Monday, October 19, 2015

Coming out Heavy

Danny spent the first two weeks of the season working his butt off without hardly a sniff at an elk. It was an odd beginning to the year. So a few weeks into the season Danny and Kelly packed in seven miles. They set up a base camp in a fairly central location and then spiked out a couple of miles from there. They wanted the option to be able to restock on supplies and then head to a different location if they could not find the elk.

Ten years ago my brother-in-law, Kelly, used to tease me for getting so excited about hunting (elk hunting in particular). If you are reading this blog and you are a hunter then you know why we do it, which is what I told Kelly. I said, "You oughta come with us, you will not be bored and it will be one of the hardest things you've ever done". Well fast forward to present day, and Kelly is as excited about September as any of us. He's turning into a great elk hunting partner too.

Our elk hunting buddy, Del, hiked up on his own and was also hunting the same general area. Del is a lone wolf and even though he makes a great partner, he has his own hunting method that is really only applicable to a single guy hunting alone. With Del's llamas at base camp it didn't matter where they killed an elk.

Danny and Kelly hit the motherload. Three or four big herds came together in the same wide drainage. We've hunted this drainage a lot, it has become one of our favorite elk hunting areas, anywhere! Danny had a great idea on the movements of the elk and he knew where to position himself in order to be the most effective.

Danny was wishing I was there (so was I!!!). On the pack out they had elk filing past them. This bull was about ten yards away but they were already tagged out.

With elk screaming in every direction and hardly a ten second window without a bugle in the air the guys were able to pick the elk that best suited the wind. Working their way to the head of the drainage Danny locked-on to a bull who was responding to every cow call he made. Kelly slipped forward as Danny kept calling and moving around behind him. Kelly made a great quartering away shot.

Kelly killed this bull with a 64@28, 62" Wapiti recurve. He was using Carbon Express Heritage arrows and Cutthroat Broadheads.

Danny and Kelly spent the rest of the day getting Kelly's bull cut up and hung up. They stored the meat on a shady hillside so that they could continue hunting. The first night in the drainage the guys could hardly sleep because of all the bugling throughout the night. But the next night was silent. The elk move great distances in these mountains on a daily basis, and just because one mountain is hot one day, it doesn't mean anything about what might happen the next.

Danny and Kelly snuck their way onto a bench that sat at the top third of the drainage. As they were still hunting their way through they spotted a small bull ahead. Danny took out an arrow and crept towards the bull. Kelly was behind him and unsure of whether or not he should call. He decided to throw a bugle out to see what happened.

Danny had been within distance of a couple of very large bulls on this trip, including one that would be a huge bull in any unit in Colorado. Danny was really debating about whether or not to try for this small bull. But flashbacks of the previous two weeks of hunting kept flooding his mind. Day after day of long, hard, hot hikes without even seeing fur. The debate was settled, kill the bull in hand.

Up ahead, and out of sight from Kelly, Danny was desperately hoping that Kelly would call. He couldn't go any further without running out of cover. Kelly's bugle garnered an immediate response from the small bull. The bull started working towards the call but he wasn't too sure about what he wanted to do, and he had yet to give Danny an appropriate shot angle. Kelly grabbed a big branch and started to lightly rake a tree. He didn't want to scare off the young bull by intimidating him too much. Well, Kelly played it just right. The bull was officially committed to seeing who/what was making that noise. As the bull snuck towards Kelly he walked into a shooting lane. Danny was already waiting for him at full draw.

Danny shot this bull with a Carbon Express Maxima Red arrow and Cutthroat Broadheads.

200gr Cutthroat Broadhead

Two days, two dead bulls, two hard hard days of work ahead of them.

The guys took care of Dan's bull and hiked out to base camp that night. They were praying that Del didn't take an elk out with two of the llamas and leave them at the trailhead. Danny and Kelly were very happy to pop over the hill and see four happy llamas. At camp they found a few charcoal scribbled notes on pieces of bark. Del had as much action as they had, and had to go home a little early. Del might have ran out of arrows, but he did leave a half a cow for the guys to pack out for him, which they were happy to do.

