Bowhunting During The Rifle Season

Hard Earned Trophy

Hard Earned Trophy

Tired, bitterly cold, hungry and unable to see in the Colorado darkness, I rocked back and forth on top of my horse trusting his sure-footed steps would return me to humanity after this tough elk hunt.  As my brother, Kevin and I made our descent to the trailhead, I couldn’t help but notice the pack horse in front of me creating small sparks as his horseshoes would nick protruding rocks and create a surreal flicker that looked like a small lightning bug.  It was so dark that cold night, that I couldn’t see the horses neck I was riding on without a flashlight.  Our motivation however, was the meat and horns of two recently bugling bulls harvested two days prior.  The only glimpse I could catch of our hearty bulls while packing them out was when we briefly came out of the dark-timber trail and a star-filled sky would dimly light up the shifting horn silhouette of our trophies.

All of the preparation, planning, miles run, arrows shot and money spent are all worth it when you are packing elk out of the Colorado mountains.  This is what my family lives for…a tough, do-it-yourself, public land, fair chase adventure.  My brother, father and four of our friends accompanied me on this years annual elk hunt.  Just last year I was given the fine honor of hunting Quebec Labrador Caribou in Canada with two of the fellows who accompanied us on this trip.  It was my turn to share with them the excitement and challenge I experienced in Canada in Colorado pursuing the almighty Wapiti.

Base Camp

Base Camp

It had been a while since I had hunted in this big of an elk hunting group however.  I remember vividly when I was a young boy my Dad and his friends hunting in these types of groups.  But given the shear amount of people accompanying us, we had our work cut out for us.

And work we did!  Once our base camp was set up we started focusing on the spike camp gear that needed to be packed in on horses.  My brother and I guided years ago in Gunnison, Colorado, and packing this kind of camp was like second nature once we got into the swing again.  Like most years my Dad was cooking breakfast and my brother and I were getting the spike camp and horses ready for departure.  And like most years, my father proudly watched us disappear into the Wilderness with a pack string in tow waiting for one of us to come back and pick him up.  After about a 5 hour round-trip, I returned to pick up my Dad, Steve, Mark and JF.  Given the fact that this was the first time that Steve, Mark and JF had elk hunted the gleam in there eyes was indescribable.  The excitement in their eyes reminded me once again why I love hunting big game as we started our ride up to spike camp, which sits about 10,200 feet.  This is important to note because two of our guests were from Chicago, IL and Montreal, Canada.  Neither one of them are exactly living amongst the stars if you know what I mean.

Thirty minutes prior to meeting my brother and Kevin in spike camp, my Dad’s horse backed into some severe blow down and toppled over while my Dad was still in the saddle.  I, regrettably, was at the end of the pack string and could only watch the horse fall over continuously on my Dad’s left side.  I jumped off of my horse and sprinted to my Dad where I found the horse trapped under logs and my Dad in severe pain.  I was sure that both the horse and my Dad had broken their legs.  Unfortunately, this is not the first horse wreck I have seen while traversing mountain trails, but by the looks of this one, it appeared to be the worst yet.  Miraculously, after pulling the saddle off a lying horse and removing fallen timber around the horse it popped up and instantly started eating like nothing had happened.  What an amazing animal!  My Dad, on the other hand, didn’t have eating in mind at all.  His left leg was severely bruised and he had some swelling building up around his shin bone.  After a careful evaluation, my Dad had only been bruised and battered and nothing appeared to be broken.  Shifting my attention from the fallen horse and my Dad, I glanced at our rookie elk hunters and I must say that twinkle they had in there eye just an hour and a half ago, had faded just a little bit.  But not enough to scare anybody from pressing on.  My Dad summed it up best as he slowly pushed his dirt covered boots into the stirrups, “Welcome to elk hunting!”  I think he added a few profanities on our way to spike camp but if that was the worst of it, we were in good shape because tomorrow was opening day.

