A sterner man might start this story by saying he isn’t one for superstition; that he doesn’t believe in fortunes or called shots or anything but what he can see in front of him. Thing is, that man isn’t me. I firmly believe certain numbers are lucky, don the same gear whenever my professional sports team of choice plays and subscribe to a variety of otherwise kooky personality quirks. I am what I am.
So when, in early spring 2017, I was invited to hunt the upcoming first rifle elk season in Colorado, I called my shot. Some six months before I would lay eyes on an elk or even cross the border into the Centennial State, I knew the very day that I’d be pulling a knife from my pack to notch my tag. Had I more hubris, I might have gone ahead and made my mark then and there—such was my confidence. I was going to kill a bull—just the third in my career—on the fourth day of 2017’s first rifle season, Oct. 17.
And some six or so months later, I did, on the same day I somberly celebrated what would have been my mother’s 56th birthday.
Rocky Mountain Redemption
But let’s take a step back for a minute. See, I’ve got this thing with bull elk: I only shoot the small ones. Shot a raghorn? Bet I can “beat” it. In a somewhat infamous tale that was previously chronicled in these pages, I even managed to get spun around and shoot the wrong bull, killing a dainty 4x4, while his much larger brother or cousin or God knows what scurried across the meadow, counting his lucky stars.
That misadventure was actually the starting point for last fall’s hunt. In an act of what I presume was sheer pity, my buddy Shane invited me to return to Colorado—where I’d so gloriously swung and missed two years prior—to right my wrongs. Everything was coming together nicely. We went back to ground zero, just outside Aguilar, Colo., and joined the same folks—FullDraw Outfitters, which is owned and operated by the inimitable Fred Eichler—who had borne witness to my previous malady. The pressure was on, but we were optimistic. It was the first rifle season, Fred and his team knew where some bulls were hanging out, and they might still be bugling, in some cases. Things were coming together nicely for my “Rocky Mountain Redemption” story. I toyed with the idea of calling it “Rocky Mountain Revenge,” but that didn’t seem fair, as I was the damn fool who shot the wrong bull.
Though my former guide, a fine chap from Georgia named Ryan Solomon, was on hand, Fred didn’t dare team us. I’m assuming Ryan threatened to quit if he had to hunt with me again, which would have been entirely fair.
The Hunt Begins
No, instead, it seemed, I’d start the first few days of the hunt somewhat unguided. Fred’s dad, Fred Sr., took another hunter and me to a piece of property I’d briefly hunted during my previous stay. It was a nice looking piece of dirt, the kind of place you’d expect to find an elk. And, given this was the first rifle season and the weather was still a bit unseasonably warm, my mission was to watch that piece of dirt all day, and wait for a bull to come to water.
It was a sound strategy, through and through, especially given that piece of dirt was also a great spot to catch a black bear—which we also had tags for—moseying about. But the play we were running did involve quite a bit of patience—it’s not often you go to elk camp and expect to find yourself sitting in the same spot for more than 12 hours.
Another hunter, Jason, and I split time between the two meadows. They weren’t far from each other, and both had waterholes, which, in theory, should have attracted our prey, given the warm weather. In practice, that didn’t wind up being the case. Over three days, Jason and I laid eyes on just two elk between our respective meadows—and he saw both, on the second night. They never did give him a clean shot. I did see the promised black bears—gorgeous ones, too. Among them was a big chocolate color-phase bear. Problem was, she was accompanied by her cubs, including an absolutely striking blonde color-phase cub. They were fun to watch, for sure, but they were the extent of what I saw in the first three days. I was left with little more than a sunburn and the beginnings of worry: What if there was no redemption in store?
Though I’d come to Colorado so cocksure that I’d kill a bull on the 17th, I wouldn’t have argued if fate intervened and threw me a bone sooner. The pressure was starting to mount, and I was ready to try something else.
Fred obliged, but made it plain that he knew there was a big bull working that property, and that someone should probably stay there. Jason and I both declined, tired of resting on our laurels.
So, of course, the next day a passerby saw a 6x7 wallowing in the middle of the road, right there where we’d been sitting. Of course. I wasn’t too perturbed—I’d have probably found a way to shoot his smaller buddy, anyway.
A New Plan
By day four, it was time to improvise. Only two members of our six-man party had tagged out, and pressure was mounting throughout camp. We pulled out of the meadow where Jason and I had stood guard, and instead decided to run-and-gun a bit. For the morning bit, I was paired with Shane and a new guide, a fella named Kyle Westover. I’d not met Kyle on my previous sojourn to southeastern Colorado, but he was easy to like and very much knew what he was doing. We spent the morning posting up and calling at bulls from different locations along the property, receiving nary an answer. We did bump a few nice mule deer, though.
