Chasing the Bugle

Elk Hunt 2010

Base Camp

Glassing, Glassing, Re-Focusing, Glassing, …found him!  There he was at 12,000 feet in the middle of an alpine meadow chasing satellite bulls away from his muddy wallow.  Finally, we found the bull we were looking for after a week of knotty backcountry bowhunting.  As the sun rays made his already tan and white coat whiter, we watched him chase cows into the trees and vanish like a ghost into the night.  Despite my brother and I watching him from miles away we knew that this bull would be worth the boot leather it was going to take to pursue him.  I knew the moment I looked at him through my binoculars he was a true trophy!

Try'n to Find the Big Bulls

For 6 years I’ve dreamt about hunting elk with my bow in this particular draw unit in Colorado, alongside my brother.  All the while, hearing bull elk bugle with reckless abandon.  Boy, did I get my wish!  I can still hear the echo’s of the many bugles we encountered on our 2 week hunt!  The bugle in my humble opinion has got to be one of the best sounds ever heard in the wild.  It has this nasally, raspy combination of noises in continuity, from a low growl rapidly rising up to a high, screeching whistle, followed by a series of grunts.  This culmination of sounds is music to any hunters ears.  Hell, my Dad’s cell phone ring is an elk bugle!

Speaking of my Dad, four generations of my family have hunted this public land and the roots we have set here are undeniable.  It’s not a stretch to say that when I set foot in these mountains it feels and smells like home.  In 1986, I witnessed my Dad shoot one of the biggest bulls I’ve seen harvested in this remote wilderness.  The bull was a respectable 6×6 scoring 320 inches.  I remember trying to help my Dad field dress the bull and barely being able to help due to the size of this bull.  I also vividly remember my Dad continually cursing because his bone saw would no longer cut due to a foreign object in the spine/neck region of his harvested elk.  We found a broad head lodged into the bull from some unlucky archery hunter from the season past.  It was remarkable to me that this bull could take an arrow in the spinal cord and continue to live to see another season.  At 11-years-old I realized that an elk was a “10” on the tough scale!

So, as the daydreaming subsides about 1986 my brother and I in 2010, made the longest trek into the wilderness I’ve ever made on foot.  We found ourselves 15 miles deep into the backcountry from the trailhead!  That distance was never our intention, but as we like to say, “You’ve got to go where the big bulls live!”  Once we arrived at our “coyote camp” just shy of 13,000 feet my brother and I realized we found elk haven…or should I say elk “heaven!”  Not only did we see elk everywhere, but the distinct smell of elk loomed through the air putting a permanent smile on both of our faces for the duration of the trip.  I’ve hunted elk since I was 8-years-old and I can’t remember a time when I was into elk like that.  It was undoubtedly a dream come true!

As the alarm woke us up at 5:30 am the next morning, my brother and I, for once, only had a 5 minute walk to glass into the basin where we saw all the elk the day before.  We were not disappointed.  We counted about 40 elk scattered throughout the basin and bulls were bugling, cows were meddling about and there were pockets of elk we didn’t see until later when we put our stalks on.  My brother and I each had a tag to fill so we decided the best choice was to split up and pursue different bulls.  From my vantage point I saw bulls in the same alpine meadow I saw the day before, but I never did see the big bull that prompted us to double our hunting mileage.  However, I knew with his behavior the day before that he was claiming that region as his “own!”  So, I made the decent and crested a sheer avalanche shoot which forced me to expose myself in the middle of it.  What I couldn’t see from my earlier vantage point was that there were more elk scattered throughout the bottom of the basin which connected to the opening I was headed too.  Amongst these elk was a nice 6×6 in the rut, bugling and chasing cows around the trees, through the stream and into the edge of the basin meadow.  The unfortunate part was they were only 500 yards away, but the wind was at my back blowing into them and I had a straight vertical descent on a tangled avalanche shoot to get to them.  I decided to be patient and watch them disappear into the trees.  Years ago I would have tried to pursue them and later scratch my head as to why I got busted or couldn’t find them again.  I think that’s called wisdom?  In my case it’s called blowing enough stalks in the past to know better.  I digress!  I think it’s crucial to point out that my style of bowhunting is spot and stalk.  At this point that’s exactly what I was doing.  It’s what I’m most comfortable with and honestly I just don’t have the patience most days to sit and wait and wait.  Nevertheless, I decided to slowly and meticulously walk up the finger meadow where I saw the bull I named Charlie the day before.  It took me a painstakingly 90 minutes to get to where I wanted to sit and assess the situation.

