Monday, October 29, 2012

Preparing for a Southern California Hunt

From grammar school through college I was a doodler. On every sheet of paper or napkin you’d find some sort of doodle showing what I was thinking about that day. Nowadays, doodles can be found in the way of biologist phone numbers, road names, and illustrations of what I have seen in certain areas. Similar to that, when I plan for a Southern California hunt, I am constantly taking notes in many different forms. Planning for a hunt out here is very much like school – you have to do your homework to be successful. I get emails and blog questions asking me where to go and how to find animals to hunt, but that’s just the surface work.

The number one question I get asked is how do I find a place to hunt in Southern California? Homework and a positive attitude are two things you must do and have to hunt the areas here. You also have to have the courage to hike to new locations, glass and burn boot rubber. If driving is a factor in your decision, keep this in mind; most areas to hunt are anywhere from a half hour drive to a 3 hour drive – one way! There are many factors that I have to consider when planning for a hunt. I will share some of them here.

Maps and Boundaries
Maps can be a hunter’s best friend, so I scour maps all year; online and paper topographical maps. My hunt preparation, no matter where I am going always includes maps. I usually start reviewing area in Google Earth because it’s easy to mark locations, east to share with your hunting buddies, and it’s free. I like topographic maps because I can review the terrain and more importantly locate water sources. Whether it’s a map printed off the internet or a topo, I always have a map of the location I am going with places highlighted to check out.

Forums and Other Hunters
Online forums and other hunters are a great source of information. Around Southern California a couple that are good resources are and Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors. Most hunters like to brag a little when it comes to finding a good spot, or animal, to hunt. When I first started out hunting in SoCal this is exactly what I did. I gathered as much intel online that I could. I processed it, asked questions and verified that the areas where I wanted to scout were public land, legal to hunt and had a chance for finding animals. This is also a great way to meet other hunters who are looking for hunting partners or have land they are willing to allow you to hunt. Now don’t get your hopes up there, but it IS possible. With some browsing, phone calls and asking questions you CAN find private land to hunt that won’t cost you anything but a tank of gas to get there and back. It just takes perseverance and some work.

Cameras and Scouting
An often daunting task is to find the deer on public land. Trail cameras and scouting are the very best ways of finding a shooter deer. The logical thing is to combine the two. Bring a trail camera or two when you go scouting and if you plan to set up some trail cams bring out your optics and glass. One of the challenges here is that your cameras will mostly be going on public land. Putting your cameras on public land will give you some great information, but the cameras seem to be a big target for thieves. Use common sense and don’t put them in easy to find places. Take the time to hide it, lock it up and take it down when you have the information you need.

Check Over Your Gear
Often overlooked is the shape of your gear, namely your bow, arrows, release and any electronics. I can tell you that having your gear fail on you will make your heart sink. I have had the misfortune of having a release seize up due to the dry, sandy conditions of the high desert and I have had my trigger fall right of my release while hunting. Fortunately, I have a backup release with me at all times, but that isn’t always true with a bow. I don’t always take a backup bow with me, so it’s a priority to go over it carefully and make sure it’s lubed, string is waxed, screws are tightened, and everything is in place.

Packing In and Packing Out
Lists can be a downfall for some people, but I thrive on making lists and planning. I like to be sure I have everything I am going to need for a hunt and that I haven’t left anything behind. I have been on a few hunts out here now and don’t make a list every time I go, but I have a good idea of what I will need. A few nights before a planned hunt, I will lay everything out and make certain it’s in the right place. It could be in my pack or in a tote to go in the truck, but it’s there. If I have to purchase something at the store I will know it long before the day of the hunt. Don’t wait until the last minute and realize you forgot an important piece of the puzzle.

Setting a Safety Net
An important feature I have added to my hunts is a safety net. Not a safety net in the literal sense, but I a plan in case something goes wrong or if someone needs to find me. I start by making sure to give my wife has a map of the area I am hunting. On that map I mark up the roads or trail heads we’ll be parking at and where we plan on hunting. I give here the directions I am taking to get there. If I am going hunting with my hunting partners, I am sure to give her their names, cell phones and email addresses should she not hear from me. I also give her times I will be going in and coming out. One feature that I must add to my plan is the local hospitals and their phone numbers. Hopefully she’ll never need to call, but in case she does it’ll be readily available.

There are many different ways to plan a hunt in Southern California. Every person has a certain approach to the way they plan out a hunt and each time may be slightly different. Even mine gets adjusted from time to time. It all depends on the person and the hunt itself. No matter what, have fun in the preparation and planning. The anticipation that builds through the planning of a hunt can be almost as good as the hunt itself. Almost.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Hunting Whitetail Deer vs. Blacktail Deer

Over on the PSE Archery blog, the staffers are writing up some great entries on different types of bow hunting techniques, hunts, and challenges. Here are my latest posts from the blog, but please read my fellow bowhunters entries, too. There are some great ones!

Hunting Whitetail Deer vs. Blacktail Deer

Hunting for whitetail deer is awesome! I was surrounded by it growing up. Quite often I am asked how hunting in Southern California differs from hunting back in New York State. In all honesty, there are many similarities with a DIY whitetail hunt in New York and a DIY blacktail hunt in California. That being said, there are also dramatic differences to consider. They are both skittish cervids and are intelligent creatures. Factors like weather, huntable land and animal characteristics are much greater once you have had the chance to experience them in California. That being said, if you put your mind to it and use the same principals for a whitetail hunt, you can hunt Southern California blacktail.


