"So, this is all there is to elk hunting?" I laughingly asked my guide, Bennett (Bennie) Whisnant as we slid my elk into the back of the old Dodge pickup. "Seems easy enough."
Bennie replied to my joking with a grin. We both knew better, but my first elk hunt had played out like a dream. After years of reading about the tribulations and sweat equity required to take one of these huge creatures, I had shot my first bull within a half-mile's walk of the truck, and dropped him in a position where we were able to bring the truck around and slide him right down the hill and onto the cargo bed. Nothing to it!
I was hunting with Hyatt Guides and Outfitters out of Montrose, Colorado, on the opener of first rifle season in Area 62.
According to Jackie Hyatt, wife of proprietor Bruce Hyatt, the family operation has been in the field since some time in the 1950's. Evidence of Hyatt's longevity is his Colorado Outfitter's registration number... #34.
In the early years, the focus was on mule deer hunts. Elk were scarce in the Montrose area then, but big bucks were abundant. In recent years, harsh weather has reduced the deer herd to the point where the Colorado Division of Wildlife made the zone a limited entry area. At the same time, Colorado's notoriously expanding elk herd moved into the area in force. While there are still plenty of good bucks in the zone, the elk have become pretty thick, offering superb opportunities in both Areas 62 and 61. Hyatt's base camp is situated on the boundary of the two zones, and he offers hunts in both.
Accommodations with the Hyatts are not too shabby. This is no tent camp with damp canvas and moldy cots.
While the current cabin can best be described as "rustic", it's plenty comfortable. Originally a homesteaders' cabin, the place has been remodeled and added onto until it's large enough to accomodate as many as 25 people.
With indoor plumbing, hot water for showers, and a cheery wood stove in the great room, hunters will be plenty cozy. There's even satellite TV, for those who can't stand to miss the ball games (or the stock market) while they're in the field.
Usually, Hyatt prefers to book approximately 8 hunters and provides two or three guides. Jackie Hyatt serves as chief cook and bottle washer, as well as house mom. She provides some awesome table fare, with two hot meals (breakfast and dinner), as well as bag lunches. Breakfast is ready when the lights come on in the morning, and dinner is usually piping hot shortly after the last hunters come in from the field at dark. Coffee, tea, and sodas are available any time. There are usually some tasty snacks laying around as well. Nobody goes hungry.
Whenever there is a big crowd, Jackie has additional help in the kitchen and around the place. Up to seven guides are available, and special arrangements can be made to secure a one-on-one hunt.
Hyatt's elk hunts are competitively priced for the area. In my case, however, I was the lucky winner of a raffle at the Sportsman's Expo in San Mateo, CA. Despite the fact that I had really only paid the price of a raffle ticket, I was treated like a full-rate client during the entire week I was with the Hyatts. I think this says a lot for the way they treat their clients. By the end of the week, I felt almost like part of the family... or at least like a family friend. It's easy to see why so much of the Hyatts' clientele is repeat business.
There are four periods for rifle elk hunters in zone 62. First period is draw only, while the next three are available over-the-counter. Since I was hunting first period, I had to draw a tag. Odds are good, and of course I was drawn. However, some of the other hunters booked for this hunt did not draw. A couple of others had errors on their paperwork, and two hunters had to cancel and reschedule at the last moment. That left me and one other guided hunter, Don, as well as Roger, a fellow from Arkansas who was self-guided. With such a small group, we were able to take advantage of one-on-one guiding for our hunts.
We had arrived on the Friday before the opener, got settled in, and over an enjoyable dinner we were given a brief orientation of the camp rules, game laws, and hunting methods. We discussed the plan for the morning hunt, and it was time for bed. I don't know about the other hunters, but sleep was hard to come by, as visions of big bulls kept my mind operating at full-bore.
The plan for opening morning was to set myself and Don over some ponds where the elk were watering. Due to the dry weather, the ponds would be a good bet for early morning stand hunting. As Bennie and I walked toward my stand, a herd of elk ambled out onto a ridge, about 100 yards to our west. The second animal out was a bull with tall antlers. However, the angle of the morning sun made it look like he simply carried really long spikes. In this zone, a legal bull must have six-inch brow tines or at least four points. In the weird light, I could see neither.
The bull mingled with several cows and calves, and then I saw a second bull following the group. Unlimbering my binoculars, I was able to see that the first bull was definitely NOT a spike. I handed the glasses to Bennie who quickly counted the points. "Five by five," he whispered.
My heart leapt into my throat. When I rolled out of bed for this opening morning, I had decided not to shoot the first little bull I saw. Arbitrarily, I determined that an opening day bull would have to be at least a five-pointer. And here he was!