Danny and Kelly got up early the next morning, dropped into the drainage they were hunting, packed up the two bulls, hiked out to base camp, packed up camp, and hiked out to the truck. It was a long and very rewarding day.

The elk had gone silent by the time my Dad and I returned to the same area, four days later. We had a close encounter with a real nice bull. The elk was under 20 yards for about ten minutes and miraculously never offered either of us a shot. But that was about it. The elk shut up and disappeared.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Paul's First Elk

Paul's first elk

I've known of Paul Cleland since we were little kids. We always saw each other at the CBA Jamboree or some other archery shoot. But we did not get to know each other until the last 7 years or so. I was thrilled when Paul started worked with us at RMSGear earlier this year. Not only did I think his traditional archery knowledge would be a huge benefit to our store, but I knew that I would enjoy his company on a daily basis. 

Paul is a fine hunter, but the elk have eluded him up until this year. Paul drew a tag in a unit that my Dad, my brother and I know well. Since I had a few problems with my feet I committed the first few weeks of the season to hunting with Paul in the milder terrain. But it didn't even take that long.

Paul and I hunted a few days before he finally connected on an elk. The first morning we went out we called in a couple of cows and a spike. Paul would have shot the spike but it never offered a shot. Paul's a little pickier than I would be having never filled an elk tag, and he passed up on a real big cow that fed right to him. The season hadn't even been on for a week but we were into about five bugling bulls on the same big aspen ridge. My hopes were high and a few of the buglers sounded pretty gnarly for being so early in the season.

Paul came close to killing an elk on Thursday night while hunting by himself. The elk were bugling their heads off and the herd bull was running around his cows while glunking. The next afternoon I drove up the mountain to hunt with Paul, we decided to hit the same area. We hoped that all the previous night's activity kept some elk around.

We spent the entire evening still hunting through some beautiful elk habitat. Only one bugle rang out and we disagreed on which direction it came from, so we continued our hunt as if it never happened.

As the night waned we found ourselves in a very likely spot for an elk to appear. Thinking that the night was a bust I threw out a couple of bugles. I was hoping that something would respond and tell us where to go the following morning. A minute later we heard a loud thump. Paul took an arrow out of his quiver and turned towards the noise. No sooner did he get situated than an elk appeared. A spike with long tines was feeding right towards us. When the elk turned broadside at 30 yards Paul pulled his bow back in such a fluid and smooth motion that I hardly noticed. I had full confidence that Paul was going to kill this elk, he is a fantastic shot with his Wapiti recurve. 

After the shot Paul and I gave our thanks and started to get pretty excited when we heard a crash. A 75 yard bloodtrail led us to Paul's first elk. 

Paul shot this elk with a 55#, 58" Wapiti Recurve. He was shooting Beman ICS arrows and 200gr Cutthroat Broadheads.

I was fully confident that Paul was going to kill an elk this season, but I must admit, I was a little bummed that I did not get to spend more time hunting with him. That's alright, I think we have many elk hunts together in our future.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Danny's Ram Hunt

It's hard for me not to brag about my little brother. I am pretty proud of him. Last week in some of the most precipitous mountains in the state, Danny got within shooting distance of big rams every single day of his hunt. 

Danny chose to hunt an area based on the physical challenge only and knew that the trophy potential was extremely limited. In spite of this, in just four days, he pulled out a ram that will likely miss the all time B&C book by only 6 inches or so. That is in no way meant to be taken as a proclamation of grand hunting prowess. Only to put the animal into perspective.

Everybody wants to be Cameron Hanes these days. I don't want my readers to think that I'm trying to bill my brother as the "hunter athlete". I don't even feel comfortable with that term or that movement. Danny's not like that. He's a regular guy, dedicated to excellence in his business and his life. He constantly seeks the hardest challenges and the biggest adventures. That's it. Danny didn't draw this tag to try and be something he is not or fit in with a current trend. He drew this tag precisely because it is who he is. If I didn't write about it he wouldn't tell anybody.

Two weeks before the season, Danny made his way to this remote basin. Every time he went out, he found good rams. But this close to hunting time, he wasn't finding the numbers he was hoping for.

