This year was a little different from our usual fall elk hunt. We had drawn a limited draw elk license for the Uncompadre Plateau. The areas we typically hunt are classified OTC (over the counter) by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, meaning anyone resident or non-resident can head over to Walmart and purchase an elk license. This often results in overcrowding and forces us to hunt miles from any road to escape the hoards. This unit is a little different, because this area is managed by the division as a “trophy” area and they limit the number of licenses to 75 archery tags per year, we essentially had the area to ourselves. Of course the tradeoff is that to hunt this area licenses are awarded on a lottery basis and we had been applying for this license for the last 10 years.
We found out we would be hunting this area sometime around June and immediately begin our planning. This is an area none of us had ever stepped foot in before. Our usual hunting spots we know intimately and know, or try to guess, what the elk are going to do when us hunters show up. Hunting country sight unseen would definitely present a challenge. I immediately began the research. Luckily we have some good friends (Zack and Ty) who have hunted the area with friends in previous years so they were able to get us going in the right direction. I basically spent my summer trying to find guys who had hunted the unit and would be willing to share information. Elk hunters guard their information like no other group known to mankind. Even though the area takes 10 years to draw, many were still very tight lipped about what they knew of the unit.
There’s no better way to learn new country than by burning a little boot leather, so we planned a Fourth of July camping/scouting trip. This trip ended up turning into more of a family camping trip than a hardcore scouting trip but it still gave us a good idea of what we were getting into and I firmly believe in “family first” so spending time with the Wendy and the boys, the grandparents, Drew & Jasmine and Zack & Windy was time well spent.
Opening & Labor Day Weekends
We’d been told that hunting this area was difficult, at best, opening weekend but we couldn’t exactly sit at home watching TV on the couch, so Drew and myself headed out to give it a shot. We saw lots of wildlife but it turned into more of a glorified scouting trip than anything else. This wasn’t all bad considering the lack of scouting that happened over the fourth. We did see quite a few elk, although most were from a distance. We also saw some turkeys, deer and bear.
The following weekend was Labor day weekend so us four tag holders; Drew, Big Ron, Tim and myself made another six hour drive from Denver across the state. We arrived in camp about 2 am the first night; I use the term camp loosely since we just pulled off the side of the road and rolled out our sleeping bags. That morning we woke to the sound of elk bugling from multiple directions around “camp” always a good sign! While hunting that first morning we all continued to hear lots of bugling and were into elk but nobody had any close encounters. We all met back up at noon and decided to move camp to the bottom of the drainage we were hunting since hunting uphill and packing out elk going downhill sounded better than the other way around.
On the ride over to our new spot we ran into our good friend Ty Faber who was up from Pagosa Springs filming a friends’ elk hunt in the area. After swapping information about what we’d seen we continued down the road and set up another makeshift camp. We all hunted close to camp that night and saw a few elk and heard a few bugles but there was nothing too exciting to report. This lower county was filled with thick scrub oak and tons of bear scat. Hunting through brush so thick you can only see a few yards ahead at anytime, and seeing piles of bear scat everywhere definitely put us on high alert.
The next morning we all went out on our own. I decided to explore a little further to the north and see what I could find, and I ended up standing on the edge of a large drainage listening to about five different elk bugle. I didn’t really want to drop down the near vertical sides but I hadn’t come this far to walk away from bugling elk. Using the branches of the scrub oak as rappelling lines, down I went. I made my way to the closest of the bugles. The bull would sound off, I’d cow call back, and then I’d literally push my way through the brush, making all the noise of a full-grown elk. I finally made it to within 15 yards of the bull but the hillside was so choked full of scrub oak all I could see was an aspen swaying that he was raking his antlers against and bits and pieces of brown. I finally saw a little opening where the scrub oak started to open into aspens and tried making my way. But for whatever reason he knew something wasn’t right and started heading out the same direction. When I hit the opening he was a good 50 yards ahead of me and running, he was a good bull but was already too far off for any kind of shot. I thought I might be able to stick with him and make something happen. So down the hillside I went, both hanging on and sliding at the same time all the way to the bottom. Covered in sweat and without the ball cap I had on at the start of the chase I decided the bull won that battle. It was a tough hike back up to the top.
