Stalking game, although a hardy and invigorating pursuit, is not every hunter’s cup of tea. For instance, physical limitations might prevent a fellow from sprinting uphill to close the distance on an elk; or another outdoorsman might simply prefer to take a stand, allowing the quarry to wander into range, as the anticipation leads to an intensity of adrenaline. What always makes my blood boil is the sudden appearance of a distant animal and its subsequent, lengthy approach toward my hideout. I have successfully stalked many critters, but nothing gets my heart pounding like a good ambush.
After five years of applying for a deer tag in Colorado’s Unit 61, on the Uncompahgre Plateau, I received the news in 2002 that I had indeed drawn for the area. I was thrilled. Never having hunted there, I planned a scouting trip for two weeks before the opener. During that trip, I found several nice bucks (bigger than anything I had taken in the past) but no real monsters. I set my minimum standards. I would hold out for a 5×5 in full velvet, with good mass. I hoped for a 26- to 30-inch spread, but that would be a bonus.
The days leading up to the season were filled with anxiety and anticipation. I got to the area three days early, set up my base camp, looked around, shot my bow, got acclimated. As far as Colorado goes, this was not a particularly high area. Still, going from 6,000 to 9,000 feet in altitude can affect your physical state, so I wanted to take some time to become accustomed to the plateau’s thinner air. Those first pre-season nights bull elk sang me to sleep, stirring my killer instinct. They were hot. As a matter of fact, they continued to bugle throughout my 20 days on the Uncompahgre. I regretted that I would need to relocate later for wapiti, since I only had a deer and bear tag for Unit 61.
Formulating A Plan
From talking to other hunters who knew the area, and from picking the brain of the game biologist there, I gathered that spot-and-stalk was the way to approach this hunt. “You can’t kill ‘em if you don’t see ‘em,” is how one savvy archer put it. In a similar vain, the biologist expressed his opinion that the local deer couldn’t be patterned, and that stand hunting would be a “waste of time.” So, armed with the above information, I developed a strategy. It was hardly revolutionary. Early each morning, I would go to a high vantage point and search for feeding bucks, then observe where they bedded down and formulate a stalk.
Initially, it all seemed to make sense. But after thinking it over, and after glassing only small bucks (and incidentally some very fine elk) feeding in the open during the pre-season, I decided to set up a tree stand in heavy cover, where I had seen some better bucks. I would sit my stand, taking a passive approach for the first several days and then get aggressive if necessary as the season advanced. My reasoning may well have been flawed, decreasing my chances of crossing paths with trophy deer, but I had a very sound basis for the decision to use a tree stand.
Learn From Your Roots
I grew up in Wisconsin and much of my formative hunting time was spent pursuing whitetails from above. When I moved out west, I hunted successfully on foot for the first three years. I wondered why bowhunting no longer gave me the thrill it once had, and I attributed it to the game animals being pursued.
Mulies and elk just aren’t as exciting to hunt, I told myself. Then, during one particular foray for elk, I sat down to rest on a knoll overlooking a game trail. Seconds later, a cow came crashing through the woods and stopped at 20 yards. My heart began to race. I lifted my bow slowly, picked a spot just behind her shoulder, steadied the pin and touched off the release. The fact that I missed her, trimming only neck hair, is inconsequential, but not irrelevant.
Since moving to Colorado, this was my first case of elk fever–and it happened on a cow! After some thought, I concluded that my “real thrill” results from waiting in ambush. I prefer to let the animals come to me. There is no other way for my anxiety level to reach that fevered pitch that first attracted me to hunting. While stalking, I am preoccupied with too many thoughts: Which way now? Where’s the next piece of cover? Is the wind swirling? Is he still bedded down? Are there any other animals nearby that might blow my cover?
Although I have acknowledged that I quite possibly was hurting my chances for a trohpy mule deer, opting to hunt from a tree brought a smile to my face and the potential for what I consider an incomparable and awesome thrill.
On the third day of the season, I did manage to take a bear, adding a little spice to the mix. I had passed up two decent 4×4 bucks on opening morning, despite a great amount of temptation to drop the string. So far, I calculated that things were going quite well.
