By Craig Klein
My story starts 3-4 years ago when a buddy of mine, Sam stated “we should go on a freelance archery elk hunt.” I had recently taken my first archery mule deer on public land in South Dakota and had truly been bitten by the western hunting bug, so it did not take a whole lot of convincing on Sam’s part to talk me into heading to the mountains to chase elk.
I own and run a large, successful dog training facility where we primarily train hunting dogs. It is a great job, but it really ties me down. Luckily, I am to the point in my life, career, and financially, where I am finally able to get away occasionally and pursue some of my dreams. Chasing elk in the mountains had always been a dream of mine and I honestly did not know if I would ever get a chance to experience it. So, when this opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance. Anyone who knows me knows that when I decide to do something I am all in. Being kind of OCD I began to study as much elk hunting content as possible, mostly through podcast because I could listen to them while I worked training dogs. I worked diligently on my calling, studied maps, worked out and knew I was a pretty good shot. I thought I was very prepared and had a great game plan, but you know what they say about plans and getting punched in the mouth.
When we arrived at our chosen hunting area in central Montana, we were disappointed to find every pull off on this mountain road occupied by a camp; it was so packed we had to drive around until we saw a group packing up to leave and we pulled in as they left. We hunted hard for three days and never saw any fresh sign, much less an elk. I phoned Adam, a buddy of mine that had recommended this area in central Montana, he lived in the area for a few years. He said with that amount of hunting pressure we need to get deeper. Up to that point we had only gotten about three miles off the road and were just doing day trips. We were prepared to backpack hunt, so we packed up and headed in the next morning, planning to get about six miles back in.
We began our march up the mountain on that dreary, foggy day and would stop to locate bugle every once and awhile. Just when it was starting to get monotonous, there it was, plain as day, I got a response! I will never forget that moment. I literally got chills. Knowing where the response came from, we knew it was an elk and not a “Doug Flutie” as I’m quite certain there was no way to get to the elk’s location without mountaineering equipment. Soon after we managed to spot the bull, but he was safe due to his location. We made it to our predetermined camp location and set up. It was a wet and chilly night, so we were eager to get moving the next morning. We decide to head off-trail taking a different route and bushwhacked our way back to our truck. It did not take long after going off trail that we started running into fresh sign. We tried a few cold calling setups but to no avail. The adventurous path we had taken brought us into such rugged country that I was getting very concerned about getting an animal out if we were successful. We did get a couple responses and had a few semi-close encounters way back in there, but no arrows were released.
When we arrived back at the truck, I phoned Adam again, and he gave us another trailhead to try a couple hours’ drive away. Adam stated, “It’s a spot that the yuppies like to go hike but there’s typically some elk there and not much hunting pressure.” The trailhead was awfully close to a larger town. We arrived at the trailhead and my buddy had nailed it, lots of Subaru’s and no hunting rigs which gave us a good chuckle. We decided to go off-trail right from the trailhead and quickly started noticing fresh sign which was reassuring. We were only about a quarter mile in when I let out a locate bugle, shockingly we got a faint response! We quickly closed the distance, heading toward were we thought the bull was located. We quickly set up and started a calling sequence. We were about ten minutes into our calling scenario when my eye caught a flash of movement quartering down the mountain in our direction. It was an elk! Which was exciting, but the spike bull was moving at a very fast pace and seemed spooked and continued his way down the mountain without offering a shot opportunity.
Hoping that a bigger bull was the reason for the spike bull’s hasty departure, we continued our calling scenario. About five minutes later a hunter came over the ridge where we had heard the bugle. To this day I am not sure what exactly happened during that encounter. We moved on, there was good sign in the area but there were no more sightings. The rest of the trip was uneventful, and we ended up eating that horrible tasting tag soup in MT; it was bittersweet. Aside from learning a ton, the biggest take away from this trip was I decided elk hunting is something I’m going to do every year barring an act of God. Between the exhilaration of chasing bugles and pushing my body and wits to entirely new levels, I was hooked. I also made up my mind that I WAS going to be successful no matter what it took.
On the way home, Sam said he did not think he was going the next year, as he had a bunch of CO mule deer points he wanted to use. I on the other hand was already making plans in my head about next year, so I was pretty disappointed. When I got home, I could not find anyone that would commit 10 to 14 days for an elk hunt. So, I thought I was going on my own. The main area that we hunted we didn’t find much for fresh elk sign until four miles back in. Thinking I would go back to the same area, I felt I needed to find a way to get an elk out by myself. This led me to pack llamas. That is a story in itself, but that year I bought, trained and assembled a string of pack llamas. The next draw season I found out I didn’t draw a MT tag but Sam had equally bad luck in not drawing the mule deer tag he was a shoo-in for and said he wanted to go elk hunting again. So, I started researching Colorado hardcore as it was the only option at that point. I spent every night researching different areas on OnX, Google Earth and such but was really having a hard time deciding on an area.
