Elk Hunting, Sometimes it’s Ugly

I debated with myself a long time about posting this one.  Not every hunt turns out like you’ve planned.  Most are far from it.  Some hunts are downright ugly.  I normally like stories about the animals, but the stupid human tricks were the most interesting part of this hunt since the elk were few and far between. My shooting was shameful, but I figured I might as well let my dirty laundry out there right off the bat. Let he who is without misses or bad shots cast the first stone.  And believe it or not, all of these guys have come back to hunt with me since this 2008 hunt!

Bottom line up front:

Dead elk—1
Missed elk —1 (same elk, see story)
Elk sightings — 4
Bear sightings — 1
Game warden sightings — 1
Game wardens cussed at through the camper door when de-icing the pipes (“Ha, ha, very funny @##$%ers, claiming you’re the game warden when I’m up to my neck in PVC pipe…oh, sorry Officer, I thought it was my buddies messing with me…”— 1 (same warden)
Amount of crap Dan received for missing the elk in a spot that would have been a nice easy pack back to the trucks —- Not nearly enough
Amount of crap I received for killing the elk about as far away from the trucks as we could get in one day — Probably more than Dan
Total elevation change in a 48 hour period (by foot)–4800 feet (1200 up & down each day)
Range at which Nick, Steve and I were easily plinking rocks—650 yds
Cool points lost due to my inability to drop an elk in half that range — most of them

So three friends from the Front Range came out elk hunting to the wild and wooly lands north of town second season to hunt with Steve and me. The Denver crew’s elk hunting experience ranged from pretty green to one elk. Friday got a late start as I had to put in nearly a full day at the office. Blown trailer tires notwithstanding, the Denver guys made it over Friday just before dark and we got settled into camp.

Saturday was pretty uneventful. We drove and glassed around all the usual spots where the wiley wapiti like to hide. All we saw were deer. The excitement came when we were loading up our ATV’s back onto our trucks (in the dark) and Nick neglected to tell us he’d never ridden one before today, much less driven one into the bed of a truck on two skinny little ramps. The laws of physics quickly took over as we turned our heads to sounds of “CRASH!…Oh @#$%&!…CRASH! There was Nick on his ass and the ATV on its ass behind Nick’s truck. After thanking God that nobody was killed and a quick class on actually tying the ramps to the truck during loading (the ATV wheels spun and shot the ramps backward off the tailgate, leaving only thin air to hold up the Polaris 700 and the Nick 275), we got loaded and headed back down the road to camp.

Sunday came with about the same routine, except for looking in different drainages. After planting ourselves on a high ridge to glass around for about 10 minutes, 3 cow elk got up out of the pines right below us and ran straight down the valley. Armed only with my binoculars and rapier wit (“Why take my rifle off the ATV, surely the other guys will take theirs, right?”) I could just watch as the critters bailed to deep dark forested nether regions below. All we could do was look down the valley and grouse about how there’s no way we’d pack an elk back up to where we were sitting. And getting around to the road at the bottom was 25 miles by truck and another 20 miles by ATV, not something we were quite up for just then.

Nick took some terrific pictures of the landscape

Because lack of elk wasn’t enough of a problem to overcome, Dan discovered later that morning the friend from whom he’d borrowed his ATV had not been giving his regular sacrifices of time and money to the Polaris maintenance gods. His ATV threw a rod…or shaft…or belt…or whatever it is on those Polari that break on regular intervals. From then on, Dan’s ATV sat idle and he was relegated to ride with Steve in his Jeep. Although I didn’t hear too many complaints from him as Nick, Shawn and I all blew out Herculean dust boogers every night.

Day three took us to yet another set of drainages. Nick, Steve and I picked one basin, Dan and Shawn hiked into another. After taking about an hour deciding there were no animals in our drainage, Steve and I coached Nick in long-range rock-plinking. He discovered the wonder of laser rangefinders combined with scope turrets and smacked a defenseless rock at an impressive 650 yards with Steve’s .30-06AI. I killed the same 650 yard rock with my .300 UltraMag, but couldn’t get any takers to shoot mine. I tried telling them it only hurts for a while. It kills from one end and maims on the other. Nick’s WWI-era .30-06 proved to be a nice piece of history, but not exactly a precision instrument.

Meanwhile, Dan and Shawn were watching a Black Bear at the bottom of their basin. After we all met back up at noon, Nick, Shawn and I went back down to try and get in on Yogi and punch Shawn’s bear tag. We hiked down…down…down further through the oak brush to position ourselves within shooting distance. My little voice of reason tried telling me to stop since we’d have to turn around and go up…up…up…back through all that oak brush. But I learned long ago to dismiss that voice if I ever wanted to get to any decent hunting areas, and have the scars to prove it.

