DIY Archery Elk Hunt in the Colorado High Country

By Andy Backus

As my hunting partner Matt and I rolled into the parking area at the bottom of the two valleys we planned to archery elk hunt, a broad smile formed across my face. We had just finished driving almost 1000 miles through the night from our home state of Wisconsin with a mix of excitement, anticipation and a little nervousness. This would be our first year hunting this area other than a couple days at the tail end of last year's season. One reason for the smile was that we had finally made it back to the mountains I love so much and, unlike the solo scouting trip I took a month earlier, (read my scouting trip report HERE) we had our bows along and hoped to use them. The other reason for the smile was that there was only one other camp set up. You never really know what you're going to find when arriving at a hunting area on public land. I was anticipating several more camps set up like I had seen the year before, so only finding one was a huge bonus. We received another bonus a moment later when we pulled into a secluded camping spot off the main parking area only to find a huge pile of firewood left behind by previous hunters. Archery elk hunts at high elevation are exhausting affairs and eliminating the job of making firewood would save some much needed energy.

For this hunt we planned to set up a comfortable base camp and hunt out of it for the first few days. If we felt the need, we would pack a spike camp far into the valley for a few nights. Base camp consisted of a 12x12' Cabelas Alaknak wall tent with a Riley wood stove, cots, a portable table, lantern, propane cook stove and a couple bag chairs. I've learned over the years to keep my camping gear fairly simple. Each year I weed out the items I brought the year before but never used. One of my favorite base camp staples is a large tarp strung from the entrance to the tent over a large outside area including the firewood pile and fire pit. The tarp provides shade when it's sunny and hot as well as protection from the common rain showers and storms that hit at the worst times in the high country. Running the tarp over the fire pit and wood pile ensures the ability to have a nice warm fire after returning from an evening of hunting in the rain. And let's face it, rehashing the day's events around a roaring fire is one of the best parts of hunting. A simple tip I've learned over the years is to use bungee cords between the tarp's grommets and the rope used to string the tarp. The bungees absorb most of the stress put on the grommets from flapping in the wind and reduce the chances of blowing out the grommets.

After setting up base camp we had a few hours available for an evening hunt and chose to slowly hunt the mountainside across the small river from camp. After being cooped up in the truck for 18 hours, our bodies appreciated the light exercise. We didn't find any elk signs and returned to camp just as some light rain showers began. It rained on and off throughout the night and when my alarm sounded at 5 am it was immediately obvious that the rain had picked up overnight and was coming down in steady sheets. The plan for the first morning had been to leave just before shooting light and hike the good trail into the southern valley. We would consider this a warm up hunt day giving our bodies a chance to acclimate to the high elevation. We live at under 1000 feet of elevation and our base camp rested at about 9800 feet. We would hunt as high as 12,000 feet. I love spending time at high elevation in the mountains, but I do suffer from altitude sickness sometimes. I have found that it can be extremely helpful to take it easy the first couple days at elevation to give my body a chance to acclimate. The Southern valley doesn't have as much elk habitat as the northern one plus it has a nice trail leading to some high-mountain lakes resulting in more hiker traffic. Because of this, I had pretty low expectations of getting into elk this first day. Instead we would have a nice hike, glass some beautiful country and do some fly fishing at the lakes. With the sound of heavy rain pelting the tent it was easy to decide to sleep in and wait for better weather before starting our warm-up hike.

The rain lasted until around 10:00 and we hit the trail around 10:30. After gaining some elevation and popping out of the thick timber we slowed down and glassed the mountainside's mix of timber, avalanche chutes and grassy areas. We started to head down the trail again and Matt stopped in his tracks and said "Bear!" About 100 yards below and behind us was a nice bear digging for grubs near the river. I was able to get a nice picture of it using my 10 power binoculars as a zoom lens. Matt cow called to get the bear to pose for the picture. Last year I had a rifle and a bear tag in my pocket and didn't see a single bear. It figured that this year with a bow and no bear tag I would see a beautiful bear on our first morning!

DIY Archery Elk Hunt - 2

DIY Archery Elk Hunt - 3

We came to the last large section of timber in the valley. The valley continued on for a few more miles, but it was very rocky beyond this timber patch with some patchy willows and grassy areas. This timber looked pretty good. The vegetation between the trees looked as green and lush as anything we had seen all week and it felt especially shady and cool. I let out a locator bugle and, as usual, heard nothing in response. I bugled again and added some chuckles at the end. My eyes lit up and I asked Matt, "Did I just hear what I think I heard?". He confirmed that we had heard a bugle and we debated a bit as to whether it came from above or further into the timber. We slowly eased into the timber staying at the same elevation. We were about 1/2 of the way to the top of the timber and the thermals were coming down the mountain in the cool morning. We got to an area that looked like a small avalanche had come through at some point taking out some of the smaller trees but leaving the largest trees. It was open enough to provide good shooting lanes and we decided to set up our Montana Decoy and do some calling. Matt found a spot above and to the left of the decoy and I set up above and to the right.

