Elk Hunting Gear Debrief: What Worked, What Didn’t

“Would you be up for writing a candid gear debrief?  You don’t have to hit every nitty-gritty detail, or cover every item, but maybe share your thoughts the bigger stuff… clothes, pack, boots, broadhead performance, etc.  Think less of a ‘product review’, and more of telling your friend what sucked and what was good.” 

That was the email that I sent to Jerud.  I value his opinion because he’s borderline-OCD (in a good way), is well-researched, and operates from the mindset of a professional engineer.  However, at the same time, he’s just a regular guy who isn’t being offered free gear, so his opinion is 100% free of BS.

Given that 1 is terrible and 10 is perfect, here are Jerud’s scores and thoughts on some of the gear that he used on our elk hunt.  (I also add some commentary from my perspective, at least on the items that I have experience with.)

Oh, and I didn’t add a bunch of pretty pictures to this post – it’s long, and probably not a very “entertaining” read – but for those of you that are looking for legitimate feedback on gear, it should be really valuable.

Backpack: EXO Mountain Gear 3500 – Score 9

The pack is almost a ten. It was the perfect size for our 7-day hunt. I was able to get all my food and supplies in the pack without any issue. Once we set up camp, the pack tightens down to a great daypack size and feel. The only issue I had with the pack was my own fault – I did not have it correctly adjusted, which only became apparent during the pack-out. I received the pack about 2 weeks before the trip and didn’t really have it fine-tuned on the fitment side. That has since been corrected.

One thing is for certain, I have had three different brands and styles of packs, and this is the only one I felt comfortable with the two of us (Mark and I) packing out a whole bull elk in one trip, nearly 6 miles.

I have also been using this pack whitetail hunting back in Illinois. It’s just too handy and versatile to try messing around with any of my others.

Mark’s Thoughts: I’ll definitely have more thoughts to share on the Exo soon.  But, yes, it’s an absolute winner.

Clothes: First Lite

Llano QZ – Score 9

I lived in this shirt for six days and it barely had any odor to it. We reached what Mark called “Full Funk Factor” (F-Cubed) between days 3 and 4; my BO was rough, but I inspected the shirt once I was home and had to hold it to my nose in the armpit area to smell any BO on the shirt.

I only had the shirt off during a warm afternoon break. The remainder of the time it was on, including sleeping. It is super comfortable. The thumbholes on the sleeves are great for putting a second layer over it, or for extra warmth for your hands.

I deduct a point for durability. I haven’t worn it long enough to see how well it will hold up, but have had a few seams stitches pull thread. I have cut the loose threads and have had no issues with the seams.

Chama Hoody – Score 9

The hoody was worn mostly after dark, hiking back to camp, and around camp eating supper. The hood is very comfortable. The Llano and Chama together have been used on whitetail stand hunting and are performing well.

Kanab Pants – Score 8

Like the Llano, I lived in these pants for 6 days. They were incredibly comfortable. I never needed a base layer under them for our elk trip, but I have added a merino base layer for treestand hunting.

I give a 2-point deduction, as the pants are not bomb proof. I had one very small tear in the outer knee panel; I fixed that with an iron-on patch. First Lite will repair the pants, if you want to go that route. To me it was worth sacrificing a little durability for the comfort that they provide.

Uncompahgre Puffy – Score 8

Although I didn’t get to use it much on our elk hunt, except around camp at night, this jacket is great when you do need it; and it packs down small enough that it is out of the way when you don’t need it.

It is extremely warm and blocks wind really well. It also works well as a pillow. I am thinking seriously about getting a tan one for everyday winter use.

I deduct a couple of points for material noise. To keep the “swoosh” sound down, I have to be careful drawing my bow – but that’s mostly a consideration when I’m treestand hunting.

Red Dessert Boxers – Score 10

I wear them every day.  ‘Nuf said.

Mountain Compression Socks – Score 10

Also a 10!  Get a few pairs, you’ll love them. I wear mine all of the time.

Mark’s Thoughts: I have 2.5 years of hunting in my First Lite gear now, and I continue to be impressed.  Merino is a game-changer, especially for backpack hunting.  Here’s my post-season thoughts on First Lite gear from last year, which I still agree with in nearly every single way.

Rain Gear: Core4Element Torrent – Score 7

They are a little better priced than First Lite and other similar companies. They are easy to get on and off, and they perform well. Ventilation is good.

They are, however, bulkier and heavier than the competition. As with everything for backpack-style hunting – if you want to shave weight, you have to shell out more cash.

ASAT Camouflage – Score 10

I had two bulls within 15 yards, both of which had a clear line of sight to me, but neither one noticed me. Additionally, when Mark and I would get separated at 40-50 yard distances, we couldn’t see each other unless one of us moved. The pattern looks old and a completely different, but it absolutely works. I use it for treestand hunting in the Midwest as well.

