This is the story of my 2014 solo archery elk hunt, in Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness.

If you are a trophy hunter, you will not be impressed with my story;  I have always been, and always will be a meat hunter.  My Family was raised on elk and venison, and we have come to depend on the harvest over the years.  I left Northern California on September 12th with one purpose in mind:  killing the first legal elk I could get in bow range.

I had been blessed by my 15 year old Son, with a lovely virus that had become apparent the night before my arrival, my throat felt like it had been freshly sandpapered! This was going to make things interesting…such great timing!

The area I have been hunting for many years now, consists of one main access road running North/South on top of the mountain (10,500 feet elevation), which spurs off to several trailheads on both the East and West sides of the road. My first and foremost plan was to set up a base camp on the East rim, with a “backup plan” of camping at a larger trailhead on the West rim.

Day One

I arrived to find wall tent camps at both trailheads (grrrr)!  In Colorado, they run a week of muzzleloader hunts during the regular archery season…and I was arriving on day one of muzzy season. There was another trailhead in between the two, on the West side, leading to an area I call “Rodent’s Hole”.  This is where I decided to make my base camp.

My base camp at 10,500 feet...home sweet home for possibly 14 days

 

I quickly set up camp, prepared and organized everything I needed for the following day’s hunt, and decided to hunt the evening down in Rodent’s hole, just to get a “feel” for the area’s activity before I went in hard the next morning.

The trailhead down into "Rodent's Hole"

 

There is an old wooden treestand about a mile down from base camp, which sits in between a North facing timbered ridge, and a series of benches containing multiple small parks and wallows.  The old stands in the area have held up for many years, since wood in the high country does not rot over time, and things dry out so quickly. They are left over from a public land Outfitter, who has long since retired his lease.

These old wooden stands are still surprisingly stable after 20+ years

 

I set up my SLIP System decoy near the stand, tucked back slightly into the timber…I would need something to bring elk into bow range if I could get a response with calling. I had killed my last bull from the same stand, using the above techniques, several years back.

The Timber Elk Decoy from quartering in

 

My standard treestand “formula”,  is just to give a couple of soft cow calls every 15 minutes or so.  This will sometimes bring elk in to “investigate” the new girl in the area.  If a bull decides to “call me over to him”…I will oftentimes hit him back with a spike squeal.  On several occasions this has resulted in bulls rushing in aggressively, ready to run off the apparent young rival.

My main purpose for the evening, was to assess the presence of vocal bulls for the following morning hunt. I heard one weak bugle way up the dark timber ridge near dusk, and also heard two muzzleloader blasts further down the ridge.  I could see I was in for a week of “silent elk”…which always makes archery hunting a real challenge!

Day Two

Day two I was up early, and headed down to a large meadow below Rodent’s hole, where I had seen a nice 6×6 bull on the last day of my hunt the year before.  My plan was to move in on the first vocal bull I hear.

The first light of dawn I heard two bulls exchanging rather weak bugles…and they were already way up in the dark timber!  I realized I was not going to catch up to these guys before they bedded their cows down for the day, so I began the long hike up into the dark timber.  The lack of vocal elk had forced me to play “hide and seek”…hopefully catching a legal elk bedded down, or moving to or from a high water source.

Looking across the meadow at the dark timbered ridge in early AM

 

I started low, and slowly worked my way higher as the thermals started to switch, in an effort to keep the wind advantage in my favor.  Early afternoon found me near the top, about a mile down the ridge.  I had encountered some pockets of fresh elk sign, and finally decided to drop down one of the major elk trails all the way to the creek bottom, where there was another tree stand I know of. It was another old wooden stand, overlooking the creek.

The "creek stand" on the West Side

Just getting a “feel” for the situation, told me I would be doing no calling from this stand.  It would be a plain and simple ambush.  The elk move from the steep dark timbered ridge where they are bedded in the daytime, and cross the creek and head up the equally steep semi-open South facing ridge to feed in the evenings.  The trails converging under the stand are like “elk highways”.

I stowed my SLIP System back behind the tree, and squirted a little estrus urine around the base of the tree before I made the climb.  The stand is 30 feet up, and still amazingly sturdy after over 20 years.  Once in the tree, I settled in for a long afternoon to evening sit, confident I would at least see or hear elk before dark. I mounted my video camera to a nearby limb, and attached a LANC controller to the seat of the stand, where I could easily activate it if elk came into view.

About 6:30 PM, I saw a flash of movement up the trail ahead of me.  I quickly started the video cam…soon realizing it was indeed a lone bull.  I grabbed my bow and readied myself for a shot opportunity.

