It was some years ago now that my brother Dan, my father-in-law Rick, brother-in-law Brad and a friend decided to attempt our first ever Elk hunt. Still the memories and the experience last in my mind like it was yesterday. None of us were novice hunters…or so it seemed. Rick had been hunting since he was very young. Brad since he was old enough for Rick to take along. My brother and I had been hunting with our dad since we were old enough to walk. And our friend, who was also named Dan, had come from the south and hunted many things including hogs since he was a kid as well. All combined we considered ourselves very seasoned hunters.
So when the idea came to us to pack up our gear and travel to Colorado to hunt Elk, we thought this was going to be a piece of cake. Whitetail seemed no match for us any more as we had so many successful years that it was almost expected that we would point others in the right direction by the second day of any season. We always had the most impressive meat pole in the area. We had hunted upland birds, geese, small game, pretty much everything up to this point except for Elk in the mountains.
Now how hard can it be to take our tents, sleeping bags and guns and go out and show these majestic creatures who is boss? We carefully planned our hunt by purchasing maps and gazettes of the area we intended to conquer. We made a checklist of things we would all need and then broke down the list on some of the community items for each of us to bring. We had all we needed and then some. Years of camping out had us feeling pretty good about this trip and we all enjoyed sleeping outside under the stars. Drinking coffee around the campfire, cooking outside…well you get the picture.
So when the day finally came we loaded the trucks with all our gear. We were smart by packing all our gear into coolers and rolling up army duffle bags for the return trip. After all, we intended on coming home with 5 Elk. Exactly, 5 hunters, 5 tags…we should have 5 Elk on the way home. Over confidence was not scarce with us. We then loaded an ATV in the back on top of all our coolers into each truck. After all we intended to have to go in and drag out a couple of animals. So we wanted to be ready.
Now let me tell you before I go on too much more. No matter how much you think you know your buddies, you will find out a lot more when you pack into trucks and set out on a 22 hour drive. Our trucks were full so we had just enough room for 5 of us in two cab-and-a-half trucks among all the gear. We had MRE’s, dried food, fishing gear so we could eat fresh trout, you name it we were prepared. We started out on our trip in great spirits talking on the two way radios and enjoying the scenery. By the time we hit the south side of Iowa, we had said all we wanted and the trip was wearing on us. Nebraska at night was truly a long drive and as we entered Colorado, it was late and we had freezing rain by now. Some of us tried to sleep on the way but no one could get comfortable. Patience was wearing thin and now we had to watch for animals crossing the road. Our first sign of wildlife was some Mule Deer. Yep there they were standing in the middle of the interstate at 2:00 a.m. in windy freezing rain. Now those of us who had fallen asleep had to wake up and help watch for animals. We made it to Denver at a well-planned time right in the middle of rush hour. Good plan! Anyhow, we got through and made it to Colorado Springs. We stopped for a time, got breakfast, and proceeded on. We tried to tell ourselves we were happy now but really we had about enough of each other and short naps had made our breath a toxic hazard. So now, if anyone opened their mouth to talk we had this to put up with. As we started west, we stopped at a gas station with a great view of the mountains. We took turns trying to freshen up in the rest room, including brushing our teeth.
A few hours later, we arrived at our location. No sleep, tired and crabby, but alive and ready to hunt. As we crossed the Divide, we spotted a couple of Moose lying under a tree near the road. Seemed like a great sign to us. We drove to the road where we planned on setting up camp and started the journey to the end. 7 miles left on our journey and we could unpack. Well folks, those last 7 miles took 45 minutes of slowly driving over rocks and along side of streams. We could hardly believe this road made the map. When we finally made our stop, we had all about lost all control of any temper we had. So we set up all the tents as a team, or should I say as a bunch of grumpy men who all wanted to do it their way.
