This first-time elk bowhunter experienced a hunt that will be hard to equal.
I WAS SITTING AT my desk, editing a story, when my phone rang. It was my friend, former Major League Baseball pitcher Turk Wendell.
"Hey, Brian. What are you doing in September?" Turk asked.
"I've got nothing scheduled. Why?" I said.
"I'm going to be guiding elk hunters for a buddy of mine in Craig, Colorado. How'd you like to come out and tape a hunt for your TV show? I'll guide you," Turk replied.
"You're kidding! That would be great," I said.
This would be my first elk hunt, which was exciting enough, but I was equally thrilled with getting a chance to spend time in the woods with Turk. Our friendship had begun two years earlier when I had invited Turk, who was then with the Philadelphia Phillies, and some of his teammates to bowhunt with me in south-central Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the baseball season schedule prevented us from getting together that year. A change of teams the following year again kept us from hunting together. I kept my fingers crossed that things would work out this year.
Turk was guiding for his friend Clay Owens, operations manager of the 70,000-acre Cross Mountain Ranch, a property, according to Turk, loaded with elk. The ranch is divided into two sections -- Upper and Lower. The Upper Ranch, where I would be hunting, is part of Colorado's Ranching For Wildlife program, where hunters are guaranteed tags with no drawing and can use their weapon of choice.
My hunt would take place the week of September 21. I was happy to hear that Steve Jones would be my cameraman for Bowhunter Magazine TV, as he is a seasoned elk hunter. His experience, along with that of Clay and his guides, would be helpful for this first-timer.
Living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I qualify as a flatlander, and because of this, I would have to work hard to get in shape to survive the steep terrain and high altitudes of the Colorado mountains. So, for the next four months, I biked, hiked, and ran every day. By the time my hunt arrived, I had lost 15 pounds and was in the best shape I'd been in since my days of playing high school sports.
It was August when Turk called me with some bad news. His dad was very sick, and he wouldn't be able to guide me. That was disappointing, but I understood his situation and the importance of putting family above all else. Turk wished me good luck and said he would check in to see how my hunt was going.
ON SEPTEMBER 21, I flew from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Denver, where Steve and I met and boarded a plane to Hayden, Colorado. The view of the Rockies from the airplane was incredible; however, the near nonstop turbulence was something I could have done without.
When we arrived in Hayden, Clay and his guide Bret McMillen met us, loaded our gear into Clay's truck, and drove us to the ranch. On the way, Clay told us the bulls were really getting cranked up and he was confident we had arrived at the perfect time. Twenty minutes into the drive, it became clear that Clay and I share the same oddball sense of humor. This is going to be a good week, I thought.
Chef Joey Bowman and his assistant, Derrick, prepared outrageous meals. Would you believe prime rib and fresh crab? Rough!
Now, I'm not opposed to being spoiled a little bit, but when we pulled up to the Fish Creek Lodge and walked through the door to the smell of fresh-caught crab being prepared by the ranch owner's personal chef, Joey Bowman, even I thought that was a little over the top. "This is gonna be a rough hunt," I told Steve, as we unpacked our gear.
Joining us in camp were ASAT Camouflage owner Rob Smollack and his friends/coworkers Jeff Nicholls and Ryan Callaghan. I had met Rob before at the Archery Trade Association's annual trade show, and it was nice to see a familiar face in camp. Having hunted with Clay before, Rob assured me I was about to experience the mecca of elk hunting.
That night, after a feast of crab and various other dishes I can't pronounce -- or spell -- Clay gave everyone the lowdown on what to expect out of the hunt. With my belly full, and my excitement level at full throttle, I tried to get some sleep.
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The Fish Creek Lodge at Cross Mountain Ranch
is not your typical elk camp.
On the third day, eight inches of fresh snow blanketed the mountains. Beautiful? Yes. Fun to hike in? No! At least the snow helped Operations Manager Clay Owens and me find elk.
AFTER A SIT-DOWN BREAKFAST the next morning -- I can't remember the last time I actually sat down to eat breakfast before a hunt -- Steve, Clay, and I piled into Clay's truck long before sunup and headed down the road. Parking at a trailhead, we loaded our gear into a 4x4 utility vehicle and started up the mountain. Once we reached a point where we would be able to see and hear a long distance, we got out and waited for daylight.
Not long after sunup, we heard the first bull bugle. Then another, and another. To me, it sounded like we were surrounded by elk, and each one sounded huge. Clay and Steve knew better, and quickly they both agreed which one was the biggest and how we should approach him.
Of course, the bull we were going after was also the farthest away, and I quickly realized the effects of high altitude on a flatlander. My legs felt great, but my lungs did not, and we had scarcely covered 200 yards when Clay sensed I needed a break.
"How you holding up?" he asked.
"I'll be ok, just give me a second to catch my breath," I panted. I was lying, of course. What I really wanted to do was take five, but, hey, no pain, no gain, right?
We continued on toward the sound of the still-bugling bull, stopping every so often to give me a breather. When we got to where we thought the bull was hanging out, we heard him bugle down the mountain. You've got to be kidding me, I thought. All that climbing for nothing. At least our direction of travel to get to the bull will be downhill.
Long story short, we never did catch up to that bull, and finally Clay suggested we return to the lodge for lunch and a quick nap
before heading out that afternoon. Back at the lodge, we had a meager lunch of prime rib topped with more fresh crab. Rough.
That afternoon we went to a draw that led to a large alfalfa field where elk were feeding in the evenings. The plan was to wait for the elk to show and then to call in a bull.
Before long, the first bugle echoed from the dark timber and bounced off the hill we were sitting on. Soon I could see several elk moving in the aspens roughly 300 yards from us. Minutes later, elk were parading out into the grassy draw, moving toward the alfalfa. There were more than 60 elk, including 11 bulls, in this herd, and they were doing everything elk do during the rut. Most importantly, the whole herd was moving our way, and the wind was in our favor.
