Breathtaking Bowhunts – Chapter 1
By Mike Lamade
May 23, 2007 – 7:25:29 AM
CLOSING THE GAP
Turkey Tactics for Bugling Bulls
He was coming in! There was no doubt about it. Years of experience working slick, Pennsylvania gobblers was finally paying off. For two hours I had been trying every calling technique I knew, but he didn’t seem interested. But now, after closing the gap, I just might get the shot of a lifetime. Sound a little heavy for a turkey story beginning? Probably so, but the featured player in this outdoor scenario wasn’t a 20-pound Pennsylvania longbeard. It was a 700-pound Colorado six by six bull elk, now only 90 yards away and
stalking me! He was “closing the gap”?fast!
Let’s back up. For the past 20 years I’ve spent as much time as possible bowhunting whitetails in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Wayne County. I’ve also put just as much time into turkey hunting and have been fairly successful at both. However, like most of us, I had a job that greatly interfered
with my being in the woods as much as I wanted. But now, after 25 years as a teacher and administrator, early retirement was possible. The kids were grown, the house was paid for, and I had a big garden. Deer and turkey hung out behind the house and the Upper Delaware was full of bass and trout. What more does a guy need?
So, I did it. I took the early retirement. Time now to do the things that outweighed the penalty for retiring early. This isn’t a dress rehearsal we go through every day. It’s the main event. So, for the first time in my life, September and October were completely at my disposal. What to do? Take an elk with a bow and arrow.
For years I had read all the articles and books on elk hunting. Most of us in the East can only read the stories and look at the pictures. Time and money stand in the way of realizing a hunt in the West. But now I had my chance to try.
No ties, no time restraints to hold me back. Go for it. During the winter months and on into spring I practiced my bugling and grunting techniques using cassette tapes from Larry Jones in Montana and Wayne Carlton in Colorado.
Both manufacture excellent products including tapes, diaphragm and tube type calls. I used diaphragm calls almost exclusively for turkey calling and wanted to develop similar skills in elk calling in order to have both hands free for
shooting the bow.
I also went back through ten years of Bowhunter, reading every article on elk hunting I could find. A better source of bowhunting knowledge can’t be found. Dwight Schuh’s book, Bugling for Elk, was also a great help. Anyone planning an early season bow hunt should make this required reading.
The more I read about bugling in bulls, the more similaritythere seemed to be between calling in mating gobblers and bulls in the rut. I was convinced that spring turkey techniques would work on rutting bulls.
I practiced shooting all summer. My yard looked like a disaster area, with targets of cardboard, styrofoam, rag-filled feed bags and even old tumbling mats stationed at 10, 20, 30 and 40 yards.
My bow was a left-hand PSE Laser Magnum set at 60 pounds. I was using 2117 Camo Hunter shafts, and fletched the shafts myself with three left helical five inch vanes. The broadhead I had chosen was the Razorbak 5. I liked its design
and exceptional flight characteristics. Completing the outfit was the Altier Bowhunter Rifle Sight and Altier Spitfire release. Tony Altier lives nearby in Honesdale, and his sight and release are well-made and extremely accurate. I felt confident out to 40 yards.
In anticipation of the trip I had purchased a 4×4 pickup with a small cap on the back (and elk pictures on the windows for luck). I now had travel and sleep arrangements for the crosscountry trip and also for camping in the mountains if need be. A good sleeping bag, small stove, backpack, one-man tent and
a supply of freeze-dried food made me self-sufficient. I had booked my hunt with Bill Law Guide Service out of Mesa, Colorado through an ad I had seen in Bowhunter magazine. After talking with Bill on the phone several times, I
felt confident I had picked the right outfitter.
Everything was ready to go. On Labor Day, Sept. 3, I backed the little pickup down my driveway in the pre-dawn darkness, and reality suddenly hit me. I was actually heading 2,000 miles west to bugle a bull elk into bow range!
