Colorado OTC Bull Elk Hunt

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jdeck555
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Colorado OTC Bull Elk Hunt

Postby jdeck555 » Thu Nov 13, 2014 10:09 pm

To say the least, I was disappointed this spring when I didn't draw a single tag here in New Mexico. I was down to the last of my deer meat from the buck I took last fall, and more than anything I just didn't want to have to go a full year without big game hunting. The meat is important, and a trophy is nice, but what I really crave from hunting deer and elk is the experience of spending a week in the woods with razor sharp focus on a single goal and the happiness that I feel only from sitting around the campfire recounting old hunting stories and creating new ones with friends as the hunt unfolds. Fishing is my first love and the memory of a big fish inevitably will grow to legend over time, but the allure of fishing is in putting a line blindly into the water to satisfy a great curiosity about what might be lurking in an area into which we cannot tread. Fish, however, are very different from us mammals, almost alien in their coldness and indifference despite their great beauty. With big game hunting there is something special about knowing your quarry exactly, about that sameness we share. The encounter with a big mammal; hearing its calls and seeing its breath steam out in the cold pre-dawn hours, getting close enough to smell its hide, looking it directly in the eye and seeing something familiar-something distinctly warm and emotion filled, creates an intimate connection that simply can't be replicated in an encounter with a fish or bird. That connection feels ancient to me, a bond between old adversaries that might be diminished by all of our development as a society, but is simply too deeply rooted to be completely eradicated by progress. It is this old connection that I desire and I search out each fall.

With that need unfulfilled I knew that I couldn't sit back and wait, and I decided to look into other states for OTC tags for elk or deer. Success rates were really unimportant to me; the most important thing was to find an adventure and get away from the roads into some sort of high country. I also refuse to use a guide or pay to hunt on private land. It's not that I don't have respect for guides (several of my friends are guides and I have great respect for their skill and work ethic) or that I have a problem with buying a hunt on private land, it's just that personally I have a strong belief that hunting is about exploration and learning from personal experience and failures. Similarly, I believe that public land is our greatest resource in this country and that it should be used for fear that it may be lost. So I talked with some friends, scouted around with the backpack this summer, and finally decided to head out with some buddies to chase bull elk in the Gunnison area of Colorado. I have been on numerous elk hunts, but always as a companion and meat carrier, this would be my first chance to be the one with the tag.

The 3rd rifle season in Colorado is 9 days long, and I geared up and planned for months to be ready for a long hunt. I arrived on Halloween and met up with my friend from the area. It took everything I had not to stop on one of the numerous majestic rivers and streams in the region and test out the new Sage 5wt fly rod I won a few weeks before, but I focused and pulled it together and made it to elk camp Friday afternoon. The scenery was breathtaking, and camp sat at the confluence of two trails with no motorized access anywhere in our hunting area; just the way we wanted it. We set up camp, ate a light dinner and went to sleep early with thoughts of bull elk playing in our dreams.

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Elk camp
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On opening morning we hiked in several miles and climbed a high ridge to glass. The weather was warm and we assumed the elk would still be up high in the various bowls in the area. It turns out we were right, and we saw a group of 10-15 at first light. We moved closer to their position, but couldn't tell if there was a bull in the group. After stalking them for an hour or so, we couldn't find a bull and moved on. We continued climbing the ridge in order to glass some other basins and eventually found a herd of 30-40 with several shooter bulls (Colorado OTC hunts require 4 points on one side) and we moved into position where we thought they would cross the ridge that evening. We never saw them again that night, but we were happy with a good first day with many elk seen, several shooters identified and the heart rate elevated. Here is a pic from the top of the ridge.

