by Shawn Skipper - Monday, August 1, 2016
Four long days had come and gone as we tried and failed to find a bull elk in the steep timber of southeastern Colorado. Vexed by unseasonably warm weather and bouts of rain, we’d walked, crawled and climbed miles of rugged terrain. We’d hidden from evening downpours under twiggy, barren branches in fleeting, fruitless attempts to wait out our prey—and we were rewarded only with waterlogged gear. But this morning would be different. A new herd had arrived on the property on Saturday night, and we were ready come Sunday’s early wake-up call.
It’d better be different, anyway, because this morning carried more weight than any other. It was my last.
So for an hour and a half we hiked uphill in the darkness, stumbling over brush we couldn’t see, walking into barbed wire fences that, at that moment, we probably would have argued had sprung up overnight. My eyeglasses, just a few months old, would certainly be leaving the Centennial State with scratches they didn’t have when I’d arrived, and my face would sport matching marks, thanks to branches I still haven’t seen.
But it didn’t matter. We reached our destination, a secluded ridge overlooking the meadow where the guides suspected the herd would bed down. And they’d been right.
As I put the crosshairs of my Leupold VX-6 on the first bull I’d seen in days and squeezed the trigger of the Ruger M77 Hawkeye I’d been lugging around all week, I felt vindication. Even more so when my target ran only a few yards before crumpling to the ground, down for the count, permanently.
But it’d be short lived. As I was preparing to celebrate, my guide, Ryan Solomon, frantically whispered something along the lines of, “It’s okay, you can still get him,” and urged me to finish chambering a second round.
I glanced at him with a look that was part confusion and part panic, and told him that the bull was down. I blinked, looked again and, yes, the bull I’d shot was still resting on his side, looking very dead in the meadow below.
“What? Where? No he’s not,” was Ryan’s reply.
That’s when I knew we had a problem.
My tale of woe began a few days earlier, when we’d joined guides from FullDraw Outfitters, an operation run by Fred Eichler—he of Sportsman Channel’s “Predator Nation” fame, among other things—and geared up to take a shot at the big bulls of southeastern Colorado. I was excited (perhaps too excited, I’d later find), for the last time I’d hunted elk in Colorado I hadn’t so much as seen one. The level of failure on that trip had inspired my companion in misadventure, a marketing coordinator for a well-known rifle company, to school me on a particularly important fact of life, in no uncertain terms: elk are a#sh*^@&.
Given what I’d seen on that previous trip, I didn’t disagree. And though I’d tagged an elk in Utah between my two sojourns to Colorado, I returned to the state with hopes of erasing a goose egg that still occasionally nagged at me.
And so “Colorado II: The Revenge” opened on what the weatherman promised would be a soggy Wednesday in October. For once, the meteorologists delivered—but no one in our party had battled TSA agents and cramped jetliner cabins to sit in a lodge and wait out a storm. The hunt was on.
Rain, Rain Go Away
When the lodge’s rooster—no, really, we had a rooster—crowed on that first morning, there were still four of us. We went our separate ways that morning, each hoping to, at the very least, get a decent lay of the land before the impending rainstorm reached our hunting grounds. I joined my guide, a local fellow named Justin Tamburelli, ready to enact my vengeance on the state’s elk herd. Justin made for an ideal partner—he had all the local knowledge you’d look for in a guide, and he was actually an inch or so taller than me (I’m 6-foot-4, for the record). When you’re hiking through elk country, it’s nice to be partnered with a guy that possesses a similar gait.
Though we didn’t see an elk that morning, we got in a good workout. Justin hiked me up and down the timber, showing me his favorite lookout spot and a meadow where he’d seen a shooter bull at last light just the evening before. Given that it was day one, we weren’t perturbed by the silence. And there was good news when we returned to camp for lunch: Fred himself had guided our host, Shane Meisel, to his first-ever bull that morning. We’d already filled 25 percent of our tags in just 10 percent of the hunt—cause for celebration, indeed. Plus, Shane was able to beat the rain, which settled in over lunch. Good on him. It wasn’t his bull that would mount the pressure, though. That was still to come.
Once we were fed, watered and rested, the remaining hunters in camp gradually began getting their gear together for the evening’s hunt, save one. Veteran elk-slayer and American Hunter Field Editor Ron Spomer wasn’t gearing up with the rest of us, and seemed rather blasé on the evening hunt as a whole. Between the rain, a sore back and the promise of a full four more days to hunt, he said, he wasn’t sure he’d be going out that night.
And so I gave him the speech. Me, a 28-year-old pup by our industry’s standards, harping on one of our most renowned writers about how he couldn’t take a night off. “Tonight, in weather like this, it’ll be when one of us kills the big one,” I contended. You can’t kill ’em from the lodge, after all. Okay, actually, where we were, you probably could. But that wasn’t the point.
