The greatest gifts are often unexpected.
For an avid elk hunter like me, there are advantages and disadvantages to being born in early September. The disadvantage is I don't end up spending very many birthdays with my wife and kids. On the other hand, I do get to celebrate most of my birthdays with my dad and one of my best friends, and we spend it doing what we all love doing together most -- bowhunting elk.
This bull was the largest Andy Farris has ever taken. It grossed just over 350 inches; a dandy by anyone's standards, but particularly nice for Colorado public land in an over-the-counter unit.
When it comes to birthday presents, few could compare to arrowing a big bull elk. I've dreamed of killing a bull on my birthday for years, though I've never quite managed to make it happen. As a matter of fact, my birthday has never been a particularly lucky day for me. In both 2006 and 2007, for example, I spent my birthday soaked to the bone, huddled around campfires trying to dry out during daylong downpours. In 2008, however, my luck finally changed.
For several years now, Dad and I have been backpacking deep into a remote wilderness area in Central Colorado with our elk-hunting buddy, JD Gossage. The trip has become my most anticipated annual bowhunt, though I sometimes question why.
This is a physically demanding hunt if there ever was one! On a scale of 1-to-10, I'd call this hunt an 8. And if you manage to down a bull, it quickly becomes a 10. But I suppose that's all part of hunting the Rocky Mountain West. Out here, blue-collar bowhunters can still experience top-notch elk hunting -- if they are willing to put in the time and effort to outstudy, outscout and outwork other bowhunters. Dad, JD and I try to do just that by concentrating on drainages that are accessible only on foot.
The primary drainage we've hunted over the last few years is a prime example. From the point where we leave the established trail, we bushwhack 3,800 vertical feet with a week's worth of food and gear on our backs. We are typically rewarded for our effort with unpressured, public-land elk. There is a price to pay though, and it's paid in sweat. Dad is creeping up on his 60th birthday, and in 2008, he strongly contemplated bowhunting elsewhere. As bow season approached though, the promise of undisturbed elk proved too tempting and Dad joined JD and I once again.
Make Your Wish€¦
We packed in a day before my birthday and set up our spike camp atop a small knob at 11,000 feet. We didn't have much of a chance to hunt that evening, since the hike in typically consumes the entire first day. For the first time in two years, I woke to clear skies on the morning of my birthday, and I remember telling Dad and JD my luck must be changing. Before heading out, JD pulled a freeze-dried Mountain House ice cream bar from his pack, placed a matchstick in the middle of it and let me blow it out.
"Now, let's go get your present," Dad announced. And with that, we headed toward the timberline in the darkness.
The skies stayed clear as the sun rose to reveal an empty alpine meadow where we'd glassed elk from the valley floor the morning before. The temperature was climbing fast, and JD decided to head down to an isolated wallow we've hunted successfully in the past.
Dad and I kept climbing to a vantage point at over 12,000 feet.
The author's father, Andy Farris, excitedly describes his shot from the spot where it was taken. The birthday bull was initially spotted in the trees behind him in the
bottom of the drainage.
It didn't take long before we spotted elk. Near the top of the timber, in the drainage below, lay a young bull. Using the slope of the ridge for concealment, Dad and I slipped back down to the timberline and followed its edge to a point where we could better survey the situation. Soon a cow appeared, followed by more. Before we knew it, we had counted more than 30 cows. Then I spotted him. "There he is," I said.
After explaining the herd bull's position, Dad sounded confused as he said, "That little bull can't be running the show."
"You must not be looking at the right bull, Dad," I replied with a chuckle.
Seconds later, the confusion was gone. "Oh man!" he exclaimed.
Bulls like that are a big reason we work our butts off to get up there each year. We've seen a few of similar caliber in the past, but they are hard to come by in Colorado, especially on public land in over-the-counter elk units. Now we had one in our sights -- and on my birthday!
We studied the bull and his cows for quite some time, paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. Finally, I made a recommendation. The elk were in a good position, just above a boulder field with only two likely exit routs through narrow stands of pines. Below them were two cuts on either side of the rocks that would allow Dad and I to reach the trees on either side of the elk. If we could get there undetected, we would have both exits blocked, and all we would have to do is wait.
BOWHUNTING Associate Publisher Danny Farris poses with the bull he called in just minutes before last light, on the last day of his hunt. It was a fitting finish to his most memorable elk hunt ever.
Dad pondered the idea for a while, then said, "You go ahead and try to get in position. If you can get to those trees beside them, that bull should eventually start chasing cows around and just might give you a shot. But if you end up getting spotted from below, I think they'll come right up this tree line, straight to me." I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn't budge. "Go get your birthday bull," Dad told me, and with that, I headed down into the timber to circle below the elk.
I reached the first cut with no problem and started heading back uphill, quickly cutting two-thirds o
f the distance to the trees where I wanted to set up. At that point, the cut became shallow, forcing me to my hands and knees for the last couple hundred yards.
With only 40 yards left, I glanced out of the cut to get a bearing on the herd's position and there he was, on his feet at 100 yards. I watched in frozen silence as the big bull slowly moved toward my anticipated ambush point in the trees just ahead. This is it, I thought to myself. The wind was perfect, and if he would just keep his course, I would have a shot from my current position. Would I finally tag my birthday bull?
The silence was suddenly shattered by crashing rocks just 10 yards off my left shoulder.
The lead cow had stumbled into my cut, right on top of me. She bolted as if shot from a cannon, straight up the tree line toward my dad. Then all hell broke loose. Not knowing exactly what was going on, cows ran in all directions, creating a racket of grinding rocks and hooves before following the lead cow up the tree line. Well out of range, the big bull followed quickly and disappeared. It was up to Dad now.