Glassing Every Opportunity While A Storm Moves In

Glassing Every Opportunity

There is nothing like opening day!  Especially opening day in a cold nylon tent at 4 am.  My Dad, brother and I had devised a plan to go separate ways amongst the vast wilderness we were hunting and take a friend or two with us.  I wrangled up Mark and Steve and headed to the top of the ridge where we could glass from for the morning hunt. Our walk was 2 miles from spike camp, but the hard part is that of those 2 miles, we would gain 1,800 vertical feet according to Steve’s GPS.  The walk up to the ridge line was through one open meadow, a nasty and slippery North face blow down drainage and a steep avalanche shoot topping off the last 800 vertical feet.  Once at the top of the ridge where a nice saddle sits for prime elk crossing we instantly saw a nice 6×6 bull walking away from us.  The bad part, we were just a little late getting there.  The bull had made it to the black timber just as we were getting into position to try and place crosshairs on him.  The important part was we still needed to crest the top of the ridge to get a good spotting vantage at the basin where potentially other elk were inhabiting.  Once we made it to the best possible glassing spot I started looking into the finger meadows, sparse timber and avalanche shoots.  I hadn’t been glassing but 5 minutes and I saw 7 elk slowly feeding towards the black timber.  The best part was of those 7 elk, two of them were shooter bulls.  I knew we were in good shape as I turned to Steve and Mark and told them both we were here until dark.  The elk I glassed hadn’t been bothered and they were acting very relaxed and basically going along with the pattern they had set.  We were looking forward to the evening hunt.  Ill-fated however, around lunch time I received some news from Mark that alarmed me immediately.  Mark said, “Man, I have a headache and my stomach is not feeling very well!”  I knew from my experience in the backcountry that this was potential altitude sickness.  I told him that we would wait it out about 15 minutes and see if things had changed after we ate and he took some medication.  Stricken, Mark began feeling worse and our only choice was to lose some of our altitude.  We were sitting at roughly 12,000 feet and my number one objective was to get him below that as soon as possible.  On shaky legs and a throbbing head, Mark was able to manage some tough country and plunge downward to about 10,800 feet.  He instantly felt better.  I still wanted to get him to spike camp and let him relax and recover because this was only opening day.  We still technically had 8 more days to hunt.  He, however, wanted to sit on the edge of an open meadow just 10 minutes from spike camp in hope that we might see some elk come out to feed for the evening.  I didn’t argue.  Regrettably, not one elk appeared that opening evening in that meadow.

Staying Warm At 12,000 Feet

Staying Warm At 12,000 Feet

Due to Mark’s altitude sickness and Steve’s tired legs they both decided to take day two somewhat easy and hunt near spike camp.  I, however, knew where some elk where residing and couldn’t just let them picnic without me.  So with Mark and Steve hanging back I had to go chase the high altitude elk.  I rounded up my brother and Kevin and we headed to the top of the basin.  I had a good feeling that all of the elk seen the previous day hadn’t had any idea we were there and should be going about their business as usual.  Once at the top of the saddle, we decided that Kevin would stay at the saddle and my brother and I would climb to the top of the ridge line to glass into the basin like I did on day one.  My brother and I barely sat down to glass and I instantly saw 20 head of elk grazing unbothered at the top of the alpine basin.  We devised a plan and realized that we had about a mile stalk to get within range of these beasts.  We both side-hilled the uneven terrain and got to within 300 yards of the herd.  Here was the catch, however, my brother was hunting with his Winchester, Model 70, 7mm Rem. Mag and I was hunting with my bow. Yes, my bow during rifle season.  Call me crazy but, I wanted to test myself and see if I could arrow a bull during rifle season, post rut, touting my required blaze orange which, covered the familiar bowhunting camouflage.  My passion for bowhunting led me to this challenge.  You see, I wanted to hunt the archery season this year, but given the plans we made with our hunting group, the second rifle season was the only one that would fit into all of our busy schedules.  So instead of falling into the pressure of taking my rifle I checked with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and confirmed that I could bring my bow.  I got the green light from the DOW and got some serious doubters along the way leading to this hunt.  I took the doubts as a challenge and it inspired me to put my archery skills to the test.  The funny thing though, when I’m doubted or challenged I usually come through.  And come through I did!  My brother and I spotted three shooter bulls among the herd, and two in particular had our attention.  A nice 6×6 was spotted amongst some sparse timber caught bugling and herding cows.  And one 5×5 was bugling and carrying on making the 6×6 stay very much on point.  My brother had the 6×6 in his sites just waiting for him to present a shot when I spotted a bull that I hadn’t seen to this point.  I couldn’t tell how big he was given his head was down in the grass.  As he picked his head up literally the sun crested the same ridge we were looking at and the sun glare was horrendous.  Troubled, my brother and I couldn’t navigate to another spot given the elk’s location and the location of the black timber.  We had two choices, wait the sun out or try and shoot.  The elk had other plans however, as they continued to graze and move towards the black timber; they were going to bed down in for the day.  So I glassed the entire herd including the 6×6 my brother was ready to shoot, and I mentioned to him to check the elk I just spotted as the gold and yellow sun rays hit our forehead.  With a quick banter my brother and I decided he take the 6×6 because the newly appeared bull was a just a bit smaller.  Once glancing back at the small opening once accompanied by the herd bull we realized he had vanished.  It was a brief moment of panic as I glassed to the right of the opening and could see legs moving in the black timber.  Our saving grace was that one last opening sat between the elk and their resting place and this was going to be our last chance.  Sure enough, the 6×6 slowly appeared in the opening and the sun glare intensified so much that I had to literally cover the top of my brothers scope with my hand just so he could get off a clean shot at this herd bull.  He let it rip and all you could hear was the BOOM of the rifle.  The herd bull just stood there.  He shot one more time and the bull vanished into the timber.  I could see through my binoculars that he hit the bull.  How fatal was the question?  The strange part was that the entire herd was acting very calm as I remember vividly one of the bulls still trying to herd cows after the first shot.  They did after the second shot start to gather and devise some plan to slowly move along but were far from panicking. This is when I knew I would have a shot at stalking in on one of those bulls.

