The last embers of our Colorado Mountain High campfire were turning to gray ashes. I poked what was left of the fire which had earlier in the evening prompted many tales of great stags bested. The others had long since excused themselves and gone to bed.
The dying coals sent offerings of bright sparks to the dark heavens above. Way off in the distance I heard a faint high-pitched whistle. It was so distant I questioned if indeed it really was an elk. Then, just beyond our tents came the rising pitch of a shrill call, followed by several deep grunts. No question, bull elk was nearby.
No going to bed now! I leaned back, then heard shuffling from the sleeping tents. Shortly I was joined by three wide-smiling fellow hunters.
For the next hour, the four of us listened the glorious symphony of mountain music. Best we could tell there were seven bull elk, some just barely audible and a couple sounding like any moment they would walk into camp. No one said a word; we simply listened.
The two closest bulls finally drifted up the ridges on either side of camp and into the next valleys. Grudgingly we went to bed, only to rise about an hour later to start coffee and breakfast before heading in the various directions we had heard the different bulls.
One of the bulls had a very gruff, gravelly bugle. I hoped it was a sign of age although knew that deeper, rougher bugles could sometimes be made by three-year-old bulls. Even so, I told my fellow hunters I was headed in his direction and planned on being gone all day long.
After packing my lunch I made certain I had water purifying tablets. Grabbing my Ruger 77 chambered in 7×57, I loaded it with Hornady 139-grain soft points, then tucked the remainder of the box in my pack and headed up the slope west of camp. I had talked my companions into setting up camp in a valley rather than on a ridge top. That way when we headed back to camp late in the day or packed an elk to camp, we would be walking down hill rather than uphill.
I left an hour before the first hint of morning’s light, so I could be on top of the ridge to glass both the slope facing camp and the one facing away from camp at first light. Having looked at topographical maps (this before the days of Google Earth), I knew there were several water holes in that canyon for drinking, but also a place where bulls might wallow.
It was barely light enough to know for certain, when I spotted my first elk, a cow. As it got lighter and past legal shooting time, I glassed another, and then another. The three cows fed peacefully below me. There was movement in the brush behind and to the right of them. The cows stared in that direction. Were there more cows coming, or a bull?
I quickly sat down and used my home-made shooting sticks as a rifle rest. Then I again started glassing the oak brush thicket the cows were intently watching. I could see brown-and-tan colored movement behind the screening of leaves and limbs but could not discern whether the source was a bull or another cow. The suspense was getting to me.
I reached into my coat pocket and grabbed my elk call, an ancient open reed, Burnham Brothers varmint call. I had recently read an article by Jim Zumbo where my old friend had written about calling elk, sounding like a cow or calf. I put the call to my lips and made a high-pitched “mewing” sound.
The three cows turned to look my direction and started making the same sounds as I had done. From behind the oak brush stepped a calf. I breathed a sigh. I had expected there to be a bull behind the oak brush and here was a calf. Albeit, I could see through my scope it was a bull calf.
I had, as a youngster hunting whitetail behind our rural Texas home, learned from my dad to stay awake when hunting, even when it seemed there was no longer a need to be attentive or vigilant. I was glad I had done so. A couple minutes after the calf stepped into the clearing next to the cows, a five-by-five bull appeared in the small clearing. He let forth a mighty bugle.
I was in a quandary!
Should I shoot this five-by-five or wait for a bigger bull? The five-point was certainly legal and handsome. At the time, I had only shot one other bull elk an ancient four-by-five. I was uncertain if there were more elk behind the bull, possibly a much bigger bull lingered there.
I had been told by a friend before the hunt, “I’ve hunted those drainages you’re going to be in for the past eight years. I’ve seen six-point bulls, but only a few and even those were relatively small racked. Hunting pressure is fairly heavy there because it’s home to a lot of elk, so bulls seldom get a chance to mature and grow impressive antlers. They do have access to really good browse and alfalfa fields. Any and all bulls from there are absolutely delicious.”
I had five days to hunt. If I shot this bull only about a hundred yards away and only a half mile from camp, I would have used my tag on one that would be great eating. I would have time to pack him out and properly take care of the meat. If I did shoot him essentially my hunt would be over. But then at worst, I might be able to go out with one of my partners and watch them hunt, and, maybe even do a bit of fly fishing for trout in the ponds on the property we were hunting.
