This journey started 22 years ago when I begin accumulating points for Colorado’s limited elk unit drawing,. My goal was to hunt one of the coveted “Big 3” units in NW Colorado. IIRC, at that time these units required 4-6 points to draw. Little did I know it would take 22 years to catch up with point creep in order to realize my dream hunt. But that day finally came this summer when my credit card showed it had been hit for the cost of the tag. I’ve been blessed to kill many “freezer bulls”, but I’d never killed one that I felt was big enough to hang on my wall. This unit has that trophy potential, and I’ve never been more excited for a hunt.
My excitment was bolstered in 2019 when I had the opportunity to help my buddy, Jim, pack his monster bull out of the same unit. Jim’s scouting information gave me a foundation to start my hunt from, and it proved invaluable over the course of my hunt. Above is a pic of Jim (on the left) and myself posing with his beautiful 2019 bull.
On my first scouting trip in mid-June, I burned thru 3 tanks of fuel familiarizing myself with the unit. I had about 8 spots marked on my maps, that I wanted to locate and determine the access to. The unit is huge, but it’s checker-boarded with private property thru-out. The landowners don’t take kindly to tresspassing up there, so you really have to be conscious of where you are at all times. OnX Hunt became my favorite tool.
I saw a lot of country, and a lot of elk on that trip. The unit sits mostly within the Colorado Plateau and partially in the Wyoming Basin. It’s not what most guys envision as “elk country”. It’s a mix of juniper and pinion forests, sage brush flats, and deep canyons cut by rivers over the centuries. Dinosaur National Monument is nearby, which is one of the most unique geographical areas in the US. If you’ve never seen it, you should.
Scouting in this unit isn’t difficult. Basically, if you find water, you’re likely to find elk nearby. The challenge is most of the water is on private property. This reduces the unit down to only a handful of public spots that have both water and significant numbers of elk. This simple fact tends to concentrate all the scouting, hunting, and recreational activities in those spots. I began to realize this wasn’t going to be the remote and solitary hunt I had envisioned. But that was fine, I was seeing a lot of elk, including some huge bulls. The first night, I fell asleep in my truck watching a bull I nicknamed “Shaq”, for obvious reasons. Above is the best pic I ever got of Shaq. He was easily one of the biggest bulls I located. I saw him in the same general area on 2 future scouting trips, but never found him during the season.
I scouted 3 more times from July thru August. Most of my scouting consisted of long distance glassing to learn the elk’s patterns and to narrow down a list of target bulls. I didn’t do a lot of hiking, because it really wasn’t necessary, and I didn’t see a reason to bother the un-pressured elk. One particular area I nicknamed “Jurassic Park”, because it held an abnormally large bachelor group of huge mature bulls. Above are all pics of bulls in Jurassic Park. I decided this would be the area where I’d start my hunt.
Finally, the weekend before the Wednesday opener arrived. It was time to get my camp up there. On Saturday, I drove my RV, and I had my buddy, Nick, follow me in his pickup. We got the RV set up in Jurassic Park, spent a beautiful night under breath-taking stars, then Nick drove me back home, so that I could return with my pickup and e-bike the following day. By noon on Monday, I was ready to hunt. Wednesday couldn’t come fast enough.
I spent Tuesday watching elk from camp. The first thing I noticed was the absence of the bigger bulls that I had spotted while scouting. There were still plenty of elk in the area, so I remained optimistic, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy about the disappearance of the big boys. That proved to be a reoccurring theme thru-out the hunt. I guess they didn’t get big by being stupid during the season.
Jurassic Park also wasn’t exactly a secret. I was visited 3 times that day by 2 rifle hunters, and a fellow bowhunter, named Buck. Fortunately, none of them were camped nearby, so I had the area to myself, at least for the time being.
I didn’t get much sleep Tuesday night. 22 years of anticipation of this moment prevented much shut-eye. I was up sipping coffee at 3 am, and pacing like a cat on a hot tin roof waiting for the first hints of sun light. Finally, the black of night started to turn light blue in the east….it was time!
