feature By: Darron McDougal | March, 20
There are times in life that seem too good to be true. It was the first morning of my Colorado elk hunt, and the second my guide John-Michael Ferrier killed the engine on his Polaris General, we heard bugling in multiple directions. That was encouraging since it was late October. As we waited for shooting light to arrive, a dozen or more tan figures meandered through the inky predawn filter separating us.
Just a few minutes before legal shooting light my wife, Becca, Ferrier and I quietly slipped out of the UTV. I uncased my rifle as we quickly discussed a game plan. Once we’d grabbed all of our gear, I slid the magazine into the rifle and then we shadowed the herd, which had now disappeared into a mixture of aspen and oak brush.
We were following the bugles when a young bull popped out of the dense oak brush about 80 yards ahead. “Don’t move,” I coached, since I was in the lead. Evidently, it heard some brush rustling, spotted our movement and mistook us for elk. It bugled at us, then stood and stared. We knew the rest of the herd was steadily moving away, so we gently nudged the young bull as we continued pursuing the herd.
As an outdoor communicator, I’m occasionally invited by manufacturers to go on hunts and was invited to the White River Mountain Ranch near Craig, Colorado.
I was fortunate enough to bow-kill a 6x6 bull in Idaho late in September. After arriving home in Wisconsin and processing the meat, my Colorado hunt was already fast approaching. I made a couple of trips to the local firing range to sight in my .30-06. After a few clicks, I felt confident in the combination out to 400 yards, in ideal conditions, of course.
The weeks peeled by, and before we knew it, Becca and I were packed and driving west. After an all-day drive, we spent the night in Rapid City, South Dakota. We rose early and finished our trip to the White River Mountain Ranch after another big push.
On arrival, we met our hosts and the other hunters in camp. A few of them had already hunted that afternoon, and one even had a close call with a very nice bull. After hearing stories, we were served a terrific dinner of antelope burgers. Then I was paired with Ferrier, and we discussed plans for the following morning.
After nudging the young bull, we continued after the herd. We crested a small rise that dropped into a basin and rose back up to a flat maybe 500 yards away where elk were feeding in and out of aspens. Ferrier believed one bull to be fair, but we couldn’t confirm it due to fleeting glimpses.
We decided to loop around to another vantage point above the herd. While making the maneuver, we spotted a cow elk on the trail in front of us. We hunkered down and watched as it fed toward us and then dipped off the trail less than 30 yards away. Antler tines soon caught my attention. I quickly identified it was a young 5x5. We hung tight and waited for the small herd to move away.
We continued ahead and eventually made a hard left turn up a steep grade to our predetermined vantage point. When we reached it, we slowly peered over the edge and our eyes were met with dozens of elk feeding amidst an aspen stand 200 yards below us. Only one bull in the group was worth a second glance, and we studied it carefully before determining it was a young bull with solid genetics. Ferrier left the decision up to me, and I passed up the 200-yard shot. We continued watching in case another larger bull was with the herd, but to no avail.
As the morning concluded, we began making our way back to camp. En route, a few elk crossed the trail in front of us. Ferrier killed the engine and we glassed the elk. A spike and multiple cows ran through. Just when I thought there weren’t any mature bulls in the group, I spotted a big one heading through the timber away from us that had apparently crossed the UTV path before we’d stopped. Off we went.
We chased the herd for a couple of miles through nasty, thick oak brush. The elk were talking, cows and calves mewing and bulls bugling. It was difficult to determine which bull was the one I’d seen because there were so many elk everywhere. We continued after what I believed was the bull, stopping several times to discuss changes in our course and to play the wind as we attempted to get ahead of the herd.
As the bull moved into the timber, we made another loop around and got above the herd. We were tiptoeing along a ridge when I spotted the bull, just beneath us maybe 50 yards away, through a tiny window. The elk needed to take one step before I could shoot it, but it started trotting and I decided not to force a poor shot. I knew we’d get another opportunity at something.