Mark’s Thoughts: I got tired of cow-calling to find Jerud when he was only 30 yards away from me.  I felt like an idiot for not seeing him, but really – ASAT is deceiving.  I had that bull at 7 yards, facing directly at me, but looking right through me.  I’ve also fooled plenty of whitetail while ground-hunting in the Midwest.  ASAT lives up to the name: All-Season, All-Terrain

Bow: Elite Energy 35 – Score 10

I love this bow! I shoot year-round, which allows me to comfortably pull and hold 70 lbs. I would recommend lighter limbs if you don’t practice on a regular basis. With that opinion out of the way, all of the hype on this bow is real. It draws really smooth and holds extremely easy. The bow has a big valley, so it doesn’t want to jump forward with the first sign of creep. I had one occasion on our elk hunt where I was on my knees and had to hold full-draw for a little over a minute, and then had to completely reposition while maintaining draw. A second occasion, which lead to me shooting my bull, I held full-draw for a little over 2 minutes. I will admit that adrenaline helped in both situations, but the bow just holds so easy.

I also didn’t use a stabilizer at all, which is also a testament of how well the bow is balanced.  I was shooting better without a stabilizer during all of my pre-season prep (including shooting out to 100-yards), so I opted to save weight and leave it off for hunting.

Mark’s Thoughts:  Most of you know that I am a huge fan of Elite Archery bows.  They market “shootability”, and Jerud’s stories prove why that trait of their bows is so important.  Not only does their smoothness, balance, and ease of holding make them a pleasure to shoot in the off-season, but those trails truly factor into success during hunting season.  There’s been so many times when the easy draw and easy hold has saved me, much like it enabled Jerud to hold for over two minutes before killing his bull.

Sight: Black Gold Ascent – Score 9

I deduct a point for price, but there’s not much else to complain about. This sight is tough and provides a lot of flexibility. I have mine set to cover 0-45 yard shots without adjusting. It is then capable of adjusting to any range out to 100 yards.  The pins are clear under all lighting conditions. The dial moves the head up and down smoothly. The lock into home position is rock solid.

Mark’s Thoughts: It’s a few years old now, but here’s my review of the Ascent.

Broadheads: Slick Trick Viper Trick 125’s – Score 10

I have used these broadheads for a few years and have no interest in changing. I’m on my third different brand of bow shooting these heads.  I take my time to properly setup and tune each bow at the very beginning, and find that broadhead tuning with these heads is basically unnecessary.

Prior to this latest elk hunt, I shot the Viper Tricks at 100 yards with the same accuracy as my field points. Every animal I’ve shot has been a complete pass-through, and a short trailing job. Granted, a pass-through and quick kill does not rest solely on the head; correct arrow setup and shot placement are just as big of factors.

Arrows: Victory Armor Piercing (VAP) – Score 8

I deduct a point from these because of the high price. Other than that, if you are a number cruncher when it comes to building your arrows, these work out well. My total arrow weight with 125 grain head and a 50 grain insert/outsert was 425 grains. Not a super-heavy arrow, but the setup got a good front-of-center (FOC) of 18%, which helps accuracy and penetration. When compared to my previous arrow setups (486 grains and 510 grains), the VAPs out-performed and out-penetrated at all ranges; the performance of skinny shafts seems legit.

My shot on the elk traveled through the rib cage, the rear leg, and stuck in a log. Judging by the look of the blades, it missed hitting any bones.

I did have a problem with inserts bending on my first set, but Victory has changed the material formulation of the new inserts, they are performing much better thus far.

Boots: 2013 Danner Pronghorn 400 gram Thinsulate – Score 6

I give the boots a score of 6 for backpack hunting. If I were doing a drop camp, guided hunt, or using horses and not hauling heavy loads, they would easily score 8-9. I also had Lathrop and Son’s Synergy insoles, which improved their performance – more on those in a bit.

The boots performed well for the majority of the hunt. The break-in process wasn’t bad, and they quickly become as comfortable a pair of sneakers. The temperature range was 35-70 degrees our trip, but I never noticed my feet getting too hot.

I had only one minor spot above my left ankle where the boot flexed, and began to create a “hot spot”. I applied treatment, which created more of an issue than helped, so I removed it and had no problems the rest of the hunt. The soles gripped well, and despite the steep, sloppy terrain that was covered in deadfall, I never had to worry too much about foot placement.

But the boots started to fail when we packed the elk out. The leather and structure of the boot is not stiff enough for the combination of rough terrain and heavy loads; they were pretty stretched out by the time we had the elk to the truck. I did not get any blisters, but was right on the verge with my feet slipping inside the stretched boots.

I am retiring them from mountain hunting, but should get many more years of Midwest hunting use from them. I will be heading to Lathrop and Son’s to get fitted with my next pair of mountain hunting boots.

Mark’s Thoughts: I don’t have Danner’s Pronghorns, but I do have their Ridgemaster boots – which are basically a Pronghorn design that’s manufactured in the US – and I would agree with everything Jerud said here.  They are great boots in terms of comfort, and they are up to handling side-hilling and off-trail hiking in rough terrain.  But, I can’t imagine packing out an elk 5+ miles in them.  My Lowa Tibets were incredible the whole trip (again), and proved to be invalubable on the pack-out.

Insoles: Lathrop and Son’s Synergy Footbeds – Score 10

Put simply, they’re a 10. Go get yourself a set!

Mark’s Thoughts: Jerud’s not lying here.  I have tried numerous insoles (as has Jerud), including the often-recommended Super Feet (in a variety of their models), and the Synergy from Lathrop are better in every way.

Elk Calls: No score; they’re value is immeasurable.

Get a variety of reed calls, as well as some diaphragms, and be able to use them correctly. Each bull that we encountered had one specific call that he would get him fired-up. Between Mark and I, there were six different reed calls, as well as mixing in 2-3 diaphragms each, and used them all.