Then one evening at a buddy’s house, a group of us were playing cards and the topic somehow turned to elk hunting. Two of the guys mentioned they had paid a trespass fee with an outfitter a few years prior and had seen a pile of elk and managed to tag a cow with archery equipment. This got my attention. I was not interested in going with an outfitter but was curious about the area they had hunted. So, I pulled it up on OnX and they pointed out the ranch and the areas they hunted. I said, “Are you sure because that’s all-public land.” They did not believe me because they said they never saw any other hunters, but I knew it was. The next day I began researching the area and possible ways to access it. It became quite apparent it was not going to be easy to reach this location, but I had my stubborn mind made up. After studying OnX, Google Earth, and Cal Topo. I located three possible access points but without being there, it was impossible to know which was going to be our best option; none of them were going to be easy. The other little wrinkle was it looked like all the main water sources were on private land.
After a long summer of training llamas, working out, shooting, countless hours of map study and tooting on my bugle we were finally heading west! We pulled an all-nighter taking turns driving, arriving at our hunting area at first light as planned. Thank God for adrenaline because if not for it, we would have been gassed as neither of us slept much, if at all. We drove to the first access point and found a locked gate. Lesson learned; not all roads on OnX are public. On to the next one, we ended up dropping the llama trailer to speed up the process of checking out this access point, and good thing we did because I do not know if we would have got the trailer back out of there. On to the third access point. It was a long way off the main road, but the mountain road was pretty good. By this time, it was starting to get late so we decided to hit a few glassing points off the road and see if we could glass anything up. We saw a few hunters but no elk. The good news was that this was a possible access point for the area I wanted to get to.
The next morning started early, getting the llamas saddled up and panners loaded with equipment and enough food and water for 3-4 days. The first part of our route was a little sketchy as we had to wrap around a private land boundary which led us down a very steep grade and then we had to side hill for a couple of hundred yards with very loose footing. I was immensely proud of how my llamas managed! There was definitely some pucker factor, so it was a relief to have that part of the journey behind us. Our route had us skirting the edge of private property for 3-4 miles all off trail. There were parts that had extremely thick cover considering we had pack animals, but we slowly picked our way through the dense pines and deadfall and then cruised when we hit the more open areas. Overall, it was extremely tough going, but the llamas handled it better than I could have expected.
When we reached our destination area it took us awhile to decide on a camp site. When we finally settled on a spot and got the llamas unpacked and high lined, we started setting up our tents. I happened to look up from pounding a tent stake in with a rock to see a hunter approaching. My heart sunk, but it’s a Colorado over the counter unit so you pretty much must expect lots of hunting pressure. We made small talk at first but soon I could tell we were kind of hitting it off, he was asking lots of questions about the llamas and said they had glassed us coming in and said we were some determined SOB’s or something along those lines. He mentioned that he worked for a well know outdoor company based near the area we were hunting. I offered to help pack out an elk if they ended up being successful and then he divulged some very valuable information. There was an unmarked trail that paralleled the route we took in, just at a different elevation. It did not make the trip in and out easy, but it definitely made it easier. He also said there were elk in the area which was a relief to hear but the main herd was on some bordering private ground. We wished each other luck and said our goodbyes.
That evening we decide to make a quick hike to the private ground where this big herd of elk supposedly resided. When nearing the ridge top near the public land boundary we soon began hearing faint bugles from the drainage on the private property and it didn’t take long, and we were able to glass a few elk up. It was a relief knowing there were elk in the area and seeing and hearing them with our own eyes and ears had us filled with anticipation. At that point we decided to split up and glass some country to hopefully get a game plan for the next day. I worked my way down a long ridge, stopping, glassing and occasionally throwing out a few low volume cow calls. The first hour or two were uneventful but about twenty minutes before dark I let out a few more cow calls and soon could hear some rustling and brush breaking about a hundred yards below me in some dense brush. They sounded like they were getting closer. I was also getting a strong whiff of what at the time I thought was cattle which were all over this mountain. I waited a bit and chalked it up as cattle. That was a rookie mistake, I took a few steps back toward camp and heard whatever was making the noise retreat down the mountain. I’d bet my bottom dollar they were elk because I soon would find out this location was a little elk bedroom. That evening meeting up at camp neither my hunting partner nor I had spotted any elk, but both of us had seen lots of fresh sign and felt optimistic.
That night while making supper under the cover of darkness we heard several bugles and the bugling continued into the night. Nothing better than sleeping under the stars hearing bugles, although every one of them got my adrenaline pumping enough to make sleeping difficult, so morning could not come fast enough. When morning finally arrived, I slammed some coffee and a protein bar, and we were off just as grey light was breaking. We again decided to split up and cover county to help get a game plan for the week. I decided to head towards the location where I had the encounter with the elk or beef cow. Upon reaching the spot I let out a locate bugle and immediately got a response from the bottom of the mountain. I scrambled off the ridge top to cut the distance. I dropped a couple hundred feet of elevation and let out another locate bugle and immediately he responded but this time was much closer, and he was fired up and coming. I was shocked how fast he had closed the distance and I needed to get set up. I dropped down another fifty feet in elevation to where I felt I was at his level. I was starting to hear twigs breaking and some cows and calves talking, it was not just a bull but a whole herd!
