A Georgian’s First Elk Hunt
Stunning landscape, bugling elk, moose and mule deer makes for a great week.
By John Holbert
Jonah and I both drew either-sex muzzleloader tags for Colorado elk this fall. Neither of us had undertaken such a challenge before, and we were eager to try. We spent all summer researching, preparing, packing and training for the safari. The rut forecast predicted we would have good timing to see some rut activity and that the bulls should be very vocal and susceptible to calling. Giddy with excitement, the days leading up ticked away…
Thursday/Friday, Sept 8-9, 2022
I got off work at 4 p.m. in Atlanta and boogied home to catch my ride into the Wild West. After saying good-bye to sweetie, Jonah picked me up at 6:30, and we embarked. We made great time until we passed through Nashville and halted at road construction, which delayed us more than an hour. I went to sleep in the truck around 11 and was able to sleep off and on until 4 a.m.
Jonah was a real trooper. He pushed all through the night until we swapped at 4. I drove three hours past Kansas City, and after stopping for some grub, we switched back. Highway 70 from Kansas City to Denver must be the longest, dullest drive in the western hemisphere. After spotting a herd of pronghorns, the monotony melted as we marveled at the majesty of the Rocky Mountains while our ascent meandered. We scaled to heights unknown to me, as we crested as high as 10,500 feet driving in. With my neck craned out the window, my bewildered mind couldn’t fathom how any man could deny that there is a God in Heaven. For how else could such beauty exist on our clump of space dust we call Earth?
Our total drive time from home to destination was 24 hours. We made our way into town, and after stopping for fuel and a well-timed, 16-oz. ribeye, we began to explore the unit. Our first trailhead greeted us with a pile of trucks and a horse trailer, so we were on to Plan B! We circumnavigated our unit looking for a place to spend the night and settled on an unmarked trailhead on the road. We did see a pretty sweet mule deer cross the road, which lifted our spirits. We decided to sleep in the truck that night and strike out in the morning. I thanked God for keeping us safe on our journey.
Saturday, Sept 10
We slept with the windows cracked. My birthday present arrived in the wee hours of the morning as I awoke to the symphony of raging bull elk in a meadow near us. They cut each other off in rut-induced fury, and through the sleepless morning, I counted 18 separate bugles from inside the truck. We got up, hurriedly ate breakfast and struck out up the mountain. Another hunter had flanked our position to the left, and a road bordered our right. The hair-raising sound of an elk bugle elevates to bone chilling when they are answering your invitation bugle—pheeeew! Although we never did see them, I felt we were close several times.
The morning waned on and calm ensued. Following our mid-morning snack, we got a response bugle from across the road. We made a big loop around, crossed the road, but as we advanced into position, we noticed a car on the road shoulder. We backtracked to the truck and started riding roads. We arrived at another trailhead with minimal pressure. After examining the map, we decided to hike in with camp on our backs in hopes of finding elk atop the mountain.
To our discouragement, the burnt timber did not appear to be holding any elk. We hiked 2 1/2 miles to the top, had lunch and retreated to our vehicle. We rode into a nearby national park in hopes of using one of the two access points from inside the park, but we were greeted with a swath of hunters. We spent the rest of the day burning rubber, exploring parts of the region we felt might be less pressured. Our route took us into some incredible country of sage-grass prairies punctuated by only the horizon and distant mountain peaks. Twice we tried to access through a public county road that crossed through private land, and both times were met with landowners suggesting that we should go elsewhere. One did point us to a specific area, so we gave it a shot. After winding miles of forest service road in the dark, we found a herd of tents, campers and 4-wheelers guarding every pull-off. We happened upon one vacant spot to spend the night. Jonah’s snoring was so furious in the tent that I elected to move to the truck around midnight.