Mark’s Thoughts: Once again, I just want to echo what Jerud said.  I was surprised how a bull would fail to respond to a couple of particular calls, but would immediately respond and get worked-up if we used a different call.  The bull that I called-in and Jerud shot would only respond if I was calling on my Duel Open Reed Cow Call.

Sleeping Bag: Kelty Cosmic Down 20 – Score 8

This is a great value. It weighs 2 pounds, 11 ounces and packs down pretty small. I was more than comfortable at night on this trip, which tended to be in the 30’s. Last year it dipped down into the 20s, and was still comfortable. It’s a mummy-shaped design, but has a little more wiggle room than some other mummy-style bags. I’m a side sleeper and have no problems sleeping on my side with bent legs. Given that it is a non-treated down, being susceptible to water is its only real down fall, but I have had good luck using the water-resistant treatment from NikWax.

Sleeping Pad: Big Agnes Insulated Air Core – Score 8

There are sleeping pads that weight less than this one, but you’ll pay more, and you might sacrifice some comfort, too. To me, this one was worth the little extra weight and slightly larger-than-Nalgene-bottle pack size for the comfortable night’s sleep.

Mark’s Thoughts: Exactly.  There are lighter and smaller pads, but I don’t sleep as well when I use them.  This is almost a “luxury item” for me.

Knife: Havalon Piranta – Score 9

I deduct a point for the ease (and safety concerns) of blade changing. I carried a small multi-tool so that I had a small set of pliers to safely change the blades. You’ll definitely want something other than your bloody hands for grip while swapping blades out.

I did manage to break a blade while processing our elk, but I was skinning the head and applied some side torque.  These blades aren’t meant for prying; if you use the knife in the correct manner, it performs flawlessly.

Mark and I each had a Havalon, and between the both of us we used a six blades to completely de-bone the elk (using the gutless method) and skin-out the skull.  Now that we know what we’re doing, and how to better use the knife, the job will probably only take four blades.

Mark’s Thoughts: I’ve been hearing great things about Havalon knives for a couple of years now, but I was always a skeptic.  Jerud gave me one before this trip, and now that I have had a chance to break down an entire elk with one, I’m a total believer.  Go buy one.

Game Bags: Caribou Gear Carnivore II – Score 10

They entire set packs-down smaller than a single cotton game bag. I was able to fit my sheathed Havalon and hunting license/tag in the supplied carry pouch with the game bags. They washed up rather easily; I hand washed them to remove the big chunks and then tossed them in the washing machine.  (Don’t tell my wife.)

Solar Charger: Levin 5000mah – Score 10

The big surprise from this trip was this little gem. For less than $30 on Amazon, it recharges itself with about two hours of full sunlight. We recharged a camera twice and my phone’s 3200mah battery once during the trip. It performed so well that I’m considering moving to a few other items that are rechargeable via USB (including headlamp and flashlight).

Mark’s Thoughts: I’m sold.  I can’t believe how useful this little guy was.  And for the price?  No-brainer.  I’m getting one.

GPS: Garmin eTrex 20 – Score 8

It has a small screen and limited features, but it’s reasonably priced and did everything I needed it to do. Pairing it with the Colorado chip from onXmaps, which gave us good topo maps and land boundaries/ownership in the field, made it invaluable.

Headlamp: Princeton Tec Fuel – Score 5

It works and it isn’t hard on batteries, but it’s nothing spectacular.  Meh.

Satellite Communication: Delorme InReach (aka “Mom”) – Score 7

The InReach provides two-way text messaging when Bluetooth linked to your phone. The messaging does require a fairly clear line-of-site, so it can be a bit of pain at times. The tracking functionality worked well, and seemed to be less demanding in terms of needing a clear path to the satellites. It eats regular batteries pretty quickly, but lithium performs very well.

Family members at home enjoyed logging onto the map to see where we were, and where we had traveled. Delorme has updated the subscription service and you can now get a monthly plan, so there’s no need to pay for a whole year of service for just one trip. The rate is also cheaper than what I had to pay last year.

We affectionately named the InReach, “Mom”, as both of our mothers logged a lot of time on the computer tracking us and worrying when the unit was turned off.

Binos: Vanguard Endeavour ED – Score 7

They’re a good pair of glass for a reasonable price. I don’t think they will hold up to a lot of abuse, but so far they are doing well.

Rangefinder: Remington 500 (Made by Wild Game?) – Score 7

It’s a budget-priced rangefinder with angle compensation out to 90 yards. I have had it for 4 years now, and it still works. No, it doesn’t have a great warranty or long-range capability, but I paid $95 for it and it still works.  Not bad.

“Jubilation” (2014 Elk Hunt, Part VI)

jo͞obəˈlāSHən: a feeling of great happiness and triumph.

Finally, the story reaches the point of success.  After reading this, even I think this story sounds a little crazy.  You might be tempted to think that I embellished some of the facts for the entertainment value of the story, but I assure you that isn’t the case.  As it turns out, we were just really fortunate to not only kill an elk, but do it in such a memorable manner.  I hope you enjoy…

Jerud and I sitting at Sheepsfoot

We wake up early – eager to make the 1-hour climb up to Sheepsfoot, and hopefully hear those bulls again.

“I’m bringing my trekking poles today,” Jerud says. “We’re going to need them for the packout.” I like his confidence.