But Yogi never did come back out. After waiting as long as we dared to still have hopes of getting up to the road in the daylight, we started the long hike back up. Oak brush is a funny thing. Walking uphill through it isn’t as much hiking as it is cage fighting. I kept looking for “the path” through it but kept finding that “the path” was merely a figment of “the imagination.” I led the way as a matter of pride…”I’ve been in this basin before and can surely find the way out. Follow Me!” It was ugly. At one point I fell into a crevice up to my armpits suspended only by the brush, lost my left boot twice, and wore pretty much all the hide off my shins. My string of profanity would have made a sailor blush. But after a couple hours we did make it back up to the road, bruised, cut, and a bit skinnier.

Tuesday came and we again hiked and glassed and glassed and hiked. And listened to Nick whine about how far we were making him hike. Still no elk. That night we did some soul-searching in the camper over the firewater and decided to try somewhere completely different tomorrow. Steve and I had never tried this area, but it looked good on a map and we were open for anything at this point.

Another awesome sunset


Wednesday morning we drove back down to the desert, over and up towards another high pass, probably about a 30 mile drive from camp. We arrived at the trailhead only to find a camp right there. But luck was in our favor, said campers came out and it became apparent they probably didn’t hike up into the drainages where we were headed. In fact, I’d wager they didn’t hike anywhere further than 50 feet from their rigs.

Anyway, we chatted a bit and began our hike up into the canyon behind them. By the looks of the map, we would have our work cut out for us as the ridges to where we were heading were easily 1000 feet above the trucks. Nick/Bear Grylls announced that yesterday he was just too loaded down with weight so today would only be taking 20 oz. of water with him. I reiterated the fact that we’d be out all day, but no, he knew what he was doing.

We all stayed together hiking up the bottom of this canyon, looking for a way to start switching back up to the ridges high above us. About a mile into it, Shawn (fourth in line) stopped and motioned to us in front that he saw a big bull elk. At that point we hadn’t seen much at all, so my initial reaction was that he was full of it. Then he held his arms over his head like antlers and said “No, it is a BIG bull!” and his eyes were bigger than goose eggs.

The one in the best position was Dan, so he lined up for a shot. The elk was about 200 yards away. We waited…and waited…no shot…huh? Then I hear “My gun’s jammed!” from Dan. Meanwhile the elk is still standing there looking at us. Steve gave Dan his rifle quick and got him lined up for a shot. BOOM! Finally! Nothing, the bull is still standing there looking at us. “Shoot again!” We wait…and wait…BOOM! It looked like a possible hit and the bull turned away after the shot. It was jungle-thick down up there so we didn’t see anything after that. We waited about 20 minutes and then Dan and I went up to look for some, or all, of the bull near where he shot while the other guys guided us in.

We scrambled up the pine-needle slope to where the elk stood and lined ourselves into the exact spot the elk stood. Our hopes sank as we scoured the area for blood or hair, or any signs of a hit and finding nothing, we decided it must have been a miss. All we could find were fresh tracks out of the area in which laid a fresh pile of elk doo. It looked like Mr. Bull just stepped back behind a tree, took a dump, gave us the hoof, and walked away into more oak brush. Surely there was a twig or something in the path of that bullet…

That was still mid-morning, so we decided to keep hunting up this ridge. Shawn stayed low in the canyon and would hike up to its head since we’d seen fresh bear sign headed that way. Dan and I would keep hiking up this ridge, Nick and Steve would come up the same ridge from lower down the canyon and we’d link up in a bit.

After another about 600-foot vertical climb/hunt up the ridge, Dan and I waited in a spot where we’d see and meet up with Nick and Steve. We all hooked up about an hour later and compared notes. We’d seen fresh elk tracks all through this slope, some of which were fresh enough to have been that bull. Nick said he wasn’t doing too well, was about out of water, and wasn’t sure how much more vertical he could take. Steve’s kind of a slave-driver with that kind of climb, so I’m sure Nick wasn’t given much sympathy on the way up. After probably more than his share of ribbing, we kept on climbing, and I remember thinking Nick did look a little skinnier than yesterday. He kind of reminded me of a big dreamsicle, blaze orange and pale white.