When this ordeal was over we decided what would make us feel better is to have a bath. And we came ready to take our baths in the river if needed. Sounded like a good idea when we left. So first to the river were brother Dan and I. We knew the water would be cold so we planned to just jump right in. BIG mistake. Cold was not the word for the Mid October water in Colorado. The only reason we figure this water was not frozen is because it was moving. Dan and I jumped in and I could read in his eyes that he was as shocked as I was. But the water was so cold it had robbed us of enough wind to even speak. Then being the he-men that we are, we dove under to get our hair wet. We quickly cleaned up and got out. We dried off, put on fresh clothes, and vowed not to say a word to anyone else. When the others got to the water, they evidently went in a little slower as we could hear them when they hit the water. We laughed for the first time in hours but we felt better. We got ready for our first night and had dinner and talked a little of our plans and then hit the racks.
By morning, our moods were much better and we began to set a plan for scouting the area. As we did so, a small SUV drove past us up the trail. We all stopped and looked. NO way this trail went further. But sure enough it did. Well we wanted to be at the end so we packed everything up quick and moved another 20 minutes to the end. Now this was a much better site too. We had flat ground everything was wide open and we were as far as we could go with a vehicle. We were ready to walk in now. I wonder why all the other camps were set up so far back down the trails with such a nice spot here? Well anyway, we were happy.
I almost forgot to mention the great idea I had before we left. I rented a huge tent from a rental center. It was 20” x 30’. My plan was to set it up, then set our smaller tents inside and we would be as warm and comfortable as home. The plan was ingenious in theory. We scouted for the rest of the afternoon and saw nothing. But we had high hopes from sign we had seen and everyone was excited. It got a little cold toward evening and we got just a little snow. Our excitement was really up now. As night set in we found out why all the others had chosen to set camp so far back in the cover of the trees. You see, for all of us who camp and rough it in the Midwest, things are backwards in Colorado. We are used to evening breezes dying off to calm quiet nights. Well, here the winds pick up at night and as the cold sets in you can count on a windy night. So we had to run around like idiots tying down the tents to the bumpers of the trucks and to the ATV’s. Finally, we got control of the situation, ate some MRE’s and crawled into our tents for the night.
As morning came, we all were awake with anxiety over our season opener. We were not here for the first season and we saw enough animals on the way out as we were coming in on trucks that we were really ready to go. So we got up and fired up the LP heaters. Yes, we were so prepared that we did not have to rely on lighting a fire. We transported LP tanks and heaters so we could have scent free heat at a moment’s notice. Throughout the night the cold air and the breath of 5 men had formed a nice layer of ice on the inside ceiling of our circus tent. (Well that is what I call it now). As the heaters warmed the air for us this morning, we learned a great science lesson. It is called rain. A natural phenomenon that occurs when you heat up that nice layer of ice on the inside of the big tent. Within minutes we were soaking wet from our clothes to our sleeping gear. I have never in my life seen anything so funny yet so amazingly stupid. So we started our first day of hunting cold and wet.
We all set off separate ways to hunt and Dan and I stuck together. We had a great day of hunting but did not see any Elk. As we came in for the day, the wind had picked up again and the snow had started. A couple of hunters stopped at our tent on horseback and asked us to give a woman a ride in the truck to their site. She had gotten very wet and cold and the horse ride would have been too much for her. We were pleased to help a fellow hunter and Rick drove her to their site while the men in that group pushed on with the horses. Dan, who was always good about listening to the weather, told me it was supposed to snow all night and we should have a couple of inches in the morning. He is usually right about the weather even to this day. I told him, if I wake in the morning and there is snow, I am gonna drive out of here and drive along a road to see if there is even a track in this area. If I find one, I am gonna get out and follow it until I find an animal in the tracks. Dan agreed this was not a bad idea and Brad said he would go along.
In the morning, there was snow and we did as planned while Rick and the other Dan went into the mountains to find an Elk. We got out to the valleys and drove along some roads to see what other country there was and see if there was any fresh sign at all. As we drove over a hill top on the open country a small community of cabins came into view. We could not believe our eyes. We drove to them and found a general store where we got some doughnuts and some juice. We found that the cabins were for rent and a very good deal. Hot showers, a stove and a real bed with no rain in the morning. When we left the main road, had we turned left instead of right we would have found this place much sooner when we got here. Nonetheless, we found it now.
