I’m going to try and break this down to a 4 part series so as not to lose anyone. The first part(s) will be the story of my trip and the last will be the lessons learned. If you read nothing else, perhaps the lessons learned will be the most informational and worthwhile. The intent is to both educate the rookie (like me) and also to tell a story about a most incredible first time experience.
Part 1-Preparation and Getting There
I was offered better than 10 years ago a chance to hunt elk in the northern CO Rocky Mountains by some friends who had been going with family for near 20 years. They had a regular campsite, horses, mules, and had knew this particular area very well. The group’s experience in horses and mules, cowboy camping, elk hunting, and more led me to believe that this hunt would be worth the effort. I began putting in a non-resident tag for preference points 3 years ago. I spoke directly with the CO Game Fish and Parks to ensure that I didn’t mess up what is, in my opinion, a bit of a complex license system. There are many units in CO and at least 8 different big game species to hunt, not to mention all of the small game. On the third year I was told that I had a 70% chance of receiving my non-resident either sex archery tag.
Once I had the tag in hand, I immediately began calling my friends who invited me as well as their camp elk hunting expert, Eric. A year back, my buddies sent me a picture of Eric holding up a nice 6 x 6. He and his wife are the only bow hunters in the group—the rest shoot iron sights muzzleloaders (CO has some pretty stringent muzzle loading requirements). The time of year they go out is when the two seasons cross over. We would be hunting the opening week of muzzleloader season which was the second week of archery. Eric sent me his equipment list and pre-set GPS maps and points. I went through this and then called him to discuss questions I had. In essence, he wore everything on his back while hunting. A medium-large backpack with hydration bladder was standard issue for these hunts. We talked about what was a “must have” and what was just his preferences. I’ll show the full list in the lessons learned section, but in essence, it consisted of various first aid, survival, and elk hunting backpack equipment. I later learned that a really good backpack would make a HUGE difference.
The actual setup of my bow was of course, key. I had decided to move to a one pin setup (HHA Optimized Lite) earlier in the spring in potential preparation for drawing a tag and was immediately shooting 60 yard pie plates upon setup. I had never been comfortable beyond 40 yards prior to this. Eric’s philosophy was that the shooting often happened so quickly that he believed multiple pins were needed. I was certain that I could get a range and then set the pin quickly enough to make a shot happen so I stuck with the one pin design. We also discussed his opinions on fixed blade versus mechanical broadheads and he believed that the fixed blades were harder hitting and therefore the right way to go when hunting these heavy-boned larger animals. Online research seemed to lead towards fixed blades as well although no hard evidence showed me a marked difference. Although I’ve shot both in the past I decided to go with the 100 grain Muzzy 3 blades that I had previously used. Eric has always shot the Thunderheads with great effect. I was shooting 3 plus times a week all summer with the gloves, hat, and other equipment that I would be shooting in the mountains. My process was to pick 3-4 arrows and then range and shoot at random yards from the ground and with vegetation in between myself and the target. I think all summer I only lost 2 arrows because of a missed target. I was the most comfortable I’ve ever been with a bow in more than 14 years of hunting with one.
As the time approached in mid-September I began printing out my equipment lists and going over everything time and time again. I also ordered the last of my missing supplies and setting them up as needed. As I have 2 little ones, 3 dogs, and a VERY understanding wife I also had a lot to set up so that they would be taken care of while I was gone. More than anything my wife realized that I was badly in need of some time away in nature. Work had recently been extremely stressful and the idea of 7-10 days in the mountains without cell phone or a computer was the exact right medicine I was in need of in order to continue as a better father and a better husband. My wife knows me well and fully supported this decision.
I packed the truck with two bags (one for the trip there and back and one for the trip into the mountains), 3 large coolers, and some other various equipment. I met my friends in Iowa, picked up a horse trailer and one of the horses and headed to Steamboat Springs the next morning. Weather was looking great with a 10 day forecast nearly the same throughout. It would be near 70 during the day and near 40 at night. With very little humidity, the forecast was looking like a hunter’s dream. I have spent only a few trips to the Rockies in order to visit as a kid and again as an adult in order to ski, watch some shows, and see some relatives near Denver. Pulling into Steamboat, the allure of the mountains came back to me. As we organized our gear that night at Uncle Russ’ house, we stepped out on the porch to the sounds cow sounds and bull bugles. I can’t recall ever hearing those sounds in person, although I’d spent the past 3 months listening to them on U Tube and imitating with newly purchased diaphragm calls. We discussed the fact that it was still very early in the usual mating season for these animals but things were just starting to happen in this area. We could catch it just right or the bulls could not be very responsive to our pleaing calls—only time would tell.