Fifth time's the charm

mountainlaurel3

Well-known member
Joined
Feb 14, 2020
Messages
179
Location
SWCO
Apologies for the long-windedness, but I don’t contribute much so gotta share sometime!

My career as a hunter started when my wife and I moved to Southwest CO in the fall of 2019. I had no job, and decided somewhat randomly that I should try to contribute to the household by getting us an elk. Being October already, I borrowed my father-in-law’s 30-06, got an OTC tag, and immediately fell in love with elk hunting.

Since then, I’ve trudged many many miles in my home zone in all seasons trying to learn, but went 0-4, never having pulled the trigger, despite scaring a few elk here and there. This year I grabbed a second rifle cow tag off the reissue list in a nearby zone known for having lots of elk and more limited tags, hoping the greater numbers would push me over the hump compared to my comparatively lower elk/higher hunter density home zone.

That did leave me at a disadvantage, of course, as I’d fished and hiked in the unit but hadn’t strayed far from trails and creeks. I got the tag in mid-August, and my wife, pup, and I happened to have a long hike planned for the end of the month that would start with four days along one of the unit boundaries.

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I spent every morning and evening glassing from near our campsite, and saw a number of moose and deer, but not a single elk. Did manage to break my new personal record for smallest creek I’ve landed a fish from. I wasn’t too concerned by my lack of scouting success, as I hadn’t planned to hunt near the boundary we were following, and for much of it we were an impractical distance from anywhere I could get in my Subaru for an on-foot solo hunter.

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My only other chance to get in the unit before heading out for the hunt was the end of our hike. We had left our truck at the trailhead in the unit before hiking home. The next day, I jumped on my motorcycle (‘90 TW200 that still has the Forest Service sticker from its prior life with the USFS) and rode back to the trailhead.

That was an adventure in itself, as it’s less than 50 miles as the crow flies, but nearly 150 on windy roads. I stopped in the last town before the trailhead for a 12 pack, wanting some for my camping and some to bribe a passerby to help me hoist the bike into the truck, as I had forgotten to put a ramp (shed door) in the truck before we left for our hike. As luck would have it, within 90 seconds of pulling into the trailhead a thru-biker pedaled up. I gave him a beer, pitched him on helping me, then we miserably failed to deadlift it up, which for some reason I remembered having managed to do previously. We got smart, drove the truck up onto a big rock to get the tailgate lower, and ran it up and in with a head of steam. I also gave him all my snacks for his ride for the extra effort, ha.

After the bike was finally loaded, I headed back to a zone I wanted to check out. I glassed for the evening and again the next morning, still hadn’t seen an elk, though I did see a bachelor herd of nice bucks. I checked some other access points and made a vague plan about where I’d be opening morning.

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In the meantime, I talked a lot of elk hunting with my new boss, who knows the unit and elk in general way better than I likely ever will. Amongst other advice, he pitched me on checking out a different, closer-to-home section of the unit. While there would surely be hunters, he thought the pressure would be less than where I had originally planned to be.

My original plan was to be sitting on a certain ridge with good vantages at first light on opening morning. I figured, though, that I should familiarize myself with the spot my boss recommended before heading to my Plan A spot. Thursday afternoon before a Saturday morning opener, I rolled down the dirt road that made up the majority of the area’s access in my boss’s recommended spot.

I got to the end, planning to gain a ridge that would give me a view of some north facing timber. The road was quiet, with only a couple noticeable rigs. At the end I ran into a bull hunter shuttling gear to his camp on a side-by-side. After a while of seeming unconvinced that I was truly looking for a cow, he gave me some tips on where he’d been seeing herds of cows. I didn’t want to mess up any bull hunters, so I gave him space and went back to check a spot I had noted e-scouting that the bull hunter had also mentioned.

I hiked a bit less than 2 miles on a trail to a ridge that would give me a good view. Beautiful late October weather, 50s and sunny. Before even gaining the ridge, I spotted a couple bulls in the basin to my southwest. Glassing revealed a couple cows as well, all about ¾ of a mile away. This was October 26, but at least one of the bulls was still bugling.

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Given my complete lack of sightings of elk prior to this, my plan changed. I set up my tent back with my car and came back to the same ridge Friday morning. This time, I spotted a herd of 17 at least on the other side of the basin from the evening before. I watched for an hour or two, poked around the other side of the ridge a bit, then went back to the car.

Also saw this guy at bow range. (Shot through 8x binos).

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Repeated the hike again Friday afternoon, and spotted what seemed to be the same herd, again on the edge of the trees right at treeline on the side of the basin. The opening morning plan was set. I’d get back to my glassing point just below the ridge at first light, check where the elk were in the basin, then move in accordingly.