This ram is as far from the trailhead as one could get. He is not the biggest ram on the mountain by any means, but Danny would have been thrilled to hunt him. 

The week before the season, Danny hit the jackpot. Harold Fahrenbrook, the best bowhunter that nobody has ever heard of, took Danny to one of his honey holes. Harold has taken two bighorns out of these mountains with a recurve (a feet that him and Rick Duggan can both claim). Harold and Danny are cut from the same mold. The two of them set out for four days, and they planned to keep walking until they found sheep. And find sheep they did!

These three rams made Danny's decision on where to hunt an easy one. He didn't need to spend any more time on the mountain. He knew where he would be on opening morning. 

This lone ram was hanging out in a large basin all by himself. This was one of the most huntable locations that Danny saw on his scouting trips. He did not find this particular ram again.

I am still recovering from two reconstructive foot surgeries that have kept me off the mountain all summer. It really sucked watching Danny go on so many scouting trips by himself. Having a buddy to do these tough scouting trips with makes it so much easier and more enjoyable, I felt terrible that I couldn't be there for him.We hunt together. It's what we do. It's what we've done since we were 4 & 5 years old. I can clearly remember the first squirrel that either one of us shot with a bow. Of course it was my brother, but I was right by his side when he shot it, and I was right by his side when the squirrel bit his finger.

Luckily, our great friend Del was game to hit the mountains. Even luckier, Del brought three of the best llamas in Colorado. Danny and Del have packed out more than a few big bulls on just two of these bad boys. The llamas aren't quite in hunting shape yet, but they were still nice to have.

Our cousin Chad also drove out from Nebraska to give Danny a hand.

Chad is a pleasure to have on trips like this. There has never been one time in our lives that he has been discouraged, not once has he had a bad thing to say, quit, pulled up short, or done anything other than be completely enjoyable. Chad has always, and will always do whatever it takes. He is just like Danny in that there is never a hike too far or a climb to hard. Not only does he have the physical ability to breeze through a tough hunt, but way more importantly, he has the attitude and mindset to welcome the work and revel in it! That's probably why he has gone into new areas that he has never visited and pulled elk out on a regular basis over the past 10 years. Chad loves a challenge, he loves a new experience, and he has the work ethic to be successful when the odds are not in his favor. He is the perfect guy to rely on.

Del routinely makes deep packs and long stays into the mountains by himself, and he usually comes out heavy. He's a true woodsman and a good friend to have on a hunt like this. Del returned to town after the first two days because of work obligations. I could not tell if he was joking or not, but he said that he felt sorry for Danny every time he left camp to go on a stalk. Those words coming out of Del's mouth are pretty funny and I took them as a sign of respect for the kind of stuff Danny was doing every day. When Del wants to have an easy day of elk hunting, he takes a route that knocks me on my butt!

This gnarly hillside was home to a big group of rams. Danny was approaching from below on his stalks. Chad and Dan worked out some hand signals so that Chad could communicate to Danny where the sheep were. They had names and signals for rock outcroppings they named the Upper and Lower Pinnacle, Stegosaurus, The Dome, and several more. The ability to communicate like this was the difference in the hunt.

Chad on his glassing perch.

Danny's home for the hunt.

Getting dried out after some nasty storms rolled through.

A sheepy hillside that Dan is ascending in the following picture.

Dan is on the edge of the left shoot, making his way up the mountain after a big ram.

One of Dan's stalks. You can see the rams pretty easily but you might need to click on the picture in order to see Dan. He was about 35yds from the rams in this instance.

The final approach. You can see the rams sky-lined in this picture.

On the fourth morning of the hunt, Dan set out before the sheep bedded down. The plan was for Chad to keep an eye on the sheep and then do his best to communicate to Danny where to go.

After he got to the bottom of the drainage, Danny sat down to pull some food out of his pack. Four days of intense work had finally caught up to him. He looked back to find Chad. Chad was waiving his hands frantically. Chad gave him the Stegosaurus signal. Danny pulled a tortilla out of his pack and kept going without rest. He knew what that meant.

