First Day of Spike and Cow Elk Muzzleloader Hunt

Opening day of the Muzzleloader Elk Season was late October in 2009. I had a spike bull and a cow elk tag, and we had planned to set up the wall tent in the high country the day before, but we woke up to a weather forecast for a cold, windy and snowy day.

Anyone familiar with driving on U.S. Forest Service Roads above 9,000 ft in the Rockies, knows that much snow that time of year could be the end of vehicle access until May or June. As the day progressed, the snow started falling and began accumulating quickly. At first, our hopes to set up camp dwindled, then as the snow continued to fall, I started thinking about plan B. I had seen this before. Instead of hunting, everyone would likely spend the day trying to pull out all the trucks and trailers stuck in the snow and mud. If the roads weren’t blocked by snow, they would probably be blocked by vehicles. I would leave them to it.

pinyon juniper elk hunt

Pinyon-Juniper (PJ) Habitat

Plan B was to sleep at home, but get up early enough to drive to a lower elevations site before sunrise. Instead of hunting the spruce-fir and aspen, we would hunt the PJ (Pinyon Pine – Juniper habitat for our Eastern friends; “pines” or “cedars” for my local friends). I know a publicly owned area that is next to and almost surrounded by private lands. I have never seen anybody else hunt there, so not many people know about the area, or they don’t believe the elk are here. I haven’t found a year round source of water, but have consistently seen elk there Spring, Summer and Fall.

We pulled into a clearing where the PJ had been chained several years earlier to create more grass, forb and shrub habitat for elk and mule deer to use as winter forage areas. We left the house about 90 minutes earlier, but it took longer than I thought to get there. It was still before sunrise, but it was already legal to shoot. I had wanted to get in the field a little earlier, but it is was what it was.

My wife (Sonia) was with me for her first hunting trip ever. She was not hunting, but wanted to go along for the experience. Either that, or she thinks I’m too old to be out by myself without supervision. It had snowed a few inches the previous day,  the wind was blowing about 20 mph and the temperature was in the upper 30s (F). We were on a bench at about 6800 ft. I had several places in mind to sit and watch, but didn’t want to drive any closer, so we had a little bit of a walk ahead of us. We pulled on our packs and I pulled the TC (Thompson Center Encore) out of the case and primed it.

The wind was blowing so hard, it was perfect for covering any noise we made, and nothing was going to scent us if we walked into the wind. The only path that made sense was to walk straight into the wind and move in and out of the edge of the trees and the chained opening. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. I didn’t expect to be so lucky as to see something yet, but we walked very slowly from tree to tree and stopped and scanned all that we could see before moving to the next tree. At this point, the plan was to walk in this direction until we were far enough up the hill that we could cut straight across the wind along the tree line to a little ridge that I planned to sit and watch.

Murphy’s Law Corollary # 712 If You Have Spike or Cow Elk Tags, You Will Run Into a Big Bull

not legal spike elk

NOT Legal in a Spike Bull Unit

We had come up to the bottom of a steep little hill and we couldn’t see over the top. I carefully moved toward the next tree while scanning the opening to the front and to the right of me. My eye caught movement through the juniper in front of me and I froze and squatted down and signaled to Sonia to freeze as well. It took a second to realize what I was seeing. It was the very top of a 6 X 6 set of antlers, and they were only about 40 yards way. They looked like the were spinning as he swung his head left then back right as if he had sensed something, but couldn’t find it.

I didn’t get too excited, because I knew I didn’t have a tag for this big fellow. But I was hoping he might have a few cows with him. The rut was over, but I didn’t think any spikes would be with him yet. He was standing broadside to me and for some reason, I assumed he was going to move across in front of me into the trees. It was going to be fun to see this guy up close and I was especially glad Sonia was going to get a good look at a bull elk up close.

