Contributors to this thread:
Solo Colorado Wilderness Elk Hunt + Pics
I have been on a quest for the past 20 years to kill a bull elk with my bow. This is mostly about my latest attempt to finally get it done, but it is also a look back at the long and frustrating--and also amazing--journey that brought me to this spot.
During the last two decades, I have been blessed to have hunted elk in some amazing places.
Early on, it was mostly OTC hunting in southwest Colorado. Challenging conditions to say the least, especially for an eastern whitetail hunter, but it was on those hunts that I learned the value of lightweight gear, proper planning, and being in great shape prior to September. I also learned the importance of remaining mobile rather than staying in one particular spot for too long if the elk aren't around.
I've also enjoyed hunting and learning in some pretty fantastic locations, too, including GMU 76 in Colorado and the Gila in New Mexico. Being able to repeatedly interact with bulls really steepened the learning curve, but a combination of being too picky and other circumstances out of my control still resulted in unfilled tags.
I've actually had multiple chances in the Gila. In 2017, I drew an Any Weapon elk tag for 16B. I had planned on returning on a redemption bow hunt that year, but I ended up breaking my foot and spending the better part of 5 months on crutches and in a walking boot. Aggressive physical therapy got me to the point of being able to walk fairly decently right before the hunt rolled around in October--well enough to consider actually returning to the mountains to chase elk. But in my hobbled condition, I decided to take a rifle instead my bow, to even the odds a bit.
I ambushed a decent 6x6 bull bringing his cows to water on day 3, and while it was a huge accomplishment to be able to pack his meat and antlers out 3 miles each trip with a foot that had been useless a month earlier, there was something unsatisfying about not doing it the way I had planned....
By now you must be thinking, "This guy must be one of the worst elk hunters ever!" Believe me, that thought has crossed my mind a time or six over the past twenty years. But I have killed dozens of whitetail deer and many dozens of turkeys over the years, and I stubbornly refused to believe that I couldn't get the job done with elk as well. Which brings us up to this year....
& you still haven't killed a bull with your bow?
I started building up Colorado points again in 2012, after my failed stint in GMU 76 the year before. But my hopes for a reunion tour in the Weminuche Wilderness were dashed by point creep, so I decided to quit fighting the system and put in for an easier unit this year--which I managed to draw.
I have kids in high school sports, and I didn't want to miss any of their meets, which limited me to the first 6 days of the season or the last 6 days of the season. I decided I would hunt both times, if necessary. So I headed out to Colorado, on another solo wilderness hunt.
I hiked in to my Plan A spot a day early, to set up camp and glass a couple of promising ridges. Unfortunately, the weather decided not to cooperate...as it would continue to do throughout my trip. Light rain gave way to heavy downpours, and I ended up setting up my tent sooner than expected. Even though the rain eventually stopped, all evening there were low clouds shrouding the meadows I had planned to glass, so I gained very little in the way of preseason intel that afternoon. I was able to catch a ton of trout on my fly rod, though!
That night I did something I've never done before while elk hunting. I built a fire out in the field. My clothes and boots were soaking wet, and despite the alternating sprinkles and downpours in the dark, I managed to get fairly warm and dry before retreating to my tent for the night.
I'm sure they'll be blood on an arrow soon with this post:)
Once in my tent, I decided to come up with a new plan. The meadows I had already tried to glass were pretty far away and no sure bet, so I decided not to start there in the morning. Instead, I located a timbered, northeast facing bench near the top of the mountain I had been forced to camp on by the rain that afternoon. My plan was to hit the bench in the dark, check it for sign, and if there was no elk activity in the immediate area, I would cross the large meadows on top and get to a high vantage point that would allow me to finally glass the cloud-hidden ridge from the day before.
The bench was loaded with fresh sign. Shredded spruce trees everywhere. Droppings and prints everywhere. Smelled like elk. Only a lone cow was in the nearest meadow, however, and the big meadows on top were empty. The bigger problem was the lack of bugles anywhere. I used a slight dip in the terrain to hide myself as I slowly made my way across the meadows to a decent glassing spot.
Once at the glassing spot, I stared at the distant empty ridges, and as the morning turned rapidly from sunny to rainy, my mind began to wander. Was the lack of elk and bugling due to the weather? Or the early date? Or no elk? Was it time to pull up the stakes and head to my Plan B spot? I decided to give this place little more time....