The rams had bedded in one of the best possible locations. Danny picked up the pace. There are deep cuts in the rock outcropping that they named Stegosaurus. Danny could creep through those rocks without being seen and get on top of the sheep without problem. He knew that there were three big rams in the group, any of which he would be an absolute fool to pass up.

Chad never had a dull moment. He was positioned with a Swarovski spotting scope on both sides of himself so he could keep tract of all the sheep. He had to be sure that he didn't miss any that would bed down in a spot that could blow the whole hunt.

Waiting for the wind to switch gave Danny a chance to take some pictures of the rams he was stalking.

Little guys figuring out who the future king will be.

And the big guys showing them how it's done!

Getting to the top of Stegosaurus was more like rock climbing than stalking. Danny had to set his bow on a ledge above him, wedge a rock in front of it to keep the bow from falling, and then crawl his way up to it. He repeated this for at least 150ft of the final ascent. As Dan peeked his head over the rocks he saw horns all around, just 15 yards away. Danny knelt back down to take his quiver off. He had a very narrow slit to shoot between rocks, and his bow wouldn't fit with the quiver attached. When he started peeking over the rocks again, he saw all the sheep on their feet. The wind was swirling terribly and Dan assumed that they smelled him.

These bighorns were arrogant about their physical ability to evade predators. They weren't spooky in the same way that elk and deer are spooky. Their senses are just as good, but instead of running into the next basin they would just scale a couple hundred vertical feet in a few seconds. Then they would pompously look back down at whatever puny threat groveled below. It's like the sheep had an "I dare you to chase me" attitude.

Their haughtiness worked out for Danny in this instance. Having smelled him the sheep just stood on alert, unsure of where he was, but confident that they were safe in their craggy precipice. Danny drew his bow behind cover and then slowly rose. They named the biggest ram Shaggy, the old ram hadn't rubbed off all of his winter coat and long strips of hair hung from his body. Danny spotted Shaggy first, but the big ram was in the middle of seven other smaller rams, making that shot not an option.

Dan quickly scanned the rest of the sheep. All the way to the left stood one of the three big rams, all by himself. In less than 20 seconds the hunt was over.

Danny was shocked at the sadness he felt as he approached the dead ram. Walking up to an animal that you have just killed is always bittersweet. This time, in this country, with this view, and with the immense respect for how these sheep live, the feeling was more intense. Dan spent an incredible amount of time in these mountains. Every day these rams are in the middle of the most hostile natural forces in this part of the state. Mother nature isn't more intense anywhere around here. She also isn't anymore beautiful.

Hunters know this, but to kill an animal is not drawn from a desire for blood or death, it is quite the opposite. Immersing yourself in their world, learning about them, studying their movements, and ultimately taking their life, provides the hunter with more appreciation and thanks than can possibly be understood - unless you've done it yourself. That is the precise reason that hunters are the best protectors of wildlife and wild places. They partake in that animals life and death. Hunters love the creatures they pursue in a deeper way than the non-hunter can ever know. And they prove it with their money and with their efforts. There was no fist pumping on this hunt, no childish actions or celebratory dances. Just a lot of time alone, long sits, and hard walks.

After killing the ram, Danny had a long time to wait for Chad, who made his way over to take a few pictures and help take care of the meat.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife aged the ram at 12 years old.

Three hours after the shot, Chad finally showed up. 

Not wanting to make a trip all the way back into this mountain, Chad and Danny took the ram back to base camp in one trip. I asked Danny what that was like. He said it was work. That's the only way he could explain it to me. Work.

Writing about the physical experience could hardly do it any justice so I didn't really try. Mountain hunters know what this hunt entailed. The mountain was constantly beating on Dan and Chad. The strong winds never stopped. Daily rain showers that turned into hail and snow almost turned the hunt into a survival situation several times. But Danny never stops. He doesn't get even slightly discouraged, he doesn't sleep in, he doesn't look for an easy way. He goes hard all the time in everything that he does. There is no mountain too tall, no stalk too far. He will always keep going and  he will always be happy about it.