As I hid behind a large clump of sage, Steve was running the camera over my shoulder, and Clay stayed a few yards behind, cow calling and bugling. The elk were now 100 yards away and still coming. Suddenly, the closest group of cows, which had been trying to avoid a very amorous bull, got antsy. The wind was still good, and we were well hidden, so we weren't the cause for their concern. Then I heard it -- the barking of one of the ranch's many sheepdogs. Suddenly, the entire herd spun away and dashed across the draw and over the hill across from us. The sheepdog, which appeared quite proud at doing his job, stood guard over his flock in the bottom of the draw. Nuts! I thought.
Darkness soon fell on my first day, and after another gourmet meal, I fell asleep quickly.
ON THE SECOND DAY, we went to a different part of the ranch and were soon into bulls. By my count, there were three of them, all very close. The problem in this location was the dense oak brush. At one point, two bulls came within 30 yards of me, both of them practically screaming in my face, but I could catch only glimpses of antlers, legs, and rumps and never could find an opening big enough to slide an arrow through. After a tense 30 minutes, a nearby cow winded us and blew the whole deal.
The afternoon hunt proved slow, and the dropping temperatures and thickening clouds forecast a major weather change. Overnight, snow started falling, and by the time we left the lodge in the morning, at least eight inches of wet, slippery snow blanketed the mountains. Beautiful? Yes. Fun to climb in? No!
Continued -- click on page link below.
Cameraman Steve Jones, himself an experienced elk
hunter, encouraged me to take the shot on this bull.
I'm glad he did -- and that I listened.
Left to right, Ryan Callaghan, Rob Smollack, and Jeff Nicholls arrowed these fine bulls within 300 yards of each other, in less than two hours. Incredible!
SHORTLY AFTER FIRST LIGHT, the bulls were revved up, just as on the two previous days. Clay felt we needed to move quickly on two bulls bugling across a deep bowl from us. Steve agreed, and we were off. To keep the wind in our favor, we had to first hike above the bulls before we could close the distance. I don't know if it was the adrenaline or what, but breathing the thin air suddenly seemed less difficult.
Before long, we had approached within 100 yards of the bulls. Setting up next to a well-worn trail, Steve and I hunkered behind a big aspen, and Clay cow-called from 10 yards behind us. Soon I spotted legs moving toward us in the thick brush and readied my bow in anticipation that the legs might belong to a bull. I wasn't disappointed. They belonged to a young 4x5, and he was walking right to us, his antlers knocking snow off of overhanging limbs as they swayed back and forth.
"Should I shoot him?" I whispered to Steve.
"Heck yes. He's got multiple points. You've never killed an elk. And, he's right there in front of you," Steve hissed.
As the bull continued his approach, I came to full draw, hoping he would pass on by to give me a short, broadside shot. Instead, the bull caught my movement and stopped, facing me, at 12 yards. Please, turn, I thought as I continued to hold at full draw. Thirty seconds ticked by and my arms were starting to quiver. Please turn!
Sensing I couldn't hold much longer, Clay whispered, "Let down!"
When I did, the bull turned and trotted away. Quickly, Clay cow-called, and again I drew my bow. The curious bull couldn't help himself and stopped, quartering away. To this day I can't remember if I put my 20 or 30 yard pin on the bull's chest before releasing my arrow, but I must have picked the right one because the arrow hit the bull perfectly, burying up to the fletching.
Making his escape, the bull kicked up snow, sticks, and mud. Seconds later we heard him crash. I was so worked up over the experience I was hyperventilating and thought for sure I was going to throw up.
"Great shot," Steve and Clay said in unison as they slapped me on my back.
Picking up the blood trail in the snow was easy, and 60 yards later, I was standing over my first elk. He wasn't the biggest bull I had seen to that point by any stretch, but he was my first, I had made a good shot, and I was darned proud.
After field-dressing the bull, we dragged him downhill to a trail that Clay could access with the utility vehicle. Soon we had the bull loaded and were on our way back to the truck and then to the lodge to cape and quarter my first elk.
The next day, Lady Luck smiled on the ASAT boys in grand fashion. Rob and Jeff were hunting, and Ryan was taping their hunt for a future ASAT DVD. The area they were hunting was thick with elk, and at 7:55 a.m., Rob struck first, arrowing a nice 5x4. Jeff was next at bat, and at 8:05 he sent an NAP-tipped shaft through the chest of a dandy 6x6. After Jeff's bull crashed, he traded his bow for Ryan's camera, and at 9:25, Ryan completed an unbelievable triple play with a beautiful 6x5. Amazing!
We spent the rest of the week taping additional scenes for Bowhunter Magazine TV; watching elk, mule deer, and pronghorns; and, of course, filling our bellies with more of Chef Joey's fine cuisine. Rough.
Author's Notes: My equipment included a Mathews Switchback XT set at 70 pounds, Carbon Express Maxima Hunter 350 arrows, Rocky Mountain Ironhead 100 broadheads, Montana Black Gold FlashPoint sight, Trophy Taker Pronghorn rest, Carter Insatiable 3 release aid, Nikon Monarch ATB 8x42 binoculars, Nikon Laser800 rangefinder, Eberlestock pack, and clothing in Realtree Hardwoods Green HD and Advantage MAX-1 HD cam
According to Steve Jones and Rob Smollack, I will probably never experience elk hunting like that again -- short of returning to Cross Mountain Ranch. For more information, or to book a hunt, contact: Clay Owens, Cross Mountain Ranch, 1280 Industrial Way, Craig, CO 81625; (970) 824-2803; www.crossmountainranch.com.