OTC Bull Elk, Public Land, CO 2nd Rifle Season 2017 – My Story


Dec 31, 2017
I wanted to share my story for those that may be looking to embark on their first journey out west to pursue free ranging game in the mountains. I learn a lot from reading: hunting & shooting magazines coming to the house every month, online forums, websites, etc. Maybe this story will inspire someone as other's stories inspired me. This was my first time out west for hunting, my first time above like 4000ft elevation, first time hunting anything bigger than whitetail, first time fly fishing, first time eating wild bighorn and (spoiler alert) elk. I had a bunch of new gear, new rifle, and it was the lowest I've weighed and the best shape I've been in since high school (over 15 years ago). This is a really long story, and I don't even know if anyone will read the whole thing, but I'll try and mix in a bunch of photos to help tell it; if nothing else you can just look at those.

I had been planning for about 3 years to go backpack hunting in an OTC unit in CO. I couldn't find any buddies to go with me and was thinking about going on my own. The wife was never too keen on that idea, and with a little one at home and another on the way I have to be more accommodating in my decision making. Going on my own, my chances of success would be quite slim. I'm an engineer, I'm pretty good with numbers and I understand statistics. In 2016, only 18% of all elk hunters in CO were successful. 4 out of 5 dudes (or dudettes) are going home with empty coolers. Those aren't great odds.

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Lots of roads like this in west/panhandle TX and NM. Pretty flat and pretty straight.

I ended up using a guide; I merely want to maximize my chances of being successful. Before you get your panties in a bunch and cry foul, this is in OTC units and still public land – this was not a for sure thing. I can't afford the luxury of scout trips, and I don't like coming home empty handed (fully understanding that is a part of hunting, I only said I don't like it). I don't even remember the name of the outfitter business, he doesn't have a website and doesn't want one. "Buddy of mine always said if you needed a website you were doing something wrong" he said. He goes by word of mouth alone, and that is enough to keep him and his army of guides busy. He was a stand-up guy and I wouldn't hesitate to use him again in the future. He was born and raised, 6th generation, in the town and lived there his whole life. Hell, his paps was the town mayor for 35 years or something – needless to say, he was familiar with the woods around those parts. His off-season is spent shoeing horses and fixing fences; he uses that time to scout where the elk are – I like this mentality. The one thing that caught me a little off-guard in our initial conversations – he guaranteed an opportunity. Now, this is hunting (on public land, no less), no one can guarantee success on a hunt, and even guaranteeing an opportunity seemed foolish to me. What is an opportunity? 400yds? 600? 5 second shot window at 250? I never did get those questions answered, but he did come through on the opportunity for both my buddy and I, and for that I am grateful.

Where to begin? Firstly, I've lived in Houston, TX for the last decade. Houston is flat. Really flat. My house is about 150ft above sea level, and I'm about 75 miles as the crow flies (far northwest side of town) to Galveston – 150ft of elevation change over 75 miles, yeah, that's flat. Houston is also pretty jampacked with people and concrete. Stupid light-wash makes it pretty impossible to see any stars at night. It's about as far from the "great outdoors" as you can get. I spent the first 20-odd years of my life in rural-ish northeast Ohio. The house I spent my childhood in was on a couple acres back in the woods and backed up to a nature preserve. We owned those woods growing up. Obviously, I want to get a bull, and I would be a little distraught to come home empty-handed; however, a successful trip to me would be just enjoying the mountains, getting close to nature, and spending time with my compadre and challenging myself to dig deep, and push a little further to try and punch that tag.

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What I would give to have a supercar and no traffic!

If I'm honest, the trip would have been pretty worth it just for the peace and serenity. The air smelled clean, that might sound weird, but there is definitely a sense that there is less pollutants in the air you are breathing. The mountains are beautiful. Star gazing was crazy, you could see the milky way and 10-fold as many starts as you can see in the city. The first morning when we got out to the trailhead I saw a couple shooting stars, and that happened every day we were there. Things you normally take for granted. We stayed in some cabins just outside of Pagosa Springs – cool little town. It sits at about 7,900ft and borders units 77, 78, and 771 – all OTC units. We'd be hunting primarily between 8,500-9,000ft. Those that hunted this October will know, it was unseasonably warm. High-30s as lows and rocketed up to the high-60s by about 9am. Pretty crappy conditions for hunting. Although, much more comfortable at the same time, so there's a win-lose trade-off there. These units are not known for their trophy potential; we didn't come out here expecting or even hoping for 300" bulls.

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Started to get into some hills in NM.

Anyways, the drive out there is a story all of its own. The important part is, after long discussions I secured first shot/opportunity over my buddy. Originally, we were going to draw sticks or something, but I drove the entire way and took the couch to sleep on for the week if I could get first shot. This trip (inclusive of new equipment and travel costs) was essentially wiping my checking account clean, so I wanted to be sure I at least had an opportunity if we only had 1 as a group. Plus, we were missing opening day because of my buddy's business stature and a meeting he needed to attend in Dallas on the way up – not cool. We got to town, checked into the cabin, got in touch with the guide and went over to his buddies to confirm zeroes.

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I think it's cool when you can see all the sediment layers in the rock.