My first hunt consisted of a 3 mile e-bike ride into the west side of Jurassic Park, then a mile hike to a small saddle that the elk used as a travel corridor to their bedding area. I saw 9 elk that day, all bulls, but none of them were shooters, so I was content to just watch them from a far. I returned to camp around noon, to be greeted by a disappointing sight. Another bowhunter had set up camp a mere 200 yards from my camp!! So much for having Jurassic Park to myself.
The other bowhunter, Bob, turned out to be a decent guy, but he wasn’t committed to this hunt like I was. He’s in his mid-60s and chose to draw the tag “before he got too old”. His scouting had only consisted of a friend circling a few spots on an old tattered BLM map. He had no GPS, and showed little regard for private boundaries. He also didn’t care for the desert-like environment. He was convinced the unit was “way over-rated.” Basically, his attitude about this hunt was the polar opposite of mine. I knew Bob wouldn’t last long.
Over the next 3 days, Bob agreed to hunt the east side, while I continued to hunt the west side of Jurassic Park. The weather was extremely hot with highs in the low 90s. The elk were moving early under the light of the full moon, and were usually bedded up by 8:30-9 am. I continued to find the same 9-15 non-shooter bulls each day, but no big boys. Oddly, I didn’t see a single cow or calf during that time. Bob wasn’t seeing anything, and his attitude grew worse. He packed up and drove home on Sunday morning after hunting only 3 days.
Around noon on Sunday, the other bowhunter, Buck, showed up at my camp to see how my hunt was going. Buck had spent most of his time bouncing from spot to spot doing more scouting than hunting. Buck and I hit it off immediately, and we chatted for about 3 hours that afternoon. We shared a lot in common, including our love for bowhunting and fly fishing He was committed to this hunt for the duration, as was I. Buck was camping out of a borrowed box trailer, which basically consisted of a cot and a chair. A freak early snow storm was forecasted to begin that evening. I knew Buck would be miserable in his box, so I invited him to move his camp to the spot Bob had vacated, which he gladly accepted.
The snow storm hit with a vengeance Sunday night. The blizzard conditions continued all day Monday. Buck and I killed time comfortably in my RV telling hunting stories, dining on some fine meals, and generally forming a friendship that I expect will last for our lifetimes. As much as I craved solitude early on in this hunt, I was grateful for Buck’s company, now. It’s funny how things work out, sometimes.
Buck and I decided to hunt together Tuesday morning. We were both excited for the change in weather. The elk had been silent up to this point. As Buck and I hiked to my favorite saddle in the dark, we were treated to the first bugle of the season. We just looked at each other with huge grins on our faces, and continued to hike. That morning turned into an elk symphony. Every bull in the area was firing off. We tried a few squeals, which were answered each time, but the bulls were content to just holler at each other from a distance. It was still early and the light switch had just turned on.
At one point shortly after sun-up, Buck and I decided to split up. He wanted to work up the ridge to the north of us, to get a view of the valley on the other side. Shortly after he left, I had my first encounter with a shooter bull. He was a monster 5x5 with about a dozen cows. He pushed his cows thru the saddle just beyond my self-imposed 60 yard shooting distance limit, then onto private property. He stopped just inside the private and raked a bush for about 15 minutes. I could have easily closed the distance while he was raking, and put an arrow thru him, but I’ve never poached an animal in my life, and I wasn’t about to start now. Instead, I just got this marginal video footage of him as he herded his cows further into the private.
After seeing the footage of the Big 5x5, Buck suggested we stick together on our next morning hunt. LOL! That morning proved to be one of the best hunts we had. We saw the Big 5x5, again, but he had already crossed onto the private, so we decided to have some fun with the satellite bulls that were trailing his herd. In all, we called 5 different bulls into bow range that morning, all from the same location. Buck and I laughed about how this was the first time we both scrambled for phones to record video, instead of scrambling for our bows to prepare for a shot. Here is one of the “loners with boners” that we called in.
Awesome stuff so far! I run into "Bob's" here each fall that wait a lifetime to draw their SD elk tag. Then after a couple days when they realize they can't kill the bull they want from their truck window they sulk home and complain. Looking forward to the rest of the story!
