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Rocky Mountain Elk Adventure

By Steven Schafer

For the past two years, I have patiently applied to Colorado for a "bonus point" for bull elk, fully knowing that this year I would, hopefully, draw that coveted tag at long last.

My friend Ivan, who was raised in Montana, advised me that we would hunt the fourth season at his cabin near Gunnison, on the western face of the Rockies. The five-day season would run from Nov. 15 through Nov. 22.

Another friend of mine, Carl, had applied for, and drew a cow tag for the same hunt. We decided to drive out, across country, and trailer three ATV’s -- invaluable in transporting us deep into the hunt areas.

Ivan would fly out and meet us in Denver.

We left Denver Tuesday morning and ran into a substantial snowstorm, which dumped 10 to 20 inches on our hunting destination. As we crossed Monarch Pass to reach the western slope, we encountered a "white out" that reduced our driving speed to under 10 mph -- quite a blinding experience for a pair of easterners.

Once we drove the final 25 miles of off road, with wisely purchased tire chains, we arrived at the cabin and met our hunting companions for the week. There would be seven of us in camp, and the expectations were high.

The snow accumulation, coupled with the freezing temperatures, would make the elk feed heavily into the morning hours and would compel them to travel farther than normal from the security of the dark timber where they sleep most of the day.

The first morning of our hunt found the temperatures hovering at zero and the sky glimmering with stars I’d never before seen. After an hour ride on my ATV and several creek crossings, Ivan and I stalked a mile to a high mountain meadow at first light. I lagged behind Ivan, my lungs burning for lack of oxygen. Ivan, being half my age, could climb relatively effortlessly. He soon motioned for me to catch up to him as he peered up to the back of the meadow with his binoculars.

The elk, perhaps 50 to 60 strong, were moving through the quakies (Aspens) toward the refuge of the dark timber. I immediately raised my binoculars to my face and switched to my rifle scope.

"They’re 356 yards uphill,” Ivan whispered. “Hold right on."

I peered through the scope’s lenses at the steady parade of elk. Cows, yearlings, spikes in a steady procession, then a creamy coated bull entered the scope’s objective.

I had to shoot a branch-antlered bull, or one with 4-inch brow tines.

I could not confirm that this bull was carrying legal antlers, so I held up my shot. No other bull was seen passing among the trees, so Ivan, being of Rocky Mountain lineage, said he was going full-tilt ahead to cut them off, a half mile uphill trek that would surely have killed me.

I waited and continued to glass the hillside for more elk.

After changing positions, I spied another dozen or so elk, but with no shootable bulls. For a moment, I could see Ivan’s orange vest moving stealthily up the mountain, then lost sight of him.

Suddenly a startling shot rang out, the elk, running like ants to the security of the heavy pine and cedar of the dark timber. I immediately radioed Ivan who successfully dropped a fine 3-by-4 bull out of the herd. It was his 25th bull -- certainly a lofty accomplishment -- considering that I had never killed a bull on my two previous hunts, in Idaho in 1998, and New Mexico in 2002.

Eight years of frustration, and when I laid my eyes on Ivan’s bull, I couldn’t help but notice that its rack looked much like the bull I’d chosen not to shoot only an hour earlier.

Three elk were taken on that first day -- a cow, a 4-by-4, and, of course, Ivan’s 3-by-4. Everyone saw elk, and the mule deer in the unit, being in their breeding phase, were everywhere.

My hopes were still high and my buddy, Carl, had also seen numerous elk, but he too had not had a shot. On Thursday we would hunt together and work as a team.

We saw numerous elk and a "shooter bull" on Thursday morning, but they were about a mile away in a meadow on a steep ridge, way up the mountain. Little did I know that those elk and that bull would change my elk hunting luck later in the week.

But Thursday brought us all back to earth, as no one could get a shot all day.

Friday morning, Carl and I headed up the mountain to where I had seen that large herd on opening day. We had no sooner positioned ourselves in the trees when I spotted a cow elk peering down at us from the ridge. The wind was right and she could not smell us -- and at 356 yards, basically ignored us.

Soon, four more elk joined her: a spike bull, three cows and a yearling cow. As they fed on the sage, they angled closer and closer to us. Carl had been advised to take a yearling cow, because, though not as big as a mature cow, they are the preferred table fare, equivalent to the finest, most tender meat.