Let's talk about shooting for a second. I like to think I'm a pretty good shot. The first rifle I ever bought was a FN Herstal Patrol Bolt Rifle eXtreme Precision (FNH PBR XP, gotta love acronyms) – tack driver! It's a .308, Winchester 70 pre-64 control feed action, full-length aluminum bedded stock, 22" fluted, heavy contour barrel – but much too heavy to take in the mountains. I can shoot ¾" 5-shot groups at 100yds all day with different factory ammo. Every rifle since has been a disappointment. I think it was a mistake making that as a first purchase. I picked up a Savage 16 Lightweight Hunter in 6.5 Creedmoor; because I love bandwagons. With scope it is right under 7 pounds. I have about 100 rounds through it which is only just broken in as far as I'm concerned. Rifle is shooting consistent 4" groups (3-shot) at 300 that open to 6" when the barrel heats up (pencil barrel, doesn't take long). $500 gun, $200 scope, I can't complain about those groups (my cheapest setup by a good margin). I go shooting one last time the day before we leave Houston. Shoot a couple groups, make sure the windage is centered and my elevation turret is dialed to zero. I'm in the camp of dialing the range on the elevation turret … well, at least I was in that camp before this hunt. When we were confirming zero in CO I put a nice little 3-shot group on the paper and it was centered left-to-right but about 1.5" high. I expected that because of the thinner air up there, but for whatever reason I neglected to change my elevation turret. I don't know why, but I left it as is. Looking back, I'm thinking there was just so much going on and so much going through my head that I didn't think anything of it.

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I'm always amazed by the rock formations you can find.

Day 1, morning:

No elk. Lots of mule deer. No big bucks, and not really any 4x4s, mostly 2x2s.

We got to the end of a logging road and with our headlamps burning headed out into the dark. Went in a ways and took a break on some deadfall. Guide made a couple cow calls – we were on top of a ridge with drop-offs on either side. He made a couple bugles. Nothing in return. Silence. The sky was absolutely stunning. Saw 2 shooting stars as soon as we sat down.

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We were really roughing it. Coffee anyone?

As it started getting light you could begin to see the drop on both sides of the trail. Could also start to see the beautiful mountain ranges in all directions. We saw 2 other hunters; 1 not wearing orange so he must have been a guide. There were no other guides allowed to be in the area where we were. They looked like they were going west, so we went east. We stopped on overlooking a cliff and glassed. Nothing moving. My buddy mentioned his stock seemed loose on his rifle. He was shooting an older Savage 16 in 300WSM, 26" barrel, tupperware stock. I showed him how my stock is similar and I can move it noticeably when squeezed against the barrel. But then I grabbed his rig, and it definitely felt … off. Then I noticed the trigger assembly moved when you moved the barrel. The actions screws were loose somehow. I joked, "Well, it's a good thing I have first shot, you shouldn't be needing it today. Haha." Nobody else found that funny? Oh well. (We'll head back to the guide's buddy's place before lunch to fix it up.) Packed up and went back to the other side, couldn't see the hunters anymore so we carried on west and down in the draws below. Found a little muley skull, small 2x2. Tons of sign everywhere. Scrapes, cow scat, bull scat, tracks. We stopped on the side of another ridge glassing west. You could see a big bull on the ground on a private ranch maybe 1500yds away. We heard the "ka-boom" a little earlier on the other side of the ridge, sounded close. We stayed at that spot a little longer hoping to catch elk moving away from the private. No such luck.

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2 mile hike in, but we weren't too far from populated areas.

Kept going up and down draws. One was straight freaking up. Kicked our ***. Heart was pumping good. Throat and ears were throbbing. Breathing hard, definitely felt like you weren't getting enough air with each breath, but recovery was soon enough. Kept seeing more scat and tracks. We were in some thicker timber on a bench when my buddy spotted movement. Deer. 2x2 buck with doe and 2 fawns. Wind was in our favor. They walked within 50yds of us, stopping every few moments to look in our direction. That was the first time I've been that close to a muley; pretty neat. Down in another draw we found some bedding areas, some leg bones and another small 2x2 muley skull.

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Sit on the side of hill and glass. Walk to a new spot, repeat.

Back to the truck, 7 miles total. We'll get to lessons learned at the end of my story, but let's just say my pack was the heaviest it was going to be right now. There was much weight shaving to do! I don't know if the guide was testing us or what, but that was the longest hike we would make for the week.

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Set up on a water hole – figured with the heat they'd have to be thirsty.

Day 1, afternoon:

Took out the following from my pack: 15x50 binos, tripod, 2 jackets, extra orange vest, gloves, and a 32oz Nalgene full of water, shovel … quite a bit of weight/bulk. Went to the other side of town to the guide's uncle's place, which backed up to national forest. Another long hike with killer vertical and couple creek crossings. Bumped a buck on the way in, didn't see his rack but he had a big body. This was a sit and wait hunt, ambush style. My buddy and I split up on opposite sides of this water hole, the guide stayed with me. We were 360yds apart. There was another hunter 650yds from us that couldn't see my buddy. He was playing the same game we were – wait for the last 30 mins of light and hope for some action. Sun went down and temp seemed to immediately drop 20deg. No action. Lots of ducks on the pond; pintails and golden-eyes. (We do a lot of wing shooting in TX.)

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Another view – lots of duckies in there, can't really see in pic.
Day 2, morning:

Up at 4:15am again, leave the cabin at 5. We headed to a ridge just a few away from where we were the previous morning. Longer drive to get here, passed a bunch of big camps again. Got to the end of the road and our 2 other buddies from Pittsburg (also staying in our cabin) are there. Had a chat to figure out who was going where. Walked down to a finger ridgetop, pretty steep on the way down, already dreading the hike back up. We make it to an opening a little before legal light to start glassing. We can make out our buddies on the other side of the bowl. See 2 hunters at the bottom of draw headed away from us. The guide spots a muley buck out in front of us moving up the draw and away from us. I lose sight of him in some thick timber. A solo hunter starts making his way towards us up the draw. He makes us out and disappears into the timber. I spot the same muley buck again, and I'm watching him in my binos, when *CRACK*! He jumps and takes off running. We look over at our buddies, they didn't shoot. Then we see that solo hunter on the edge of the timber looking through his scope. He puts his rifle down and looks in his binos. Then he looks up in our direction and gives us a fist pump, haha. Comical. Good work buddy. Couldn't see where the deer lay, we watched as he walked up to it. He gave a finishing shot. He dragged it into the shade and disappeared from sight to get busy cleaning.


Again, same meadow.

