My hunting partner, Donnie Drake, and I began the long drive to southern Colorado, anticipating the screaming bugles we’d been deprived of the last 11 months. After 16 hours on the road, we were looking forward to anything but sitting for another minute in the truck! We drove through Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado en route to our hunting destination, and were blessed with some absolutely stunning scenery along the way.
We met good friend and videographer, Mark Skousen, at the bottom of the mountain, then headed up the hill to where we would set up our base camp for the week. As we made our way up the rocky, two-track road, it didn’t take long to realize just how dense the oak brush in this area was. Shooting lanes would be few and far between. That meant the bugling action would be up close and personal!
We made quick work of unloading the trucks and setting up camp and with the last rays of daylight peaking over the western horizon, we heard our first elk bugle of the season. A quick inspection of the far ridgeline produced a large herd of elk moving from the thick cover of the draw out to the open hillsides of a freshly burned canyon. With visual and audible confirmation, we were pumped and ready for the next morning!
After 30 minutes of hiking in the dark, we climbed out onto a long finger ridge that dropped off sharply into the steep canyon below. We were on the edge of the burn, looking across the canyon at the hillside where the elk had been the night before. My bugle was answered by a screaming bull 600 yards up the canyon. We quickly worked our way towards him and got set up. My cow calls were answered from 300 yards up the hill and I immediately hammered him with a challenge. We had an intense screaming match and finally coaxed him down the hill and away from his cows. Unfortunately, he wasn’t ready to come through the thick brush and into our 30 yard shooting lane. As he turned to head back up the hill, another bull began bugling from across the canyon. These new bugles were accompanied by the soft mews of several cows and they were heading straight for us!
As they made their way through the bottom of the canyon, more bulls began to join in the choral chaos, and within a matter of a few minutes there were 4-5 bulls bugling in the canyon around us. We moved up the canyon and set up on the most active bull and Donnie was able to call him right past Mark and I for an easy 20 yards shot. With 8 days of hunting ahead of us, however, I let the nice 5X5 go by.
As we headed down towards the next bugle, my ears picked up a sound that I wasn’t expecting to hear….the fluty sound of another hunter! We listened in disgust as they made their way up the bottom of the canyon, knowing that the mid-day thermals would be spreading their scent throughout the canyon. Sure enough, elk started pouring out of the thick brush patches, heading back across the canyon and over the far ridge. The bugling went from intense to non-existent in a matter of minutes. Welcome to public land, OTC hunting.
We made our way out of the canyon and formulated a plan B. We found a brushy hillside fed by a small creek that opened up to a really nice funnel at the top end of the canyon. Hoping to intercept the elk as they made their way to and from feeding, we began the exhausting chore of clawing our way up through the thorns and oak brush. We hunted this new area for a few days had some close encounters with some smaller bulls as well as one really cool looking non-typical bull. It was tough getting close enough for a shot in the thick brush, however, and the bulls weren’t fully fired up. The hot weather and bright, full moon seemed to be keeping the attitude of the bulls somewhat tempered and just outside the narrow shooting lanes we managed to find.
The area we were hunting was filled with wildlife, however, including several large bears. We had bear encounters every day, often at very close distances. It really wasn’t much of a surprise when we returned to camp one afternoon and found a large slash-mark in the side of our tent. Fortunately the bear had peaked into the vestibule area and smelled Donnie’s boots and decided he probably didn’t want whatever else might be inside the tent…at least not bad enough to go any further.
Our gear was put through the ultimate test in the unforgiving brush we experienced in this area. Several times I winced, expecting to find a tear in my gear, but after several days of punishing it for hours on end, it was unaffected. We hunted some rough country – steep, thick, and deep – and we had several close encounters over the first 5-6 days, but we still hadn’t found a bull that we were ready to put our tags on.
We were determined to find a good bull and with just 2 days left to hunt, and with Mark on his way back home, Donnie and I decided to head back into the burned area we hunted the first morning.
