Those who have consistent success on public land hunts seem to rally around one familiar motto. Want to find the animals? Go to where the people aren’t.
So it was that my buddy, Jacob Busiahn, and I set out for a 3.5-mile trek into the mountains of the Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area in Colorado in search of elk in early September. Hours and hours of poring over aerial maps by Jacob had pinpointed our destination. We’d get to more than 10,000 feet and far away from any entrance points to avoid the pressure of other archery and muzzleloader hunters. That’s where we’d find elk, we thought.
Jacob and I climbed over a peak and onto a ridge shelf behind our camp when I let out a bugle on our first morning of hunting. The second call elicited a response – a bull had given away his location, and we were in hot pursuit. A couple hundred yards passed when I let out another scream on the Primos Terminator bugle. He responded, but much further away this time. This bull had no intentions of a close encounter.
We set our sights in a different direction. Fifteen minutes passed when I again let out a location bugle. Another bull let loose, and we were already in his comfort zone. Less than 100 yards separated us as Jacob and I scrambled to come up with a plan.
Do we get aggressive and risk bumping him? We’re whitetail hunters who are new to talking the elk language. Getting closer seemed risky, so we set up where we were. Jacob adjusted to the wind and got 40 yards ahead of me as I continued to respond back and forth with the bull. I’d bugle, a little more aggressive this time, and he screamed back. The chuckles at the end of the last one sent my anticipation to another level.
My new Hoyt Carbon Defiant bow shook in my left hand. I expected to see horns coming through the thick pines or the crack of Jacob’s muzzleloader to break the silence now that the bull had stopped bugling. Neither happened.
We waited almost 20 minutes before getting back together to discuss what might have gone wrong. Should we have gotten closer or been more aggressive with my bugling? Maybe I could have switched to cow calling once we determined we were close enough to his location. This was our first encounter like this with a bull.
That morning ended up being the last time we heard a bull bugle during daylight hours. Even finding fresh sign was proving difficult on our hikes. On our third morning, we made the decision to pack up camp and drop down 1,000 feet to try to find more elk.
Our new camp was set up by mid-afternoon not far from a meadow. Jacob and I sat on a corner there for what we thought would be a night of glassing. Jacob adjusted a tripod and a spotting scope before sitting down on the fallen tree next to me. Not five minutes passed when Jacob noticed movement through the trees amongst the tall, wet grass of the meadow.
“Big bull,” Jacob whispered repeatedly, his voice mixed with shock and excitement.
I looked but didn’t see anything. Jacob grabbed his muzzleloader and crawled up to a tree 15 feet in front of us. Only, he forgot his cow call and started coming back for it. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t necessary, but the mind races in situations like this.
The second I looked up from my knees, the bull was staring in our direction. Jacob couldn’t even see him until he crawled to a higher elevation. At about 75 yards, he steadied his gun on his knee and took aim. Smoke filled the air as the shot rang out and the bull ran away.
Did he make a good hit? That’s the question Jacob kept asking himself. He felt good about his aim but had misjudged how the bull was standing, which led to him aiming too far forward. The elk had run out of there without a hitch in his step. Nothing that looked like he had been hit.
We gave it an hour and a half before checking for a blood trail. Two hours of searching in the dark resulted in nothing. We returned the next morning and went over every step – the path he had followed out of the meadow, the last place we heard him break through the trees on the ridge. Nothing. Every sign pointed to it being a clean miss.
It’s the kind of situation that weighs on a hunter’s mind. Should he have attempted to stand up and risk a less steady shot for a better vantage point? Should he have taken the shot at all?
Jacob was still asking himself those questions the next evening as he sat up on a ridge overlooking another meadow. A bull, this time a smaller 4×4, broke the silence with the crack of a branch behind him. The elk came down the ridge 20 yards from him through thick brush that didn’t provide a shot.
He walked into a thicket of willows and raked his antlers. The bull presented a broadside opportunity at about 60 yards but with grass covering the lower part of his vitals. With the memory of the prior night in his mind, Jacob turned down the shot.
The bull needed to keep moving on his same path to reach a better clearing. Instead, he walked directly away from Jacob with no knowledge of the close call he just had.
It was our last chance at filling a tag. Moose sightings were more prevalent than elk over the final two days. A cow moose near our camp called in a mature bull on our last afternoon there. We snuck down to the meadow to get a better look, amazed at the stature of this giant animal.
These opportunities don’t come without seeking adventure into wild places. That, even more than a freezer full of meat, is what hunting is all about.