We were hunting the last week of the archery season in Colorado and I assumed that if there was a herd bull in the area, he would want to protect his harem of cows. I didn't want to bugle any more unless I knew I was extremely close to the herd bull knowing that he was just as likely to take his cows and leave the area upon hearing more bugling. I started some soft cow calling and we heard a bugle response right away. I continued to cow call and added some pleading estrus whines to the mix. It sounded like we were hearing more than one bull bugling but they didn't seem to be getting any closer. I stood up, put my backpack on and took a few steps down towards the decoy. I was going to grab it and tell Matt we should move up the mountain and get closer to the herd. Just then, a very close bugle ripped through the timber. I scrambled back to my post just in time to see a bull at the top of the open area we were in. He was looking in my direction and my first thought was that I had blown it and he had seen me move. After a few moments he looked away trying to find the cow he'd been hearing. I don't think he could see our decoy so I did my best to point my cow calls in the direction of the decoy. I couldn't see Matt from where I was hunkered down, and I assumed he would not have a shot unless I could get the bull to come down the mountain a few more yards towards the decoy. I tried every trick I could think of to get the bull to see the decoy including rolling rocks towards it and even throwing some small sticks.

After what seemed like an eternity, the bull began to slowly turn around to head back up the mountain from where he'd come. My first thought was, "Oh well – that was a great experience and at least now we know we have found some elk". Just then I heard a WHACK and saw the bull kick and run up the hill into some thick pines. I was so surprised for a moment that it took my brain a second to compute what had just happened. Luckily I remembered to cow call and heard the bull stop. Within moments I heard him fall and thrash around in the thick trees. Shortly after that he let out several death groans and I knew Matt had just killed his first elk!

When I got over to Matt, he had a wide-eyed look on his face. He was concerned about his shot placement but I assured him that his bull was dead just up the hill. I told him I thought he probably heart-shot it. Matt explained to me that when the bull first appeared, he drew his bow expecting the bull to take a couple more steps which would have brought his vitals into a shooting lane. But, as often happens, the bull stopped and Matt was stuck holding his draw for what seemed like forever. The bull was looking in his direction quite a bit so he didn't want to let down. He finally got a chance when the bull looked over in my direction. As the bull started to turn up hill, Matt had a small window to shoot between two trees at 33 yards and he obviously made it count! As we relived Matt's shot, a loud aggressive bugle erupted up the hill. I did some aggressive bugling and raked a tree with a stick hoping to get a chance to see the herd bull. I didn't want to shoot him at this point because I knew how much work we had ahead of us, but I would have loved to see him.

Matt killed the bull at about 10:30 am and after cutting it up, shuttling the meat and head to the bottom of the mountainside and shuttling the meat and head to our spike camp it was just getting dark. We loaded a little less than half the meat in our packs and put the rest in a garbage bag in the stream to cool. Then we hike the four miles down to base camp in the dark with our heavy packs loaded with meat and Matt carrying the head on top of his pack. We arrived at base camp at about 10:30 at night. The next morning we ran to town to get ice and have a good breakfast then headed back for the rest of the meat. On the way out our Eberlestock frame packs were loaded with meat bags full of bloody meat and as we popped out of some timber into a willowy river bottom Matt spotted a large bear about 75 yard up the trail. Luckily he headed for the timber and the wind was blowing from him to us. It's an uneasy feeling carrying that much meat knowing a hungry bear is nearby. We joked about who was the faster runner and sang silly songs to make ourselves feel a little better about the situation. We made it back to base camp around dinner time and had a nice evening around the fire reliving the whole experience. Sunday morning we headed back into the valley one last time to collect our bivy camp. We made it back to base camp around noon and spent the next few hours packing up camp, loading the truck and then we hit the road. Our wives expected us home on a schedule that meant we needed to leave camp exactly when we did. So killing the bull on Friday morning ended up being perfect timing!

During this week-long elk hunt we obviously didn't get to encounter nearly as many elk as we had hoped, but we made the best of the encounter we did have. We worked incredibly hard and kept after it. We only saw one other human the entire hunt and he seemed to be a hiker climbing to the summit of one of the 13,000 foot plus peaks in the area. We were lucky to have beautiful weather most of the hunt, although the unusually warm weather probably contributed to the lack of elk encounters. Every day was spent in some of the most beautiful country on earth with a great friend and hunting partner. As difficult as this hunt was and as few encounters as we had, I don't think I would change a thing!

Andy's Gear on this Hunt:

Andy Backus is a husband and father of two little girls. He grew up hunting whitetail deer in Wisconsin with gun and bow and over the years has been fortunate to hunt and explore most of the Western US states and Alaska. He plays soccer to stay in shape and also enjoys most other sports and outdoor activities. Andy is the Field Editor for Long Range Hunting Online Magazine and also manages the Long Range Hunting Store.