It did not take long, and I started seeing flashes of movement in the timber. They moved into a tiny bench area that was surrounded by super thick under brush, unbeknownst to me I had found a little elk bedroom. I had thought the elk were coming to my calling, but I now think they were just coming to this predetermined spot. I had toned down my calling at this point, but the elk seemed fairly content in their little bedroom. I had a calf wonder by within range, but it quickly retreated to the thick, little bench. At this point most of the elk were about 60-80 yds from me in the thick cover. I could tell the cows were starting to bed down for the day and I decided to do some raking. I raked a tree for about five seconds and the bull let out a monstrous bugle. Immediately I cut him off with a challenge bugle. What happened next about gave me a heart attack, the bull came charging through the thick brush toward me, there was a second I thought he was going to run me over. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, he stopped right at the edge of the thick cover, did an about face and quickly returned to his harem.
I tried several different calling tactics to try and pull the bull out of his tight little bedding area. After using a breeding sequence, the bull started trying to circle down wind of me and I almost got a clear shot but again he returned to his ladies. I attempted to slide down to the spot where I had last seen the bull, hoping he might return to that spot or possibly even be able to shoot into the bench area. In the process, one of the cows picked me and the mountain side erupted with the sounds of elk barks, thundering hooves, and crashing brush. What a great encounter, I will never forget the sight of that bull crashing through the brush coming towards me! Upon returning to camp, I learned that my hunting partner had missed a shot at a cow in a different drainage. We were pumped as our hunt was just getting started.
The next few days flew by, we ended up having to hike back to the truck to get more water and food. Upon return, we found out the guys that we had met on the mountain had knocked down a bull. Standing by my word, the next morning we loaded their bull on my llamas and headed for their truck which was very close to where we had parked. The llamas performed well until the very end when one of them got hot and needed a break, the daytime temps were pushing 90 degrees. Overall, the trips went exceptionally smooth, and surprisingly, I got back in time to hunt that afternoon. I put on sixteen miles that day and boy, did I feel it the next day. The following day I had to take it a little easy and recover.
We soon found ourselves running out of days. We had another close encounter with a rage horn bull that was again fouled by some cows. On the last afternoon of our hunt, we decided to drop down from our camp to a big mid mountain bench where we had routinely heard bulls. It was a tough and steep hike down to the bench, but we decided it was our best chance. At the base of this bench, we found an old, abandoned logging road. We were making our way down this logging road, we stopped to cow call every couple hundred yards. On our third or fourth stop I let out a couple of cow calls and immediately we heard brush breaking. I soon realized we had made a rookie mistake, both of us had our bows strapped to our packs due to the previous rough terrain. Before Sam could unstrap my bow, we were being stared down by a rag horn bull, standing in the middle of the logging road. Lucky the sun was at our back so the bull could not identify us but was on alert. Sam ranged him at 64 yards, a range I feel very comfortable at. I quickly adjusted my sight and drew. The break of the shot felt great, but the bull whirled immediately upon release and to my dread the arrow hit back and very high.
After a long exhaustive search in terrain so steep you needed to use hands ninety percent of the time to traverse, we were unable to locate a single drop of blood and truly felt it was a nonfatal hit. So, the hunt ended bittersweet. The nagging feeling of losing an animal was hard to shake but I knew I was on the right track in my elk hunting journey. We had plenty of opportunities to fill our tags on this trip. I was feeling confident going into the 2021 season as I felt we had located a good area and gained a ton of experience in a multitude of areas.
The spring and summer of 2021 was a whirlwind for me, my dog training business had seen a boom due to covid and I was working 80 to 90 hours a week most of the summer. On top of that, running kids to all their activities I was beyond busy. Before I knew it, August came, and elk season was right around the corner. Over the summer I had bought and sold a couple of pack llamas to try and upgrade my pack string with bigger, stronger llamas. My new ones seemed to be training well for the most part, but I had not spent the time with them that I had wanted to, and in the back of my mind it concerned me because my pack string was very inexperienced and hadn’t had much for training or conditioning.
Most years hunting season seems to take forever to arrive but 2021 was the exception. When I jumped into the truck to head west with my buddy Sam again, I could not help but feel a bit uneasy, as I was not sure if I was fully prepared and properly packed. The twenty plus hour ride west gave me time to unpack the crazy and stressful year I had just endured and gave me time to focus and get ready for the adventure ahead. We arrived at the trailhead later than planned; we were hoping to get an early start to avoid the heat of midday but the drive in took longer than we remembered. We got the llamas all saddled up, panniers loaded, locked the truck, and we were off. The first quarter mile of trail is very technical and honestly a little scary with pack animals. Straight down the steep mountain and then side hill on a very steep grade with loose footing to avoid trespassing on the private property.
