"Gunn"-ing For Elk

Marijuana, Mushrooms, Forest Fires, and Wolves are Colorado's latest hot trends

The abundant hunting opportunities we've had for a lifetime are becoming a little less popular. Before you turn away from all the democrat voters and our "green loco weed," let me remind you with an account of what you may be missing. The state is quietly shifting gears turning the hunting country into quality, draw only areas

We were in the last five days of Elk season in 2020.

In Colorado, it's considered the best five days. Warm, ocean waves of aspen are a visual prism of yellow and gold. The Elk are frantically pushing full tilt into the rut, murdering the innocent pine trees. Elk fighting, squealing, and bugles abound. Two divine parts of the year have waited for the outdoorsman in fervent promises. Finally, three hours into the morning hike with numbing feet and legs on fire, we both catch what we think is the cadence of an Elk bugle…but it's barely audible

We are on an obscure path consisting of a vaguely discernible outline that leads, as always, directly up. Following the remnant of a cattle trail dissecting the fall rabbitbrush and open patches of rock, we are skirting a mountain creek that cuts through a seemingly non-passable canyon of jagged black granite contrasting against barren white sandstone only the sheep call home.

No, google earth, no fancy apps, no trail signs. 

It's only found by putting boots on the ground and following one of the general rules handed down from mentors: follow the water, and it will lead you to wildlife. Omitted is that it's usually in places that require repelling gear to access and lack of self-preservation. Years of stumbling around chasing elk take you into these unexpected tiny holes of hunting Eden that sear into memory, beckoning you to come back later to explore. This dim mountain artery leads to Elk. This route is my favorite but deceiving route. Known to the few local ranchers and maybe one or two obsessive-compulsive hunters that are more tough than smart.

It's driven by and overlooked by just about everyone. I smile as I place my feet down. No apparent wildlife sign before us this season as we curve, climb, and sidehill through Aspen benches of old grazing ground. 

We are knee-deep in straw-colored mountain grass, working towards dark timber 3 hours away. Yet, I find comfort and contentment in these rarely traveled paths, even though they're perhaps a bit overly ambitious. It's a theme that echoes my choices throughout life.

Always taking the hard way.

It was 2020. A year that is better forgotten but can't be. Elk season in Colorado was no exception mirroring COVID. The Colorado Division of Wildlife turned the entire southwest corner of the state to draw only. It severely limits over-the-counter (OTC) hunting. And it crowds my usual haunts. 

If Unit 62 was statistically estimated by the state as the busiest unit before, it's a total madhouse now. Now, throw in a midsummer drought helping birth a state record wildfire that is still actively burning over 300,000 acres of elk country to the north. The draw may end up being a good thing curbing the 12,000-13,000 archery hunters every year (we'll have to see in time if it helps our quality of hunting. I'm hopeful). The wildfire has more fuel to burn than ever with the beetle kill. 

From a scouting plane, it's just a sea of a dead gray mass from the continental divide to the city of Denver. I fear that it will never be the Colorado of my youth again. Grizzly Creek, Williams fork, Cameron Peak, and more are burning as I sit here and start recapping my time in the woods

I'm with a long-time friend Jon Gunderson that I first met, guiding him in this same draw unit years ago in the Gunnison Basin. Originally an OTC unit but now costs a person the time and effort of applying. This opportunity took Jon years to acquire out of state. I failed to pull a tag but was determined to go whether I drew or not. I quickly picked up my camera, and elk calls in place of my longbow. 

Glancing over Jon's gear, I smile to myself as I look at the worn-out compound bow. The graphics are seriously faded. The string is frayed and pilled. I think and laugh that it may be that same bow used 12 years ago. Heck, I think it may even be the same Gold Tip arrows. They are dressed out in the same simple white fletching from before. In comparison, I'm the guy that'll change gear as often as my underwear. This is one of our few contrasts.

At the first bugle, we sit and wait. Our breath comes ragged and hard at 11,000 feet. The crisp morning air burns your lungs. We wait all year thinking we know what's coming and try to anticipate it with preparation, but it's never this physically raw your mind. A break is needed, and time can be an ally.

I'm a long-time fire department guy. The first rule taught to every new cadet is to slow down, don't do stupid things twice. I've adopted this rule into everything. It's good advice and works great for things like running into burning houses and handling heart attacks, or peeing on an electric fence when you're six years old (advice I needed sooner in life). 

Now, I like to give calling and even a single set up 45 minutes to an hour. It's 10:00 a.m. The elk is still bugling in the distance. So we start feeling him out, tenderly approaching him, trying to get some idea on location in the dense tangle of trees with simple high shrill location bugles. It takes him a few minutes, maybe 15 or so.

He's still there. 

I check the wind and grimace, rolling my shoulders back in frustration. It's going the wrong way. The thermals should have shifted by now.

