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The System

The System

Do-it-yourself, public-land elk hunting can still pay off big -- if you have a plan for cashing in.

A few years ago, you could head off into about any public lands in any of the major elk states and find quality hunting. Elk were plentiful, bowhunters scarce.

You can still find plenty of low-cost, public-land elk hunting, but it won't necessarily be high quality. Growing numbers of hunters, land development, wolves, deteriorating habitat, and other influences have eroded quality on some public lands. To ensure yourself a good return on your time and money today, you have to play the system.

With the exception of New Mexico and Idaho, all the major elk states have bonus or preference point systems, either statewide or for select, quality units. For Colorado, my friend Kevin Kennedy and I had accumulated 11 preference points each, which guaranteed us of drawing tags in any of several quality units. We had played the system, and in 2009 we cashed in by drawing tags for a quality unit south of Gunnison, Colorado.


On September 2, Kevin drove from his home near Tacoma, Washington, to my home in Idaho, from where we drove my truck to Grand Junction, Colorado; picked up cameraman Steve Jones, who would videotape the hunt for Bowhunter TV; and continued on to our hunting area in the San Juan Mountains.

Never having been here before, we spent most of September 4 driving the area and looking for a central camping location. About half the unit lay in designated wilderness, where we could not legally videotape, so that alone narrowed the search by 50 percent. In addition, in the months preceding the hunt I had called many hunters, talked with DOW biologists, and studied the area on various Internet and mapping resources.

Kevin admires the handiwork of an angry bull.

Using this background, we systematically checked all likely campsites and finally settled on a location from where we could drive a short distance or walk to numerous elk hotspots. Camp lay at 10,685 feet, and we would be hunting up from there. Altitude could affect our success.

Timing could too. Most bowhunters prefer to hunt elk in late September, when rut activity and bugling reach their peak. However, because of my schedule, we had to hunt early, but that didn't worry me. In areas with light hunting pressure -- most limited-entry units -- I've found that elk usually start bugling well by September 1. They may not be going nuts as they would in late September, but as long as they'll respond to calling, you can locate them and call them in.

And it appeared we'd hit things about right. On the morning of September 5, we drove my truck up a horrid Jeep trail and parked at a spot I'd labeled on a topo map as "potential." From there we'd walked less than a mile when we heard a bull bugle. We hid among some spruce trees, and I started calling. Within minutes a four-point bull appeared 40 yards away, and as I coaxed him with a few seductive cow calls he came within 20 yards. Kevin never raised his bow.

As the elk ran off, I prodded Kevin, "Why didn't you shoot him?"

Elevation always plays a role in Colorado elk hunting. Camp -- two tents and my truck camper -- lay at 10,685 feet. Even in early September, the bulls were bugling well, and calling played a big role in our success.

"After burning 11 preference points on this hunt?" Kevin responded. "On the first day? Not a chance."

Continuing on, we came to a deep draw, where we heard raucous bugling and saw more than 20 elk, including a nice 6x6. And on the hill above this herd we saw an even bigger 6x6, probably in the 330 P&Y class. Clearly we were not too early in the season; these elk were indeed going nuts.

However, we would never get to them before dark, so we backed off and returned well before daylight the next morning. As we stood listening at the rim of the draw, we heard€¦ Silence. Dead silence.

That's typical. Rarely do things remain the same from one evening to the next morning.

The elk disperse through the night, and by morning they have vanished. Where do they go?

To try to answer that question, we systematically began combing the rolling aspen hillsides, cow-calling and listening. An hour after sunrise, a bull grunted in response, but then he played cat and mouse with us all morning. A half-dozen times we thought he was coming in, but he just kept moving away, and, finally, as the morning thermals began shifting, we heard hooves pounding the ground -- going the other way.

Tired from the long pursuit, we stopped to have a snack and discuss events.

"What would you like to do this afternoon?" I asked Kevin.

"We know there are a lot more elk in these aspens," Kevin said. "I'd like to prowl around here and look for them. How about you?"

"I've been eyeing some of that timberline stuff," I said. In the San Juans and other high ranges of Colorado, most of the elk feed on open tundra ridgetops at night and then bed right at timberline during the day. That very morning we had glassed a couple of herds at the tops of distant peaks as they fed down toward their timbered daytime beds. "Maybe Steve and I'll explore some of that high country, and we'll meet you back at the truck at dark."

As Kevin eased off through the aspens, Steve and I hiked up the point of a ridge that would bring us out above timberline at 12,000 feet. As we climbed, we were thankful to be in good shape. We both run marathons and ultra trail runs, which might seem like pure ego-driven insanity. However, for elk hunting in Colorado, long-distance running has practical value. The extreme elevations, combined with long, steep climbs will beat up anybody without a good fitness base. Yes, Steve and I puffed a little going up that mountain, but we reached the top in good time, and with gas left in our tanks.

