First Blood – Colorado Elk, By Russell Harris, DVM

I was, staring down rejection from a Wyoming cow elk tag and a New Mexico Muzzleloader Bull tag. My hunting buddy (Abbhudson) had done the leg work for the applications of those two duplicitous states, thus, I decided to head the front on Colorado to make the “3rd time a charm”. I looked up all the pertinent info regarding the percentage of Public Land, draw success, and that was about it. We just wanted to go hunt elk, damnit!

We put in for our top four choices based on Either Sex tags and the number of tags allocated. Low and behold, we got our 2nd Choice in an undisclosed unit in Northwestern Colorado. We’re going elk hunting! Now, this was my 1st hunt out West. Abbhudson lived in West Texas after Vet school and was lucky enough to draw a rifle Bull tag in New Mexico on his first attempt applying. He scored on that trip and had been jonesing to go ever since. He was gracious to ask me along. I guess at this point in time, he has created another hunting addiction. Thanks, Abbhudson!

We made our gear lists, did combined scouting using OnX, determined our Plans A through E, rucked around, sited in our rifles, fine-tuned our equipment, and in my case, bought too much crap! We assessed our never-ending work schedules (BE NICE TO YOUR VETERINARIAN!) and decided to head out on the evening of October 9th, drive 27 hours, and arrive with two days to scout prior to the season opener.

I closed up the clinic in Columbia, SC around 8 pm ET, and arrived in Guntersville, AL around 1 am CT. We unloaded my truck into his and off we went. We were in Illinois by daylight and in Kansas City by noon. I was excited to see the plains of Kansas via highway but ultimately decided that eight hours worth was too much.

About an hour outside of Denver, we made a good decision and called a hotel near our GMU to book lodgings. We pulled into the hotel around 9 pm local time. We had a near scare of having to leave completely as Hurricane Michael had made landfall, and Abbhudson’s mother experienced severe weather in South Georgia. Fortunately, nothing major occurred, and we were able to continue with the trip. We made plans to sleep in, head into town to purchase snow chains and extra supplies given the frigid weather forecast, and begin our scouting/camping/hunting trip.

After making our rounds to the local Ace Hardware and Napa Autoparts, we headed out and slowly made our way up the snow covered road that split the unit in two. We headed toward the trailhead closest to our Plan A and 2-3 hours later we parked as close as we could due to snow, loaded up our gear and headed out through the blizzard. We picked a spot about 2.5 miles south of the trailhead and set up camp under a very large coniferous tree. After getting camp set up, we were off to scout.

Our camp was around 9,500 feet. We headed east of camp half a mile to a near basin, and not only did we spot two nice mulie bucks together but also a very nice 6×6 bull. Tons of bull sign everywhere hiking in and low and behold, there’s a bull! We’ve got this wrapped up with a bow on it! But then after non-stop snowing through the night, extremely rugged terrain, the forecasting of worse weather to come, and no sleep through the night because we HAMMOCKED, we smartly decided to bail on Plan A.

We woke up that morning, packed camp, and four hours later, we were back at the truck and exhausted/famished/flabbergasted. We ran into some guys packing camp on horseback who affirmed our good decision to bail. We headed into town, ate a piggish lunch, and tailored our plans. We elected Plan C due to the ease of access, it was in that 2-mile happy spot, and we could truck camp from the trailhead. Our 2nd day of Scouting was a wash, but with the terrible night we dealt with, we needed the rest. Away we went, and we slept well. 

Opening Morning

There were fresh elk tracks 30 yards from our truck! Yeah, we’re jacked! We cut more fresh tracks on our way to our glassing spot and followed them till daylight. We eventually decided that we were chasing ghosts, and made our way to a trail that transected our initial trail. Around 11 am we sat down for a breather and to glass, a beetle-killed hillside. Five minutes into our break, 100 yards below us, I see a big blonde blob running diagonally toward us! Abbhudson didn’t see it and I did not see the head. It stopped behind a large tree and stood dead still for about a minute. I had a small window to the right of the tree to shoot through if the elk stepped into it. Well, of course, he ran through it. Slow enough to pick out that he was a legal 5×5, but too fast to ethically squeeze off a round. That was our exciting moment for the day. 

We bee-bopped around that area looking for elk and more sign but no luck. Saw one other hunter, who we later determined had bumped the bull toward us. The hike back to the truck was straight up a mountain and took us 3 hours to get back. At the top of the mountain, we were able to see the massive storm front moving in from the north. Though we were worn out, we boogied on to the truck. At this point, we were at the crossroads of a dilemma. The weatherman said that temps would be plummeting that night into the single digits in town. Meaning the negatives at the trailhead. After discussion through our Mountain House dinner and warm up in the truck, we made the decision to book rooms in the only available hotel 30 miles away. Seems we weren’t the only guys with the same idea. Luckily we were able to book for two nights.

