The anticipation was growing as September approached. 2016 was to be my fifth year of DIY archery elk hunting in Colorado. My decision to pass on a cow at fifteen yards and full draw, on the third day of my 2015 hunt had haunted me for the past eleven months. For the last two seasons, I had come so close to putting it all together, but it just hadn’t worked out. Having grown up on the East Coast and bowhunted whitetails since I was fourteen, I dreamed of the opportunity to take an elk, cow or bull, with a bow. This year I had convinced myself that I needed to take the first shot opportunity that presented itself.
The time spent hunting out west the past several years has fueled my bowhunting addiction. There is no question, it’s become part of my lifestyle. My passion for elk hunting has forced me to continue to train and shoot year round. I love trail running and mountain biking, and hit the weights several times a week. As I get older I have realized that staying in shape is easier than trying to fitness “cram” before my hunts. This passion has trickled down to my kids and I’ve been fortunate that both my children have fallen in love with hunting and the outdoors at a young age. We enjoy shooting archery as a family and have a backyard range setup that allows us to practice on a regular basis. For our summer vacations, we always drive across the country and spend about four weeks backpacking and hiking somewhere in the west, Colorado, and Idaho being the family favorites. Prior to my hunt we spent three weeks backpacking in Idaho, so I felt that my legs and lungs were in good shape for the upcoming season.
I was taking a good friend along this year for his first western hunt. He was very excited about the opportunity and had waited several years for everything to line up with his work and family schedule. Mike and I left Virginia in the early hours of Friday morning and drove straight through to a hotel in Colorado near the trailhead. We were able to crash at the hotel and grab a couple of hours of sleep before hiking five miles up the trail to establish our base camp. We finished setting camp late in the afternoon and had time for a short evening hunt. Since we were hunting at above 11,000 feet and had not taken time to acclimate, the plan was to drop back down for one more night in town before sleeping at elevation. We hunted until dark and headed back down to the hotel to give ourselves time to adjust to the altitude.
The next morning we planned to head back up early, but Mike informed me that he hadn’t been able to sleep. In fact, he hadn’t gotten any sleep in the past three days, but he hadn’t told me as he didn’t want to affect the hunt. The decision was made that he would stay at the hotel for the day and try to get some rest. After getting him set up, I headed back up to hunt a drainage that had held several elk last year. Working my way through the dark timber, I stopped every 200 yards to cow call. I hunted hard the entire day, covering lots of miles, but the elk sign was old and I didn’t see or hear anything. At dusk, I began the long walk down the mountain to check on Mike and prepare to bring him up the following morning.
Part way down the mountain I ran into an older fellow who appeared to be out for a day hike. We talked briefly and he was making good time down the mountain, but I thought it was strange that he was so far from the trailhead at this hour with no pack. He reassured me that he was doing fine but I slowed my pace to keep him in sight. Fifteen minutes further down the mountain, I met a man from the local search and rescue and his dogs who were leading the push to find the older man before darkness set in. He explained that they had been searching for hours and he was very happy to hear that the man was just up the trail. As I continued down the mountain, I met up with the other members of his family and the search party who thanked me again and again for helping them locate him. I said that I hadn’t done anything — just ‘right place, right time.’ Later I found out that he had wandered away earlier that day and no one had known where to start looking.
When I arrived back at the hotel to check on Mike, I was dismayed to find that he still hadn’t been able to sleep at all. He looked dead on his feet and was barely functioning at this point. We decided to give it another night, but by morning he was still unable to sleep and we headed to the nearest town to get him some medical help. Unfortunately, it was Labor Day and the nearest clinic was closed, so we ended up driving about ninety minutes to find an urgent care that was open. The verdict … altitude sickness. The doctor prescribed Diamox to help the symptoms, but could not give him anything to help him sleep as they didn’t want to suppress his respiration and pulse artificially. They advised us that if he didn’t recover in twenty-four to forty-eight hours than we needed to get him to a lower elevation.
We grabbed a hearty breakfast in town and then headed back to the hotel near the trailhead. Mike wanted me to get in another afternoon of hunting and he was hoping to get some sleep so he could join me tomorrow. I packed up and hiked in five miles to the place where I wanted to work through that afternoon. My plan was to slowly still hunt and cow call for an additional two miles through a section of dense timber, ending up at a small clearing with a wallow that I had found the year before. The wind was strong and consistent out of the west that afternoon as I worked my way towards the wallow, and I set up to cow call every ten or fifteen minutes. At one point I saw a cow and calf walking through the timber far off to my right, but the wind was wrong to approach.
Arriving at the small meadow around 16:30, I set up directly across from the wallow with the wind blowing in my face. From this position, I could just make out the wallow in the tall grass and it looked like it was being used again this year. After building myself a small bench with a few fallen logs just inside the edge of the clearing, I settled in and continued to glass the far edges. As the sun began to fall and the shadows from the trees crept eastward across the field, I heard a stick break on the far side of the clearing. About five minutes later I saw the tan body of an elk cross a small opening between two trees. A minute later a huge bull stepped from the timber and stood at the far edge of the field surveying his surroundings. He was in no hurry and took several minutes to walk out to the far edge of the wallow. This bull was bigger than anything I had dared to dream of, with a very tall rack and a large sticker coming off his right antler.