More glassing. I'm looking far away, then take my eyes out of binos and there's 4 muleys right below us, 150yds. 2 does and 2 fawns. I think they could wind us because the one doe kept looking right at us. Didn't see anything else, we busted out around 10:30 or so, it was already hot. The hike out wasn't as bad as I had thought. About 70yds from the truck we saw another 4 muleys. Why don't I have a deer tag? On the drive out we get stopped by a game warden (ranger?). Cool guy; he knew the guide. We gave him our tags, license and ID. He asked for hunter safety card – crap! I showed it when picking up my license, then I left it at the cabin. He checked that our rifles were in cases. Wrote some text on my tag and told me to go to the ranger station in town with my hunter safety card. If I got stopped again without having that cleared I'd be in deep poop. So we took care of that before lunch.


Just enjoying some of OUR land.

Day 2, afternoon:

I'll be honest, we were starting to wonder if we'd see anything all week. Spoiler alert – we get some action on tonight's hunt! It's my paps birthday so I chat with him before going out and then get some facetime with my girls; gotta love technology! We again went to the same general location but to the other side of the ridge a little further out still from where we were in the morning. Park on the side of the road, no dead end here. Holy freaking uphill hike. Steady grade for first 90% with a stupid straight uphill at the end. But this time, I'm thinking about how awesome it will be going home. It was about 2 miles in there. I'm sweating my butt off. My heartbeat wasn't too bad but I was breathing heavy as we made it up to the point. Recovery come a little faster today it seems, we all post up in the shade to glass. Jokes abound, we pass time until about 30 mins before sundown. Guide gives a series of cow calls followed by a bugle – mind you, we are way past the rut, we haven't heard one bugle yet. Nothing. My buddy decides to get up and look back from where we came. I'm not kidding when I say this: good things always happened when this dude leaves the room. I don't know what it is, but I'm getting all exciting inside knowing something is about to happen now. The guide lets out another series of calls. BUGLE!! Faint and far away, but that's the first one I've heard in the wild (I've been 20yds away from a bugling bull before at a "petting ranch" in Texas). Pretty cool. He let out another series and got another answer. My buddy came back, he had heard it. The guide kept calling every couple minutes and would get an answer every 3rd series or so. Sounded closer. Light is fading fast. We ranged everything in front of us, most likely areas are 300-400yds. I've got shooting sticks (tripod) with my pack anchored against my shooting arm. Super solid. Felt good. I'm messing with the turret on my scope, planning to quickly dial the range.


I'm running out of things to say in these captions. Cool landscapes.

Guide and my buddy see movement. I'm not seeing anything. Precious time passes. Finally, I see a cow – holy schnikies! We have about 10 minutes of legal shooting left. That's the first elk I've seen in the wild. Then 6, 8, 10, 12 – no clue how many there were. Where are the bulls? There's one, I think? They started popping out of 10 different draws. I ask the guide, "he legal?" "Don't know bud, can't see clear." Couple more pop out at 320yds. "There's the big one," he says (haha, "big one" – as in the biggest in the field). I pull my head out of scope, see where he's pointing. Got it. I see antlers, but they are faint. "Take him!"


This was the set-up for the 2nd night hunt. (Black tape to ensure my magazine doesn't fall out while hiking.)

This all happened so fast. From the bugles, to the shadows moving through the timber, to the first full bodies you could see. I'm steady on the rest. I line up the crosshairs half-way up the body, right over the front elbow. *Boom*! I lose sight picture in recoil. I look up and see him run straight down into a draw and out of sight. All the others are just standing around. I put another round in the chamber. The guide says I missed. No way. I'm actually offended. Had an awesome sight picture. He said he saw dirt pop up behind him. My buddy says he saw dirt but thinks I got him as he saw a puff from the bull first. Thank you sir, that's why I like having him around. I keep an eye on the draw to see if this guy comes out. My buddy has his gun up to find another bull that stuck around. It feels like 2 minutes, but it was probably 20 seconds that passed. A buck and cow come up from the draw. He was bigger than anything else in the field. My buddy is getting ready to shoot. Wait! Is that him? He's acting injured. Then (something similar to) the following dialog occurs:

Guide (to me): "Are you going to shoot him again?"

Me: "Is that the same bull?"

Guide: "Not sure." (to my buddy) "Do you want him?"

Buddy: "Are you going to shoot him?"

Me: "I don't know. Is that him?"

Buddy: "Dude, I'll shoot him if you don't."

Me: "Well, if you're not going to shoot him I will."

Guide: "I think that's him, bud. He looks injured."

If I shot this one, and it turns out there is another dead one out there, my buddies hunt is over (and technically I could still be in trouble, even though WE have 2 tags I can't be the one shooting both). He definitely looks injured though. I line up the crosshairs, squeeze the trigger - *click*! F**************************************CK! Stupid Savage. I didn't pull the bolt ALL the way back when I went to reload – happens on occasion at the range. Open for my buddy, and he was at the ready. *BOOM*! Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!! (My poor ears – he was sitting a little behind and angled towards me. I didn't have any hearing protection in because I wasn't planning on the volley of fire we are embarking on.) He got him good, but he's still standing. Now he's facing away at 360yds, I have a round ready for sure, I very deliberately watched it go in the chamber. With the angle, only good shot is in the neck. I line up about ½ way up his neck, maybe closer to the base of his skull. *BOOM*! Missed over his head. What the … *BOOM*!! Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!! My buddy gets him again. The bull is still standing, facing the other direction broadside again. I'm frustrated with my 2 (or 3) mistakes and let my buddy finish it with another shot, this time plugging my ears. *BOOM*! And the bull goes down. There are still 10 elk in the field. We pack up our gear not really knowing if we have 1 or 2 dead elk – wishful thinking. We TEAR (read: fall in a controlled manor) down the ridge through thick oak brush. Run and jump over a gorge. Adrenaline is PUMPING! We make it up to the meadow where there is a dead bull on the ground. We find blood over where I first shot. I did hit him. Not a whole lot of blood though. Hardly a trail. I drop the pack and spend a good half hour looking around while they start getting ready to take the bull apart. It's amazing how easy it is to go up and down hills with no pack and all that adrenaline! It is pitch black now. The adrenaline is wearing off. I go back to where the bull is. Consensus is that it is absolutely the same bull. We grab some photos. When we got into cleaning we found my bullet hole, in-line with his shoulder but only about 1" down from the top of his back. My buddy got 1 in the boiler room and broke the opposite shoulder. 1 thru the gut and into the vitals as he was quartering away. And I think the last 1 was quartering to, in the leading shoulder. We make quick work of it. Apparently most of the guide's clients don't help with this part. Hell, that's what I came here for! We make use of some game bags, grab the ivory and cut the skull from behind the antler to the eye sockets. We stash the quarters in some trees about 40yds away and the guide will come back in the morning with his horses to pack out. You see, that's why it is nice to have a guide!


