I've long dreamed about hunting bugling elk, and my dreams came true in Colorado when I joined a group of NAHC Life Members at Winterhawk Outfitters in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area for the first NAHC Life Member elk bowhunt. On Sept. 17, 2007, “NAH-TV” Producer Brad Hadsall and I landed in the Eagle/Vail airport with a load of gear and high hopes.
Bring On the Buglers!
It’s usually tough crawling out of a bedroll at 3:30 a.m., but it’s easy when visions of elk make sleep impossible. Each morning, guide Mike Dill, hunting partner John Hiller, Brad and I mounted our steady-footed mountain horses and rode into the darkness.
On day No. 1, the four of us soft-footed our way through dark timber toward a windblown ridgeline. Somewhere on the hillside, three bulls were screaming their claims to cows and territory. My heart raced with excitement—or was it oxygen deprivation? Probably both. We were close, but how close? Fresh tracks and steaming scat was all we would see of the bulls. They shut up and disappeared.
The first day was even more exciting for Life Members George Kronbach, Dan Reid and his guest Richard West. They spent hours with elk milling around in front of them, but they were not able to put the herd bull down. Day after day, this group got into elk, thanks to the efforts of their guide, “Oakey.” Life Member Jim Gaul, who was guided by Jerry Blake, had numerous elk encounters that would’ve worked for a rifle, but not for a bow.
According to Mike, we had to go vertical to chase a 300-class bull that was occupying a slide area on the tree line. After a long morning ride, we dragged ourselves through blow-downs to reach “Big Boy’s” territory. As we crept into a pseudo clearing, a guttural elk scream echoed past us. John and I eased forward, spreading out to cover the limited shooting lanes. Mike let loose with a coaxing bugle. Rather than the response bugle I expected, I heard footsteps—close footsteps. Just ahead, ivory-tipped antlers levitated through the pines. The bull appeared at less than 40 yards, staring in my direction. A slight tickle on the back of my neck told me that the wind was swirling, and I could almost see my scent smack the bull’s nose. The bull turned and cautiously retraced his steps up the mountainside, never crossing a shooting lane. That one experience made the whole trip worthwhile! Anything more would be gravy.
And the gravy poured the next day as we peered under pine limbs at four bulls milling around in a meadow, and more bulls announced their presence from within the timber. The bulls responded to Mike’s call, but not to the challenge. We moved up fast on the most aggressive bull: I heard his footsteps, John saw his silhouette, but once again swirling wind did us in.
With Mike bugling behind us, John and I split up and headed for the other elk. At each bugle we would dart forward, closing the gap. Twigs snapped as a 5x5 crossed ahead of me. I froze, undetected, thinking that the bull’s path would take him directly to John. No such luck. The elk were moving with purpose, heading somewhere to bed, but we couldn’t do a thing to stop them or get ahead of them. That’s huntin’.
Bowhunting for elk is a high-adrenaline, low-percentage adventure. Close encounters are what it’s all about. Sure, I would’ve loved to shoot a bull, but I’d go back tomorrow for the same experience. You haven’t lived until you’ve had an elk bugle within bow range.