The llamas were loaded heavy with ten days’ worth of food, water and equipment; we must pack our drinking water into this location as there’s no reliable water sources. We headed down the mountain and began side hilling. I could tell the llamas were struggling with the combination of the loose footing and heavy packs. Then it happened… the young llama in the front suddenly bolted causing the llama behind him in the string to trip and fall, he rolled once and thankfully the young llama was strong enough to keep him from rolling down the mountain. Our train wreck was far from over. We struggled to get the llama that had rolled back on his feet but managed to unload his panniers and finally got him up. To make matters worse, this spot had full exposer to the midday sun, and it was getting very hot. After picking up gear and getting the llamas to a relatively flat spot we had to go back and retrieve the remaining gear that was tossed all over the mountain side. Luckily, there was sparse sage brush on this mountain side that kept our gear from rolling down the hill. That incident to this day still makes my stomach queasy.
After we regrouped and repacked the llamas and took a moment to regain our composure, we were off again. I wish I could say the rest of the five-mile trek went smoothly, but it was anything but. The incident had the llamas riled and they were acting very spooked which is not normal. Just when we thought things could not get much worse, we started running into deadfall after deadfall which must have fallen across the trail during a summer storm. Some of these pines were huge, and due to the extremely steep terrain and super thick cover there was no going around them. Luckily, we had a good hand saw but there is only so much wood a man can saw before his arms turn to jello. Determined, we just kept slowly making our way.
We finally reached our predetermined camp location exhausted both physically and mentally. Unfortunately, the mountain was not done with us. We started setting up our lightweight wall tent when a storm suddenly rolled in with 30-40 mile per hour wind gusts. After a twenty-minute tag team wrestling match with a tent, we somehow managed to get the tent and stove set up just before the rain and hail started, during this time the temperature was dropping like a rock. It was such a relief when I finally got a fire rolling in the stove, feeling that warmth and finally sitting down, I could not believe how the stress and anxiety seemed too just melt away. My mind and body had just been through an epic battle, but somehow, I felt very relaxed and content at this moment. Even with the wind, rain, and hail continuing through most of the night, I slept like a rock.
We woke up to temperatures well below freezing, which was quite a shock to the system as the previous day temps had reached the mid-nineties. I quickly stoked the stove and crawled back in my sleeping bag. The tent quickly warmed up and we made breakfast and were on our separate ways well before daylight. We decided to head opposite directions and glass and meet back up around nine to ten o’clock. I made it to the top of the ridge that I was planning to slip along and glass just as daylight was breaking. I happened to turn around and look down the mountain behind me and caught some movement on the mountain side far below me. I quickly grabbed my binos and confirmed it was two cow elk with a young bull in tow. I quickly attached my binos on a tripod to try and pinpoint where this trio was heading to bed for the day. I watched them disappear into the timber above a series of small benches. So, I had a pretty good idea where they would bed down for the day.
I continued down the ridge and soon I could hear multiple bugles emanating from the private land that borders this piece of public land. I tried to block them out and focus on glassing the public side. I managed to glass up a rag horn bull about nine hundred feet below me on the large mid-mountain bench. I started heading back towards camp and could not help but notice the lack of fresh sign compared to the previous year in this area. I was concerned but, “Hey, I glassed up four elk the first morning which isn’t too shabby” I thought to myself. When I reached the camp Sam was back already and had not seen anything and he also commented on the lack of fresh sign. Still, we were both excited to go set up on the three elk I had glassed up and had an idea of their location.
We made our way over to the series of staircase benches that I had watched the trio of elk head into. Our game plan was to get close to the first bench and set up and cow call. We sat for about twenty minutes, but nothing showed so we slipped down this finger ridge to get within ear shot of the next bench. I sent Sam about 40 yards in front of me and I began a cow/calf sequence of calls. After about 10 minutes I could see him moving so I headed his way. As I approached him, I could tell something had happened. His eyes were wide as could be and he said, “Did you see that!?” I said, “I didn’t see anything.” Here Sam had two spike bulls come within five, ten feet of him. Unfortunately, that is not a legal bull in Colorado. Exciting nonetheless and a wonderful way to start our week.
The next morning, we decided to sit a saddle between the public land and the private property. There appeared to be some fresher sign there but nothing great. We got there a little before first light and the elk on the private property were cranking, almost constant bugling. Unfortunately, they were a half mile or more from us. We stayed quiet until the sun just started cracking the horizon and decided to throw out some cow calls. I started soft and slowly increased the volume. After about ten minutes I was hammering out the cow calls about as loud as I could muster on the diaphragm call, trying to garner some attention and it seemed like a bull was starting to respond to us. After calling back and forth with the bull, it became obvious he was interested, he was also closing the distance between us.