Sunday, Sept. 11
The next morning our beckoning bugles fell on blank ground. We made a 5-mile loop through a mix of dark timber and aspens and hiked back to the truck with our tails tucked. After a rejuvenating lunch and an inner pep talk, we departed again. We’d observed everything was very dry, most creeks were empty. We located a secluded pond on the map, loaded camp on our backs with intentions of spending the night if so inclined and trudged upward. After a mile hike uphill, we found the pond tucked neatly within a thicket of dark timber.
After getting situated, I let out soft mews (cow elk calls) every 15 minutes or so. Masterful elk whisperer that I am, after merely an hour, we spotted four legs creeping into the opening out of the seclusion. They held up two torsos brandishing blaze orange. The two kind gentlemen promptly joined us across the meadow, oblivious to our gestures. Thankfully their stay was brief, and they left shortly following the vehement mental profanities we channeled in their direction. We sat until dark, let out a few bugles with no response and decided to set up camp.
Jonah found another lonely oasis on the map, so we decided it would be worth checking out in the morning. Setting up camp went smoother than yesterday, and we enjoyed our Next Mile meals (a brand of freeze-dried meal) in the backcountry under a canopy of stars. The sky was incredible. There was no cloud cover, and we were so far from civilization that we could see layers of fainter stars that are normally drowned in light pollution. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more stars before.
Monday, Sept. 12
After slurping down my bulletproof coffee breakfast, we grabbed our gear and headed up the mountain. We didn’t hear any bugles during the night, and the story remained the same as the sun crept over the morning horizon. We decided to gain ground, hoping the elk were held up on higher elevation. After nearly an hour of hiking, we stopped to take a break at a bench below a large meadow. We took some pictures of the scene behind us we’d just climbed, and as I refocused my gaze uphill, I noticed an odd gray blob. My binoculars revealed it to be a monster mule deer, definitely bigger than any I’d seen before on the hoof. He stood firm, examining us from his lofty perch. He was 350 yards away. Slowly more bucks moved into view, one surpassing the first. We wishfully watched them for several minutes before moving on. We continued to climb the mountain and eventually peaked at 10,800 feet, the tallest peak in the immediate region. I have never seen more of the earth at one time than I did today. We delighted in a 360-degree panorama view of mountains and sage prairie as far as the eye could see. We made several pictures and settled in for a snack.
We proceeded to work dark timber patches on the ridge line for several miles, slipping to and fro amongst the labyrinth of cedars and aspens, casting lonesome mews and lazy bugles down every holler and valley. Though tough to navigate, it was certainly not as impassable as mountain laurel or rhododendron back home. Our route took us to several creeks to resupply water, but all were dry. We wound our way back around the mountain and gingerly descended to camp. The feral cattle cheered us on as we wobbled sheepishly down a meadow steeper than a mule’s face toward the truck to regroup and relocate.
The Kum & Go in town supplied us with a case of water and Gatorades, and after a few phone calls to check on home, we were on the road again. We parked at the same spot we did the first night (where we heard the bugles) and pitched camp about a quarter mile deep, in less than ideal but manageable conditions. Tonight’s dinner was the best so far, beef marinara with ghee and pemmican. Dessert was the sweet sound of night bugles erupting in the air, sprinkled with more stars than we saw last night. We climbed into the tent as the full moon peeked over the horizon
Tuesday, Sept 13
Tuesday was a day to remember. It was the highlight of the trip. We woke up and set off like a pack of beagles chasing bugles in the moonlight. The elk were fired up! We made a move on the closest to us. He was just a couple of small ridges over. He bugled at my cow mews and sounded like he was cutting the distance. I was ahead of Jonah, and the bull was suddenly silent. I moved 15 yards to crest the ridge to project my calls better and was met with the sound of hooves headed the opposite direction. He had busted us and was out like a rocket. He was coming in quietly, and we pushed too far. Strike one.
