|Whale Tail Outdoors|
|Whale Tail Outdoors|
My breathing labored, I decided to sit down for a moment. The textured landscape rises and dips across the spread, the curves and angles calling for attention in the new light. As the sun creeps higher into the morning sky, columns of light break through the clouds, illuminating patches of the forest and shining on single patches of wild earth.
Somewhere out here is the elk I seek, quietly chewing on grasses and forbs, making its living, doing very well at being an elk. The fabric of the forest is beautifully laid out before me, occupied by the plants, animals and fish who fill these mountains and my imagination.
Bears are padding quietly and using their incredible nose as a guide to the invisible, leading them to turn here or there, deciding to ascend a ridge or follow a creek. Trout are swimming endlessly in clear, cool streams waiting for the next insect to glide into view and provide sustenance. I feel the cadence of wing beats as songbirds methodically fly overhead and careen in and out of the scrub on their way to and fro the places of their livelihoods.
I could easily be caught up in the magic of it all, caught up in the gifts these moments offer, but a chill begins to set in after the sweat loses its heat and becomes the vehicle for cooling breezes to drop my temperature.
Upwards again. I must make the ridgeline before too much longer. I know where the elk like to be and I want a long look into an aspen filled bowl before the sun decides to spread its warm, bright blanket over that cool draw.
The snow alternates from dry and quiet in the shade to crusty and loud where the sun has had its turn at morphing the ice crystals. I’ll need to stay on the shaded north faces as a move nearer to the destination.
A light wind picks up, interrupting the rhythm of each new step. It helps remind the senses that a repeated pace will surely alert inquiring ears. Wispy streaks of snow leap as they crest the ridgeline and fall as the energy fades on the leeward side. The wind will help if it maintains its current direction but I remain weary from knowing that it could change at any moment and send my scent whirling towards the group of elk that I’d prefer remain ignorant of my presence.
I’m getting near the treed bowl so I slow to a snail’s pace and try to become hyper alert to any clues I may be able to gather. My heart begins involuntarily racing as the adrenaline starts making bodily decisions without asking.
I take deep breaths through my nose hoping to catch that musky scent stamped into my brain through olfactory senses. I wait between breaths, hoping for absolute silence, trying to discern even the slightest of noises. My binoculars offer super vision for methodically scanning the trees. Back and forth, looking at every dark spot two or three times, trying, hoping to make out elk fur.
A few more steps. Scan, listen, smell. A few more. Same thing.
Nothing. The adrenaline subsides and the wind picks up again bringing with it a lonely feeling. Solo time has its highs and lows. Thinking deeply and then not thinking at all. Feeling absolute freedom then constrained by rugged terrain, rocks, ice, trees and wind in two moments not five minutes apart. Miles of ridges and valleys all here for me to explore. A wife and two kids at home, in the warmth, away from me.
My targeted bowl turned up empty but I am certainly not finished. There are tracks, beds. They have been here recently. They can’t be far.
The ridge stretches before me to the west. A methodical, prudent walk begins. This country is familiar. Blessed by the gift of public lands, I have been able to become intimate with lands like these. I know that another half mile will bring me to another high elk probability area.
Two hundred steps, three hundred, five hundred. My breathing is again heavy, ushered in by the steep climb. At once I hear the crack of a limb. Stillness, quiet. There it is again only this time accompanied by the soft thump of ungulate footfall growing louder.
Slow rotation towards the noise. Senses heightening. Wait. Time seems to stand still. The snow muffles the sound of hooves steadily contacting the ground beneath snow but it is surely there. Coming closer, I freeze.
A dark nose appears just through the boughs of a stately Douglas fir. Steam rises in the sunlight with each breath. Then eyes and antlers. 20 yards. I am a statue. The entire beast is now present. A beautiful mature bull. He somehow knows I’m there even though I am extremely still and partly concealed by a large aspen. He looks my way, blinking and sniffing heavily working to assemble the pieces of the scene. The moment is surreal, happening in slow motion. He came to me, like he wanted me to see him or he knows.
