My Last Chance Solo Effort
On a cloudy Friday night, I picked up Kenny and Scott from Grand Junction Airport. We were all very excited about our upcoming adventure in Colorado’s White River National Forest, and after a restless night, we hit the road for the High Country. With heavy packs, we descended from the 10, 500 foot rim down a mile and a half to what would be “Home Sweet Home” for a week. Nothing better than being camped in the middle of elk country!
Kenny and Scott would be trying to collect video for Reel Shot TV during our 7 day hunt. Our First evening, we watched a bugling bull from across a big canyon. The next morning, we were on a a screaming bull first thing, and decoyed/ called him in to 15 yards. Unfortunately, Kenny couldn’t get a shot through the trees, but we got some great footage for Reel Shot. ”Wow, that was easy”! I thought. Well, maybe not!
The bulls soon shut down their vocal activity, and we had one of the toughest weeks of archery elk hunting I’ve ever experienced. We did manage to get some great footage, but it was with a heavy heart after 7 days that we packed out without putting an elk on the ground. I shot back to Grand Junction Airport, said my goodbyes to Kenny and Scott, and turned around and zipped back to the elk woods. I would have four days to try to kill my elk.
Since the vocal activity had shut down in the drainage, I had packed everything out but my tent and sleeping pad. My plan was to keep that option open in case the bulls decided to light up again, but in the meantime, I would remain mobile and try different areas I knew of.
I jammed back up to a trailhead where we had seen a nice 6×6 bull come into a wallow. My first order of business was to slam my left index finger in the truck door! Oh well, elk hunting is about pain…I was just starting the pain early.
It was hard to tell if the wallow had been used that day, but it had definitely been hit regularly. Temps had dropped, and it looked like rain clouds in the distance. Not exactly the best evening to sit a wallow, but with no bugling from the bulls, I really didn’t have a choice.
I set up my SLIP System as a camo blind, on the leeward side of the wallow. I would have about a 30 yard shot if the bull came in.
After about an hour, it started to rain. I quickly reconfigured the blind as a shelter.
Rain soon turned to sleet, and then full blown snow. I knew it was pointless to sit the wallow under these conditions, so I figured I would go into the dark timber and look for elk. Knowing it would be sketchy trying to move over the jumbled maze of deadfall (now slick with snow), I reassembled my SLIP Blind into a trekking pole to help with stability.
I was ultimately looking for the bull’s bedding area, but since snow had now covered all fresh tracks, it had simply turned into a game of “hide and seek”. I tried both cow calling and bugling, but after I got no response, I knew it was time to start the long slow process of making my way back to the rim, through the ever-increasing wet heavy snow.
I decided I would shoot back up to the main trailhead for my next morning hunt. Driving up to the rim was pretty hairy, but I managed to slip and slide my way to the top.
The next morning was clear, with a blanket of fresh snow. Locator bugles produced nothing, so I decided to follow the first set of good fresh elk tracks I could find.
About 1/3 of the way down the trail, I found what I was looking for, some good bull tracks, a solo animal.
I followed the bull for nearly two miles. He never really appeared to stop for long. Finally, he ended up in a nice series of benches in North facing timber, so protected from the storm that I was unable to track him any longer.
I had only cut a couple of other fresh tracks along the way, so I was somewhat discouraged at the lack of elk activity in the area. I decided I would hike back over to our camp, bag up my tent, and drive to another area about 7 miles South that I was familiar with.
The scenery along the way was breathtaking, you just have to love the High Country!
Driving to the new area, I noticed less and less snow along the way. When I arrived, it was wet and muddy, but there was no snow on the ground. My plan was to walk down about a mile into a drainage I knew of, to a treestand over a wallow where I had killed two archery elk in years past.
“7 wallow” was the name of the spot, and the stand was named “Jeff’s Stand”, because I had killed the first elk in it years ago. Since the weather was clear, I thought it would be as good a place as any to assess the area for bugling activity. My plan was to give off a series of cow calls every 15 minutes or so. That formula had worked several times for me in the past.
I heard two faint location bugles down the ridge that evening. At least the bulls were sounding off over here. With no elk coming in to the wallows, I decided to go to the rim in the morning and try my hand at getting one of the bulls to answer.
The morning was once again clear, cloudless! I found myself at first light, overlooking the drainage where I had heard the bulls the night before. My calling efforts produced nothing, so I headed down looking for fresh elk sign. I was not too impressed on the west side, so I began moving out of the dark timber toward the eastern rim, benching my way through South and East facing aspen slopes.
I found an elk bed on an aspen bench, that overlooked a big area where I could glass. As I was glassing, a small bull fired off toward the Eastern rim…my first instinct by the sound was “hunter”!
I fired a bugle back, and soon heard a bull much farther away, with deep chuckles at the end of his bugle. This sounded much more like the real thing.
The “hunter” (still assuming) and the bull across the canyon soon began a series of call and responses. The hunter sounded like he was moving my way in response to my bugle, so just in case he was the real thing, I set up my decoy facing his direction. I cow called, and immediately moved 20 yards right…just in case he might decide to launch a 90 yard shot at me.
Well, they must have figured out I was a hunter, because they soon sounded off much farther away. The bull in the canyon continued to answer, so I moved over that direction to see if I could get a lock on him.
The bull was bedded in a steep finger of dark timber across the canyon from me. The area was reachable from the rim, but it would be pure hell getting in and out of there. I decided to keep that option open for the next morning. I moved back over the aspen benches to the dark timber on the West side. I planned on following the best elk trails I could find down into the dark timber, to see where they would lead me.
I ended up going down into the creek bottom, where I found several wallows and a lot of pre-storm elk activity. There was also a beautiful little waterfall that I couldn’t resist getting a picture of.