Being the salesman that I am, I told the owner of the little store and cabins that if I got an Elk today I was gonna come back and rent a cabin for the week. Then I asked him where I might find an Elk. Now with the deal I just left on the table, he would surely point me to exact bedding place, right? WRONG! He smiled and looked at me and said they are all over. All over huh! I have been walking up and down and have seen nothing yet. I quickly found that the locals are very good about NOT giving out hunting spots. They too hunt to fill the freezer and so they are as vague as they can be about any Elk sightings. Yet this guy was good enough to ask me where I was hunting. When I told him, he just smiled and said you are too high. I looked puzzled at him and he said, I don’t know for sure but I hear that two bulls were killed within a mile of this store yesterday. Now it was at least two miles to where our road turned off so that was about as close as I could get to a finger pointing. Furthermore, within a mile of this store…we did not have to climb a mountain. I left the store, drove up a road, and got out to walk along looking for tracks.
Suddenly I found them. Two tracks…one big and one small. Now I know this means a cow and a calf, but I just want to see an Elk so I feel better. And maybe between here and where I find them they will meet up with a bull. We followed them to a stand of short pines that were 10 to twelve feet high. We devised a plan to circle the stand and post one of us high on a hill to see what came out. I stood and Brad and Dan set out to track the Elk. As they got into the trees, they found another set of tracks much bigger and it looked as if it ran out when we were standing and coming up with this plan. We worked this area for a while and when we were sure there were no animals here, we gathered at the truck.
Our spirits were high now as we had seen more this morning than we had the whole trip. We discussed the direction that the tracks headed off in, and suddenly realized something. As we came off the trail today there was a small truck parked with local plates on it. Two men were sitting in it watching a group of trees and they were not far from the store. Did these locals know about where the Elk had been taken yesterday? We figured they did and headed back to that spot. The truck was gone but this was right in line with where the Tracks had headed and they were very fresh. The group of trees looked not more than 60 or 70 acres with a stream on the other side and then the main trees and mountain started. So we set up the three of us one on each side and I walked in the middle of the woods trying to still hunt. We figured if I spooked anything it would go out past Dan or Brad. This took most of the day but we thought it was a good chance to see if I spooked anything in these woods. When I got to the other end, I was disappointed that I had heard no shots and called for Dan and Brad on the Radio. We met and started to walk back to the truck yet again. As we walked, we discussed how beautiful it was here and how there just had to be Elk somewhere close.
For whatever reason I raised my eyes at this precise moment, I don’t know. But as I did I saw an Elk! “A BULL” I yelled and started toward a hill top so I could see it again. At first, Dan and Brad thought I was jerking their chain but they soon realized that since we were not yet used to this altitude, I would not be running for a joke. Brad ran up right behind me and there he was. Standing right in front of us looking at us like we were nuts, there was a nice 5x5 bull. Brad and I shot and the Elk ran. We had missed! The bull started across the meadow as we shot again and finally Brad brought him down. Brad went to the animal and I watched to make sure it did not get up. We could not believe it, we just got an ELK!
Finally, we leapfrogged the 600+ yards to the downed animal and it was dead. We stood for a while in complete awe of the animal. Dan called on the radio and said good job. He asked which one of us had gotten it and I said Brad did. Then I asked Dan to use the range finder and tell us how far it is to where that elk was standing when we first shot.
Now this is where I will tell you first hand to be prepared for the illusion of distance in the west. Back home we can judge distance quite well but out west the rolling hills and the mountains themselves create an illusion that makes it almost impossible for a rookie to judge distance. Sometimes you will judge too close and others too far. As Dan was getting the range, Brad and I both found that without talking we judged the distance to be the same. We both had guessed 300 yards and so we aimed high. Just then Dan came over the radio…”80 yards”. WHAT? We were so excited that we had shot right over the animal. Well, it did not matter now, we had our Elk.