Baptism in Southern California Hunting

When I moved to California in 2006 I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had no friends here. I knew nothing at all about the hunting here and I was afraid. I’ll be the first to admit that I was fearful because there was so much unknown to me. After asking around, I found a local archery club that met a mile from my apartment and thought I was saved. I showed up with my bow set up for hunting out of a treestand. Right away I was told to either get a bow that would allow me to shoot farther or plan on going back to NY to hunt each year. At first, I was more than discouraged, but it began to toughen me up. When I asked the hunters in the group where I might go to get started not a single one would help me. I can’t blame them as they had worked hard to find their own spots and now I had to do it. The archery range where I shoot beckons people from all over and I took it upon myself to approach archers and start asking those questions. I would walk up to them, introduce myself and share what I was trying to do. It wasn’t until I met a young man and his son that I felt I had my first nugget of information. He shared with me a spot to go try and while it would be tough to hunt, it would give me an idea of what hunting was like out here.


Choosing the Right Bow for You

Four years ago I purchased my first PSE compound bow. It was a 2006 PSE Vengeance. I spent time researching this used bow and found the details to be very enticing. When I met the seller at his house, we spent a great deal of time discussing the bow. Being a lifelong bowhunter himself, he asked that I shoot the bow in his driveway before I purchased it. The fit and feel was just right for me. The draw was smooth, the weight in my hands was perfect and it shot like a dream. The price couldn’t be beat. I made the purchase knowing I had found the right bow for me, but that wasn’t always the case.


 BowHunting,”It’s What I do”

If you ask anyone who knows me what my passion is I can guarantee their answer will be ‘bow hunting’. Quite honestly, they are right on. When it comes down to it my passion is do-it-yourself bow hunting, or DIY. I enjoy a challenge. I love the hard work that goes into a DIY hunt because the payoff is that much greater.

Take for example hunting deer in Southern California. Sure, there is plenty of public forest land to hunt. You just have to make the effort to get there. Then again, there are also many hunters who like to get out and enjoy the same forest lands I do. In order to steer clear of the other hunters I do my homework. My homework for a DIY hunt starts with...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Trail Cam Photos: The Good and Bad

Here are a few of the images I just pulled from my trailcam. Turns out there are some great bucks on there and one surprise that I wasn't expecting. Looking forward to going after one of the buck this season!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Colorado Archery Elk Hunt: The Pack Out

Four miles. One hundred pounds of sand loaded in my Badlands 2200. Three days a week for six months. Working out and training for my Colorado elk hunt. Hitting the gym and pounding out mile after mile on the StairClimber. Hitting the trails with the weighted pack and taking all of the abuse from my fellow hunters. 'Why are you training so hard?'  or 'That's insane!' Even after all of that I wouldn't even be close to in shape for packing out an elk, but I would be close.

Once my Colorado elk was quartered and hung up to cool, Eddy and I made the decision to pack out one hind quarter each. None of the prior three days of hunting had prepared me for the rigor my body would have to endure. We marked the meat location on my GPS, loaded up a hind quarter each and started hiking up the mountain. Three tenths of a mile to the top didn't seem like much on paper, but let me tell you it can be brutal. With all of the nasty terrain, deadfalls, thin air and eighty-five pounds of elk on my back I was doing battle with each step.

The first tenth of a mile was filled with us joking a bit, climbing some steep faces, and grinning ear to ear. Those grins quickly turned to looks of anguish as the load felt heavier and more cumbersome. Not to mention that I was falling behind my fearless leader who again made the hike look easy. This hike was FAR from easy and Eddy was good to keep looking back or checking on me. The first time we stopped, I sat on a log just to give my legs a break. I didn't sit long because I didn't want to get too comfortable. After a few short minutes we were back at the climb.

It took us an hour and a half to pack out the first load. By the time we reach the top of the mesa, we were beat and dropped our packs in relief. Eddy found a great leaning tree that would act as our meat shelf for the remainder of the day. We tied up our bagged quarters and then discussed the rest of the pack out.

The day before, Eddy's friend Nathan mentioned that if we got anything to give him a call because he wanted to try out a new pack horse. After chatting with him a few minutes I realized he wasn't kidding! Colorado has some of the nicest people ever! Keeping that in mind as we hung the meat, Eddy laid out a plan. He would head back and call Nathan, get him up there to pack out everything. My spirits lifted! Then Eddy left me the remainder of his water, which was almost another 96 oz. My water bladder was completely empty so this was a major plus. Eddy said he'd go get more water and bring it back. Instead of my bear spray, Eddy traded me for his sidearm. While I know I'd be better off with bear spray in the event of an attack, the wind was swirling and not wanting to catch spray in my own face (in the event of a bear encounter) I opted for the firearm. He also left me a venison steak from the night before so I'd get some protein in my system. Excellent! Or so I thought.

I watched Eddy head out on the trail. He still had nearly a mile to go before he got to his truck. I sat down to eat a Clif bar, the steak and drink some water. The thing was, I wasn't feeling hungry. I knew I had to eat so I ate the bar and tried two bites of the steak. I nearly vomited. I couldn't stomach it with all of the hiking and my adrenaline going. I sat for a few moments and finished off a 12 oz. bottle of water before heading back down the mountain.

Finding the kill site was a welcome challenge. Sure, I had marked it on the GPS, but utilizing a GPS isn't something I am used to. Down the steep trails I went, over trees, around mounds of bear scat, and down embankments. Once I arrived on the bench where I knew my elk was it took me a few minutes to locate it. It's a jungle on the side of a mountain in Colorado! Through an opening in the foliage I spotted my game bags hanging. As I peeked around I saw no evidence of bears chowing down, so I entered the zone. A few minutes later I had the loins, tenderloins, and a front shoulder on my pack. It was heavier than the first load! My knees ached under the weight, but in order for me to get it all out I needed to work smart. With the time I had, three trips would do it.