Unfortunately, in this situation there was no opportunity for us to move closer. We were stuck where we were because we wanted a solid one hundred-to-two-hundred-yard buffer between our calling setup and the private land. So, we just continued with the pleading cow calls every two to five minutes. The bull would answer us almost every time and seemed to be getting closer and closer. It was becoming quite obvious the bull was coming. Suddenly, we caught a flash of movement at the bottom of the little drainage, we had just enough time to get the binos on him before he disappeared. This 6×6 bull was heading our way fast! Sam and I were standing next to each other at his point, so I decided to beat feet and set up about forty yards past our current location to try to pull the bull past Sam. I set up behind a big cedar tree and gave a few soft cow calls. Immediately the bull screamed an answer and his choppy sounding bugle sounded like he was running. Sure enough, seconds later I could see the tips of his antlers coming up the steep drainage and as he came into view he was heading right towards Sam at a fast trot.
The bull closed the distance so fast that Sam didn’t have time to draw his bow. When the bull got to within about 15 yards of him, it bolted. He either winded him or caught him drawing his bow. We did get the bull to stop at about 70 yards with some cow calls, but he was in some brush. The gig was up, and the bull retreated to the sanctuary of the private land. I ran back down to my partners location; we were both super excited but also disappointed. It was a blown golden opportunity on a nice 6×6 in an OTC unit. Chances like that do not happen very often.
We decided to sit tight for a while and do some glassing as we could see a fair amount of country from this location. Sam spotted a huge heard of elk about a mile and half to two miles out. After looking at OnX we confirmed that they were on public land, but we would have to cross private to get there unfortunately. The elk on the private property had quieted down by this time, but I thought, “what do I have to lose? Might as well try calling one more time.” I let out a series of loud cow calls and wouldn’t you know it, I got a faint response. I immediately answered him with the same loud, pleading cow calls and he let out a much louder bugle. I thought, “No feasible way could we call another bull into this location.” I waited a few minutes and let out a couple of mid volume calls. There was a delay in his response but this time he was much closer and sounded like he was on the move.
Then, there it was in the exact spot we had first seen the 6×6. A flash of movement and this guy was coming at a gallop! I again beat feet to the big cedar but left in such a hurry I forgot to grab my bow. “No big deal” I thought, expecting the bull would take the same path as the last one. I just made it to the cedar in time to turn around and see antler tips and then a head staring my direction but stopped. He was about two hundred yards out at this point and about 150 from Sam. I let out a few soft calf/cow calls behind me and he started walking but was taking a different trail then the first bull. He kept coming and again I was hoping to hear my partners bow going off but nothing, the bull made it past him and walked to within twenty yards of my cedar tree hideout. Man was I regretting not grabbing my bow, I had a shot but no weapon. Lesson learned. The bull finally figured something wasn’t right and made his way back to the private property. Turned out with the terrain, Sam never had a real clean shot.
We sat there for another half hour and things had really quieted down, so we started hiking back to camp excited but disappointed. On the way back to camp we again talked about the lack of fresh sign on the public land and the thought of that huge herd across the basin was weighing heavy on our minds. We decided to give it another day and see how things were looking. That evening we decided to try and replicate our morning success but in a slightly different location. There was another small drainage that connected the privet and public land. This time I was designated shooter. Our plan was to set up in this thick saddle and do some cold calling sequences. We got as low in the saddle as we could without the wind getting shifty. My buddy set up about 20-30 yards uphill and behind me. We would both do some cow/calf talk and if an elk approached, I would quiet down and let my partner continue calling.
The evening started off slow, but as the sun sank lower, the private land valley began waking up with cow talk and soft bugles. We took a slightly less aggressive approach this evening with our calling, just using soft to mid volume cow/calf talk along with ground noises. After a while, some of those softer bugles seemed to be getting closer. About five minutes passed, and I heard a branch snap low down in the drainage. Sam was giving some soft cow calls and ground noises and that was all it took. The bull came at a steady walk from the bottom of the drainage. All I could see were the tips of his antlers as he made his way through the thick brush. He was not a big bull, but I was not about to be fussy since this was an over-the-counter unit in Colorado. The good news was he was heading for a perfect shooting lane and would cross at it at a mere ten to twelve yards. I drew my bow as he neared the lane and as he stepped into it, I did a soft cow call, stopping him perfectly at twelve yards, it was the shot you dream about. At that moment my heart sunk, this bull had split tines on top but lacked the needed brow tine to be considered a legal bull in Colorado. So, he got a free pass.
The young bull continued past me trying to locate the source of the calling when I heard a deep sounding chuckle emanating from the bottom of the drainage. Again, my heart started racing. He was making his way closer, stopping occasionally to rake a tree. The bull was still out of sight but a single tree that started whipping back and forth amongst a sea of still pines and aspens was a sight I won’t soon forget. Just as I was thinking I should be able to see the new bull, I heard the sound that all elk hunters dread… the alarm bark. Unbeknownst to me, the young bull had located the source of the calling, he had gotten within three yards of my hunting partner and realized he was an imposter. The brushy drainage erupted with the sounds of brush crashing. That ended our hunt that evening. We decided to head up to a glassing point to see if that big herd across the private was still there. They were and it looked as though their numbers had grown.