After trying to cut it off once more, we eventually lost the bull, although a bunch of its cows ran across an open hillside in full view. The bull apparently circumvented the hillside and opted for a timbered departure. We called it a morning, and once we were driving out of the area another herd of 150 to 200 elk busted out of the oak brush and crossed a hillside several hundred yards away. It was then that I realized there were, indeed, too many elk to make planned and calculated stalks on particular bulls.
That afternoon, another guide named Dean accompanied Ferrier, Becca and me for the afternoon hunt. We got positioned in a new spot with a commanding view of some prime habitat. Below us was a pond with elk trails converging on it from multiple directions. Not long into the hunt, our optics revealed elk on the far hillside.
Throughout the afternoon, we saw many elk. Unfortunately, none of the bulls were shooters. Darkness fell as a bull unexpectedly began bugling behind us. We slipped out of the area and returned to the lodge for dinner and to exchange notes with the rest of our group. One hunter had taken a decent bull and everyone was seeing elk.
Dean and Ferrier escorted us to the same location we’d hunted the first morning. There were so many elk in that series of basins and ridges that we were certain we’d locate a shooter bull. Our starting point was the vantage from which we’d glassed up the young bull with good genetics the previous morning. We glassed up dozens of cows as several bugles rang out in the distance. Dean grew restless and went to a subsequent vantage point where he could possibly spot a bull while we continued glassing dozens of elk below.
Not long after, Dean returned and advised that he’d spotted a couple of bulls. “At least one of them is a shooter,” he said. “I think we can work into a position for a shot. It might be a poke, but I think we can pull it off.”
We packed up and took off toward the bulls. It wasn’t long until the bugling gained volume. Soon, below us was a large pond, and elk were on all fringes of it, zigzagging in and out of the timber. The two bulls were competing for volume. Dean and I spotted a bull beyond the pond in the aspens, and I said, “That one looks like a mature bull.” He agreed.
The bull was farther than I wanted to shoot, but I setup the rifle on shooting sticks anyway, since there were once again too many elk between me and the bull to get closer. I quickly determined that there was too much brush in front of me, so I slinked downhill 15 yards and found a rock to sit on that provided a clearer view. I positioned the rifle on the sticks once again and prepared for a possible shot. Suddenly, the bull trotted out of the aspens into the opening on the pond’s near side.
The muzzle blasted. “You hit him good!” Dean said. “Hit him again!” I’d already bolted a second round into the chamber, and as Dean’s words faded the rifle barked a second time. In the scope, I could see blood pumping out as the bull made a 10-yard trot before stopping. I shot again and the bull collapsed in a heap. The first shot would’ve yielded a quick kill since it nailed the heart, but I believe in shooting until the animal is down, especially on a large animal like a bull elk.
As soon as the bull was down, high-fives, wide grins and animated recaps of the hunt ensued. Dean has been a part of dozens, if not hundreds, of elk kills, but his excitement was untamed. It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had in the elk woods. The elk was a magnificent management-class bull, likely four-years old and sporting a rack with poor genetics. That mattered little to me. I’d done the herd some good, plus I had a bunch more elk meat to cart back home to share with family and friends.
In the end, too many elk make getting close to a specific bull challenging, but it’s an excellent problem to have because you’re always covered up in elk.
I felt great about carrying my .30-06 on this hunt. A lot of Internet forums talk down the .30-06 as if it’s inadequate for elk. It’s all a bunch of fluff. The .30-06 is believed to be responsible for more elk kills than any other caliber. I firmly believe that just about any deer bullet placed just behind the shoulders on a broadside bull would penetrate sufficiently and kill the bull cleanly. However, I opted for a round with improved weight retention so that I didn’t have to worry about penetration on quartering angles. My choice was Federal’s Nosler AccuBond 150-grain load. If memory serves me, two of my three hits passed completely through the bull, proving that a deer rifle, paired with the correct load, will do everything you need it to on a big bull elk.