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For as beautiful and warm as opening day had been, day 2 was equally as cold and miserable. The wind came up to 25-35 mph and the snow started to fall. Miserable or not, I've always loved hunting in the snow. There is something about walking the dark timber in deep silence that is truly special to me. Rarely do we really experience true silence in this modern era, and watching the snow slowly fall through the forest canopy with no electricity humming, no traffic sounds, no sound other than your own breathing and the sound of your own heart beating provides a small insight into what it must have once been like when we were part of the wild and not just the infrequent visitors we are today. We were cold and hunted hard all day without seeing elk in the limited visibility, but we were excited to see the weather change and we knew that the snow and cold could only be a good thing as the week went on. We went to bed feeling optimistic about our chances in the fresh snow. The snow fell all night and we awoke to mounds of snow on our tents and the snow still flying. We had friends coming in that day and decided to take the day off to make sure they could get into camp and to help them set up the wall tent and stove so we could dry out our stuff. It snowed most of the day and our spirits remained high.

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We hunted in good snow cover and cold temps over the next four days. The elk were out each morning and the snow and cold were doing their jobs and pushing the elk down a bit while keeping them out longer in the morning and bringing them out earlier in the evening. I was on elk each day and saw numerous bulls, several 6x6s and a number of 4x4s and 5x5s, but I just couldn't seal the deal. By mid-day Thursday I was starting to feel both fatigued from the 50+ miles of hiking (3 miles in and 3 miles out plus another 2-5 miles each day at 10,000-12,000 feet) and frustrated at what I perceived to be my bad decision making. I hit this point in the hunt each year; the point where I feel I have simply thought myself out of success by making the wrong choices at each decision point, that if I would have simply picked the other option I would have taken an animal; up instead of down, pursued instead of held tight, shot instead of passed. The truth is though, that you are always at the disadvantage when you hunt the big mammals. Their lives are spent honing their skills at avoiding predators, they know every nook of the area, every escape route, every vantage. I told myself that I had one, maybe two days left in me and that I just had to keep at it and maybe I would finally be the one to make the right move, and the elk the one to make a mistake.

I set out Friday morning with a friend who was not hunting and we decided to walk the valley bottom. The elk had started to come down and they were beginning to make their winter migration across the valley and we had seen herds starting to make their crossing early in the mornings. Another friend went up the hill to see if there was a herd up top. We got out early and heard cow calls on the hillside before we could even see. We continued on to get to a better vantage point and as soon as the light improved we saw a group of three elk moving down the hill in the direction we were headed. We moved closer and I could see that at least one was a legal bull. Being that this was a public land, OTC hunt that little piece of information was all I needed to know and we hurried to get in position where we thought they would cross. The elk had a different idea, however, and we saw them crossing further up the valley into an area with a series of small hills. I left my pack and my buddy on a hilltop and headed for the tree line to try to intercept them before they went into the dark timber and disappeared. The snow was still soft in the trees and I was able to move quietly and I got into position after a quick 700 yard jog. I sat in the tree line and listened to the elk making soft calls just over a small roller in front of me. I resisted the urge to move up to a closer, but more exposed spruce on the top of the hill and was glad that I waited. Not 30 seconds later I looked up the hill and saw a bull step out of the trees. He was unaware of my presence and he was in no hurry to move. I saw him clearly silhouetted against the white snow and knew that he was legal. I didn't wait to see if anything else would step out. Sometimes you just know that this is it, this is going to be your chance, and I knew this was mine. I took a deep breath and set the crosshairs just behind the shoulder. 150 yards. I squeezed the trigger and made the shot. When I looked up over the scope I saw him lying on the hillside in the snow. He didn't move and went down right in his tracks. I waited a moment and let it sink in. He was down. I did it. My first elk. Seven days of hunting came down to that one moment and I made it count. Relief and joy washed over me, followed by the sadness that comes from taking one of the big mammals. I always feel that sadness and I hope that I never stop feeling it when I make a kill. We may be old adversaries, but that relationship is born out of thousands of years of tradition and there is no animosity. I feel only respect for these magnificent animals, and to me it is only normal to feel a sense of loss even if the kill was a necessary part of the venture. I took a few minutes to compose myself and to reflect on the moment. My friend came running down the hill and when we met we hugged in celebration and went to check him out.