I was on trip number two and to be honest, it sucked! All things considered, I was doing great as I headed up the same course we took earlier. It was difficult to follow every footstep and at one point I decided to go right, instead of left, and that cost me precious time and energy. As I veered around a deadfall and up a cattle trail, there it was. Forty vertical feet of solid rock. A few choice words ran through my head, and to be honest, I probably blurted them out loud. I was not happy. I thought I was saving time by going up a smaller embankment, but it turned out to be just the opposite. I lost a half hour getting back on track and I headed up the grade just west of the rock wall. With the meat cache in sight, I hurried a little and made it right at the two hour mark. I had killed the bull at 7:00 AM and here it was 2:30 PM already. I still had one more load to go. Whew!!

One happy hunter with nearly all of the elk meat hanging on top of the mesa.

After tying off the bag to the meat pole, I sat down. I was absolutely drenched in sweat. It was dripping off my hat and my clothes were soaked through. A stiff breeze started to blow as I took a sip of water... gurgle...gurgle...burp. My water was completely gone and all of a sudden I started to shake. The chill of the breeze was seeping into my worn body, but I remained calm. Knowing I had to remain calm and thinking clearly, I weighed my options. My inner Boy Scout had told me to pack a weatherproof jacket that morning. I pulled it out, quickly got it on and sat down. 

Option 1: With my body cooling down quickly, I could go warm back up by going back down the mountain and packing out the remaining shoulder and head. If I planned it right, I could be down and back up just as Eddy got back.

Resulting Logic: No dice. For one, I was out of water and anyone will tell you that if you are sweating that much you need to replenish your H2O. I was not about to take that risk.

Option 2: Dry my clothes as best I could by airing them out. Eat a snack and then head down to the creek bottom and refill my water bladder. That would mean an extra half mile of hiking some very steep country. 

Resulting Logic: Again, No dice! No one knew I was out of water and what if I made it down to the water, but couldn't get back up? What was I to do then? 

Option 3: Sit tight, warm up my core, and wait for Eddy to return with the water. Simple solution and the most logical option.

I chose option three knowing Eddy would be back soon with water. I prayed and asked God to watch over me, keep me safe, and bring water soon. My short wait turned into a two and a half hour sit with my back against a tree. The hood of my jacket up, arms folded around me, and my backpack as a windbreaker, I rested and looked over my shoulder at every breaking branch. The wind picked up and it chilled me even more. I tucked in tight to my pack. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. The waiting was the worst part, but I kept thinking of my family and knowing that I could not, in good conscience, go back down that mountain without water. Plus, Eddy would be back soon and could help me pack out the last load.

At precisely 5:01 PM I heard a branch break and saw Eddy's form materialize through the dense brush. I jumped up in excitement when I saw the two horses following right behind him. My saviors!

Nathan and Doug didn't seem real to me at first. They both rode beautiful pack horses and were smiling as they neared my location. Eddy asked where the last load was and I explained the situation. I quickly realized Eddy was not wearing his backpack and would not be able to help me pack out the last load. I felt incredibly discouraged. We talked options. I asked Eddy if we could pack it out in the morning because it was already after 5:00 and I knew that it would be dark in two hours. If I packed it out myself I would have to be up the hill and to the SUV in two hours as I didn't want to be packing meat out of a strange place in the dark. Oh yeah, the SUV - that was parked back at camp. Eddy explained that he could not help now or in the AM as he had prior responsibilities, but that he would drive back to camp, drive my SUV back to the trailhead and get a ride with Nathan back to camp. That's when Nathan walked up to me and did something that made me feel superhuman. That's the only way I can describe it. He walked up with a bottle of energy drink and handed it to me.

'Looks like you can use this a lot more than I can.'

Thanking him as I took it from his hand and drank a swallow. I was back! I slowly drank half the bottle and saved the rest for when I was down the mountain. I know I am no super hero or have special powers, but dammit I was rejuvenated and ready to rock. His gesture lifted me up and then I turned to talk to Eddy. Knowing I would have to go down the mountain alone, I told him I needed to go right away. I wanted to be down and back up by dark. Doug interjected and mentioned that I should bone out the last quarter and save some weight. Great advice, Doug! With GPS in hand, a few extra bottles of water I took off down the mountain for my last trip.

Finding the kill site in record time, I boned out the shoulder and then loaded the head onto the meat frame of the pack. Moving up the mountain was challenging because the antlers were fairly wide and they were catching on everything. I quickly learned how to hold them as I passed through saplings, brush and over logs. My  adrenaline was pumping in full force as I made it up the hill incredibly fast. 

I made it to the meat pole area in about an hour and a half. The sun was setting and the woods was starting to get dark. I still had nearly a mile to get to the SUV and I wasted little time finding the trail to get out. Eddy mentioned a new way that would save me a considerable amount of time. I started to follow it and lost the trail. Instead of panicking, I paused and searched the ground. There! Horseshoe prints! I got on the horses trail leading out and it lead me all the way to my SUV. 

Entering a clearing, I looked ahead and I spotted my white SUV. A rush of thankfulness and relief took over and I walked just a little bit faster. As I loaded the head and pack in the SUV I noticed that it was now very dark. It had taken me over twelve hours to get my elk packed out, with some help, but it had been totally worth it.

