It was still dark when Marty Panchelli pulled his pickup around to the front of the lodge and got out to scrape the windows. A glance at the thermometer as I climbed in showed minus 7 degrees. I scrunched a little deeper into my camo and sipped hot coffee while waiting for him to finish. Up to this point, the fall of 2005 had been wimpy weather-wise. I’d hunted in Saskatchewan and northern Minnesota, and this was the first time I’d seen the mercury in negative territory.
The O’Neill Ranch, where we were hunting in southeastern Colorado, held the promise of a great elk hunt—my first. Impressive head and shoulder mounts of grandeur bull elk that adorned the walls of the lodge were testament to the property’s potential. And as a bonus, I’d drawn good friend Linda Powell as a hunting partner. She patted my shoulder from the back seat as Marty climbed in and dropped the truck into drive. “Let’s go get your bull,” she said. This was her third elk hunt of the fall and so far she was one for two. In Wyoming she’d killed a nice 6x6 bull, and I was hoping some of her good fortune would rub off on me.
As we meandered down a dim two-track, Marty explained that we’d start the day by taking an early morning hike through a long, fingered meadow surrounded by steep ridges, where he’d seen several decent bulls earlier in the season. That suited me fine. I was eager to stretch my legs and see some elk country. An icy breeze greeted us as we exited the truck and quietly walked single file in the dim predawn. We arrived back at the truck an hour later with Marty scratching his head—no elk, and very little sign.
We climbed in and Marty cranked up the heater, already formulating Plan B. “Let’s drive around for a while,” he said. “This cold weather should have ’em up and moving.” It wasn’t a half-hour later that we rounded a tight corner in the road and our guide hit the brakes. “Elk!” We quickly piled out of the truck and eased up the two-track, trying to get a better look. Four bull elk were edging their way up the steep face of the opposite slope, and I dropped to the prone position to prepare for the shot as they crested the ridge.
As the largest bull broke the skyline, I could hear Marty doing antler math. “He’s at least 360 … maybe 370!” The bull had long, sweeping main beams and 6 heavy points on each side that stretched toward the sky. I reached back to my belt, retrieved my rangefinder and quickly got the reading—463 yards. “He’s too far,” Marty confirmed what I already knew. “What a bull!” he said, as the massive elk disappeared over the crest of the ridge.
We went the rest of the day without seeing another good bull and were headed back to camp when we got the good news: John Trull, firearms product manager for Remington, who was hunting with another guide, had shot a 6x6 bull just before dark. It was John’s first elk and he was all smiles when we caught up with him back at the lodge.
Managing For Big Bulls
There was no doubt the O’Neill Ranch wintered exceptional bull elk. We’d seen proof positive on that ridge the first morning and in the heavy-antlered 320-inch bull we helped John pack out the next morning.
Marty explained there are several factors that contribute to the quality of the animals we were seeing. “You need good habitat and good genetics to grow big bulls, and you need to let them mature,” he told us while we were driving around the ranch. “The genetics are good in this part of the state, and the bulls migrate into this steeper country with tight canyons as winter approaches. There’s plenty of heavy timber here, and they don’t have to move far from cover to feed. We control the harvest on the ranch by limiting the number of hunters we take in. And they do the same on the adjoining properties, large ranches that manage for trophy elk.”
We spent a good portion of the morning packing John’s bull out and saw very few elk during the afternoon. A full moon and warming temperatures appeared to be adversely affecting their daytime movement. Two days down. No worries, still plenty of time.
It was considerably warmer the next morning, 17 degrees. And once again it was quiet on the elk front. Other than bumping a couple of bulls while driving around we saw little action. A weather front was moving in from the west, and we were hopeful it would spark activity. Just before dark, we sneaked down a dim two-track to a meadow where one of the guides had seen elk feeding earlier. We caught glimpses of a bull through the trees and slipped in to size him up.
“He’s a nice 5x5,” Marty whispered. “Nice mass, probably go 300 inches.” I got on the shooting sticks and looked the bull over through the scope. He was a good elk and my decision to back out was probably a foolish one, knowing full well I was running the risk of eating my tag. But I knew there were better bulls on the ranch, and I wasn’t anxious to end the hunt. I still had 2 full days left.
Now that I was a seasoned elk hunter of 3 days, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between fall turkey hunting and hunting late-season elk, and Marty nodded in agreement when I told him so. “Elk don’t move around as much late in the season as they do during the rut,” Marty told me. “So you spend a lot of time covering country in the truck and on foot, glassing just to find them. They tend to hang out in thick cover on oak ridges where they’re tough to get to. This is steep country and you have to get the right angle just to be able to see them.”
