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Chasing Big Bull Elk in Colorado

It was my first season as a guide, and I was loving every minute of it. I was sitting on top of a ridge glassing down into the basin below, hoping to spot a herd of elk that I could pursue with my clients the next day when rifle season opened in Colorado. I wanted to have a sure thing for their hunt in the morning.

I had been scouting all summer, and I knew of a few areas that would likely hold some elk, but there is nothing like knowing you have a location to go to where you saw elk the night before.

Scouting for Success

It took me the better part of an hour to get up to this high point, and I could see clear to the back of the basin. I only had about an hour and a half of daylight left. I glassed, hoping I could get a glimpse of an elk or two, which would entice me to come back in the morning. I thought about sitting there until dark, but I decided to look at one more area. I had to hustle to get back down to my dirtbike and ride like a madman to get to the spot before dark.

If I rode fast, it would leave me about 15 minutes of light to glass. This spot had a vantage point of serval different basins, and I felt it was more than worthwhile to push to get up there. I rode hard down the gravel road to the turnoff, which led to a steep, boulder-filled trail. This trail would not be friendly to any vehicle that wasn’t equipped with the best off-road accessories. I drove like a was in a motocross race and made it to the top with just enough light to look into a few areas.

I hiked up and over to the spot from where I knew I could see several basins and started scanning. I glassed diligently over the first basin, making sure I didn’t pass over any possible animal. I continued glassing, thinking, “Well, if I don’t see any elk, I will just go to one of my favorite areas and hope for the best.”

I moved down the ridge to peer into the next basin. I glassed down near a small alpine lake that emerged from a stand of pine trees. As I glassed towards an open area near another small body of water, I saw my first elk – then another elk, and another. I was on top of them. I saw at least 60-70 elk in this herd. As I scanned through, the herd bull came into view. This bull was massive! I could hardly believe what I was seeing, so I quickly pulled out a spotting scope to have a closer look.

Daylight was fading, and the herd was happily feeding in this hidden basin. They were in no hurry to move away. As I got a closer look, I realized how enormous the bull was compared to the other bulls in the herd. I counted 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7×7!

“No way,” I said to myself.

I took another look just to be sure. Yep, 7×7, without a doubt. This was the biggest bull I had ever seen or even heard talk of from the other seasoned guides. I counted again and again, and I was certain of what I was looking at. I was beyond excited at my discovery. I contemplated just camping there all night and radioing back to base camp to have someone bring my two hunters to me in the morning.

I watched these elk until it was almost too dark to see and decided they would have to be somewhere nearby come first light. It was a crazy thought to stay there all night, but I wanted badly for my clients to have a shot at this herd bull.

Sharing the News

I talked myself out of this crazy idea and rode down the rugged trail in the dark back to base camp. I decided not to say a word about my discovery to anyone. I arrived at camp well after dinnertime and went to search out the director of the outfit to talk about the game plan for the next day. The director is one of my close friends, and when I found him, I said, “Lewie, I found a good one, and I’m going to need to use a couple of four-wheelers in the morning to get there.”

He could see my excitement, and we worked out a solution to get my hunters to the location before first light. I proceeded to my clients’ cabin to tell them I had seen some elk and that we would be leaving at 2:45 a.m. to get to the location on time. Then I went back to grab my land cruiser, hook a trailer up, and load one of the outfit’s Polaris Rangers.

I set five different alarms on my phone, though I barely slept with the anticipation of the next morning’s hunt. This was a bull of a lifetime, and I was wired. I met my hunters at the dining hall at a quarter past two for breakfast. I advised them to pack lunches, as we would be out all day. We scarfed down breakfast and hit the road. As we drove, I talked about our game plan and let them know about the giant bull that I had seen. The guys I was guiding were an uncle and nephew out of Pennsylvania, Ed and George. George was in his late 60s, and Ed was late 40s. It was their first elk hunting trip, and they were both in great spirits. Ed said he wanted his uncle to have the first shot, and he would take the second.

I said, “OK, that’s no problem, but we need to be real – if we get into a position to take a shot at this bull, whoever is in position at the moment will need to take the shot.”

They both agreed.

We arrived at the base of the mountain and unloaded the Polaris. It was going to be at least a two-hour ride to get to the location. We hopped in and were off. It was slow-moving up the mountain, and we reached the summit 30 minutes before first light. We parked the Polaris not far from the summit and gathered our gear to hike the rest of the way up.

As we hiked, I could tell the altitude was a big factor to the Pennsylvania boys. We were at around 12,000 feet, and the air can feel thin when you are not used to it. The darkness began to fade, and I wanted to be over the ridge before full light. I went up ahead to start glassing to find the elk as Ed and George followed behind. I glassed the area I had last seen the herd, and nothing was there.

I thought 60-70 elk would have to be close by, and at that moment, I heard the distant sound of a bugle.

The ridge where we stood was separated two massive valleys. Several basins were scattered throughout these valleys on each side. I spotted the first elk, then a second a thousand yards down the ridge from us. I hadn’t spotted the 7×7 yet, but I was sure he had to be with those other elk.

7 X 7

The rest of the darkness had lifted. The two elk I had just spotted turned into the rest of the herd from the night before. I saw the Mack Daddy. His size was easily identifiable, even at this range, with the naked eye.

I pointed down and said, “There he is, guys.”

Ed and George watched with excitement. This herd bull was screaming his head off to chase the other bulls away from his cows. We perched on a rock outcropping and watched the show. The wind would be a problem if we tried to make any moves at this point, so the best thing we could do was watch the elk and come up with a game plan.

