Choosing to hunt deer and elk without a guide from a tent camp in the heart to game country is high adventure and an affordable option.
Shooting light had barely arrived when a bull elk stepped from the edge of the park 200 yards away. Although I only caught a glimpse, the animal’s creamy colored coat caused my adrenalin to noticeably rush. Four days of hunting had brought incredibly close calls, yet finally, would I get a shot?
Crouching low against a log to steady my aim, I turned the scope to its highest power, hoping the bull would appear in one of the parks slender shooting lane. Anxious seconds passed, when suddenly, the sound of hooves crashing down the mountain behind me stole my attention as a bull elk raced through a sea of vegetation, just 50 yards away. Instantly, I threw up my rifle and swung with the speeding elk, yet with the scope on high power, the animal filled the scope, making a proper lead nearly impossible.
Instant Success Almost
This was my third hunt in the past five years for deer and elk from a remote camp in Colorado’s White River National Forest, a chance to learn the terrain and animal travel habits from the convenience of a deep mountain spike camp. Based on previous experience, I headed for the spine of a ridge where I could peer down into numerous canyons that provided excellent shooting opportunities with little chance of being detected.
Opening morning, the season was barely 20 minutes old, when I slowly peeked over a deep canyon hoping to catch moving or feeding game. Seeing none, I turned to move to the next opportunity when I came face to face with a mature bull. Just 40 yards away, our eyes locked into an OMG moment before the beast whirled and raced away. I jogged a few steps behind it, but this animal was no dummy and raced away at full speed.
This wasn’t a monster bull, but a mature animal with high, white-tipped points, the image indelibly etched in my mind. Had the bull been feeding, looking straight ahead, or otherwise distracted, opportunity could have knocked. On an unguided mountain, elk hunt, one opportunity is all you can hope for. Had I blown mine in the first half-hour of the season?
The Camping Experience
Spike camps are best done with friends or at least acquaintances you know and respect. In the heart of the wilderness, everyone must work together for the process to work. Roles must be decided. Who buys the food; what foods to bring; who cooks; who does the dishes?
Prior to our October hunt, one member hosted a cook-out where we reminisced about previous hunts and went over the menu and various elements of camp life including who does what. Three members of our group fly to Colorado while three others drive, allowing us to “ship” our gear out and meat back. The fliers help pay for driving expenses which fairly distributes travel expenses.
Emergencies can happen in camp. One fellow came down with a day’s bout with nausea and diarrhea, a nightmare in a mountain camp. Another gashed his finger while field dressing an elk to the point that it required stitches. Luckily, a physician is a member of our group. We pack in the day before the season and cut firewood with a chainsaw, something I have extensive experience with, yet I do so with great caution.
After the first day of hard hunting above 8,000 feet, our tent was an absolute snore-fest and I slept while wearing shooting muffs. I’m also the camp rooster setting the alarm, stoking the fire, and usually one of the first members up each morning.
On two of our four hunts, mild-mannered insurance agent Charley Toms has killed an elk in the first hour of the season, relegating him to “camp bitch.” Charley cheerfully cooks, cleans, and roost for someone else to kill an elk so he can have company during the day. Drop camps will save 50-75 percent of the price of a fully guided hunt and boosts camaraderie exponentially. We hunt for one week, plan and reminisce for the next 103, and already have dates for 2017 on the books. Technically, we save about 50% by using a drop camp, but it actually allows us to hunt twice as often.
The Final Day- Luck at Last
After that opening morning confrontation, I had been close to elk numerous times, yet could not get a shot. Determined to make the most of my waning opportunity, I hit the trail well before dawn. Elk hunters often debate whether it’s better to leave camp before daylight or sneak to positions when it’s light enough to shoot? On our hunt, the moon had set well before dawn so I believed it best to sneak to a stand in total darkness, believing that elk would be bedded and I could travel without disturbing them.
Daylight arrived as I sat against a huge log. Suddenly, I saw a bull in a distant park, as mentioned earlier. Colorado has a 4-point minimum for elk and I cranked up the magnification of my Nikon for a better view.
Within seconds, a horse race seemed to break out behind me and a heavy horned bull raced past my position. Without time to turn down the scope, which entered my mind, I swung with the bull, fired, and shot that jinx right between the eyes… because the bull stopped.
I don’t remember cycling the bolt or squeezing the trigger, but when the rifle fired, the cross-hairs were centered on the chest. The bull broke into a dead run and piled up 75 yards away.
Walking up to the bull that lay in a sea of ferns in the deep mountain canyon, my head was a-swim with thoughts and emotions. Had this really happened? This bull ran nearly the same course as elk the previous day when I didn’t get a glimpse. Was this the best log to sit on in the Rocky Mountains or what?
Equally as fortunate my good friend, Steve Sachs, was just one canyon away and soon came to help with the butchering of the animal. Quartering an elk alone is a mountain of work and a partner made the chore a pleasure. By 12:30 we concluded the mile hike back to camp, tired, panting for breath, but totally exhilarated. Every elk is a trophy, yet when you can bag one without a guide deep in the wilds of public land; it sparks images of Jeremiah Johnson, Pilgrim.