It all happened quickly…the bull came out directly across from the stand, stopped momentarily to assess the wind, and then proceeded to come toward me.  Directly  below the stand, the bull twisted into a broadside presentation, and my arrow quickly entered his chest behind the shoulder.

The first thing I noticed was incomplete penetration…NOOOO!  I knew I must have hit bone somewhere.  The bull took off under the stand, turned left and ran straight down the creek bottom for 70 yards, then appeared to jump up the bank slightly, and disappeared around the corner at an angle that would put him back down toward the creek/ dark timber.

Playing the scene back in my head, it appeared there was maybe 10 inches of arrow sticking out of his chest on the near side. I realized this probably meant there was a good chance I had no exit wound. Playing the video back in the camera didn’t help; the viewfinder was too small for me to see my arrow (it wasn’t until I was able to get home and review the video, that I realized the shot was a solid shoulder blade hit, but I still received an amazing amount of penetration).

I felt there was plenty of penetration for the hit to be lethal, but I knew tracking him was going to be difficult.

After about 45 minutes, I lowered my gear and myself down the tree, and started to look for evidence.  I was able to follow his jump marks into the creek, but unable to see for certain what happened when he emerged up on the bank downstream. With daylight starting to fade…I knew my only good option was to back out, and try to find the bull the next morning.  I began the long hike back to base camp.

Day Three

After a near sleepless night, first light found me down at the creek bottom, where I did my best to locate the wounded bull.  I started back beneath the stand, and was able to find a few small spots of bright red blood on some grass, at the point before the bull jumped into the creek.

First blood near the spot where the bull was hit

By the bull’s actions, it seemed to me he wanted desperately to get back up into the dark timber where he came from.  I started doing sidehill sweeps, moving 30 yards or so up the ridge with each successive sweep, for a distance of 500 yards or so each time.  I would move slowly, keeping my nose in the wind hoping to locate him by his scent (we have located many bulls in this manner over the years).  Later in the day, when the thermals started to rise, I followed the same techniques across the creek on the South face.  I was listening for flies and bees swarming, as well as trying to wind him.

After over 9 hours of searching, it became apparent I was probably not going to find this bull.  I felt sick inside…I thought I had made a great shot, only to have missed my mark by a couple of inches. Depressed and beaten, I started slowly working my way back to base camp.  On arrival, I took a solar shower, organized my gear, and sat down to contemplate the events of the last two days. It was nearing 5 PM, and I had the option to just remain in camp for the evening.  Hell no!   I came here to hunt.  I knew the only way to keep my mind off my failure was to keep going.  I grabbed my bow and pack, and started walking with my SLIP System toward Rodent’s Hole.  I took a sit in the treestand again, and was rewarded to hear the two bulls I had heard in the morning, way up in the dark timber. I would be back for them in the morning!

Day Four

I arrived at the meadow way before daylight, and used contours to try to get as far down the mountain in elevation as I could, without blowing the elk out of the country with my scent.  I knew I would have to be close to the bulls to intercept the herd, and I hoped they would not move up as early as they had a couple days ago.

Just before shooting light, I heard one of the bulls bugle down below me about 300 yards, and he sounded like a good mature bull.  I started to move down toward his position, keeping the wind mostly in my face.  Unfortunately, before I could get close to his last known location, he responded again, and was already near the top of the ridge, and there was a smaller bull vocalizing near him as well.  So much for best laid plans.  I decided to slowly work my way toward the top, in the direction they had went.  I hunted the next 6 hours up in the dark timber, stillhunting my way across the mountain, hoping to see any sign of the herd, or other elk that were scattered around up there.  An afternoon thunderstorm rolled in about 1 PM, so I took refuge under my SLIP elk decoy.

Taking shelter during a Thunderstorm with the SLIP System

After the storm passed, I sidehilled my way around back to base camp.  I had decided it was time to drop off the East rim. Wall tent or no wall tent, I needed to see what was going on down there!

There was another road that came in to the rim from an angle, further down the rim from the wall tent.  I parked my rig at the end of that road, and walked the 500 yards to the rim, and dove off.  One of the first things I noticed, is that as soon as I got down past the first series of benches, all human bootprints disappeared.  Nobody had been down low, which is understandable, given the unforgiving steepness of the long descent.  My plan was to go all the way down 1.5 miles to the creek bottom, where another old treestand existed.  No better way to assess the elk activity for the evening in my opinion.