We arrive at Sheepsfoot much earlier than yesterday, and all is quiet. I get my phone out while we wait on the bulls, and am relieved to receive a text from my wife letting me know that the kids are feeling better. I also text my parents, saying…

“Back on top. Crazy, action-filled, exhausting day yesterday. We’re killing a bull today…”

My dad responds, “Is that a faith statement?”

“No,” I type. “That is a fact.”

We hear the first bugle at 8:15. It’s a bull in the same stand of timber as yesterday, but further to the north. Jerud and I stay put and stay patient – wanting to see, or should say I say, “hear” where the elk are headed.

I quickly scan through dozens of emails on my phone and see two messages from Sole Adventure readers – both of which are stories of successful elk hunts that have happened during my hunt. It is extremely encouraging to read of their success, and I am eager to have a similar story to share.

The bugles are still ringing-out every so often, but now it sounds like they are coming from a stationary position. We cross the meadow, drop through the marsh, and enter the timber. It’s beginning to feel like deja vu.

Jerud checks his GPS

We reach the spot where the bulls were yesterday, but realize that they are now further to the southeast and a higher in elevation. We begin to climb, and after gaining a couple-hundred feet of elevation, decide to let out a cow call. A bull responds almost immediately; he’s only about 150 yards away. I drop back to call, leaving Jerud up as the shooter.

The bull is slightly above us, and the wind is dropping. Perfect. I start calling and get a couple of initial responses, but then the bull goes quiet. I can’t see what’s going on, but I hope that the elk is still working towards the calls, and passing by Jerud along the way. After a while I get “the signal” from Jerud (three succinct cow calls) that the gig is up.

I hike back up to Jerud and get the story. The bull had shut up after working within 100 yards. He continued to slowly and cautiously make an approach, getting as close as 60 yards before the winds shifted and the bull busted us.

There are at least two other bulls that are still bulging further up the mountain. Jerud and I decide to work towards them, gaining as much elevation as possible while the winds are primarily dropping. Once we get closer to the bull’s elevation we will assess the conditions and either make a move, or stop for a snack and wait the winds out.

I look at my GPS as we’re hiking and notice a prominent saddle on top of the ridge that we’re scaling. Jerud and I agree that our stopping point will be the high point on the near-side of the saddle – it’s a knob that will provide a perfect vantage point to make an approach from.

Climbing through deadfall

We climb another 400-500 feet and arrive on the knob. The most talkative bull is still bugling, but he’s several hundred yards away and the wind isn’t right to make a move. We drop our packs, start to get a snack, and… BUGLE! It’s a close one – just below us, towards the left edge of the saddle.

Jerud and I both check the wind, and although we’re only sitting 7-feet apart, we get very different results; it is a swirling mess. We want to be patient and avoid blowing the bulls out of the area this early in the day, but at the same time, I feel like this bull is ready to play. Jerud and I talk it over and agree to drop lower into the saddle and see what the wind is doing down there. If the wind is bad, we’ll head back up and wait it out.

Now in the saddle, the wind is crossing enough that I think we can give it a go. But who knows what the wind is doing 20 yards away from where we stand?

Jerud moves to the left end of the saddle, and I drop to the far right. We’re probably 60-70 yards apart. I begin to call and get an immediate response from the bull that was close to Jerud’s side. The bull and I have a little back-and-forth, then he goes quiet.

I stand in silence, debating whether to keep cow calling, try to get him fired up with a bugle of my own, or just shut up altogether. As I’m thinking through my options, I think I hear something behind me.

I’m standing on the edge of the saddle and at my back is a steep drop-off that’s littered with timber. I think I hear something coming, but I can’t see below me. I hear several sticks break, then I see branches moving. Then, I see tines begin to rise from below.

I’ve got another bull coming in from where I least expected!

As the bull climbs the steep hillside below me, I see more tines – then, finally, a full 5×5 rack. He takes another step and I see his forehead, then his eyes, now his entire head. He’s coming directly at me!

His head goes behind a tree and I take the opportunity to drop to my knees. He continues his climb, and is now standing about 10 yards away, facing me head-on. There’s a tree between us, and I’m praying he goes to my right – where I have a shooting lane.

“Turn, turn, turn!” I scream in silence. He’s frozen – looking for the cow that lured him up the mountain.

He looks both ways, like an elementary kid getting ready to cross the street, then he takes a step to my right. I begin to draw my bow as his head goes past a tree. His front leg enters my shooting lane. Two more steps and he will be standing at 7 yards, and I’ll have a clear shot to his vitals.

I’m focused. Fully in the moment. Completely unaware of anything but my arrow and the bull’s vitals.

Then, CRASH! THUD! SNAP!

All of a sudden chaos erupts – spooking my bull and sending him airborne as he leaps back down the steep hillside.

What in the world just happened? I didn’t make that noise. The bull didn’t make that noise. So where did that chaos come from?

“Jerud! That had to have been Jerud. I bet he just shot a bull,” I think to myself.

I begin to cow call and Jerud responds with chirps of his own. I’m no longer concerned with being stealthy, so I quickly make my way in his direction. Finally, I see him, sitting with his knees up to his head and his face in his hands.

I quickly drop down in front of him and shake him, “Jerud, did you just shoot a bull!? Did you just shoot a bull!?”

His face rises from his hands and his head begins to bob up and down.

“Yes!”