The next 2 days were more of the same type action….cool temps and frisky bulls. I continued to hunt the Big 5x5, while Buck hunted the east side of Jurassic Park. We both had great action, with numerous encounters with smaller bulls. I saw the Big 5x5 each day, and each day he had accumulated more cows. Unfortunately, he continued his routine of passing thru the public before shooting light, so all I could do was watch him and hope he made a mistake, which he never did.
On Saturday the 12th, the hunting dynamics of Jurassic Park changed. It was the opening day of muzzleloader season. The owner of the private that we were skirting had drawn a landowner tag. On Saturday afternoon he drove his diesal flatbed directly thru the public, where’d I’d been hunting, to get to his private honey hole on the west side. Of course, that ruined my hunt, which brings me to one of my peeves about this hunt. The so-called “limited” nature of this hunt is well-publicized. They only issue 14 archery tags to the public, after all. What isn’t publicized is how many private landowner tags they issue. I’m sure that information can be found somewhere in the bowels of the CPW data, but I never bothered to search for it. The problem with these landowner tags is they have the best of both worlds. They can hunt both the private and the public. In my case, they were deliberately ruining my public honey hole to get to their private spot. IMO, that’s broken, and needs to be fixed.
So, on Sunday the 13th, Buck and I decided to relocate our camps.
We moved to a relatively popular spot known to hold a large herd of elk. Buck and I had both scouted this location, but I had only scouted it from the east side, which is where most hunters access it. Buck had scouted a western access, which proved to be less well-known. We were happy to see no one was camped at this spot when we got there. We watched elk until dark from camp that evening, including a border-line shooter, so our optimism was high for the next morning’s hunt.
That morning, we set out on foot from camp in the dark. It was a 3 mile hike on a 2-track, then another 2 mile traverse to where the elk were. We got into elk, but the problem was we were hunting with the wind to our back most of the morning. Buck and I discussed how it would be much easier for me to ride my e-bike for the first 3-mile stretch, which would put me in better position, early, to play the wind. Buck didn’t have an e-bike, and he was antsy to hunt another popular location that we had been avoiding due to all the hunting pressure. So he packed up his camp, and we parted ways for the remainder of the hunt.
Monday afternoon, I decided to hunt a nearby spot that Jim had told me about. It has 2 ponds that were now dry, but for some reason I still had a good feeling about it. It was an easy hike to the lower pond, where I found a large pinion tree to use as a blind on the downwind side of the pond. It was about 4 pm, and I had only been set up for about 5 minutes, when I heard rocks tumbling above me. I looked up to see this coming right at me.
At the end of that last video, notice how the trailing cow looks behind her…a definite clue that something was following. Shortly after that I heard him bugle. I thought, here we go, this is going to be the monster I’ve been waiting for. Here’s what showed up……
That small herd decided to bed down for 2 hours only 40 yards from me. It was so quiet, I could hear them licking their lips. Finally, at around 6:15 pm, the bull stood up and squealed, which signaled to the rest of the herd it was time to move on. It was a cool encounter, but it left me wondering where all the big bulls were.
I was now 14 days into my 28 day hunt, and I had only seen one definite shooter. The weather had turned hot again, which seemed to turn the rut switch off. The next 4-5 days were a true test of my resolve and will power. I hunted hard, and I was still seeing and hearing elk, but it wasn't the rutting frenzy that I was expecting at this stage of the hunt. Most concerning to me was the fact that I still wasn't seeing any trophy caliber bulls. Buck was having the same luck at his new location, so at least I knew it wasn't just me.
On Friday the 18th, my luck began to change. My buddy Nick had come up to join me for the weekend. I enjoy talking to myself, but after a while even I tire of it. Just having another human to talk to improved my mood. But what improved my attitude the most was what we spotted up from camp that evening. A bull we nicknamed "Little Thirds" had taken control of the herd I had been hunting. Little Thirds wasn't a monster, but he was obviously a mature bull, and he had that "big bull attitude" that I hadn't seen since the Big 5x5. I decided this was going to be the bull I would hunt for as long as he hung around.
I looked at the 2020 elk draw stats and according to what is published, there were no ML landowner tags this year. Four resident ML tags, total. Two archery LO tags (one unrestricted). Six LO rifle bull tags (three unrestricted).
Edit: I believe there is a RFW property in there that also gets some tags, so there may be more hunters in there than the CPW stats show.
