feature By: Trent Swanson | July, 18
During middle school and high school, I usually drew a muzzleloader elk tag every other year, and hunted with a bow when I did not draw. However, none of my hunts ended in success until my junior year. I didn’t draw an elk tag that fall but finally connected on my first deer with dad’s old CVA Hawken muzzleloader as he proudly looked on. Unknown to me, that year started something that would come full circle nearly 25 years later.
The next year I only applied for preference points; playing high school soccer and trying for a state championship during my senior year seemed more important. Then I went off to college in another state and didn’t bother applying. After college I moved back to Colorado, and those two elk preference points from high school created the foundation for building more points. I Initially planned to build up about 10 points so I could hunt an awesome Ranching for Wildlife unit in southern Colorado, but by the time I got close, it took more than 10 points, and then the ranch left the program. I kept building points, primarily because I couldn’t decide where to use them.
I still hunted elk a couple times in Colorado on over-the-counter tags, and drew tags both in Arizona and New Mexico. I was lucky to kill a couple of nice bulls but still dreamed of a huge bull. I moved back and forth from Arizona to Colorado a few times but continued to build points. Upon my return to my home state in 2012, I had 18 points. That year, another point was bought, knowing the next year, with 19 preference points, I would once again be a Colorado resident, opening the door to more opportunities.
Before the 2013 application deadline, I endlessly studied the draw statistics. Based on the 2012 stats, I figured I would be guaranteed to draw almost any elk tag in Colorado as a resident. Based on research, besides Ranching for Wildlife tags, the two tags I was not guaranteed to draw were a Unit 201 muzzleloader tag (37 percent chance) and a Unit 201 rifle tag (zero percent chance). After much deliberation and many conversations with friends and family, I finally decided to go for broke and applied for the Unit 201 muzzleloader tag. Low and behold, I drew it! As the only hunter with 19 preference points to draw the tag, I beat 14.29 percent odds. Luckily, I started applying long ago and finally earned my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at age 40. Then it was a matter of doing my best to make it everything I had dreamed about since high school.
I chose a muzzleloader hunt for three reasons: It’s easier to draw than the rifle hunt, it falls at the best time of the elk rut and it only lasts one week. Often, if given more than a week to hunt, I don’t focus as well as I can, often thinking, There’s always next week. With my one week set aside for the middle of September, preparations began.
Studying maps and talking to anyone about the unit, I perfected the load for my muzzleloader then started on-the-ground scouting in June. Unit 201 encompasses the furthest northwest corner of Colorado, bordering Utah on the west and Wyoming on the north. Cold Spring Mountain is the major feature of the area, but there are also a couple other peaks and a bunch of pinyon/juniper country that leads down to the Green River. There isn’t much of the classic Colorado high-country habitat, but having cut my teeth on hunting big bulls in the Southwest, I prefer the pinyon/juniper country anyway.
I searched high and low, trying to cover as much of the unit as possible. Elk were found almost everywhere I looked, as were other critters like mule deer, antelope, moose, sage grouse, blue grouse, badgers and rattlesnakes! The sheer amount and diversity of wildlife was incredible.
In late July, after spending a restless night in the pickup due to a rainstorm and leaky easy-up canopy, I was up early and found a few huge groups of cows and calves with my tripod-mounted binocular. Then the unthinkable happened – on July 28, I heard a bugle! I quickly gathered my gear and followed in hot pursuit. Soon it was realized that the bull was farther away than I originally thought, so I stopped to glass an awesome valley and up onto a mountain of scattered aspens and pines.
Glassing revealed a beautiful bull. It was a wide, clean 6x6 that I guessed would score in the 330 class. It fed in the open long enough for me to take some digiscoping photos and video. However, it was not the bugling bull, as I continued to hear the bugling slowly fading away from me, and the 6x6 was not one of the monsters I was hoping to find. Still, it was a great bull that left me excited for the hunt.
I spent the last three weekends before the hunt camping and scouting throughout the unit. I continued to find elk and began to find bulls worthy of a nearly quarter-century wait. Two bulls stood out to me: “S3” and “Mudbog.” The first moniker was chosen because the long-tined 6x6 had relatively short G3s. Even though its thirds were a little short, the length of all the other tines put the bull well into the mid-300s. The second bull was named by my best friend, Rick Messmer. Rick found it pushing a herd of cows and calves back from their nighttime feeding grounds out on the flats up onto the timbered mountainside. The entire herd dropped into a drainage and out of sight. Once they reappeared, the clean 5x6 was covered in mud! Clearly it found a wallow and couldn’t resist cooling off.
