by Mike Horridge
A Blackpowder Journal, Bonus Article
White on black was all we could see. The mountain snowstorm was white against the dark impenetrable forest that surrounded us. The bull elk we were tracking was in that snow blanketed forest and he knew where he was going, we didn't. In Colorado, the area is called black timber, a name well deserved because of its lack of sunshine and the tumble of aspen trees lying jumbled through decades of collapse. Usually located on the north slope of steep mountains, it is amazing how a large animal weighing 1,000 or more pounds can weave its way into these areas while we slipped and stumbled in its tracks amidst the jumble of aspen trees that looked like a giant pick-up stick game. The huge elk was headed for the thickest part of this sub-zero jungle.
We started this journey last Spring in San Antonio, Texas, when I lunched with the Kennedy family (Gary, Larry and father Carl.) I had hunted mountain mule deer, seen elk on previous trips to the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico, but had never had an opportunity to go on a serious elk hunting trip until I met Gary Kennedy. Like many hunting friendships, our meeting was by chance, but developed quickly. Last year, I had decided to sub-lease my Texas whitetail deer lease and focus on a single hunt for mule deer or elk. Gary had called about the deer lease. Once I had explained my intent, he said, "Well, why don't you go with us? What you described is what we do every year in Colorado." Gary quickly described that their hunt was non-guided, and was on a combination of private and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in Colorado. Because of the time of year and area we hunted, our only quarry was mule deer bucks and bull elk.
The Kennedys had hunted in Colorado for seven years. During that time, they had acquired plenty of mountain experience. Carl Kennedy, the seasoned veteran and senior member of our party, was careful to explain the effects of hunting at elevations exceeding 10,000 feet. He also was clear about how important it was to get in shape before the hunt. Both brothers and father cautioned me about the freezing temperatures and weather we would have to endure. They were very frank about what it took to go after one of the largest animals in North America.
We were hunting at the Belodi Creek Ranch. A private ranch located near Rifle, Colorado. The topography in the area was not the roughest in Colorado, but presented a tough enough degree of difficulty to make the hunt a mental and physical challenge. The ranch is owned by Virginia and Larry Schmuesser, old friends of Carl's. Besides wonderful accommodations, you couldn't ask for nicer hosts, or a finer place to hunt.
The ranch is surrounded by many acres of public BLM property that allowed us access to some of the better public hunting areas if we chose to hunt outside the ranch. The main ranch road to the area we hunted was closed to the public, so we had 3,000 or more private acres to wander about. By west Texas standards, it wasn't a big place, but because it was so darn vertical, it seemed huge! It would have seemed a bit smaller if they could have pumped a little more oxygen up there!
Base camp was at a 6,200 foot elevation and each morning we would travel by our Kawasaki "Mule" or four-wheeler to the hunting at an 8,000 foot elevation. We were fortunate to have ample motorized equipment brought by my new hunting buddies. I'm not sure I could have handled five days of hunting on foot.
Once we arrived at our hunting area each day, we were on our own to get where we wanted to go, however, we typically hunted in pairs for safety reasons. We hunted the "second season" in Colorado, which usually runs from mid-October to early November. This later season reduces the chances of having the rut activities associated with either elk or mule deer. Elk will typically rut during late September and early October and the big mule deer start their rut in November. In short, what you see is what you get and you have to work at what you get to see.
Each of us had both mule deer buck and bull elk tags. One of the things I learned from the Kennedys and our hosts was that you have to hunt one or the other. At that time of the year, mule deer are typically found in lower elevations, and bull elk reside at nose bleed altitudes.
We had five days to hunt. I concentrated on hunting mule deer the first three days, and by the third day had rolled over a big bodied, four by four mule deer buck that would provide our family plenty of meat for the winter. My next project was to help the other hunters go after a bull elk we knew resided in a high pasture north of our base camp. We had one more day to hunt and this would be our last chance to take home a trophy elk.
This elk was old, wise, and very big. Gary thought his rack was either a six by six or six by seven and his spread was trophy size. His hoof print was the same size as a salad plate squished into the ground and penetrated six to eight inches each time he walked on the semi-frozen soil. We had seen him twice during our hunt just before sunset. The bull made sure he stayed at least 1,000 yards away and did not stop watching his back trail until it was dark. We had no chance of getting close to him.
Our strategy for our final hunt was simple. Gary would go high above the bull, I would track the middle ground, and Buford Hickson, a well-known hunter and outdoors man from San Antonio, would go deep into the canyon below us to intercept him if he came down the mountain. Each of us had our own nightmares to deal with to make our strategy work.