My buddies bull, but I shot him first.

It was freaking COLD when the adrenaline completely wore off (remember, Houston blood here). The hike back was as sweet as we imagined – all downhill. Got back to camp and our Pittsburg buddies were stoked! They turned in around 11pm. Since we wouldn't be hunting in the morning we stayed up celebrating until about 3am. Haha, our Pitt buddies were waking up an hour later. The engineer in me needed to know what went wrong. I was dialed in, steady rest, steady crosshairs. I grabbed the target from when we confirmed zero out there a few days ago. That's when I realized I was 1.5" high. I'm pouring over ballistic calculators on my phone. Basically, I was about 3MOA higher than I needed to be, and at 320yds, that's right about 10". I intended to aim at the heart, bottom 3rd of the body right above the elbow, and dialed a little extra range so to guarantee that I wouldn't miss low. Then, for whatever reason, my mind seeing the animal in my scope and wanting the largest margin of error, I aimed for ½ way up the body above the elbow. Add the minute-and-a-half high I was to start, plus the little extra that I dialed, and that was my problem. And that makes sense with the 2 shots that I got off at that animal, both missing high by a little less than a foot. My buddy brought it up, and I have to agree, but me sitting there for an hour looking through my scope at nothing wrecked me. I was over thinking it WAY too much. Too much info and too little time to process it when the bulls showed up. Better to just stick to your instincts and let muscle memory take over.

No more F'ng around with the elevation turret on the scope. I'm going to put it at 3-4" high at 100 and that will put me right around 4" low at 300. That's an old saying (3" high at 100 is 3" low at 300) and the ballistic calcs verify it. So my buddy and I are running through the details over and over. And I'm still beating myself up because if either shot came down 10" they would have been excellent. But, I learned some good lessons, we did get a bull on the ground, and we'll be enjoying some steaks the next day!


Ivories and 1 recovered 300WSM round. I think it was a 185gr partition.

It was just a crazy day overall. So much happened and it was all so fast. Not seeing anything through 3 hunts and most of the 4th and then boom! Game time. Awesome experience. Awesome to see that bull piled up. The guide was really happy that my buddy went over, put his hand on the bull and said "Thank you." So, 3 days of hunting left for me. My buddy is going to do some fishing and he might still tag along on a few hunts. I'm ready to get back out there.

Day 3, morning:

We woke up around 9am and decided to go to town to grab some real breakfast – good idea. Went to a little café for coffee and a breakfast bowl; scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, beans and cheese all in a sopapilla bowl – delicious! Went and grabbed the meat from the guide and took it to a processor on the way back to the cabin. We lopped off some of the backstrap to have steaks that evening.


River right next to the cabins.

Day 3, afternoon:

Back out and ready to go – buddy stayed back to cook steaks. We headed back to his uncle's. No elk. Didn't see any other hunters in the spot either. Jumped a couple of muleys on the way in again. Seriously, why don't I have a deer tag? You could hear a bunch of coyotes howling. At 1 point it sounded like 30-40 of them were going off at the same time (it was probably 8 or 10, I don't know). No telling how far away they were. It was pretty cool experience though, I'd never heard anything like that before. Otherwise, just some awesome star gazing again. The big dipper was bigger than I've ever seen.

Got back to the cabin and enjoyed some steaks. First taste of elk … and to be honest it was drowned in marinade. Good, but I'm not getting the impression I'm getting an authentic taste of it. I want some steaks with only salt and pepper next time.


The fish were equally as small as our bulls. Haha. (Sigh)

Day 4, morning:

My buddy stayed back again. I'm wearing a knee brace and taking pain killers. My knee freaking hurts on the downhills. I was doing squats before bed and there are all sorts of squeaks and sounds resonating from my knee. I tore my ACL and ripped up half of my meniscus 10 years ago (almost to the day – 1 week shy). It's fine in my everyday life – I think when the adrenaline was pumping the other night and we were tearing down hills, with full packs and all, I did a number on it. And not that I'm a serial complainer, but my big toe on the opposite foot is numb. Broke that when I was younger and can't really bend it anymore; I've always had feeling in it though. (And as I write this, 4 weeks later, it is still numb. Might need to get that checked out.) Elk hunting is no joke!

We go back to the same spot where we were on morning 2 and saw the muley get killed in the bowl. We hang out in the same spot until the sun comes up. We saw a hunter and guide on horseback on a ridge about 800yds away. That's what my guide was hoping for. We are looking a couple hundred yards in front of them to see if they pushed anything. Instead of continuing, which would have been ideal, they peel off and go back from whence they came. Bummer. Nothing moving in front of them. We pack up and head to the other side of the bowl where our Pittsburg buddies were the other day. We follow along a private fence where there's a lot of good sign and fresh urine smell. Took a break at the top of the hill and the guide gave me some ram meat wrapped up in a tortilla. Wow! That stuff was excellent. It's from a ram he took last year, and it is about the last of the meat he has left. It was the 2nd ram he's taken, the first one was 20 years prior. (After getting a tag in CO you have to wait 5 years – I think – to apply again, and then it took him another 15 years to draw for the 2nd time.) We did some more glassing and saw a couple more hunters over a mile away and another 2 deer past 1000yds, couldn't get a range on them. Headed back to truck and bumped another 4 muleys. Dang, seriously, might need to put in for the draw to get a muley tag next year.