I forgot to mention that most of the areas we ended up hunting were physically punishing to say the least. The unit starts off the “divide road” which runs along the top of the Uncompadre Plateau. But as soon as you step foot off the top of the plateau you’re into some grueling terrain. Our buddy Tim hasn’t hunted with us in years and hasn’t been elk hunting period in almost 20 years and I think with Drew and myself constantly dropping into every canyon we could find caught him a little off guard. By the end of the weekend he had nicknamed us the Billygoat Brothers and took to calling me Maaaatt.
Even though I’d had an exciting morning, overall everyone wasn’t very impressed. One of the guys from my archery club had told me about another “hot spot” so we picked up camp again and moved another 20 miles to the south. As soon as we arrived an afternoon thunder shower rolled through so we took a quick nap in the cabs of our pickups. After the storm cleared we decided we had pretty good sneaking weather, so we each headed out to see what we could find in this new country. No more than 30 minutes into my afternoon hunt I walked right up on a nice 5×5 bull. I’d like to say “snuck up” but I’m really not that sneaky and just got lucky with perfect stalking conditions. This is a situation I’d normally be ecstatic to find myself in, perfect wind, animal calmly grazing with no idea I’m there. However this was a tag I’d waited ten years on and didn’t want the hunt to end this early. With all my willpower I decided to let this bull walk.
After making the decision I thought I should try to get some good pictures since he was in such close range. And after fumbling with my camera for a few minutes I heard some branches cracking and some cow calls coming from the direction the bull had just came. Thinking this might not be the best time to be screwing around with my camera I put it back in my pocket. Just then a MONSTER of an elk stepped out of the trees, I couldn’t believe the size of this thing, his body seemed twice the size of the bull I had just let pass. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, everything was perfect and I had a monster bull only 30 yards away, calmly feeding towards me. But as so often happens when bowhunting, things didn’t quite turn out as I’d hoped. I may have been able to take several shots but I didn’t want to force a shot just because this was a huge bull. I wanted to do it right. I thought he’d follow the same path his little buddy had just taken but of course he picked another path through the trees and never presented an ethical shot. That one haunted me for a couple days and will likely haunt me for quite some time to come. But it’s one of those experiences that will forever be etched in my memory and an encounter only hunting with a bow at close range can produce. He was a tremendous bull.
Our final day resulted in a few more close encounters but no dead elk. I did happen to walk blindly into a flock of turkeys and somehow managed to get off a shot. At least if nothing else came of this weekend, I had finally defeated my nemeses species!!
From the start of our planning back in early June the “real” trip was scheduled to begin the third week of September and we planned on hunting the entire week. We’ve found this to be the most productive time to be in the elk woods. The rut is usually in full swing and the elk are most vulnerable. An unfortunate turn of events left me camera-less for this trip, and everyone knows I rely heavily on pictures to fill up the blank space on the blog. Luckily everyone but me had their cameras.
This trip started with Drew, Big Ron, another buddy Kyle who hopes to draw the same license next year and myself. Tim planned on meeting us in camp a few days later. On Saturday BR and myself headed one direction and Drew and Kyle headed another. As a side note, my elk hunting journal was somewhat incomplete during this week due to the nonstop action. Right outside camp BR and myself called in two 5×5’s. I was calling and BR was the designated shooter. Very seldom do our calling setups work out how they’re suppose to, so to call in two bulls in one setup was a great sign. BR says he saw the first bull and started to get into position but was busted by the second bull at 30 yards, claiming this bull snuck in without ever making a sound. However I have to question this statement since he only heard one bugle for every 20 the rest of us heard. The rest of the day was pretty slow.