He bugled again a few hundred yards toward the top of the lead, and we pursued. He dropped down from our lead over and up the next in just a moment, and we continued up the ridge hoping to get a visual and glass with our optics. We hunkered down in a blowdown and had a cup of coffee, listening to distant bugles and glassing the opposite ridge. It was incredibly steep, but it held some of the only unburnt timber in the area from a wildfire a few years back. The elk seemed to be locked in on it as it was the best cover for miles around. There was a bench part of the way up that we surmised the elk were using to bed. A feisty young 4×4 bull exploded from the timber in hot pursuit of two cows with calves. They ejected from nearly the top of the mountain and barreled downhill, reaching the bottom in moments. Their dust cloud rolled behind them like a horse race, and they rounded the turn at the bottom and charged down the creek. We knew the elk were in the timber and began formulating a plan of attack. The timber bearing ridge we faced was a finger of a large mountain to our right, forming a horseshoe bend drainage. We decided to sidehill around to get on their ridge and crest above them, keeping our rising thermals in check and throw some enticing calls down into the timber.
As we navigated the dense blowdown toward the top of the horseshoe, a bugle erupted to our right above us on the lead. I jumped behind the closest tree and propped my gun up in preparation and watched cows pour out of a thicket coming down the ridge about 75 yards away from me. Jonah was 50 yards behind me. A massive bull elk rolled through like a tank, charging his harem like a cowboy rounds up cattle. Jonah never saw the cows and lobbed a gut-busting bugle of his own toward the bull. The bull retorted with complete dominance, seemingly shattering the earth with a bulge that said, “I am the boss.” The mountain monarch mushed his cows along, choosing flight over fight, as he had no reason to risk fighting when he could evacuate himself and his cows. There was a brief window I could have shot from my perch, but they were on the move through timber, and I decided against it. They dipped into a ditch, and I dropped my pack and ran my fastest 40-yard dash since high school—maybe ever!
I peaked over the ditch, and the elk had put my sprint to shame. They’d gained twice the distance and were just out of range, still no shot. The bull must have scooped his cows up in his rack like a wheelbarrow to have gained so much ground. I dropped down into the ditch and huffed another stretch trying to close the distance. My adrenaline-fueled jaunt surely resembled those of the natives running down bison with a bow or a cheetah running down an antelope in the savanna. That thought was crushed when I topped the finger ridge and saw them trotting away, several hundred yards now, above the treeline, neatly single file with the bull in tow. He offered a bugle of “nice try, catch us if you can.” Strike 2.
I started back to my pack and met Jonah, reliving the experience moment by moment. It looked like they were headed for the timber to bed, so we continued with our original plan, knowing now there were at least three bulls nearby. Our next challenge was a near vertical climb, through blowdowns and sliding rocks to get up and above the timber patch. We took our time, scaling painstakingly slow up, up and up. I tried not to look down, but I did and wished I hadn’t.
Inch by inch, we crawled to the top. After a thanksgiving for safety and a brief lunch to recompose ourselves at 11,000 feet of elevation (our highest point during the week), we slipped along the ridgetop casting lonely mews into the timber below. Several bulls answered us toward the bottom, but none were willing to make the climb we had. The top of the ridge flattened into a large open place, so we hunkered in by a rock structure and blind called for two hours.
With no takers, we worked down the lead calling and listening, moving slow and watchfully. A patch of tan hide caught my eye, and my binoculars revealed two cow elk, accompanied by their calves. Recalling the 4×4 from earlier today was with a similar group, my focus tightened as I slipped my way toward them, bobbing and weaving through the singed landscape, keeping obstructions between my quarry. I mistakenly mewed to try and bring them in, actually giving away my position, locking all eyes on me. Following a brief standoff, they lost interest and went downhill.
I backtracked to Jonah and we began the game of cat and mouse. We couldn’t let them circle below our scent. They maintained a lazy pace, and we closed the gap. Their trajectory still put them in our path of scent, so we looped around and dropped down to their level again, but they were moving faster now, still unaware of our presence but not helping our situation. Jonah spotted them again about 100 yards away working parallel to the ridge, moving closer to us, but still toward our scent. Just then, there was the bull! He was farther down the slope from the cows. The sunlight was held hostage by cloud cover, and the falling thermals pulled scent downhill. It was now or never. The lead cow was almost dead downwind of me and would surely bust us.