For the hunt itself, a great group made of my dad, brother and three of my best friends chose to help me. Due to the connections of one of my friends, we were given permission to stay in a rancher’s cow camp. It was an old, one-room stone building deep in the unit. There was no electricity and no running water, but it made a perfect basecamp.
My dad, Bill, and I arrived in the unit a couple days before the hunt started, and then Rick and another friend, Macky Morris, arrived later that night. They could barely contain their excitement when they rolled into camp. They had found a great bull they called “Kicker.” It was an otherwise big, clean 6x6, but it had an additional cheater point sticking straight out from its fourth point on the right. Based on their description and excitement, I knew that elk deserved a closer look!
We poured over topo maps and were able to find a ridgeline about two miles away that should have given a great view of the area where they had seen the bull. I sent Rick and Macky to another part of the unit to glass, photograph and video other bulls while my dad and I hiked up on the ridge. It was times like these that quality optics proved their worth! We quickly started seeing elk and even heard a bunch of bugles. However, we were unable to find the bull.
Extending my glassing area, a large group of cows were found. When a big bull stepped out, I immediately said, “I’ve got Kicker!” I swapped my 15x binocular for a spotting scope, and my initial guess was confirmed when the huge point sticking off the right side of the antlers was seen. Dad and I continued watching the bull until it fed over a hill to bed down for the day.
Later that afternoon, four of us were back on the ridge waiting to see those unique antlers again. Like clockwork, the bull walked over the hill and put on a show for us until dark. I was able to get some great digiscope pictures, and we all agreed it was an amazing bull. As we left with only darkness separating us from opening day, I was satisfied that even if it was not the biggest bull, it was the coolest bull we had found. I knew where I wanted to be on opening morning.
My brother Erik and another friend, Michael Sisk, made it to camp late that night. We regaled them with stories of Kicker and the other bulls we had seen. We all agreed that Kicker was worth the chase on opening morning.
Erik first spotted the bull the next morning. We then watched as it and its cows slowly began climbing out of a canyon. Kicker bugled as it went, doing its best to keep track of the cows while keeping a pesky spike away from them. From a distance I was able to get a shot into the bull that separated it from the cows. I heard the distinctive thwack of the bullet but could see no other sign of a hit as the bull slowly meandered toward a draw, where I lost sight of it.
With a couple of draws in the area, Erik and I decided to get the wind in our face and slowly approach the bull as though it wasn’t hit at all. After nearly an hour of taking a few steps then glassing again, we came to the end of the first draw with no results. The second draw was not nearly as deep or as juniper-choked. However, it held the jackpot! We hadn’t gone far when I spotted Kicker bedded, looking directly away from us with the wind blowing in our faces. It was 232 yards away in a perfect position for a stalk. Just as I started to close the distance, however, the bull stood up, turned around and bedded again, facing directly toward us.
We watched it for nearly an hour, hoping for a break, but then the wind began to shift and so did our plan. We marked in our minds where the bull was bedded, and then backed out. Erik and I spent the next 45 minutes slowly stalking. Once we got closer, it was easy to see its rack towering over the sagebrush in the scattered junipers. I followed directly behind Erik, obscuring both our outlines. Once we made it to 39 yards, I felt a second-sense that the jig was up and quickly decided to shoot through a small window in the junipers, but as I crouched down and began to press the trigger, Kicker stood. I instantly jumped up and hopped around the juniper, placed the front sight of my muzzleloader behind the elk’s shoulder and shot as if it were a quail dodging through the brush. The big bull fell 77 yards away.
Kicker was everything I was hoping for on this hunt. Besides being one of the biggest bulls we found, it definitely was the most unique. The 6x7 frame grossed over 360 inches, the kicker tine measured 12 inches, and its inside spread was right at 40 inches.
After almost 25 years, things had come full circle. That first preference point I earned as a junior in high school proved invaluable as the foundation for drawing the tag. My junior year was also when I shot my first big-game animal with a muzzleloader as my father watched. Dad was with me once again, but this time he watched me shoot my biggest elk.
It all proved that hunting comes from a deeper place than most people think. A lifetime of dreaming, planning and preparation were all rolled up into one opportunity. The man who instilled in me the love of hunting watched over me, just as he had from the beginning, and my brother and best friends were there to help and share the experience. Twenty-five years is a long time to wait, but it allowed me time to grow as a hunter and make friendships worthy of sharing a once-in-a-lifetime experience.