Three days later I arrived in Mesa, and crashed in the local motel, The Wagon Wheel. After ten hours of sleep, time in the sauna, and some good food, I was as good as new. I was off to the trailhead on the Grand Mesa to meet Bill Law and the other hunters. There were five hunters in the camp-one from
California, three from Wisconsin, and myself from Pennsylvania. After a two-hour horseback ride into the mountains we arrived at the comfortable and well-organized tent camp.
Each of us had our own guide, all working hard to produce game, but it was hot and bugling was sparse. During the week we hunted a combination of tree stands on game trails and stillhunted. During the week, four out of five had shots on elk or mule deer, but no one scored. All of the shots came while
On the last day of the hunt I had a shot at a cow?and missed! She was standing along a trail as we went out of camp in the morning and took my guide and me by surprise. I had a moving shot through the aspens. I used my 20-yard pin and shot under her chest. Pacing it off, it was 35 yards. They sure
are bigger than the whitetails back home!
I was disappointed. I had spent seven days on the Grand Mesa and had blown my only shot. But, it’s a long drive back to the Keystone State. I had no time schedule to meet, and I wasn’t in the mood to give up quite yet. I was finding that elk hunting can become just as much an obsession as turkey
I came off the Grand Mesa on a Sunday. I checked into the Wagon Wheel for R&R: the sauna, hot food, cold beer, clean sheets, the NFL Today, and the other comforts we take for granted-like a flush toilet.
The next morning I went to the Mesa General Store, owned by Bill Law, and told him I had gotten my second wind and wasn’t going home without an elk. I said I’d like to try it on my own. I knew that Bill had some private ground near Colbran that he uses for the muzzleloader and rifle season. It’s mostly
buckbrush and small stands of quakies, some of it quite steep with elevation up to almost 8,000 feet.
It was Monday afternoon. I told Bill if I wasn’t back by Friday to come looking. So later that day, Bill’s son Russ, and guides Jeff, from Virginia; Bill, from Nebraska; and Curt, from Wisconsin; escorted me and my 4×4 to a spot on the mountain, wished me luck, and left.
I was at 7,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. I set up camp, which consisted of opening a sleeping bag, cranking up the one burner Coleman stove, and opening a can of stew. Sleeping in the truck made the tent unnecessary. As dark descended, the coyotes began wailing and the stars loomed closer than I had ever seen them before. I felt very much alone.
He bugled just before dawn! Forgetting where I was, I sat up so fast I smashed my head of the cap roof. That got me awake in a hurry! I set a new record for getting into camo jeans and jacket. Grabbing my bow, diaphragms, and grunt tube, I listened intently to get a fix on where the bugle had come from. Ten minutes went by. It was beginning to get light. He bugled again. I headed in that direction for about 200 yards. He never made another sound. I bugled again. Once. Twice. No answer. It was all so similar to spring gobbler hunting back home. When the gobbling stops, the morning hunt is as good as over. I spent the rest of the day looking for sign. Rubs, wallows, trails, whatever. It got hot. Seventy degrees and dusty. It was hard to believe that it had been 25 degrees that same morning. Up and down I climbed through buckbrush and quakies. It sure was different from the maples, beech grooves and rolling hills of home. Slowly, doubts began creeping into my mind.
What was I doing here? I was alone. The evening had produced no action. I crawled into the back of the truck in the darkness.
Dawn came cold and early. Breakfast was two granola bars and coffee in the dark. I climbed the mountain. The bow seemed heavy. This was day number 12. At 6:30 under a rising sun he bugled. What a sound! The bow was a feather-it
floated in my hand. Until this, a wild turkey gobble on a spring morning had been the ultimate in wildlife music for me, a Canada goose maybe second. But a bull elk at dawn at 7500 feet-there’s nothing to compare.
It’s a repeat performance of the day before. He bugled, I bugled. He grunted, I grunted. Back and forth. Sending greetings across the valley. Again, just like every other day, he quit when the sun broke the horizon.
I climbed the mountain to the microwave station. I fell asleep in the warm afternoon sun, as the long day, the altitude, and almost two weeks of getting up before dawn and climbing the ridges caught up to me.