Our oak brush playground

The ridge started to narrow and we came up to a point where it topped out and we could look into the next adjacent drainage. Exposed in the full mid-day sun was big elk walking up the next slope! At first I said “cow!” but then antlers flashed in the sunshine and I said “BULL!” I don’t normally like to shoot at moving animals, but he was trotting up over the next ridge and it looked like we’d never see him after that.

It’s funny how the brain works. After days of seeing nothing but thin air and trees, it took a while to register that this was in fact a real live bull elk, I was second in line behind Steve who only had a cow tag, and I should probably shoot. But, while all that was going on in my head, the rest of me had already sat down, chambered a shell, wrapped my sling twice around my left arm in a field-expedient shooting position, dismissed any ideas of pulling my shooting sticks out of my pack or fooling with the turrets on my scope, flipped off my scope covers, flipped off the safety, and put the crosshairs on the animal. Little did I know that I was seconds away from defining the ugly side of my “shoot elk ‘till they fall over” mantra.

I hollered “Range Me!” and shot…nothing. I shot again. I watched bullet #2 hit the ground behind him after what seemed like an eternity after I pulled the trigger. Steve said something along the lines of “about 350 yards” and my days of Whitetail hunting flashed back as it dawned on me that I’d have to lead him, even ubermagnum bullets aren’t that fast across a quarter mile. 350, that’s normally a chip shot, no need to hold over or fool with my turret, not that there was time for that anyway. I lined up and shot again. The damn thing kept going! I broke out three more shells and fed my thunderstick as quickly as I could. I vaguely remember thinking this was already an ugly situation so might as well ask “Anyone else going to shoot?” since Nick and Dan had bull tags too. But they all figured this was my turn.

The bull was kind enough to hold still while I reloaded, but as soon as that third shell was chambered, he started moving again. I was getting really mad at myself by now thinking I should have waited on the first shot until he stood still. But, now the seal was broken, sounds of my shots were still echoing around the canyons, so I might as well do my best to finish what I started.

Mr. Bull was still heading for that ridgeline too, so away I blasted…BOOM…BOOM…BOOM. I heard ‘Hold on, I think you hit him.” I reloaded again anyway and waited. The bull stood partially behind a Spruce and I seriously contemplated sending more lead his way as I was getting exponentially angrier at myself with every shot. Finally, he waivered a bit, stuck his nose in the air, and rolled over.

I surveyed the area around myself to see what all I dropped, threw down, or otherwise lost in the mayhem. Six pieces of brass shone proudly in the October sun forming a nice arc around where I sat. Sort of a monument to marginal marksmanship. I gathered them up quickly and said something like how it looks like a machine-gun nest around me.

We were all pretty pumped (Nick regained some color and forgot how tired he was) and we picked our path over to the bull. We had to go up, nearly to the peak of our mountain, curl around the top of this next drainage and back down the ridgeline where the bull had been headed. Basically about a mile trip, about 300 feet vertical up and down again, only partially through oak brush this time, to get over to that bull. It was about an hour to get that 350 yards.

It was getting to be too late to fool much with him and still get off the mountain in the daylight. We got the bull gutted, pulled the tenderloins and laid him open to cool off. Nighttime lows had been 20 degrees or less in these canyons. During the gutting I was able to see my hits…all four of them…and recover two bullets. Suffice it to say I wounded him to death. It was certainly not my proudest moment. After that first shot I had to decide quickly to try and close the deal, as ugly as the process may be, or waive off with a possible first hit wound. Looking back, I should have waited on the first shot and blown the cow call to get him to stop before I shot. But keyboard quarterbacking is pretty easy, I guess a dead elk is a dead elk.

The work begins

We decided to try to go straight down the spine of this ridge where the bull lay since the trucks were parked at the bottom of the canyon directly below us. It was either that or wind our way back down the way we came which would be about three times as far horizontally. It was about 1000 feet vertically and about ¾ of a mile horizontally as the crow flies to the trucks.

The first half wasn’t bad, the second half was brutal and the third half was brutal and dark. This particular ridge helped put the “cliff” in the Bookcliff mountain range. The lower half of the ridge was about 15 rimrock ledges, each of which we had to navigate our way around and/or down. We were all getting pretty whooped and still had not bottomed out by dark so we tried to pick up the pace a bit. At one point, a certain hunter who skimped on his water was witnessed dragging his rifle by the barrel like a kid drags his blankie. But I won’t name names…

We did finally make it to the bottom in one piece. Shawn was waiting at the trucks. He said we sounded close long ago but it still took an hour to get down the last stretch. We decided quickly that would not be the route we took the meat out tomorrow. The drive back to camp was fairly quiet as we all were thinking that we’d have to suck it up and do that same trip again tomorrow.

