An elk hunting season from the Rockies to The Bluegrass State
This is a hunt that really started about 15 years ago when I was a kid. I grew up in the Great Lakes area and, while deer hunting was always fun, a few vacations to Colorado and Wyoming sparked a fire for elk hunting that I could never shake. I spent my 20s remodeling a house and working like a dog trying to get ahead, constantly pestering my wife that I was going elk hunting some day. When I turned 29, I had enough. I was listening to western hunting podcasts and reading magazines and online content every day. I was going to kill an elk before I turned 30. End of story.
I made a connection with a friend of a friend in Colorado who guided near Grand Junction. I knew I didn't really want a fully guided hunt, but, because it was my first elk hunt, I wanted to stack the odds a little bit in my favor. So we agreed to do a trespass fee during the pre-rut along with a room to stay in and a beater Toyota to drive around. The area we were able to hunt was some private land surrounded by BLM. It was the 10,000 ft Colorado elk hunt I'd always wanted and we had thousands of acres of public and private land to roam!
My brother and I got in the first week of September on a Saturday morning. The guide wanted to take us out that night to show us a wallow. Now, keep in mind that I hadn't paid for a guided hunt or to hunt on Saturday. They were just being over the top kind at this point. I could hardly contain the excitement as we made the 45-minute drive and mile walk into the wallow. The three of us sat in complete silence. Then, I thought I heard a faint footstep, turned to look and, in the blink of an eye, a rather large bull had almost stepped on my brother and then turned and ran off. We all sat in disbelief at what had just happened. He barely made a sound coming or going! How does a 600+ pound animal do that!? This was going to be a fun week.
The next few days were spent sneaking and glassing for pre-rut elk along with some midday naps out of necessity. We were getting up at 4 a.m., hunting until dark around 8:30 pm., walking back to the truck a mile or two and then driving an hour back to where we were staying. My brother and I were getting pretty tired by day five. We had seen another bull at the wallow, had cows at 15 yards another day, and even tried to sneak on a group of elk only to be busted by a spike at 3 yards we never even saw! It was everything I had wanted— exhausting, exhilarating and a true adventure!
We had forgotten pads to sit on and our hindquarters were bruised from the waiting game we were playing with these elk. They were there, but by day five my brother, who was out of podcasts and reading material, needed a hike and a break. I suggested he go for a walk back to the truck two miles away and bring it to a different spot a little closer. I would set up in a spot where a trail entered a pass at the bottom of a rock slide and hope for the best.
I sent him a text with my GPS location on it so he could find me. He came and sat down below me facing uphill while I sat facing downhill with the pass to my left so I could shoot in that direction. About a half hour before sunset, his eyes got rather large. I slowly turned to look over my shoulder and saw a legal bull walking out into the pass on the exact trail I'd hoped for him to be on—20 yds above me. He was going to cross to the other side and I wasn't going to have a shot because of some small pine trees and brush in the way. I began to crawl to get closer for a shot, but the crawling turned into a gauntlet of thorns in my knees and some snapping twigs. Every time I moved, he looked. He walked. I moved. He stopped and looked. It went on like this for five minutes until, finally, he got curious about the noise and started a downhill walk towards me.
I drew when he crossed a pine tree. He stepped into a clearing at 30 yards and I zipped the arrow in front of his shoulder (didn't know this at the time) at 30 yards. He ran to the opposite side of the pass and stood on top of a big rock outcrop. I scrambled to grab another arrow, not seeing blood on him or any signs of him going down; he just stood there. I ranged him at 60 yards and my brother quickly said, “No, no, no, no,” as I drew back. He sensed something I couldn't see in all my adrenaline. Shortly after, the bull fell over dead as a doorknob right on top of the rock.
A legal bull was all I was after and he turned out to be a decent 6x6. We were even able to slide him right into the truck because of the rock he died on. It was like having him die on a loading dock and the beater Toyota made quick work of the offroad adventure to get into him (it's private land). The outfitter made sure to let me know that this would never ever happen to me again...ever.
Our son was born in April 2016. I was going to miss turkey season and a little unsure of what deer season would look like. It didn't matter. My wife had just given us our first child and it was a boy to boot! Regardless, every year, I send in my $10 application to get in on the elk lottery in Kentucky. For those that may not know, elk were reintroduced to the vast, wild reclaimed mining area of eastern Kentucky about 20 years ago and have thrived into an amazing 10,000+ herd. The chances of getting one of the 10 or so nonresident archery bull tags are less than half a percent, but why not send in your $10 every year and see what happens?
Two months after our son was born, I got up super early on a Saturday morning before the other two were awake. I started drinking coffee and filtering through the mail in our office and saw a letter that said "Kentucky Fish and Wildlife" on it. My wife gets the mail and never said anything about getting a letter for me. At this point, I was a little curious and annoyed with her not saying anything. I opened the letter and, in my sleepy haze read "successful." I had drawn an archery bull tag for an elk hunt six hours from home! She was excited and apprehensive about the whole thing. Excited because she loves the meat, apprehensive because we had a child now and all the responsibilities that go along with it.