Sunday was a hunting wash. Slept in late, recuperated, reviewed our options, and hunted some lower elevation BLM land. Saw lots of mule deer but no elk. The temps hovered around the mid-20s and the snow was coming down. We headed in early to rest with plans to hunt the same area as opening day. This was Sunday, October 14th, and the Broncos game in Denver proved to be the 2nd Coldest Recorded October home game in Broncos history. So yeah, it was f-ing cold.

Monday the 15th we awoke at 3 AM, fueled up our bodies and the truck and headed back to the trailhead. As we made way to the trailhead the truck’s thermometer continued to plunge. The ride was easy going, so we elected to forgo the snow chains. 300 yards from the trailhead the thermometer read -6 degrees. It was at this point that we slid into the curve of the mountain and got our Southern Cracker asses righteously stuck. My beard was solidly frozen within two minutes. An hour and a half later after digging, come-a-longing, and bitching we were at the trailhead and daylight was upon us. With the “frustration barometer” at the breaking point, we double-timed down the trail. Once we were within sight of the trail “crossroads”, Abbhudson looked to the east and on an adjoining ridge with open ground 800 yards away, he spied 6 elk with one being a legal bull. 

We ran down the trail, made our way toward the opening the elk were in, and already long story somewhat shorter, they had crossed the top of the ridge and plummeted down into deep, dark timber never to be seen again. We made our way down to the trail crossroads. At this point, Abbhudson’s bad knee was worse and his good knee was bad. We decided to split up to cover more ground. He elected to go to the beetle-killed hillside to glass the dark timber to the south, and I elected to go north of him to overlook a saddle on the edge of dark timber. We decided to meet up at the crossroads to glass the ridge where we had seen the elk previously around 4 pm. 

We each cut lots of fresh tracks and droppings, but no further encounters occurred. We met up at the crossroads at the appointed time and hiked east about a half mile to glass the opening. We snacked, discussed what sign we noted, and glassed the hill. While sitting there, a guide on horse with pack mules passed by and informed us that their group wasn’t doing too well, with only 3 elk killed. They were in about 7 miles and just hadn’t seen much. I mentally gave him the finger as he mosied on.

It was getting dark so we headed back to the crossroads to get back to our trailhead/truck. We decided that we would move the truck to the other trailhead as mentioned as being part of the crossroads. The hike in from that trailhead was flatter, therefore, would be easier in and out of the area quicker.

When we arrived at the crossroads, we took a breather. It was at this point that Abbhudson informed me that my rifle was not attached to my pack or person. At this juncture, I determined that I was cursed, and that elk hunting was probably not for me. We improvised a plan to have Abbhudson head south and up the mountain to retrieve the truck and I would go back to the glassing spot grab my rifle, and head east meeting him at the newly designated trailhead to camp. I would scout/hunt along the way, and hopefully not turn into a snowman. 

I easily found my rifle in the location we had been and slowly walked east along the trail. The trail was slushy and semi-frozen making walking a chore. When I was about 2 miles from the new trailhead, I saw some mule deer does to my left on a hillside right off the trail. I took a moment to appreciate them and snap some poor quality photos with my phone. 

As I eased along past them, I looked ahead on the trail and saw a large flash of blonde approximately 300 yards away going from right to left. Ten seconds later a short bugle, followed by some agitated grunts informed my semi-alert brain that there was a bull present but just out of view. I figured he was irked that his lady friend ran off without him. I unslung my rifle, removed, the scope cover and chambered a round. I quickly eased up the trail about fifty yards. As I eased up, the bull emerged from the willows of the creek that obscured his view and crossed the trail. He stopped to the left of trail just on the rise of the hill perfectly broadside. I didn’t have time to range him. I immediately dropped into a crouch on my haunches, jammed one of my trekking poles into the snow at a 45, and made a rest with my fist and the upper 2 inches of the pole handle. I maxed out the magnification on my scope for BDC reticle purposes, determined that he was legal and did my best to keep my crosshairs steady just behind the left shoulder. At the moment he shifted his weight to make tracks, I sent a 180-grain Accubond from my .300 WSM Winchester XPR in his direction.

He moved as fast or faster than any whitetail I’ve ever shot! He spun on a dime and went back from whence he came and out of sight. I was dumbfounded at how quickly this encounter occurred. Did I flat miss him? Did I hit him well? Only one way to find out.

