Elk Down Low

The elk lay dead along the highway, the victim of an auto collision. Skid marks and a large bloodstain confirmed the obvious. When I saw the dead animal, I was amazed. I'd seen elk struck by vehicles before, but never here. To my knowledge, no elk inhabited the lowland cedar forest next to the highway where this animal had been killed.

Curious, I returned to the area a week later and spent the day hiking in the arid region. My first effort was to check out a water hole that a rancher told me about.

It was tucked into a small grove of cedars on a sidehill, and I found it by following a well-worn path beat down by generations of livestock. I couldn't believe it when I saw fresh elk tracks. At first I thought they had to have been made by livestock, but I knew better.

I hunted that area many times afterward; it was my own elk-hunting haven, even though it was public land. Eventually a few other people learned about it, but the majority continued to hunt the traditional mountain country at higher elevations.

That was 30 years ago. From that initial discovery, I soon found outstanding elk hunting in lowland areas that were practically ignored by other hunters. I'll never forget a hunt in Utah that taught me a profound lesson. It was the last day of elk season, and my son Dan implored me to go elk hunting. He was too young to hunt, but he wanted to tag along. I'd given up on the season, because I had been hunting public land that had been hammered by every hunter in town. Even seeing a track was a big deal.

We hunted for a while, and at noon we headed for the truck. While we ate lunch, I saw some pals who were headed to town. They said they'd found a water hole with fresh elk tracks around it, but they didn't have time to investigate. I was skeptical; the water hole was at the base of the mountain, far from where elk normally live.

But Dan and I headed for the water hole and, sure enough, we saw fresh elk tracks. Within 15 minutes I ran into an elk on a nearby ridge no more than 200 yards from the road. I wasn't able to identify it because it was under a piñon tree, but the elk finally gave a mighty leap. In two bounds it was in the forest. Although I couldn't get a shot at it, I was suprised that the big bull was in the area.

On another occasion, a wildlife officer I knew well told me about an aerial survey he had done to identify hunting pressure and hunter distribution on opening day of elk season. He was amazed to see a huge herd of elk running out of the high country. From the airplane, he watched the herd run into the desert, where no one would bother to hunt. Obviously, elk are not exclusively imprinted on mountain country, but will go wherever they feel secure, provided there's adequate forage, cover and water. In the desert, they'll find shelter in patches of brush.

Some of the best elk country in Colorado is in the northwestern corner. There are no snow-capped peaks or rolling fir and aspen forests that stretch for miles as they do elsewhere in the state. Instead, much of the region is lowland piñon and juniper, and in places buckbrush and scrub oak. It's paradise for elk, though it looks nothing like typical elk country.

A Nontraditional Hunt

Last year, I hunted elk in this region with outfitter Westin Clark, who owns Higher Ground Outfitters (719-510-0784). I had hunted this area 15 years before and took a good elk by myself on public land so I was looking forward to seeing this country again.

The bad news about the area is the need to draw a tag in a lottery. These prized units have a fair amount of public land, huge bulls and exceptionally high hunter success rates. It takes several years of applying to build up enough points to draw.

The good news is that landowner tags are available through outfitters. These need not be drawn; you can book directly with the outfitter and he'll take care of the tag requirement. That's where Westin came in. I booked my hunt for mid-October, which was the first rifle-elk season of the year.

Westin operates out of a comfortable ranch house within a half-hour's drive of most of the hunt areas. After we sighted in our rifles, we feasted on perfect prime rib and reviewed the morning's game plan. We'd split up into parties of two, each with a guide. My partner would be Kyle Baber of Denver; Wes would be our guide.

It was still plenty dark on opening morning when we parked the pickup and slipped through the cottonwoods and willows in a river bottom. Though it was mid-October, which is typically late for rutting activity, we heard bulls bugling in the distance. As we'd learned when Wes explained the strategy, we were on the perimeter of our hunt unit. A small river was the boundary, and any elk on the other side were in a unit where the season had already closed. There, they'd be safe. The trick was to catch the elk before they crossed the river from our side to the other. We had somewhat of an advantage because several fields were on our side, and elk typically fed in them all night long.

By the time shooting light had arrived, we had moved about a half mile. A few small herds had already crossed the river, but around the bend we heard several bugling bulls. The wind changed to our disadvantage and we had to figure a new approach. The lack of cover made it tough. By the time we got close to the elk, they were across the river. I saw at least 60 animals, including a half dozen bulls. A couple were dandy six-pointers.

The action was pretty much over for the morning. Since the elk were in the closed unit, all we could do was watch and listen. It was a tantalizing sight, watching the animals slowly work their way up into the hills where they'd bed in junipers for the day.

The late-afternoon plan was to ambush elk coming across the river; however, that didn't work out the way we hoped, either. Though several animals crossed the river to the fields, we didn't see any good bulls. A modest five-pointer walked within 15 yards of me, but I held out for his daddy. When shooting light faded, we eased toward the truck, trying not to spook any animals. We wanted them in the fields in the morning, undisturbed.

