By Brent Fassett
When Rich Vetsch of Shining Times Outfitting pulled into the Alpine Inn at 4:30am on Monday morning, I was sitting on the tailgate putting on my boots. I had been to the Broncos vs. Ravens in Denver on Thursday, Michigan vs. Notre Dame in Ann Arbor on Saturday and driven the six hundred fifty miles from Boulder to White Sulphur Springs, Montana the night before…and somewhere in there I had been triaging two Friday night client crises. I was averaging about four and half hours of sleep and had been overrun with civilization. I followed him out of town, parked at a roadside ranch gate and climbed into Rich’s truck.
I was greeted with “99 eh? I'm a 5 man”
By the time we drove to the top of the ranch and waited for enough light to see, we had established similar views on NASCAR drivers and tracks, Obama and the general state of world affairs. Rich reported seeing a couple large herds of elk since Friday when the two other hunters in camp had started. The bulls had started to bugle. We walked out to an overlook to glass the fields where the elk had been feeding.
That morning, Rich saw one bull I could never locate, but for the most part the first two days were quiet. The elk that had been bugling had fallen silent. We hiked to elk travel paths, heard cow calls or traveling groups in the forest, but no bugles. Still, every morning and evening hunt I saw or heard elk.
The first day set the pattern-we glassed at first light, hiked, glassed, called…and went back to camp around 11:00am. Lunch was at noon, naps followed lunch and we were back out of camp at 4:30pm hunting until 8:00pm when it was too dark to see pins. Lunch was the big meal of the day, dinner was more like traditional lunch and done by 9:45pm. For each morning after the first, coffee was on at 4:00am, hot breakfast at 4:30am. Food was consistently good.
Camp was in a national forest across from the ranch, with two large wall tents for clients, one of which I had to myself, one wall tent for guides Rich and Mark and a fourth wall tent where Ron,(1 ) the cook, and Molly, the golden doodle, were in charge. For the K-9 inclined, it was a treat to have a dog in hunt camp and she was a perfect lady throughout.
The ranch was essentially a square-main road on the front, a large timbered ridge on the right (facing the ranch from the road) front corner, then fields, including irrigated hay, that flowed back to pine timbered ridges on the back, some thirteen thousand acres surrounded by the Lewis and Clark national forest. I was the only hunter on the property during my hunt. Every day, the weather was perfect, forties Fahrenheit in the morning, T-shirts by afternoon. Emerald green irrigated hay fields, meandering streams and ranch ponds populated with ducks and geese, evergreen boughs shading steep rising foothills, jet black cows feeding in golden fields readying for winter, big azure skies with occasional cotton ball clouds.
On the second morning, we hiked high on the face of a back ridge to glass and listen… nothing. We drove to a left front corner of the ranch and hiked again. As we reached a timbered draw, no sooner had Rich said “they might be in here” than he added, “…and there they go”. At least one bull and several cows were walking out the top of the opposite side of the draw.
“We call it the Refuge because the old owners wouldn’t let us hunt here, but these guys are fine with it. This is the closest timber out of the hayfields.” The current owner of the ranch had purchased it after initially hunting it with Rich.
The elk had not left in a hurry, so we tried a futile calling set up and then hiked up the trail the elk had used. We came up into an open field to see a group of fiftyish elk feeding at two hundred yards, including five to six branch antlered bulls, another five spikes. Had it been rifle season, I could have filled my tag with my choice of bulls. But it wasn’t rifle season and they were in the open. We elected to back out and come back in the evening.
The second evening, we walked a long circle through the fields to find the elk we had left in the morning. No luck. Not a bugle. We searched all the intermediate timbered draws and saw only antelope. Rich remarked that, “Archery hunting elk that aren’t bugling is like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Driving out in the dark, the headlights caught a whitetail buck in the field. As we slowed, Rich spotted elk across in the opposite field in green standing crops, up against the far end of the steep timbered ridge that fronted the property. We kept driving and saw a bull in with several cows, then another bull was running more cows back across the field toward the timbered ridge.
