The 25 Year Elk Drought


Well-known member
Aug 5, 2019
Bossier City, Louisiana
When I was 12 years old I took up bowhunting. As can be expected I had few unsuccessful years and I was definitely leaning all the things not to do as I went along, but was having fun nonetheless. When I turned 15 my dad gave me the wonderful gift of a Colorado elk tag and let me come along on his annual pilgrimage to hunt in Colorado. It was on that trip that I first found success with my bow as I called in a small 4x4 bull, made a perfect shot, and watched him tip over only 60 yards away. It was almost too much for a Louisiana kid to handle! Everything seemed to click after that and within the next calendar year I had killed whitetail at home and made another successful Colorado trip and killed a mule deer, and have never let up since.

The only thing that never seemed to work again for me was elk hunting. Over the past 25 years since that glorious September 2nd afternoon at 6:40 pm (it’s not like I remember the details or anything) I’ve had 8 or 9 other elk tags in my pocket and for a myriad of reasons, mostly incompetence, they have all gone unfilled. This year when I drew the tag I wanted I was determined to hunt harder than ever and break the terrible elk drought I was in.

I arrived in southern Colorado on September 1st, along with my dad, brother, and a close friend. Dad had only drawn a bear tag, my friend Justin had a deer tag, my brother had a deer and bear tag, and I had an elk and bear tag. It had potential to be a good week.

The evening before season we did a quick scout around to make a plan for opening day. Now being southern whitetail hunters we approach things a bit different at times than most western hunters and use a lot of tree stand tactics. If you’ve got the patience for sitting it’s highly effective for mule deer and at times even elk. We picked an area out for Justin to go in the morning that had everything a deer could want, with the sign to prove that they agreed. In the grey morning light Justin hung his stand and within an hour he had his first shot at a mule deer and made it count. Great way to start a week in the mountains and not too shabby for a first muley!

Meanwhile, I had settled on starting out in an area my brother and dad had killed a couple of bulls in previously a few miles from camp. Opening day brought no sightings or sounds from elk. I wasn’t really surprised, this unit seems to have low enough elk numbers that I am usually heading home wondering why we waste our time there. We’ve seen quite a few giants over the years but finding one in hunting season with a tag in your pocket is a tall order to fill. I did however see a bunch of deer and had 6 in bow range. No tag of course… To hasten this story I’ll jump to where I told my brother about them and he went to the same area and got one of the bucks I saw on day 4 of the trip. Tag #2 filled!

My dad who just turned 65 on Saturday had taken the strategy of hanging a stand by Justin’s gut pile from day one. He spent his mornings lounging around camp and evenings patiently waiting for a bear to put a tag on. By the end of the week he had only seen one blonde sow with 2 cubs, so his bear tag went unfilled. Here she is but I don’t have a pic with her furry brown fuzzball cubs.

I’ve got to stop and handle some work stuff, I’ll get back soon as I can to complete this little write up…
Now back to the elk hunting part of this story…

I mentioned earlier we use a lot of tree stands. There is one area in particular where the relatively rolling flat tops of the mountain were logged years ago leaving grassy open parks on the flats that drop off to steep slopes of thick timber on the north. As you might guess the elk spend a lot of the night and early morning on the tops in the knee deep grass and as soon as the thermals start rising they drop into the hell holes off the north slopes where no flat lander with sea level lungs can get to them. The lowest saddle along the ridge is where most of the activity coming from the meadows travels through. Being the treestand man I am, I hung a set where several well used trails come out off the tops and drop through said saddle into the dark timber. The strategy was to slip in undetected and spend the first few hours of every morning simply waiting. Over the years my family has killed several elk doing this within 100 yards of my exact location.

After each the morning sit, I would plan to swing by camp and grab a late breakfast/early lunch and on a couple of days during the week I would take this time to head into town for a quick shower. After the short respite from the tree stand boredom I would then head off to another area with water and wallows and hunt the rest of the day. This early in this part of Colorado, the action is absolutely dead. Some of my family is hunting this same area almost every single year, and in the first week of September it is rare to hear a peep from an elk. I checked the wallows I knew about the first day I arrived, and it did not look like they have been messed with at all. Two days later, when I passed them another time, they had been turned into absolute slop holes with all the grass destroyed and mud slung everywhere.
That info combined with the locals complaining about the heat I figured it was time to spend mid day through the evening sitting on water. I know all things are relative but to hear people griping about heat in the upper 70s was downright laughable to guys who just left 100+ degree daily thermometer readings. In a chat with the local GW he even suggested I should be sitting by water.