I took a rest on my knee, drew a bead on a shooting window and held my breath for the bull to cross an open window.
Smoke filled the air and the bull reeled, turning tail to run. I let out a call to stop him, and Jonah fired a follow-up shot. The group stampeded off down the ridge, and Jonah and I shared our excitement. We picked up the track, not finding blood, but were able to follow the footprints in the dusty ground. I only found a few specs of blood and lost the trail after 800 yards. We saw the bull again the next day. Strike 3.
Our adventure had displaced us quite a bit from our starting point, and the sun was setting. We meandered down the mountain back to the road, hitched a ride from a friendly Wisconsonite and were dropped off at our truck. We had to hike in a piece to retrieve camp from the night before in the dark, returned to the truck and started dinner. We reflected on the fortune of the day, not only having three opportunities in one day but actually shooting at an elk far surpassed what we had expected coming into the trip. The past days of grinding silence were behind us, and we had a full head of steam going into tomorrow. We drove the truck closer to where the action was to cut down on some walking and got some shut eye in the cab, chasing bugles all night in unconsciousness.
Wednesday, Sept 14
Shortly after our wake-up alarms went off at 5, three guys whipped into the parking spot with us and tore down the trail, as we sleepily rubbed our eyes in disbelief, wishing we were still dreaming. We returned to our spot from yesterday and grabbed our gear, already behind the ball. At this point, we had put our bodies through the ringer, and we were feeling it. We pushed up the ridge to a listening knoll and were rewarded with a bugle just above us on our lead. Two other hunters trailed us a few dozen yards back, pushing our pace as we raced to the top. The bull outpaced us to the top, and we lost track of him, so we got to the top of the ridge and sat down to rest and glass the opposite side. At this point, we had almost returned to the exact spot as yesterday, watching the same block of timber on the ridge we’d just conquered the day before—not doing that again!
Our optics combed every nook and cranny, and Jonah skillfully spied a single elk bedded down at the top of the horseshoe above the treeline in some brush. The wind was good for a stalk, but as we discussed our game plan, an errant bugle came from our right. It was obviously a hunter. Seemingly out of pores in the mountain, a cascade of cows gushed forth, running down the ridge and up into the timber, followed by the same 6×6 bull as yesterday. He’d been busy overnight and increased his harem from five cows to 13, with several calves. Forecasting they would bed in the timber, Jonah and I made a big loop around, circling down below the timber by the creek and easing up the backside of the finger ridge holding the timber to cut them off. The ridge surprised us with a host of sign—fresh rubs, scat and tracks, indicating this was a heavily used travel route. The unfavorable wind and impending thunderstorm caused us to retreat.
We packed back to the truck just in time to miss the downpour and decided our efforts warranted a trip to town for a non-freeze-dried prepackaged meal. After scarfing down a burger and fries, we returned to our area. There was another patch of unburned timber that we hadn’t explored on the opposite side of the road, so we made the short hike into a high vantage point to glass and listen for elk until dark. Unsuccessfully, we returned to the truck to bed down for the night.
Thursday, Sept 15
Our wake-up alarm sounded early in the morning but was coupled with the pitter patter of rain. We elected to sleep in and let the worst of it pass. The rain persisted, but daylight was wasting, so we donned our rain gear and slipped through the damp timber to the promising finger ridge. We eased up the luscious cedar slope to a bench, finding several trail crossings and scattered scat and brutalized cedar rubs. We tucked into a small blowdown thicket overlooking the trail crossing, still competing with the unceasing drizzle. The cold mountain wind cut through us, and after deciding to endure the day here, we pitched a tarp to give some rain respite. We enjoyed a lunch and cup of coffee as rain splat on the tarp and remained vigilant. The rain finally broke some, and I slipped down and up the next drainage to reach a better listening point. I casted lonely mews up the horseshoe, and our bull responded—all the way at the top of the bend, likely where we’d seen them bedded previously. Although we didn’t expect them to be motivated to move until the clouds broke, we were confident they would head our way eventually.