The elk bugled at 6 p.m. In the wrong place. I had him figured for the north slope. He was down in the valley in the opposite direction, at least a mile away. By the time I began moving in his direction he stopped bugling and darkness was closing around me. I found my way back to the truck and went to bed without supper.
As I watched the stars and listened to the coyotes, the question came up again. What was I doing here? Two thousand miles from home, 13 days in the mountains, and I hadn’t come close. Decision: Tomorrow is it. I decided I would hunt the morning and the afternoon, and if I got no results, I would
pack it in. Not really quit, just admit that for this year the elk had won. I was tired.
September 19 came to life, as had the previous two weeks. A glow in the east, the stars got brighter before dimmer, as if they didn’t want to give up their hold on the mountain meadow below. He again bugled at first light, a good mile away. It was getting personal now.
For three days I’d been dueling with this bull. What was he? A spike? A four point? A trophy? I had no idea, but I knew I wanted him-badly.
As I moved in his direction I saw movement on my right. Elk! Two cows heading in my direction. More movement on my left-two more cows and some calves. They were coming closer and the wind was right. I was kneeling in the buckbrush only 30 yards from them, but there were no antlers in sight.
They fed right by me, not knowing I was even there. Again, the mid-day hours were uneventful, but at 5:30 he bugled, right on schedule. For three days now I had tried everything I knew to get this bull interested. Nothing had
worked, but I suddenly realized I had forgotten one of the important lessons of turkey hunting-close the gap. A mature gobbler will answer a call from a distance just to say, “here I am,” but he won’t come in unless he’s enticed by a hen or he feels his territory is being threatened by another gobbler. I planned a new approach. Don’t answer him. Ignore him completely. Every time he bugles, move in his direction without saying a word. Close the gap.
I began the stalk. Two hundred yards closer and he bugled again. I waited, and then closed another hundred yards. He grunted and brayed like a donkey. I moved another 200 yards up a dry gulch. Now only 200 yards separated us, but I couldn’t see him at all.
I moved forward and reached a park 50 yards square. It was as far as I could go. The bull was in a dense stand of quakies about 100 yards ahead and up a rise. It’s thick, full of blowdowns, and I knew I couldn’t stalk him any further.
Sitting on a log I lowered my hat, took a deep breath, and let go with the loudest bugle I could muster. All was deathly silent, but then I heard brush breaking and limbs cracking and I suddenly realized it was happening-he was coming in! I saw movement in the trees above me in the quakies. One
tree was shaking, bending, breaking. I looked around. There was no wind. It was him! He was tearing the tree apart. More movement now-another tree was being attacked, and suddenly I saw legs, a chest, a dark mane, head and rack! He wasn’t a spike. He was a trophy elk-and he was only about 80 yards away! I vividly remember a lump in my throat, my watering eyes and shallow breathing. I had a classic case of “bull fever.”
He suddenly seemed to get bored with raking the tree, pulled his rack out of the branches and slowly turned and began to retreat up the hill from the direction he came. I couldn’t believe it. I had worked this bull for three days, gotten him to under a hundred yards and now he was leaving! Panic set in. What do I do now? What did I do back home on spring mornings when gobblers did the same thing? Let it all hang out. Cackle as loud as you can or gobble to make him think another gobbler is taking over his harem. I bugled and grunted as loudly and excitedly as I could. I grabbed a stick and beat it
against a nearby tree. I grabbed a small quakie next to me and shook it with all my might. He stopped! His head and massive rack turned 180 degrees
and he looked right at me. Slowly his body followed his head and he took one step toward me, and then another. As I softly grunted he began moving back down the hill toward me.
He was coming in, this time with no hesitation. If I could somehow keep it all together, I was going to have my shot at a trophy bull. I had glassed three trees with my rangefinder, one at 40, one at 30, and one at 20 yards. He passed the 40-yard tree and was still coming. Thirty yards and I was aware of the massive shoulder and surrounding muscles. “Don’t look at the
rack-pick a spot,” I told myself.