The third morning, we went back to the same intermediate timbered ridge we had glassed from the previous morning, looking toward the hay fields where the elk fed overnight, perched on their estimated vector of travel to the bedding areas. As the sun rose, deer fed on a far ridge. Four spike bulls fed across the field toward us. The wind was from us to them and they were in the open. At five hundred yards, the first one stuck his nose in the air..followed by the other three and within seconds they were bolting at a ninety degree angle to their previous line of travel.. away from us.
Back across the fields, on the front ridge of the ranch, Rich spotted fifteen to twenty elk in the open, cows and three or four bulls. We hiked back to the truck and drove around to the base of the ridge we had seen the elk ascending. On the drive, we spooked a black bear at seventy five yards who rambled off, rippling his black velvet coat against the green hayfields. He could have been stalking the same elk we were.
We ascended the steep ridge and attempted a setup where the south facing open slope transitioned to the north facing trees. No response. We traversed the ridge crest in the trees, occasionally cow calling. Fresh steaming scat…urine still soaking into the trail, not a peep. They were headed to the top of the ridge where we had seen the elk the night before, so we backed out.
The third night, we resorted to a pure ambush plan. We walked into the base of the ridge where we had seen the elk at dark the night before. We found an elk super highway where the steep timbered ridge gave way to the flat crop field. The wind was blowing every which way. We found a good spot where the main trail was moving down and the fence to the crops was battered. A pile of deadfall trees provided cover ten yards inside the timber.
Rich and I engaged in thirty minutes of shot lane clearing. I was twenty yards off the main path to my front, just inside the tree line and one hundred yards from the crops to my left and back. Rich double checked the setup and walked out-no sense in two smell makers. I broke out the Kindle(2 ) and read for an hour and a half. At 7:00pm, I heard a cow chirp, then another….and I could even swear I heard a faint bugle at the top of the ridge. I stood—the wind was still fickle-now at my face, then at my back, then going uphill. Within minutes, I could hear elk coming down the hill toward me—crunches, branches cracking, footsteps, huffing, a patch of chocolate, mocha or ivory. A herd. A cow call whined out 150 yards to my rear left, nearly in the field. I thought Rich had decided to come back around and call the descending elk toward me, though he was not his usual taciturn self.
By 7:15pm, the elk were coming according to plan. I heard heavy breathing, bugling, glunking, cow chirps; constant sound and movement almost hidden in the trees around me. What followed was worth the whole hunt. For half an hour, I was surrounded on three sides by at least fifty elk, all within one hundred yards, most within thirty. There were ten to fifteen cows and calves in front on the highway, eating and milling, a couple of spike bulls farther across and up to my right on the ridge...and fifteen yards directly above me a constant cow conga line, nose to tail to nose, on an unseen ledge bisecting a hillside we had judged too steep for elk. It was like a football field and the marching band was assembling, the edge of the timber was the sideline and the band would venture out to the field when dark finally fell.
As I slowly swiveled my head in all directions looking for a shootable bull, I realized what I thought was Rich behind me was a cow who had worked her way out into the fields: the first majorette prepared to lead the band onto the dinner field. She was in perfect position to pull some hot bull from in front of me toward her.
The cows kept their line moving above me, circling to where the majorette had entered the field. I stood frozen. There were a couple of unseen bulls in front, bugling, huffing, racking trees. I saw a six by six at eighty yards, directly in front of me, just inside the timber. He was running at full speed chasing cows; back and forth, never a bull within range. Eventually, as dark fell, something happened. They smelled or saw something and the whole herd retreated in a hurry from the edge of the timber back up the timbered hill. A great show…and the bugles were back.
The fourth morning, we headed to the Refuge. We were set up by first light and heard some bugling in front, nothing approached, though they did answer a locating bugle. We hiked up a bit and saw a line of elk crossing half a mile in front of us, from the lower fields to the ridges at the back. We were in the wrong drainage that morning, but we had zeroed in on their pattern. The noose was closing.
