After 11 months of bugle deprivation, my hunting partner, Donnie Drake, and I began the long drive to southern Colorado full of anticipation. Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado flew by the windshield in shades of late summer, and after 16 hours on the road, we wanted to do anything but sit in the truck.
We met our good friend and videographer, Mark Skousen, at the bottom of the mountain, then headed up the hill to set up base camp. The rocky, two-track road was hemmed in by dense scrub oak, and we knew shooting lanes would be few and far between. Which meant the bugling action would be up close and personal.
We unloaded the trucks and set up camp as the last rays of daylight were eclipsed by the western horizon. That’s when 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. We were pumped.
A half hour of predawn hiking put us out onto a long finger ridge, which 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. A bull screamed 600 yards away, and we worked our way toward. I cow called and got immediate answers from 300 yards up the hill, so I hammered him with a challenge.
We had an intense screaming match, finally managing to coax him down the hill and away from his cows. But 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. The soft mews of several cows accompanied these new bugles, and they were heading straight for us.
More bulls joined in the choral chaos, and within a few minutes, there were four or five bulls bugling all 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-yard shot. But with eight days of hunting ahead of us, I decided to let the 5x5 go.
We headed down toward the next bugle, and my ears picked up a sound that I wasn't expecting to hear: the fluty sound of another hunter. We listened in disgust as these fellas made their way up the bottom of the canyon, knowing that the mid-day thermals would be spreading their scent our way. 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.
Donnie and Mark checking out the footage from our first call-in.
We left the canyon and found a brushy hillside fed by a small creek. Hoping to intercept the elk as they moved between feeding and cover, we clawed our way up through the thorns and oak brush. We hunted this new area for a few days and had some close encounters with a few smaller bulls, as well as one really cool looking non-typical. 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 bulls tempered and just outside the narrow shooting lanes we managed to find.
In this area, we had bear encounters every day, and often at very close distances. So it really wasn't much of a surprise when we returned to camp one afternoon and found the side of our tent had been slashed open. The bear apparently peaked into the vestibule and didn’t go any further. He must have smelled Donnie's boots.
Our gear was put through a gauntlet of sharp, unforgiving brush. Several times I winced, expecting to find a tear in my clothes, but after many punishing days, the Sitka Gear was unaffected.
We hunted some rough country - steep, thick, and deep - and we had several close encounters over the first five days. But we still hadn't found a bull that we were ready to put our tags on. And on the fifth day, all the action came to a near standstill. The long days and long, hard miles were taking their toll.
We were determined to find a good bull. Mark had to head home, and with just two days left to hunt, Donnie and I decided to head back into the burn that we hunted the first morning.
We hit it hard and early. The eastern sky was just beginning to gather light as we approached the edge of the canyon. A bull was screaming from the other side. 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 made our way up canyon to get the wind in our favor before heading across towards him. A half-hour later, we dropped into the bottom of the drainage, and as we started up the steep hillside toward him, the wind picked up and began swirling. With just hours left to hunt, we didn't have a choice. We pushed on up to get to the bull's level, and as we approached the bench where we last saw him, his bugle came 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 in heavy. He covered 300 yards in a matter of seconds, and as his legs began to materialize from the thick brush, I felt the wind hit the back of my neck. The bull went quiet and snuck back into the draw. I ran ahead, hoping he would stop or turn back. Donnie stayed behind to call. After 100 yards, I 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 him, and once again he was on his way in to my set up. For a second time, the wind turned and to carry my scent his way, 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, he fired back and came charging right towards me. He came to 45 yards and stopped behind a thick patch of oak brush. His roaring bugle rocked the entire canyon. He was huge in frame, with massive eye guards and long main beams. But he was missing his thirds, 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 two 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, pack up camp, and get an early start homeward. But the part of me that always seems to win out in elk season took over, pushing Donnie and I up the hillside toward the next drainage. We made the ridge, where heat-cracked rocks and burnt oak roots made 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 cow called to slow her down, and a bull answered from 300 yards below.
The cow settled down and began walking back toward 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 he first showed himself. A mature 5X5, and he was aggravated. Donnie stayed 50 yards back as I slipped down the hill and paralleled the elk as they worked to find more cover and less intrusion. They reached the edge of the burn and climbed onto a long ridge that dropped steeply into the canyon below. I knew it was our last chance to pull them up to us, so I charged 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 toward Donnie. He was concealed in brush, with the Heads Up Decoy in one hand and the bugle tube in the other, all while trying to work the video camera. I turned back around to see the ears of a cow moving up through the burn. She walked right past my 42-yard marker, and the bull was coming after her, rattling the hillside with his guttural screams. 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.
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 dove into the canyon below.
An afternoon rain pounded us as we finished boning him out. We packed heavy loads across the canyon in a heavy downpour, and it was dark when we reached the truck. Success had come just hours before the end of our hunt, and all it took was hanging in there until the very end.