Most of the hunting stories on this website end with a successful stalk and punched tag. But in the world of the elk hunter, that’s just not very realistic. For example, the average success rate in Colorado (the state with the highest population of elk) was a gloomy 17 percent for the 2012 archery season. So in hopes of bringing us a little closer to reality on the mountain, here’s a true elk hunting story.

In September 2012 I flew out to Colorado to meet my cousin Shawn, who had recently moved to Denver. Shawn and I had grown up deer hunting together, but that season we planned to hunt elk for the first time in the steep mountains outside of Vail with bows and over-the-counter tags. Even though I knew the success rates of our unit, I felt almost certain that we’d at least kill a cow. We hunted hard for five days, heard two bugles, saw one bull, coaxed one calf within bow range, and we killed no elk.

I came home with some photos, blisters and good memories. I thought I knew what it was like to suffer failure in elk country. Then, last week, Shawn called to tell me about his most recent elk hunting season and I realized that I had been let down easy.

Shawn hunted solo almost every weekend of the archery season, driving two hours from Denver to a trailhead where he spent nights sleeping in his truck. He found some elk and then lost them. He blew a pair of stalks and missed a cow at 45 yards, when his arrow deflected off a willow branch.

The last morning of his archery season, Shawn woke up to six inches of fresh snow. He slowly hiked down the trail hoping to cut fresh tracks. He did cut tracks, but they belonged to a mountain lion. A few hours later he reached the end of the trail and sat down to glass. Finally, magically, a whole herd of elk appeared in an opening on a ridge a little more than a mile away. Among the herd was a big bull.

He circled wide to put the wind in his favor and made his way toward the elk. When he reached the opening, he found only tracks heading up the ridge. He cautiously followed the tracks higher and higher until he spotted a calf bedded above him only about 100 yards away. With no cover to hide his approach, he waited and watched until the calf and a few other elk continued up the ridge above the treeline. They were at somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 feet of elevation.

He tracked the herd higher until he ran out of the cover of the treeline. Being a novice caller, he was worried about blowing his last chance of the season and was determined to stalk the elk down. He figured the herd had reached the crest of the ridge but he couldn’t see them from his vantage point. He spotted one little knoll that would cover his approach and give him a good view of the ridge top.

He crouched low and then finally crawled the last of the 100 snowy yards to the knoll. He slowly poked his head over a boulder to spot the big bull staring at him from only 40 yards away. The bull bugled and Shawn ducked behind the boulder to nock an arrow. He started to draw his bow but hadn’t noticed that ice and snow had jammed into his release during the stalk, not allowing it to fully close. As he got halfway through his draw cycle, the release cut loose the arrow which smashed against a nearby rock and sent the whole herd running down the mountain.

After futilely trying to call the elk back, he sat in the snow and considered heaving his bow off the top of the ridge. He thought better of it and started the long walk back to his truck as night fell.

Shawn’s story might be heartbreaking, but elk hunters know it’s by no means unique. They also won’t be surprised to hear that he’s already making plans for next year’s hunt. I think I better get started too.