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A young 4x4 with his fifths just starting to form. He was a small bull, but I have never been a trophy hunter and the fact that I worked so hard to harvest him, and that he was my first elk, made it feel the way I imagine an experienced elk hunter would fell after dropping a giant 6x6. The shot was a double lunger and I was happy to know that the time I put in practicing with my Savage .270 paid off with a good shot. My friend told me that the other two elk in the group were also young bulls and that they had been sparring when I took my shot. I would have loved to have seen it, but fortunately for me I was preoccupied. It took us about 4 hours to dress and quarter him and we spent the remainder of the day packing him out the 4 miles back to camp. It took two trips and I was exhausted, but it was the best I've ever felt at the end of a hunt. Even better, we heard a shot 45 minutes after I took my bull and my friend on the ridge top brought down his own 5x5. A double! We spent the following day packing his elk down the ridge.

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The pack out was long, but beautiful
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Following the pack out on Saturday we spent the afternoon getting ready to break down camp and by sitting around a big campfire drinking beer, telling stories and eating fresh meat. The mood was high, the stories exaggerated and the laughs abundant. There are numerous stories that I left out of this account that were recounted on that last night: losing a mule for days and finding him again an hour after we finished packing the last of the meat down the mountain, coming 10 yards from being run down by a cow elk, and an incredible flame dancing performance when one of us, totally sober, lit himself on fire with some poorly placed gas. But those stories are reserved for our little band, the boys who were out there on the mountain. Some stories are best savored within the group, only shared on those special evenings around a campfire on hunts yet to come.

Sunday morning signaled the end of the hunt and we spent the morning breaking down camp. Everyone was ready to go home and rest and get a much needed shower, but we all still felt that somber feeling that comes at the end of every hunt You've spent months obsessing over every detail; pouring over maps, reading every internet forum, shooting, packing and repacking. The anticipation is almost as fun as the hunt itself. Every crappy day at work is a little better with the knowledge that the hunt is coming. Now it's all over and it will be a long year before the next hunt. Until then I will content myself with my first love and see what I can pull through the ice, and watch for the first stoneflies, mayflies and caddis flies that will hatch off my favorite streams. Ideas for next year are already swirling though, and the next hunt, the next chance to rekindle that old connection with one of the big mammals, will be coming around the corner sooner than I think.

jdeck555
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Re: Colorado OTC Bull Elk Hunt

Postby jdeck555 » Thu Nov 13, 2014 10:14 pm

Forgot to say before I posted the story that I haven't participated on the forum too much this year due to my lack of a deer tag, but I have learned a lot from people on this forum over the last couple of seasons and thought that I could at least provide an account of my elk hunt this year to make sure I contributed something to those who have shared so much. I hope you enjoyed the story.

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killerbee
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Re: Colorado OTC Bull Elk Hunt

Postby killerbee » Fri Nov 14, 2014 12:20 am

I wrote a nice long today, but when I submitted it I got a error text code

Anyway, thanks for sharing, it was a great read. Congratulations on a great hunt and your first bull

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JDavid
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Re: Colorado OTC Bull Elk Hunt

Postby JDavid » Sat Nov 15, 2014 10:14 am

Great story!
Is someone with 10 million dollars any happier than someone with 9 million?

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ABert
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Re: Colorado OTC Bull Elk Hunt

Postby ABert » Sun Nov 16, 2014 12:24 pm

Congrats on getting your first elk!
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MuleyMadness
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Re: Colorado OTC Bull Elk Hunt

Postby MuleyMadness » Mon Nov 17, 2014 8:58 pm

Nicely done!

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Re: Colorado OTC Bull Elk Hunt

Postby JBird » Wed Nov 19, 2014 4:28 pm

Very nice! I loved the story too.

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Re: Colorado OTC Bull Elk Hunt

Postby MooseCravings » Fri Dec 26, 2014 11:15 am

Nicely done! Great story, great pics, and thanks for sharing!

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Re: Colorado OTC Bull Elk Hunt

Postby Muley Stalker » Thu Apr 30, 2015 11:08 am

I'm late to this thread, but that was one of the best hunting stories i've ever read. I was right there with you. Since i've been on 60 elk hunts I could feel what you were writing. Congats on your bull.
I might add that i'm also a fly fisherman, and that part of your story hit home too. I even live next to where you hunted.

Good job.
Keep your nose in the wind.


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