As I watched them continue down the ridge, Carl prepared to shoot. An opening in the quakies presented the best opportunity for a shot. Two large cows moved through it, and then the yearling, who cooperated by stopping.

Carl’s 30/06 cracked the morning silence. The elk stumbled sideways and collapsed.

Carl had shot his first elk, and at a respectable distance of 238 yards, the longest shot he ever attempted. To say he was a proud, happy hunter would be a terrible understatement.

When we returned to the cabin with the elk, we discovered that another member of our camp had gotten a nice 5-by-4 bull that morning, making for a successful Friday. We spent the rest of the day getting Carl’s elk to Gunnison to have it cut and wrapped.

Although I still had not had a shot myself, I was proud of Carl and happy to have helped make his hunt a success. In turn, he told me that he was going to keep hunting so that I too could get a bull.

Nevertheless, I began to think that passing on that bull on opening morning was going to haunt me, and my bull-elk jinx would continue into the next decade.

Our fortunes took a turn for the worse as Saturday morning was our worst hunt of the week. The only living creatures to cross our path were one cow elk and several mule deer.

My spirits fell, but Carl remained undeterred. He said we would hike up the mountain to where we saw the herd on Thursday and try to catch them coming out for the evening. It was a long hike and we started at 2 p.m. to allow plenty of time to battle both the terrain and the lack of oxygen. We contemplated stopping whenever we hit a flat or a switchback, our determination the only thing pushing us higher, where we knew the elk would likely appear.

Finally, at 3:30 p.m., we reached a flat ridge and sat on a downed tree to catch our breath and drink some water. Staying hydrated is extremely important in high elevations, and we were hunting in excess of 10,000 feet above sea level.

Suddenly, I spotted a group of elk exiting the quakies into the sage on the next ridge near the mountain’s crest. Immediately -- upon seeing them through my binoculars -- I spotted a branch-antlered bull among the group and scrambled to get into a shooting position.

They were more than 500 yards away and up hill, so I adjusted my aim, holding a little over the bull’s back.

I fired, but my luck did not change. Finally, I got a shot, and I missed.

The bull, not knowing where the shot came from, turned and moved 20 yards towards several cows. Determined not to let it get away, I worked my bolt, took a deep breath and once again took aim, this time holding the crosshairs just at the top of his withers. I exhaled slowly and squeezed off the shot.

The bull flinched, stumbled several feet and  collapsed. Finally, after eight years, success! In utter disbelief, we watched him for at least 20 minutes to ensure he was down for good. I had my bull!

Carl and I determined, and later confirmed, that the shot was in excess of 500 yards, the longest shot of my shooting career. After about a 40 minute hike, my bull’s 5-by-4 antlers were in my hands. I was tired, out of breath, but as happy as any hunter could ever be.

The bull had fallen on a hillside, about a 60 degree slope. After a series of pictures and a round of emphatic high-fives and back slapping, Carl and I set out to finish the job. Carl had to hold his head and antlers as I gutted him so he wouldn’t tumble down the ridge. We then dragged him about an eighth of a mile straight down to where Ivan would be waiting to load the bull and haul him back to camp.

As we rode back to where our ATV’s were parked, I reflected on what I’d finally accomplished. I said a prayer of thanks -- grasping my bull’s antlers tightly -- and asked for a safe return trip to Maryland. My happiness was immeasurable, yet I was humbled by the awesome, majestic animal laying before me.

My elk was the heaviest of the four bulls we had bagged. The camp record of six elk had been met, but never before had four been bulls.

What an amazing adventure! I accomplished so much more than just getting my first bull elk. I further solidified a great friendship with Carl. I learned a great deal about western hunting, thanks to Ivan. I made new friendships with the other guys in camp. I pushed my body to the max and I made the most incredible shot of my shooting career, which began at age 10.

Not too shabby for a trip that was planned three years ago when I first applied for a bonus point. A Rocky Mountain elk hunt is a true adventure for any easterner. It is physically demanding beyond your wildest dreams and the country is totally unforgiving. It will beat you down and tax every muscle in your body. It will make you question your resolve. But, if you take in all the vast beauty and majesty of the Rockies, win or lose, you will come away a better man!

Issue 2.3: January 18, 2007