You can count on three things at this northwest Colorado hotspot -- good food, great service, and elk galore!
Cross Mountain Ranch is one of those elk hunting destinations you have to experience to truly appreciate this story. I learned about this Craig, Colorado, elk goldmine through my friend and former Major League Baseball pitcher Turk Wendell in 2006. Turk was guiding there that fall, and he was friends with then Operations Manager Clay Owens.
"I'm sure Clay would love to have you come out to tape an episode of your TV show," Turk said. "And I'd love to be your guide."
Cross Mountain Ranch comprises 60,000 acres divided into two sections. The 40,000-acre Upper Ranch, where I hunted in 2006 and again in 2007 and 2008, is enrolled in Colorado's Ranching for Wildlife program. This program, designed to better manage wildlife for quality and quantity, gives Cross Mountain and other participating ranches guaranteed either-sex licenses and allows them to set their own season dates. Cross Mountain designates two weeks in September, when the rut is in full force, for bowhunting only.
Turk was unable to make it there for my 2006 hunt, but I did manage to arrow my very first elk thanks to Clay's expert guiding (see "Rough Hunt," Whitetail Special 2007). My 2007 hunt was fantastic, but my poor shooting left me returning home to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, empty handed. I vowed to redeem myself if given the opportunity the following year.
My dad, Rick Fortenbaugh, had never killed an elk with his bow and hadn't even hunted for elk in over 10 years. At age 62, he was feeling a certain sense of urgency to chase elk again while he was still physically able. I didn't have to twist his arm too hard to get him to join me for my September 2008 hunt.
Cross Mountain's five-day elk hunts take place at elevations of 8,000-9,000 feet. Thus, getting in shape was top priority for Dad and me in the months prior to our hunt. We spent evenings and weekends hiking steep hills with loaded packs on our backs, followed by backyard practice sessions on a 3-D elk target.
Shooting a 3-D elk target is good practice, but nothing can prepare you for taking aim at the real thing, especially when a bull is standing closer than 40 yards, bugling in your face.
"If you are too worked up to make a good shot, then don't take the shot," I told my dad. "If our hunt is anything like what I experienced the past two years, you will have more than one opportunity."
On September 19, we flew from Harrisburg to Hayden, Colorado, with a layover in Minneapolis, where we met up with Bowhunter TV cameraman Bob Theim. Waiting for us at baggage claim in Hayden was the familiar face of guide Brian Gale.
Brian told us we would be staying at their Fish Creek Lodge -- one of two houses on the ranch -- and that the ranch owner's personal chef, Joey Bowman, would be cooking our meals. Joey is a professional chef, so his culinary skills need no explanation.
Due to a surplus of guides that week, each hunter had at least two guides at his disposal.
Dad and I were in the capable hands of Recreation Manager Marv Doherty and guide Bob Owens. The initial plan was for Dad and me to hunt together, but by the end of the second day it became apparent that getting five guys within bow range of elk wasn't working.
As much as I wanted to be with my dad when he arrowed his first elk, we all agreed that our best chance for success would be to split up. So on the morning of day three, Bob Theim and I went with Marv, and my dad went with Bob Owens.
Marv parked his Polaris Ranger at the trailhead and shut off the motor. The air was chilly as I uncased my bow in the predawn darkness. Before I could attach my quiver to my bow, a bull sounded off up the mountain from us. His call started a chain reaction of bugles across the mountainside. Marv looked at me and flashed a smile that exuded his confidence in our chances that morning.
As we started up the trail in the direction of the closest bull, we could tell by his bugles that he was moving away from us at a pretty good pace and that other bulls and cows were traveling with him.
"We've got the wind in our favor," Marv said. "But we are going to have to move fast to keep up with them. Follow my lead, and if you need to stop and catch your breath, don't be afraid to say so."
Moving quickly across the mountainside, we could hear another group of elk moving up the mountain on a collision course with our herd. When the two herds "ran" into each other, chaos ensued, and for the first time all morning, they seemed to be staying in the same place.
"Come on, let's keep moving in on them," Marv said.
As we crept within 100 yards of the herds, we could hear bulls screaming, cows mewing, and elk chasing everywhere. Marv instructed us on where to set up and then he moved behind us and began calling. As he called, bulls and cows responded from seemingly every direction. With so many elk calling all around us, I had a hard time focusing on one particular bull.
Suddenly, I caught the movement of an approaching bull to my right. I had no idea how big he was; I just knew I didn't have much time. Dense cover severely limited my shot options, but it didn't matter because the bull winded us just as I reached full draw.
The rest of the elk were too busy dealing with each other to notice the fleeing bull. Marv motioned for me to move up the hill where I would have a clearer shot. With me in position, Marv cow-called, and a bull immediately roared back from the timber above us.
The 5x5 bull was angling down the hill toward us when I first spotted him. I ranged an opening ahead of his line of travel at 37 yards. I was shaking so badly I couldn't attach my release by feel and had to look down to hook it onto the string loop. When I looked back up, the bull was 10 yards closer, licking his lips with every step. I raised my bow and ripped the string back to the corner of my mouth in one motion. Catching my movement, the bull stopped and stared at me.
My 20-yard pin hovered on the quartering-to bull's shoulder. He was getting more nervous by the second and started to turn away. I timed my release perfectly with his turn, and my arrow passed completely through his chest. The bull ran 20 yards uphill
and then stopped. His back legs splayed and seconds later he toppled over backwards. When his massive body hit the ground, tears of joy instantly streamed down my face.
Dad hunted hard the next two days with me by his side and Bob Theim looking over his shoulder to record the action, but he did not kill a bull. Oh, he came close several times, and he passed up a couple of cows despite my insistence that elk meat is elk meat. Still, he wanted a bull and held out to the very end. Besides, we know where we can always find good food, good service, and elk galore in the future.