My persistence was rewarded with alternating downpours and sunshine, and I continued to glass that morning but saw nothing on the ridges. Eventually, the weather got really bad, and I spent a couple of hours huddled under a large spruce tree, taking a nap, and eating lunch. (And photographing rainbows.)
That afternoon, I returned to my glassing spot to watch the distant ridges for activity. Eventually, I was rewarded. A small herd of 5 elk moved from right to left, half an hour or so before sunset, just above the treeline on a ridge a mile and a half away. I decided to return to camp early to dry out, and then I would ascend a distant drainage in the morning and try to ambush the herd on its way back to its bedding area.
As I used the terrain and sparse spruce trees to conceal my retreat across the top, I spotted a mid-sized 5x5 out in the meadow--about 200 yards away--busy shredding a spruce tree. At this point in my elk hunting career, I figure I'm in no position to be picky, and I begin to formulate a plan to stalk him before it gets too dark.
I closed the distance on him a bit, but the lack of cover made it difficult. Part way into the stalk, I hear the first bugle of my trip! About 200 yards away, at the northern edge of the meadow, are two more bulls. Both are larger than the first bull, but there was not much other than open meadow between us.
(When I spotted the bulls, I was concealed by one of the spruce trees on the very top left side of photo above. The bulls were standing approximately where the picture was taken.)
Great story, looking forward to hearing how you punched your tag!
Because of the lack of cover and fading light, I decided my only hope was to try cow calling. One time with the mellow yellow call showed me the futility of that idea, though, as the two bulls stopped grazing, looked in my direction for a few seconds, and then turned and walked straight away from me. I was a bit disappointed, but I had seen bulls! And heard bugles! I decided to slip out of there in the dark, and in the morning, I would return to the spot where I had last seen them and try for an ambush....
The next morning at my camp at the bottom, I could see stars through the trees, and the wetness on the ground from the previous day's showers had turned frosty in places. My feet and legs were feeling the usual day two aches and pains as I hiked up through the timber in the darkness, but my lungs had acclimated a bit, and I made it up the mountain faster than the day before.
I was just about to my goal location at first light, when I heard a bugle up over the edge, coming from somewhere out in the meadow on top. As I slipped over the edge, I heard the unmistakable sound of two bulls sparing, not far out in the meadow. I decided to put on a stalk while they were distracted, slipping from spruce tree to spruce tree until I ran out of cover at the little group of trees in the photo above.
With nothing left to cover my advance, I was unsure what to do next. I didn't want to call and risk spooking the bulls like the night before. I unclipped my release from the string to grab my binoculars and try to see them sparring through the spruce branches that separated us. As I did this, I heard an incredibly loud and unmistakable thundering of hooves, and despite having perfect wind, I thought I had spooked them. But then I saw one of the bulls running straight at me! He had broken off the fight and was running for the timber, and I was standing in his escape route--the same one I had watched both bulls take the night before!
I was clipping my release back on and preparing to shoot in self-defense just as he spotted me in his path and hooked, coming to a stop about 25 yards away, standing broadside. I'm not sure if he was one of the two bulls I had seen standing here the evening before, but I assume he was. At any rate, he was a big 5x5, and I didn't hesitate to start my shot process. My heart pounded as I drew back and aimed....
But I didn't shoot him. Literally a fraction of a second before I released the arrow, the bull that had won the battle raced into my peripheral vision and skidded to a halt to avoid hitting the first bull. I glanced over at him as he stood broadside on the slope at 30 or so yards--his antlers silhouetted against the morning sky--and I remember only one conscious thought: "Oh, hell yes!"
Great story....Keep it coming!
Ohhh the suspense. He must have had some work to get caught up on. ;)
Great story so far.
Good job taking photos to document your trip. I’m terrible at taking the time to do that.
I swung my bow toward the second bull and shot. No!!!! I couldn't remember consciously aiming at all! Both bulls spun and ran off in the direction they'd come from. I cow called a couple of times, and they hesitated and looked back, but then continued running in a wide arc toward and then into the line of spruce at the low point in the meadow in the photo above.