By lunchtime on day 4 none of the four of us had laid eyes on an elk and long hours in tree stands or around water holes was wearing on me. I had brushed in a ground blind near what appeared to be the most heavily used wallow and from that vantage I could see another one 70 yards up the draw. On the evening of day 4 as legal shooting light came to an end and I was packing up my gear I heard a stick snap. Carefully peeking through the back of the blind I could see the body of an elk pass by at 50 yards away and head up the side of the mountain. At one point I could hear limbs clicking against antlers so I knew it was a bull. A gave him a few minutes to move on and I left as quietly as I could. This was a major turning point. I actually saw one which at times feels like half the battle when nothing is being seen by anyone.
Fast forward to the next day, I was pumped up, I had seen an elk so it was guaranteed to all come together any minute, right?! Once again I did my morning tree stand sit and then got into my wallow ground blind by 11:30.

View from the blind…

And the only thing keeping me sane!
After a full 7 hours of nothing at all the moment I had been waiting for arrived! I saw movement to my right as a bull came down the hill and headed for the water. The problem was he went to the wrong water. The wallow 70 yards away was more to his liking. That very day I had packed in a couple of trail cams and placed them on each wallow in hopes of seeing when the action was happening. I hoped he would get engrossed in a proper mud bath and give me the time to slip into bow range and take care of business. He didn’t. He just went to the water, barely took a drink, and was acting very antsy. It was about that time, I heard the first faint bugle of the trip, so faint to my ears that I doubted my hearing. Which is likely because I have terrible hearing for a guy my age. The bull I just knew I was meant to kill, quickly left and walked in the opposite direction toward where I heard the bugle. Then I heard it again, and knew it was real. Quickly as I could, I gathered my things and went after him. Once I got past the wallows there was a big meadow with scattered aspen and spruce that yielded a good view so I took a good look and couldn’t see him anywhere. I nocked an arrow and got ready, then I cow called a few times, after a couple of minutes of cow calling there’s was no response. I have seen enough of you guys that know what you’re doing on YouTube so just copied what real elk hunters apparently do! I grabbed a limb and started raking a spruce, giving it a generally undeserved beat down, and gave a lazy non-intimidating bugle, then a few more cow calls. To my great surprise, out of nowhere, the bull showed up on the other side of the big meadow and was trotting directly at me! Was this was seriously about to go down like in a Primos video?! I drew back as he passed behind a couple of trees at 60 yards and he was still coming in hot! 50 yards, then 40 yards, still coming. I was anchored and settled in on him just waiting until he passed into the clear shooting lane 25 yards to my left. A dead spruce was at the 30 yard mark and as soon as he passed that I would have a clear shot. My sight picture was perfect and everything felt right, except when he was passing behind the dead spruce I needed a couple of more steps to have him in the clear. That’s when he slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt turning sharper than a dang barrel racing horse. I thought I had the wind right but it just wasn’t good enough. Literally only a few feet from getting skewered and his instincts saved his hide.

Him at the wallow a few minutes before the time stamp is off by about 30 minutes

He ran out to 70 yards and stopped and looked back giving the loudest bark I think I had ever heard. I cow called and he started back toward me! After a few yards he barked again. Then again. Then again. Then he took off disappearing into the timber. I ran forward and got as close as I thought I could and called more. Here he comes again for round 2!! Ok, I won’t belabor all the tiny details but we danced around for over an hour until I ran out of shooting light. He must have barked at me no less than 80-100 times and wanted to come find that cow so bad it was making him crazy, but he never would get closer than 65 yards. He would come to where he should be able to see the cows he was hearing hang up. He didn’t see it, and didn’t believe it. A Montana cow decoy or a buddy to drop back calling would have sealed his fate most likely but I had neither with me at the time. All I ended up with was a picture of him on my camera at the wallow and a great memory of an elk hunt that almost came together perfectly.

I’ll really try to finish this up later today and get to the really good part I promise.
Damn, I havent gotten close to a mule deer yet this year and he smokes one with an ol stick and string! Awesome! Excited for the rest of the story
He makes it look easy, he’s one of those weirdos hanging around from trees in a saddle all the time. There were way more deer this year than usual, I had them coming in bow range every time I turned around. Here’s the buck he shot, that I couldn’t shoot due to lack of a tag. I counted coup on him with a camera on day one
He must have barked at me no less than 80-100 times and wanted to come find that cow so bad it was making him crazy, but he never would get closer than 65 yards.
I had a near identical experience this past Saturday!
Day 6 was dead as it could be. I saw one small muley all day and by the time the sun set I was about as low as it was.

The next day was the last day to hunt and based on historical precedent I figured this would yet again be another unfilled elk tag for the worst elk hunter in the world. Once I make a plan unless I see something better to do I stick to it pretty doggedly. Now we know the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting different results or something like that. But I am that guy. Day 7 I would work my hunt plan like usual except I was going to hunt a different area in the afternoon that my brother had found lots of sign in, if a treestand miracle didn’t happen in the morning.