The second bull looked to be about the same as the first, if maybe a shade smaller. He was at the edge of some brush where Bennie couldn't see him. A spike bull appeared in the group as well. The entire herd kept looking back in the direction they'd come from. Something had them a little spooked, but apparently not too badly, and they milled about on the open ridge for several moments. Unfortunately, the ridge was on an off-limits property, and all we could do was watch.
It's just as well that I couldn't shoot then, because although the 100 yard shot should have been simple, my heart was pounding so hard I felt like my eyes were going to pop out of my head. My breathing was ragged gasps. It took some effort to get control of myself. As I did, the herd moved across the ridge and disappeared over the rim. Bennie was tugging at my sleeve. "C'mon. They're going over toward your stand. Maybe we can head them off."
I glassed once more, to make sure no rear-guard was watching us, then we moved off along the logging road toward the point of the ridge. Halfway to the point, the off-limits area ended and Bennie told me to be ready to shoot if we saw the bull again. However, looking at the layout of the land, we both figured the herd would have moved a bit further down. Neither of us was fully prepared when the five-pointer stepped out into the scrub oaks about 75 yards away.
He was moving broadside, and unaware of us. The scrub oaks pretty much obscured his body, though, and all I could see was his ears and antlers. Just as the scrub oaks ended at a clearing, he stopped. Bennie and I crouched in the logging road. I took a knee, and tried to get the scope on the bull. The brush was too thick, though, and I couldn't see a clear shot. Bennie was on the outside of the road, though, and could see clearly. "Shoot him," he hissed. "He won't stay there long."
My bull. He's a nice, five-by-five. I couldn't believe what a huge animal he was. Made all my deer and hogs look like small game.
"I can't see his body," I whispered. "I don't have a shot."
I scanned the brush, but there was simply no shot. My whole body was tensing and slightly trembling. My heart was beating so hard my ears were ringing. The temptation to just stab a round through the brush made my finger tighten briefly on the trigger, but I pushed it back. I sure didn't want to mess up and wound this magnificent animal. I needed a clean shot.
"He's gonna run," Bennie whispered. "Can you shoot?"
I could hear the frustration in his voice. All I could see, though, was oak limbs, ears, and antlers. "No, there's nothing to shoot at."
Just then, the bull whirled and started to run back up the hill. He hit a small opening in the brush and for a second I could see his head and neck. I put the crosshairs at the base of the neck and shoulder, then led him a touch and squeezed the trigger. The Savage roared, and the elk disappeared. For a moment I was sure I'd missed him. Then I felt Bennie's hand clap down on my shoulder and realized he was saying, "Good shot! Way to go!"
My first elk was on the ground! It's a good thing too, since between the shaking of my hands and the swelling of the handloaded 30-06 cartridge, it took several seconds to work the bolt and reload.
As we climbed up to the elk, Bennie's face took on a worried look. All I could see was one forked beam sticking up over the grass. "Dang," he whispered, "it's only a three point! Oh, we're in big trouble now."
All sorts of thoughts rushed through my head. Foremost, I had seen the animal's antlers clearly and was almost certain that he was legal... almost certain. Secondly, Bennie was supposed to be an experienced guide. He called the shot. Was he just over-excited? If this bull wasn't legal, what would we do? I know Colorado has some pretty steep fines for illegal elk. Oh, I didn't need this at all. The exuberance of the kill was starting to drain away like the blood from my face.
Bennie read my expression, waited a beat, and then I saw the wicked grin spread across his face and I realized I'd been had! Of course the bull was legal! My guide had just played me like a pro, and we were both laughing as we walked up to my five-by-five bull.
As we got closer, I could see the bullet hole pumping blood from just behind his ear. I guess I led him a little much, and in addition to the unsteadiness of an offhand shot I'd put the bullet almost a foot from where I'd planned. However, it was about as deadly a shot as anyone could ask for, the 180 grain Nosler Partition cutting across the carotid artery and angling up into the brain. The bull dropped, literally, in his tracks.
I grinned at Bennie. "I shoot ALL my elk behind the ear."
His response was somewhat mumbled, but sounded a lot like, "Yeah, right."
I touched the bull's eye with my rifle barrel and saw that the little life remaining in him was fading fast. Bennie looked at his watch. "Thirty five minutes from the truck. That ought to be some kind of record. Congratulations!"
We raised Justin Soell, the other guide, on the two-way and told him to come meet us with the truck, then turned to the work of field dressing. I've dressed a lot of deer in my life, and a few wild hogs, but nothing compared to this huge animal in front of me now. I knew the mechanics would be the same, but the logistics had me a little puzzled. I was inching through the initial cuts when Justin pulled up. Gently, he and Bennie nudged me out of the way, and I held a leg while they made fairly short work of the field dressing process.