I could not get anything to answer my calls, so I started the mid-day two mile hump back to the top again. On the way, I stopped at 7 wallow, which was invaded by Moo Cows…the scourge of the Wilderness in my opinion!
My evening hunt consisted of running back an forth along the rim from West to East, listening and looking for elk. As the sun set off the Western rim, I developed my plan for the morning…which consisted of diving off the East Rim into the bedding area of the bull I had located on my morning hunt.
The South wind was relentless that night…and did not let up in the morning. I started by glassing off the rim at first light, looking and listening for the bull. Soon, I spotted a lone bull in a small opening in the timber, across the canyon from where he was bedded the day before. I decided I could drop down to his level and still keep the wind in my favor, if I stayed on the North side of the timbered ridge. I could only hope he would make his way over to my side, because he was virtually unreachable where I had glassed him.
As I carefully moved down the timber finger, I had to dig my SLIP pole into the ground to keep from sliding. The picture does not begin to do justice to how steep this canyon actually was!
Stopping on the way, I glassed the South facing aspen benches across from me, and spotted a couple of cow elk! This was encouraging, I was hopeful that the elk had finally started moving to the South facing benches to feed in the mornings…in other words, they were relaxing back into a “normal” routine.
At about 8:30, the bull let off a couple of locator bugles. Unfortunately, it sounded like he had made up his mind to bed down on the opposing ridge today. Since I was already committed, I continued down into the dark timber canyon. I had a good idea if it would ever flatten out into a bench, I would probably find water there.
Sure enough, about a half mile down, I came to a bench. I could see where the water came right out of the side of the mountain…and continued down in a series of small streams, marshes and wallows, for about 200 yards.
Finding no well used wallows, I decided to set up over the first good waterhole that had several rutted up trails coming in off the South face. I could think of worst places to sit for a couple hours, it was always very possible that something would move off the South facing benches if the South wind would die down, and it was definitely the closest water and timber to the elk I had spotted on the South benches. I switched my decoy cover on my SLIP trekking pole to camo, and re-configured it into an “elevated” camo blind I could use to draw my bow behind in case something came in to the waterhole below.
The South wind was still just relentless, and blasted through the timber and aspens. After around 11 AM, I decided I had played my last card for this area. I packed up and sweated my way back to the rim. I drove back to the Flat Tops where we had hunted the week before. I had a couple more drainages I needed to check.
I drove to the rim, to an area we named “the Rockpile”. This was a vicious canyon, but we had killed several nice bulls there in years past. Standing on the rim, the South wind was roaring. Glassing down, it looked a bit calmer in the lower benches. Oh well, no pain, no gain. I dove off the Rockpile.
The pond on the upper bench was a true testimony to a dry Year overall in Colorado. I had never seen it this low.
The allure of the Rockpile: North facing heavy timbered ridges, with opposing South Facing semi-open aspen benches. The creek bottom in between was littered with wallows. The perfect formula for elk.
I decided if I didn’t see an encouraging amount of elk sign on the upper timber benches, that it wouldn’t be worth going all the way down. After a couple hours, I was not impressed, and headed back up to the top.
I had one final card to play. It was now 4 PM, and I had time to dive down into an area we call “Rodent’s Hole”. There are a series of wallow-laden benches below a North Facing dark timber ridge, and this was the area I had killed my last Colorado bull.
The wallow was definitely in use, but it was hard to tell when it had been hit last. The damn wind was just not letting up; it would be difficult to hear a bull unless it was pretty close.
I set up my decoy across the park from the wallow on the downwind side. and began cow calling about every 10 minutes. I was getting desperate, I decided that if I could hear a bull, I would to everything in my power to get to it and try to kill it.
I shivered in the wind. Large banks of clouds whizzed by overhead. As the sun disappeared behind the ridge, I heard a faint bugle through the wind. I thought, “time to get ready to go mobile”, and got everything packed up and ready to move.
The bull bugles again…close! Maybe two hundred yards above me toward the timber. It was incredible how fast he appeared to be moving. I ran to try to intercept him, trying not to get directly under him because of the rising thermals.
I made a best guess and stopped. Immediately, I heard thumping hooves about 80 yards ahead through the timber. I popped my triple reed into my mouth, and let off a nasty challenge bugle. Then, silence.
Finally, I heard cow talk on the bench below. The herd had run around and under me, so I knew they hadn’t winded me yet. I popped open my decoy, and used it as a shield to move toward the elk below.
I soon encountered their tracks, they were still moving quickly down below me. When I dropped to the far edge of the swampy bench below, I saw a place I had never seen before! How could I have walked around this place and never seen it in years past. I was looking a vast meadow with a well used wallow sitting right in the middle of it. No doubt there were other wallows there I couldn’t see.
I cow called, looking for the herd. Suddenly, I looked toward the far end of the meadow, and there stood a lone bull, looking right at the decoy.
I cow called again, and moved the decoy around. I had his interest, until a huge gust of wind hit the aspens. The bull spun like a wild stallion, and bolted into the trees.
I had just enough light left to try to move to his position, in hopes he was holed up in the timber with his cows. I slowly advanced with my decoy shield out front, staying to the timber’s edge to try to avoid getting winded. When I finally got to the far end of the meadow, the elk were nowhere to be found. The wind had them nervous and moving fast down toward the creek a half-mile below. I knew I had played my last card.
As I stopped on the way out to take my last picture, I knew I was done. I had pounded my body for 12 days; I missed my Wife and my Children. Mother Nature and the elk had the final victory, but the rewards I had collected on this adventure went way beyond the act of harvest. I said a final prayer of thanks for the opportunity to be a part of this amazing place, and for having the strength of body and spirit to endure it.
Filed under: Hunting
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