I remember the entire sequence that followed as if it were an out-of-body experience. I was strangely calm and just worked through each required motion one step at a time with the voice in my head reminding me what to do. The bull lowered his head to rake the wallow, “Next time he lowers his head, you need to stand.” He did and I stood. “When he lowers his head again, set your feet in a good stance.” Again he complied and so did I. “When he rakes again check the range.” Seconds later I ranged him at seventy yards. “Now wait until he turns broadside.” This took a little longer, but within minutes he had turned broadside and was facing to the right. “His head isn’t turned far enough, he can still see you draw – wait.” I waited and a few seconds later he turned his head away from me, now completely broadside and unaware of my presence. “Draw and settle your bottom pin four inches behind his front leg. Pick a spot.” My body mirrored my thoughts. “Pull to the wall and squeeze”.
The shot broke as a surprise and I watched the arrow streak across the shadowed field and disappear into the bull’s chest. I could tell he was hit hard as he struggled to get his legs working to run out of the field. As he stumbled at the far side of the clearing, I heard him breaking sticks, and then a loud crash followed by silence.
In complete shock, I sat back down on my makeshift bench and began shaking. My emotions were a mixture of excitement and complete disbelief. I grabbed my InReach and texted my wife back in Virginia. “Just shot a monster bull” “For Real?–Do you know where it is? Did you kill it?” “For real. I can’t tell you how big. I’m going to wait a while and then try to find him. It’s going to be dark here soon.” After waiting thirty minutes, I walked out to the wallow, but I couldn’t find my arrow and didn’t see any blood. Immediately the doubt crept in and I began to worry. “What if it wasn’t a good hit?” Walking over to the far side of the clearing where the bull had exited, I still couldn’t find any blood but there were clear tracks in the ground where the bull had run out along a game trail.
After following the tracks for about thirty feet in quickly fading light, I could see a huge mass of tan, lying just off the trail up ahead. My bull was down! I approached the bull with a strong sense of wonder and reverence. The weight of the accomplishment was starting to hit me. I had spent two weeks a year for the past five years hunting DIY OTC archery elk. Finally, all of the running, rucking, shooting, and constant study had paid off. ‘Right place, right time’ echoed again in my mind. He was a great bull – a six-by-seven with dark chocolate antlers and ivory tips. I set up my camera in the shadowed woods and snapped a few self-timer pics, fired one last message to my wife with the InReach and got to work.
I began the process of caping him out and getting the head off, knowing that the meat would cool down quicker once the hide was off. I learned a lot that evening. How long it takes to figure out how to cut an elk’s head off using just a small knife. How much work it is to roll an elk over by yourself. No matter how many times you watch YouTube videos showing the gutless method, it’s a lot more difficult when you’re standing there in the middle of the night trying to figure out what to do next. I laughed out loud a lot that night, alone in the wilderness, thinking of sharing the story with Mike and my family. I was getting really tired, and had two miles of off-trail travel through thick timber before reaching the trail that would take me five miles out to the truck. I got as much of the butchering job completed as possible that night and decided it would be best to return and finish in the morning. Making my way back under headlamp, it was two in the morning by the time I reached my truck.
When I got back to the hotel, Mike was sitting in a chair waiting for me — he still hadn’t slept, but he knew something was up right away as I couldn’t stop smiling. We celebrated and talked about the evening’s events. We spent a lot of time going over everything I needed to get done the next day, including how I would finish the butchering and get the meat down to the truck. I caught a few hours of restless sleep that night and was up early to arrange for a wrangler to meet me on the trail to pack out the meat.
Arriving back at the elk a few hours after sun up, I finished butchering and got the quarters and meat bags hung in the shade of some pine trees, marking a trail for the wranglers to follow. The wranglers showed up around noon and I struggled to keep up with the horses as we cut through the timber to the elk. It was a lot of fun hanging out with the wranglers that afternoon, they were fantastic guys and were really excited about the bull I had killed. By the time we got the bull back down to the trailhead it was getting late in the day. Mike was waiting by the truck and we loaded everything up, getting the meat into coolers and on ice. Arrangements were made to drop off the meat at the butcher shop in the morning to have it processed.
After spending one final night in the hotel, with Mike still unable to sleep, we dropped off the meat and found a taxidermist who prepared the hide for the trip back to Virginia. I knew I had shot a good bull when the taxidermist was really excited to get a tape on him. He had a gross score of 327″ and the taxidermist assured Mike and I that this was an exceptional bull for this OTC unit. We discussed the idea of staying for a few days to see how Mike was feeling, but he was so exhausted — now going on his seventh day without sleep — that he was ready to head for home.
The following day we picked up the meat, hide, and antlers and started the long drive back across the country. As we drove I looked back fondly on all of the moments that led up to this, and with this milestone in my rearview, I began dreaming of next year. I just needed to find myself once again, in the right place, at the right time.