Once the dressing was done, we were able to slide the elk downhill and right onto the bed of the truck. I couldn't have planned it better. Better lucky than good, or so it's said.
Justin and I hauled the bull back to the cabin for skinning, while Bennie went to work with the other hunter. On the ride back, I realized that, essentially, my Colorado elk hunt was over. This left me mildly ambivalent, but I decided to enjoy the fact that I'd just taken a nice bull elk. I'd hunt the remainder of the week with my camera, enjoy some time reading by the fireside back at camp, and take it easy.
Bruce Hyatt III
and son Kevin prepare the pack horses to collect two cow elk from down
in the canyon.
On Sunday morning, as I lounged in camp reading Hemingway's To Have and To Have Not, Hyatt's son, Bruce Hyatt III came into the cabin. He and his wife and daughters had been out the previous evening, and two of them had filled cow tags. He was coming to get the horses and pack the quarters out. Eager for the experience, I put down my book and offered to help.
Bruce guides for the operation as well, but of course had the week off since there were only two guided hunters in camp for the week. He took the opportunity to get his wife and daughters into some elk.
I hiked in with Bruce, his son, Kevin, and the two horses. The elk were about three miles or so down in the canyon. During the hike in, I talked to both Hyatts about elk hunting, hoping to glean some tips from them as we went. Both were pretty knowledgeable, especially Bruce.
As we walked he told me about elk habits and habitat, and some good techniques for putting the two together to take your animal. It was obvious he knew his stuff, and at the end of the hike, I knew a lot more too.
Shortly after returning to the cabin from that hike, Roger came in from the field. "So, Roger," I called. "Where's he at?"
Roger, deadpan, looked back at me and replied, "He's on the ridge down there. I got him field dressed, but wanted to come back and eat some lunch before I start carrying him out."
He'd shot a four-by-four while I was out with Bruce and Kevin bringing in their animals. We heard the shots, and I half-wondered if it might be where Roger was hunting.
After having such an easy time of my own elk, and letting the horses do most of the work with Bruce's two cows, I figured it would be good to see what it's like to really pack one out the hard way. I was on this trip to hunt, and to learn more about elk hunting. Besides, Roger was on his own. So I volunteered my assistance. The way Roger jumped at the offer was a pretty good indicator of what kind of task was before us.
We ate lunch and prepared to hit the trail. Roger had his ATV along, and that would get us to the trailhead. From there, we hiked about a half mile down the main trail, then cut off across a ridge another mile and a half or so to where the bull had gone down. Roger gave me his pack frame, and had borrowed one of the Hyatt's panniers for himself. The first hike in wasn't too bad, although the ridge had been clearcut, and was now thick with head-high quaking aspens and slash piles.
We set to work skinning and boning the huge beast. I quickly found that skinning and boning on the ground was quite a challenge. Fortunately, Roger had done this before, and I caught on quickly. We got one side of the elk done, and decided to pack this load out and come back for the other half.
A pack full of elk meat gets heavy fast. At least I had the pack frame. Roger was wearing the pannier like a knapsack, and I'm sure the balance was a challenge. We got the load out though, and I waited at the trailhead as Roger took it on the ATV back to the cabin. When he returned, we packed back in and did it all over again. The second load seemed strangely heavier, every quakie we passed slapped and cut at us, and the slash piles seemed to intentionally grab our boots. The prospect of a broken ankle kept us both stepping carefully. We were both pretty happy to see the trailhead and the waiting ATV. As we struggled out with the last bit of meat, I was quickly erasing any ideas of solo wilderness elk hunts from my mind. This is definitely not a job for one person!
The rest of the week went pretty uneventfully. Don was the only hunter to go home empty-handed, although he did have the opportunity to see a ton of elk on Tuesday evening, as about 40 elk moved into a canyon he and Bennie were watching at sunset. Unfortunately, they couldn't put a legal set of antlers on any of them.
On Wednesday, the next to the last day of the trip, I butchered my elk. I'd never worked on an animal this big before, but it was just a matter of using the same cuts I used on deer. I couldn't help but admire the 30 pound backstrap, though!
Finally, Thursday rolled around. My elk cut and packed, the season over, it was time to go. With a hug from Jackie, and promises to come back soon, I hit the road back to California. My dreams are still full of the sights and sounds of Colorado elk country, though. If I close my eyes for a moment, I can still see that bull, silhouetted against the morning sky. And in the distance, there's the screaming bugle of a bull who doesn't realize the rut is supposed to be over...
More pictures from the trip are available here.
Thinking about making the trip? Click here for more information.
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Copyright 2000 WPL