Do some fly fishing with my buddy after I got back to the cabin, have a couple hours before we go out again. Pretty fun, I could see how that would be addicting. My buddy runs a couple flies our guide gave us. Not catching anything. I pick out a little, pink, Chinese/Walmart fly and my buddy catches one. Well, the jury is still out on whether it counts, he only brought it in and touched it before it escaped. But then he did, legit, catch a couple.


They sure are pretty.

Day 4, afternoon:

Plan A – to go back to where we got the bull a couple nights ago. My buddy stayed back again – gone fishing. We go down the road and Old-man-river's truck is in our spot. This dude was posted up yesterday morning when the guide went back out to get my buddies meat. Can't go here.

Plan B – go further up the road to a spot that faces west – into the setting sun, not ideal. Stuck behind Joe Slow in his 80s pickup swerving like he's 8 deep in a 12-pack. Pull off to a trail head where there's a couple camps. Young dude, 18 maybe, making his was down the trail. We get out, gear up and make a tough hike in. Uphill and pretty steep for 3/4ish mile. Get to top, go under/thru a fence – and it's really pretty up here. Yellow and orange leaves in what looks like and orchard as trees were in perfect rows. It was still oak brush I believe, but the leaves hadn't fallen yet. Start making climb down to glassing spot when we spot that dang 18yo kid sitting there. Apparently it is pretty thick and there aren't any other spots in there, so we turn around and make the hike back to the truck. Yikes! I'm freaking sweating, it's hot. Guide is visibly ****ed – that's 2 spots taken. He is grabbing and breaking branches on the way out – haven't seen him do that before. Back to truck and back on road.

Plan C – guide blames it on Joe Slow – I'm thinking maybe we shouldn't have spent close to 30mins BS'ng back at the cabin. Doesn't matter. I ask "What's the plan?" He's thinking of going back to where we were in the morning, but hunting it a little different. That would be 6 hunts and only 4 unique spots. To be honest, I wanted somewhere new – but I also need to trust the judgement of the guide. We get back to main road and need to turn right.

Plan D – "**** it!" He turns left and floors it. We go about 10 miles out there and pull over into a little area on the side of road with another truck there. There's a hunter walking down hill and out of a gate (there was a fence there – I wouldn't have known it was ok to cross these things). Local kid, hunting elk, the guide knows his parents and grandparents. They BS some, and we set out. Up, up, up, and deep in there.


Obligatory selfie. (I wear the mask more for the sun protection than anything else.)
We get to his spot and he tells me there's a trail over here. Elk use it to get to a pond. Sometimes they split off this way to go to a different water hole. I set up at the split – looking at a 50yd shot. Yeah, I can hit at 50yds. (This would be a good spot in archery season.) He's going to hang back and call some; tells me to shoot the first legal buck. We go over brow tines, points, etc. to make sure I'm on the right page. Says he'll give me a turkey call if he wants me to bust @ss over to him if he sees something over there.

We split. I find my sport. Lay out all my gear, put on my cold weather clothes, set up the sticks (don't really need sticks at this range, in hindsight not sure why I bothered). Range a couple trees/openings in the area. Now we wait. About an hour passes. Guide starts calling. Bunch of series but never get a reply.

I see a butt leaving the meadow through a little window in the oak brush; can't tell if it's an elk or deer. OK, eyes peeled. Time passes. Guide keeps calling. Then I hear it. CRASH! Broken branch on ground or big antler crashing through trees. Either way, GAME ON! I start shaking. I wasn't shaking the other night because I could see the elk coming in from far away. These things should pop out at any second and I'll only have an instant to make a decision. I'm looking at my lanes – but then catch and elk through the same little window in the oak brush (it was like my 2 or 3 o'clock if I'm mainly focusing at my 12). I didn't see the head, but it looked like a big body. I swing that way; another one – I'm watching in my scope. Spike bull. Then nothing. Oh man – is the big guy about to come? Are any going to come through the other way? These 2 have to be getting close to the guide – is he going to turkey call me? How long should I wait here, there's 2 elk in the field and I can't see them. I start to move – making noise – shouldn't bother them, they think there's a cow and bull in there from the calling. I'm still keeping an eye on my lane where I was hoping they'd pop out. Need to find an angle/shot. I crash through some oak brush to another tree. I can see the guide. He's signaling "No" or "Come here" – crap! I can barely see, it's getting dark. I can faintly make out 2 elk through the brush. He's still waiving. I see him looking at me through his rangefinder. I give him the cut-throat or "No" signal and he seems to confirm. OK, I thought it was only a spike. Finally, this bull speaks – but not a bugle, it was more of a bark. Pretty cool at 50yds. He barks again. I'm looking back at my original lanes again waiting to see if something is still coming. Too dark now; guide stands up and comes my way, elk run out of there. No bull on the ground, but that was a pretty cool experience. The hike out is just as long as the hike in.


How it all played out on Day 5. We are red line, elk are green line. Truck is in top right.

Day 5, morning (last day):

Day 5. The other 2 guys in our cabin have been out here 4 years now and have never doubled. Technically this is hunt 8/10 – I can still go tomorrow morning if we can't get it done today (because of the morning hunt we skipped so the guide to pack out the meat from the first bull). That would make leaving town interesting if I were to get one tomorrow morning though.