Jerud's arrow after impact

He’s visibly shaken, and from what I can tell, is experiencing a mix of shock, disbelief, and excitement. He recounts the story…

“Shortly after you started calling I heard a twig snap about 70 yards away. Moments later I hear a twig snap about 40 yards away – just below where I pictured the bull coming through the saddle.

Finally, I see him coming up the saddle towards my shooting lane. He steps into the shooting lane and I can’t make a sound with my diaphragm call. He keeps walking and passes right through the opening. Then he turns up the slope and is walking right towards me.

“Oh crap, if he comes over that deadfall he’s going to end up stepping on me,” I thought.

Just then he turns to my right and is slightly quartered to me. I’m holding full-draw – waiting for him to take a step so that I have a clear shot on his vitals.

He takes the step and I release the arrow. I see the impact – it looks a little back, but maybe okay. He does an about-face and runs off in the direction he came in.”

I drop a few yards below Jerud and ask where the bull was standing. He has me take a few more steps, then tells me that I am in the exact spot the bull was standing upon impact. I pull my rangefinder from my pocket and lay the beam on Jerud – 9 yards.

Turning around, I see Jerud’s arrow, driven into a log and covered in bright red blood. At this point Jerud seems a bit worried about the shot placement, so I reassure him that he got a complete pass-through and there’s plenty of bright blood. I get him to come down and check his arrow out. He bends over, assesses the blood then turns towards me.

You can clearly see the relief and excitement on Jerud’s face. He stands, jumps into my arms and we begins jumping up and down like a little school girl, excitedly exclaiming,

“There’s bubbles! There’s bubbles!”

I can’t help but smile, laugh, and feel incredibly fortunate to share this moment – this journey – with him.

Blood where the elk stood

We talk it over and decide to wait at least an hour before attempting to recover the bull, so we head back up to the knob to eat. We arrive back at our packs, sit down, and… BUGLE! Then another – this one even closer.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

The bulls keep at it as we discuss what to do. I know that we shouldn’t pursue another bull, but it’s hard to sit here and do nothing when I’ve got a tag in my pocket! It wouldn’t be smart to put another bull down when we haven’t even recovered the first one. Plus, even if we did recover them both without problems, could the two of us handle processing and packing two bulls at the same time? I don’t think so.

Maybe, possibly, potentially – we could do it. But I respect these animals too much to risk losing one, or letting meat spoil.

We try to eat our snack, but the bull activity only increases, so we decide that we have to at least go down and see if we can call one close. To prevent any temptation that might overrule reason, I leave my bow up on the knob and we drop back into the saddle.

We setup and let out a few cow calls, which get an immediate response. Jerud offers to drop back and see how close he can call one in to me, but I convince him to stay put. We end up calling a bull into 55 yards. I’m confident we could have brought him all the way in if Jerud would have dropped back. As much as I want to kill an elk, I know I am making the right decision by letting this opportunity pass.

We were already two seconds, and two steps from arrowing bulls at the same time.  If that were meant to be, then it would have happened.

Jerud tracking the blood trail Easy to follow blood like this The elk's escape route

We let the hour pass, accompanied by bugles the entire time, and decide to begin tracking Jerud’s bull. The blood trail is great at first, but then becomes spotty. Without much searching we pick up more blood, then make it another 10 yards before finding a massive puddle. From there we pass by a wallow and through a small opening, then re-enter a thick stand of timber. Shortly thereafter I hear Jerud say, “There he is!” The bull had only made it 70-80 yards after impact.

Standing here, looking at the bull, I have a dozen emotions. Joy. Satisfaction. Sadness. Respect. Gratefulness. And more.

Jerud with his hard-earned bull

“You did it!,” I say to Jerud. “Congratulations!”

“No,” he responds. “We did it.”

He’s right. We worked together to make this happen. We were there to encourage each other during struggles; when one of us was down, the other would pick them up. This entire adventure, and this specific accomplishment, wasn’t about ego, pride, or the individual. Sharing this moment with someone that’s truly like-minded only makes it that much sweeter.  In the end, it doesn’t matter who released an arrow.  This was an accomplishment that neither of us could have done alone.

“Well, we better get to work,” Jerud says.

And work we did. It would be another 30 hours before we had this bull back to the truck. But that’s another story for another day…

You’re reading Part 6 of my 2014 Colorado Elk hunt.
Check out the rest of the story:  Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5

The arrow's impact

Notching the tag

Bow and Bull

Two happy partners

Jerud works on the bull

The reward of a successful hunt

“Interruption” (2014 Elk Hunt, Part V)

intəˈrəpSHən: an act, utterance, or period that interrupts someone or something.

“I can legitimately say that I’m an elk hunter now,” I told Jerud.

But before we get to that, I guess we should back up to the beginning of the day…

Our goal for the morning is to make the 900’ climb up to a high meadow that’s been nicknamed “Sheepsfoot”. Along the way we have a brief encounter with some cows, but they end up catching our wind and moving on.

My legs feel weak from yesterday’s hunt, so I am relieved when we finally reach our destination. We stop to eat a snack, while making sure we have a good grasp of the wind, assessing our surroundings, and formulating our plan of attack.

Sheepsfoot Meadow

We’re higher than we’ve been the entire trip, and have a great line of sight, so I fetch my phone from my pack. I’m surprised to find that I actually have a signal. I anxiously dial home – eager to hear my wife’s voice.