The dark morning sky was fading into daylight as we approached the edge of the canyon. Immediately we heard a very vocal bull screaming from across the canyon. He was far enough away that even with our 10X binoculars we couldn’t tell how big he was, but he was bugling every 30 seconds and not moving, so we quickly made our way up canyon to get the wind in our favor before heading across towards him. Thirty minutes later we were descending into the bottom of the canyon and as we started up the steep hillside towards the bull, the wind picked up and began swirling. With only hours of hunting left, we didn’t have a choice. We headed up to get to the bulls level and as we approached the bench we last saw him on, we could hear his intense bugles echoing down the steep hillside.
I slipped 30 yards ahead of Donnie and set up. Donnie’s first cow call was answered immediately and when he cut the bull off with a bugle the bull came charging. He covered 300 yards in a matter of seconds and as his legs began to materialize out of the thick brush, I felt the wind hit the back of my neck. The bull went quiet and quickly moved back into the draw. I slipped ahead, hoping he would stop or turn back and Donnie stayed back to call. I moved ahead 90-100 yards and gave a few soft cow calls. To my surprise, the bull screamed at me and turned to come back. Donnie hit him with a bugle, which enraged the bull, and once again he was on his way in to my set up. For a second time, the wind hit me on the back of the neck and the bull went quiet.
The next time he bugled he was rounding up his cows 300 yards up the bench and heading out. I ran to where he had last bugled and screamed at him. To my complete shock, the bull fired back and came charging right down the hill towards me. He came to 45 yards and stopped behind a thick patch of oak brush, roaring a bugle that felt like it rocked the entire canyon. He was a huge framed bull. With huge eyeguards and long beams, he was missing his 3rds which made him look more like a big caribou than an elk. The wind was pulling straight up the hill to the bull. I couldn’t believe he stood there as long as he did, but after what seemed like 2 minutes, he’d had enough and turned to catch up with his cows.
It was nearly noon and we were on the far side of the canyon. Part of me wanted to give in, head back and pack up camp, and get an early start towards home. The other part of me, the part that always seems to win out in elk season, took over and pushed us up the hillside towards the next drainage. We made it to the point of the canyon and turned into the next drainage. We were in the middle of the burn and the rocks and burnt oak roots made the walking cumbersome and noisy. As we came to a thick, brushy draw that the fire had passed over, we jumped a single cow out of her bed. I quickly cow called to slow her down and a bull answered from 300 yards below us in the draw. Game on.
The cow settled down and began walking back towards the canyon we had just climbed out of. After a few more cow calls and a bugle, the bull knew his cow was not alone and he was not comfortable with that. He came bugling out of the draw, following his cow. We were 200 yards above him when we caught a glimpse of him. He was a mature 5X5 and he was aggravated. Donnie stayed 50-60 yards behind as I slipped down the hill and began paralleling the elk as they worked to relocate to more cover and less intrusion. As they reached the edge of the burn, the climbed onto a long ridge that dropped steeply off into the canyon below. I knew it was our last chance to pull them up to us, so I slipped ahead and got set up as Donnie moved above me to start calling.
With a few cow calls and a well-timed challenge bugle, Donnie had the bull fired up and coming up the ridge in our direction. I ranged a burnt stump at 42 yards and glanced up the hill towards Donnie. He was concealed in brush and with the Heads Up Decoy in one hand and the bugle tube in the other, he was doing his best to also work the video camera at the same time. I turned back down the hill to see the ears of a cow elk coming up through the burn. She walked right beside my 42 yard marker as the bull came charging up the hill, rattling the hillside with a growly bugle. I was at full draw when he stopped broadside next to the stump. As I settled the pin into the crease, I couldn’t believe it was all coming down to this. Less than a minute later, I was walking up on the bull. He had dropped within sight, right on the edge of the bench, just inches from where it dropped off sharply into the canyon below.
The afternoon rains pounded us as we finished boning out the elk and began the pack across the canyon. It was dark when we reached the truck and made our way down the mountain. Once again, success had come literally hours before our hunt was coming to an end. Sometimes, gritting your teeth and hanging in there until the very end is all it takes.