My first scouting trip on Labor Day weekend revealed six bulls feeding in a clearing on the reclaimed mine area. I was drawn to hunt in a limited entry area in Kentucky that was owned by a coal mining company and leased to the state of Kentucky to allow public hunting. It was 30,000+ acres, teeming with elk, deer, turkeys, and coyotes. There were only four archery bull tags in this area.
September 17, a friend and I headed down for a four-day hunt. We made the drive, set up camp and got no sleep. There was a bull bugling all night not even 100 yards from us. Success rates are near 75% for this hunt and we had a bull threatening to walk over us in the dark. It turned out not to be that easy. We had a few encounters over the next few days and almost sat on a copperhead snake! We were becoming concerned as we got up for our last morning hunt. It was foggy, super foggy. We hiked a trail up to a plateau with a wallow in the middle of it and at sunup, there were three bulls bugling. I started softly cow calling on my Phelps EZ Estrus and got a half-hearted response. We played this game for a half hour, the fog was not burning off and the bull wasn't getting any closer.
I finally increased my pleading with the cow call and he closed the distance to 30 yards and ripped a bugle at us that made me instantly start to shake—no, tremble. Full on trembling! Knees, elbows, hands, violent adrenaline-fueled trembling. This bull was huge—bigger than anything I had seen in person—and he was facing me straight on at 30 yards staring into the fog, desperately trying to find the cow. Suddenly, I felt a breeze on the back of my neck and I saw him raise his head to sniff the air. The gig was up, it was now or never. I took many deep breaths, calmed the shaking, drew my bow, settled my pin right where I wanted for a straight on shot, released, and just as I released he whirled and the smack was loud. I had perfectly the center of the shoulder and the arrow only penetrated an inch at best. He jogged off nearly unharmed. Devastation swept over us and we searched all morning for any blood or arrow or any sign that he was hurt. However, it didn’t appear that he was and it was time to go back home and back to work.
Over the next few weeks, I made some connections with people down there and found out that the bull had been killed during the rifle season in early October. He was a 363" 6x6. A gut-wrenching feeling still comes over me when I think about what could have been. Should I have waited? No, he winded me. I had no choice but to take the shot I was presented. It would have been a lethal shot if he hadn't whirled at the perfect time.
Dejected, but still hopeful, I devised a plan for a two day trip in mid-October after the rifle season. My tag was good until January, but I had to sit out during the few weeks of rifle seasons that interspersed in the calendar. Another friend and I met up and headed down Friday night for a two-day hunt. It was a fat chance after the rut and rifle season, but hunting always has a little luck involved so we went.
Saturday morning found me in the same spot I had shot the bull a month earlier, somehow hoping that he was still there and the rifle hunter had killed a different bull. We spotted several cows, a mature bull, and three spikes at about 200 yards. My tag was good for a spike or any bull and I was desperate for any of them. I'm not an antler hunter, I'm mostly a meat hunter. Don't get me wrong, I love a good rack, but with a bow in my hands, it's hard for me to turn down the opportunities at an animal if God presents one. That was our theme this weekend. Have a great time with my good friend Nick (photo credit to him for all the awesome pictures he took) and shoot a legal animal.
We got the adventure of a lifetime as we tried to catch up with the herd, lost them, found two more bulls in a meadow, stalked both of them to less than 40 yards and couldn't get a shot at either because of the brush. All of this before lunch on our first day! One of them was a nice 5x5 I'd love to have shot.
I had read an article on goHUNT about scouting using Google Earth and had spent way too much time at work doing exactly what the article suggested: identifying water holes and dark timbered north-facing slopes near saddles. I knew just the place to check for elk during this midday naptime. I had jumped a bull out of there a month earlier and vowed this time to be more cautious while entering the dark oak timbered hillside.
Sure enough, right when we thought there were no elk in there and were about to sit down for a bite to eat, a herd busted out below and to our left. I let out a few dejected cow calls and a 4 point just couldn't resist checking out what had spooked the group. He walked into about 15’ and I couldn't get a shot at him through the jungle of brush. I held at full draw as he started to walk away and I heard my buddy let out an awful sounding cow call on a push button call. It worked though! The bull got more curious and turned back to look, and presented a shot through a 12" opening in the brush. I slid one through and this time heard the unmistakable hollow watermelon thump of a double lung hit. As we found him later, I couldn't help but become overwhelmed by the emotion of not only shooting an elk by the time I was 30 but killing two bulls before I turned 31. I had prayed before this trip that I had hoped God would provide us with meat, and now we had to get a bigger freezer to handle leftover from last year, my bull this year and a huge whitetail buck I shot on the day my son turned six months old!
We are overrun with meat, and memories of adventure to last a lifetime.