When we got back to camp that night it sounded like Drew and Kyle were into lots of elk, I know Drew passed several bulls, as he was holding out for a bigger one as well. BR and I decided that the next day we would load up our bivy gear and planed on staying out for a couple days. When the alarm clocks rang the next morning we loaded into the truck and drove to the end of our camp road, which would be our jumping off spot. As we were pulling out packs and bows he heard a couple bugles not far from the truck. I looked at BR and asked if he would stay back and bugle, hopefully, keeping the other elk talking and I would try to sneak in for a shot. So without ever putting on my pack, off I went sprinting towards the bugles. The wind was almost perfect and I needed to only slightly hook around to where the bugles were coming from in order to get the wind right. Within a quarter mile I was right on top the elk.
What we didn’t know from the truck was that a satellites bull had been harassing the herd bull. Satellites are lesser bulls than constantly “orbit” the heard hoping to sneak in to breed a cow when the herd bull is otherwise preoccupied. It’s pretty cool to be standing 40 yards from all of this watching it play out. High definition TV and Dolby Surround sound doesn’t have anything on the real deal.
I could hear the satellite raking a tree with his antlers and see some of the cows that were with the herd bull. When the satellite bugled the herd bull stepped out and screamed back at the challenger. I thought he’d run the other bull off but he didn’t want to leave his cows. I was bummed because I had a great shooting lane if that scenario played out. After staring at the challenger for a couple minutes he ran back to his cows. I decided I needed to get in closer and push the situation but I got a little too aggressive making my way towards the herd and a cow busted me. She spun and took off, taking the rest of the cows with her. The bull didn’t know what had scared them and I believe he thought it was the satellite, but for whatever reason he hesitated a little too long. I came to full draw and tried to find a shooting lane. I moved left to right, up and down, making sure I’d clear all the branches in my way. When I had a clear path I sent my arrow sailing.
At the shot, I lost track of my arrow in flight and only heard a loud CRACK. I’d thought for sure I’d hit a tree and was already hanging my head. The satellite was still bugling less than 50 yards away and for a brief moment I thought about heading his direction. Knowing that wasn’t the right thing to do, I decided to go dig my arrow out of a tree. When I approached the spot where the bull was last standing, looking at all the trees for my arrow, I noticed blood on the ground. So I had hit the bull but I was unsure of where, never a good thing. When archery hunting, even with a perfect hit, you should wait at least 30-45 minutes before tracking the animal. With a marginal hit that time can be up to 6 hours or more. I decided to back out and head back toward BR. Right then I realized this all happened on the same trail we were planning on hiking that morning so I started making my way back but after only 50 yards I saw my bull piled up on the edge of the meadow. The loud “crack” I’d heard was my arrow hitting the off shoulder of the bull after cleanly passing thru both lungs, a perfect shot.
BR knew something had happened when I came back without my bow. We swapped out bivy gear for butchering gear and headed back to the spot the bull had fallen. I told BR he should continue hunting and I’d take care of the elk, but he wouldn’t have it. Elk were still bugling when we got back to the downed bull and BR tried sneaking in for a shot but the wind was wrong and the elk went crashing away. We got to work on the bull and just as we were finishing up another bull bugled just off in the distance. I told BR to grab his bow and I sat back and cow called. The bull bugled again even closer this time. After about 10 minutes BR returned shaking his head, saying he would have also filled his tag, if in the excitement he hadn’t put his release on backward. Ouch! We spent the better part of the morning taking care of my elk.
BR and I went back out later that afternoon and that’s when I found out exactly how much his hearing, or lack of, was affecting his hunting. We decided to hunt the same area I’d shot my bull that morning since it seemed to be holding lots elk. As expected we heard a bull bugling. I was again the designated caller and hung back trailing BR by 50-60 yards. We had a bull responding, I’d cow call, he bugle and we’d sneak in closer. At one point I saw BR drop down on a knee and knock an arrow, I knew he’d seen something and we were getting close. Since I was hanging back, my focus was on BR and I was trying to guess what he was seeing in the lead. For whatever reason the herd decided to keep moving and the next bugle I heard was from further up ahead so we starting trying to sneak in close again. The next time the bull bugled I could tell they moved up and around us to our right but at the bugle BR took off to the left!? I thought maybe he knew something I didn’t but after a few minutes I realized what was happening and hurried to catch up to him. With only decent hearing in one ear he’d thought the last bugle came from the exact opposite direction. From then on we decided BR needed two guides, one to hang back and call and one right at his side letting him know which direction the bugle was coming from.