Maybe he knows that I have a cow tag. In any case, he is not in a hurry. I do my best to slowly draw out my camera without spooking him. I get off a couple mediocre photos of his behind as he glides away into the aspen beyond.
An overwhelming feeling of joy comes over me. I am here to kill an elk, yes. But I am here for all of this. The connection to here and all those who walked before me or will ever walk these mountains, the smells, the sounds, the emotional roller coaster, the visceral explorations. The disconnection from there, the computers, phones, noise and bustle, and from those who wish anything other than prosperity for these precious wild landscapes I so need to soothe my soul.
The long ascent provides ample time for reflection. Scenes of the varied landscapes of my life dancing through my head mingled with the hopes and dreams of the future. Random questions race in and out. Where were the cows? When can I bring my kids here? How will we keep these areas wild and free forever?
I return home without an elk this time, my only encounter the lone monarch. It may be a stretch but I like to think we are a reflection of one another. Two strong healthy males, trying to make a living, trying to find comfort and sustenance, hoping to make good choices and avoid danger, to go down the right path and to prosper.
This journey renews my vitality and reinfuses my vigor for protecting these wild places. These lands are a truly irreplaceable gift. A gift we must nurture and protect. They are a family heirloom with greater value than any actual thing. They are the theatre of the greatest experiences of my life. I hand these lands down to my children and impart in them the sense of collective ownership and stewardship. They are theirs and they are ours.
Although I came home without my query on this occasion, I found something in abundance along the way. I found vitality, humility and connection, all afforded to me by having wild places to roam.
About the Author
Aaron Kindle is lifelong westerner, originally from Wyoming, who possesses a deep appreciation for the west, its people and its wild country. He works for National Wildlife Federation as the Western Sportsmen’s Campaign Manager. He is an avid hunter, angler, boater and all around outdoor enthusiast. He lives with his wife and two children in Golden, CO.
I am a high country mule deer nut. I literally spend all summer obsessing about the September high country and the bucks that live there. Don’t get me wrong, I love elk and elk hunting. However, the problem is every time I am in the hills in early fall I am looking toward timberline, searching for that elusive gray ghost slipping through an avalanche chute into a high country throne worthy of the king of the high country.
2013 was a different year for me. A good friend of mine had been asking me to cash in my elk points for the past four years to try out a muzzleloader hunt in a new unit that we knew held some monster bulls. As the application deadline rapidly approached I had crunched the numbers several times and I knew that I would be hunting elk that September. As I struggled with how to balance my passion for high country mule deer and my excitement to hunt this great elk unit I came to the realization that I could draw an archery deer tag for this unit as a second choice, allowing me to retain my points for my plan to draw an early high country rifle tag in 2014 (which I did draw this year).
This unit is not well known for monster muleys, but I truly believe you can find a big one in any high country hunt in Colorado in any given year. My plan was to utilize my archery tag to get me into the high country as a scouting tool for my upcoming elk hunt. I would hunt the first couple of weekends of archery season to learn where the big bulls were hanging out and hopefully get an arrow in a mature muley for my first archery kill. I had my standards set pretty low at any 4 point buck, as I was dreaming of a 350” bull.
As summertime started to release the beautiful bounty of the high country from the depths of snow I was able to make scouting trip in mid-July with my brother Jason. We hit an area that had looked to hold the most promise to me from my scouring of maps and aerial photos. We encountered some gorgeous new country, a ton of rain, and some great looking herds of elk. We didn’t see a single deer in my hunt unit, but did see some great bucks on the wrong side of unit boundary. I continued to pour over Google Earth; confident that a return trip in September would get me into the elk, but burning inside to see some new country and find a monster muley buck to hunt. Unfortunately as often happens the rest of summer was rapidly consumed with work obligations and scouting trips to other units and new country. I didn’t make it into the unit again, and for the first time in years I felt completely unprepared for my annual high country deer trip. With the realization that I didn’t have a good plan I poured my evenings into scouting from a distance on Google Earth once again. I correlated the areas that I had found bucks in during my previous hunting and scouting trips in other units and I was able to narrow down a second area that I was truly excited to lay eyes on.