My primary concern has become the draft by moving up in elevation to him. Forced, we put in more climbing and effort, we slide over to the ridgeline. Here the wind will pull to the center of it, helping manage our scent. We took this route early, hoping to get elevated and anticipate the thermals before arriving at the main hunting area. Unfortunately, that original plan won't work with the unpredictable wind today. 

We can slide back over once we get at least even or preferably above him in elevation. Years of screw-ups have taught me that getting even or above works better for successful call-ins. He's responsive to just about everything. Bugles and loud cow calls used primarily for locating keep him vocal. But there's no pressure yet. We're still far enough out that he is just talking back.

Elk are pressure sensitive like every other living thing. Past 500 yards, I consider it an indirect pressure. Closer, and he'll start to feel it more when we begin to close that distance. 

Dealing with elk is like anything else. They have good days and bad days. Some are aggressive, others passive. They have moods and personalities all their own. So I have no expectations just yet, but the fact he's responsive is all we can ask for.

Once on the ridgeline, the wind is still not great, but it's better. The sky is overcast. An unremitting haze of orange smoke from the fires up north probably affects today's wind shifts. You can only see an obscured outline of the mountain on the pass close to us. We move silently up and stop. 

I look around, and there are two to three rubs in every direction I turn. Eleven, I count as I turn all the way around in a circle. We both make remarks about it. It's damn impressive; Elk rubs as far as we can see. It's the most significant elk rut staging area I've ever seen, and I put it in the memory bank for next year. Today is officially a good day; I'll be back for sure. I love finding these little pockets.

I throw out a locate bugle, and he hits me back—a deep, nasty response at full throttle. I always giggle at what we think Elk should sound like. It's supposed to be clean with discernible notes and classic chuckles. But, then, out here, a big bull can bugle like a possessed Sasquatch in mating season, an unreal sound that we didn't quite imagine.

I like this one — a lot. 

I can tell why we couldn't make him out at a distance. It's a very raw and primal bugle, nothing flutey. I guess him at 500 yards. Jon agrees so we push into the woods as stealthily as possible. My goal is two hundred yards or less. I want to get inside his bubble before I hit him again. 

Sliding in with eyes wide, checking our winds, Jon whispers a dreaded and urgent hold. It's the kind that tells me we're screwed. The kind we don't recover from, it's like watching something precious falling in slow motion. Finally, after what seems like an eternity in a mid-step freeze stop, Jon sighs and drops his head.

Jon says, "That was a big damn elk." 

Immediately I'm crushed inside, but I try to hide it. It's my mountain, my calling, my mistake. This country is immense, physical, and demanding. It's one of the few places in Colorado that's so big it was intimidating to me the first time into it years ago. Even from the air, I'm always taken back at the vastness of it. 

Mistakes hurt like hell at the top of a big mountain. He was on a rope us, and I just made a rookie error that I was consciously trying not to. That one burns me because I know better. Don't do stupid twice rattles in my head.

Jon and I tell each other we're losing some hearing at 45, so the new rule of saying 500 yards will now be a 250-yard estimate. It seems common sense to me. Going along, we emotionally recover and realize we're still walking in thrashed-out trees for the last 45 minutes. I'm again overly impressed by all the Elk rubs here. I've decided to call it "Rub Ridge."

Jon and I still haven't reached the original plan of where we wanted to go, so I'm still optimistic. There's an incredible amount of signs every step, and with so many tree rubs, it looks like they have disease from the ground level to 7 feet up — my new favorite tree contagion. We bust a raghorn that slipped in after 20 minutes up the mountainside. Maybe the raghorn busted us is more accurate.

Once to the edge overlooking drainage where we can see and hear, I let loose again. Five minutes later, an elk bugles. I breathe a sigh of relief. We just were granted more playing time, and the day's effort isn't lost. The early mistake is not as painful now. We are moving slower, determined, stoic this time, not making any more mistakes. There's always this invisible engagement barrier when you get close that says time to get serious.

We're in it. As we creep in, I can tell there's more than one bull. Maybe 3 or 4. We hear lots of action within the 200-yard bubble, and I switch up calls for the situation. 

I have rules, but they are general. Although I have made every one of them, I've also had Elk break them, molding my habits to start easy and work up if needed. I like starting with light-calling pressure.

Calf calls and bugling are my favorites in close quarters. Calves get away with murder on the mountain; no one pays them any mind, and the mature cows don't feel pressure to compete with the bulls. 

Like in turkey hunting, Gobblers never leave you as you sit there and yelp. It's the hens that feel the pressure, and they are the ones to leave, taking your opportunity away with them. Cow Elk? The same thing, in my opinion. I start light with my calf calls, and the woods light up. Trees begin to shake, and two separate bulls sound back. It is a fantastic thing to hear an Elk bugle under 100 yards in the woods for those of you that haven't been there.