I made the five-hour drive home to butcher my bear, spent one day relaxing and then headed back to the Uncompahgre for deer. With the recent opening of the turkey and grouse seasons, I experienced a sudden increase in visitors to my camp.
Now I spent a certain amount of time socializing each day. I welcomed the human contact. Most of my hunting was early in the morning and late in the afternoon. A week slipped away without a big buck sighting. I began to second-guess my opening day decision to pass up those two four-points, but I knew I must hold true to my early decision to arrow nothing less than a five-point. My main objective was to harvest a better buck than one I had taken years earlier in Montana. He was a high-racked, 20-inch 5×5, killed while hard horned. I really wanted a nice velvet buck, and I knew that time was not on my side. The further I progressed into September, the weaker my chances of finding a good buck still in full velvet. I decided to curtail mingling with my fellow hunters and to spend more time in the woods.
Every two or three days, I would relocate my stand based on in-season scouting. This practice helped me avoid the boredom and monotony that can sometimes occur while tree stand hunting. I sat in heavy timber, on edges and main game trails. I was enjoying the variety of scenery. The poplars were turning yellow and orange, wildlife was abundant, and the leaves of the scrub oak were now a deep red. The fields were green and lustrous. On one occasion, a bobcat skirted along a trail 10 yards from my stand. He was on the prowl, totally unaware of my presence.
On September 18th, by 3:30 p.m., I found myself situated comfortably on the edge of an aspen grove. From my vantage point, I could see a lar
ge clearing, as well as clusters of spruce and high oak brush. At 5 p.m., the deer began to move. Two small bucks emerged from the timber, feeding into the clearing. I estimated their distance from my stand to be 80 yards. They fed away from my location and into a pocket of spruce. Ten minutes later, they reappeared with a large buck. Then they all drifted out of my sight. Twenty minutes passed before I noticed two smaller bucks feeding toward me.
They were following the edge of the aspens, and I figured they would be under my tree stand in no time. Then I saw they had company. Two big bucks were behind them and off to the side. Before long, I was watching eight bucks as they closed to within my effective range. The suspense was working my nerves, accelerating my pulse. I stood up, waited for the biggest buck (a 160-inch brute), then drew back my bow. He caught the movement and bounded away, taking the other deer with him. They stopped at 60 yards and looked back in my direction. I relaxed my bow and then remained motionless. Perhaps I’d get a second chance.
Ten minutes went by. Slowly and cautiously, the deer began drifting back my way. First came the small bucks. I let them walk past me. Then came one of the big fellows with the 160-class buck I had drawn on earlier in tow. Clearly, he was running the show. I paid special attention to his peculiar, almost human-like gestures. When the smaller buck hesitated, glancing at me and then back at the brute, the bigger deer waved him on with a tilt of the head. “You go first,” he seemed to be saying.
The subordinate proceeded obediently, yet he was circumspect as he approached me. Would he ever look away? Would I ever get a chance to draw my bow? I had already concluded that the larger buck would not come in close enough for a shot, so if given a chance at the subordinate, I would take it. Finally, at 35 yards, I saw my opportunity. His head swiveled, and he looked away briefly. I drew my bow. As he turned and fixed his gaze on me again, I released an arrow and watched the fletching disappear in his broadside.
He burst directly away from me at full speed, running 50 yards before crashing headfirst into the ground. I sat down, exhaling slowly, trying to calm my rattled nerves. If you’re like me, you’ll agree that the anticipation and thrill of waylaying animals (whether whitetails, elk, bear or mule deer) is the ultimate high. As my chest heaved uncontrollably, it became obvious that I was afflicted with a case of the jitters.
A Moment Of Reflection
Later at camp, I hung my deer in a tree. I was so tired that I skipped supper. I eased into my tent, then into my sleeping bag. I closed my eyes and remembered the day’s events. This truly was one of my best hunts, in one of the most glorious settings imaginable. I recognized the sound of snow falling lightly on the roof of my tent, as I fell asleep to the whistling echoes of elk.