Hearing something stirring outside, I got out of my sleeping bag and dressed for my first day of elk hunting. Emerging from the quaint mountain cabin, I saw our guide preparing the horses and mules for the trek ahead. It could’ve been a sight from 100 years ago, except for the dim light provided by a string of bulbs powered by the generator—and the fact that pop/rock music played softly on my guide’s cell phone. Modern cowboys don’t necessarily listen to country music anymore, but getting into the high country of Colorado hasn’t changed much during the past 100 years.
I went to the hitching post to get a closer look and was introduced to a large, cream-colored mule. With the stature of this muscular beast I thought I might need a ladder to get into the saddle. His sister stood beside him and was the spitting image in a miniature version. I asked what their names were and found out they were so new they hadn’t been given an appropriate handle yet.
The camp started to stir as the other hunters emerged for the exciting day ahead. Coffee and a hot breakfast sat on the kitchen table and we fueled up for a long day in the saddle. Dick Dodds, owner of Elkhorn Outfitters, was busy assigning guides to hunters so we could ride out of camp before the sun started to break over the peaks. The excitement was building and I could feel a knot forming in my stomach from my over-exuberance.
I was teamed up with Colt Gray and Zach Klassen to guide me during the next couple of days. Colt had been the head guide in the high country camp for several seasons and knew the vast ranch like the back of his hand. He looked the part of a modern cowboy—long and lean—but with the well-defined muscles of a rugged mountain man.
EARLY MORNING ELK
I had to lean backward to get my foot into the stirrup on my mule. I sat high enough to feel like I had a view from a treestand. Colt led the way out of camp with Zach bringing up the rear to ensure our party didn’t have any issues. The mule train picked its way through the rocks and plodded along at a steady pace. It was an amazingly comfortable ride, as the mule’s sure-footed nature kept me from bouncing in the saddle.
We’d been on the trail for only 10 minutes when Zach whistled quietly to get everyone’s attention. He heard an elk below us and we stopped to see if we could entice the bull out of the cover. A few cow calls generated a roaring response, and when I heard branches breaking I knew the show was about to begin.
Colt stayed on his horse as though he knew what was going to happen, but I was ready to bail off my saddle and get my rifle from the scabbard. I’ve never been against filling my tag on the first morning … if it was the right bull. Less than a minute after we’d stopped, a decent 5x5 emerged in the meadow ahead of us. The bull stared in our direction and bugled defiantly at our presence. Colt looked at me and asked if I was interested. I had my heart set on a 6-point bull and decided to pass.
I’m not one for passing on legal elk, and when hunting at home in Alberta I usually take the first legal bull I see. But hunting in Colorado was a different story. There were significantly more animals than I have at home and, knowing I had the better part of a week in front of me, I wanted to make the most of it.
Our next stop was in an aspen thicket before the terrain opened into a series of meadows where we tied the horses and mules. We quietly set out on foot, skirting the edge of the openings as we glassed the country ahead. The ground was littered with tracks and the aspens were deeply scarred by the antlers that had raked off the bark.
We edged up to a deep canyon and Colt simply pointed to where he wanted us to go. We crept down the bank and found a deadfall to use as cover. Once everyone was settled in, he bugled. The woods below us erupted with the sound of challenging bulls. Colt was a man of few words, but he did lean over and let me know there was a big bull that had been hanging out in the valley.
I heard movement on the ridge beside us. A minute later a young bull came into sight and trotted right toward us. He was a spindly 4x4, determined to find the cows he heard calling. We sat motionless and the bull stopped broadside just 8 yards from us. We were so close I could see his eyes scanning our camo-clad outlines.
The bull strained harder, exposing the whites of his eyes as he tried to focus for more detail. When he couldn’t decipher what we were, he lifted his nose in the air and flared his nostrils so hard that snot started to flow. He put on a great show for nearly 5 minutes before circling above us to get our scent and head for cover. I ended up seeing five bulls on the first day and could hardly wait for day No. 2.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
The alarm woke me on the second morning and my gluteus maximus told me loud and clear I wasn’t used to spending all day on a mule. But I was even more eager to get out than the first day: Dick told me I’d be heading for the waterfall in the morning, a spot well-known for producing big bulls. It was steep, rough terrain—and a long ride to get there—but I was anxious to take on the challenge.
After the 2-hour ride to our destination, the sun was already starting to rise. We tethered the horses and mules and made our way to a rock cliff to overlook the terrain below. The gorge to our right was so steep I couldn’t see the bottom of it, but the dense cover was ideal for finding elk with the unseasonably warm weather.
It took only seconds to get an answer to our call and the valley below us exploded into turmoil. The elk were definitely using the heavy timber, and getting a response from a big bull set five others into full calling mode. Grunts, chuckles and bugles echoed through the canyon. The bull directly below us had a deep, raspy growl, and he became the center of attention. We called for several minutes and, when it became apparent he wasn’t coming out of the cover, we started our descent down the hill.
Following the edge of the gorge, we set up behind sparse cover and called again. We could hear the herd bull below us take his anger out on a tree, thrashing it while grunting his discontent. Another herd bull sounded off to the south and we knew it was only a matter of time before one of them showed up because we were right in the middle. Bugles echoed from at least six bulls around us and we patiently glassed the timber for a glimpse of antlers.
Movement in the trees across the steep gorge caught my attention and we zeroed-in on a few cows filtering toward us. One of the cows made her way out to drink in the creek below. Moments later, a 6-point bull appeared in the timber, trying to chase the rest of his cows back into cover. It was a futile attempt and, before long, more of his cows were coming down for a drink.
I set up my shooting sticks and readied my Mossberg for a steep downhill shot. I used my rangefinder to measure the distance to the creek and locked the angle information into my brain so I’d know exactly where to aim. The bull trotted down the game trail and came into view. I trained my crosshairs on the bull, but at the steep angle the only shot I had was the back of his neck. Seconds later he disappeared under the contour of the gorge. I felt deflated but knew it wasn’t a good shot to take. Several of the cows followed the regal 6-point down the drainage and vanished into the timber.
There were still several cows wading in the creek, and we sat quietly waiting to see what they’d do. The minutes ticked by and staying focused on the elk paid off when I saw antler points appear below me. I was just far enough down the hill that I could see the bull while my hunting partners couldn’t. The bull casually walked back up the game trail and bugled at his harem. He stopped momentarily on the far side of the creek and I gently squeezed the trigger.
The bull jumped and I knew by the resounding whack that my bullet had found its mark. The bull gingerly walked behind some pine trees and all fell silent. We quickly moved parallel to the ridge and I spotted the bull standing with his legs braced. Not taking any chances, I put the 6-point down with a second shot.
The high fives and excitement quickly wore off as we tried to make our way down the steep slope. We had to use whatever we could get our hands on to brace ourselves, and just minutes later we were standing over our well-earned bull. It was the biggest elk I’d ever taken and wondered aloud how we were going to get it back to the top of the ridge. Colt just laughed and told me it would be easy with the sure-footed mules used to transport meat and antlers back out.
After the performance, we came up with names for the cream-colored mules—Shrek and Fiona—who barely broke a sweat bringing out my elk in a single trip. It was a Colorado high I won’t soon forget.