I wanted to share the story below that my great friend and hunting partner Kenny Barnes and I co-authored together. It details a recent unguided, public land hunt for elk in Colorado. If you’ve never done it be careful because once you do you’ll be hooked for life. If you have chased Wapiti in the Rockies, then you already know exactly what I’m talking about. I hope you enjoy!
My fourth elk hunting trip began like every other trip my partners and I have made to the great Rocky Mountains in Colorado; Many hours of talking, texting strategies, and contemplating multiple locations months in advance. Fitness preparations had been deliberately and consistently executed and a few minor gear upgrades were made over the course of the 12 long months between seasons. After much excruciating anticipation, departure day had finally arrived. Keeping tradition, we started our trek across the Texas Pan Handle at 0 dark thirty inebriated with the thoughts of bull elk, mountain streams, and steep climbs! My hunting partner and I split the time behind the wheel catching up on our families and reviewing hunt plans. We attempted to get some periodic shut eye during the drive to arrive in Colorado somewhat prepared for the physical demands we would face. One of the great things about traveling with good partners is the ability to not only split costs but to share drive time as to not lose precious days in the field (or away from family) due to the ensuing exhaustion that will be faced.
After arriving in the elk mecca of Gunnison we grabbed a bite to eat and kicked off the last leg of our trip which would prove to be more of challenge than a joyride. 25 miles West of Gunnison we left paved roads never looking back. As we traveled along our intended course, the road became less and less a road and more a trail where my 4×4 became a necessity earned it’s place in the garage upon our return home. We crawled about 18 miles as a crow flies in around three hours to reach Eagle Mountain Outfitter’s base camp. After traveling the road I now understand why tire chains were a must have at elevations (in the event of snow).
At base camp we could barely contain our excitement. It was a large wall tent elevated on a wooden platform and would prove to have many luxuries and amenities compared to where we would be for the following 7 days. We studied maps, practiced glassing the area (even though we wouldn’t be hunting there), and gathered intel from the outfitter. We would be hunting 100% public land during this trip and the next morning was the second rifle season opener. Once we were dropped off it would only be us and nature, just what we needed to reinvigorate our primal souls. As we awoke on opening day we gathered all our required belongings that had been carefully weighed and laid them out for the ranch hands to place in the pack string. At about 9 AM we departed for our hunting home on horseback.
It had been 3 years since I had ridden a horse and nothing could prepare me for the subsequent ride in. We had trained for many months to be prepared to climb steep slopes and endure the hardships of elk hunting. I am aware of no training that can provide you comfort during an 8 mile horseback ride through the mountains. The only reprieve to the agonizing unpleasantness of a sore ass was the uneasiness provided by staring down the face of a sheer cliff as I trusted my life to newly befriended equine. As you can imagine I was happy to see that horse head back to base camp without me on it!
At our new home, while comfortable compared to the ultralight tents we have used in the past, was no Holiday Inn. We did have cots to sleep on, cooking utensils, and a wood stove but that’s where the high living ended. Due to the fact that it was a Wilderness Area all wood had to be cut with a hand saw, water was available as long as you were willing to drop 300 feet in elevation and then pack it back up, and space in the wall tent came at a premium. We would however not have it any other way. Once becoming familiar with the facilities we made a quick plan for the evening hunt.
Two members of the hunting party headed into Smooth Canyon to an area recommended by the outfitter known as the “bone yard”. It wouldn’t take long to understand how it received that name once there as they were told “you couldn’t miss it”. Getting to the canyon was unexpectedly easy as it was straight downhill. Getting to the bone yard, now that was a different story. If you are prepared for a 700 ft ascent in about 7 tenths of a mile you will be blessed with prime elk hunting as evidenced by the generations of elk bones littering the canyon floor.
The other two hunters, myself included, headed north from camp to our destinations. My perch was over the ridge next to camp. After 45 minutes of a nearly vertical 700 foot ascent I reached the predetermined saddle and dropped into the shallow meadow on the other side. The open, grassy meadow was encompassed by dark timber and had a tranquil, photogenic stream running through it. I was certain this spot would provide an elk due to its seclusion and lush offerings. My partner followed the trail further north out of camp and set up on a similar meadow with a good game crossing.