Still, when Justin and I set out a half-hour later, I still wasn’t sure if Ron would be hunting. I knew that our fourth man, Randy, would be out there somewhere, braving the rain. Oh and rain, it did.
Maybe two hours into the evening’s adventure, Justin and I hadn’t seen a thing. We were plenty wet, though. Given the conditions, we decided to sit on the meadow he’d showed me that morning, the one he knew a bull had poked around in before. It kept us in the game, but allowed us to seek a little cover, too. Not long after we got set up there, we heard three rapid-fire rifle shots in the distance.
“Man, that almost sounded fast enough to be a semi-auto,” Justin said, as we wondered aloud if Randy had killed his bull. The shots had sounded close enough to be one of our companions. Given the conditions, though, the news would have to wait until we got back to camp.
As we mused over what we’d heard, another set of rifle shots rang out. This time, the reports came from a direction that we knew was a neighboring property. It sounded like the neighbors might be getting in on the action, too. Except the shots kept coming. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
“I’m going to get ready,” I said. “There’s no way you shoot five times and actually hit something.”
Sure enough, maybe five minutes later a shooter bull burst from the trees on the far side of the meadow, eyes wide as dinner plates. If he wasn’t the same elk that had been taking fire on the neighbor’s property, I thought, I’d eat my hat. Problem was, he was scared something silly, and didn’t so much as break stride when Justin tried to stop him with a cow bleat. I had no time to get the rifle up and on him from our vantage point. We tried to pivot and change positions as the bull cut up a trail nearby, but by then he’d made us, and he was gone. The entire incident lasted just seconds.
So we returned to camp that night, tiding ourselves over with the knowledge that, “Well, at least we saw one,” and already thinking ahead to the next morning. I don’t know that we were ready for what awaited us at the bunkhouse, though.
It wasn’t Randy that had killed an elk. It was Ron, and it was a monster. It measured out at 340.
I again contemplated eating my hat, but only because I felt queasy.
And Then There Were Two
Ron’s bull, mind you, had been taken at 40 yards. His evening hunt had left him out in the rain for less than an hour, because the big ol’ boy had come straight to the bugle call of Fred’s son, Seth. And, yes, it was Ron that ran his bolt so fast that Justin and I had wondered if someone was out there with an autoloader. After debating taking the evening off—you’ve got to be kidding me!
I’d say the pressure was on, but that’d be a lie. As Fred had told us as his boys strung up Ron’s elk, the big one was off the game board. Ron had slain it on night one. All Randy and I could hope to do was produce respectable substitutes.
Problem was, things got quiet after that first day—really, really quiet. No matter what part of the property we canvassed, neither of our two hunting parties could put eyes on a bull. There’d be an odd cow here or there, but no sign of the antler-toting behemoths we were hunting for. Justin and I hiked half the property, bumped up a trophy mule deer buck, found a few nice sheds from years gone by—but found no elk. The weather was unseasonably warm, we knew, and the food supply in even the deepest parts of the timber was still rich. If a bull didn’t want to be found, he wouldn’t be.
Things were starting to look grim. We’d reached Saturday evening, and we hadn’t so much as heard a distant bugle. We’d tried sitting over an expansive meadow that hadn’t been hunted yet that week. The sign was great, but the view didn’t quite live up to it. Aside from a mule deer doe that snuck out of the timber right behind us, eliciting a little excitement, action was hard to come by.
As the truck meandered its way back to camp on the elk-trodden dirt road, Shane, Justin and I had already started perfecting our “well, that’s elk hunting” clichés. With just one day left and little to go on, we were defeated. Randy and his guide, Ryan, had gotten desperate enough to change properties. They hadn’t seen a bull, either.
Then we got lucky.
No more than 50 yards in front of us, an entire herd of elk burst onto the road. They were traveling from our left to our right, which meant they were coming onto the property. The truck came to an abrupt stop as we watched in awe. And then, finally …
“There’s a big bull in there!”
I’m not sure who to attribute that to, because all three of us said it. There, indeed, right in the thick of things, was a shooter bull. And we saw more than a few other elk with antlers, too. We just didn’t quite get as good a look at them in the darkness.
Boys, we’re back in business.
The Hail Mary
Camp was electric that night. It was an energy that hadn’t been present since the first evening, when Ron had felled his beast. Word got back to Fred that we finally had elk again, and he came down to help the guides formulate a game plan. We were offered a bit of a curveball—Randy declared he would sit Sunday out, for personal reasons—but I was ready to rock.