My buddy is up and decides he is coming. Haha, I'm worried his muscles are too tight and he drank too much the past couple days. But, always good to have your buddy. High 20s this morning, feels great. I love being able to see my breath (doesn't happen too often in Houston). Everyday I've been talking to my rifle – and more specifically to the first cartridge that is going in the chamber. Maybe I'm weird, but I'm guessing there's someone else out there that does that. Hell, it worked for Happy Gilmore – different sport, but same idea.

We go back to where we started day 1 morning. Full circle. I like where this story is going. This little piece of land is the outfitter's chunk – no other guides are allowed in here. Hunters are good, it is still public land, only outfitters need to stay out. We park way off the turnaround at the end of the road since it is late in the season and some of these camps we pass on the way up might need to turn around their trailers and will need all the space they can get. It's like 5:40, we sit in the truck BS'ng until about 10 after 6.


Different view of Day 5. Left is where we spotted 'em, right where the shot was.

I think my pack is as light as ever. I'm carrying my 15x binos today – got these **** things for the trip and haven't used 'em yet (had some older 10x I've been using). Load up and head down the road. Lots of logging activities up here. It's so dry we are kicking up CLOUDS of dirt/dust/powder. So much so that it is difficult to breathe. Road ends, trail begins. We stop at the same deadfall trees. Guide makes some calls again. Nothing. Just pure, sincere, utter silence. Which, if I'm honest, is a great sound – if you're not expecting/hoping for anything in return. Peaceful.

Getting a little brighter, we continue further. This dang oak brush; I'm getting sick of it at this point. We make it to the same glassing point – we stopped a few times along the way and glass standing up as we go. Here's the unbeknownst critical decision of the day – the guide takes my buddy to 1 side of the ridge, leaves him there, and the guide and I go to the other side. Not seeing much movement. I change spots some to get a different vantage. I'm a good 10yds from the guide when my buddy comes over to our side and whispers a few words to the guide. He gets up, calmly, and starts grabbing his pack and things. I'm thinking, from his body language, we are just packing up and moving to another spot. I make my way over there and my buddy says he see 2. Sweet! We go to the other side of ridge.


Looking for that last chance bull.

Find 2 elk in the binos. Ranged 'em right under 1000yds. Can't tell if either is a bull. They are on private land right now, but they are walking our way along the fence. We watch 'em as they jump over. Game on! Looks like 1 is a bull – but not very big. Need to get a better look – and get closer for a shot anyways – here we go. Guide takes off down the hill. Where did this little ninja come from? Dude is turning 50 soon and you'd think he was in his 20s the way he moves – the mountains have been good to this guy.

Oak brush *smack* in the eye! Ouch. Well that's just awesome – luckily the left eye (I'm a righty – well, lefty but I shoot righty). Keep moving around, up and down, up and down. Good thing he knows where we are. Didn't realize there were this many cuts between us and where we saw the elk. We come around a big bend and spot them again. The 2 elk are walking our way up a draw in the shade. If they keep going up the draw they'll come within about 100-150yds. They stop short, instead heading up the face of the canyon opposite us. This whole time we were watching them, trading binos and trying to field judge this guy. He looks like a 4x4. Then a 3x3. Not sure why it is so hard to see – although it's not like this was going to be a trophy, we all knew that. Definitely only 3 points on the 1 side. Keep observing. I see a 4th point on the other side; the G2, just super short. Can only see it in the sun, and he rarely steps into it. Guide keeps saying he doesn't see it. I'm like 85% sure at this point.


View from close-by to where the bull went down.

He steps out in the sun again. Got it! Yes, I for sure see a point. "I still don't see it, bud," says the guide. Now, my eyes have been playing tricks on me all week – they know what they want to see and they try and make my mind believe. I say, "Guys, I'm 99% sure." Of course I am. I want to believe. My buddy says he's about 95% sure he saw that point – ok, I'll take that. Guide says, "Bud, I think that's his ear." No way, I see a point. Now, I understand the guide's position on this. Clearly there is only 3 on the one side, and it's hard to judge 4" from 5" at 250yds, so that brow tine isn't a good reference point. Killing an illegal bull is a costly mistake we'd rather avoid. The brow tine on the side with 3 points is clearly broken.

They get to a point where they're out of sight – we move further around the side of the hill and find a good spot to stop. Guide throws up the sticks, I swing the rifle off my shoulder and steady it on the sticks. Standing, with my pack still on – not ideal. The cow he's chasing starts up the hill and occasionally looks in our direction. He follows about 20yds behind. I bring the sticks down to kneeling level. My barrel is in some brush – I keep checking to be sure the muzzle is clear. Still have my pack on; tough to get steady. We catch a break while they are moving. I drop the pack and bring the sticks even lower – much too thick of brush to shoot from prone. I'm sitting with 1 leg crossed under my butt. Pretty steady and I'm happy. But, after another 10-15 minutes my leg is dead asleep. It's my right leg with the knee brace, which was cutting circulation some on its own. I'm talking full dead – no feeling, no movement, no tingly, nothing. The cow has made her way to the top of the ridge. Bull is out of sight. She stands there and gives us the mannequin challenge for 10 solid minutes. We are making noise – not only the brush but all the super-dry dead leaves around. Range her at 350yds. "How good is their eye sight?" I ask the guide. "Don't think she can see us, bud." I move slowly, I have to change my position and lift my leg out from under me. I watch her as I move – she's still just a statue. I manage both legs out in front of me, still sitting. It takes another minute for the nerves to kick back in and I get those painful tingles.

I get back up with 1 knee on the ground. We are still at the same consensus on this bull. The cow finally breaks form and walks out of sight to the right. Ok – where is this guy?


This was right after the shot(s). Follow the dark shadow in middle of picture up, and at the top of the ridge just to the left, in the sunny spot, is where he stepped out.