We walked to the truck and drove to the back. We got out at “the” glassing point, on public land, and spotted the elk working their way up to the top of the far back ridge in the timber. We drove into the ranch and hiked in a mile. Rich let out one weak bugle and was answered by two bulls. It was 9:30am.
We walked a few more yards and heard another bugle, much closer. Rich directed me to move up thirty yards and find a spot in the shadows. I did this in a line of eight foot tall brush, a fifty square yard open spot on my right front, with another open alley coming down to the left. I set up behind a five foot pine, figuring I would be able to take a shot to the right or left. I didn’t have to wait long, maybe three minutes, when I saw ivory tips waving through the pines. Rich gave a few cow calls and the bull bugled and came on, glunking and huffing. The bull chugged in front of the twenty eight yard bush. His rack waved.
The second, distant bull bugled and the close bull turned his head to bugle back. I was pinned behind a bush, bow at my waist, no way to raise it unseen. He was a giant. I tried to keep my eyes shaded under my hat brim. I was visibly shaking head to toe. He bolted.
Crushing disappointment! A six by six at twenty two yards! Rich came up and we talked about what the hell happened. Sitting in front of the tree instead of behind, drawing and holding sooner… sometimes it's luck. We headed to lunch. I took solace in the Earl maxim that “your” animal will present himself and so this must not have been my bull.
The other two hunters left camp that afternoon, neither had taken a shot despite numerous close calls. Mark became my second guide. Mark’s day job was running a New Jersey wholesale floral farm and he came out to guide for vacation. For a guy with stories of hunting squirrels before school as a kid, only the accent gave away the New Jersey roots. On the satellite radio, Ron heard of flooding fifteen miles from Boulder with fatalities feared. With no cell coverage, I couldn’t call home, nor could I affect events there. It was time for the evening hunt, so I decided that at the lunch break the next day I would drive out to call.
For the fourth afternoon hunt, we returned to the back ridge above where I had flubbed the bull in the morning. On the way in, we again stopped at the glassing point and could make out elk amongst the trees on the ridge, including bulls at the top of a V where the ridge dipped. Once in the ranch, Mark and I hiked up the face of the ridge with the thermals coming down. As we approached, there were a few light bugles. We were almost to the top when we heard one bugle to our upper right and another to our upper left, both within a few hundred yards.
We were in thick timber, working closer to the one on the left and came on a pretty good set up spot-a small open grass area in the trees. The left bull bugled again, we had closed the distance….and then Mark caught a doe ambling into the opening, feeding fifteen yards directly between us and the bull. We froze....and after five minutes, the doe fed away.
We set up at the back of the opening the doe had just ambled up. Mark cow-called, without response. The two bulls would bugle sporadically, but not in response to each other or Mark’s calls. Now and then, the bugles would sound closer, then farther. We passed the evening with other bugles joining sporadically, virtually no cows. We never saw any elk.
The next morning was Friday the thirteenth, which Aliza had declared her lucky day, seeing as it was her lucky number. I predicted to Rich that it was going to be some bull’s unlucky day. Rich and I planned to return to the Refuge while Mark glassed another part of the ranch. In the dark, we hiked into the lower ridge the elk had traversed the morning before. We were barely to the timbered portion when we heard a cow call and hooves….this time, upwind behind us. It was barely light enough to see a cow, a calf and a spike clear the trees seventy five yards away. They continued on, caught our wind and spooked south, not warning the larger group that was passing north in front.
Commotion in the trees immediately in front of us: Rich tried cow calls and we had a few responses, including a faint bugle. Then we heard individual elk hoof strikes crossing in front of us, but there was a thick wall of evergreens and we never saw them. We didn’t know if some would come out on our right, upwind, or if they were all going up, downwind...so we stayed in place. The noises died and we knew we had missed them as we saw them line out in the open fields.
