Story and photos by Tom Avery
Over the course of my life, there have always been a few unattainable goals. Arrowing a trophy bull elk off public land in the Rockies was one that routinely eluded me.
Five years of close calls and busted deals were like a malignancy starting to spread. But I found the cure in 2004.
Summer scouting trips provided so much incentive and promise that my expectations were as high as the mountains were tall. My two partners, Jeff Davis and Tracey Canaday, spent uncountable hours trying to find accessible public elk ground that wasn't going to be swarming with other hunters. This meant hunting in some of the hardest-to-reach places on Earth.
They eventually came up with a handful of options in the Colorado Rockies.
There are many important facets and nuances to Rocky Mountain elk hunting, but acclimating to the high altitude is the very first step that has to be mastered in order to have a chance at being successful. It takes precedence over everything.
The lack of one simple element can have so much impact on a hunt, that it doesn't matter how good of a shot you are or how well you can talk like an elk. If you can't get out of your tent because your head feels like it's going to implode, you're finished. Gasping for breath, pressure headaches and dizzy spells were all new setbacks that I hadn't experienced while hunting whitetails at 800 feet above sea level in my home state of Kansas.
Fortunately, the transition became easier and easier with each year, as I employed new precautionary tactics that helped me adapt to the thin air of 11,000 feet and higher.
After overcoming the elevation obstacle, there's still this matter of hunting. Elk hunting is hard. It's taxing on the mind and body. It's nothing like the hunts seen on The Outdoor Channel. A hunter can be humbled very quickly and very often, and his spirit can be broken repeatedly.
News from the front was not good from the start of the 2004 season. Our hot spot was covered with hunters and hikers, and the elk had moved out of the area. My two informants had about three weeks to hunt and scout before I and the rest of our Eastern posse got there.
This year saw an increase of two more hunters to our group, which would prove to be a welcomed addition in more ways than one. Jerry Dickman was an elk veteran and an old friend from Iowa, and his presence instilled in us an air of confidence and stick-to-it-ness. Bill Baughm was a brand new friend from Pennsylvania, and his stories and company were badly needed to spice up our all too familiar camp rhetoric.
It was a great group.
On a gut feeling, Jeff decided that we should start our pursuit up north and move south through the Rockies as the season progressed. Tracey had already harvested a nice bull with a recurve a few weeks prior and assigned himself the position of guide and caller. We all met just outside of Denver on the morning of Sept. 17.
Reaching our road accessible only by 4x4, we were just a few miles from our destination, but the kidney-jarring drive would take almost an hour. A flat tire abruptly interrupted us, setting off visions of an ominous sign that would soon enough prove to be moot. We reached our destination in time to set up camp and get acclimated for a while before we decided to make the trek and investigate the area.
Jeff, Jerry and I decided to head one way, while Tracey and Bill went another. We were going to an area where we had a few close encounters in the past. Jerry opted for a high vantage point just above a well-traversed saddle, while Jeff and I walked another half-mile to an area with which we were more familiar.
In the back of our minds, everyone was really focused on finding a herd or at least a satellite bull or two and then hunting them hard the next morning. There were only a few hours of daylight left, and this was just our first day.
As Jeff and I reached the north facing meadow, we peered over the cliff to our south and saw a real nice 6x6 skirting the trees about 600 yards away. We set up with a perfect wind and tried to call it, but the wind shifted and the bull would not commit.
In the process, we heard another bull bugling in the opposite direction. We decided to focus our attention on it and attempted to set up, as the throaty groans grew louder and closer. About 30 yards from our destination, we noticed a cow feeding toward us a mere 100 yards away. We had nowhere to go but to ground.
We took about three minutes to butt-scoot maybe 5 yards into some shade behind a very small Charlie Brown Christmas tree. As we were sitting motionless and feeling somewhat exposed, we could see one animal running back and forth through the pines that looked to have branching antlers and a shaggy mane.
It didn't take very long, and we were surrounded on three sides by a large herd and a rampant bull that was herding its cows as if it were a well-trained border collie. With about 30 eyes looking sometimes right through us and a swirling wind, we thought our chances would go the way they've gone in the past: The herd would spook and be miles away in a matter of seconds.
We even contemplated shooting a cow, figuring something would be better than our more traditional nothing. But we waited.
Slowly, everything began to come together and the wind decided to cooperate. It was quite a show. The bull was doing everything in the book from bugling and chuckling, to glunking, groaning and grunting, when it made the mistake of chasing one of the cows through the very trees that we'd tried to reach.
When the bull passed broadside to us at 32 yards, from over my left shoulder Jeff whispered for me to draw my bow. I guess I had to mull things over for a bit before I finally heeded his command and used what little cover I had to draw, then lean and release.
It was a bit awkward and not a shot I had ever practiced. I was sitting with my right leg bent at 90 degrees and tucked under my left leg, which stuck straight out. Nevertheless, the arrow sailed true and gave me 20 inches of penetration right in the bull's boiler room.
High-fives and hugs were followed by a momentary lapse of reason on my part. In a fetal position, I savored the moment.
Neither of us could remember the exact path the bull took, and our bloodless trailing was cut short by a loss of daylight. I was almost panicky, but we were forced to abandon the search until the next morning.
There was no sleep for me that night.
Between prayers, my imagination was running wild - including both good and bad scenarios. I didn't have a pass-through shot. Did the arrow hit a rib on the backside? Did I hit any vitals at all?
To further confuse me, we thought we heard my bull bugle a few times as we were vacating the hill. I could not understand why, unless it wasn't hurt nearly as badly as we'd hoped. My last thoughts were that the animal could be anywhere on a mountain that went forever.
Daybreak was a long time coming. When dawn finally broke, Tracey and I drove down and walked up a creek drainage, meat packs on our backs. The other guys returned to the scene of the encounter. We'd barely started our hike when I got a call on my radio. It was Jeff, letting us know that they'd not seen anything.
The outlook was bleak: no blood, no tracks and no ideas. I was crushed.
As my eyes threatened to water, static spilled again out of the radio.
"I just found Tom's elk, and it's big," Jeff's welcomed voice announced.
That didn't help my eyes.
As we were driving through various mountain towns en route to other hunting destinations, the perfect 6x6 antlers were perched as high as they could go in the back of our truck. We were the envy of everyone we met, and many locals wanted to hear my story.
-- Reprinted from the September 2006 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.