Elk in the High Country

Luke Clayton is sponsored by Catfish Radio

By: Luke Clayton

As our powerful crew cab Chevy Silverado easily negotiated Rabbit Ears Pass in northern Colorado, I thought of how tough traveling must have been through the Rockies 150 years ago. Back then travel would have been on the backs of strong mountain horses and all the gear we were carrying in the truck’s bed would have been transported by pack animals. We were on an elk hunting adventure and spirits were high!

There is something absolutely magical about hunting elk in the high country, especially when one leaves Texas’ searing heat in early September for 38 degree night’s common during archery season in the mountains north of Steamboat Springs Colorado.

I’ve hunted the mountains a good bit through the years, often with my friend Larry Large who’s been an elk guide for the majority of his adult life. Larry and I joined forces this year and leased a section of a retired outfitters private ranch. On last week’s hunt, we had 4 hunters in camp. Headquarters for the hunters was a comfortable log cabin nestled in the mountains a couple miles from a mountain called Sleeping Giant.

The Sleeping Giant shot from the cabin.

Larry, Billy Kilpatrick, our chief cook and camp manager, and I were in charge of keeping our hunters well fed as well as putting them in a position to harvest game. Hunting is an entirely different proposition when one becomes responsible for others rather than simply hunting solo. We were fortunate to have a great bunch of guys for our first hunt.

Comfortable accommodations for all.

The area we were hunting is heavily populated with elk, bear and mule deer. It’s not known for truly trophy elk but I’ve never seen anywhere near the number of 240 BC to 280 BC bulls that we encountered on our 5 day archery hunt. On one bugling session the first morning, Large had a total of 7 bulls screaming their heads off in response to his expert bugling and cow calling. One of his hunters, Mike McGinley, harvested a bull the first morning as we were leaving camp in route to the areas we planned to hunt. I was present for, although not an active participant in, the harvest. As we approached a small saddle in the mountains, we heard a bull bugling from the edge of some aspens in the valley below. Large instructed the bow hunters to take positions in the oak brush and he began calling. Immediately, bulls sounded off from several positions in the adjacent valley and within 10 minutes, three of them had closed the distance. One appeared near the edge of a grove of oaks, in which McGinley was concealed. A well placed arrow anchored the bull but as is usually the case, elk have the uncanny ability to run to the thickest, nastiest cover available. It was necessary to quarter the bull to get the meat out of the maze of downed trees, brush and deadfalls. Bull one was down and the hunt was just getting underway.

Mike McGinley, harvested this bull the first morning of the hunt.

We were driving electric off road vehicles that began life as golf carts. Ken Blackstock with Plano Golf Carts uses lift kits, big tires, bigger motors, posi-track rear ends and oversized controllers to convert the carts into rugged off road machines. Our entry and departure into the hunting areas was totally silent which was one of the big reasons we had close encounters with elk throughout the hunt. Because of the stealthy way we were able to access the good hunting areas, the elk herd remained totally undisturbed.

It’s interesting how hunters from different walks of life and backgrounds bond quickly when in the back country. Friendships develop quickly among hunters and by the first evening, we were all well acquainted and working together as a team. We shared a common goal: Enjoy the few days we had to spend together in the mountains and hopefully leave with all elk tags filled. Bear are plentiful in northern Colorado and most of the hunters had bear tags.

I spent the first afternoon hunting with Roger Wyrick who was on his first archery hunt for elk. Roger and I have very similar requirements from a hunting trip. While we both enjoy hunting for trophy antlers but it’s the prime elk steaks and roasts that drive us and, the sheer joy of hunting in the pristine high country.

Roger and I settled into a ground blind overlooking a remote watering hole with a fresh elk wallow on its upper end. Large and I had set a trail camera here a few days prior and I knew it was a hotspot for not only elk but bear as well. At water’s edge, I spotted the prints of a mature bear, probably left there the previous night. Early into the hunt, we began seeing mule deer doe and a couple of young bucks come down from the high bedding areas in black timber to water. One nice 5 by 5 bull was lured in close by my cow calling but an errand wind blew our scent in his direction and he was gone in a flash.

It amazes me how an 800 pound elk can seemingly appear out of nowhere. One minute, we were glassing out the window to our left, the next, we were watching a big, mature cow elk approach the water from the far side of the watering hole. I had already used my rangefinder and determined that it was 45 yards to the aspen the cow was standing beside. Roger is a very experienced deer hunter and accustomed to shooting out to 30 yards. When elk hunting, it’s good to be proficient out to 40 yards and maybe a bit farther. Back at camp, he proved to me his 40 yard sight pin was on. I knew the trajectory of the arrow from 40 to 45 yards would be pretty close, guessing the drop to be three or four inches.

Before settling into our blind, Roger asked me to instruct him as to when to shoot. 45 yards is pushing the limit for most hunters, but I felt confident he could make the shot. When the elk turned broadside at water’s edge, I gave him the thumbs up. He was already at full draw. As luck would have it the elk quartered a bit more just as he released the arrow. The resulting shot was lethal.

Roger’s elk ran only 40 yards making retrieval a relatively easy task. I probably should state that getting harvested game the size of elk out of the backcountry is never easy but the shorter the trailing job, the easier it is to pack the meat out of the mountains.

The next day I had the privilege of joining my long time friend Mark Balette on his hunt. Mark runs a bowshop and hunting operation, B & Outfitters, down in Trinity County. We’ve hunted together a great deal the past couple of decades and were now hunting a shelf at the base of Sleeping Giant Mountain. Elk travel down the mountain to feed in the valley during late afternoon and the evening hours and move back up in the cool dark timber each day around mid morning. The area was thick with aspens and ferns about 3 feet high. Elk trails were everywhere, winding their serpentine routes through the thick ground cover.

One gets the full impact of just how big a mature elk is when hunting from the ground with the animal only 20 yards away. Mark’s arrow flew a few inches above the top of the ferns and impacted the elk perfectly behind the shoulder resulting in another short trailing job. This time, we had the advantage of elevation. Later that evening, with the help of Chris McGinley and three stout ropes, we skidded Mark’s elk down to a road, making it much easier to retrieve.

Mark Balette made a perfect shot that made for a short tracking job.

At the end of the 5 day hunt, a total of 3 elk were hanging on the meat pole and one black bear was arrowed, every hunter had multiple opportunities to harvest game. Considering only about 10% of archery elk hunters score each year, we rated our success rate as excellent.

Trout fishing was a highlight to the hunt. Our cook Billy Kilpatrick guides crappie trips at Lavon and he quickly did some checking and found a stream nearby that was loaded with rainbows. Buttered and grilled trout, sprinkled with salt, pepper with just a splash of lemon juice makes for a mighty tasty high country meal.
For more information on hunting with L & L Outfitters, visit www.bowhuntcoloradoelk.net