And t

he effort proved worthwhile. Late in the afternoon we spotted three herds of elk emerging from the timber, and we could hear at least three bulls bugling in an alpine basin. Unable to reach them before dark, we marked their locations on the map for future reference.

Then, hunting our way back toward the truck, we found tremendous elk sign at the heads of several creek drainages -- rub trees, big wallows, and the heaviest elk trails I've ever seen. Elk central! What a great place for a treestand or ground blind. I saved it as a waypoint on my GPS and marked it on my map.

This 6x6 gave me no time to create a perfect blind, so I dived in front of a root ball and cow-called to bring him within 30 yards. Cameraman Steve Jones marks the high point of our climb for the day at 12,300 feet. We were thankful to be in good shape.

By now it was getting dark, so we dug out our flashlights, and as we hustled through the black timber, we could hear several bulls bugling above us, obviously already out on the tundra for the night. Two hours after dark we finally hit the Jeep trail and walked down to the truck, where Kevin was waiting for us.

To further expand our knowledge of the unit, on September 7 we hunted a logged area with closed roads. Parking at a locked gate, we walked a couple of miles down a road to some grassy old clearcuts. On the way down we saw a couple of cow elk, and as we continued on down a creek drainage off the road, we heard a bull bugling below us.

Hoping to get a chance at him before dark, we hurried down the mountain, but when we got close and tried to call him in, he went silent. Whether he quit bugling or we just could not hear him from there, we could not tell.

At dark, we started hiking back up to the truck. Predictably, we'd gone only a short distance when we again heard the bull. Was he bugling -- or taunting?

On September 8, Kevin opted to go back to look for that taunting clearcut bull, but I had my eye on the top of a mesa west of camp. Several people had mentioned it as good elk country, and the map showed no road access to the top -- my kind of place!

An hour before daylight, Kevin dropped Steve and me off at the bottom of the mesa and then drove on to the road-closure area. As Steve and I fumbled our way straight up the north face of the mesa, we were thankful for a full moon that gave us some perspective in the unfamiliar terrain.

We hit the top right at sunrise, and all morning we called our way around the east end of the mesa where scattered timberline trees bordered a vast alpine, willow park. We didn't hear any bugling, but we remained optimistic as we continued to find abundant fresh elk sign.

After stopping for a bite of lunch at noon, we hiked to the top of the mesa -- just because -- where we each placed a rock on a cairn marking the highest point at 12,300 feet. We then continued on two miles to the west, where the mesa plummets straight down several thousand feet. Glassing down into the chasms below, we spotted several cows and calves on a timbered bench, and then we heard a bugle. We had to investigate.

Walking along the rim of the mesa, we finally found a way down through the cliffs, but just then a huge thunderstorm hit. Looking for shelter, we ran across an open bench to a strip of trees, where we huddled under a space blanket. When the storm passed an hour later, we emerged to a freshly washed world that promised a good evening of elk hunting.

We could neither see nor hear the elk we'd seen earlier, so we continued along the timberline, bugling and cow-calling as we went, and after another mile we heard a bugle in the distance below us. Immediately we headed down that way, but in the convoluted terrain, we could not pinpoint the bull's location. Another game of cat and mouse€¦

Suddenly, the bull responded immediately to my cow call, and this time we had no doubt where he was -- very close!

With no time to pick the perfect blind, we dived into the root well of a blown-over spruce tree. It offered no cover in front, but at least the root ball behind us eliminated our silhouettes.

Thinking the bull would approach through some trees to my left, I ranged that area and settled on my knees to shoot that way. But when I emitted a soft cow call, the mud-caked, angry 6x6 bull walked into view, 50 yards away, below us and to my right.

That put him in an open meadow, which would give me a clear shot and make for good video. But would I even be able to draw my bow?

Bugling again, he continued to walk straight at us. No shot. No chance to draw my bow.

At 30 yards, he spotted Steve and me, stopped, stared a few seconds, and started to turn away. Struggling to draw my bow at that awkward angle, I cow-called twice. The elk paused broadside, and as he peered our way, probably wondering how a root ball could sound like a cow elk, I finally got the bow to full draw, took aim, and released. The arrow hit perfectly, and the bull ran out of sight over a knoll. Seconds later, we heard a crash.

By the time we'd finished taking pictures and video and opening up the bull to cool, it was 9 p.m. and pitch dark. Again, we were thankful for the full moon, which helped us navigate the five miles back to camp. We were thankful for our conditioning that helped us complete a three-hour forced march at midnight after 20 hours straight on our feet that day -- and that helped us pack the meat down to the road the next day. Above all, we were thankful for the system that had made it all possible.

Author's Notes: Kevin did not kill an elk. He hunted a couple of more days and then had to return home to work.

I used a Hoyt TurboHawk bow set at 50 lbs. draw weight, Carbon Express Aramid KV 250 shafts, Rocky Mountain Ironhead broadheads, Knight & Hale mouth diaphragm calls and grunt tube, and Nikon EDG 8x32 binoculars.

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