The plan that was presented to me wound up being a rather simple one. Fred, Justin and Ryan were fairly confident that they knew where the herd would be come sunrise, given the direction they’d been heading when they crossed the property line. We’d just have to get there bright and early. With Randy on the bench, I’d be changing guides. Ryan and I would be rising early and taking a long hike, uphill through thick timber to get to a ridgeline that overlooked the meadow we were hoping the herd would be holed up in. Ron volunteered to tag along with his camera and film.
And so we three set out early the next morning, preempting even that noisy rooster’s morning call. We took the truck up to Fred’s house, and an ATV not all that much farther, before setting out on foot. As we slithered into the timber and began what would be a 90-minute hike through the forest, Ron—an aspiring astrologist, I suppose—let us know that we could see Venus in the dark, early-morning sky. Though seemingly trivial, at that point I was looking for any sign from the heavens that we were on the right path—both figuratively and literally. I wanted a bull. But I also couldn’t see a damn thing. The thick timber blotted out almost any natural light the sky provided, and all three of us routinely walked into unseen obstacles. Ryan assured that, between how far we had to go, and the wind, we didn’t have to worry about being overly quiet. Which is good, because when a guy’s my size and sporting a rifle on his shoulder, it’s not easy to lumber through pitch-black timber without making a little noise. Ryan later joked that, on that morning, he learned what getting chased by a grizzly bear probably sounded like.
As we finally drew close, Ryan bade us to be more careful in our approach. We’d reached the ridgeline. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but with each passing moment we could see a bit more of the meadow we’d come so very far to hunt.
Then there was a cow bleat. We’d found elk.
First, we spotted a smaller legal bull, off by his lonesome. But, after creeping a few yards more, we caught sight of the rest of the herd. They’d settled precisely where Fred had anticipated. There, in the early-morning light, we saw dozens of elk peppered throughout the meadow. As we watched that first bull mosey on over to the herd at large, we broke out our binos and glassed. It was time to find the one we wanted to shoot. Ron had his camera at the ready.
Here! Ryan was signaling for me to come to him—he was on the big one. I dropped everything but my rifle and shooting sticks and made for where he was standing. I sat down, put my rifle on the sticks I’d been hauling around for the better part of a week and found the bull in my scope.
“He’s about 230 yards,” Ryan said.
And then everything went wrong.
I shot the wrong bull.
I shot the wrong bull.
“Didn’t you see the bigger one right down there?” Ryan said, incredulous that his hunter had failed so spectacularly. I didn’t blame him.
And no, I hadn’t seen the bigger bull. At least not right away. In my excitement, I’d zeroed in on the first, smaller, bull that we’d seen when we reached the ridge. When Ryan, moments before, had signaled that he’d found the bull we wanted to shoot and sat me down, I screwed up. I brought the gun up, swung my scope to where he’d been pointing and found a bull. I hadn’t stopped to make sure we were on the same animal. Bull fever. I didn’t miss my target—I’d just aimed at the wrong one.
Even then, though, there were extenuating circumstances. Before I took the shot, Ryan and I were trading a whispered play-by-play call of what the elk in our respective sights was doing. They mirrored each other perfectly—at no point did either of us think we’d gotten our wires crossed. He even looked over my shoulder as I was down on the rifle, and left confident that I was lining up the proper shot. The two bulls were that close—had I shifted maybe and inch or two to my right, I’d have seen the bigger bull. A bit of miscommunication—and a cavalcade of errors, all on my part—cost me the chance at a trophy-caliber animal.
And trophy caliber, that second bull was. No, he wasn’t Ron’s 340, or even close to that. But it was certainly a larger bull than the one I’d just killed. I finally did see him, as he joined the cows and calves in getting out of Dodge.
“What do you mean, a bigger … oh.”
There were a few solid minutes, I’d say, on that ridge, where no words were spoken. There’s no playbook for how to react after something like that. So we settled on quiet disbelief. Finally, with hopes of breaking the tension, I borrowed a line from many a movie.
“It was a good shot though, right?”
That got a few guffaws out of the guys, at least. After all, I later reasoned, this wasn’t a Greek tragedy. I’d come to Colorado to kill a bull elk, and I’d done so. Had I made a mistake? Sure, but we’d killed a legal bull, and nothing (else) had gotten hurt, sans my pride—and believe me when I say that it takes beatings as often as Rocky Balboa. I’ll persevere.
For the record, I can’t begin to guess on the score of the bull that got away. Ron, who had been on the right animal, later shared the video with me. In the moment, he and Ryan were convinced it was a 6x6. After shame-watching the video a thousand-odd times, I’d say it was a 5x5. But it was a nice 5x5.
That doesn’t matter now, though. He lived to fight another day, perhaps another season. The last I saw of him in person, he was making his exit to the far side of the meadow I’d just blown up. Surrounded by the majority of the calves, cows and spikes that comprised his herd, he paused, looked back toward us, and bugled.
What an a#sh*^@&.
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