My feet were destroyed after all the hiking.

I owe countless thanks to Eddy for not only helping me on the hunt, but putting a lot of time in on the phone and getting me ready for hunting elk in Colorado. Eddy, thank you for working so hard to get me an elk and for making me run around like crazy. I truly enjoyed this hunt and everything you taught me about elk hunting. I also want to thank Nathan and Doug for coming to my rescue and packing out most of the meat. You guys rock and I am forever grateful. Most of all, I must thank my wife, Kymberli, for putting up with me talking about this elk hunt for two years, spending countless hours at the archery range and even practicing my cow calls. OK, I didn't call very often in the house, but for the times I did thank you. Thanks for putting up with me, listening to me talk about this hunt and for being cool with me going to Colorado for an entire week. You have been super supportive of my obsession passion and for that I love you.

It'll be a few years before I am back in Colorado, but I will say that I am very much looking forward to it. A little advice to all of you aspiring elk hunters. Do it! Start planning and start hitting the gym, or the trail, or just packing around sand to get in shape. Practice often. It will be a huge help in the long run. Plan that trip of a lifetime. Practice your calling and just get out there and do it. It's not easy, but it sure is awesome!

Lastly, I'd like to thank you all for reading! I hope you all enjoyed the story and hope you are all getting out and doing what you love to do. It was a pleasure getting this all written up for you to enjoy!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Colorado Archery Elk Hunt: Day 4

The scratching around the edge of the tent was incessant. It was 2:00 AM and now I couldn't sleep. Little feet could be heard scurrying around the inside of the tent as little claws met tarp. I was warned that I may find a little present on my pillow from the resident mice, but I had no idea that I was going to be visited by the entire clan. Within a few minutes I felt it. Little feet climbing the wall of my sleeping bag until the mouse reached the peak where my hands lay across my chest. Then they stopped. If I had a sixth sense I would say that little guy was staring me down, but it was pitch black so I have no idea what he was doing. All I know is that I was not about to let it go any further. My arm sprang to life and sent my little friend across the tent. I heard him skid on the tarp as multiple sets of little feet scurried to safety. Between the mice and dreaming of elk I had a very restless night. Finally, around 4:00 AM I was able to get back to sleep. I had just enough time to catch a cat nap before the alarm annoyingly buzzed at 4:30 AM.

Coffee and a Clif bar were again all I could stomach for breakfast. I had planned well for my last day of hunting and had everything ready to go. We had a simple plan of attack - to get into the forest, down the mountain and in the midst of the elk before sunrise. In order to accomplish that we needed to leave by 5:15 AM and be at the trailhead by 5:30 to start our hike in. We didn't waste time and loaded the truck and ventured down the dirt road.

Being public land, there were other hunters out there. We had to follow behind another truck down the dusty road and the further we went, the more Eddy and I hoped they wouldn't be making the same turn as we would. Minutes later, we turned and they continued straight ahead. We felt victorious!

After locking the truck, we were guided by the light of the GPS telling us where to go. As we hiked in we kept getting turned around. It didn't take long for both of us to feel a bit frustrated. We finally got on the proper heading and started to make way to the same area we were at on day three. Our timing was great as the sun had not yet risen.

Down one bench we went and we listened. A bugle! Then another! They were coming from the very same area that we thought so we quickened our decent. On our way down, Eddy stepped on a softball sized rock and slid downhill about ten feet. He immediately looked back at me with a smile on his face. He was OK. I followed him down and avoided the rock. It was still very steep with loose dirt. We made it to the second bench and again just listened. Eddy decided to use his cow call and that's when all hell broke loose.

Our view to the first bench.

From less than 150 yards away came a bugle aimed right at us. When Eddy turned to look at me his eyes were the size of half dollars. Our conversation went something like this:

'That bull WANTS to come in. We need to get down there,' Eddy said as he pointed to the third bench.

'Let's do it!' I said.

Five seconds later the bull bugles even closer. Now, a frantic and determined look comes across Eddy's face.

'You need to get down there NOW!!!' Eddy is waving his hand back to front and pointing downhill as he retreats uphill to set up. 'NOW!'

The next few moments went by in a rush of adrenaline and focus. The trail I was heading down was steep and left little room for error. It was go time and I needed to make every step count. Quickly picking out my steps, I took off. Down the dirt and across a small log, I covered thirty feet in no time. I tried to find a good place to stop and get ready. What I didn't realize was that the bull was making a beeline for my location and that he was less than forty yards away!

Do you remember the scene in King Kong when Fay Wray is strapped to the altar with vines and the mighty ape comes storming through the jungle to get her? Trees are bending and snapping and you can see that something immense is coming fast? That is EXACTLY what went through my mind as I watched the small aspens bend left and right as the bull made his way through the forest. The trees were being raked back and forth as the bull twisted and turned his way through the saplings. Eddy was right, this bull wanted to come in and he was wasting no time doing it! I stopped with my left foot perched on top of a deadfall, my right against the trail. He was closing the distance rapidly when I realized I hadn't nocked an arrow! In one motion, I pulled an arrow from my quiver, nocked it and set my release. Just as I finished drawing my bow, the bull stopped directly behind a spruce tree
thirty feet away. The branches blocked his view, I waited. The bull let out some of the weirdest cooing and chuckles in search of the cow. This bull was on a mission to get lucky and that's when he stepped forward to continue his search.