I spent the better part of the next day getting my meat down to a butcher in Montrose. Then Kyle and I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing which pretty much consisted of drinking whiskey, PBR’s and scoring my bull. We did manage to prepare dinner (tenderloins, sautéed onions and jalapenos) for BR and Drew who were still out hunting.
Tuesday Drew and Kyle headed out to another area, the spot where we had camped over the Fourth of July weekend. BR and I headed down to the end of our camp road where we’d been finding elk every time out. We ended up finding some exactly where we’d expected to but they managed to move off ahead of us, as they had every time in this particular location. The rest of the day was slow, at least until Drew and Kyle showed up later that night with the MONSTER bull Drew had shot.
From the story they told it sounded like their setup worked out perfect, locating the bull with their very first bugle. Drew was able to sneak around and come at the bull from another direction while Kyle hung back and called again, which enticed the big bull to walk right out in front of Drew with a perfect 20 yard broadside shot. There was much celebration that night in camp.
Wednesday morning Kyle had to head back home and Tim had arrived in camp late in the day Tuesday. Drew and I spent the next few days “guiding” for Tim and BR, we were into lots of elk, with many close calls and a few missed shots. You could tell who missed the most shots at the end of the day when Drew and I would try to trade our “clients” to the other “guide” for someone who hadn’t missed. Even though we joked about the close calls and misses, we were still into elk like none of us had ever been before. If you blew an encounter you only had to travel a short distance before the next. It was unreal.
We’d decided that we would hunt Saturday morning until noon then call it a trip and start packing up camp. We were optimistic at first since we’d heard more bugles Friday than any other day so far. We’d also called in several bulls Friday, so we thought the rut was in full swing, but when Saturday arrived it was like someone had turned the switch off. We maybe heard one or two bugles, where the day before they numbered in the hundreds. Tim and I did manage to call in a cow to about 10 yards, which is always exciting. But it was starting to look like that might be the end of the trip with no more tags filled. But then we got a call on the radio that BR had shot a bull, we were PUMPED! With that bull on the ground that made two consecutive years that the Dworak boys all filled tags. With the statewide bowhunter success rate hovering right around 10%, two years at 100% is something to get excited about. We were hoping to have a trifecta party back in Denver that night but by the time we took care of BR’s elk, broke down camp, picked up meat from the processor and made a visit to the taxidermist (for a trifecta picture) it was about 11:00pm by the time we rolled into Denver.
In all the excitement of having a third bull on the ground I only got parts and pieces of the story of BR’s bull. But I did hear that Drew and BR were working a bull with cows when BR heard another bugle coming from another direction. Drew didn’t hear this bugle and saw BR heading off in the opposite direction, he’d heard the story from a couple nights before and figured BR was once again hearing things. But as fate would have it BR actually heard the bugle coming from the right location and was able to get into position for a shot. During the trip we were having fun giving him a hard time about his faulty hearing, mainly because he couldn’t hear us! But in the end he pulled through like an old pro.
It was definitely a trip none of us will soon forget.
I know this is already a long read but we did find a few interesting things while wandering through the woods.
Bear claw marks on the aspen tree. We found quite a few of these up there.
We found this grave while hiking on one of the many trails in the area. We didn’t know if Fat Fred was a person, horse, dog?? I tried doing a little research and believe Fat Fred was a biker. They now hold an annual Labor Day motorcycle race in the valley below his grave in is his honor.
This forest fire was caused by a lighting strike while we were hunting opening weekend. The fire ended up burning several hundred acres. We were hunting about 20 miles south while it was burning but the actual fire was essentially right where we’d camped over the Fourth.