The ground literally tremors, and trees vibrate. It's like a deafening thunderstorm stopping everything for a second. Jon and I share a look, but we know the setup we are about to make without saying. The draft is still screwy, going the wrong direction, but we can manage it. 

It's pulling down at a diagonal, so Jon moves ahead of me 25 yards as I stay put, pulling any of the Elk's attention if one comes in. I'd love to get footage over the shoulder, but we are killing today, not filming. 

Events are now moving fast, less than a minute. Jon draws back and holds, looking downhill as I can only catch glimpses of elusive tan hide, legs, ears, and antler branches that flash through small windows. It's been 2 or 3 minutes at full draw now. The anxiety is thick and heavy and builds into the final seconds in this make-or-break moment, seven years of waiting, time from your kids and wife, money spent. 

Expectations and anticipations. 

I bugle, and pine cones start falling out of the trees as a screaming bugle slams in, reverberating through the timber. Seconds later, I hear Jons bow thump sending an arrow, and all hell breaks loose in a collision of trees and dirt that I can't see. I scream a bugle hard the bull's last direction to calm the situation, and the crashing slows. More crashing follows. 

Then, nothing... 

Moments later, I hear death groans that remind me of a black bear in his last moment. It's a sound with finality to it.

At the same moment, Jon stares downhill like he's lost something bobbing up and down left and right, trying to steal some confirmation in the moments of chaos. Then, finally, he starts heading back with hands raised in what we both hope is a triumphant moment. Once he sits down, Jon recalls the whole sequence. 

A small 5 point at 20 yards, then a big 6 point walks up to 10 yards leaving him a full-frontal shot that he chose to take in the proximity, and with the lousy wind, it seemed the best choice in the situation. The shot opportunity was crazy close and likely was the last encounter to the day. 

With the wrong wind, it could have derailed at any moment. It's those decisions made in half seconds looking at possible scenarios that could go wrong, based on past failures. 

A minute later, the adrenaline slams into Jon, making him shake. I smile. A few seconds ago, he was Joe Cool handling the whole thing like the seasoned hunter he is. Now he's reminded in part of why we are here. 

At the same instant, another bugle, another bull, the one we thought we just shot, rattles the trees again less than 100 yards away. We probably just put a big satellite bull on the ground. I'm sure of it - I'd love to see the bull and work with him, but I'm confident we just signed up for two days of packing, and by the time we get down, it'll be dark. 

In an unspoken emotion and selfish thought, I'm comforted by an Elk left on the mountain, more to chase next year.

We sit in a reprieve for 30 minutes. Sure enough, Jon brags on his old bow, confirming it's the same bow he had last time. I appreciate the simpleness and the admirable humility that goes with not buying the latest and greatest being caught up with all of today's techy gear. 

Making our way down and looking hard, we find a deluge of blood on the trees and ground. Then 30 feet from there, we see Jon's 6 point augured under a tree with his feet in the air. 

We can now see a crash that fits what we heard in the final moments of passing chaos. We do our work to quarter and de-bone the meat. We are steady in our work, knowing we have a long way down and preserving the moment. Jon has me dig around and pull the arrow out of the kill, hoping to recycle it (yep, I think, same old arrows too, apparently). 

Good hunts like this are appreciated. Unfortunately, they come few and far between. I have 15 years before I'm 60. I know it'll be different for me in the future. Challenging hunts like this will be more demanding then. We'd stay here all day and soak this in, freezing time if we could.

There won't be enough of them. 

Maybe it's an awareness of working an ambulance and sharing in people's worst moments. I've learned that we all don't have tomorrow, so appreciate today, bathe in those good moments. 

The weather is warm. The view is irreplaceable. Camp Robbers watch over us as we work, sharing moments from long laid-out plans with a friend.

I let it burn into my head. 

Finally, we head back down around 3:30, glancing back at the meat hanging in the trees, knowing that we have a second round yet to go. Flashes of Jim Carrey's movie line, "I'm kicking my own ass. Do you mind ?!!" flashes through my brain, knowing what's to come

Five hours down, the last of daylight passes to obscurity. We trudge out, uttering profanity, stumbling in pitch black, unable to retrace the chalky outline I was so fond of before. Tree branches in the face and deadfall that tears at my shins. I know the trail is right next to us, but I'll be damned if we can find it. We are earning it now, crawling back to the truck on the last of our legs.

Once there, I slam an old bottle of water left in the back of the pickup. I ran out 5 hours ago as soon as we left the top of the mountain. I'm nauseous, my head hurts, my feet are on fire, and my traps feel worn - everything hurts. 

We get back to camp and crawl into bedrolls, feeling the exhaustion of putting it all out there, readying for the final round two in the morning, and maybe plans of the next hunt.

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