In record time, as his antlers breached the edge of the pine, I counted four tines. Legal Bull! He stepped forward as if on cue into the opening. I let out a 'Maaaahht' that was immediately echoed by a cow call from Eddy. The bull stopped directly in front of me and swung his head to stare me down. From ten yards away I sent my arrow into the kill zone. Whump! The bull took off, made a quick right turn, jumped a deadfall and stopped. Without any outward show of emotion I watched intently. Emotions and those crazy thoughts flowed through my brain. Had I hit him? Was my shot good? Had I anchored properly? It all happened so fast! My questions were answered as I watched him whirl, teeter over and drop. He was down! My first ever bull elk and he was down. Best of all he had only gone 15 yards before expiring! Fifteen yards!

It was at that moment that all of my stored adrenaline blasted through my veins. I will never forget raising my bow in my left hand, raising my right fist into the air and shaking both all while under my breathe saying, 'YYYYYEEEEAAAAHHHHHH!!!' Looking up the hill, Eddy was clapping his hands, pointing at me and cheering. He damn near ran down the trail to my location quietly cheering along the way. The entire time he decended I was still shaking as goosebumps covered my entire body in pure excitement. We hugged and cheered. Four days of hard hunting had lead to this very moment. Two years of planning and four days of highs and lows on the mountain. I had earned my bull and I was elated!!
Everything Eddy and I had joked about and hoped for the night before had actually come true! It had truly happened. It was the last day of the Colorado archery elk season. It was my last hunt on the last day of my trip. You can't write a story better than that.

The entire chain of events from me skirting down the trail, to me shooting and the bull dropping took less than two minutes. That is how fast it all went down. Everything happens for a reason and everything had happened perfectly on this hunt. I wouldn't have traded any blister, cut, or fatigued muscle. It all happened for a reason.

As we talked about how everything went down, we climbed over the deadfall from where I shot. Eddy let out a hoot and said, 'There's your arrow and it's covered in blood!' My arrow had blown completely through the elks chest and buried six inches into the ground. Your mind can play tricks on you, but seeing that I knew my bull was down.

There was virtually no blood trail. With a chest cavity the size of a 55 gallon drum, it takes a while for any blood to make it out unless it's a low hit. We knew the direction the bull had gone, so we walked through the foliage and over a deadfall.

Eddy looked around, 'I wonder where he went. Now we just have to find him.'

'Eddy. Look down! Turn around and look down!'

Eddy turned to see antlers growing out of the ground not twenty feet from where he was standing. More hugs, more fist pumps and more cheering. We had done it!! I glanced at my watch in disbelief. I had shot my bull at almost exactly 7:00 AM. What a hunt!

We walked up and admired the majestic animal that rested at our feet. It hadn't sunk in that I had accomplished what I had set out to do. I had arrowed a 4x5 bull elk in the mountains of Colorado during a DIY OTC archery hunt on public land. I knelt down and said a prayer. I thanked God for providing this animal to come in and for giving me the composure to make a clean, ethical shot. As I brushed my hand down his mane, I thanked the bull elk for giving his life.

Al Quackenbush with his 2012 Colorado OTC archery bull elk.
Eddy Erautt (L) and I pose with my bull. Much appreciation to Eddy for all of his help!

After pictures were taken I figured my adrenaline would settle. Not a chance! The work was about to begin. The prior three days worth of hiking didn't hold a candle to what I would endure over the next twelve hours. Not everything would be as cheerful as we started the butchering.

We field dressed the bull and started quartering him up right away. The temperature was in the low fifties on the bench where we worked. We hung finished the right side, flipped him over and began the left. Halfway into it I heard Eddy chirp loudly, 'Oh no. Oh NO!' I asked him what was wrong and he lifted his hands, showing me the blood seeping from his fingers. As he was cutting the front shoulder, the Havalon Piranta blade caught on the massive rack. As the rack moved, the knife sprung forward and filleted his finger. Eddy needed to stop the bleeding and get a compress on it fast. All the years of getting ridiculed for carrying a first-aid kit were worth it as I produced my kit. Gauze, athletic tape and some pressure stopped the bleeding. It really could have been a lot worse. We were more than a mile from the trailhead, 25 miles or so to town and we were halfway down a mountain in the forest. It would have been worse if I hadn't had a first-aid kit, too. In a matter of a minutes, Eddy had wrapped his finger and was back at work helping me quarter up the elk. You wouldn't even know he had an injured finger by the way he moved.

I wanted to see what damage my shot had done. By the way the bull had acted and dropped I knew I had hit heart. Sure enough, as I pulled out the lungs I saw the entrance hole through one lung. Helping me pull out the massive airbags, Eddy showed me exactly what I wanted to see. Flipping over a lobe of the lung, Eddy pointed inside. The razor sharp broadhead had nearly severed the aorta. Lungs and heart, it was no wonder the bull hadn't gone far.

With the bull quartered, hung up to cool and time pressing on, we needed to pack the bull out. Mother Nature wasn't done with us yet as the work was about to get very real. The pack out was going to test me to my very core.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Colorado Archery Elk Hunt: Day 3

We walked in only half a mile before the bull let us know he was the king of the mountain. The high-pitched, guttural bugle helped quicken our pace. Here it was day three and each day bulls were conversing at the crack of dawn. Eddy let out a cow call and it was answered by another bugle, from a different bull! Picking up a cattle trail, we headed straight for the source of the bugles. The second sounded like it was across the canyon, but both sounded like they came from one direction - right near the spot we had attempted to hike to the previous day.

The view as we descended.