Decision made, I pushed the Ruger’s tang safety to fire (one of the original Model 77s, not long after they were introduced). I settled the crosshairs immediately behind the bull’s broadside shoulder then gently tugged the trigger. At the shot, the bull bucked and kicked high with his hind legs. Before he had taken three steps I bolted in a fresh round and sent a second Hornady bullet into the elk’s neck, right behind his ear. Down went my bull. I was thrilled!
I watched as 21 elk ran past my downed bull; cows, calves, five spikes and two small four-by-five point bulls.
At the bull’s side, I attached my tag on his antlers. Then I stepped back and admired my bull. Based on body size and a quick look at his teeth I estimated him to be a three-year-old. He was well-fleshed and fat, seemingly not effected by the rigors of the recent rut. I set my camera on self-timer, aligned it on my back pack and took several photos. Next, I tied several pieces of orange flagging on his antlers and began the field dressing. I opened him up all the way to his lower jaw to allow the neck to start cooling, then propped open the body cavity after positioning him on his back. The temperature was about four degrees below freezing.
I took one of my empty 7×57 cases, put one of my business cards in it then made a small incision in the ruff part of his neck. Next, I pushed the case under the skin where it would not be obvious. This way, if for some reason someone removed my license tag and put their tag on my bull, I could prove the bull was indeed mine.
I removed the inside tenders and put them with the better part of the liver in a plastic bag, dropped both into my pack and headed back to camp. I would return later with a packboard I had brought with me for packing out elk.
In camp, I cleaned and sliced the liver, then poured some milk in two different zip-lock bags. I put sliced liver in one and the tenders in the other. Later that evening I planned on preparing both for supper.
Over several trips, I packed my elk to camp. I finished the last load just as the other hunters were returning to camp. Shortly thereafter I had supper ready, grilled elk tenders, fried liver and onions, plus vegetables and a salad.
No one other than me had seen a legal bull.
Next morning, I packed my elk into my pickup and drove to a meat processor in the nearest town. The following day, with my Ruger locked in my vehicle, I spent the mornings hunting with a friend. That afternoon, I fished a couple of the trout-stocked lakes. The rest of the time I spent cooking, so when my hunting partners came back to camp a hot meal was waiting for them. Each remaining day in camp thereafter was a repeat.
Did I make the right decision shooting the first legal bull elk I saw opening morning? Let me put it this way: I put a delicious elk in the freezer, a nice five-by-five elk rack on the wall, truly enjoyed my other mornings hunting with my friends and catching good-eating trout in the afternoons. At hunt’s end, I shared my elk with the others in camp. No one else saw a legal bull, only cows, calves and spikes. I would say I definitely made the right decision.
That hunt took place years ago. Since, I have hunted elk many times in several states as well as Canadian provinces. On those hunts, I took some truly impressive, big six-by-six bull elk. Those too, provided some extremely good-tasting venison as well as impressive antlers for the wall to help me recall each of those fabulous hunts, and even those where I did not shoot an elk. One year I got really lucky. I hunted elk in three states with my handguns, and harvested three great seven-by-sevens bulls
Soon I will be on another elk hunt, this time in New Mexico with my old friend Tim Barraclough and his Kiowa Hunting Services. Actually, I’m not hunting personally; DSC’s Trailing the Hunter’s Moon television show co-host Blake Barnett will be doing the hunting with his Ruger Model 77 FTW Hunter in .300 Win Mag, topped with a Trijicon and shooting Hornady ammo. I will be on the hunt to help Blake find a bull and provide moral support.
I will also be the skinner and caper to get Blake’s elk ready to be shipped to The Wildlife Gallery. I’ll also be carrying a Convergent Hunting Solutions’ Bullet HP to call coyotes. Too, I’ll be there to remind Blake what he and I learned at the FTW Ranch and SAAM when he gets ready to shoot. We’ve got our Drake Non-Typical clothing packed and ready. Should be a fun and successful hunt.
Last time I hunted with my old friend Tim Barraclough was several years ago. I can hardly wait to get back into elk country with friends once again.
DSC’s “Trailing the Hunter’s Moon” airs on Sportsman Channel. Check here for air times.