The only time I’ve elk hunted with a rifle I killed a nice bull about 30 minutes after sunrise on opening morning. Concluding that rifle hunting was not very challenging, I decided on primitive weapons – muzzle loaders and bows.
For those of you not familiar with primitive weapon hunting, there is one thing you should know right away: a lot can go wrong. For me, the going wrong part just became the norm. Sometimes it was as simple as a wind shift spooking my quarry. Sometimes it was as serious as looking for my lost hunting buddy for a couple of days instead of hunting Weather, straying horses, missed opportunities or just the wear and tear of a guy in his 60s hunting above 10,000 ft. all resulted in an absence of elk meat in my freezer.
Elk season 2009 started off the same way. I had drawn a muzzle loader tag and picked a favorite camp site in the South San Juan Wilderness. On arriving at camp Dale, one of my hunting buddies had a broken bow string. My other friend, Glenn, also an archery hunter, and I hunted on muzzle loader opening Saturday without seeing much. We were also discouraged that other hunters were camped nearby. We began to consider riding out for a day or so, getting the bow repaired and returning to hunt later in the week.
Saturday night made that decision much more appealing. About midnight a violent storm blew in. We were camped at the edge of the tree line just off the west side of Conejos Peak. Since lightning seems to like the trees at the edges of the high open spaces, we got pounded with nearby lightning, gusts toppling trees, and a wet mix of rain, ice, and snow. By 3:00 a.m. our tent was about to be broken down by ice. We all 3 got up and worked to clear the ice from the tent for the rest of the night. By daylight there was a deep cover of ice on everything. The horses couldn’t graze. We were wet and cold. Every step made a loud crunch. It seemed like a really good day to start down the mountain and have Dale’s bow repaired.
On Monday Dale drove to town to get the bow repaired. The plan was to ride back up to camp on Wednesday in hopes that the other hunters would be gone. Since it seemed like a shame not to hunt on Tuesday, Glenn and I drove up the road a few miles. We hiked about a mile before daylight then split up. It was still wet, cold, and thundering.
As I neared some sparser areas in the tight cover I began to see fresh tracks. I stopped, caught my breath for a while, and glassed the area but didn’t see anything. Taking up a spot with a couple of trees for cover I used a squeeze cow call and followed immediately with a rather small short bugle. There was an immediate answer not very far ahead. Wind? Right! Sun? Right! Cover? Good! A few more calls back and forth obviously had adrenaline levels up on both me and the bull.
He came into view at about 50 yards looking for the location of his challenger. I raked a tree discretely and he headed nearly directly toward me, now at less than 40 yards. I cocked my old Thompson Center’s hammer but the first of the 2 clicks made the bull stop and look for the source of the noise.
I froze, knowing that the second click of the hammer could ruin the day. The solution – carefully cock the hammer with my thumb while holding the trigger down to avoid the click. Now, this wouldn’t normally be a problem but at 11,000 ft., cold, winded, and excited it wasn’t a good idea. BOOM!! The 370 grain bullet sent mud and sticks flying from the ground about 4 feet in front of me. The black smoke simply drifted to my right as the puzzled looking bull went left. It seemed like another empty freezer awaited me.
Something told me the bull was confused, so I quietly reloaded and just stayed still with a few curse words floating in my mind. I had just finished reloading when a cow and yearling came into view on my left not far from the point of the bull’s exit. She also was looking around as if trying to decide if there was an intruder or if it had just been more thunder. I gave her a few minutes to walk off a short distance. Just as she went out of view I hit the squeeze call again. The cow didn’t stop but off to my left the bull gave a horrific roaring bugle and began working a tree over. I matched him with tree raking and my smallest bugle. This time he got really angry. He came charging around a few fallen trees which had fallen with large roots sticking up. A few steps put him broadside in an opening at 35 yards. This time the old 50 caliber was already cocked. Raise, Aim. Fire. The nice 5×5 took about 10 steps and collapsed.
I know from previous years that second chances with a primitive weapon are rare. Sometimes we just get lucky. Or maybe that bull just need removal from the gene pool.