We were hoping today was the day the herd moved up our mountain and into the ambush funnel where I had shot my bull last year. They did not. Instead they headed to the flats again. A dozen elk split off and came up our mountain, unfortunately they were all 2 year old's and not what I wanted to shoot. I know, I haven't killed an elk yet but there is no sense in killing any legal bull. I may not need a monster but I do need a mature animal. They did come up the funnel but that was the only thing we saw all morning. There was no wind so hunting the big herd was not an option. We called it quits very early today.
Since we called it early on the AM hunt Wes wanted to see if there was an option of actually hunting the big herd this afternoon. His theory was that if a strong south wind had set up during the mid-day, perhaps we could get sneak into position for their evening trek back to the fields. We really had nothing to lose. Wes and I have been surgical since our first hunt together four years ago and nothing was going to change now. To be honest, I considered the play to be a long shot but I always listen to experienced guides, especially Wes. So I suited up in my lightweight cotton Predator camo and loaded up my water carrier for what Wes said could be a long, hot afternoon. It was 87 degrees when we left for the mountain.
Wes checked the wind one final time before driving up to the flats. As he predicted, a strong and consistent southerly wind was blowing. In Wes' words,"we can work with this." He was far more optimistic than I was but amazing things had happened before and sometimes even long shots can turn magical.
Wes checks the herd one last time before we headed up the mountain
The herd is not hard to find in these flats. The landscape rolls for miles. The only cover is a small bush called mahogany along with some sage thrown in here and there. The big herd of nearly 400 elk was 500 yards away. Even at that distance we were careful not to move in clear sight. We walked about a half mile west and up a long, gradual hill. Several times Wes checked the herd. It was about 3pm when Wes and I cautiously moved higher so we could glass the herd. A cow was staring at us - only 80 yards away! We were busted - or so we thought. We immediately dropped to the ground and I probably blurted out an expletive.
We looked at each other in disbelief. Neither of us knew there were elk this far North. Honestly, we failed to consider the possibility that a small group of elk might have split off from the big herd. We literally bumped into them.
It wasn't all bad. The cow was unsure what she had spotted. The sun was to our back and we were in full camo. We didn't dare move until we saw her body language relax. A few moments later the cow and her calf, walked cautiously to the big herd. I turned to Wes and said"a decent bull just stood up" he was bedded with her and he followed her to the herd. For me, he was a shooter. Heck, this is my 14th elk hunt and I was more than ready to take a 250 class 5pt. When he left with them, the area was void of all elk - or so we thought?
When Wes spotted this scene, everything changed for us
Thirty seconds later Wes spotted something. I could tell by his body language that something had his attention. He moved slowly to a slightly higher elevation and glassed what we both realized was another bull. He was still bedded. The look on his face was priceless. I knew immediately it was shooter. Wes turned to me and said - "he is BIG." I could see him clearly in my Swaros. He was 80 yards and facing away - his nose into the wind. There did not appear to be any other elk around either. This was a strange gift and we almost wondered why this was happening? It was all just a strange sequence of events. We strategized, briefly, while I put my head cover on. I would follow Wes for the first 20 and then switch for the final stalk.
At 55 yards, Pat carefully nocked an arrow before taking the lead
My elk curse was not going down without a fight. As we started our stalk, the wind just died. We both looked at each other with a look of total disbelief. We had a strong 10mph wind for the last hour and now that we are within reach of a great bull, everything stopped. Now, for those western hunters who know what a mahogany flat is like, they understand our dilemma - it's anything but quiet and stalking a bedded bull in that stuff is risky. Whenever the wind would puff, we'd take a cautious, slow step. Every footstep was placed. We would move little sticks and"grinders" (rocks that crunch on other rocks) with the tip of our shoe so as to create a quiet footbed. Every inch was critical. There was no room for error. Without the wind, this bull would hear us coming and it would be over.