And that's exactly the way it turned out. Again the three of us worked toward several bugling bulls as the darkness and foliage hid our approach. It was one of those hunts when everything goes right. The wind was perfect and no fewer than 75 elk were cavorting in a patch of aspens on our side of the river. We found a stand near a big fallen cottonwood log and waited. Already I saw several bulls crossing the river far upstream, but there were still at least three elk bugling in the trees. I had the first shot, so I settled in while Wes and Kyle watched.

Finally I saw motion in the trees. A cow and a calf broke out, chased by a six-point bull. The bull, still rut-crazy, was trying to drive the pair back into the trees. Other cows filtered out, and soon the bull was worked into a frenzy.

I placed the crosshairs on the crease just behind his shoulder and gently squeezed the trigger. At the bullet's impact, the bull collapsed in a heap without even a twitch. It was one of the most decisive hits I've ever seen. I was shooting Remington's new .300 short-action, a caliber that had impressed me on several recent bear and moose hunts. The rifle was a commemorative Model 700 built especially for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The bull was a mature six-pointer, fat and healthy. I was delighted to know that my winter's supply of elk venison was assured. I was also happy to hear Wes announce that we'd be able to drive his pickup close to the bull. That's always a joyous (though too rare) event when elk hunting.

But the best came the next morning, when it was Kyle's turn. We had put the elk to sleep the afternoon after I killed my bull and again couldn't get close to one on our side of the river. But it was a different story the next day, even if it initially seemed that our luck had run out.

The elk crossed the river early, and by the time the sun climbed high in the sky, we figured it wasn't looking good. It appeared that our side of the river was devoid of animals, so it was especially frustrating to hear bulls bugling in the other unit. At one point we heard a bull on our side, but he had waded the river by the time we got close enough for a look.

We sat down on the river shore and planned the rest of the day. Other hunters in our party had been into elk in other areas, so we decided to head out. The sun beat down hard and it was warming quickly. The bulls had quit bugling. All was silent.

A Lovesick Bull

We were about to leave when we heard the shrill scream of a bull. He was a long way off, perhaps a half mile away and on the wrong side of the river, but I had a crazy hunch.

"Give him a shot with your cow call," I suggested to Wes.

The bull quickly answered. It seemed to me the animal wasn't fooling around. I hoped his testosterone level was up to his ears, and that he'd waltz over for a date with his prospective new girlfriend.

The next time the bull bugled he was decidedly closer. "I'm not believing this," I said to Wes. "That crazy bull is headed our way."

The bull kept coming, defying conventional elk-hunting wisdom with every step. It was at least 70 degrees, a time when elk should be lying in sweet shade chewing their cuds, and it was mid-October, well after the typical rut period. Yet this bull was closing the distance. He had to be in the open sagebrush, but we couldn't see him because of the thick growth along the river.

Suddenly we heard the bull crashing through the dense brush. At that point I believed he was committed, but he wasn't legal yet. He needed to be in our unit.

"There's no shot until that bull wades across and steps up on our side of the river," Wes whispered to Kyle.

Then it happened. The bull pressed through the brush and stepped out onto the sandbar. Holy mackerel. He was big as life, a dandy six-pointer that would look good on anyone's wall.

Then he did a most deflating and frustrating thing. He dropped his head and started drinking. Wes looked at me quizzically, and I looked at him. We both wondered if this bull was just thirsty, returning to the river for his last drink before bedding.

I didn't think so. "Talk dirty to him," I whispered to Wes.

Wes chirped, and the bull jerked his head up, throwing water about. He stared intently and laid his head back, venting one of the most beautiful bugles I'd ever heard.

"Come on, you big pretty boy," I thought to myself. "Come see your lady." But the elk stayed put.

"One more time," I whispered to Wes. "He's gotta come."

And he did. As soon as Wes chirped, the lovely bull glared at us and stepped into the river, which was at best a foot deep. I heard the plip plop of his hooves as he waded. It was as tense as it gets. I don't think any of us were breathing. The collective beating of our hearts should have run the bull off.

Suddenly he was across. Again he bugled--a lusty, incredible, soul-searching bugle. He continued toward us, closing the distance to 20 yards.

"Now," Wes said, and Kyle's rifle cracked loudly. The bull gave two bounds and died in midstride.

What a performance! After we had gathered our senses and realized what had happened, we hugged each other like a bunch of happy children. Then Wes gave us some bad news.

"Shucks, fellers," he said. "I won't be able to get much closer than a hundred yards to this bull with my truck. We'll have to work some to get him out of here."

Bad news like that is always welcome. I reflected on dozens of bulls that had fallen three ridges or more away from my pickup. But that's the way it goes in the low country. Sometimes it just ain't quite perfect. But who's complaining?

Some of the best early-season elk hunting is where you'd least expect it--at the bottom of the mountains Much of this region is lowland piñon and juniper. It's paradise for elk, though it looks nothing like typical elk country.