The dark timber made it difficult to see them, but the rattle of antler against antler unmistakably drew me closer to the sparring bulls. Straining my eyes against the dimness and creeping ever closer the bulls materialized as if coming out of a fog. A hundred yards, maybe a bit more, and they weren’t paying any attention but to each other. I was confident with a shot from my Matthews bow at sixty yards. I would have to get closer.
Jay, my hunting buddy, and official caller on this hunt, signaled that he would stay at the edge of the timber while he encouraged me to edge in closer. If I couldn’t close within bow range he would try to call one or both of the bulls toward him.
I haven’t taken an elk with my bow yet, although this was my fifth or sixth hunt. I had come close a number of times. I had missed a nice 5X5, stared down a couple of cows, and been within bow range of a number of nice bulls, without the benefit of a shot. I wanted a bull elk… badly! I am getting older and don’t know how many more years I will be able to chase these majestic animals into the mountains. I was hoping that might be the year I claim my prize.
We were hunting public National Forest land in mid Colorado, a place where Jay and I had hunted on three other occasions. It was the third week of the bow season and the week of muzzle loader season as well. It had been a warm week and the bulls had not been very talkative. This morning was different.
The morning broke clear and cold. The temperature had dropped below freezing overnight and we climbed the mountain in the predawn darkness to the music of bugling bulls. We worked our way up about a half mile from a valley meadow to an old timber cut. We were staked out at opposite edges of the cut, where we had spotted and called elk to on other occasions. The elk liked to feed in the valley below, and would work their way back up the mountain in the early morning light. A mountain road crossed unseen below us and between our position and the meadow below
We listened for more than a half hour to a bull that kept calling below us in the timber at the far edge of the meadow as dawn slowly broke. We kept expecting him to work his way up the ridge, but our alluring cow calls were not moving him. Just as we had about decided to go to the bull we heard a truck pulling in between us and the meadow below. We couldn’t see the vehicle, but we did hear the vehicle doors close as the hunter, or hunters, got out of the truck. We stopped calling, hoping that the bull would shut up for a while, but he didn’t. Jay and I conferred and were sure that the other hunters below us would be making a bee line to the screaming bull.
Disappointed, we just stood there waiting to see the other hunters crossing the meadow below on their way to the bull. But about 15 minutes later, a couple of orange vested smoke pollers came up through the cut. They spotted us and came over to chat. One of the men was a local, and commented almost immediately about the bull below. “That’s another hunter”, he said, “Ain’t no bulls talking that much right now”. We chatted for a couple of minutes and they moved off to the east and headed higher up the mountain. .Jay and I just looked at each other with a dumb founded look that said “we can’t be that lucky”, and as soon as the muzzleloaders’ were out of site, all but ran toward the bull before he quit screaming and snuck away.
We boogied down the mountain, staying within the tree line and skirted the edge of the meadow. We knew this meadow well, my son Talon, a couple of years ago had come face to face with a nice 5X5 here. As we reached a smaller overgrown meadow within the timber the bull bugled again, and then… we heard the rattle of horn against horn.
We quickly moved toward the sound of the sparring bulls, every watchful for cows that might give our approach away. As we entered the deeper timber beyond the overgrown meadow, we slowed our approach and moved only when we could hear the sparring. At a hundred yards or so, we spotted the bulls. It was still too dark to see what their head gear looked like, but these were mature bulls!
Keeping timber between me and the bulls, I crept ever closer as they continued to jostle each other. This was not a full blown fight for cows, just a little pushing and shoving, but it was music to my ears. We were near the edge of the Forest land, and I knew the bulls would be very close to if not on private ranch land, but I wanted one of these bulls. I continued my stalk, pausing whenever the bulls paused, and trying to keep cover between me and them.
As I drew within fifty yards I ranged the bulls and got my first real look at them. Both were six by six bulls! I was certainly within bow range at this point but I didn’t have a clear shot and wasn’t sure where they were in relationship to the private ranch. The wind was perfect but I needed to close a bit more for an open shot. I put more cover between us and eased my way closer, five yards, ten, fifteen. I leaned around some brush to range them again and my Bushnell read 31 yard… but they were on the other side of the fence – on private ranch property! Oh, were my hunting ethics challenged at that point! They were totally ignorant of my presence. I pulled my bow up and actually came to full draw. The one on the left was mine! But forcing my instinct to shoot down, I let up and I turned to look toward Jay to signal him to start calling, hoping to bring the bulls across the fence. As I scanned the space between where the bulls were and Jay was, looking for an opening to shoot through, is when I saw the spike! And he had obviously spotted me as well! He was at full alert and starring right at me. As our eyes met, he barked and the timber exploded with elk running in every direction but toward Forest land.
I was a quivering mass of adrenalin filled jello when Jay caught up to me. But I was elated to have gotten within 30 yards of two sparring bulls. No kill, not even a shot, but hey, I guess that is why they call it hunting, not killing.
It wasn’t easy to choose not to shoot, but I knew it was the right choice.
I wouldn’t give up that experience for any anything in the world.