That evening back at camp I studied maps to see if I could find a way to access this area where that big heard resided. It looked doable but would require packing out and a fairly long drive to get there. We decided to go for it. The next morning, we packed up our camp and made the five-mile trek back to the trailhead. The trek out went smoother than the way in, but we faced some challenges. The young spirited llama was very nervous and skittish for reasons I’m still not sure of. It was a big relief to get to the truck. We had a cold beverage and headed to the nearest town to fill up on fuel, get a good meal, and hit the road hoping to get to our new access point before dark.
About an hour into the drive the pavement ended, and the gravel began. I was closely watching my OnX app to make sure we did not miss our turns but in the process was noticing that we were not moving very fast. We drove and we drove and soon darkness was upon us. I had grossly underestimated the amount of time it was going to take to get to this new spot. The rough roads had really slowed us down. After driving three plus hours on gravel roads we finally made it to our access point, and we were exhausted. My buddy crashed in the truck, and I just threw my pad and sleeping bag on the ground and caught some much-needed sleep.
We decided to take the next morning to recoup and shoot our bows. About 9:00 a.m. we decided to head out on a scouting mission. The large herd of elk we had seen should only be about 2-3 miles from this access point. We made our way along a fence line separating the private land from the public. About a half mile from the truck, we came up on a small but elky looking drainage and decided to let out a few cow calls and wouldn’t you know it we got a response and he sounded interested! The bull was on the private property but most of this good-looking drainage was on the public. We scrambled to find a suitable calling location as the bull was definitely coming. We quickly scrambled down to the bottom of the drainage and set up on the far side to get the wind right. We had run about a quarter mile before we finally found a suitable spot a safe distance from the private land boundary. Trying to call effectively when completely out of breath is not an easy feat. I let out a couple of loud cow calls and immediately got a response. The bull had made it to the exact spot where we had first contacted him on the other side of the drainage. I was concerned about the bull catching a whiff of our ground scent but soon he had made it past where we had walked and was starting to circle us to locate the source of the calling.
The bull continued up the drainage and was starting to get farther away, so I decided to throw some pleading cow calls back behind me and he finally turned and came over to our side of the drainage. He was slowly making his way toward us; I was set up to be the caller, but the bull had circled all the way around and his approach had him coming closer to my location than Sam’s who was twenty yards lower in the drainage. The bull was approaching, kind of quartering toward me and I was starting to worry about him winding us. Just as I was about to draw my bow, I heard the ever too familiar “thump-whack”! Sam hit the bull! I had seen the arrow impact but was unsure on the exact hit location. Sam ran up to my location we were super excited but a little concerned because neither of us were positive of the shot. We were chatting in excited whispers when suddenly we heard a loud cash about 150 yads up on the thick drainage side where the bull had run. At that moment we knew we had just harvested our first elk! You would have thought we had just won the lottery; two grown men jumping around high fiving, acting like idiots. The proverbial monkey was finally off our backs.
We decided to take up the blood trail about a half hour later, starting from the point of impact, even though we had a good idea were the downed bull laid. The blood trail was light but consistent. As we made our way up the far side of the drainage slowly following the trail into the extremely thick timber, we almost tripped on the bull before we had seen him, and again the celebrating commenced! The bull had died in a very steep and thick spot which made field dressing a challenge, but it was a great spot to hang the meat as it was very protected from the hot mid-day sun. I was surprised how quickly we were able to break the bull down and get it hanging. Between Sam and I, we’ve processed hundreds of whitetails which I’m sure helped. We decided to leave the bull hang and head back to the truck to make some lunch. The walk back was super enjoyable as I was content and proud even though I was not the one who had launched the arrow.
At 3:00 p.m. we decided to head out to the same area. We made it to the spot where we had first made contact with the bull we had killed. Sam was glassing and said, “I see a cow”. Sure enough, on the private there was a cow elk feeding on the steep side of a small drainage. Due to the terrain, we could not see much of the area around this cow without moving. We slipped into a few other glassing spots and started picking out more elk including a few bulls and spikes. We decided to sit back and see what this herd was going to do. The elk were very content feeding on the private land but were ever so slowly making their way to the public. They had been completely silent up to this point, but as the sun started setting, the cows began talking and we started hearing a few faint bugles and chuckles coming from the herd. I thought, “This is our chance!”