A short time later, one of the bulls ran out onto the hillside on the other side of the treeline. I believed it to be the smaller of the two, but still I watched him intently with my binoculars as he moved up and to the left toward some dark timber, looking for signs of blood or my arrow. But I saw neither. He slowed and started walking, occasionally stopping to graze or look back in my direction....and he also kept checking his back trail, presumably for the other elk that was no longer there.
You’re killing me smalls!
He's dead man!! Awesome story so far!
Eventually, the bull disappeared into a patch of dark timber maybe three quarters of a mile to the South. He bugled a couple of times from that spot over the next hour.
Memory is a funny thing, and when it comes to the moments just before and after a shot--at least in my case--it probably should not be relied upon too strongly. But as I sat there in the shadows next to the spruce trees and went over what had just happened, I was almost positive that I had seen my arrow hit almost the perfect spot on my bull in the milliseconds before he spun and ran away. And I also felt that he seemed to be not quite right as he closed in on the distant treeline. I never saw any exit wound or blood on his far shoulder, though, and that worried me. I decided to wait at least 30 minutes before even walking the thirty yards to where he was standing when I shot at him.
Have now huh!? Congrats!!
I could see the torn up ground where the two bulls had been standing from the place where I'd taken the shot, so after thirty or so long minutes I walked over to check things out. There wasn't any blood or arrow there, but I didn't have to follow their tracks for long before I came across part of my arrow on the ground. The amount of penetration worried me, because I figured from the missing 11" or so that as long as it was hit in the right place, the bull would most likely die. But I wasn't sure about the amount of blood I'd have to follow.
My worries proved to be right on. The meadow was filled with elk tracks, and the tracks of the two bulls were lost in the chaos after only a short distance. And still no blood! The ground was a mix of large rocks, little shiny pink flakes, and occasional tufts of short grass. After over one hour of crawling on my hands and knees, I had only found 6 tiny drops of blood spanning 100 yards and then the blood trail was finished.
Panicked, I gave up on the blood trail and started walking back and forth through the treeline and a 100 yard by half mile patch of shrubby bushes on the other side of the trees, but there was nothing there. I felt sure the bull had to be dead somewhere, so I went back to the beginning and tried to get in his head. I retraced his steps through the drops of blood and then spent another hour or so recreating his path over another 100 yards of meadow using subtle clues like a recently broken fungus, or a brand new scrape of a hoof on a weathered gray log. Using this info, I was able to figure out that when the two bulls had hit the treeline, mine had strayed to the right a bit from the path the other bull was following.
I think I am going to wear out the refresh button...
I was able to follow his tracks a bit through the shrubs, but when the trail hit the next patch of meadow, they were gone. All I could do at that point was pull out the binoculars and scan the hillside and hope. The mix of elk-colored, rounded boulders and gnarly old branches scattered everywhere made the job challenging, but eventually, almost three hours after the shot, I spotted him laying across the meadow!
According to OnX, he had traveled 312 yards as the crow flies from the spot that I shot him to the place where he dropped. In the screen grab above, the elk icon in the upper right shows where he was when I shot, you can also see the location of the six blood drops, and the lower elk icon is where I found him.
The relief I felt at that moment was unbelievable. Immediate relief that I had recovered a bull that I knew was mortally wounded. And long-term relief that I had found success after over two decades of chasing bulls with a bow....
Butchering was uneventful, but shortly after I had finished, the blue sky turned dark, and there was a violent thunderstorm, torrential rain, and an accumulation of hail on the ground. I was about 2.5 miles away from the truck as the crow flies, and at nearly 12,000 feet. Getting all of the meat and then the head off the mountain over the next 24 hours was a grueling but satisfying job.
Great story and congrats on a great bull! I'm looking forward to seeing more pics.
I'd like to thank JeepNJesse, who has been following this thread. We've hauled each other's elk out of the mountains, and he has been an eyewitness to my past failed attempts to arrow a bull over the last two decades. I also need to apologize to him, because if I had held true to form and failed yet again, we would be leaving on a Colorado elk hunting trip in a couple of weeks!
Heck yeah, congrats! Great story as well.
awesome buddy! congrats on finally sealing the deal.
I love it when persistence pays off!
Awesome first archery bull, Sir (and, well deserved)!
WTG! Many congrats to you! Thanks for taking the time to share with us.