My Brothers Bull

Brother's Bull

I gently and swiftly worked my way from our vantage point into the black timber and began my stalk.  I got to within 75 yards of the herd and I could see ears flickering amongst the cows.  I was standing directly above the elk as I stood on a 40 degree slope peering down on them.  I closed the distance to about 50 yards and slowly drew my bow back as they had me pinned down.  The frustrating part was that all I could see were cows.  I knew though, that the bulls had to still be in the mix.  I watched eight cows pass below me on a sidehill retreat and it appeared to be the end of the broken herd.  I let up on my bow string and scanned the dense hillside for any elk movement and once again caught an ear flicker out of my left eye.  I drew my bow back again and anchored my bow string to the corner of my mouth this time mentally set for the duration of movement.  One cow passed below me and then I saw a piece of horn dash behind a tree concealing the bulls entire body.  Then out walked Mr. Bull into the only open spot for me to shoot and I cow called to him in hope that he would stop for a shot.  It took two cow calls to bring him to a nice quartering away stop and I let the arrow fly with my 40-yard pin anchored on a tuft of hair.  It hit him exactly where I aimed, just behind the shoulder.  The black timber then erupted into snapping branches and startled hooves scampering in every direction.  My brother later told me he could hear the commotion from his vantage point which was about a 1/4 mile above the perfectly placed arrow.  In a flash an eery silence came upon the hillside and my bull’s fate was in question as I couldn’t see him go down due to the dense cover surrounding us.  I don’t think I have ever been that fired up about shooting an elk and at the same time that emotional.  I just sat down on the steep hillside and tried to take it all in when I heard my brother let off one more shot at which had to be at his bull.  Knowing that I needed to give my elk some time and finding a 6-inch piece of my blood covered arrow I scampered across the hillside to the opening where I heard the shot and saw my brother about 500 yards below me walking towards his downed trophy.  I knew by his body posture that he had finally ended his hunt with his final shot and I somewhat sprinted down to him to see what he had accomplished.  What a nice 6×6 bull he shot!  I was so pumped up for my brother.  We took pictures and broke down his elk knowing that once we got to mine we weren’t coming back down to address his for any reason.  Our buddy Kevin heard this commotion from the saddle about a mile away and finally joined us as he helped with both elk and contributed in a big way.  I can’t thank him enough.  All in all, it took us 3 long hours to get my brothers bull broke down and climb back up to where my bull was shot before we spread out to find my bull.  In those three hours spent helping my brother all I could think about was my bull’s fate.  Did I make a good shot?  Was there going to still be a blood trail?  Could we find him amongst this dense black timber?  All these questions swirled through my head in the hours spent before searching for my long odds trophy.  Finally, we went about 100 yards from where I initially shot and thankfully found him.  I was absolutely ecstatic!  This was my first ever bull shot with a bow during rifle season.  I don’t know what the odds are of arrowing a bull elk during rifle season, D-I-Y on public land but, I thanked God for this awesome opportunity .  What an adrenaline rush.  In the matter of a half-an-hour my brother and I both shot mature bulls out of the same herd and we did so by using very different weapon forms.  What a dream come true!  I will tell you what, being able to share this experience with my brother is the ultimate for me.  He has been my hunting buddy since we both could walk.  I trust no one more in the mountains than I do my brother, especially when the uncomfortable scale tips to almost impossible, he’s the man!!

Looking back I can only remember the fun of this hunt, but let me tell you it took my brother, Kevin and I two days to get both of these elk out of the backcountry, as half of the distance the elk were carried in backpacks due to the unfavorable horse terrain, and the other half, the horses handled the load.

Pack'n Out

Head'n Home

So as I sit rested, warm, stomach full of food and lights surrounding the entire room I rock back and forth on my chair proudly telling the story to my family and hoping that one day my kids share the same type of story with humanity!

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About the Author

Marc Montoya

Marc Montoya

Marc Montoya is a dedicated Colorado bowhunter who cherishes the challenge and mental fatigue that bowhunting presents. Marc has a passion for backcountry pursuits with his bow and arrow and wants to share that passion with the world.