Meanwhile, around 2AM, the snow started. I knew the snow and cold were coming and figured they’d help if anything. It was graupel, and loud. When I got up well before the sun there was probably two inches on the ground, and coming down hard, the first good snow of the year. I got to my spot just before light, but the snow and wind were such that I could only make out the basin in brief spurts. Through one of those gaps in the snow, I was 90% sure I spotted the herd, nearly in the middle of the basin, just where it got steep.

I spent another ten minutes looking, hoping I’d confirm that I wasn’t crazy and had actually spotted them, but it was tough glassing and I eventually decided just to move up into the valley to the last trees closest to them and hope they were still (and actually) there.

I crossed the first meadow and cut through the trees to the higher basin. On the way, I was hearing bulls on both sides of the higher basin, but stuck with my plan to climb left along the treeline, glassing through the gaps. After getting to the edge of the higher basin, I spotted the herd again. By my OnX math, they were some 200 yards from the last little bunch of trees, which I thought I could get to using the terrain.

I advanced to be even with those last trees, crawled into a drainage, and snuck through the last trees to what I thought would be a good shooting spot. The snow and wind were still swirly, and while I looked around for a good spot clear of brush to set up, I moved around a tree, looked up towards the elk again, and they were gone. I figure they must have gotten my wind when it swirled their way, but how they disappeared so quickly without my noticing I couldn’t figure. I could still see two bulls, though, and they were closer to the south side of the basin, so my guess was the cows had filtered into the trees on that side.
 
Not wanting to bump them again with the shifty winds, I backtracked to the bottom of the meadow to investigate the other bugling I had heard that morning. Wandered for a while, didn’t find anything exciting, so around 10:30 I decided to head back towards the other side of the basin where I presumed the herd had disappeared earlier.

I again walked the treeline to the southwest, hoping the barely prevailing winds would stay in my face. As I got closer to the elevation I had lost them at earlier, I heard a bull bugling again. I was probably a quarter mile into the trees from the meadow at this point, and started moving towards the meadow and the bull.

I was moving along a small band of spruces when I spotted a cow and yearling on an open hillside through a gap in the trees. Just above treeline, but a bit East of the meadow itself. They hadn’t spotted me, but they were close, close enough to not worry about ranging. With the shifty wind, I wanted to act fast. To shoot through the gap, I needed to be on one knee, rifle resting on my upright pack. I found the cow in my scope, took a few breaths, and shot.

I could see that I had hit her and broken her front nearside shoulder, but lower than I would have wanted. The rest of the elk appeared (I had only seen the two through my gap in the trees), and were too close for a safe follow-up shot. I moved a little farther forward, figuring it didn’t matter now if I spooked them. The herd moved uphill, which left my cow behind, as she was still standing but not able to go uphill. This time I was able to be prone, and shot again.

She had been just below a little rise, and after the shot I didn’t see her. As I looked though, I saw the strangest thing. Just as I saw a cow’s head a little below where I’d shot her, I noticed that it was at a weird angle, downhill, like she was cocking her head. Right as my brain registered that oddity, she toppled and rolled down the slope.

I gave her a few minutes while trying to stay warm (winds were forecast to be 45MPH and it certainly seemed every bit of that). I got to the ridge and couldn’t find her right away. I wandered around, pretty sure I was close, when I noticed a weird drag mark in the snow. Looking downhill, there she was, my first elk, having taken a good tumble and slide before wedging into a small boulder.

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“Holy shit, she’s huge” is what went through my mind. I or maybe I said it out loud, not sure. I’ve heard that’s a common sentiment on seeing your first elk on the ground. And here I was, (later calculated at) 2.25 miles from my car, dumping snow, viciously windy, and alone.

Side note - a couple years ago I posted the story of my first mule deer and expressed (with knowledge of my foolishness) that I felt somewhat like I had cheated by shooting it where my buddy was able to come out on his four-wheeler to carry it out for me. It took another two years, but I would finally be punished for my hubris.

It was 12:30 when I got to the elk, so that was good. Luckily I had the foresight to practice my gutless method on mule deer bucks the past two years, but damn, an elk is so much harder. First I tried to see if I could lift her enough to flip her over the rock she was wedged in to an easier spot. Not happening. I could just barely get to the pelvis and spine, so with much effort and windblown snow up my jacket I got the top quarters off. Then using every bit of my strength I managed to use her front leg to flip her over the rock - and she promptly rolled another 25 yards. Definitely swore aloud that time, but at least it was in the direction of the trailhead.
 
After I got the trim, neck, quarters, backstraps, and tenderloins and moved it all a few hundred yards and hung it in a tree, it was 6:30, just after sunset. Yes, I’m a slow butcher. I brilliantly decided that I’d carry my rifle, all my day-hunting gear, a rear quarter, and the backstraps and tenderloins that night and come back for the rest Sunday.