Great storytelling, js, and terrific, well-composed photos. What type/brand of camera did you use?
Congratulations, way to stick with it!
Where did you hit it, and was the actual penetration a lot better than you thought when you found the arrow?
Ya, you definitely need to be more successful more often, because I could read your stories on repeat. Congrats on a job well done, and thanks for taking the time to put together an awesome story.
Thanks, everyone, for the congratulations!
JAW, thank you for the compliments! All photos were taken with my old-school iPhone 6s...
Bowhunt, thanks for reminding me to cover the shot a bit more....
Congrats on a beauty of a bull! And BTW, brookies do love royal coachmans....
I'm positive the bull was down within seconds. The lack of penetration and a clear blood trail was due to a combination of factors, I think. I actually hit him in a good spot, had I been on level ground or shooting at a downward angle. And I think in those cases the tracking would have been a much simpler affair. But I hit him from slightly below, so the point of impact should have been lower--and on top of that I center-punched a rib--so the lack of an exit wound allowed him to bleed out internally, making him very difficult to track. If everything had happened in the timber, I'm afraid there's a good chance I would have lost him....
Congrats, that’s a good 1st elk.
Outstanding.....big congrats to you!
Great read, great bull. Congrats!
Great story congrats and thanks for sharing.
Congrats. And you told a great story.
Damn Skippy!!! Congrats. Wore out the refresh button.
Congrats on the successful hunt. Thanks for sharing and taking us along!
Nice pictures and story congrats!
Congrats on your first archery bull. Persistence paid off for sure.
Congrats and well done on the perseverance!
Thanks for taking the time to tell the story and provide some great pics!
Great read and pics! Congrats!
Awesome story and pics. Thanks for sharing.
Great story and pics. Congrats on a great bull!
Spectacular story! Awesome bull! Congratulations on finally getting the monkey (gorilla) off your back!
Looking forward to your next installment and bull… Bet it won’t take another 20 years!!!!
Great bull, great hunt. Way to stick with it.
Awesome story. . Congrats!!!
Great story, congrats on an awesome bull!!!
Awesome story, thanks for taking us along! Congrats!
Nice!!! There is a tracking dog FB page for Colorado if you ever need it in the dL future…
Well done sir thanks for taking us along with you!
Way to "GIT-ER-DUN!" Nice story- thanks for sharing!
Very well done. Fine bull and great story telling. Thanks for sharing. Percy
Love happy endings! Congratulations!
Thanks for sharing your hunt.
OK Mr. Gold. Nicely done and I am sure there will be more successful hunts and stories in the near future. My best, Paul
Congrats! And thanks for sharing
Good stuff! Congratulations and well done on the write up!
Great story and great elk!
Well done on the story. hunt, and the persistence!!!!
First visit back to BS in 2 weeks. Read the story from 8700’. Fantastic! (Much better than reading about a feeble old man!)
Congratulations! Awesome story & bull!!
Congratulations! Great bull and storyline!!!
Congrats and thanks for bringing us along.
Thank you for taking the time and consideration to post an adventure with pictures and a map of the recovery. This is what I love to read and see. Great adventure, great hunt, GREAT BULL.
Congrats! The time it took is like wine. Gets sweeter with age. That said, hoping it is a short time till the second elk goes down with a bow! I have a feeling now that you have one notch in your bow….
Awesome story-congrats on a well earned bull!
Congrats! And awesome story! In the grand scheme of things, 300-yards for the bull to travel really isn't very far, but dang when you're searching it seems impossible and he may as well be on another planet! Glad you persevered and found him!
more congrats for you from over here too. You quest has been accomplished. so do you feel like a different man now?
Easeup, yes, I do feel like a different man now: My feet, calves, and lower back are all very sore compared to before the hunt! Seriously, though, thanks again for all the congrats and nice words, everyone!
Excellent thread on all fronts! Congrats on a great bull, as well!
Congrats on the bull and way to keep after it!
As others have already stated ---- great hunt and story, thoroughly enjoyed it!
Great thread, pics and story. Thanks for taking the time.
Great story! Congrats on an awesome bull!
Awesome write-up! Congrats.
Great hunt! I hunted caribou in Alaska, would love to go back. Thanks for the great recap.
Yes sir!!! Congrats!!!!!!!