I loaded another round and started jogging his way. When I was about 100 yards from the rise he was standing on, I looked toward the right of the trail and into the creek bed. I could see that he was lying dead in the creek bed on flat ground 60 yards from where he was standing. As I ran up to him I probably said “Holy $h@t!” 30 times. I checked to make sure he had expired (perfect pass through the middle of the lungs) and sat in awe. He was much bigger than I expected from my quick assessment in the crosshairs. The way our hunt had been going, any cow we saw was toast. A 5×6 bull was truly unexpected.

This all transpired around 5:30 pm. I hurriedly took a few photos, a quick GoPro video, and sent an inReach message to my wife and asked her to send a message to Abbhudson to let him know. I put my tag on him, grabbed my used cartridge, and determined via OnX that it was a 230ish yard shot. I then blazed eastwardly toward the trailhead. I wasn’t worried about meat spoilage as the temps were lower than a freezer and he was already on ice.

About two seconds later, or so it seemed, I was at the trailhead. My heart rate was through the roof, and my veins were pumping with so much adrenaline that I was quite startled when two other hunters walked up to me to ask if I was alright. I guess I was visibly shaking. I told them that I had just killed my first elk and asked if they wanted $100 a piece to help with a pack out. They said that they planned on hunting the next day and would pass on the help. They congratulated me and asked, “So how big is she?” I pulled my phone out and showed them that in fact, I killed a bull. 

They jokingly dog cussed me for being a very lucky non-resident as they were locals. I agreed and being outnumbered and coerced, I explained/showed my location via OnX where I was when I shot the bull and what we had seen that morning. They told me that I had unknowingly fallen into “the honey hole”, but they knew other folks had been in that area and decided to try a different drainage. I was then sworn to secrecy about the area…..

I went on to tell them that I was waiting on Abbhudson to meet me there and that I had sent word to him about the kill. As the locals were camping at the trailhead in a wall tent, they offered me a congratulatory beer, which I gladly accepted, and we chatted about the area and the preivous days’ events. A few moments later Abbhudson pulls up, asks how things are going and basically acts like he has no idea that I killed this bull. The locals were confused and so was I. I asked if he had received a message from either of our wives. He said that he heard his inReach beeping but hadn’t looked at the messages yet. HUH???

The local guys are rolling. I tell him that I killed a nice bull and he immediately calls bullshit. We’re then jumping up and down like a couple of kids on a trampoline after I show him the picture of the bull. We get the truck situated, eat a quick bite, pack only the necessities for breaking him down, pass around the Knob Creek for fortitude with the locals and head on down the trail.

We take some poorly lit photos and break down the bull in between hand and feet warmings with intermittent small fires. Because of the temperature, we actually enjoyed the 80-90 lb pack out. We get back to the truck around midnight with the first load of boned out meat. The truck thermometer registers 5 degrees, so we abandoned the idea of the truck top covered bed and slept in the cab. 

Daylight arrives a few hours later finding us on the trail again. We finally get the last load of meat back. We discuss hunting for a few hours, but because his knees were done, Abbhudson decided to hang back and get the truck organized while I went back for the head. We would then head home. On the way back to the truck with the head completing 8 miles for the morning, all I could think about was a Dave’s Triple from Wendy’s.

We loaded everything up, dropped the retropharyngeal lymph nodes at the local CPW outfit for CWD testing, and dropped the head off with the taxidermist for a Euro mount. We hit up the closest Wendy’s for that Triple and were on the road by 2 pm MT. Twenty-seven straight hours later, we were in Guntersville, AL. We split the meat 50/50 and I proceeded that last gruelling 5 hours of I-20 through horrible Atlanta traffic back to Columbia, SC. I pulled up at 6 pm on Wednesday night, ate some dinner, and face planted in the bed for 15 hours. Luckily I didn’t have to go back to work until Saturday!

In summary, this was an amazing, roller-coaster of a trip. We saw beautiful scenery, experienced misery and gladness, and LEARNED a lot. I think it’s everything that one should expect on their 1st DIY Western Public Land elk hunt. In hindsight, Abbhusdon and I probably should have allotted two whole days for travel out there to prevent exhaustion right out of the gate. Neither of us slept well in the car, which hurt us in the long run. Also, I don’t think it’s possible to be in too good of shape. We both were and experienced some suckage. Altitude literally sucks if you aren’t used to it. Driving out there and spending a couple of days helped with the transition. I would encourage anyone not used to altitude to check with their doctor about dorzolamide to prevent altitude sickness. It helped for us. 

Good luck this coming season! Fortunately for the elk, it will be a while for me!

Posted by Nolan Osborne