Gary was to climb from a hog-backed ridge high above the canyon, nearly 1,500 vertical feet to arrive above the bull. As the "old man" of this trio, my challenge was not nearly as tough. I was to quietly traverse along a single elevation around the girth of the mountain to place myself inside the black timber where the bull had been residing in earlier days. Buford had as tough a task as Gary except he had to go down a similar distance into the frigid depths of the canyon, slipping and sliding all the way on the ice, mud, and snow. We all were to be in place before the bull finished feeding in the various pastures and started back to his early morning bedding area higher up the mountain. All this was to take place in the pitch black darkness of a moonless, overcast night while trying to walk quietly on crusted snow and slick ice. No problemo!
We were all equipped with our biggest caliber rifles. Gary and Buford had their 7 mm Weatherby magnums and I carried my trusty Remington 30-06. Our rifles were loaded with nothing less than 150 to 180 grain bullets. Mine had been custom loaded by a friend from Lubbock with the hottest loads you could find and each of us had lots of time at the shooting range before the trip. If any of us got a shot, the big boy was going down. The morning seemed to begin just after we went to bed. We wanted to be in place at our locations long before the bull had finished his nightly dining. We knew that we would have a tough time getting near this solitary bull because of the rough terrain and the raw conditions dealt to us. The days before this last morning were a series of fluctuating weather patterns. Many times we enjoyed the quiet splendor of drifting snow in the morning, which quickly became either boot-clinging mud, or crusted snow as the temperature rose. We were faced with noisy conditions, and no moon or stars to guide us. The darkness swallowed our headlights as we left camp.
We started our stalk about 5:00 AM which gave us about an hour to get into position before the rising sun would give us the necessary light to see clearly. None of us used flashlights. We were concerned that the bull or his cows would see the reflection off the snow and ice and move away from us. We had no wind to deal with, but still used our wind indicator bottles loaded with scentless powder just to make sure our scent didn't warn the bull. As I traversed the mountain I would occasionally get a whiff of damp elk. I knew I was headed in the right direction and could get a shot at the big fellow if the plan worked. I also kept watching for bears and other carnivores after several "incidents" during the last few days.
Fortunately our close encounters with several large meat-eating critters were without repercussions, but still made us very cautious when proceeding in dark and hostile areas. Just after unloading on our first day, Larry and me decided to go to a scenic overlook which would help me to become familiar with the layout of the property. The road to this view was slippery and nearly straight up from base camp so we used our "mule" to drive there. Unfortunately, we did not realize that our "mule" was not in four-wheeled drive so our transportation came to an abrupt halt on the side of the road only half way up the mountain. Not to be deterred from our objective, we started walking. On the walk up, we heard a large animal bust out of the brush. We figured it was a mule deer or elk, but never saw anything. We had no firearms with us. After much huffing and puffing, we arrived at the first ridge and decided that we were plenty high for a look-around. We spent a little less than 30 minutes pointing and comparing the topographic map to what were seeing, then started back down.
Like most of the days that followed, the ground was very slick, so we stepped over into some snow to get better traction. We had gone no farther than 50 to 60 yards, when I looked down at my tracks going up the mountain. There was a huge black bear track on top of my bootprints and the bear's track was still bubbling from his weight on the mud! We moved down the mountain in rapid fashion. Two nights later, one of the hired hands that help with the ranch was assigned "trash can duty" and came by our site late that night. Much to his amazement, as he reached into the 55 gallon barrel to fish out our trash bags, a full grown mountain lion emerged from the barrel and jumped over him. After that episode, none of us went outside without some kind of firearm handy.
All of this played back in each of our heads as we slowly walked through dark oblique tangles of brush where elk, bear or puma could lurk. The little light that was provided by cloud-filtered stars and moon was magnified by the snow on the ground. This made it easier to see where we were going and what lay ahead.
By 7 AM we knew we had an excellent plan, but were too late. Apparently, the bull had escaped our net earlier that morning. His tell-tale tracks indicated he had come up from the canyon, crossed over the perimeter I was walking on, and crested the mountain nearly an hour before we arrived.
We had agreed to meet back at the vehicle at noon. I got back first and heard Buford sucking wind as he climbed the steep slope from the canyon. He confirmed my findings that the elk had left much earlier that morning. Gary walked up about 15 minutes later and asked, "Well, did you guys see him?" Buford and I answered, "Not until now," while pointing up the mountain from where Gary had just come. There he was, in all his imperial majesty, standing in the middle of an open pasture just below the crest of the mountain. He looked like a huge brown rock with massive horns. We watched him for nearly five minutes as he scrutinized our every move. Finally, Gary was the first to speak. "Just think how big he is going to be next year!"
All who have hunted more than a few seasons know that some of the best hunts do not end with blood on the ground. This hunt was one of those. We were all satisfied that we had tried our best to bring that elk home to Texas, and had been beaten fair and square. I also know one other thing. I'll be back next year.