After lunch, Fred split Kyle and I from the main group, and had us hike the length of an old creek looking for bears. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure he had us do that so I’d shut the hell up about wanting to get out and hike a little bit. Don’t blame him; I can be an annoyance. And so hike the creek we did. Got on some sign, but little else. It was then that Kyle had to make a choice: Just what were we going to do for the evening? We had little to go on. That is, until a neighbor of Fred’s mentioned to us that he’d seen a lot of fresh tracks and droppings around a nearby food plot, which gave us something to go off, at least. We decided we’d sit over a second creek Kyle liked for a bit before trying the food plot in the last few hours of the day. Worth a shot.
It was around the time that we left the second creek, however, that this story really found its beginning. See, Kyle told me to go ahead and wait by our lookout point for a little while longer while he ducked back to the truck. I wasn’t sure if he needed some water or had just grown tired of me, but away he went. I hiked my way out awhile later, and he apologized for having to sneak away. See, thing was, it was his mom’s birthday, and he’d just remembered he needed to call her before it got too late.
That briefly stopped me in my tracks. Though certainly just an odd coincidence, the irony was not lost on me that my guide’s mother shared a birthday with my own mother. You’ll remember that I started this story by mentioning Oct. 17, 2017, would have been my mom’s 56th birthday—had she not lost her battle to cancer in early 2011. She’d never lived to see me kill an elk, or become a professional writer, or any of that, because fate had other designs for her. And it was in her memory—and my own superstition—by which I’d proclaimed I’d kill one on the 17th of October. I wasn’t sure what to make of this coincidental revelation regarding Kyle’s own mother.
It was still on my mind an hour or so later, as we were quietly crossing a fence line on the property, careful of the wires, when, after three and a half days of absolute quiet, a bull bugled—and it was close. We hastened our fence hopping and scrambled for the other side of the food plot, finding concealment in some high brush at the base of a tree. And we waited.
The bugling continued, on and off, for nearly an hour. It moved, too, sometimes coming from the north, other times more east or west. Kyle’s first instinct was that we’d gotten on a satellite bull that was looking for a friend, and so we broke out his Montana Decoy cow elk and set it in front of us.
To our surprise, elk started to appear—and far more than one. An entire herd began to trickle in at the far side of the food plot—cows, at first, then the occasional odd spike bull. After four days of swimming upstream, we’d finally found where the elk wanted to be. The problem was, we hadn’t seen a shooter bull yet, and the number of eyes on us was increasing with each passing second. So Kyle made a call—we were going to try to stealthily sneak behind his decoy until we could get a better look at the herd en masse, and hopefully get eyes on something that was legal to take. We made our move, and closed to within maybe 130 yards of a gang of elk that had gotten hung up at the edge of the food plot. Time was short, as a spike bull had seen our decoy and was bouncing on over to say hello—we were seconds from having our spot blown up completely.
The next few moments happened in a breath: Kyle spotted a 4x5, and I fell to one knee and brought up my rifle, settling my reticle over the bull’s vitals. I had to pause momentarily, waiting for a cow that stood just behind the bull to move, and then … bang.
With ears ringing thanks to a hearty muzzle brake, we both paused and took in the sight of dozens up elk suddenly up and moving. The herd was larger than we’d given it credit for—we just hadn’t been able to see them all from our vantage point. Cows, calves and bulls of all shapes and sizes were heading for the hills. In the chaos, we’d lost the one I’d lobbed lead at, but I was confident I’d drilled him. We paused for a good few minutes, letting our heartbeats slow down. Our search didn’t take long. Though we didn’t find any blood, we didn’t need to: My bull had trotted maybe 30 yards into the tree line before expiring, and was resting in the very first place we decided to look. In mere moments, four days of hard hunting had come to one epic climax.
As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, my third elk, my mom’s elk, is, once again, a smaller bull. Certainly not a coat hanger, and not one many guys might make the centerpiece of their den. But that’s where he’s going to rest, for as long as I have a place to call home. A hunt is far more than a trophy, and this is a bull that will always mean more to me than I can reasonably explain to the uninitiated. This is the bull I was meant to kill, the one that I’d called—to the very day—six months prior.
Sometimes, you just know. And sometimes, you get a little help.