Three-quarters of a mile in, we found an access point and descended 300 feet to set up. Eddy posted up forty yards behind me as I settled in behind some blue spruce. I couldn't quite find a comfortable spot and kept moving around to keep sticks and rocks from jabbing me. A couple minutes later, not fifty yards in front of me a bull elk let out a bugle that I can only describe as a high-pitched squeal-like bugle. It was at that very moment that I laid eyes on my very first bull elk on a hunt. It started with movement behind a spruce at forty yards. His antlers twisted back and forth as he tried to locate the lost cow. Unfortunately, he didn't stick around more than ten minutes. He turned to his left and sauntered away from me down a trail. I quickly counted tines and saw that he was a 4x4 bull and that they were very short. I guessed him to be a satellite bull, but what a fantastic moment! I had been forty yards from a bull elk. A screaming bull elk none the less!

In an attempt to get the bull back, Eddy moved sixty yards to my immediate left and began a call sequence. Picture, if you will, thick spruce trees directly in front of your position. In the middle of these trees is a natural alley giving you a view of about one hundred yards. It was in this very alleyway, a few minutes later (well, it only seemed like a few minutes to me) that I saw the ivory antlers of a mature bull dip and raise up as he announced his presence. He had come in quiet as a mouse. Although his upper rack was obstructed by the branches, I could see he was a shooter bull, but he was just too far away. He was also directly downwind from me, so I just stared in amazement. Was this really happening? Two bull elk in only a few minutes? Yes sir! This was some elk hunting to be sure.

Eddy and I during a break in the action.

We waited for about fifteen minutes to see if the bull would come closer, but he simply vanished. He made no sound and let out no more vocalization. As we regrouped, we heard yet another bugle deeper into the canyon. We raced another 200 feet down, crossing over deadfalls and around boulders to an ambush spot. Minute after minute went by as he sounded closer and closer with each ringing bugle. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped. I waited and waited. I heard movement below me and made the mistake of instantly raising my bow. A lone cow had come in to fifty yards to scout out all the racket and she busted me! My heart sank as she crashed through the brush, heading downhill. My mind conjured up the idea that she had also taken the rest of the herd with her, but I hadn't heard any other bodies crashing through. Maybe she was all by herself. Eddy quickly cow called and was answered by a lone cow. They called back and forth a couple times before the forest again went silent.

Dropping down another 100 feet, we located a wallow that had been used that very morning. You could still see the wet mud caked on the logs surrounding the area. In the mud, you could even see the fine lines left by the bull elk's hair as he rolled around. That was very cool! We marked it on my GPS and listened. While we had heard four different bulls bugling that morning, it was nearing 10:00 AM and the Wapiti song had all but stopped. Every so often we did hear an occasional bugle from either deep into the canyon or across the mountain. Knowing they would be bedding soon, we headed back up from whence we came. Along the way we encountered a few rubs, including these two gems!

To say we were pleased with how things were turning out would be an understatement. For three straight days we had bulls bugling all around us. We had them in close, too! 

The walk back to the truck started off very slow as the day was heating up rapidly and we were tired. As our stomachs growled, the subject of conversation focused on egg sandwiches smothered in cheddar cheese. (I was not going for the low fat diet on this trip.) Our pace quickened and before long we were back in camp chowing down and discussing my evening hunt.

Wanting to find that waterhole, Eddy and I discussed the terrain and where I had last stopped. The more I described, the more Eddy knew what had happened. I was right there, but the trail I was supposed to take was hard to see unless you knew it was there. After some brief relaxation, final directions and topping off my water bladder, I was off to find that waterhole.

Following the same trail as the day before, I found the spot where Eddy described and it was stunningly beautiful. The trail was exactly as he described and without careful directions, you would have never known this spot existed. Once I spotted the water and all of the tracks surrounding it, I searched for a spot to make a ground blind. As I searched, my eyes darted to a fallen tree that already had some branches broken off and set in a small circle. Someone other than any of us had already been in here within the past week and had made a ground blind. Working smarter and not harder, I stepped into the blind, maneuvered my gear around, and settled in for the evening watch.

The view was not only amazing, but I felt that an elk, or a bear, would step out at any time. Unfortunately, that never happened. The only action I had was an annoying squirrel that would not stop chattering. That is until I glanced over and gave him the look of death. I think my point was made as he quickly stopped and took off. Must have been the intimidation factor. The next three hours were filled with me enjoying the view, listening for any tell-tale sounds and waiting. The sound of silence truly is deafening.

The waterhole was a prime location to ambush animals.

By 6:00 PM I couldn't take it anymore. My gut feeling was that nothing was going to come in this late and I trust my instincts in these situations. Plus, something inside me wanted to enjoy nature some more, so I packed up and headed out the trail. Along the way I spotted two of the largest coyotes I have ever seen in my life as they bounded around the meadow looking for small rodents. Some 200 yards away, they spotted me and locked on. It didn't take them long to beat feet and disappear.

I continued on to an open meadow and here is where I decided to sit for the remainder of the evening. I wanted to enjoy an unobstructed, uninterrupted view of the Colorado landscape and watch the sunset. These photos will have to do as trying to describe the view at that very moment is very difficult to do. All I can say is that I was happy. Completely in a zone of peace and happiness. It didn't matter that I hadn't shot an elk yet, nor did it matter that I had sacrificed a great deal of time and money to get here. As I sat on that fallen tree, soaking in the majestic beauty of nature, I was exactly where I needed to be.

The sunset in Colorado was one I will never forget.