Finally, he steps out. He's in the sun. I see the point; 4 on one side. Guide keeps cow calling to get him to stop. I ask my buddy, "Range?" "350." "I'm shooting." "If you're confident he's legal, go ahead." Spoken like a true guide. Finger is off the trigger. Good cheek weld. I click off the safety. I double, triple, and probably even quadruple-checked the chamber while we were sitting there observing earlier. I can't get steady. Bull takes a few steps. Guide cow calls to get him to stop again. I say to the guide, "Can you lean up against me?" He does. It helps. Crosshairs steady midway up the body in line with the back of the front leg. Bullet should kiss him a good 6" low from my point-of-aim. *BOOM* Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing! Dang – now my gun is doing it. I look up and see him buck/rear up from the impact and he runs down the hill toward us. Closes about 20yds. Guide stops him with a cow call. It was a solid hit, right in the shoulder, he wasn't putting weight on it.

I quickly eject that round – but meticulously get another one in. I watch to be sure the bolt picks up the next rounds and chambers it – I'm not running into the same mistakes. Line up the crosshairs again. *BOOM* Look up – another solid hit. I can hear the thump. Dude just stands there. Doesn't even move. Doesn't flinch. What the …?! These are tough freaking animals. It was right below the spine in line with the front leg (found some nickel-sized bone fragments when we were in there cleaning him out). Reload again – taking the same special care this time. Now my nerves are catching me up. The crosshairs are a little shaky now. Adrenaline kicks in. I don't want to lose this bull. Then, of course, my buddy starts saying things like, "Dude, what are you waiting for?" "He's just standing there." "Why aren't you shooting?"


I think this is my favorite pic. Right after we knew MY bull was down and packed our gear to head over there.

"Shut the **** up, I can't get steady!" Crosshairs still on him, wavering some. I go back to fundamentals and what works at the range. Concentrate on breathing. Inhale, exhale, squeeze. *BOOM* Another solid hit. Now he's really staggering. Shoulder looks busted – but this warrior is still standing. Reload – again pay special attention. ****, this is the last round in the magazine. To my buddy, "Backpack, front pocket, front panel – there's some rounds in there!" The bull looks like he's going down – but he is still up. The guide says to shoot until he is on the ground. Again, line up the crosshairs. *BOOM* Finally, drops him. Pull back the bolt, buddy hands me some rounds. I load 2 in the magazine and close the bolt. Look back in the scope – he's piled up. We watch him for another 20-30 seconds to be doubly-sure he doesn't get up. Then emotions hit. Excitement, exhaustion, wicked adrenaline rush. I look through the dry leaves to find my brass – it's so bad I can only find 3 of the 4. I keep looking but the guys are getting agitated and want to start over there.


He only bought those clothes so he could look more like me.

We take our time getting around. There's a couple up and downs but for the most part we take the long way around and loop over there as opposed to taking the straight route. Guide didn't say much the whole way – he's freaking out inside and not completely sure we took a legal bull. The whole way over I'm thinking about the week. Super excited I got something; little sad that the hunt is nearing an end. Also thinking I'll be processing the meat all day since we are due to leave early the next morning. I got totally turned around and thinking we were close when we still had to go around another couple bends. Things always look different from the other side.


Can't say enough positive things about this dude (guide).

We spot him – in the shade too! That would be the most beautiful ponderosa I've ever seen – it was getting HOT! Go up and run my fingers through his coat. Pet his head and tell him thanks. What a beautiful animal. He'll be used to feed me (and the family) and he didn't die for nothing. He has 4 points on 1 side, and his brow tine is 7". Guide breathes a sigh of relief. We grab some pics and give congrats. Thanks to the guide for the awesome week. Thanks to my buddy for coming back out today and spotting this bull with his cow. Just freaking awesome that we doubled! We each got 1 our first trip out. Awesome.


Only pic of the pack horses. Can't thank them enough.

We get to cleaning and make short work of it. I try the gutless method to get the tenderloin (I watch this stuff on youtube, that makes me an expert, right?) – ended up letting the whole belly sac (and diaphragm) fall out since he was sitting on a hill and it was intact. Much easier. Crazy flies at this point – and these meat-eating yellow jackets. Never seen anything like it. They looked like regular yellow jackets but you could see them tearing off little pieces of meat. Weird. Got the game bags in the shade, dumped a bunch of pepper on them – seemed to keep the flies at bay. Cut off the top of the skull. Buddy goes and takes a nap. Guide sits in the shade. I get to work on cleaning the last bit of hide off the skull. Guide calls the cavalry – we are literally waiting for some horses, 1 of the biggest pluses to using an outfitter. Half-hour or so later my buddy wakes, I have the skull cleaned, and we go join the guide and reminisce on the week. Guide's buddy shows up on horseback with 2 other gorgeous steers – Elvis Presley, George Straight, and Jonny Cash.


Beautiful walk out.
Got 'em loaded up quick. The walk out takes 53 minutes, little over 2 miles. I carry the rack on my neck and just have a blasty-blast good time getting through the oak brush. It was about 7:30a when we spotted them, 9:30 when I shot him and 1:30p when we got back to the cabin. Our Pittsburg buddies got one too! No ****! 3 out of 4 is great! They were planning on still hunting in the evening. They found a meat processor that would have it done in the morning for an expedite fee. I'd much rather drink and relax than spend the afternoon de-boning (plus all the extra processing at home). We ran up to the processor.


Look hard, there's 3 different racks in there. Front is buddy's, middle is Pittsburg's, back is mine.

That was about it. Back to the cabin for some celebratory cold beverages. Sat in the hot tub for the first time that week – not sure why I wasn't doing that every night. Got all packed and ready to leave in the morning. Did some pizza that night; no one felt like cooking anymore.