It takes little more than a “Hello?” for me to figure out that something is wrong.  Both of my kids are sick. My daughter is running a 102-degree fever. Nobody in our house has slept much in the last couple of days, and my wife is justifiably exhausted. I want to tell her how hard this trip has been thus far, but I now see my “hunting problems” from a new perspective.

Knowing what’s going on at home has interrupted my focus on hunting.

“What am I doing out here?”

In the midst of those thoughts, I’m interrupted again – this time by a bugle from a distant ridge. At first I think it’s another hunter, but when I hear it again a few minutes later, something in me knows that it’s a bull.

Entering the Timber

The thermals are still falling, which is perfect for us. We cross the meadow, drop through a marshy creek bottom, and enter a seemingly endless stand of dark timber. The bull is still bugling from what sounds like a stationary position, so we work towards him, gaining elevation, hoping to invade his personal space.

It’s been a while since we’ve heard him call, so I let out a bugle to see if I can get a response. There’s no echo, and we keep moving forward. Minutes later we hear a bugle.

Wait, this bugle is closer! No, now there’s the bugle I was expecting. We’ve got two bulls in here!

The bull that sounded closer fires off again, and this time he’s obviously moved in on us. Jerud tells me to stay put, while he drops back 50 yards to call.

Both bulls continue to bugle. Mr. King of the Hill that’s been stationary seems to remain contently seated on his perch. But this other bull – he’s coming!

I quickly find a spot that’s relatively comfortable, provides good concealment, and most importantly – has a few viable shooting lanes.

Setup with a shooting lane

This whole time Jerud has been calling on and off. Honestly, he sounds so good that he has me fired up! It sounds like the bull has worked within 80-100 yards, but he’s since gone quiet. I wait with expectation – ready to hear a stick break and see a patch of hide.

Jerud has resorted to raking trees, running back and forth, imitating numerous cow sounds, and even cutting the bull’s bugles off with his own challenges. But this bull has hung-up and shut-up.

We wait a while, and the action seems to have died down, so we begin to move on. Except, as soon as we make a move we’re interrupted by a bugle. This time I drop to call and leave Jerud up as the shooter. It’s a repeat encounter – it sounds like we’ve drawn the bull in, he is definitely interested and responding, but he hangs-up and then shuts-up.

Jerud and I regroup, and decide to cover some more ground. A short time later we stop for a drink and a snack, hoping we’ll hear the bulls and figure out what they’re up to. I get my gear off, my snack out, and start debriefing the bull encounters with Jerud, but I’m interrupted by – you guessed it – a bugle!

Our gear spread out for a break that became interrupted

We leave our packs and snacks, quickly mark the spot with our GPS units, grab our bows and head after the bull. We’ve got King of the Hill bugling from his perch above us and another bull that’s closer. We work the lower bull for a while, but are never able to close the distance, so we drop back down towards our snacks.

Again, we start to eat and debrief. We make it a bit further into our snack, but are once again interrupted. Yes, another bugle, and it is even closer. Unreal. We grab our bows and calls, and go.

I tell Jerud to go ahead of me and try to get on the same elevation at the bull. I trail him a bit, hanging lower, hoping that if the bull tries to swing around “the cow” (me) with the wind in his favor, then Jerud will still have a shot.

My plan is interrupted by a bugle below. Wait, below?! How did that bull swing around that far, that fast?

Just then, the bugle I was expecting from above echoes out again. Then there’s another bugle from higher up! We’ve got King of the Hill at the very top, the bull Jerud is pursuing a bit above us, and now I’ve got a third bull bugling below me.

I decide to hang tight and work the bull that’s below me. I can’t see or communicate with Jerud, but I’m sure he’ll figure out that I’m not tailing him closely when he hears my calls stay put.

My bull’s bugles are getting closer. I scramble to find shooting lanes, but it is so thick in here! I let out a cow call – the first since I’ve heard this bull bugling below me – and as soon as I do, I hear thunder roll up the mountain. I didn’t realize it, but my bull was probably only 30-40 yards away, and when he heard that call he came charging in.

He’s standing on the other side of a thicket, no more than 12-15 away. All I can see are patches of his hide through the cover, but he is so close that I hear him breathing and grunting. His breathes are heavy, deep, and fast. It’s amazing to be so close to such a large, majestic, wild creature.

There is almost a part of me that’s afraid to cow call again – I feel like I could get trampled if he covers another 20 yards as quickly as he just came in. Just as I bring the call to my mouth, I feel a breeze hit the back of my neck. A slight shift of the winds, and he’s gone like a ghost.

I work my way back up towards where I think Jerud is, and we eventually cross paths. As it turns out, while I had my encounter, Jerud had one of his own. The bull that he went after gave him a brief window for a frontal shot, which is one that he wasn’t comfortable taking, and I don’t blame him. Then the bull turned and worked within 20 yards, and more broadside, but a clear shooting lane was nowhere to be found.

Jerud and I have been in the middle of numerous bulls for nearly 5 hours now. We’ve each had bulls at less than 20 yards, but neither of us had a clear shot. What a rush!  And what a stark contrast from yesterday!

Hiking down through the timber

We return to try to eat our snack again, and apparently the third time is the charm. The mountain goes quiet in the afternoon. Jerud and I work our way through the steep mountainside, bumbling and tumbling, with what can only be described as “drunk feet”.