I tried a few cow calls, but that did not seem to perk their interest. The herd was spread out and some of the elk were making their way toward the edge of the private which led to the bottom of the drainage where we had arrowed the elk that morning. So, we beat feet down to the bottom of the drainage. I was designated shooter at this point, so I sent Sam about one hundred yards up the drainage. The plan was for me to call and get them coming, then I would stop calling and he would hopefully pull the elk past me with his calling. The elk did not seem to be showing any interest in our calling, I was concerned if they could even hear us as there was a slight breeze. So, I decided to run up to the edge of the private fence line and let out a few loud pleading cow calls and then run back to my set up location about 150-200 yards back on the public. It worked! I got a response and started running. Just as I made it to my little blind I turned around and could see legs and hear cows mewing. I let things play out but soon I could tell they were moving in the wrong direction. I again started with the pleading cow sounds, and immediately directly across the drainage, from a location I didn’t expect, a loud bugle rang out only 150 yards away. He was awfully close to where our bull from that morning was hanging in a tree! The bull raked a few trees and seemed to be coming when suddenly he blew out of there. He a had stumbled on to the dead bull is my best guess.
After the bull had made his hasty exit, I continued with some excited cow calls as this bull was far enough from the main herd that I did not feel he would have spooked them. Just then I caught some movement 90 degrees to my right. A rag horn bull was staring me down about 80 yards away, he had me pinned down. I could hear my partners calling but it was so faint and quiet the young bull didn’t even acknowledge it. Our stare down went on for about two minutes when he finally lost interest and turned and disappeared over the crest of the hill. As soon as he went out of sight, I slightly repositioned myself and let out some loud cow calls, and within seconds I could see his rack coming back toward me. I had my range finder ready as he approached; he stopped at sixty-four yards but was frontal and was staring down the hill in my direction. I readied my bow and waited for him to make a move; as soon as he turned to leave, I drew and let out a soft cow call, but the bull did not stop, so I called loudly, and he stopped but had moved a fair distance. I had dialed my pin to sixty-four yards and guessed he was at seventy, so I aimed about a foot high. The shot broke clean and felt great, my arrow looked like it was going to pinwheel him until the last ten yards and the arrow just slipped under the elk’s armpit. A clean miss.
The bull took off but did not seem overly spooked, so again I let out some cow calls and wouldn’t you know it, he appeared again but from a different angle. I could hear Sam desperately calling, but the bull just ignored his efforts and was zoned in on my location. The bull turned to leave again without offering a shot. This time as soon as he went out of sight, I ran toward him about forty yards and tried to throw some cow calls behind me. I could not believe my eyes when the bull returned for a third time! This time when he stopped, I ranged him at seventy-two. As soon as he started moving, I drew my bow but this time he came toward me. Since he was coming closer, I decided to not call and let him come. I thought he had traveled about fifteen yards closer, so this time I aimed about a foot lower as my sight was set to seventy-two yards. Again, my shot broke clean but immediately it was apparent I had misjudged the yardage again and watched my arrow sail cleanly over the bulls back. I take a lot of pride in my shooting ability; I have won local tournaments and leagues, so this was a really hard pill to swallow. My shooting was fine, but my distance judging was atrocious! I was certain I had blown my chance.
The walk back to camp allowed me to clear my head. I was super disappointed that I had missed two shots that I typically feel confident in. Still, I was also optimistic as we had five days left to hunt and had not even been to the area that we had seen the big herd. That evening we decided we would hunt the morning and then get the llamas and pack the bull out and get him on ice. I didn’t sleep well that night while replaying the shots in my head and the “would of” and “should of” scenarios.
Morning came early and we ate a quick breakfast with a cup of coffee and were off. We made our way back to our honey hole. I was throwing out some locate bugles and got a response, but it was a long way off. Luckily the response was a mile or two on to the public land. We started hoofing it toward the bugle, staying on top of a ridge. We went about a half mile and heard another bugle about a quarter mile ahead but on the far side of the drainage we were following. We came around a stand of quakies and spotted the herd grazing on the far side in a sage brush flat. We hugged a tree line and started heading down toward the bottom of the drainage.
We were making our way toward the herd, slipping down the steep grade. We were still about a quarter mile from the main herd when I glanced down the trail and could see a nice 6-point elk rack in a patch of aspens about sixty yards from us! He was oblivious to us even though the wind wasn’t particularly good. I told my partner to slip back twenty or so yards and let out a couple soft cow calls. As soon as he turned, the brush below us erupted with the sounds of hooves and crashing brush. Turns out there was a small herd of about 4 or 5 cows and calves and a nice 6-point bull. After spooking, they headed out in an open area and I figured for sure the big herd would see them and spook but a quick check with the binoculars revealed that they were still there. They seemed to be headed for a saddle that would take them out of this drainage, so the race was on.
We went barreling down this drainage and when we reached the bottom, I had Sam set up while I sprinted up the opposite side of the drainage trying to get within ear shot of the herd that was making its way toward the saddle. I set up just below a small rise behind a waist high sage bush and let out some high-volume cow calls. I got a response but was not sure if he was coming so I immediately answered him with some loud pleading calls, trying to sound like a cow that got left behind. He again answered and this time he sounded a little closer and I could tell he was running by the choppy sound of his bugle. He was coming to rescue this damsel in distress. I let out one more softer series of calls, directing them behind me and then signaled for Sam to start calling.