We counted more than 70 elk in total, ten of which were shooter bulls. The massive 7×7 bugled over and over, mounting cows and chasing the other bulls away. It was a real treat to see. We watched for 30 minutes, and finally, the herd began to feed slowly away from us. The wind was still iffy, but I knew it was time to close some distance.

We began crawling down the mountain, working our way slowly through the boulders that lined the terrain all around us. The herd fed over the side of the mountain and out of sight. I was optimistic because I knew the area where they were heading. Ed, George, and I continued working slowing down the mountain, staying conscious of the wind, not wanting to push it too far. The three of us finally made it to a small saddle on the ridge and re-grouped. I let the guys know we would need to make our way around a large rock outcropping in front of us and get eyes on the herd again before they disappeared into the trees.

As we discussed our plan, we heard a shot ring out from down below.

“Oh, no!” George said. “There’s someone else in the area.”

I ran to the outcropping and peered into the basin. The whole herd of elk was running back up the mountain right for us! I ran back to Ed and George and told them the elk were coming our way. As I caught my breath, I told them what to expect when we saw the first elk come from around the rock outcropping. I dropped into a seated position and slid down into my backpack to look as small as possible.

As I did this, I noticed a rifle barrel pointed out over my shoulder. George was ready for that herd bull to come walking by. Single file the elk came by us at 70 yards, one by one. Their pace had slowed down, but they were steadily moving through. Cow, calf, spike, 4×4, 5×5, all kept filing through. Near the back was the bull we were after. I whispered to George to make sure he waited for the bull to be clear of the other elk before he took a shot.

The massive bull came through broadside and clear – absolutely perfect. I watched him through my binos and tensed my body, anticipating a shot to come. But nothing happened. I knew there were only a few more moments before this bull would be out of our lives. But still, nothing happened. I was shocked—the big bull fed over the ridge and into the next basin. I didn’t understand what had happened and was a little discouraged that we had missed out on such an opportunity.

I asked George what had happened he told me the next day he didn’t rack a shell into the chamber. He pulled the trigger but nothing. 

There were still two bulls standing in sight and in range that were legal. I looked back at Ed and George and said, “These bulls are legal. Do either of you want to shoot one, or do you want to make a move and try and get on to the big one again?”

They both said they wanted a shot at the big one. Relieved, we were on the same page; I looked on as the two last bulls fed over the edge towards the rest of the herd.

I said, “Come on. We have to be quick.”

Big Bull Down

We got up and sprinted towards the edge of the basin to have a look down. Ed followed close behind. We got to the edge and peered down. There was the big bull gathering all his cows and standing out in the open. I ranged him at 361 yards. I looked to Ed and said, “Make sure you have a steady rest, and fire when ready.”

Ed settled in on the boulder and took a shot. From our angle, you could see the vapor trail of the bullet going down the mountain towards the elk. I watch the bullet miss just underneath the bull. The bull heard the shot but didn’t know the direction it came from.

He moved 20 yards closer. Ed quickly racked another round into his rifle and sent another shot downhill. I watched the bullet hit right behind the shoulder, a perfect hit!

Ed racked another and fired one more shot at the giant, again a perfect hit. The bull went down in the middle of the meadow.

I punched Ed in the shoulder with excitement. We looked down at the rest of the herd, and in confusion, the herd ran up to the bull that had just fallen to investigate. They looked at the big bull and quickly turned and ran straight back up the mountain towards us.

I turned to George, who had been watching right behind us and said, “Quick, find a good rest. There are a few shooter bulls in that herd coming straight at us.”

The herd of elk made its way single file up the hill towards us. I leaned back to George and said, “There is a 5×5, 150 yards. He is broadside. Is that an elk you want to take?”

George looked him over and said, “No, I’m sorry. He’s not an elk I want.”

Colorado elk
Ed with his hard earned 7x7 elk.

I said, “Don’t worry about it because another nice bull is coming up behind him.”

The next bull stepped into view, and it was a dandy 5×5, a bull most any hunter would be happy to take.

“George, this is probably the second-biggest bull in the herd,” I said.

George liked the looks of this one and said he would have a crack at him.

I said, “OK, George, get ready. He is about to come into view 150 yards, same spot the other 5×5 was in.”

George settled into his rest, found the bull in his scope, and let out a shot. Right after the shot rang out, the bull rolled down the steep hill and got hung up in some willow bushes.

“Wow,” I yelled. “How lucky are we?! George, that was fine shooting!”

George with his Colorado elk.

We all hugged, hooted, and hollered. Ed and George hugged and had a moment about their hunt together. They were both emotional and so grateful for this experience. After the celebration, Ed told me that George had taught him how to hunt, and hunting was something that they always did together since he was a kid. It’s is why this hunt meant so much to these guys

We thanked the good Lord for our fortunate morning and reflected on the luck we had just had. It was only 8:00 a.m., and we were fully tagged out. I couldn’t help but be grateful for these men harvesting two magnificent animals.

We looked out over the beautiful landscape of the Colorado high country and breathed in the fresh air. There was a lot of work to do before we could head back to camp with all of the meat and heads, so we started down the mountain toward the two elk with wide smiles on our faces.

Four Seasons Safaris New Zealand provides a professional outdoor guiding service based at the Rakaia Gorge in the South Island of New Zealand.
Tel: +64 3 318 6936
Email: info@fourseasons.co.nz

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