I used my calling formula while on stand, and set the decoy back behind me.  The stand backs right up to a North facing dark timber ridge, with the creek on the right, and a small meadow out front. The biggest problem with this stand is wind…if the animals come in from directly behind, they almost always bust you because they are at eye level with you,  and especially earlier in the evening, your scent blows right up to them.  If the animals come down from the right…chances are you will be undetected.

the small park in front of the creek stand, on the East side

About 4:30, I looked behind me to see a young cow elk moving down toward the alders under the stand.  Just when I thought she was at a point where she would be under my scent…she suddenly turned and busted out.  Damn!

I continued my intermittent calling as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.  About 7 PM, my cow call was cut off by a deep, throaty chuckle, just 100 yds behind the stand (telling me, “come here, sweetheart”).  Well, gee Mister, I would, but I’m stuck up this tree!  So, I hit him back with a spike squeal using just my diaphragm call and my cupped hands.  This got an immediate response…he screamed aggressively at me, and then the whole hill exploded behind me.  I could hear the herd running down around toward the creek to my right, and they splashed across the creek, and emerged in the meadow at about 50 yds out…one cow, two cows, three cows, and then the bull.  I tried to stop them with a nervous bark using my voice…but the virus had taken away my volume, and they did not hear me (thanks, Buddy)!   I quickly grabbed my bite and blow call, and was able to stop the bull at 80 yards as he looked back at me over his massive rump. And what a bull he was…a solid 290 bull by my estimation…but with only 3 cows!  I would love to meet the reason this bull had only 3 cows!

He bugled at me once, and pushed his cows over the knob.  In less than a minute, he already had run his cows clear up to the upper benches, and had taken refuge in the dark timber.  There was a smaller satellite bull having a vocal exchange with him, and I decided since I had a steady downhill wind, I would climb down and try to get to them before it got dark.

By the time I reached the bulls, they were both sounding off in my direction, and I was mocking them with my bugle.  Unfortunately…I was quickly running out of shooting light.  I knew the best tact would be to run away into the wind…leaving the chance open for another encounter on a different day.   I began the steep hump back to the rim.

Day 5

Due to the lay of the land, dropping off the East rim in the mornings was usually a bust.  The wind slides predictably down, clearing out every elk scattered across the South face before you could get anywhere near them.  For this reason, I decided to leave the East rim for the evening hunt, and went back below the meadow on the West side, just before daylight.

Predictably, I heard the smaller bull way up in the dark timber at first good shooting light.  I started working my way toward his position.  I tried to locate him again with my bugle, but got nothing!  Another lovely day of hunting silent bulls!

hunting silent bulls in the timber can be a fruitless game!

I slowly stillhunted my way back toward the creek stand where I had stuck the bull 3 days earlier.  I couldn’t get that animal out of my head, and I was sure I could either smell him by now if he was in the area, or I would hear ravens that would be feeding on his carcass if he was down. I was very ready to punch my tag and go home if I could find him, even though my family would not be provided with food. I felt obligated to take another look for him.

Distracted by thoughts of the bull, I bumped a herd of elk out of their beds at just 20 yds.  Pay attention, stupid!  A few more yards of following their tracks led me to a large ravine which I recognized right away…this was where I had backtrailed the bull from the stand.  I felt he might have wanted to return to his bedding area, so I followed the trail up to see where he had come from.

I continued to follow the fresh elk tracks to see where they had gone, I wanted to know where elk would go that felt “safe” if pressured.  After sidehilling my way mid-ridge, I started to see fresh tracks everywhere, moving toward a large, very steep dark timber patch.  With all the fresh sign in the area, and it being mid-morning…I decided it would be a good time to set up a “cold calling scenario”.  I set up the decoy facing the steep dark timber ridge, and began a series of vocalizations to include all manner of cow calls and some single-note bugles, and began breaking branches intermittently.

This steep dark timber pocket had many torn up trails heading into it

After an hour or so, I decided it was time to move on.  Even though I got no responses, I would definitely keep this place in mind for future hunts.

I worked my way back toward the creek stand, and dropped down in there once again, sniffing the wind and listening for flies/ bees/ ravens, etc.  Nothing at all!  Finally, I moved up the South Face toward what I knew were a series of good game trails that would get me back to base camp.  After a few hundred yards, a lone bull gave off a “location bugle” across the ravine in the North-facing timber.  We began an exchange that lasted about ten minutes or so…and I can honestly say, I got the last word in!  My thoughts were that he had moved his cows down to a wallow or water source located mid-ridge, and I could clearly hear him move them back up and over the top at the end of our “conversation”.   I headed back to base camp, with an evening plan in mind.