As the sun set, I made my way to the SUV, loaded in my gear and headed back to camp. In camp, Eddy was already preparing to hit the hay at 8:00 PM. I took care of my gear, reloaded my Clif bars and water bladder, and loaded up the truck. I could smell the aroma of charred meat and campfire at the entrance to the tent. It was a glorious scent to behold! Eddy had cooked up some awesome elk steak and pizza brats that were still quite warm. Even after my third brat, knowing I really shouldn't eat the last one, I was still hungry. The elk steak was a perfect ending to a long day.

With the campfire stoked, our gear laid out and lights off, Eddy and I prepared for a good night sleep. As we lay there, we began reminiscing about the previous three days and what may happen on day four, my last day. It was then that we started chuckling about how it was going to be the last day of Colorado archery elk season, my last day to hunt, and it would be my very last outing with Eddy. The topic kept coming up in our conversation.  

Wouldn't it be a great ending to arrow a bull elk on the last day of the season and the very last moment you could do so? 

We imagined it like all of the outdoor television shows and magazine articles. Having it all come together on the last day would be the perfect ending to a hunt I had dreamed about for a lifetime. It took us a while to fall asleep that night as we had high hopes for day number four.

As I drifted off, one thought kept coming to mind. To be successful, I needed to picture the arrow hitting the mark BEFORE I actually released the arrow. Laying there in silence, I imagined a majestic bull elk walking into range and me releasing that one arrow that hit its mark. I went to sleep dreaming of elk, not knowing that day number four would be filled with the most extreme tests I have ever encountered.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Colorado Archery Elk Hunt: Day 2

My sore aching body slowly woke up with the alarm on day number two. Mentally I was ready to hunt, but physically I was drained. One day of hard hunting and I was tired and sore. What the heck was I thinking? Tired and sore? Really? I was here to hunt elk with a bow and arrow and I was going to give it my all! Ignoring my sore muscles, I made a cup of coffee and ate a Clif bar. Stomaching a big breakfast on a hunt is something I have always struggled with and just the fact that I could eat that was progress.
I was dressed in my camouflage earlier than on day number one. Being known as the slow-poke wasn't something I was striving for. I was ready to hit the mountain and today we were going to change it up a little. We decided to all hunt together. Gabe and Eddy, being the experienced callers, would be doing all of the vocalizations. We hit the road, made it to the trailhead and parked. The air was already uncomfortably warm, but with limited time for hunting we had to be out there every chance we could.

There was a slight breeze blowing into our faces as we headed up the trail and into the forest. Almost immediately we heard a bugle and our hearts skipped a beat. Time to get after it! Eddy let out a cow call and a long way ahead of us we heard a bull bellow out a strong bugle. Two days in a row and we had bulls bugling! This was very promising! As we crossed deadfalls and made our way to a clearing the air temperature increased to the point where we had to shed our first layer. It was 6:30 AM and I was already down to a shirt and base layer in the Colorado Rockies. Here I was thinking I'd be freezing in the mornings, but having the air temps rise and us constantly moving, well, let's just say I had no problem staying warm.

As we neared the same clearing where the previous day we got busted by multiple sets of eyes, we sat down and waited. We caught our breath and we let out a few cow calls. Immediately, we heard crashing a short distance away and heard a bugle aimed in our direction. Where two of the hillsides converge was a small opening. My gaze fixed on that position and within five seconds there it was. Movement! Actually, it was a big brown body of an elk moving uphill instead of down like we had anticipated. We quickly shared our thoughts and figured we had a very good chance of intercepting the herd as they breached a higher bench. We hatched a plan, kicked in the afterburners, and scaled the mountainside. We crossed the bench, diverged into a wallow, crossed another wallow and down into a canyon. Utter silence. No elk were to be found and they had ceased conversing. We knew that they had to be close.

The bugle that came next about made us all jump because we weren't ready for it, but it was down lower in the canyon. Those mountain goat Erautts took off down the hill leaving me in their dust. I was able to keep up fairly well, but damn can they can move! We set up around 40-60 yards apart and started our calling. The bull was fired up and began answering right away. He was followed by another bull, but we couldn't tell if he was closer and calling away from us or if he was sitting on the opposite side of the canyon riling up the bull on our side. We sat in our positions for fifteen minutes and decided we had to get closer. Instead of going up the mountain, we were going to head down the mountain. The very steep, dry, mountain with briars, deadfall and rocks. Just typing that puts a big smile on my face. This was HUNTING at its finest!

One of the many challenging ascents on our morning hunt.

We made one more short stand along the canyon bottom just far enough away from the running stream that we could still hear a bugle now and then. Our only problem was that the bull on our side of the canyon had quit talking. The bull on the far side was still chiming in, but he was also heading up the opposite side. With time slipping away, we decided to go after him on the far side. We descended and crossed the stream before hurdling a sizable deadfall and making a vertical climb that seemed insane. It didn't take too long for us to realize that our progress was quickly becoming futile. The bull was putting too much distance between us and we were not going to be climbing any higher as the vertical climb was almost impassable.

The decision was made to descend and as I was third in line going up, it made me first in line going down. My third step found my feet skidding down the loose dirt. Just as I caught myself I looked up to see a medium size rock land directly on my shooting hand. It truly seemed like a slow-motion scene in an action flick. I half expected to hear a crunch and feel shooting pain. Instead, the rock bounced off my hand and rolled past me. God was watching out for me at that very moment as I caught my balance and was unscathed.

The natural beauty of this shot makes it one of my favorite photos from my trip.

