Archery Elk Hunt – 7 Years Coming
|Bows - Compound Bows|
Clean, fresh mountain air. Aspens quaking in the breeze. Stars so close you can almost touch them. Campfire smoke wafting through the air and every so often; the call of the elk echoed down the Taylor Mesa valleys. Just being at camp and in the mountains was enough. Being able to see elk was a bonus, to take one a great reward. We all know the probability of taking an elk ourselves with the bow was less than 15%, but we come back every year for more.
We were camped at the end of one of the access roads to the San Juan National forest in pursuit of the elusive elk. There were 5 of us in camp this year. As usual, it was me and the boys: my husband Jeff, his father Joe, and friends of ours, Kurt and Kevin. The routine was the same; discuss the days’ events, the elk, where they were, what they did, new sign found etc. and strategize for the next day. It was our last full day of hunting so we were up well before dawn getting ready for the final hunt
The morning was crisp with a light frost on the ground. We were all pretty ambitious and headed for the mile hike down Big Hell Canyon in the dark. This day, I chose to go with Jeff as we hadn’t hunted together much during the week. I knew he would want to go further down the valley than I had ever been and I knew, since I chose to go with him, that I better just shut my mouth and do whatever I could to help get him his elk. My plan was that he was going to come first all day. We split from Kevin and Kurt and headed in different directions, each hoping for a close encounter with a bull. We heard a low moan in the distance. Then a chuckle and then another. Finally the silence was pierced with a full blown bugle. Then another responded and then another. Some were close and some were distant, thousands of feet down into the valley.
Finally, a bugle pierced the crisp mountain air just a few hundred yards from us. Jeff flashed me a look and we dove down the mountain to try to get below him so we could call him down. We quickly came upon a very steep section; as in straight down. It was here we had our first disagreement. I was NOT going down that 90 degree, 50’ drop. Sorry. No can do. Even though… the plan was… that I was not going to open my mouth. Plans change.
“There’s got to be a better way. I’m not going down there.” I said. He was determined to get after that bull, but must’ve known he couldn’t win this one, so we side-hilled it to a slightly better situation. “Will you go down here?” he asked, clearly frustrated with me. I nodded. We went down, as quietly as possible, sliding on our rear-ends, hanging onto trees, underbrush, shrubs, fallen timber, anything, to move down the slope toward the lower ledge without sliding down out of control. I was now covered in the natural scents of the San Juan’s.
After successfully, but not so gracefully, descending the worst of the 200 foot slope we discussed the plan of attack. I wanted to know EXACTLY how he wanted me to call for him. How many cow calls, how often, how far behind him did he want me? I didn’t want any mistake to be my fault. I had already refused the one descent. Before we could finish the plan, we caught a glimpse of movement below. One hundred yards below us was a bull! He had stood up and was looking around through his thick cover, but somehow had not been spooked by our descent. We must’ve sounded more like a herd of elk, rather than stealthy hunters so he stood up to assess the situation.
The bull was behind thick cover near the bottom of the ledge. Without words, we moved into action. Jeff cautiously crept down the mountain towards him, hoping to gain position on him for a good shot. I stayed back and ready for a shot just in case it bolted and ran through the opening 50 yards in front of me. Time stood still as Jeff crept down the mountain. I watched him range the elk, put his bow up and draw. He held the draw for what seemed like minutes.
I could no longer see the elk from my position and could not see all of what was happening. I just stood, bow up, arms tense, ready to draw should the situation change. Then, Jeff broke the silence with a very, very quiet cow call. The bull turned toward him, walked a small circle and began quartering away. He released. The silence was pierced by the shot and then “thwack!” The elk dove down the mountain, over deadfall, through thick brush and then we heard a crash just above the creek.
Jeff looked up at me shaking his head, as if unsure. I heard the elk crash. I was sure. He was not. We worked down the mountain in search of blood and finally came upon some. Its volume increased as we went down the mountain. 80 yards from the point of impact, his beautiful 5 X 5 bull lay. Jeff was ecstatic and so was I! It was his first bull elk and I was witness to it. The excitement was contagious. I just stood back and smiled as he went over the bull and its rack. We had to roll it over so he could look for the shot placement. It was a perfect shot. The elk was quartering away. With his Mathews Drenalin bow, his G5 broadhead entered the center of the body, through the lungs, clipped the heart, broke a rib and nearly penetrated the front shoulder blade on the far side. All this at 70 yards! Yes, 70 yards.
We radioed to Kevin and Kurt and the excitement rang out in Kurt’s voice. “Where are you? We’re on our way over!” Within minutes, they were there. They walked in where the bull had stood and looked down over us where the bull was lay at the base of a tree. Kurt was nearly as excited for Jeff as he would’ve been had he shot the bull himself. Tears welled up in his eyes as he scrambled down the hill to shake Jeff’s hand. He was well aware of the blood, sweat and tears that go into archery elk hunts. It had been 7 years of hunting for Jeff with the bow. All self-guided and learning the land on his own, and finally, it was his turn.
We were over 1000’ feet down in the valley, standing over a beautiful bull elk with daylight barely broken, the sun just starting to shine through the quaking aspens, the sounds of distant elk bugling and mountains surrounding us. Clearly we were in God’s country. What better way to celebrate such an accomplishment?
But, back to reality. How were the four of us going to get this huge animal packed out, climbing over 1100’ of elevation. It took an hour and a half to climb out of Big Hell without any weight on our backs, much less a couple hundred pounds of fresh elk, hide, and rack. It didn’t take much convincing when I suggested that we hire some horses to help pack it out. We left it lay, headed back to camp for the pack frames and gutting gear and I stayed up to wait for the horses and lead them down to the elk. The three guys went back down to debone everything and pack the elk across the creek to an area that the horses could access.
It took a bit of convincing the rancher that horses could make it down to where the elk was. I led him to the trail we had come up and we led the horses down to where the guys were waiting, quickly loaded the meat and gear onto the horses and right back up we went. I expected the horses to be winded and working hard, but they were in such good shape and had relatively light packs on them as the meat was deboned. They just hoofed it right up the mountain. Amazing. Packing the elk out with the horses in itself was another great experience. We made it back to camp about 4 that afternoon. Had we not gotten the horses, we’d have been lucky to be out of Hell by dark. It was well worth the money and the experience was priceless.
There were a few interesting coincidences that happened the day before this hunt. Jeff found a penny lying in the dirt near our camp. Not having a superstitious bone in his body, he picked it up anyway, and said “Hey, I found a lucky penny.” and put it in his pocket. Then he suggested that we all double check that our bows were still sighted in after being dragged up and down the mountains. All four of us lined up and shot at 40, 50 and 60 yards. I was shooting a Mathews Drenalin at 60# and was gaining confidence by the minute shooting with these guys. Most of us were sighted in up to 60 yards, but this day, Jeff challenged us to a 70 yard shot; the winner was to get a steak dinner on the way home. We all were to shoot one target, but for some reason Jeff shot the other target, was the closest, and should’ve won. But, he shot the wrong target, so we called for a rematch; one more arrow at 70 yards at the same target. Thwack, thump, zing, thwack. Four arrows. Jeff, again was only an inch off the mark and I was a close second. Steak dinner for Jeff and a new found confidence at 70 yards.
Everytime I’m in the mountains, breathing the fresh mountain air, camping in the wilderness so close to the stars I come home with a new energy. I’m not sure what it is out there, but it is intense. We’re meshing with the natural world at such an intimate level. It is wonderful. I dread leaving such a beautiful place and long for the day that I can return.
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