Thursday morning found Steve’s camper’s cold water lines iced up. We waited around camp until sunup, since we knew what was in store for the day, and tore into the camper’s plumbing. At one point, after significant head-scratching and swearing about pipe ice, I was buried under his camper couch trying to get a wrench around a leaking fitting. Just then I heard “Knock, knock, DOW officer, can I come in?” I thought it was the other guys just messing with us so gave an eloquent reply of “Ha, ha, very funny you @#$%&*s, I’m a little busy here.” Then I heard “No, really, I am the DOW officer, can I come in?” Oops. The game warden took it pretty well after seeing what we were up to. I had punched my tag and followed all the legalities of the dead elk situation, so he took some notes and let us be. He did say that was about the only bull he’d heard of being taken in the area.

Steve stayed to work on his camper after we found the problem spot and warmed it up with a propane torch. Dan stayed back to work on his trailer, he had to put on the new tires…and fix the fender…and the lights. We hadn’t seen our camp in the daylight so this was as good a time as any to take care of that stuff.

Nick, Shawn and I drove over to yesterday’s spot and geared up for packing out meat. We carried empty meat packs, game bags, ropes, water and minimal snacks. Nick did bring more water this time, it almost lasted him all day. The initial plan was for the three of us to hike up, they would hunt around for a bit as I got the quarters ready for packing. But gravity proved to be the big winner of the day as it took us until 2 o’clock to get back up to the bull. It was ice cold, some parts even frozen. Dan and Steve arrived at the bull a little later, they had hiked up the next adjacent ridge to the South just to get different look at this new area. Butchering elk while lying on the ground is real work. I would pull off a quarter and we’d hang it up, then those guys would bone out the meat and put it into game bags. By about 3:30, we had four packs each with about 70-80 pounds of meat and one head complete with antlers, probably going about 50 pounds.

I threw the head over my shoulders, the others each grabbed a meat pack. I wore Dan’s camelback pack with some odds and ends from the other guys. That pack was fairly nice at the time, but when we reached the bottom it was smeared with elk blood, brains, and hair. I think Dan may need another one for his mountain biking endeavors lest he be shunned by the earth-muffin crowd. We headed down the way we had come up, not straight down the rimrock this time though. We worked our way down without too much pain, again having to hustle to race against the dark. Oak brush is a little easier when you’re headed downhill, you can just sort of fall into it and you’ll pop out somewhere. Unless you’re carrying a big set of antlers backwards over your shoulders, then you still have to carve your way through. In the steeper open parts I just flipped the elk head in front of me and drove him down on his chin, driving his antlers like bike handlebars. I only took a couple tumbles and had to kick the thing away from me rather than land on his antlers and have him take his revenge post-mortem.

We bottomed out right at dark but still had about a mile to go through the bottom of the canyon back to the trucks. Out came the flashlights and we trudged along. Again, a certain nameless hunter’s flashlight batteries lasted only slightly longer than his water supply and he had to hike closely behind Steve’s heels to see the way out. We finally made it down to the trucks and motored back to camp. We didn’t get there until 10 o’clock or so, hit the JD and Advil and crashed.

That’s me in the far back under the faded cap

All things in camp moved pretty slowly Friday morning. We headed back up to where we’d been Saturday and looked for good places to glass…from the rigs. None of us were too interested in hiking much. On the way in the (late) morning we came up on this fresh mountain lion-killed deer right in the trail. Guys we met on the way in said it wasn’t there on their trip in but was on the way out, so it was about an hour old. You can see where the cat killed it, ate the guts and one hind quarter, then scratched around to bury it. Kind of cool. I didn’t venture too far from Nick, figuring I didn’t have to outrun the lion, just outrun the slowest guy in our group!

A fresh lion-killed mule deer

We all hiked out a few different directions to glass, but none of us came on anything. We all met up and headed back to camp for dinner. Saturday we just did a token trip back to where we’d seen the three cows, then came back and packed everything up. We split up the elk meat, took some pictures, and headed home.

Saturday afternoon I continued securing my place as the goofy redneck in the subdivision by power-washing out the elk head on the storm drain inlet in front of my house. So far the HOA hasn’t yet called.

Don’t judge!

All in all, I had a blast. Eight days of living in the woods with good friends away from work, news, and politics was good medicine for the soul. I wish we’d seen more elk, but it’s been so dry that they haven’t really begun to migrate into the areas we were hunting. It was good to see everyone and swap stories, new and old.

{add European mount pic}


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