After dressing it, we posed for some pictures and some other hunters who had a camp nearby came up to us. They said they had watched us from up on the mountain and got a good laugh out of the show we had given them. They could not believe that within 100 yards of their tent we got a bull while they were up high looking for theirs. Then it was time to load it up.
Back home our law says we have to have the animal exposed until it is registered so we wanted to be safe. We found out later it is the opposite out here and it makes good sense but we followed our old habit. It took three of us to load this animal into the back of the truck, turn it around and get going, but we had this huge animal laying on the tailgate just like a whitetail in Wisconsin. We drove right back to that little store and booked a cabin as I had promised. Then we drove past all those campsites to let everyone know we had scored with our prize in the back of the truck. Everyone we passed looked at us as if we had lost our minds and we did not realize until later that it was because no one else out here displays an animal on the tailgate like we do in Wisconsin. Anyway, by the time Rick and the other Dan came out of the mountains we had the camp all packed up again and were ready to move.
They got down and were not happy at first. “What the heck are you doing now?” they asked in an agitated tone. I said well, tonight you get to sleep in a bed, take a shower and have a hot breakfast in the morning. They thought at first I meant we were leaving but then I told them of our little find. Rick walked around behind the truck to put something in and was shocked to see our Elk. I said, “oh yeah, by the way Brad got a bull today”! Now we were all happy and high fives were exchanged. We drove in to the cabins and hung up our quarry. The next morning Rick and the other Dan went back to the mountain. Rick had in fact seen and Elk and was gonna try one more time to get one up high.
Brad, Dan and I went back to the same patch of woods. I said, “Well if one bull can be in there maybe there are more”. Brad said he noticed the woods was much larger than I had guessed and he said there is a real steep slope with several down trees in it that I never even went close to. He said if there are any Elk in there, they will be on that slope. He said, “I will walk up there while you and Dan wait down here on the flat ground”. We said thanks and set up on top of that same little hill in the middle of the meadow.
Brad walked up and climbed this small hill to the top of a very thick trash can of down trees. As he started to walk along the slope, he heard crashing like the whole world was coming down. He knew he had just moved some Elk but could not say anything to us. Dan and I were watching and suddenly out came a herd of cow Elk. Our blood got hot instantly and right behind them was a bull. Another 5x5 but on public land, first time out he was a monster to us. We pulled up and my first shot found its mark this time. The Elk ran a little and Dan and I shot a couple more times to make sure he went down. He dropped within 100 yards of Brad’s yesterday. And we started the same scenario all over again.
The hunters came out of the mountain again and said they watched us set up this morning and even told each other that those guys form Wisconsin must think another Elk will run across that valley today. They had glassed us and recognized the hat I was wearing and could not believe we were sitting in the open meadow again. They said when we started shooting they glassed again and could not believe we had gotten another bull in the same spot. So again, we loaded the animal up and drove back to camp. Later we learned how to properly transport in Colorado and found that is why we were being looked at so funny. But nonetheless, we had gotten two bulls in the same spot two days in a row.
The next day we did the same thing and chased up a nice big spike, but we were in an area that has an antler restriction so we watched him run into the mountain. We did not get any more Elk on this trip but we had a great case of beginner's luck. We have hunted this spot many years since but we do not take the circus tent. And we never got lucky enough to find Elk here again. Since then we have learned to hunt in the mountains and found many animals up high.The experience of hunting new places is some of the fun of the sport. Sure, we got lucky this time but we learned a lot. One thing, before you go for your first time, do some research on the internet on a good packing list. Or talk with someone who has been there before you. We came over prepared and learned some lessons that we can now laugh at, like the big tent. But you can not replace hands on experience. Since this hunt many things changed including the over the counter tags system in Colorado. Still it is a great place to hunt and see some beautiful scenery. If you are looking to go to Colorado for the first time and don’t want to rough it let me recommend Taylor Park. You can find the Taylor Park Trading post online and can book a cabin there. They won’t share their secret spots with you, but I can tell you the Elk are all around you. You just have to look.
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