We decide to take our first real break of the trip and head back to camp before dark. We’re going to need fresh legs, full bellies, and a good night’s sleep so that we can climb back up the mountain and try to get into the bulls again in the morning.

(This was one of the smartest decisions we’ve made the whole trip. Tomorrow is going to be a lot of work, and a lot of fun!)

You’re reading Part 5 of my 2014 Colorado Elk hunt.
Check out the rest of the story:  Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 6

Sun over the mountain meadow

“Exhaustion” (2014 Elk Hunt, Part IV)

igˈzôsCHən: 1) a state of extreme physical or mental fatigue, 2) the action or state of using something up or of being used up completely

This story is about Day 4 of the hunt, or as Jerud calls it, “the lowest day”.  Whether you choose to interpret that figuratively or literally, you’re right.

Some of you that have been following this story since the beginning are probably just ready to hear how we killed a bull. That’s coming soon, I promise!

Today’s story is important to tell, because it is the type of story that’s typically left out in the magazines and television shows. To those of you that are new to elk hunting, I urge you to pay extra attention. Expect days like the one told in this story to happen on your hunt, and know that when you’re in the low moments, you need to keep pushing through – no matter what.


Jerud stands among the pines

I quickly crawl out of my sleeping bag, lace up my boots, and retrieve today’s food bag out of the tree. We’re on the trail within minutes of waking. It’s a swift, quiet hike.

We pass through the area we hunted yesterday and keep moving to the north. The sun is still low on the horizon as we reach our destination – a creek bottom at 8,300’. In a matter of minutes we begin cutting tracks and finding game trails that funnel into the creek bottom from all directions.

We try to work our way east, but the mountainous terrain imposes its will over us – forcing us to choose between crossing icy waters or scaling out of the ravine that covers us in shadows. We choose to climb. Two feet aren’t adequate for some sections of the ascent, so we grab at roots and rocks as loose earth rolls swiftly beneath our boots.

The first relatively flat spot we encounter is a well-traveled bench that’s littered with bull droppings. We setup and call; apparently for no good reason. Level ground quickly disappears as we move forward and are thrust into nature’s obstacle course. No matter where we look, or where we want to go, we’re forced to shimmy over, duck under, slip, crawl, fall, trip, climb or drop.

Fresh elk tracks in the mud

We’re seeing elk sign – some fresh, some not – and there’s no sign of hunters, but something doesn’t feel right. I silently question what we’re doing – not only in this moment, but for the last few days. I had such high hopes for this trip, and although we’ve had some fringe encounters, I’m beginning to doubt that we have a legitimate shot at killing elk in here.

There’s a difference between hunting and simply hiking around the woods with a weapon. I’m afraid we’re doing the latter.

Our best guess is that elk are bedded above us by now, but we can’t make an approach because thermals are still falling in the coolness of the dark timber. We stay low, in this hell-hole, attempting to follow a tributary creek that will lead us towards the area where we bumped the bull yesterday.

Finally, we emerge. It’s 1:00pm. We stop, eat, look over maps, and wait on the winds to shift.

Studying maps on a lunch break Jerud reads during a break

Now time to make our move, we proceed within 200 yards of yesterday’s bedded bull – this time approaching from the other direction, and with wind in our favor. The area looks good. Really good. Jerud sends me up to be the shooter. He calls from behind – starting slowly, and eventually working up to replicate the sound of numerous cows and a worked-up bull.

Nothing.

We’ve given it a good effort, and exercised patience, but I finally send the signal (three cow chirps) that the gig is up.

Jerud and I regroup to make a plan for this evening. We should pull a 180 – returning back through the hell-hole – to find a spot to setup over the trails that run down our side of the drainage (thick timber), into the creek bottom (reliable water), and over onto the opposing face (open, grassy feed). The elk are clearly making this voyage. But when are they doing it?

I know that is what we should do, but I don’t want to do it.

“Will climbing back through that mess be worth it? Will the elk even show? I bet they’re only traveling through there at night. I wonder if…”

Jerud interrupts my thoughts. “I guess we should head back,” he says. Just like that we’re on the move. I curse under my breath for at least half of the trip back.

Hicking back through the deadfall More deadfall Higher we go And more climbing over deadfall

As the clock strikes 5:00, I find myself sitting on a log – waiting in ambush until dark, or until I hear something worth pursuing.

The next couple of hours crawl by. My mind is running wild. I feel like, as Jerud said earlier in the day, “I’m on a non-stop series of 10 minute roller coaster rides of highs and lows.” My feelings fluctuate between, “This is the greatest thing ever!,” and then fall to, “What in the world am I even doing out here? I should be at home, with my wife and kids.”

Elk hunting isn’t nearly as romantic as most make it out to be. Especially when the elk aren’t vocal. Sometimes it feels like elk are little more than a figment of my imagination. “Going deep” and living in the wilderness also isn’t always as glorious as some dream. The silence and solitude of the backcountry is refreshing, but sometimes it is haunting.

A selfie during the silence

The sound of a bugle erupts and shakes me out of my funk. I glance at my watch; it’s already 7:00. The bull is hundreds of yards off, and there’s but minutes of daylight left. I can’t make a move.

Now dark, Jerud and I hike a half-mile through the forest to intersect the horse trail, then climb another mile on the trail back to camp.