As I turned around from signaling Sam, I caught some movement in the timber and soon a respectable five-point bull emerged from the aspen trees about 150 yards away and was closing the distance fast. The next 30 seconds almost seemed like slow motion. The bull was making a beeline for my position. I was well concealed by the large sage brush and the crest of the hill. I hooked my release on the string and remember thinking, “This is going to happen; just keep it together.” My confidence was not high after the previous day’s misses. When the elk got about forty yards out, I slowly started drawing my bow behind the sage brush. He continued directly at me, and when he came to what I thought was about twenty-five yards, I slowly started raising up out of the sage bush. Just like that the bull hit the brakes and was full frontal. It was now or never. I estimated him at twenty to twenty-five yards and touched the shot off. The arrow struck the elk about three inches higher than my point of aim but dead center side to side, it still appeared to be a very good hit. Instantly, I could see the crimson evidence of a mortal wound.
I watched the bull run off with my binoculars as he disappeared into the timber about a hundred yards away. I was a little concerned as he was showing no sign of slowing down when he disappeared, but through my binoculars I could see sage bushes along the path he took painted red with blood. I turned around to face Sam with my arms in the air in celebration but, surprisingly, I couldn’t see him. Suddenly he popped up right next to me, he had seen the whole thing unfold. The first thing he said was, “That thing is dead!” which removed most of the doubt that had crept into my mind. We went to the point of impact and stepped it off; the bull was at seventeen yards when I shot which explained the slightly higher point of impact. We not so patiently waited a half hour and slowly followed the blood trail. It was the heaviest blood trail I have ever seen.
We slowly followed the trail and periodically would stop and glass ahead. When we approached the spot where the bull had disappeared into the timber, I stopped and glassed. About seventy-five yards ahead I spotted a blood covered aspen sapling, but then I noticed a tan outline about twenty yards beyond the sapling and what appeared to be an elk rack sticking up behind a big log. I moved a little to the side to get a better angle and indeed it was my bull! He was down for the count. Three years of hard work had finally come to fruition. The countless hours spent studying maps, practicing my elk calling, polishing my shooting skills, training my llamas, and getting in shape had finally paid off. It was almost surreal. My bull died in a beautiful spot; it was a sparse aspen grove with a few big pines mixed in. The sun was just starting to warm the mountain side, what a glorious morning it was!
We took a few minutes to enjoy the moment and snap a bunch of pictures. With two bulls down it was going to be a long day for us, but even more so for my string of pack llamas who were waiting to go to work back at camp. We made quick work of quartering and deboning the bull and got the meat moved to a semi shaded spot under a huge pine tree and we headed back to camp to get the llamas. We did not realize how far we had traveled chasing those bugles. Turns out the saddle that this herd of elk was heading over led directly to where we had glassed the huge herd days prior.
We decided to get Sam’s bull first, and we left the young, spirited llama at camp as I didn’t feel like dealing with any of his drama on this beautiful day. It did not take long to get to the first bull as he was only about a mile from camp. We were not able to get the llamas all the way to the kill site as it was too steep and thick, so we threw the quarters on our shoulders and hauled them a hundred or so yards out of the thick, steep area. We got our heart rates going but it did not take long, and we had the llamas packed and were heading back to the truck. It was a great feeling holding the lead of my llama string in one hand and a cold drink in my other hand hauling out close to two hundred pounds of elk quarters and trim. Within an hour and a half, we were back at the truck and in no time, we were headed back in to retrieve my bull.
My bull was two-three miles from our camp, but luckily there were rather good trails the whole way. The trails were nice, but we had some big elevation changes along the route. We made great time on the way there. We quickly loaded the llamas and started heading back. The first part of the trail back was downhill, and we had not gone one hundred yards when one of the llamas laid down. “Oh great” I thought, “this is going to be a long pack out with about 600 feet of steep elevation gain coming up.” Upon farther examination the llamas pack had slipped forward, so after a quick readjustment we were back on route. The trek up the hill was tough but we took a few breaks along the way to give us and the llamas a breather. We made it to the top of the ridge without any issues and cruised the rest of the way back to the truck.
Upon reaching the truck, we got the packs off the llamas and loaded them in the trailer. They had earned their keep for the year, aside from the young spirited one. We gave them some fresh hay, grain, and water. Arranging the two bulls into our available cooler space along with enough ice was kind of a circus but we managed to squeeze it all in. We had a truck load of meat!
With the coolers and equipment packed we decided to have a cold one and a sandwich. It was by far one of the best beers I have ever had! We checked on the llamas one last time and jumped in the truck to head out. Sitting in the truck seat and thinking back about the past three years and the struggles and failures we endured, I realized they were all part of this great journey from failure to success and how sweet it was!!