The next mile or so was the most painful of my life. At 6’, 155lbs, I’m built for speed not heavy loads. Just getting the pack on and standing was horrible and challenging. Sadly, my body refused to carry the load without breaks, so I had to periodically ditch the pack (and then get it back on again). There was at least 6” of snow at that point, and I definitely looked like a beetle that’s been flipped on its back every time I tried to don the pack and stand.

After traversing the lower meadow and the trees, I decided my current approach was not wise and even getting unsafe. I made it through the last meadow back to the trail and hung the rear quarter there. The last mile plus was less eventful, but I was worked and had barely eaten or drank water all day.

When I got back to my car and tent, this is what I found:

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(Photo was later, but you get the point). Spent hundreds of nights in that tent, and no shanking was involved with its demise. Still, a sad fate. Guess there’s really a point to four-season tents, huh?

I was thus relegated to sleeping with the meat in the back of my Outback. Comfy.

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I started the car to warm up, drove down the road a ways to cell service, checked in with my wife, and called a buddy who had expressed interest in helping carry. He was unfortunately not available for Sunday, so I figured I’d do the rest and get out late Sunday.

Sunday morning I first went back to where I had left the rear quarter. I somehow then spent 45 minutes trying to find it, as I had hung it on a tree that I thought I’d recognize, oops.

By the time I retrieved the first rear from the trail and the second rear from the tree back by my kill site, it was 4:00 PM. Ha. Carrying the two fronts and trim in one load did not seem appealing, and two more trips that night would be tough. Cold front coming in just to make it more fun.

Showing more wisdom than bravery, I drove back to where I could get cell service and checked with the buddy again. He was able to come, and decided to drive to the trailhead that night.

I passed out before he arrived, and when I got up the car thermometer read 4 degrees. I tried to put my contacts in but the solution was gelatinous. Hadn’t seen that before.

We spent probably an hour in the back of his truck blasting a buddy heater (with ventilation, don’t worry) before making the last trip.

I do almost all my hunting solo, but damn, it’s really nice to have a buddy on a packout. Not just for carrying half the load, but just having someone to talk to and keep the spirits up really helped.

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In sum, it’s been delicious.

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Getting an elk is probably the most challenging thing I’ve taken on, as I spent 4 years and countless hours learning, researching, exploring, hunting before finally getting to taste an elk steak. So gratifying to finally succeed.

Also learned some valuable lessons, such as:
Elk are big,
Friends are good,
Water and food are necessary, even when you don’t feel like it,
Four-season tents have a place,
My physical limits are hit much faster with heavy loads,
Units with lots of elk make things easier for bad hunters,
My prior idea of a personal limit of four miles from the trailhead for solo elk is … optimistic.

Also, in prior seasons I’ve always avoided areas that are road huntable, so I think I had an unrealistic understanding of hunter’s willingness to walk. With elk in that basin every day, and an obvious marked trail going about half a mile from it, I would have thought others would come join me. Many side by sides came and U-turned in my parking/camping spot, and presumably looked at the meadow alongside, but there was only a single track in on the trail, and that one made it ¾ of a mile.

I told various other cow hunters where they could find ‘em, and not a single one was willing to make the trek. I suppose I get it, as the pack out was challenging, but come on, isn’t that the point? Does anyone actually get elk within a few hundred yards of fairly busy roads?

Lastly, thanks to BigFin and the Hunttalk crowd for all the tips and entertainment. As an adult onset hunter who hunts almost solely alone, this place has been a big part of my learning process.
 
Great story and congratulations on the fine elk! She will be fantastic eating. One good thing about the weather you had was no worry about spoilage!! The deer you shot where you could get an ATV to was what we call "cashing in a coupon." The elk was not one of those. It takes about 5-1 ration on being able to "cash in a coupon" so don't expect the next one to be any easier!
 
Nice write-up. I'm intrigued by your reflection on past lessons learned and how they've helped you on this hunt.
 
thanks for sharing. great recap.

much deserved elk, congrats!
 
Good job. she's gonna make for some great meals.

I'll pass on one thing I learned a long time ago. When elk are far from the truck, I don't pack bones. Especially the lower legs with hair. ;)
 
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Great stuff, congrats on your first elk! It will definitely make future planning more efficient to understand the field dressing and packout process.

I'd highly recommend taking off the forelegs at the knee next time. And don't wait til the next day to do it, just do it at the end of your process so you dont dull your knife and still have meat to cut, and the joint hasn't seized up in the cold yet.
 
Good job on your solo elk,the last one I got in Colorado was a little over 3 miles from the truck. I can feel your pain,but it’s always worth it. Congrats.
 
Congratulations on your first elk! Next time take that leg bone off at the knee and save yourself some weight! But seriously, way to go, that sense of accomplishment from truly earning your first elk is better than anything.
 

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