Sorry for the delay, guys. The Warden made me back away from the computer last night. Now, where was I?
I don't know how many of you have elk hunted every day for 4 straight weeks, but it can be a grind on you, mentally and physically. Little Thirds provided new hope and inspiration just when I needed it.
The obvious challenge of hunting a herd bull in the middle of the rut is all the eyes, ears, and noses that you have to deal with. In my experience, pulling a herd bull away from his cows is like making fire from ice...it's possible but not probable. Little Thirds had a harem of 40 cows and he wasn't about to stray too far from them.
So, for the next week I played cat and mouse with Little Thirds and his bitches. Most hunts resulted in me getting busted by his cows. One morning I decided to get aggressive, so I got up an hour earlier than normal and I high-tailed it to their bedding area. Generally, I don't like hunting bedding areas, because it's a good way to blow a herd into the next county, but I was ready to risk it.
The plan worked to a T, except for one minor detail. Little Thirds bedded out of range, leaving me surrounded by his girls and smaller bulls. I spent the entire day bedded down with that herd. I had elk 360 degrees around me for over 8 hours. This satellite bull almost ended up in my lap, when he got up for a mid-day snack.
Finally, at around 4 pm, Little Thirds got up and bugled. As if on cue, the rest of his herd got up and started grazing their way into a sage brush flat to the west, with Little Thirds bringing up the rear. The wind was perfect, so I started dogging them, while hiding behind my Montana elk decoy. This was my first attempt at stalking with the decoy. I was skeptical at first, but it actually worked quite well. Occasionally a cow would lift her head and look at me, but then she'd go right back to grazing completely unalarmed. To my surprise I was able to close the distance to about 80 yards. I was just preparing to make my final 20 yard move, when I heard the unmistakable rumble of an ATV coming up the 2-track directly towards the herd. Of course, that blew up my stalk.
Which brings me to a second peeve. The 2 yahoos on the ATV were rifle hunters who DIDN'T EVEN HAVE A TAG!! One of the them was 3-4 years away from drawing, so they were just up there blowing up hunts in the middle of the archery season for no good reason. I can't imagine being that selfish and inconsiderate to fellow hunters who have waited over 2 decades to draw this tag. Needless to say, I had a rather heated exchange with those jerks, and they promptly tucked tail and left.
On Saturday the 26th, I finally got the break I needed. A second large 6x6, with a busted off 5th, showed up to challenge Little Thirds for his harem. I was blessed to witness an epic battle between the two of them, with no clear winner. Neither bull gave in an inch. When they separated the challenger went one direction with about half the herd, and Little Thirds went the opposite direction with the other half. This set the stage for my opportunity the next morning.
On Sunday the 27th, I woke to a steady NE wind, which was perfect for me to intercept the elk coming off their evening feeding fields at first light. Their normal route was thru a spares aspen grove, which I was able to beat them to. Little Thirds and the New Challenger were going absolutely crazy competing for cows, which allowed me to slip into the fray undetected.
Little Thirds herd passed by me at about 60 yards, while he was trailing behind trying to round up a few stray cows. I was finally in-between him and his herd! Perfect. I let out the loudest, meanest bugle I could muster. Little Thirds head snapped around and he charged directly towards me. He covered about 100 yards in the time it took me to nock an arrow. There was a 3 foot opening between aspen trees on the path he was taking. I guesstimated the opening at 40 yards and drew my bow just as his head cleared the opening. At this point, he was walking, and looking hard for me. When his vitals came into the opening, I let out a soft cow call, which stopped him momentarily, and I let the arrow fly. In mid-flight Little Thirds took another step, and my heart sank as I watched the arrow disappear well back of where I aimed.
Little Thirds whirled around and bolted about 50 yards, then stopped and looked around, as if wondering "WTH just happened?" Then, after about 30 seconds, to my surprise, he laid down. I decided my shot was better than I thought, and I was elated. I was about 90 yards away, and I could clearly see his antlers, so I decided to just wait for him to expire. An hour later, after texting "BIG BULL DOWN!!" to everyone I know, I had my pack off and was munching on a snack bar. I looked up and was shocked to see Little Thirds on his feet and slowly walking away. My elation turned to desperation, immediately.
