August 28, 2023
I had to come to terms with my football career ending. Everyone says your playing days end sooner than you expect. My college career took place over six years and 43 starts. There were times I thought it might last forever. I was voted first team All-RMAC Conference and first team All-Colorado as a linebacker, and Western Colorado won a conference championship for the first time in 24 years and went to the NCAA playoffs. After the season, I got myself in front of NFL scouts at a PRO-Day, and while I never got the call, I can’t imagine a better way to close a very important chapter in my life. I was proud of the way my football career ended, but the truth is bowhunting had stolen my heart long before I ever held a football.
Football and elk season don’t get along, so every year I saved up preference points for Colorado’s draw. By the end of my football career, I had enough to draw a premier unit in the state. My dad, Danny, and I had discussed draw strategy, and we ultimately selected a unit in the central part of the state based on firsthand accounts from friends and the bull-cow ratio.
September finally arrived, and I couldn’t hold out any longer, so I hit the road a day early. My dad and cameraman Nick Prete would join me the following day, so I had a free day to make a gameplan.
I headed up to my glassing point overlooking an area that had been heavily mitigated for fire prevention and was also very accessible. Right before dark, I noticed a few elk spill into a meadow a mile or two below me. That group turned into a herd of 50-plus cows. Suddenly, a bull I judged to be in the 330-range ran into the meadow after the cows.
I watched the big bull and his subordinates until dusk. The herd bull was pushing his cows around and had zero tolerance for any other bulls, which made me wonder if the rut had started early.
I was shaking with excitement, because I had been deprived of elk hunting for so long. Coming off the mountain that night, I started formulating grand schemes for the days to come.
Dad and I planned to spike out, and after setting up camp and collecting water, we put in some miles getting to know the area. Our objectives were to identify where the elk were watering, and to locate any hot wallows, popular bedding areas, and any other useful information we could collect.
It was hot, and the elk weren’t talking much. The bulls would bugle early but would shut down by 7 a.m. After that, the wilderness was quiet until right before the last light of day started to fade, at which point the bulls would start bugling.
We laid eyes on a few bulls that had cows, but most had satellite bulls intermingling with the harem. That told us there was no way the cows were in heat. My observations from above the night before were not holding up.
In the early morning, while the bulls were still bugling, we worked in tight in an attempt to figure out our best plan of attack. After listening to multiple bulls below us, Dad and I eventually chose one we thought might want to play the game with us.
The wind was ideal, so we started down the ridge, moving slow and silent, trying to pinpoint his exact location. The last time he bugled, I was certain he’d crested the ridge and was feeding on the other side. I moved faster, using the spine of the ridge for cover.
The plan was to get set up in the bull’s “bubble” and make a few cow calls. Suddenly, I saw tines in an opening, 50 yards away. The bull and I locked eyes, and it was over — he never looked back, but I remember the length of his tines.
We took one afternoon off to replenish food and batteries. I ended up on the mountain, glassing our hunt area, and got to lay eyes on my first “rut fest.” Several herds of cows were being pushed by bulls from every direction. Once all the elk were on top of the ridge, the bulls started going wild — running around the cows and separating them from each other. Fights were breaking out, and bulls were chasing bulls. This party lasted for an hour, before the victors took the cows they’d won and drifted back into the timber. Talk about a bad day to be stuck at base camp!
The plan for the next morning, my dad’s 50th birthday, was to hike back to spike camp and stay as long as needed.
As I sat listening for elk in the predawn darkness, I took off my Kifaru backpack and thought about Dad’s special day. I don’t have many hunting stories that he doesn’t play a key role in. He set the precedent for what my life should look like. Problem is, Dad’s birthday is an awful day for elk hunting. He has never killed a bull on his birthday, and it’s typically a miserable day for him. I was praying for a good birthday, but we spent that entire day without even hearing a twig break. Dad’s birthday might be a curse, but I sure was glad to spend it with him doing what we both love.
The next morning, I opened my eyes just as the sun was peeking over the horizon. Late! We all flew out of our bags and geared up, afraid we’d miss all the morning activity. Luckily, a bull sounded off near camp, so we tore off after him.
Besides our tardiness, everything was going right for us: The wind was perfect, and it seemed like the elk were moving toward us as we were closing the gap. I found a good spot to make a set, and as soon as we called, a bull hammered back at us!
