A Remarkable Experience: Part 2
I never thought I would utter the phrase, “I passed on a cow;” but after doing so the previous day I couldn’t help but think it may have been a mistake. Countless hunters pass on bucks and bulls in pursuit of “One big enough.” I however had never passed up any opportunity on any game animal, probably just due to the fact that my opportunities have always been limited. Yet, upon seeing a cow with two calves, I couldn’t muster up the that sense of urgency needed to squeeze the trigger. I began to worry, almost immediately, that I may not get another chance; but I had a few things going for me. Since I was in possession of a late season tag, I had at least seven more days to hunt. Very rarely do I find elk on the first day of the season, so I was optimistic considering that I had already seen several dozen elk. Second, I was able to watch those elk graze as the sun sank below the horizon, and many of those elk were bedding down. Elk do have a tendency to move in the middle of the night, but won’t necessarily do so if they don’t feel the need to; which brings me to my third indicator of hope….. There was no hunting pressure. As a public land hunter in Colorado I’ve become accustomed to seeing the blaze orange army. It’s atypical to spend a day out without running into a slew of hunters donning their bright orange attire. Therefore, I had no reason to believe that the elk would leave the area, and I’d have another chance to give chase the following morning. So after a nights rest, I set out for day two with confidence and ambition.
Since I ended day one glassing elk deep in the valley I returned to the exact location. My plan was to find elk, stalk elk, and find an opportunity to take a shot. I found elk immediately, but they had unfortunately found their way onto private land. I watched and waited for approximately an hour, but it was clear that they were in no hurry to make their way back onto public land. So I decided that I would do a little exploring and check back later.
Since I was totally unfamiliar with the area I thought it best to get in my truck and meander. By looking at my GPS I was able to get a general sense of the topography but I really had no idea where I was going. I simply looked for an area on the GPS that might be holding elk and found roads that would take me in that general direction. If I found a south or east facing slope I’d glass, and as I wandered I did my best to keep my wits about me. Often times late season hunters find success on the road because big herds will congregate in accessible areas. If they’re lucky, they’ll see the elk before the elk see them, and they can put on a stalk. Sometimes the sightings happen simultaneously and the hunter has to be quick enough to find an ethical shot before squeezing the trigger. I’ve never had such a success, but I was willing to give it a try since I needed to assess the lay of the land anyways.
As I traversed the snowy roads my eyes leapt back and forth. I would watch where I was going, meticulously scan each hillside, ridge, and between the trees, while carefully watching the GPS to determine where I could and could not hunt. I knew I needed to be careful because the public land I was hunting bordered a number of private properties. As far as I could tell, there was no rhyme or reason to the shape of property boundaries. Rarely was one square, and they didn’t seem to border physical landmarks. I had to pay close attention to my GPS and my distance to property boundaries which meant I had to constantly check my GPS around every corner. In doing so I would occasionally have to stop to reorient myself, or sometimes I would simply drift off the road into deeper snow. It was a little chaotic and frustrating, but I carried on looking for elk and elk sign.
Since I didn’t know where I was going or what to expect, I would occasionally find myself wandering aimlessly. I knew I’d eventually cover a fair amount of ground, so I was content knowing that I may be wasting time in areas not holding elk. After all, I didn’t know the area, and I needed to become familiar with the terrain if I was going to zero in on where the elk were hiding. I eventually came across an area littered with tracks. The tracks were not nearby but were visible to the naked eye because dozens of trails had disrupted what was once a pristine, snow covered hill. I got excited and decided I would take a closer look to determine where the elk were headed. I put my truck in park and killed the engine, but before I could open the door I saw what looked like a school of fur covered fish moving harmoniously through the sage in the valley below. I immediately grabbed for my binoculars and took a closer look, but what I found was not elk. Instead, I had found antelope. At some point they had seen me and despite being within 200 yards of 50+ antelope, they’re natural camouflage allowed them to blend into the snow and foliage. They ran for a moment, stopped, and then proceeded. I’ve seen plenty of antelope, but seeing them in a large herd on their wintering grounds was unique. They were huddled tightly together and when they ran, it was as if it was choreographed. I took a few photos, realized that all of the tracks likely belonged to them, so I went back to my GPS to determine where I should head next.
I discovered a road on my GPS that ran along a short ridge with valleys on both sides. I had been wandering around for a little over an hour, so I decided it would be best to venture up the road so I could spend some time glassing the valleys from above. As I moved along I saw that I was near private to the east, and I would run into private in less than a half mile. With my gun unloaded beside me I knew I might have to make a quick decision if I saw elk, but I didn’t have an alternative plan so I carried on. I climbed a short hill, looked to my left, then my right, and suddenly caught a glimpse of elk as they were fleeing. I stopped my truck and attempted to get out. I couldn’t get my seat belt off, and when I did I couldn’t find my GPS. By the time I determined they were on public land, they had run off. I tried to laugh at my folly but instead I mumbled obscenities at my seat belt. I rolled my eyes, closed my door and continued forward. It took just 30 seconds before I would run into a different herd of elk moving through the opposite valley. This time I was able to successfully remove myself from the vehicle and get my gun out. I grabbed my GPS and got to a legal distance from the road where I set up for a shot. The elk were aware of me and on the move, but the herd of approximately 100 elk couldn’t determine exactly where they wanted to go. Every time the lead cow paused they would hesitate. My heart was pounding and I was ready to take a shot, but I struggled to find an opportunity that I was comfortable with. The majority of the elk were shoulder to shoulder so I had to find a cow that had broken away from the herd. However, each time I found a cow standing by herself I would hesitate just long enough to allow another elk to join her. I frantically scanned the herd looking for a shot, but every time I did, I found another reason not to squeeze the trigger. At one point I had set up on four elk in a row just to discover small antlers protruding out just passed their ears. The risk of shooting young bulls, known as “Spikes,” is very real and illegal. I had to be absolutely certain that the elk at 300 yards were not bulls, which is very difficult considering that you have to identify a 5 inch antler from that distance. Fortunately, I took my time, and I have enough experience to identify bulls based on how they walk. Unfortunately however, I never found the opportunity I was looking for and the elk made their way over a hill and onto private land. I made my way back to my truck and drove up the hill to watch the elk as they watched me from their refuge.
Before the morning was over I would have two more encounters with small groups of elk. In each moment I fumbled with my GPS, struggled to get out of my truck and battled to get my gun out and loaded just in time to watch the elk vanish into the trees. Both episodes were chaotic and left me feeling uncoordinated, clumsy, and defeated. I began to think that it was impossible to pull off a “road hunt” unless I was willing to shoot first and ask questions later; which would never happen of course because I’m not unethical and I’m not an idiot.
I sulked a bit after failing to produce but I found solace in what I had discovered: More elk, all over the place. I learned a lot about the area in a short amount of time and I had an idea of where the elk were headed. I spent some time looking at my GPS and determined that I might have a chance of catching them on public land if I was willing to work for it. Considering that I was fed up with hunting from the road I was ready to go back to what I know. I made my way to the spot where I would park and got my gear together. Before I set out on foot I decided I’d better eat. I pulled out some salami and cheese and sat in my truck, which was parked facing a ridge that towered over a draw just north of me. I grabbed some salami, folded it up in a piece of cheese, and just as I prepared to munch down on my delicious snack, I saw something I wasn’t prepared for…...
TO BE CONTINUED…….
-Team Split River Outdoors