He hit the 20-yard marker and I came to full draw. I was about to release when he suddenly turned 90 degrees and faced me, head on. No shot! I considered letting down, but was afraid the movement would spook him. The stare-down lasted perhaps 15 seconds, then he turned to his left, took two steps
and I was staring at the exposed rib cage of a mature Colorado elk at a distance of 17 yards.
I released. He never even flinched. The vanes were all that showed as the bull started up the hill. I bugled; he stopped, looked directly at me, then at the arrow in his side, and continued up the hill at a trot. I knew I had made a fatal hit. I sat down, exhausted. Thirteen days in the mountains, a duel with a magnificent bull, the shot-it was all too much. I gave him 20 minutes before looking for a blood trail. I didn’t want to push him but it was starting to get dark. I found nothing in the first 50 yards and knew I would have trouble in
the thick stand of aspens he had entered.
I decided to leave him until morning. I knew the temperature would drop into the 20’s overnight, which would prevent any meat loss. Besides, I needed help. I certainly couldn’t handle him or get him out alone.
It took me 45 minutes to get back to the truck and another hour to get back to Bill Law’s ranch in Mesa. The guides were confident they would find him in the morning, but sleep was almost impossible that night, even in my worn-out condition. We arrived on the mountain shortly after daylight. I led the
way to where I had shot and found the red handkerchief I had left as a marker. The search began. We found blood only a short way from where I had stopped the night before. Twenty yards into the quakies we found the arrow where he had pulled it out. It looked like a solid liver hit with dark blood covering
the shaft. As Curt and I stayed on the trail, Jeff, Bill, and Russ circled ahead.
After about five minutes had passed, a thick Virginia drawl rang through the crisp mountain air. “Hey boys,” called Jeff. “We got ourselves a bull, and he’s a dandy!” I grabbed Curt in a bear hug. I had to be the happiest bowhunter in the Rockies. Charging up the hill in the direction of Jeff’s voice, I topped a small rise and saw Jeff’s bright orange suspenders bending over my bull. “He’s a six by five,” Jeff said. “No, I’m wrong. There’s another point on this side! You’ve got yourself a Royal.” The broadhead had done its job. A liver shot quartering forward into the lungs had anchored him within 125 yards. I knew he was dead when I had left the mountain the night before.
Handshakes and pictures followed. I think the guides were as excited as I was. Jeff estimated his weight at 650 pounds. It took three of them just to turn him over to field dress him. They had all the equipment needed-ropes, elk bags, and pack boards. With each of them carrying a quarter and me carrying
the head and cape we had him back to the truck in one trip. The carry was about a mile, but mostly open and level. Colbran and the meat processor were on the way back to the ranch. We attracted quite a bit of attention as we pulled into town. I looked at my watch. It was only 9:30. We had found my
bull, quartered him, packed him out and had him in the locker plant in only two hours. The next stop was the general store in Mesa to tell Bill Law the good news. Some more pictures at the ranch were in order and then we were off to Grand Junction and Artcraft Taxidermy, owned and operated by Joe
Biggins. Looking at some of the work in his shop, I felt confident he would do a good job with the mount. He did a rough measurement of the rack and felt it had a good chance to make the Pope & Young Record Book.
It was over. Almost three weeks had gone by from the time I left home on Labor Day. It was time to head back. I had over 200 pounds of prime elk meat frozen and packed in dry ice as I pulled my truck out of Mesa on Sunday, Sept. 23. The 2,000 miles back home were a breeze, and I relived the entire adventure over and over as the Interstate miles clicked by. I had proven that Pennsylvania turkey tactics really do work for bugling in big Colorado bulls. I knew that the next May, when a big gobbler would salute the dawn behind my house, my thoughts would return to a Colorado mountain where a
dream came true.
This was my first attempt at outdoor writing. I submitted the story to
M. R. James, Editor of Bowhunter magazine, shortly after my Colorado elk hunt in 1984. It was published in the August/September issue of Bowhunter in 1985. It was my first hunt out west, and my first published story.
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