I quickly threw my pack on and began paralleling Little Thirds attempting to close the distance and get another arrow in him. When he walked over a small ridge and out of sight, I ran to where I last saw him and peeked over. Little Thirds was staring directly at me at 20 yards. Before I could blink, he whirled and ran off as if he wasn't even hurt. I was devastated.
I decided to back track to where Little Thirds had laid down, hoping the blood would provide some clues. The 4 pools of dark red blood confirmed what I initially suspected. I had liver shot Little Thirds.
In hindsight, I still don't know what my next move should have been. I decided to slowly zig-zag my way in the direction that Little Thirds had ran. He wasn't leaving any blood trail, so it felt like I was hunting for a needle in a haystack, but I had to try. After about 1/4 of a mile, I jumped Little Thirds, again. This time, he only trotted a few yards, then slowed to a labored walk. I marked a waypoint where I last saw him, then walked back to camp, hoping and praying that I would find my trophy later that evening.
At around 4 pm, a full 9 hours after the shot, I returned to where I last saw Little Thirds. I recruited a rifle hunter I had met previously to help me search. We searched until dark, but never found him. After a sleepless night, I searched the entire next day, focusing my efforts in the direction Little Thirds was moving the last time I saw him. That proved to be my mistake. That day, I found another hunter's kill, but not Little Thirds.
The next day, Tuesday the 29th, I woke up deflated and ready to pack up and drive home. I'm not an overly spiritual guy, but that morning I asked the Lord for guidance. He told me I had to make one last attempt to find Little Thirds. So, I dragged my old tired bones back up the mountain for the countless time.
At around 11 am, I was ready to concede Little Thirds was lost, when I heard the faint squawking of crows further down the valley, in the opposite direction I had been searching. I followed the sounds of the birds. As I got closer, the distinct smell of rotting meat filled my nose. I had found Little Thirds, but the heat and scavengers had spoiled the meat. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I did a little of both, then I prayed again.
My 22 year journey had ended on a bittersweet note, but at least I had closure.
On a side note, my e-bike proved to be the perfect means of transportation on this hunt. I used it at least 20 of the 28 days I hunted. it allowed me to cover many miles quickly, and more importantly, silently.
Great story! Congrats on a great bull. Sucks the meat was no good. Tell us more about that other bull you found? I would imagine you thought you found your bull initially? Did you find the rightful killer of that bull? Fun read!
Another side note. On the day I found Little Thirds, I received a text from Buck, stating he had killed a bull the night before, and was in the process of packing his trophy out with another buddy. He hunted hard, and deserved it. I was so happy for my new friend.
It was a heck of an adventure, in a beautiful part of the state, and though not exactly the way you'd have hoped it to end...you did it and nobody can take those memories away! I tagged along with a cousin from CO that drew that unit many years ago, the quality was down even then. I also hunted the OTC units around it during the last week of archery this year, and didn't see much, it's a lot different terrain than the rest of the state...and man were there a LOT of hunters!
You definitely got your 22 years worth out of that hunt Matt. It didn't end as designed but you spent 4 weeks in some of the finest elk country on earth chasing bugles. That is something not everyone gets the chance to experience. I'm glad you were able to recover your bull and willing to tell us the story of how it all happened. I enjoyed every minute of it! Congratulations on the hunt, the story, the memories, and most of all little thirds!
Thanks guys, it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and well worth the wait.
To answer a few questions, the other kill I found appeared to be a small bull, or cow, judging by the size of the carcass and hooves. It was only 2-3 days old, and the hunter had done a nice job on him using the gutless method. He left a few bloody rags behind, but otherwise it was a clean job and he had packed all the meat out. Interestingly, I blew some elk out of that spot that were bedded no more than 20 yards from the carcass. I thought that was a little odd.