All three of us (me, Sonia and the 6-by) stayed perfectly still for another 30-45 seconds or so. Suddenly, the bull turned and instead of cutting across in front of me to the trees, started up the little rise that prevented us from seeing each other. In only 4 or 5 steps, he was standing there in the wide open to my right. He looked straight at us. I couldn’t see Sonia, because she was behind me, but I whispered to her to hide her face with her hands as I slowly moved my hand in front of my face. We both had on camo, and both had camo head nets, but I know my net was still in my pocket. But if they can’t smell you, it might not matter. If you don’t move they aren’t sure what you are. It probably helped that we were kneeling down and not standing up straight. He just stood there and looked and we looked back at him through our fingers.

elk antlers

Photo Courtesy of [email protected]

The bull started making “cow calls”, and turned to look behind him. I had given the bull my full attention and had neglected to see another bull that was now standing exactly where the first bull had stood. Just like the first bull, all I could see was the tips of his antlers. It looked like another 6 X 6 to me, but was longer and had more mass than the first bull. Later, Sonia said she thought it had 7 points at least on one side and she had a better view than I did. Now we are 40 yards from two nice bulls and they are both talking to each other. This was fun! If something like this wouldn’t get somebody excited, we need to cover them up with dirt before they start stinking. They are already dead.

The first bull finally decided that we were part of the landscape and started feeding right there in front of us. He would occasionally raise his head and turn to call to the bull behind him, but at least for now, he was completely ignoring us. The big bull was acting suspicious and he also kept making quiet little cow calls. He was standing perfectly still except his head was turning back and forth. I know he couldn’t smell or see us, but he seemed to know something was not right. This went on for another minute or two and my leg was starting to go to sleep where I was squatted down.

About the time I decided I was going to have to try to move my leg, the antlers of a third bull, another 6 X 6 about the same size as the first bull appeared from behind the largest bull and then quickly rose above the hill until he was in full view and was standing sightly behind the first bull. He too looked as us nervously and also kept looking back at the big bull every time he called. The big bull took a few steps toward us and stopped again. Now I could see his whole head through the juniper. The other two bulls were still both in the open at 40 yards.

I Can’t Hold Still Any Longer!

I didn’t know what Sonia was doing behind me at that point, but I heard a shuffling noise above the sound of the wind in the trees. Instantly all three bulls had radar lock on us again with all eyes and ears forward. She later told me that her hat fell off her head. If I had been in a comfortable position, I would have stayed there and watched those bulls until lunch time. A guy has to eat you know. I was expecting those bulls to bust out of there any second and was just trying to hold on until they did. Another minute or so went by and they just stood and stared at us.

Who knows what those guys were thinking. I always joke about wild animals running first and asking questions later, but these guys must have had questions. But I decided not to take take the pain in my leg anymore since I wasn’t on Survivor and wasn’t going to win any prizes. I slowly began to stand up. I think Sonia took the same cue and also stood up. Instead of bolting, the 3 bulls just stood there. They stood perfectly still for about two or three more seconds, then I guess they decided to ask their questions later and all three turned at once and tore off up the hill, with dirt, sticks and pieces of sagebrush flying everywhere behind them.

We just looked at each other for a few seconds and tried to shake the blood back into our legs. We tried to run up the hill after them to see if they had stopped somewhere, but we were moving a little slower up the hill than the elk. It was only about 300 yards to a tree line on the ridge and it didn’t seem like it, but it probably took us a more than a couple of minutes to get there.

We stopped and scanned the horizon and listened. All quiet except the wind. None of the three bulls were anywhere in sight. We crossed an open area and moved farther across the ridge to another tree line. There they were about 900 yards on one of the fingers of the same ridge where we were standing. No, That’s only two of them. Then a few seconds later it occurs to me that those are not the same elk. I don’t believe the same elk would run like scalded dogs 1,200 yards, then start feeding again that quickly. Then Sonia (smart girl that she is, using her binoculars) tells me the one on the left doesn’t have antlers. Hey… I have a cow tag.

Sonia told me later that since we saw the three bull elk only 20 minutes from the truck, she thought that was how hunting must always be. 🙂

modern muzzleloader guide

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