We had a pretty good idea where they were going. We met Mark at the truck and drove to the back of the ranch. As we parked, we heard a couple of bulls bugling toward the left, off the ranch on public land. We worked that way and continued to hear frequent and enthusiastic bugling from several bulls. The bugling was so incessant that Rich and Mark were taking odds that we were stalking at least one public land hunter. Mark said,“Is that Will Primos?”
We left the ranch and went in a mile. The bugles grew in intensity and proximity. After crossing a large open field, we were fifty yards inside the timber on a downward slope that bottomed on an abandoned roadbed. At least two bulls were bugling to our front where the valley started to rise to a thousand foot timbered ridge.
Rich set up forty yards above and behind to our right, while Mark and I continued down the hill. We came to a line of trees, Mark taking up a spot twenty yards behind me. The abandoned roadbed was to my left, we were in the row, and an open patch ascended to my front and right. Rich began cow-calling.
A bull bugled, so Rich answered with a cow call. Another, farther bugle. Rich hit a higher note. The close one bugled and I could hear him huffing and chugging. Mark signaled that he was coming down the roadbed on our left and he had five points. The more distant bull bugled, and Rich cow-called.
Mark mimed that the bull was getting close. I could hear him knocking trees, huffing. The opening to the road was twenty yards to my left and I ranged a twenty two yard tree on the right. The close bull bugled and Mark pointed out that the bull was abandoning the roadbed and was going to cross the tree line in front to the right. I tried to stealthily change my set up from the left to the right, gracefully catching my nocked arrow on a sapling as I shifted.
Now oriented to the opening on my right front, I caught sight of tan and chocolate and antlers. He bugled and huffed. I was shaking, trying to commit original mistakes instead of the previous day’s mistakes. As he crossed the tree line, there were enough trees and pine needles that I could risk the draw and hold. He came out in front of the 22-yard tree and paused, turning enough to shoot. Green pin for 20, bubble level, peep centered….thumb tip on the jawbone..his shoulder, squeeze the release…
The bull spun and I saw green and white fletching sticking out (3 ) of the right side. The shot was low and behind the ribs. The bull stopped for a second and I hurried to get another arrow nocked. Mark and Rich were cow-calling as the bull bolted out of my sight, back left across the line of trees. Mark had his binoculars up and within seconds motioned that the bull was down. We engaged in a mimed conversation.
“No…. head swimming.”
It was 8:40am. A hunting goal for the year had been developing patience and I was about to get a lesson in it.
For ten minutes we held frozen, each time Mark indicating he wasn’t dead yet. Mark was the only one who could see. Twenty minutes post shot, Mark turned to Rich and indicated that the bull was up.
My heart sunk and my stomach hurt. A wounded bull! The dirty little archery secret! Mark signaled the bull was back down, but not dead. We waited.
Fifteen minutes more, the bull was up again…he walked into my binocular sight and I saw him lie down. Mark couldn’t see him now, so I took over as the observer. Time passed and I could see the bull’s head moving. We waited an hour after the shot. I wanted to try and get another arrow in, but Mark and Rich counseled patience. The pine forest was thick and the bull was in a relatively open spot. He was eightyish yards away.
The magpies began to gather and squawk over their impending meal. Time passed; Mark moved so he could see the bull, Rich and I joined him. The bull didn’t get up again, but he had solid head movements.
Another hour passed. A hawk screeched.
Rich said, “He's going to die. A hit like that might take three to four hours. If we spook him, he will be off and there isn’t much, if any, blood from that type of wound.” After three hours, the bull had tried to stand a couple times in response to our whispers or movement, but he couldn’t get up.
The magpies would land on the bull, picking at the wound, ears, eyes. The day warmed and the sun rose in our faces. Flies began to gather in earnest.
Rich decided he would explore the pack-out possibilities and return with lunch and the game cart. Mark and I took turns keeping an eye on the bull. We were besieged by flies.