We explored deeper into the timber up the lead, finding copious sign and a better vantage point. We found the area where we thought the elk were entering the timber and decided our odds were better here, so we hedged ourselves in the treeline overlooking a bench laden with tracks and prepared our ambush. Although the persistently cold drizzle numbed our extremities, the anticipation lofted our spirits and warmed our ambition. As the sun broke through late in the afternoon, the bugling bull began bumping his cows, hopefully headed our way. Our wind was holding true, and the teeth-chattering cold was replaced with the full body quaking of bull fever as the bugles closed in. A stray coyote inserted himself betwixt us and our quarry, and we feared his howls of hunger would hinder our efforts and push the elk elsewhere. I imagined a fierce face-off between the protective rut-fueled bull and the wild dog, nipping at the heels of a calf, though we had no way of knowing the outcome. The howls subsided, and the elk continued to move our way. Closer than they’d been yet, just as we thought they were almost in sight, a stray human bugle squawked from beyond the herd. Our hearts dropped, knowing the bull would displace his cows away from the encounter.
Jonah and I exchanged determined glances and shot out of our foxhole toward the herd, trying to intercept them before they changed course. We advanced onto the torched timber-ridden bench, hurdling deadfalls and sliding through the damp, ashy topsoil, cutting the distance to the harassed harem, adrenaline wired and dedicated whole heartedly to that moment. Just to the left, we spotted them skirting our flank through the timber above us. I was able to stop a few curious cows with compelling calls, longing for attention as earnestly as the human vocal cords can manage. A cow perched atop a rock and gave me a clear shot at 100 yards. I drew a bead and prepared to shoot when a terrifying tyrannosaurus-roar-like bugle detonated over the rise, seemingly just out of sight no more than 30 yards away, causing me to hesitate in hopes of taking the bull. The cow lost interest and evacuated, and the ventriloquist bull appeared farther back in the timber a moment later, clearly out of reach. The herd eluded us and escalated the steep mountain ridge as gracefully as a billy goat at home on a rocky face, unaware of the two broken hearts remaining below. We longed for the agility to give chase while the bull gave triumphant bellows from above. Unsure of our emotions, we sat in silence adjacently, haunched on a burnt log as dreary as the cold drizzle. Such an incredible encounter surely should incite joy, excitement and awe, yet we tucked our soaked tails and sulked down the slope, deflated and discouraged. Our morale was boosted as we relived the day over a steaming plate of fajitas and bursting burritos in town.
Friday Sept 16
Rain welcomed us into Friday but was forecasted to let up at daylight. Once again we girded our gear and marched up the mountain, our pace slow and hearts heavy, knowing today was the last morning of our hunt. We happened into two cow moose near the river, one aggressive, but as if they could sense our discouragement, they gave us a free sympathy pass through their domain. Each step upward seemed heavier than those prior in the week. We had pushed our bodies beyond what we thought possible all week, charging up the mountain each morning before sunup, hiking all day through blowdowns and rocky obstacles, from lowest valleys to the highest peaks. Our spirits were as burnt out as the surrounding cedar cadavers, charred remnants of the lush life predating the wildfire. We reached the finger ridge and called longingly up into the horseshoe, hoping the harem returned to their perch above the treeline. Our beckons echoed emptily up the drainage unanswered. We listened intently for a time, wondering if last night’s encounter was the punctuation of our excitement. We set into one last scenic cup of coffee and breakfast, soaking up all of the views Colorado could offer. The sun broke through the clouds and laid a smoky haze blanket over the valley below. The ravens gawked mockingly as the valley withheld a response bugle. We exchanged smiles and began our bittersweet stroll back to the truck, thankful for the adventure and the memories we now shared of our backcountry bugling bonanza.