I did not want to go to my unproductive tree stand location. Not an elk seen all week from there and it was getting in my head making me crazy. In the past few years, there had been two different hunts, where my dad and brother had sat there seeing nothing also, and the day they decided to leave and go elsewhere, guess what showed up on the trail cameras they had stuck out?if you guess several bull elk, you’d be correct. I did not have any cameras out here this year but they were encouraging me, “Do not leave that spot, as soon as you do, there will be a bull come by without you to stop him and you will regret it!“ So I got up on Friday morning and sat.

Bored and miserable is how day 7 started. To make matters worse I forgot my phone at camp and couldn’t even browse through all the threads of HuntTalkers who were actually successful. It felt like it must be noon already but by the location of the sun I knew it couldn’t be past 8 am when I decided to have a snack. I stood up and was digging for me PB crackers when movement on the ridge line 75 yards away caught my eye. It was a cow elk walking lengthways down the ridge. Followed by a calf. The another cow, then another. There were 6-7 cows strung out in a line. I haven’t seen that many elk in this unit in several years combined, much less in one herd. With that many cows I knew there had to be a bull close by somewhere. Then I saw him. One glance told me all I needed to know. It was a bull. And that fact did not even matter, it’s the last day on an either sex tag and I have a mostly empty freezer at home whoever presented a shot was getting it. All I could do was stare in disbelief as they dropped toward me on the ridge and the the lead cow turned downhill coming in my direction. Not exactly my direction but downhill. They had something in mind because they were moving quick. The first 3 cows passed 40 yards out offering no shots, and passed quickly downhill through the timber and out of sight in seconds it seemed. The next cows in the line passed closer and went through a gap in the trees 30 yards away. I had my bow in my hand now and had come to full draw almost mechanically. The bull was coming last and I planned to stop him and shoot when he crossed through the 30 yard opening. His rack bought him a few extra seconds to live. He was zig zagging his way down the hill to get his head between the trees, not taking a straight line like the cows. He cut back up behind some trees and didn’t pass though the same 30 yard opening where I planned to shoot. I was a little exasperated at this, but the last cows hit a cross trail and walked straight toward me stopping only 10 yards from my tree broadside. I swung my bow and aimed for her lungs and the looked back up at the bull and still no shot. You know what they say about a bird in hand… I didn’t shoot it. I kept aim on her and looked up to the bull, he had 2 choices, walk down the hill and follow the first cows, or hit the cross trail and come to me. If he crossed downward over the trail that would bring him to me, the cow at 10 yards was going to get it! All my hopes and dreams and prayers for the past 25 years of fruitless elk hunting were finally answered when he got to the trail and turned toward me. At a steady walk he kept coming and stopped at 14 yards just behind the cow.
I shifted my aim toward him. The 20, 30, and 40 yard pins were all buried in his vitals, just about too close to miss! (Nothing is ever really too close to miss!) He was quartering toward but I knew where to put it to get the job done and squeezed the release. I watched as the fletching of the arrow disappeared completely through his shoulder angling toward the back of the off side ribs. The cows scattered and he wheeled around and trotted up the trail away from me. Before he had made it 40 yards I gave an our cow call at him and he stopped and looked over his shoulder. By now he was weak in the knees but he turned around and wobbled his way back towards me. At only 25 yards away he stopped again, the went to his knees and rolled belly up. The 25 year elk drought had ended in spectacular fashion! The funny thing is, I still had barely looked at his rack. Antlers have a funny way of making people do ignorant stuff, so I have always made it a policy to make a decision to kill it, or not, and then do not look at the antlers again!

After a few minutes I climbed down in surreal disbelief and went to place a tag on him before going to get the guys in camp for pictures and pack out work. I was overwhelmed by the mass as my fingers couldn’t wrap around the beam until out past the 4th point. When I cut a piece of my tree stand pull rope off to tie my tag to him I realized it was too short, I couldn’t tie it around the beam, I needed to cut a longer one! If I got a bull every year for the rest of my life this experience is one that I can promise you will always rank near the top. The waiting makes you appreciate things so much more than if it had come easy. I’m forever grateful for the experience. 8 packs later we had the meat, cape and head back to the truck.

Shooting elk from a tree stand is not conventional, but if you are open minded and use the skills you have, and it ends in the results you want, get after it! I’ve got enough points for deer so I guess I’ll go back after them next year. I don’t get too wrapped up in score on anything, but after I got home I got curious to see what he was and came up with a rough score of 317”. And to think I was a few seconds away from shooting that cow! Hopefully the next elk will not be a 25 year wait!



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