It was heartbreaking to see the bull wave his head, lay it down..try to get up, lay back down. The birds continued to harass him. I was restless, nervous, stomach aching…I really wished I could end it. Every time the bull laid his head down I would time how long it would stay down. Now five minutes; thirty minutes later it lasted fifteen minutes…just as I told Mark I thought he might be done, the bull would raise his head a bit, then set it down.
Rich came back four and a half hours after the shot, bringing lunch and water. Finally, huffing and a big exhale. Rich felt this was the death blow….the bull had laid his head over on the side for the first time. An ear was sticking up..and not moving. Rich: “Let’s wait 20 minutes, but I think he is done. Tough old SOB really fought it.”
After ten minutes, Rich began to walk to where the bull had been when I shot. “Watch his ear, if it doesn’t move, he's done.” Rich had me range to him from where I shot, 17 yards.
We examined the hoof marks where the bull had spun. There was no blood (4 ).
Mark gave the "finished" sign. We shook hands and collected gear. I approached with an arrow nocked. The entrance wound was four inches back of the ribs. He was dead, covered in hundreds of flies. I had been miserable with five or six flies near me, this poor guy had hundreds on him. It was 2:10pm.
With the gutting and tagging done, we got the whole animal on the game cart. Mark and Rich pulled the cart. I took the packs and my bow, alternately following, stabilizing the rack, and clearing the path. The roadbed helped and we were able to get the entire bull back two miles to the truck and loaded on the flatbed with more sweat than drama.
With the first bull of the season on the meat pole in camp, I did my symbolic part with a special knife, then left Mark and Rich to finish the task while I changed and loaded the truck. My plan was a quick trip back to Colorado and handle the meat processing there. We toasted an excellent week of hunting with some almond tequila. Ron reported that I-25, my route home, was closed from the Wyoming border to Denver. I left half of my scotch with Ron, regretting that I couldn’t leave him the whole bottle, but sensing that I didn’t know where I would next lay my head. I wasn’t going to be stranded and sober.
I pulled out of camp and headed south. It wasn’t long before I had enough signal to call home.I proudly told Katy I had a bull. A pause on her end…“Welllllllllll, no sense in hurrying back-there's a mess everywhere and we're stranded. The power came on this afternoon, but the road is gone.”
Hitting the first town twenty miles south, I pulled into a gas station, bought a soda and road snacks, then asked the clerk if she had any rubber gloves. She offered food service gloves.
“How many you need?”
“Two pairs should be fine, thanks. I need twenty bags of ice too.”
Slight, uncomfortable giggle; “What, ya got a body in there?”
Keith Atcheson hooked me up with Rich. I was pleasantly surprised when he quoted me the price for an eight day 1X1 hunt. Shining Times exceeded my expectations and goals in every way, I could not have asked for a better outfitter or camp companions. I shot a Bowtech Captain, seventy pound and thirty one inch draw, 460 grain Easton Full Metal Jacket Arrows with Montec G5 broadheads, Blazer vanes, Spot Hogg Real Deal Sight and QAD rest. We got 380 pounds of meat for the freezer.
(1 ) Ron is a private aviation pilot instructor, mostly retired from a career of various engineering and repair careers. Having exhausted his own book stash and having a Luddite resistance to the Kindle, he was forced to dip into my physical book backup stash, snuffing “read it” at Horn of the Hunter and eventually choosing a thick Vanderbilt biography. He later related that, “I disagree with three of his assertions, so far…” It was that kind of camp.
(2 ) Bibliography on the hunt were the first books in W.E.B. Griffin’s Corps series, The Great Siege, Malta 1565 by Ernie Bradford and Visions from a Foxhole: A Rifleman in Patton's Ghost Corps by William Foley.
(3 ) This could not have been. The recovered broken arrow had solid blood up to the nock and had gone fully through the paunch and penetrated the off-side back leg. The front few inches of the arrow with the broad head were never recovered.