I had a "conversation" with a bull across on the far ridge

In the early afternoon…I dove off the East rim again, headed down to the point where I had the exchange with the two bulls the evening before.  There was actually another tree stand down there, within 100 yards of where I had been having the bugle exchange.  I call it the “point stand”…because it sits near the top of a dark timber ridge where bedded bulls often reside, but is also a natural “funnel” for any elk coming from the creek down below.  The view from the point is pretty spectacular, and you can hear any bull for miles.  I climbed in the stand, and started my intermittent calling.

looking down toward the river from the "point stand"

About 6 PM, I started hearing distant bugles.  Finally at about 7 PM, there were three different bulls sounding off down below me about 400 yards away.   One was a squealer, one sounded like “Chuckles” from the night before…and then there was a “growler”!  There was the the reason “Chuckles” only had 3 cows!  I so wanted to meet this guy…but the wind was blowing right down his direction.  I began to unravel a desperate plan for the next morning.

Day Six

In complete darkness…I dove off the East rim the next morning.  If I could use the dark timber ridge off the point to hold my scent…maybe I could drop down level with the 3 bugling bulls, and then move in to intercept them.

Well, I got one ridge too far back somehow…and early light found me desperately working frantically to get off a steep ridge littered with blowdowns, snags, deep brush laden ravines, and more hazards than I ever wanted to imagine.  I could clearly hear two of the bulls sounding off across the open South benches (no sign of the “growler”).

a typical blowdown scenario, I've become a master at navigating it!

Finally, I could see an open park through the timber…and as I wormed my way up and over the last blowdown and twisted through a dead snag…5 elk trotted into view at 40 yards in the park ahead. I immediately popped the decoy, and had a nice big cow staring me down, beautifully broadside.   As I went to draw my bow, I realized my arm was stuck in the snag, and this was not going to happen. The elk bounded away, and I was left looking stupid!

At this point, the only bull I could intermittently hear was the little squealer.  I would try to get up under him to maintain the wind advantage, and see if I could get a look at him.

Soon after my ascent on to the steep dark timber ridge, the bull went silent.  Winds were getting swirly, so I laid low for a while, then slowly started to gain in elevation as the winds began to shift uphill. Soon after I reached the top of the mountain, I heard a lazy “location” bugle below.  It was the “squealer”… and he was in his bed.  I checked the wind…coming right up to me!  I’m coming for you, dude!

My hope was to move as quietly as possible down to his level, hopefully to around 100 yards or so of him.  As soon as I got to where I thought I was very close…the bull suddenly bugled directly below me, less than 100 yds away, and then I heard limbs pop.  I checked the wind…and it was blowing straight down to him…NOOOO!  I couldn’t believe it, it was 11:30 AM, and the wind had completely shifted on me.  Granted, if I had not misjudged my position, I may have had a chance at the bull.

I figured the only thing I could do at this point was take a nap.  Turns out I must have been tired; I managed to sleep for a couple hours under my “elk decoy umbrella”  in a little depression I found. You hear of bowhunters doing ten mile days in elk country, well, this was turning out to be one of them.

After I woke up, I headed sidehill down toward the creek stand.  Maybe I could get another look at “Chuckles” if he decided to follow the same routine as two nights ago.  Turns out, the wind was not my friend that day/evening.  One minute it would be blowing up, then down.  I had never seen the winds so shifty down there!

About 7PM, “Chuckles” answered my calls again…but this time he was one finger over from me, and came up near the wallows on the lower bench.  After a short exchange, he sounded off again clear up on the top!  How do you kill a bull that runs his cows from one location to the next!  Oh yeah, that’s probably how he got so big in the first place!

one of the wallows above the creek stand on the east side

I decided to try to catch him anyway.  I was pouring sweat by the time I got up to the point, and the bull was nowhere to be found. With darkness coming on, I slowly made my way (defeated), back up to the rim.

Day Seven

I was feeling pretty beaten up when my alarm clock went off at 4 AM.  Yesterday had been a very rough day.  I decided to sleep in an extra hour, and head over to another area I knew of, where we had watched a nice bull walk into a fresh wallow one morning last Season.

I got to the wallow at first shooting light.  It had been used within a week or so, but really didn’t impress me.  There were a series of benches on this ridge, with lots of waterholes and wallows, meadows, etc.  I started moving down the drainages and looking for a freshly hit wallow.

