merged.
I showed back up at hunting camp Tuesday dark and early bearing fresh doughnuts. We hit a different trail, hiking, riding, glassing and seeing a few elk way off in the distance. Again, after getting out as far as we dared and as we were contemplating the trip back, we spied some elk close enough to hunt!
One spike bull lay bedded in the oak brush 450 yards away. We glassed hard, picking apart the brush around him and sure enough, we found a leg here, an ear there. Turns out there were a handful of elk in that pocket. No legal bulls but Shawn and Dan were both game for taking cows. Besides, you never know what we might not be seeing.
There wasn’t a good shooting spot from our location. But parallel to our line to the elk, a spur rand down off our ridge where we could hike down and reduce the range. We’d just have to be a bit sneaky!
We picked our way down the backside of that spur to a spot about 350 yards from the elk and the boys got set up. I sat between them to spot and call the ranges. Shooting sticks were out, breaths were calmed, safeties were off…BOOM, BOOM, and BOOM! Shawn dropped his cow but Dan’s ran off.
Wednesday, as we were packing the meat back up to the ATV’s, we decided the elk were 450 yards horizontally from the trail, but also 450 yards of vertical from the ATV’s. We need to dust off the “hunt up from the trail” rule because hunting down means packing up! It’s no wonder my knees sound like Rice Crispies when I climb stairs.
Thursday morning we found where a mountain lion had passed through camp. It made some nice big paw prints in the mud. I bet it came through to smell all the elk meat we had hanging in our meat tree.
We hiked, glassed, and hunted around more that week but finally packed it in Friday noon. The fun didn’t stop there though since we took Friday afternoon to go plinking! We found some nice long-range rocks and hammered away at them with our arsenal. We learned a few things here too. Dan was shooting his 7mm Mag, Shawn had a .300 WSM, and, like always, the bullets dropped a little differently in real life than what even the best ballistics chart tells. Another thing, my .300 Ultra Mag may kick like a rabid mule, but it’s more pleasant to shoot than Shawn’s .357 lightweight pistol pushing .357 “Leverevolution” rifle ammo. Ouch.
All in all we had a blast. I can’t wait to do it all again next year. Well, almost all.