Sloan Baca and I decide to take a short break from sneaking through a hillside covered with dark timber below an aspen-covered road left from years-ago timber cutting.
“We’ll sit down for a few minutes and then head back to the truck,” he whispers. “It looks like they’re slowing down.”
The “they” in that sentence would be the elk on Jack Brittingham’s Rancho Lobo just outside Chama’s northern limits. Butted up against the Colorado border, the ranch is home to thousands of elk each fall as the animals go through their annual mating rituals.
I’ve been coming here for a number of years, trying to waylay a bull elk with my bow, suffering humiliations galore but not closing the deal. I hope this is the year, but things already aren’t going my way.
And that’s what we’re trying to change on this beautiful morning in the Rockies. We’ve covered several miles already, working toward bugling bulls busy rounding up their harems and trying to keep interlopers out of the equation.
Elk hunting in the mountains is one of the toughest things I’ve ever done and one in which the animals hold most of the advantage. They live in the most dense, frustrating and steep terrain in the mountains, their eyesight is great, and their noses are remarkable. And they are superb athletes, built for moving easily up and down in lung-bursting country that can leave hunters dehydrated, jelly-legged and sore.
At the slightest hint of the scent of a human, the elk can clear out with almost no sound. And they do. Bulls and cows seem to disappear into the darkness, leaving a sweating, heavy-breathing hunter wondering what just happened. How did an almost sure thing turn into a total disaster?
Little do I know that Sloan and I are about to experience just that kind of defeat at the hands of the elk.
We’ve stopped for a few minutes just before 9 a.m. to see what’s going to happen. One bull has lured us to this spot with half an hour of bugling that had to come from a fairly mature animal, and we have gotten close — within 50 yards, by the sound. Plus, his group of cows has bedded down on the hillside in front of us. We can see their brown behinds showing up against the dark, musty detritus on the forest floor.
Just as we’re about to leave and head back to the truck, our bull suddenly decides things have gotten much too quiet. He begins bugling and growling like crazy, and bulls we can’t see are answering him. One of them, growling like an old guy, is coming up from the valley below, intent on answering the challenge.
Within a few seconds, a third bull steps up to the plate and begins his own bugling chorus, which just agitates the first two bulls even more. Sloan leans toward me to whisper a quiet view of the future. “We’re about to see these two bulls fight,” he says, pointing out the tending grunts and agitated bugling we’re hearing.
Two cows, tired of the noise and chaos, leave their beds and walk just yards downhill from us. That’s good because maybe one of the bulls will walk that same trail and give me a shot with my bow.
I’m measuring distances with Sloan’s binoculars and realize we’re in a small opening with no distance greater than 25 yards. One mature bull slips through below us, picking up the trail of the two cows about 45 yards away. There’s no shot, though, because there are branches covering the only opening he crosses. Then he’s gone.
Our attentions moves back to our original bull, who is busy rounding up his cows and trying to get away from the old bull down below. He trots down a trail almost right in front of us, at which time Sloan gives me a thumbs down signal. Too young.
But I’ve already drawn the bow and am waiting for the bull to step into an opening between two trees that I’ve measured already at 26 yards. As he steps across that hole, Sloan changes his mind and says, “Take him.”
But the bull stops with a nest of tiny limbs covering his vitals and I can’t let the arrow go without hitting one of them. I decide to let off on the compound and let the bull walk, ensuring another close call with no elk to show for it.
We decide enough is enough and start back over the hill toward the truck, only to sneak up on a young bull bugling his brains out 15 yards in front of us. Without ever knowing we’re close enough to throw rocks at him, he begins a very slow walk to our right, stopping at several places that would make easy shots. We pass because of his age and move on toward the truck.
It’s 10:30 in the morning, well past the time that the elk normally would be bedded down for the warm part of the day and that we should be back at camp getting a nap to prepare for the afternoon.
The elk win this round, but there’s another week to the season. I have a warm bed and good food to carry me through, and if I don’t break a leg, I’ll still be here when the archery season shuts down.