This wallow had definitely had some recent activity

After  a couple hours, I finally found a pretty good wallow, that appeared to have been hit within the last 24 hours. I decided I would sit out the morning there, and attempt an ambush.  I switched the cover on my SLIP System to camo, and set up a makeshift “ground blind”.  I would have plenty of cover to draw my bow if needed…and I was within 25 yards of the wallow.  I tried to locate myself so my wind was blowing away from the dark timber patch where I expected a bull might approach from.

the SLIP System provides a quick and easy ground blind for ambush

The virus had me so congested at this point, it was near impossible to maintain silence.  I felt if I had to stifle another sneeze, they would find me with my brains exploded all over the nearest log!

About 11 AM, I heard two muzzleloader shots in succession, “BOOM………BOOM”!  They had come from what sounded like less than 400 yds away, down the ridge in the dark timber. Now I realized why I hated hunting over in this area; there were several good horse trails that provided easy access to hunters, and there seemed to be less elk in general.

I gave it until Noon, then walked back out to the rim.

As I walked out, I started thinking about the elk I had bumped the other day near the creek stand.  I had left my stink all over that ridge two days earlier,  for 1000 yards in any direction, and those elk were still bedded right above the stand!   I made the decision to go back into the creek stand that evening.

Back at camp, I took another solar shower, put on fresh clothes, and sprayed myself and my gear top to bottom with a scent killer spray.  I wanted to take absolutely no chances of getting winded tonight.  I finally crawled up into the treestand about 3:30 PM.  There would be no calling, and no filming this time. I was hoping to maybe get lucky and take a cow.  I had made it a point to wear my  lucky hat as well!

At around 4:30 PM, I was shocked to see movement up the trail.  It was not only an elk, it was another lone bull!

“Oh my God” I thought, “I cannot believe I am getting a second chance”!  I could feel my heart pound in my chest as the bull approached my position, but he was slowly feeding his way down, so I had time to get my breathing under control.

When the bull stepped out into the small clearing in front of the stand, I immediately assessed that he was legal, and drew my bow in anticipation of the shot.  As he approached closer and closer, it became very clear he was not going to give me a broadside shot opportunity, and I began desperately searching for a way to get the arrow through his vitals.  Finally as he started to pass almost straight under my position, I focused on a small spot where the neck meets the shoulder, and I felt the string slip from my finger tab.

THUMP!  I could see the arrow embedded in front of the bulls’ shoulder, buried to mid-fletching.  I watched the bull clear the creek, and head directly to the semi-open South face across from the stand.  I gave a loud cow call…and he stopped and looked back at me for maybe 10 seconds.  Then, he slowly started to sidehill up the South ridge, until he disappeared behind an aspen tree.  He never emerged…and there was silence!  My bull was down, I was sure of it!

My bull was just behind the aspen tree on the ridge, he had not emerged

I started to tremble with excitement.  I could not believe I had been given another opportunity, from the same tree stand!  Given the circumstances 5 days earlier, I gave the bull a full hour before attempting to take up the blood trail.

Following the blood trail did not require the skills of an Indian Scout!  The 125 grain Anarchy Broadhead had pulled the arrow clear through the animal, cutting the aorta and great vessels above the heart!

The entry wound on the upper forward aspect of the left shoulder

the Anarchy Broadhead exited under the opposite "armpit"

 

Less than 100 yds from where I shot him, I rounded a corner through the brush, to see my bull in his final resting place!

my first view of the bull in his final resting place

I immediately dropped to my knees, and gave a prayer of thanks!  Then, I contacted my Family using my Delorme Inreach to tell them the good news (God and Family first)!

I then took a few pictures, and started a short video citing the merits of using panty hose for game bags ( a trick I had come up with many years ago).

I finally returned to camp after a long night, with my elk safely quartered  and hung down in the shade by the creek.  My hunt was finally over, and I would be bringing home some fine table fare for my Family!

Epilogue

Getting this animal two miles back up to my base camp required one long night, and two days worth of work…five loads in all.  One round trip with a back ham took around 3 hours and 45 minutes. But, I would do it again in a heartbeat!

I always manage to keep my camera in my pocket…so here are a few images I managed to take during that time:

use "baby steps" when packing out meat...you'll get there someday!

A male goshawk I encountered while packing meat out

stopped these juvenile delinquents for photo-op (got my bark back)!

on my 4th trip out, this cow offered me a perfect 30 yard broadside shot!

The aspen gold was just starting, but there were some "overachievers"!

some of Mother Nature's artwork is truly amazing!

About halfway up the mountain with the last heavy load, the sky became overcast, and a light rain started to fall.  This was a very welcome blessing to a tired old man!

I felt physically beaten down, but Spiritually renewed!  As I hit the road for home, I said another prayer of thanks for the opportunity to experience the healing of the High Country again.