Cnelk, Little Thirds scores good enough for me. Honestly, I haven't put a tape to him, and probably won't. The consensus of several hunters who stopped to admire his rack was that he'd score in the 340s. That seems about right to me.
njbuck, all the big bulls I found while scouting undoubtedly joined one of the huge herds that lives on private up there. Either that, or they migrated up into the Dinosaur National Monument, where they can die of old age without ever being hunted,
Really well done story, Matt. I really appreciate you sharing the pics and the pros with all of us who will never hunt in a place like that. Congrats on quite the trip. That's a long time to hunt, and you stuck with it, enjoyed it, and really seemed to appreciate the experience for what it was- a once in a lifetime deal. Sorry about the meat, but good for you for staying with it and not giving up. You did all you could, and that's all anyone can do. Congrats again and thanks for sharing this with us.
Great story and good for all to hear what happens sometimes despite our best efforts. But that also brings up a good question. If you have this happen to you, what are you required to do legally with the meat? Kinda hard to prove that you didn’t find it until too late? Just don’t know what I would do nor what is the legal way to handle it??
Regarding the legal obligations on the meat. I don't think there is a specific law, because there are so many variables. Weather and scavengers being the biggest variables. What I did was take plenty of pics of Little Thirds just as I found him, especially the hind quarters that had been devoured by the scavengers. Then I marked a waypoint where he died. That all proved to be exactly what the game warden wanted to see, when he checked on me in camp.
Awesome adventure. Thanks for sharing and having some real exciting and experiences. Even though the story did not end the way you would have liked, it did on a positive note of being "closed" with not doubts.
Thanks for a great write up. You have my great admiration for telling the story as it happened, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We have all been in those shoes. The adventure is the trophy and the antlers will be a reminder. Congrats on giving the tag the hunt it deserved.
Heck of a story Matt. I understand now why you labelled the thread bittersweet. Anyone who's hunted 10+ days knows the mental grind it can turn into and I respect that big time. Way to stick with it. Both the hunt, and in the end the search; for little Thirds. Congratulations.
Good write up. That sucks to wait that long for that kind of ending. Sounds like it was worth the wait, they don't always end the way we dreamed. If you bowhunt long enough hunts like this unfortunately happen.
We've all been there, Matt. Thanks for sharing a great story and congratulations for being a super-dedicated hunter. Things happen. You should be proud of the effort and accept the outcome and the closure.
I can tell you one thing. I'd rather have the hunt I had than the so-called "hunt" that Jimmy John had in Arizona...every day and twice on Sundays. No regrets, and I'd do it all over again, with the same outcome, if I could.
Congratulations and good for you for a well deserved bull. Your story telling made it all so real. I think many of us can relate to your feelings of highs and lows at some time in our bowhunting past. You made good use of your points due to your fortitude. Thanks for sharing........Badbull
But it wasn't tough at all to put my story out. I'm proud of it. The toughest part was finding time. 8 days after I returned from my hunt, the Warden and I road-tripped to Florida for 2 weeks. The tarpon were as hard on me as the elk. I'm a walking wounded right now. ;-)
About a mile, as the crow flies. But he doubled back, so he actually traveled further. I think he was trying to get back to water, which is why he doubled back. Why I didn't think of that while I was searching is beyond me. I actually hiked past him at least 3 times, getting up to the spot I had last seen him. It just never occurred to me that he might double back in the direction of where he got shot, and where he last saw me.
I've never hunted elk but the way you told the tale made me feel like I was right there, great story telling! Anybody who has bowhunted has lost an animal and the worst part of it is always wondering if you could've done one more thing to recover it. You did that so you have the closure that so often doesn't come. Great job and thanks for taking us along for the ride. Incredible dedication!
Sweet... the European looks tight there.. congrats on the hunt. No one wants to not harvest the meat , but something ate it and a little less competition on the winter range now. U put in more time than most trying to retrieve it. Peace
Congrats! Great write up and love seeing a getting it done attitude! Win, lose or draw, fight till the end. Pretty cool.
Stuff happens. But you hung in there.... a second time actually... bittersweet? Maybe.... but sweet none the less. BTW..... nothing was "wasted". We may not get to personally use it but something did. Nothing in the wild is wasted. Nothing. It's a wonderful concept really.
Congrats again and thanks for takin' us along. Lots of work. And very much appreciated.
Great read and the photos and videos made it perfect. I bowhunted the unit in 2018 which was also a major drought year and the hunt was very grueling but easily the best hunt of my long hunting career. This story took me back and put a smile on my face. Great job GG.