Killing his first elk was no big deal. After all, it only took him 40 years.
Nearly 40 years ago, I killed my first animal with a bow. Since then, I've been fortunate to take a number of species, including antelope, black bear, caribou, mule deer, mountain lion, and whitetail deer. Still, elk had eluded me, and I desperately wanted to kill an elk with my bow.
In nearly four decades, I'd hunted elk only one time, a do-it-yourself deal on which I spent most of my time looking for animals and avoiding other hunters on overcrowded public land. I saw few elk and didn't hear a single bugle or cow call in a week of hard hunting.
Even though I wanted to hunt elk again, conflicts always prevented it -- other hunts, work, family. So, at the young age of 60, I made a personal commitment to hunt elk again -- this time on private land with a reputable guide.
To get informed advice, I called my friend and Bowhunter Magazine founder M.R. James. One outfit M.R. highly recommended was Dennis and Michelle Schutz's Big Bones Unlimited out of Chromo, Colorado. M.R. said Dennis ran a topnotch operation and knew how to bowhunt elk. To seal my decision, I could buy an elk license over the counter for that area. After confirming dates with Dennis, I also signed up my good bowhunting buddies Mark Murman from Pennsylvania and John Fair from Ohio.
We pulled into the Big Bones camp early in the afternoon the day before our hunt. The place was postcard beautiful. My initial impression of Dennis, based on our phone conversations, was soon reinforced by his strong handshake and down-home hospitality.
After dinner that evening, everyone in camp stepped outside under star-filled skies and listened to elk bugles hailing from the surrounding moonlit mountains. Anticipation was high as we went to our bunks.
At dawn the next morning, Dennis and I heard a deep-throated bugle as we trekked up the mountain. As we continued our climb, the bull bugled again. Being cautious of the wind, we circled above the bugling elk.
Slowing to catch our breaths, we spotted elk moving through the timber. One appeared to be a good bull. We hurried farther up the mountain and set up on a small bench. I had a big Douglas fir at my back that would do well to break up my outline while Dennis knelt another 20 yards behind me next to a large stump. Immediately a bull responded to Dennis' cow mews, and then a bull appeared 75 yards out the ridge. Through binoculars I could see his antlers met the four point legal requirement, but he wasn't a shooter. I glanced back at Dennis and, as expected, he gave me the thumbs down sign. Smiling, I looked back and saw the bull closing the distance in search of the source of the lovesick cow calls. As the young 4x4 passed me at 12 yards, I could smell his musky odor.
Thinking a larger bull was nearby, Dennis repositioned and called again, and a few moments later I saw a mud-covered 6x6 moving quietly through the heavy timber. My rangefinder showed him to be right at 50 yards. I clipped my release on the string, hoping the big bull would come closer, but instead he turned broadside and raked a tree before cautiously stopping to stare in our direction. Then, even as Dennis continued calling, the bull moved off. We tried circling for another setup, but the shifting wind put an end to that plan.
Over the next few days we hunted hard, and although we worked elk daily, we couldn't close the deal. On the third afternoon we called an average 5x5 through a patch of aspen trees to within 40 yards, but the bull never presented a good shot. He eventually circled to get our wind, and that ended that.
Mark Murman was having better luck. He and his guide, Anthony Trujillo, had been into elk every day, and on the evening of the fourth day Mark made a great shot on a fine 5x5, and Mark's first-ever elk took a nosedive a short distance away. Tim Foster, a bowhunter from Connecticut, arrowed a good 5x5 bull as well.
Mark Murman made a great shot on this 5x5 on the fourth day of the hunt. It was his first elk ever.
John Fair was seeing elk like the rest of us, but hadn't loosed an arrow. Yet if he was disappointed, it wasn't obvious to us. John is an excellent photographer and couldn't put his camera down, capturing hundreds of breathtaking scenery and wildlife shots.
On the fourth morning, a long, growling bugle greeted Dennis and me as we stepped out of Dennis' truck before daylight. As we readied ourselves, we heard at least another dozen bulls tearing it up in all directions. Bugles, chuckles, and growls were hailing down from the surrounding mountains, and none sounded farther away than 500 yards. I was convinced we had entered elk heaven.
Under the cover of darkness, Dennis and I crept closer to the deep-throated bull we first heard and waited for shooting light before sending a few seductive cow calls in his direction. The bull absolutely jumped on Dennis' calls!
We talked back and forth with this bull but couldn't get him to budge, so we elected to try for a more cooperative one. Traveling only a short distance, we stopped to call, and this time not one but three bulls, all close together, bellowed long, raspy bugles.
"There's a meadow just up the mountain," Dennis whispered. "They're probably staged up there."
To confirm this, he made a couple of soft cow calls, hoping to pinpoint the bulls' location. Surprisingly, nothing answered.
Checking the wind, we slowly moved toward the meadow, when suddenly a loud, piercing bugle stopped us in our tracks. The bull was close. Very close!
We slipped ahead to a stand of small pines. Another bugle came from even closer than the last. My pulse was pounding as I leaped in front of a tree while Dennis dove behind a fallen log 10 yards behind me. I pulled on my facemask, clipped my release to the bowstring, and looked up to see a large bull coming directly at us.
The bull bugled and stopped abruptly to stare in our direction. What seemed like minutes passed before he nervously came 10 yards closer. Again he stopped and glared at me. I stood stone still as his piercing eyes looked right through me. My bow arm was now
extended, and the bow was getting heavier as seconds ticked away. I could not move without blowing the opportunity.
Suddenly the bull turned to leave. As I came to full draw and put my 30-yard pin behind his shoulder, Dennis softly cow-called, stopping the bull at a quartering-away angle just long enough for me to settle the pin and touch the release. The elk dashed away, but seconds later I heard brush breaking. Despite these promising sounds, I wasn't confident of my shot since I didn't see or hear the arrow hit. We waited a half hour before looking for sign, during which time I replayed the shot over and over in my mind. I was still nervous.
I need not have been, as my bull didn't make it 70 yards before piling up. The arrow had passed completely through both lungs before exiting, a perfect shot and a quick kill.
Dennis Schutz, left, helped me break a 40-year bowhunting drought on elk. I could not have asked for a better first elk.
The bull was more than I could have ever expected for my first elk, a symmetrical 6x6 with long beams and tines, good mass, a true trophy in every sense of the word. Dennis and I celebrated like a couple of schoolgirls.
M.R. said Dennis Schutz knows elk, and M.R. knows what he's talking about!
The author, a resident of Wheeling, West Virginia, has written several stories for Bowhunter Magazine.
Author's Notes: I used a Mathews LX bow set at 55 lbs. draw weight, Easton Axis arrows, 100-grain Muzzy broadheads, QAD Trophy Hunter rest, Spot-Hogg Hunter Hogg-It sight, and Scott Mongoose release. I wore lightweight Scent-Lok Savanna series outer clothing with Under Armour HeatGear underneath, and Cabela's Speed Hunter boots.
My elk had a gross antler measurement of 2953„8 inches and, after the mandatory 60-day drying period, a P&Y net score of 2847„8. To plan your own great elk hunt, contact: Dennis Schutz, Big Bones Unlimited, PO Box 963, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147; (970) 264-6974.