We made it down, crossed back over the stream and hit the trail Eddy and I had painstakingly hiked the day before. Deja vu? It was again very warm and it was time to head back to camp. The next two hours of hiking were filled with groans, hilarious shenanigans, and shared stories of hunts past. While it was a long, dusty trail that was challenging to the mind, body and soul, it was still a great experience. I saw some of the most beautiful country as we trudged along. The trees smelled of fresh tilled earth, there was a slight breeze and there wasn't a hint of a tractor trailer slowing down on the 405 spewing rubber and exhaust. No, this was indeed a much better place.

Things back in camp were rather quiet as I realized that the morning hunt was Gabe's last hunt with us. As he packed up, we chatted for a bit before he and Eddy made the trek back to town. Before they left, Eddy gave me a location of a good waterhole that offered promise in the unseasonably high temperatures. He figured something had to be coming in to water and with me being the only one hunting that night, it was my chance.

I prepared to take a quick nap and heard a crunching, followed by chewing and then the tearing of vegetation. My brain immediately said 'Bear' and I grabbed my can of bear spray. I looked outside the tent and there he was. A big, black free range steer just chewing away by a stump. Laughing at myself for getting spooked, I ducked back into the tent and emerged with my camera to snap a few pictures. You'll notice in many of my camp photos is a white cord strung along the outside of our campsite. The cord was not meant to give our minds some sense of protection from bears. No, this was to keep the roaming bovines from entering camp and trampling and destroying everything in their path. Pictures taken, I laid down for my nap and by 3:00 PM was up and ready to head back up the dirt road. Before I left camp, I knew I needed to care for my blistered, aching feet. Even though I had broken in my Schnee's boots weeks before I left, the constant up and down hiking was taking a toll on my heels. When my socks came off I knew that I needed to break out the blister kit. I am a firm believer that duct tape works wonders and I had packed a roll for exactly this reason. Once the blistered areas were cared for, I covered them and my raw toes with duct tape for added protection. You could almost hear my feet sigh in relief.

He really didn't seem amused by my taking his picture.
Caring for my blistered feet with a redneck medical kit.

Along the way to the trailhead, I encountered more and more free-range cattle. I just dig the free-range idea and was loving every second I had with the cows. I knew that if my wife were there, she'd be loving these moments, too. I stopped more than a few times to capture a few shots I was sure she would enjoy. I even stopped just to view the far mountains and enjoy what an incredible view I was given the chance to see. We take our senses for granted, but when you get the chance to take in surroundings like that you have to just stop and embrace it.


I parked at the trailhead as two other hunters pulled up to chat. I casually started getting my gear on as one of the hunters walked over and started asking about the area. Not being too familiar with it I mentioned that we had heard bulls bugling, but that I was headed up the trail to see what I could find. He shared that he and his buddy had encountered a very large, 400 lb. bear feasting on a fresh kill a few mesa's over that very morning. They even got it on video. That gave me the warm and fuzzies and made me feel incredibly safe. (Note: That's sarcasm in case you wondered). I was still going hunting. We talked for a couple minutes before I think he realized that I was itching to get my feet moving.

Up the trail I went, careful to keep watch behind me to be sure I wasn't being followed or that my SUV was being tampered with. I hiked into the forest and across a meadow and stood there in awe of the beauty. I grew up with meadows and open country, but having lived in SoCal for six years I hadn't had the opportunity to bask in it. This was amazing!

I followed the cattle trail across the meadows, to where I thought the waterhole should be, and for some reason I could not locate it. I searched the area Eddy sent me to and felt like I was close, but after half an hour I decided that I should go sit the water hole I passed on my way in. It was quite a bit smaller, but should offer some opportunity. Making my way down the hillside, I took notice of how clean the air smelled, how the breeze floated through the trees, and how the dirt crunched beneath my boots. My emotions gave me a sense of pure freedom that lasted for the remainder of the evening.

At the waterhole, I created a small blind with what branches I could find, but after forty minutes I knew that my location wasn't going to produce any elk. The winds were swirling entirely too much and when they did blow in one direction they blew my scent right where I expected the elk to come from. I packed up and made my way back down the trail. I took my time and enjoyed each and every step I took, all the while taking notice of the raw, burning feeling inside my boots. A quarter mile from my vehicle I kicked out a couple of mule deer hiding just inside the treeline. I was in such a peaceful state that they scared the heck out me as the brush erupted with hooves stepping on branches. It reminded me not to get too complacent as they could just have easily been bears.

I was greeted by this guy on my way out of the forest.
The glow of the sunset on the trees made me stop and smile.

My arrival in camp brought Eddy to the SUV and I gave him the bad news about not finding the waterhole. Even after I described the area I stopped at he mentioned I had to have been right on top of it. As I neared the tent, I noticed that there were a few other people enjoying the glow of the campfire. It turns out that some friends of Eddy's were up camping next to us. Introductions were made, and as we chatted I devoured a beef stroganoff Mountain House meal. The package says 'Serves Two', but after all of the calories I burned I turned it into a single serving.  I learned that the father, Nathan, was going to also be hunting in the morning. He is by far one of the nicest men I have ever met. Not long after eating dinner, refilling my water bladder, and wolfing down a Twinkie in record time I was ready to call it a night.

We set up the camp stove with a 4-hour log and made our plan for the following morning. Instead of going back to where we had been hunting, our goal was on the opposite side of the mountain where we had last heard the bulls on the steep slope. If our instincts told us anything, it was that these bulls were in this area for a reason and they weren't going to come out easily. So, instead of trying to draw them out, we set our sights on going in and trying to get them fired up on their own turf. The plan would turn out to be one of the most intense learning experiences I have ever been a part of in the wild.