The sun vanished and a strong wind appeared again. I looked to the sky and noticed that every time a small cumulous cloud drifted in front of the sun, the temperature shift created a wind gust across the flat. It would last until the sun appeared again. I mentioned this to Wes who had noticed it too. So we made our move while the cloud cover created a micro climate and stop when the sun came out. It was brilliant, and it worked.
At 55 yards Wes turned to me and said - Can you make that shot? Wes, like many western hunters is proficient at long range bow shots. I am not. I have a self-imposed max distance of 40 yards and that was where I needed to be. Wes understood, but both of us knew it was going to be damn hard to get that close without blowing this incredible opportunity. Wes motioned for us to switch places as I carefully pulled my lead arrow from my Tight Spot quiver and placed it gently on my rest. I could clearly see the antlers of the bull but it wasn't until he made a slight turn that I realized how big he was. This was no ordinary bull; I was 55 yards from a Giant!
I looked to the sky and waited for the cloud to drift in front of the sun. When it did, that cool air whipped into my face and I made several steps forward. I was now just 44 yards away. I looked at Wes, his eyes were as wide as saucers. We both knew this was it. Everything was up to me now. I looked to the sky and there would be no more clouds for 30 minutes. I debated those last 4 yards. You guys who shoot long range are probably shaking your heads. There isn't much difference between 44 and 40 yards. This is where 15 years of hard-core traditional bowhunting has scarred me for life. I am so disciplined when it comes to shot placement and yardage that I was not going to take that shot at 44. Wes must have thought I was insane. I crept those last 4 yards, holding my breath with every inch.
At just 40 yards from the giant bull I weighed options and next steps
I made it. Now what? A dozen scenarios raced through my mind. Should we cow call to get him to stand up? Should I play it safe and wait on him? What if the wind swirls? Should I try and get closer? There was a lot riding on my choice. The right one and I kill the bull of a lifetime. The wrong one, and I will second guess myself for 30 years.
I decided to do what Wes always recommends to his mulie hunters; wait until they get up on their own. It was a risk but that's what I did. We sat there for 15 minutes until the bull became restless. I knew it was about to happen.
When the 6x7 stood up I drew my Z7 slowly
Can you spot the arrow?
I watched him lean forward and then he stood up and stretched. My heart was pounding out of my chest yet I was focused and calm. I drew my z7 and put my pin just behind his last rib. He was angled perfectly for my heavy arrows tipped with Muzzy's new 2-blade 85gr Phantoms. As my pin settled I remained calm and focused. Nothing seemed to matter, even the fact that I was 0 for 13 with the bull of a lifetime in front of me. With a check on my level I slowly began to squeeze the release. The arrow sailed perfectly to the bull, burying itself completely in his body cavity. I knew my quest to kill an elk was finally over. My elk curse ended at that moment.
I knew at this moment my curse was over.
The bull was dead in just 17 seconds
The bull ran 80 yards then lost his back legs and fell over. From the time the phantom-tipped arrow hit him until he was dead was less than 17 seconds.
Words can not describe it
I went wild. I also became emotional. I thought about all of those elk hunts starting with my brutal, solo backpack hunts in the Sawtooths; my week chasing a giant at spearhead ranch; my horseback hunt in the San Juans'; my Montana hunt where Northwest Airlines lost my gear for 7 days and I had to use a toilet plunger for a grunt tube. And above all my elk memories, I remembered loosing that big bull just 5 miles from this spot last year. I had paid my dues.
All of that came full circle today. I turned off the video camera and sincerely thanked Wes for sticking with me over four hunts. His professionalism and remarkable abilities led me to this elk but he has also become a friend and that made sharing this moment with him special. It was his call today that led me to this bull and I will forever be grateful.
So now that the curse is laid to rest forever my next elk quest begins...killing a bigger elk?
Wes Atkinson - Atkinson Expeditions
|Our elk hunt takes place in Northern Colorado with Atkinson Expeditions.