Charlie's Wallow

I decided to set up near the big wallow I could see from afar the day before, hoping that the bull of my dreams would stop by and cool himself in it again.  Just as I sat down I could hear bugling all around me.  I’m guessing that 3-4 different bulls were sounding off and my strategy at this point totally changed.  I decided that my typical run and gun strategy wasn’t going to work here.  The wind was erratic at best and I felt that I patterned the big bull the day before.  This would test my hunting skills/patience to no end.  I sat and looked at the same blades of grass and trees for almost 8 hours. In those 8 hours I could hear elk, smell elk and sometimes pretend that I saw elk.  I ranged more pieces of real estate with my range finder than I ever have in my hunting career.  For some reason though I found the patience to do so and it paid off.  At 4:15pm I heard an exceptionally loud bugle less than a 100 yards away straight across from me in the timber.  I cow called softly angling behind my left shoulder and got to my knees with arrow already knocked and release connected to my string.  Not 30 seconds later the same bull I saw a day ago turned the corner out of the trees and bugled as loud as he could.  It felt like he did that to remind all of us that this was his meadow!  He was running at a dead sprint right at me.  I was whispering obscenities and amazed at the same time.  Then at 65 yards he hit the brakes and dipped his head into the small spring in the middle of the meadow and drank for what seemed like hours.  While he was doing this all I could see was his awesome rack.  He had no clue I was there.  As he picked his head up he looked right at me and turned his head looking the opposite direction.  He then meandered about 25 yards closer, stopped and looked into the trees directly across from me.  This gave me a perfect 40 yard quartering away shot.  I drew my bow and quickly settled into my shooting routine.  The next thing I remember was seeing the arrow hit him right behind the shoulder and him scampering about 20 yards away from me unaware of what just happened.  What happened next was remarkable.

The bull I just shot went to the edge of the meadow wanting to enter the black timber but stopped short and just stood on all fours facing away from me.  I looked at my watch and realized that the whole process took a mere 3 minutes.  It was 4:18pm and the bull of my dreams was literally 65 yards away from my grasp.  I continued to lay on my right side looking at him through my binoculars in awe of his remarkable stature and headgear.  For 45 minutes he just stood there on shaking legs, but wouldn’t go down.  I was a little miffed?  Then, he laid down still facing away from me and I could hear him breathing deep gasps of air.  I waited for 3 hours just making sure he was completely expired.  With that said, he never appeared to still be alive, but I decided that the best thing in this case was to leave him overnight.  That was the hardest decision I made all trip.  It’s no exaggeration that sleeping that night was almost nonexistent.  I mulled over my decision, shot placement, would he still be there when I returned the next morning etcetera.  The next morning I rose up and went to get the horses we had for packing meat and gear and much to my surprise they were gone.  I almost lost my composure.  Instead, I took a deep breath and started tracking two horses instead of my trophy bull.  Three hours later I found them.  I didn’t know whether to shot them or hug them.  Despite the challenging morning I gathered them up and walked the 3 hours back to our coyote camp.  With 6 hours gone from the already highly anticipated day, I led the horses the additional 2 hours to where I last saw my bull.  He was no longer on the edge of the meadow!  I couldn’t believe it!  I was disgusted and completely worn down from the already trying day.

Damn Horses!

In anguish, I started to track the bull and found a good blood trail was still present from the night before.  I was now doubting everything I’d done to this point.  My spirits began to rise as I saw the blood trail continually get better and better.  Then, out of nowhere, a down pour of rain, wind and lightning surrounded the high country.  It washed away most of the sign I was following.  I felt like Charlie Brown!  I couldn’t escape the cloud of doom!  With some serious convincing and perseverance I told myself he was still there.  Indeed he was, but not completely dead.  I had to place one last arrow behind the shoulder and he finally expired on the spot.  What a tough animal!  What a tough hunt!  What a trophy!  At 4:18pm the next day I finally had my hands on the horns of my trophy 6×6 bull.  Coincidence?  Maybe? Spooky?  Very!

With my brothers help we broke down my bull with smiles ear to ear.  Strangely enough, while boning out my elk we found a mushroomed bullet lodged into the spine and neck area of my bull.  He was shot by an unlucky rifle hunter the season past.  Oddly enough, almost the same exact location my Dad and I found the broad head lodged into his bull in 1986.  With that said, my brother and I happily packed him out 15 miles to the trailhead.  The fun didn’t end there though.  Just an hour outside of base camp with two horses packed to the gills with elk meat and our camp my brother shot a bull 200 yards off of the trail.  Dave cow called while on the trail and the 5×5 bull bugled about 200 yards away.  Off Dave went and shot his bull 1 mile from our base camp.  That made a LONG day even longer, but in the end it was all worth it.  We finally crawled into our sleeping bags around 3 am tired, fulfilled and worked over from two weeks in the wilderness!

My bull has a green score of 315” and is awaiting the Pope & Young drying time to get an official score.  No matter what the score is he’s a trophy of a lifetime to me and that’s what really matters.  Before my trip, 4:18 was just a number on the clock.  Now, it’s a great reminder of another unforgettable memory etched into my hunting career.  Harvesting an elk is now officially known in my book as 4:18 time!

On our way to a 15 mile pack out!

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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.