Marty said the plus side is that bulls congregate on the ranch this time of year, and if you don’t disturb them, they won’t go far. “When you find a bull you want to hunt, you need to be conservative,” he said. “If the situation isn’t right, just back out because he’s going to be there another day. After the rut they’re tired and just trying to survive.”
As we headed back to the lodge, we were hopeful the cloud cover would obscure the full moon and improve the morning hunt. No problem, still 2 days to go.
A couple of inches of snow had fallen overnight, and it was clear and brisk the next morning. To our surprise, it turned out to be an extremely quiet day. We didn’t see a bull until just before dark, and his antlers were busted up pretty badly from fighting with other bulls. The moon was probably having an effect on daytime movement, but we were still puzzled by the overall lack of activity. It was down to crunch time. One day left. OK, now I’m nervous.
Saving The Best For Last
It was late afternoon on the final day of the hunt when we finally spotted several elk working up a steep mountain slope into a bowl close to the skyline. We hooked up with Johnnie Hamilton, one of the ranch’s other guides, and split up to improve our odds. Linda and Johnny staged a frontal approach, while Marty and I circled around to advance from another angle. After a long, steep hike, we stopped to catch our breath and get our bearings.
The cover was heavier than we expected, and we were hesitant to move closer for fear of bumping the elk. Marty climbed a tree to get a better look, but even with the added elevation he was unable to get a fix on the elk. Rather than spook them or waste more valuable time, we decided to back out and use the last remaining hour or so of light to check out some meadows.
With daylight quickly fading, we rushed from meadow to meadow, in panic mode, hoping to catch a bull out feeding early. Like any good guide Marty really wanted me to get a bull and time was running out. I was resigned to the fact I might very well eat my first elk tag, and the decision I’d made to pass on that 5x5 was haunting me.
The sun was cutting the tree line—which meant only a half-hour of legal shooting light remained—when we bailed out of Marty’s truck and made a short dash to a meadow where we’d seen a bull 2 days earlier. I’d just sat down and begun glassing when Marty grabbed my arm and pulled. “Come on, let’s go!” Bent over, we shuffled toward cover. “There’s a bull on the far end of the meadow, up against the trees! We need to get a closer look before we run out of light.”
‘Dude, He’s Standing Right There!’
Skirting the edge of the meadow to stay out of sight, we sprinted to shave off some distance. With less than 15 minutes of legal shooting light left, we sneaked back into the open to relocate the bull. “There!” Marty pulled me to my knees. I planted my shooting sticks and struggled to find the bull in the dimming scope. “He’s at 400 yards,” Marty said. The image I had in the scope was poor at best. With the bull up against the brush, it was difficult to pick him out—impossible to make an ethical shot. “This is no good, Marty,” I shook my head. “We need to get closer.”
“OK, let’s go,” Marty said, and we were off at a sprint, trimming off another 100 yards. Dropping to his knees, Marty quickly found the bull in his spotting scope. “Right there in the corner,” he pointed, “up against the brush! He’s a good bull!” I struggled to find the elk in the scope, but all I could see was brush. “Dude, he’s standing right there! Can’t you see him?! Dude, shoot him!”
Dude? Where’d that come from? Marty was definitely excited, and frustrated by my failure to locate the bull. But try as I might, I couldn’t make out the elk in my scope. Legal shooting minutes were ticking away and my anxiety level was skyrocketing!
“Dude, get over on the other side of me!” Marty pulled at my jacket. “He’s right up against that brush in the corner of the field. “You need to shoot him now!”
I crawled over to Marty’s left just as the bull stepped into the open, and I quickly locked on him. With the bull away from the brush, I could easily pick out the crease of his shoulder. I centered the crosshairs, slowed my breathing and squeezed the trigger. The bull whirled at the impact, ran 30 yards and piled up. “He’s down!” Marty smacked me on the shoulder. We looked at each other and laughed. “That was pretty hairy,” I said. “I must be getting old. I just couldn’t pick him out. We couldn’t have had more than 5 minutes of legal light left.”
The tension finally draining away, we picked up our gear and walked toward the downed bull. “Marty, do you realize you called me ‘dude’ about 10 times back there?” I gave him a playful push. “Yeah, I was a little excited,” he smiled. “I couldn’t believe you couldn’t see him, though! I thought sure he was going to get away.”
“Dude, he’s right there!” I pointed at the dead bull as we walked up on him. We both laughed again and then knelt to admire my first elk. He was a handsome 6x6 with a perfect left side but two broken points on the right side. As Marty prepared to field dress the bull, I stood and admired the rising full moon—the hunter’s moon—that, up until now, had cursed our efforts all week. A wispy cloud passed over the “man in the moon’s” face, but not before I’m almost sure I saw him wink.