Just as my blood pressure was starting to spike, a muley doe showed up at 20 yards, caught my wind, and bounded away. Seeing the doe’s reaction, the elk promptly followed her lead. Talk about a demoralizing moment!
I was three-quarters of the way through my hunt, in a limited-entry unit with as many elk as there are people, and I had yet to draw on a bull. I was starting to fear that I might not get an opportunity. But it was the fourth quarter, and I had to keep going and be prepared — just in case.
The morning of September 10 felt special. The temperature had dropped, and as we drank our coffee in the dark, the elk were sounding off in the distance. As dawn emerged, there was a light mist and thick cloud cover that would keep things cool. I grabbed my trusty Hoyt and had just selected one of the distant bugles when a bull erupted just above our camp.
The front end of this bull’s bugle sounded like the low notes of a howling wolf — ending with a guttural grunt. As other bulls would bugle, this bull would cut them off. The odd bugle and his aggressive nature convinced us it was another hunter. His bugles were terrible!
Dad and I started heading toward a more distant bugle, when the “guy” above us bugled again. I grabbed Dad. I had changed my mind, because the last note of this bugle was so guttural and deep, I knew no human could replicate it.
Our calling sets were not working on this bull. He’d hear our pleading, bugle back at us, and then continue on his way. I knew exactly where this bull was heading — a patch of timber commonly used as a bedding area.
This bull was not going to be convinced by calling alone, so we doubled our pace while trying to lay eyes on him. Finally, I caught movement, and it was the bull passing through a meadow across the drainage. I was fixated on the length and mass of the bull’s fourth “royal” points. If I got an opportunity, I was going to take it.
The bull walked by us,100 yards away, on his way to his bed.
We needed to get his attention quickly, so Dad raised his tube and let out a few excited cow calls. This got the bull to look back toward us and rip a bugle. While we had the bull’s eyes, Dad used his Stalker Elk Butt decoy to slowly backpedal up the ridge behind us, getting the bull’s full attention. The goal was to show the bull that he had missed some cows that were now leaving him.
That was all this bull needed. He turned 180 degrees and headed straight at us!
As I set up, Dad eased up on the calling and started making elk-walking sounds with a stick. After 15 minutes, the bull still hadn’t shown up. Being patient is tough in tense moments like this, but with my lesson in patience still fresh in my mind, we gave the bull a little more time. Sure enough, the bull screamed a bellowing bugle, letting us know he was right on top of us.
As the wet, muddy bull made his way into the opening, my heart started pounding out of my chest. This was the moment I had been waiting on for 10 years. The bull had pinpointed Dad’s calling and was walking toward him. As he passed behind a lone tree, I drew back my RX-5 Ultra and settled my 20-yard pin just behind his shoulder.
The shot broke, and I heard my arrow impact as the bull spun. Not knowing what had happened, the bull trotted 60 yards and then looked back. I could tell he was hit hard. Using my Stalker Decoy for cover, I nocked another arrow, took a few steps to my side to clear obstructions, drew back, and let another arrow fly. I hit him again, and he disappeared.
I had made two great shots on a bull I’d dreamed about for a long time. As Dad made his way down to me, we heard a loud crash not too far off. Surely, that was my bull.
After a brief discussion, I then threw on my Skopt Blood Vision glasses and started trailing the bull. The weird thing is, not only am I color-blind, so is my dad and cameraman Nick! Thanks to said blood-trailing glasses and a well-placed arrow, it didn’t take us long to locate my bull.
Throughout my football career, I was constantly reminded that there would be plenty of time for hunting after I was done playing ball. As I looked over the beautiful bull laying before me, I knew those words of wisdom were in fact true, and that I was now off to another great start!
Author’s Notes: My equipment on this hunt included a 70-lb. Hoyt RX-5 Ultra, Spot-Hogg Fast Eddie sight, arrows fletched with Tac vanes and wraps and tipped with Muzzy Trocar broadheads, Stan Solex release, Browning apparel in Ovix camo, Kenetrek boots, Kifaru’s Hoodlum pack, Garmin Rino GPS, and Ultimate Predator’s Stalker Elk Decoys.
I’d like to give special thanks to my dad, who I’ve been following through the woods my whole life. Without him, I wouldn’t be doing any of this.