To my surprise, I heard no gunshots that evening and saw no elk. As I watched the sun set I was curious as to what my hunting partners had experienced and I was already looking forward to an Alpine Aire dinner at camp and the stories. I gathered my belongings, turned on my headlamp, checked to make sure my radio was on, and crested the saddle. On the other side my radio lit up with chatter like an auctioneer at a 4H fair. Apparently I had missed a lot of action as my radio did not pick up signal on the other side. I listened intently as the two brothers from camp (really brothers) talked about shooting elk! I couldn’t believe that we had elk down on the first evening of the hunt! I hadn’t heard the first shot. What took me 45 minutes to climb took about 10 minutes to descend. I moved expeditiously North on the trail to find my hunting partner and recover his first elk!
When I met up with him I quickly realized the task wasn’t going to be as easy as I had hoped (the fact we were elk hunting should have tipped us off). He informed me that he shot the elk, it rolled down the meadow, got up and ran back up the meadow into the dark timber about an hour before I arrived. He had cautiously searched finding some blood but intelligently decided to back out and wait for help. We immediately picked up the trail and quickly got the bull off its bed. The bull however did not tear out of the country after being bumped, rather he stayed a bit in front of us just out of sight. We discussed multiple times a strategy of backing out and returning the next morning. However, it was obvious the elk was hit good and was in no condition to continue forward. A swift follow up was called for and the decision was made. The 5×5 finally succumbed after a short pursuit and we got to work with the butchering process. The quarters were hung and we arrived back at camp around 11 PM.
In camp, we listened to the stories of the others. The Smooth Canyon bull yielded less than desirable results. No hair or blood was found. The hunter decided to back out and do a more thorough search in the daylight the next morning.
As a result of the late night, we overslept a bit and missed the first 30 minutes of the morning hunt. I decided to make an easy hunt since I was leaving camp late and sat up in one of the many secluded meadows north of camp. I had very little confidence in my set up which was confirmed with sighting no elk. I headed back to camp to filter water, cut wood, eat lunch, and formulate a plan for the evening.
In camp, I studied the topo using all the info of elk movements gathered from the previous hunts and decided on an isolated meadow North of the one the elk was taken in the previous night. There were several features including a creek, steep draw, and dark timber that should funnel elk that direction. On my way in I noticed a ton of sign in the dark timber below the meadow and creek area and was hopeful of a promising hunt. I got set up and waited in what I initially felt was a prime location. I liked the spot I had chosen, but I couldn’t get my mind off the long meadow I walked through before getting to my chosen spot. With no other reason, I grabbed my gear and headed back.
I found a good place to set up on the long meadow in a fallen aspen root ball with a few pine trees in front of it to provide just enough cover. I sat my Browning 300 Win Mag on the bipod and began scanning the surrounding tree lines. Not much was happening until 3 mule deer does walked out and began feeding where I believed elk would travel. I passed the time by watching them randomly feed across the meadow. Suddenly, a cow elk busted through the saddle on the opposite side of the meadow 300 yards away followed by another. I was elated that I had finally seen an elk on this trip! That feeling of butterflies and adrenaline was impossible to suppress at this point. I began to fidget as I glassed them trying to get into a better shooting position wondering if a bull would be with them. As I scanned the tree line I found him standing broadside just outside the saddle. He immediately started moving to my left to an obstructed shot and abruptly turned and started feeding across the meadow. I had ranged him at 275 yards when he stopped quartered to me. I ran through my shot sequence in my mind and the cross hairs were solid on him. I took the shot and the Barnes Vor-tx 180 projectile did its job and dropped the 5×5 in his tracks! I took a moment and gave thanks to God for offering me this amazing animal and then called for help.
24 hours in and we had 2 public land bulls in meat bags ready for the freezer. The hunt I had prepared months for was complete. The time spent preparing for all aspects of the hunt paid dividends and tag soup would not be on my menu. The real question at this point was what was I going to do now? I hadn’t healed from the horse ride in and I wasn’t ready to tackle another out. Rather, me and the other tagged out hunter made ourselves useful around camp by splitting wood, ensuring there was ample clean water, and helping the others search for elk. It was in this time I realized the true pleasures of elk hunting. As the days pressed on the weather warmed up and hunting pressure became less and less which had a negative impact on the remaining hunters chances of bagging a bull. However, I was able to take some time and think about my family, watch a few amazing sunsets, and accompany my friends on a few hunts to assist in glassing for elk. 2 members of our party came home with a tag in hand and half an elk as we always split equally what we harvest. It is a team effort and a team reward! Our hunts are not about tagging out, although we have had that happen. It is about lifelong friendships and bonding. We help each other stay positive, share information, and learn how to be better elk hunters from each other to maybe be successful in the future years.