feature By: John Moren | January, 19
Elk hunting weather in the North Park region of northern Colorado in early October can be like an Indian Summer, or snowy and cold. I found the latter on October 1 when I arrived in camp near Walden. Three to 5 inches of wet snow was on the ground, and it kept snowing. As we got out of the truck the following morning there was 8 to 10 inches of snow, and the temperature was a frosty 5 degrees above zero; more like a late November hunt than a rut hunt.
As backpacks and rifles were loaded in the dark, guide Jake Foo (Spur Outfitters) and I immediately heard bugles less than a mile away to the north. We slogged through the snow and fog as quickly as possible in the general direction of the bugling. In the North Park mountains at altitudes of 7,000 feet or higher, the terrain consists of big, open-pastured valleys with the slopes covered in Aspen or pine timber, or “quakies and black timber” to the locals. Most elk will bed at higher elevations and work down the slopes in late afternoon to better grazing in the valleys, feed all night and work their way back up to their bedding areas at dawn. The valleys have willow brush along the creeks, and some elk never leave the bottoms if the cover, food, water and cows are available, and hunting pressure does not drive them out. Those creek-bottom elk share their cover with Shiras moose, muleys and whitetails.
The elk rut in this country usually takes place from late August to early October, depending on the weather and the number of cows to be bred. We were hunting the first week of October and were nearing the end of the rut, but the group of elk we were approaching had a herd bull and several satellites sounding off on the snowy hillside in front of us. We used whatever willow or aspen cover we had to move closer and could begin to make out cows milling around on the hill to the north.
Jake could see the herd bull pushing cows around, and I caught a few glimpses of it, but the bull was more than 400 yards away and constantly moving in and out of sight herding cows, leaving us without good shot opportunities. We needed to close the distance, but we had a cow bedded within 150 yards of us and a young raghorn bull walking near the cow, so we were not able to move closer to the herd bull without spooking the entire group.
To carry that point one step further, it is ideal for hunters to shoot their target bull or cow when in a herd and allow the herd to drift away from the downed animal on its own without educating the group by exposing yourself as the cause of the disruption. The less a hunter can remind elk that man caused a disruption, the better the hunting opportunities will be on a given property. Often, when an elk is shot the rest of the herd is not sure what happened, and if a hunter does not run out into the open in celebration, the herd will mill around and leave the area on its own. That’s what you want, and there will be plenty of time for celebration later. Obviously, if an animal requires more than one shot, forget about being cool and finish the job.
That first afternoon, Jake and I returned to the same general area, hoping to catch the herd coming down the mountain to feed on our side of the fence. On the drive in, we spotted a very fresh set of single tracks in the snow headed north. The tracks were so fresh, in fact, that we spotted the bull about 300 yards away standing in the trail it left. The bull had an oddball rack with a normally shaped 6-point antler on its left side and a 4-inch spike on its right side. I would have shot the elk had it lingered just a few seconds longer, but the bull had spotted us about the same time we spotted it, and it turned and trotted off. The rest of the evening and the following morning were a bust with a seeming void of elk but an abundance of tracks, all heading north toward a lower elevation.
The particular valley we were hunting runs for several miles south to north, and another hunter in our group had hunted the northern end that morning and had seen lots of elk up there, but they were too far to catch up to before they got up the mountains to bed for the day. Based on this new information, several of us decided to spread out on this northern end in the afternoon; the area was so big we wouldn’t be crowding each other.
As Jake and I drove through the melting snow and muddy slush in the afternoon, we approached an area we intended to start hunting. A mediocre, lone bull was spotted resting out in the middle of a pasture in the snow. The only cover we had was a fence corner, so we hastily parked the truck and snuck down the fence line for a better look. There were, in fact, two mid-sized bulls, 4x4s, or 5x4s or so, but they had spotted us and were up and walking away at probably 400 yards or so. It was not a smart shot for me anyway, so as we watched them depart, Jake spotted three young bulls watching us from the west about 325 yards in the distance. These elk were on a little ridgetop and were aware of our presence but not fully alarmed. As we watched the three bulls through our binoculars, we got glimpses of more elk, or rather parts of elk, over the rise behind and below these three bulls. Jake occasionally spotted the rack of a good bull, but its body was hidden from view.
The three raghorns eventually walked off the knoll and more or less followed the two bulls we had spotted at first out across the open pasture. We had ranged the knoll at 318 yards, and should the good bull eventually step up and present a standing shot, we felt very good about our chances. I was shooting a Weatherby Mark V .300 Weatherby Magnum built at the company’s custom shop with a beautiful dull wood finish. My load contained a Barnes 165-Grain TTX. I have used Barnes Triple-Shocks in numerous loads for antelope and whitetail, finding that they worked amazingly well. I had sighted-in the rifle to shoot 2.5 to 3 inches high at 100 yards, so with that load I would be nearly dead-on at 300 yards. I was using the long bipod and had a good rest, so the shot was very possible if I did my part.
The rest of the herd did not appear alarmed, and occasionally we had glimpses of the back of a feeding elk, or a spike’s head, but not much more. For all we knew they could have fed out of our sight, but our best play was to sit still and let them make the next move. Had we tried to reposition for a better view, we would have been totally exposed, and one elk glancing up would have blown our chances. Jake and I took turns glassing the knoll over the next 2½ hours, and there were many times when we assumed they had gone off unseen. Then one of us would catch a glimpse of part of a feeding elk to renew our hopes.
At one point Jake was on the glasses and said, “Get ready! Some cows are coming over the knoll!” Then he said he could see the bull coming with them. I got on the rifle and was watching through the scope, but the bull’s view was blocked by other elk milling around in front of it. I intended to shoot whenever I got
After about 30 to 40 head came over the knoll into the depression in front of us, a single cow got out in front and trotted directly downwind of us, not more than 80 yards away. The cow was alarmed and trotted back into the herd. The bull was still out of my sight, but I stayed on the rifle for any shot opportunity. I expected the herd to spook and hoped the bull would offer a shot on the way out of our area, but they didn’t!
The herd was aware of the cow’s concern but milled around and started feeding again; we were still in the game. As long as the herd did not bolt, I figured I was good. If they did, getting a good, clear shot on the run in all those bodies would have been unlikely. The bull kept moving among its cows trying to get them moving again, but it was mostly out of my sight in the gully. Its rack could be seen and some of its back, but not enough for a shot. Then it came out on the far bank in the clear.
Jake called out “237 yards,” but once the bull came closer than our 318-yard knoll, yardage wasn’t a concern, but a clear shot was, and it was clear. The bull was standing with its forelegs lower than its rear end, slightly quartering away with its head up. A shot on the bull’s near shoulder would also hit the base of the neck. I whispered to Jake to watch the shot, and the crosshairs looked perfect
We stayed at the ready in case it got up. We stayed ready for several minutes for any sign of life in the bull and to let the herd drift off, hopefully unaware of what had just happened. As we approached the downed bull with the rifle ready, Jake and I were treated to as great a scene any hunter could hope for: A beautiful, mature 6x6 bull in the snow with a brilliant blue Colorado sky and the Rockies in the background.
After admiring the breathtaking scenery as a background for our photo session, Jake and I gutted the bull and winched it into the back of his flatbed truck and headed to the butcher.