JD Gossage was trying to keep a different bull bugling so the author could stalk in for a shot when this one came to his calls. He took the bull down with a textbook steep-angle shot.
I worked my way back up the ridge as quickly as possible, hoping and praying that Dad got a shot. I had my answer the second I laid eyes on him. There atop the ridge was ol' Dad, who almost didn't even make the trip, with his chest out, head high and a giant grin from ear to ear.
"I put a good one in him," he said while trying to contain his excitement. I couldn't believe it! What were the odds? Those elk could have run anywhere, but Dad had called it to a tee. I spooked them, just like he suspected I would, and they ran straight to him, just like he claimed they would.
The first group of cows had passed Dad at a mere five yards. At that point, he didn't know if I had gotten a shot off or not. Then he heard the second wave of cows coming, and bringing up the rear was that unmistakable rack. He said that he was shaking like a leaf, but that he was able to slow the bull with a cow call at 20 yards and make the shot.
We gave the bull a solid hour before taking up a heavy blood trail. We just knew we would find him any minute. Then, the unthinkable happened -- the trail began to dry up, and we soon found ourselves scouring the ground for pin drops of blood. Elk are quite possibly the most resilient big-game animals in North America, and I've seen them cover incredible distances with mortal wounds. As hard as it was, we decided to call off the search until morning to avoid pushing the wounded bull.
That evening, my typical birthday weather returned as a heavy rain shower swept through the area. The timing couldn't have been worse, and our hopes began to sink. The next morning, instead of heading straight to the point where we had lost the trail, Dad and I decided to walk up the bottom of the drainage. As far as we could tell, the bull had turned downhill as the blood trail faded. We suspected he might have continued into the bottom of the drainage, where we hoped to come across him on our way back up.
Dad was following close behind me when I spotted an enormous elk track in the dirt.
Pointing down at it, I turned and said, "That's a heck of a big track."
Then Dad pointed toward my feet and shot back, "Look at that!" Right behind my boot was a spot of blood. Turning quickly in the direction of the track, we immediately spotted another streak of blood across a deadfall. When we reached it, I looked up to see the bull laying 30 yards below us.
The excitement of the following moments is difficult to capture in words. This was, by far, Dad's biggest bull ever. A lifetime of memories and effort had led us to this moment, and in my jubilation, I realized this was truly the birthday bull of my dreams. I don't know how many more years Dad will be able to swing that kind of aggressive hunt, and celebrating his success that day was a far greater gift than if I had arrowed the bull myself.
Now the work would begin. Plus, our hunt was far from over. JD and I helped Dad get his meat bagged and into a creek where it would stay cool as he gradually packed it down the mountain over the next few days.
JD Gossage and Andy Farris investigate a recently used elk wallow they discovered on the hike into their bowhunting area. Ambushing bulls over heavily used wallows can be an effective tactic.
Two days later, JD and I got into a large herd of elk scattered across a timber-covered bowl. Three bulls were lighting it up, answering our calls aggressively from different positions in the cover. One of the bulls had a deep and raspy growl to his voice, so we chose to try and close the gap on him. Once we were within a reasonable range, JD agreed to stay back and call as I moved ahead. "Keep him talking," I told him before we separated.
JD was calling his heart out a few hundred yards behind me when suddenly another bull screamed just below him at close range. As he nocked an arrow, he could hear the sound of hooves as the bull closed the distance. Tines appeared first, giving JD the opportunity to range the brush along the bull's path. The bull appeared at just over 40 yards, turned broadside and let out another bugle. Compensating for the extreme downward angle of the shot, JD held his 20-yard pin high on the bull's chest and triggered his release. His shot was perfect, and the 6-point bull didn't go far.
JD joined Dad in packing meat off the mountain as I continued hunting on my own. The days that followed, I had a few close calls but no opportunity for a shot. On the final day of our hunt, I managed to locate a bugling bull well before daylight and then trailed his herd through a narrow saddle into their bedding area. I bugled back and forth with him for quite some time that morning but couldn't convince him to leave his harem. Later that afternoon, I returned to the saddle the herd had used to access its bedding area in anticipation they might move through again.
As evening arrived, the bull began bugling frequently. It took a while for me to realize he was moving in the opposite direction. I would have to catch up! Losing light quickly, I ran in desperation until I had to stop and catch my breath. It would be now or never, and I would have to throw the book at him.
As soon as I could breathe again, I knocked an arrow and then let out the most aggressive
bugle I could muster. The bull hammered back immediately from not far above me. I called his bluff with another squeal and then followed immediately with a series of desperate cow calls. I guess the poor guy couldn't resist. The next thing I knew, he was headed right for me; his head laid back screaming as he ran downhill.
He stopped at 53 yards to take his frustrations out on a sapling, giving me a perfect opportunity to range him and come to full draw. My pins found his vitals and my arrow was off. I didn't see the impact, but the resounding thump told me it was a hit. Not hearing the shot, the bull leapt forward 10 yards and stopped to look for his assailant. I reloaded quickly, drew and loosed a second arrow that resulted in another sweet-sounding thump. Both shots had taken the bull through the lungs and he piled up in short order.
Our 2008 elk hunt was the best we've ever had. To have three, public-land bowhunters go three-for-three on 6-point bulls is very uncommon in Colorado. However, that's not the primary basis of my satisfaction. To quote bowhunting pioneer Dr. Saxton Pope, "The true hunter counts his achievement in proportion to the effort involved and the fairness of the sport."
I find that bowhunting rewards are indeed directly proportional to the level of effort put forth. On this hunt, I watched my dad dig deep and use his experience to wisely capitalize on the opportunity to take a bull of a lifetime. To me, it was a birthday gift that's yet to be matched. Perhaps it never will be.