Eastern Colorado goes on forever. Somewhere up ahead are bugling bulls and golden aspens—the promised land. Back behind you, your normal life is still pulling at you: work emails, status updates, deadlines. But none of that really matters now.
Just tick off another mile and another minute until you make it to camp. Or so it felt as my buddy Andrew Howard and I trekked from St. Louis, Missouri, toward Taos, New Mexico, last October for our elk hunt.
We were rolling heavy with a new Can-Am Outlander and Defender strapped down on a double-axle trailer. Somewhere in Kansas a guy who could have been the bass player for ZZ Top, gave us a thumbs up, then rolled down his window and shouted out “Cool sh*t, man!” We were going to be hunting with Gavilan Creek Outfitters on a 10,000-acre cattle ranch tucked away at about 10,000 feet in the Sangre De Cristo Range. The quads would be our main mode of transportation, bringing us to different parts of the ranch where we’d hike up to the elk and hopefully call bulls into rifle range. Andrew Howard
You might find places to kill bigger bulls in New Mexico, but you won’t find better company than the outfitters and guides at Gavilan Creek. The outfit is run by Foster and Kathy Butt, a couple from Tennessee who fell in love with terrain and the bugling bulls 30 years ago and decided to make elk hunting their livelihood. Their head guide is Joe Pound (above, left), a 63-year-old veteran hunting guide, cowboy, leather crafter, and guitar plucker. On our first night in camp, Pound played us everything from Peter, Paul and Mary to Johnny Cash. I drank whiskey and sang along when I could. Then Pound ended on Amazing Grace and everyone called it a night. Andrew Howard
I spent the next day creeping through timber with my guide Gabe Baker, the son of the late Tom Baker. Tom was the director of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and spearheaded the elk reintroduction in the Bluegrass State. Gabe had recently graduated from college and gave up a steady job back home to spend the fall guiding for elk in New Mexico and Colorado. The kid has elk hunting running through his veins, and we got on a bugling bull just before sunset. But, night fell before the bull ever showed. Meanwhile, Howard was hunting with Kathy on the western side of the ranch. That evening they tucked into an aspen grove overlooking a wide, grassy valley. Just minutes before last light they heard a bugle through the timber. Instead of challenging the bull, they stayed quiet. Sure enough, the bull walked out into the open and Howard made a 100-yard broadside shot on his first elk. Alex Robinson
That night we gutted the bull and then hauled him out with the ATVs. “I’ve gutted probably 50 elk in this spot right here,” Pound says as we worked on the bull under headlamp beams. “I guess you can make that 51.” The next day the bull was quartered up and stashed in a freezer powered by a generator. Pound, Foster, and their crew can work through an elk in 20 or 30 minutes. They’ve had plenty of practice, after all: They’ve killed more than 500 bulls over the years, Foster says. Andrew Howard
With Howard tagged out, it was my turn to hunt with Kathy. She’s a 62-year-old grandmother who got into hunting three decades ago because she wanted to spend time with Foster in the fall. She fell in love with it, especially bowhunting for elk, and never looked back. Well before Eva Shockey or Tiffany Lakosky, Kathy was calling in bulls, killing them at close range, and writing about it for national magazines. Despite her success, some hunters over the years have been apprehensive about having a woman as a guide, she tells me one afternoon as we hike back to the UTV. “I always make sure that everyone who books with us is comfortable hunting with a woman, because not all the guys are,” she says. But in this week’s camp, everyone wants to hunt with Kathy, because she’s on the elk. Every morning we stalk the timber—Kathy’s favorite way to hunt—and every morning we have encounters with screaming bulls. I catch sideways looks from some of the other hunters in camp who aren’t seeing elk when I tell them about all of our close calls at lunch. It’s early October, about a month before the presidential election in which a lot of people are talking about what a powerful role model a female president could be for the nation’s young girls. I wish the nation’s young girls could spend a week in elk camp with Kathy. Andrew Howard
The Brazos River cuts along the edge of the ranch. Massive cliffs tower over the river and the dark timber around its banks. The river bottom is full of elk; however, it’s all but inaccessible. So we we stay in the high country, hoping to intercept new bulls as they migrate through the ranch. Unseasonably warm weather has the rut going in fits and starts. Bulls are willing to bugle, but they won’t come charging in to calls. It’s also the second week of the rifle season, so by now the elk know they are being hunted. Andrew Howard
Working the wind is the most critical part of elk hunting. Whitetail hunters understand this, but it’s even trickier in the mountains. As the sun comes up and the temperature rises, thermals push air up the mountain. In the evening, when the sun sets and the temp drops, the thermals blow down the mountain. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen at the flip of the switch. There’s plenty of time between with swirling, unpredictable wind. So, we’re constantly checking, repositioning, and backing out when the elements are working against us. Andrew Howard
On the fourth morning of the hunt we chase a screaming bull across the mountain. We’re following Kathy’s rule: Never leave a bugling bull. He finally stops across a meadow from us in some heavy timber. Howard and I set up on a big stump, getting ready for a shot. It’s about 200 yards to the other side of the meadow. Kathy backs up to start calling. She hits him with cow calls and spike bugles. Then more aggressive bull bugles and thrashing brush. The bull only responds once, and never shows himself. Andrew Howard
That afternoon we decide to set up in the same meadow where Howard killed his bull. We tuck into the aspen grove and wait for long shadows to work across the valley. With an hour of light left, two cows show up on the left edge of the meadow. They take a look around and then bury their heads in the grass. About 20 minutes later another cow comes trotting out of the timber, only 80 yards to our right. I hear branches snapping behind her and then see a brown body moving through the aspens. “It’s a bull,” Kathy whispers. A nice 5×5 bull steps into the meadow without ever looking our direction. He sees the cows on the other side, gives one faint bugle, and heads their direction. At 80 yards he stops broadside and two quick shots drop him not 20 yards from where Howard’s bull fell. I’ve hunted hard for four days and am happy with the bull. But it’s even more than those four days. I’ve hunted elk for at least one full week each season, for the last five seasons, without ever killing one. Most of those trips were physically demanding hunts on public land, where any day we saw elk was a good day. So as I wrap my hands around the bull’s ivory-tipped rack, I’m trying to soak in every second, knowing I’ll need to recall this moment on some elk hunt in the future when the bulls are high above the timberline on a distant ridge. Andrew Howard
With a winch and some help from the other guides, we load the whole bull into the back of the Can-Am. Back at camp we quarter him and hang the giant hunks of meat from the shed roof. Tomorrow we’ll have tenderloins for lunch and then make the long drive back to the Midwest. We’ll replay the hunt over and over through all those miles in eastern Colorado. Andrew Howard