We’re exhausted. Physically, the more than 10 hours we’ve spent navigating a steep mountainside that’s covered in deadfall has taken a toll on us. Mentally, we’re down – missing our families and struggling with the lack of elk activity. To make matters worse, I feel like we have exhausted (in the sense of “used up”) the area we’ve been hunting. I just don’t think we’ll kill anything in there.

Tomorrow has to be different.

You’re reading Part 4 of my 2014 Colorado Elk hunt.
Check out the rest of the story:  Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 5, Part 6

Sky through the trees

“Exploration” (2014 Elk Hunt, Part III)

ekspləˈrāSHən: the action of traveling in or through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it.

We leave the tent at 6 AM and work our way along a horse trail that leads to the north. The plan was to setup and try to catch elk moving from feed to bed, but the winds are polluting what looks to be the best travel corridors.

A Morning Meadow

We decide to circle around and drop into the timber. Now our plan is to work our way up into the falling thermals, eventually cresting the ridge and scouting a meadow for sign. Along the way we do some calling and get a response from a pair of cows that work our way, but skirt out of range.

At the meadow we bump into some muzzleloader hunters that saw the cows.  They tell us what direction the cows were headed, which is nice – but more than that, we want to hear where the hunters are going. Unfortunately, their plan for the day was the same as ours – keep working up the ridge.

We drop off the west side of the meadow, which falls sharply to a creek drainage. The opposing face looks like ideal elk habitat, and I begin to glass for sign. Jerud quickly reminds me how much further away it is, despite what it looks like through my binos, and how difficult it would be to pack an elk out of there. He’s right, but I can’t help but look for a few minutes.

Working Through the Timber

Staying on the eastern slope, we side-hill to the north, cutting several active game trails along the way, and occasionally stopping to call. On our third set, a cow begins responding to Jerud immediately.  I work forward to close the gap and put the wind in my favor. Jerud’s “lost cow” sounds appear to tug at the elk, pulling it closer and closer.

The sounds of an approach begin from my left and are swinging toward the front of my position. I do my best to scan through the standing Spruce, deadfall, and maze of other natural obstruction – the whole time hearing sticks softly breaking and occasional mews in response to Jerud’s calls.

The sounds that were coming near have now stopped. I can picture the cow – not far off, standing guard, making the final, fateful decision to come closer – or not.

I spot movement on the other side of a thicket that lies 30 yards head. My heart jumps, then sinks. Blaze orange.

“Hunter,” I say in a stern voice, alerting Jerud to the situation, and the muzzleloader to my camouflaged presence.

“Did we call you in?” I ask.

“Ya’ll sounded good, but, no,” he says. “I was trailing a couple of cows by a ways. You boys were bringing them in, but they just skirted to the side and caught your wind.”

We called in more than another hunter, so at least the excitement of the preceding moments was validated.

After exchanging pleasantries and brief stories, the other hunter works up the ridge, towards the meadow from which we came. We continue to side-hill to the northeast; planning to make a giant loop through the afternoon, before working our way back up the mountain towards camp for the evening.

A Mountainside Wallow

Our calls go unanswered for the next hour, but we are finding fresher and more plentiful sign with every step, including some wallows. After a slope-side lunch and a quick nap in the cool of the dark timber, we continue the hunt and find an isolated water source that had been getting some traffic. We setup for a calling sequence here, but there’s no response.

We travel another 100 yards or so and enter a small clearing.  Jerud steps past a tall pine, and the sound of thunder instantly erupts from our left. A bedded bull had spotted Jerud’s movement and bolted. Jerud’s instincts take over as he quickly drops to his knees and lets out a couple of cow calls. The bull stops and looks back towards Jerud’s direction for a moment, then casually walks away.

We can hear the bull walking; he hasn’t gone far. Jerud continues his calling as I drop back – knowing that if the bull is going reproach the area, it will with the wind in his favor. Elk are smart and deceivingly fast. The bull out-maneuvers my play – circling downwind of both of Jerud and I – catching our scent, then disappearing for good.

Jerud Calls the

Jerud, who got a pretty good look at the bull, says, “He was well more than just legal.” It’s always disappointing to blow an animal out of their element, but I can’t help feeling excited after having our first encounter with a bull on this trip.

For the evening hunt, Jerud and I sit on different parts of a meadow that include some good game trails, but nothing shows. Just before dark we hear a distant bugle, followed by the blast of a muzzleloader.

At least someone is having luck. I wonder if we will get our turn.

Now back at camp, feeling the comfort of a fully belly and the warmth of a down sleeping bag, I fall asleep while analyzing today’s hunt. Our exploration has put us on fresh sign and given us a couple of encounters, but it is going to be tough to fill a tag if we keep running into this many hunters, and if the elk remain this quiet.

Jerud and I decide to wake up early tomorrow, get back on the same horse trail, but use it to quickly hike much further to the north.  We will drop to a creek bottom at 8,300’, and work our way back throughout the day. Hopefully, by staying away from the meadows and main corridors where we’ve encountered hunters, we will find elk that are seeking solitude and security.

If that doesn’t work, we are going to need to rethink our strategy altogether.

You’re reading Part 3 of my 2014 Colorado Elk hunt.
Check out the rest of the story:  Part 1Part 2Part 4Part 5, Part 6

The Sun Sets on Another Day

Spruce, Sunshine, Aspen and Calm Waters

Somone, or Something, Has Killed Here

Isolated Water Source