Lessons learned:

1. Pack weight. I suppose I've been preparing for a backpack hunt for all these years and I wanted to feel like I was going on one. We only went out for 3-4 hours at a time. You don't need a gallon of water, extra drawers and redundant everything in your backpack for ½-day hunts! I got it down to 1.5 liters of water, 1 extra jacket, and just the essentials in the backpack – knife, flashlight, headlamp, couple snacks, etc. Hell, that first morning I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner in there – don't know why. You don't need a $500 pack either – I don't know, maybe they would hold up better to packing out 100#, but whatever, only needed a daypack for this style hunt. My Kelty typically retails for between $99-$125 on Amazon. I always put stuff in my wish list and watch if for a year. It dropped to $62 at one point and I snagged it up. I am a backpack whore. I have a couple internal frame hiking packs, and a couple external frame packs. This one is one of the most comfy, and offers good utility.

2. Dialing the range on your scope. Look, it's what all the bad@sses do on youtube, and typically I like to do it at the range, but realistically under 300 yards it is silly. Now, I had a much better scope that I intended to use for this trip, but a last-minute change (2 weeks before hunt) to the 6.5CM rifle left me with a crappy scope since I didn't want to break apart my other rifle. KISS – keep it simple stupid.

3. Clothing. I spent a bit of money on rain gear and didn't end up needing/using it. But that's something I'd rather have and not need than need and not have. I'm a frugal guy, more so than most. All I have to say is, wait for sales. Kuiu has big black Friday sales, July 4 sales, and stuff on outlet clearance throughout the year. I was super impressed with the quality (as was my buddy whom bought it on my recommendation). I don't feel you need all the $80 gloves and $40 hats to go with it though. There's nothing wrong with mixing & matching patterns from different brands. The only camo I use in TX is either cotton or waterfowl print – neither good for the mountains.

4. Since we are on clothing – polyester drawers. Wow! I don't know why I've never had these before; always had cotton. We all know cotton kills when it's cold out, so I purchased some of these and don't know how I'll ever go back. Great moisture wicking abilities, love 'em.

5. Online apps – GoHunt Insider and OnXmaps. So, this year and last year GoHunt ran a free month around Aug/Sept. I think the code was "Randy" for Randy Newberg of On Your Own Adventures. I went in there and got all the info I needed, and then decided not to pay for the year. No harm no foul. I did that last year, and again this year. I can see the benefit if you are applying to a ton of tags every year, but it just isn't something that I have the use for. OnXmaps – I don't have it, but I could definitely see where the benefit would be. I have a freebie CO topo map from GPSdepot from 2011 that seems to have mostly correct property lines still. But that's something that you would definitely benefit from if going on your own – I had the guide to rely on, so I didn't feel the need for it.

6. Boots. Like the tires on your car, that's the only thing between you and the land. If you're not going to some extreme rock cliffs or wicked snow, don't overlook regular hiking boots. There are some superior brands better than the hunting specific stuff sometimes. Expect to spend at least $200 and get yourself something good that you can try on first and have proper time to break in (if required). I ended up with some Cabela Meindls on sale for $175, normally $220.

7. Dinners at camp – might not be as easy if you are tent camping. We each made a dinner at home and froze it before making the trip. Had some great, hearty, home cooked meals every night that only needed to be heated up. I made a baked mac 'n cheese with a pound of bacon and pound of sausage. Buddy made probably 5-quarts of Scimitar chili. Pittsburg guys made dumplings (chicken? can't remember) and big pot pies. Great idea and highly recommended!

8. Conditioning. Guide said if we could walk/hike 10 miles with no pack we should be good. I'll be honest and say I definitely should have done more. I work on the 7th floor in an office building and never take the elevator. Usually go up the stairs 3x per day, sometimes 4. I would walk 2 miles everyday on my lunch hour, and then another 1 mile either in the morning or afternoon. I went on a couple runs, only 3 miles, when we were closer to the trip. My buddy and I went on a couple 6-7 mile hikes with full packs. We should have been doing that for at least 10 weeks leading up to the trip. Outside of walking, I only do some pushups, pull-ups, squats, sit-ups, planks, etc., and lots and lots of stretching. Put the kiddo on the shoulders, she's about 33 lbs, and do squats that way – she LOVES it! I don't believe in gym memberships, you can do everything at home. Swing the axe/chop some firewood, stand on 1 leg and shake a gallon paint can over your head, whatever. If you think you are ready, do some more!
Nice, and real, story of Elk hunting. So many times you read stories that sound, or read like a fairy tale hunt, when the reality is much different. Like you, I found the toughness of these animals incredible. On my last hunt I hit a cow from 250 yards with a 180 gr. Accubond, missed the heart and lungs by a few inches and just clipped the very front of the lower stomach, bullet passed all the way through. The cow never even flinched, just stood there looking around, I thought it was a clean miss. Second neck shot dropped her but only upon recovery did I see the first shot wasn't a miss.
Curious what bullets you used? I saw you were shooting a 6.5CM? But didn't see anything on the bullet make/weight. Was your buddy using the same?
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Curious what bullets you used? I saw you were shooting a 6.5CM? But didn't see anything on the bullet make/weight. Was your buddy using the same?
Yessir, 6.5CM, was shooting 143gr Hornady ELD-X. New bullets, lots of marketing hype; I have had success with the SSTs before. Didn't know of any factory loads with Bergers at the time, I see now that Federal is making some w/ the 130gr Hybrids. I might give those a try next. I don't have a Chrono, but guessing they are coming out of my 20" barrel somewhere near/shy of 2600fps.
My buddy was shooting 300WSM with 180gr or 185gr Nosler partitions and needed 3-shots (2 of which were great placement) to put the bull down and he still needed a finishing shot when we walked up to his.
Now, I'm guessing either of our first shots would have been deadly on their own if given the time, but I'm still blown away by the toughness of those animals!
Great honest story. I liked the part where you shot the bull and were looking for ur brass while guys are waiting lol, I used to be like that now i think of lost brass as a sacrifice to the wilderness gods lol
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