My good friend Scott and I arrived at the trailhead late the evening before the season and had a fitful night sleep in a rain soaked tent. We hit the trail early, knowing we had a couple of hours to make the elevation required to get to my predetermined scouting location. As we bushwhacked through the wet timber I began to second guess my decision to undertake this hike sight unseen in the dark. My doubt was released as we broke out of the timber. Our timing was perfect and we were just ½ mile from the vantage point with grey light just starting to bring the mountainside to life. Scott and I split up to glass separate basins and we began to pick the country apart looking for that first animal of the season. We were both having a tough time finding any animals for the first 45 minutes of glassing time. Finally, I looked toward the towering peak to the north of me and thought I could just see two deer picking their way through the alpine. As I broke out the spotting scope I confirmed that there were two nice mule deer bucks enjoying the morning sunshine in the wide open expanses above timberline. As the bucks finally bedded down below a small rock pile I felt confident I could make the grueling hike over the backside of the peak and have a comfortable archery shot from above.
I took off after the bucks with four days worth of equipment on my back and Scott watching through the spotter to guide me to the correct rock pile with hand signals. After several hours of stalking I had run out of room at 83 yards above the two unsuspecting bucks. Eventually some hikers spooked the bucks off, but during the hours of watching them at close range I came to realize that the larger of the two bucks was a giant framed old buck. He looked to be 30” wide and tall, much bigger than I had inspected to encounter on this hunt. As I went back to work after Labor Day all I could think about was that big buck and getting back on him on Thursday. I also had a Utah archery deer tag in my pocket, but cancelled my plans to hunt Utah that weekend in hopes of catching back up to the huge framed buck.
Thursday morning found me back on the familiar dark trail heading up the mountain to get my first light vantage again. I was again ready for four days of trying to track down the huge framed buck, and my standards had changed. I was after the huge framed buck and I wasn’t giving up unless a monster buck presented himself during the hunt for him.
First light found some elk treading across the basins, but no sign of the bucks on their old hillside haunt. I decided to make my way across and up to some rugged country just west of where I had last seen the bucks heading to. At about 10:30 in the morning I was sitting in a large rock pile eating a snack and rehydrating while halfheartedly glassing. As I lazily looked upward I again saw two mule deer bucks well above timberline in the wide open grabbing a mid-morning snack. I instantly knew it was the huge framed buck and his companion. The country they had moved into appeared to be even more wide open that the previous weekend, but I was prepared to watch these deer for the next four days until the slipped up and bedded below a feature that would allow me to approach from above as I had done before on many muzzleloader hunts. As I sat there waiting for the inevitable change in the thermals that would give me the possibility of such an approach I broke out the sat phone and talked with Scott he reaffirmed my decision to be patient and wait the bucks out for the next few days if I had to. A buck like this would probably not give me another chance if I blew him out. After just 15 minutes of watching the bucks they disappeared below a small rise that looked like it would allow me to slip within 50 yards of the bedded bucks if I was willing to approach from below. With the wind still dropping down the hill hard and the heat of the day rapidly approaching I decided this opportunity was too good to pass up.
I quickly covered the quarter mile up to the bucks and just like that I was within 100 yards of the bucks. 50 more yards of calculated quiet crawling and I was in position 50 yards from the bedded bucks, watching their antler tips bob up and down as they lazily dozed mere yards away. After 30 minutes I noticed the big bucks antlers suddenly turn, and I knew he had sensed my presence. Before he could stand up I was at full draw with my 50 yard pin on him. I let the arrow fly and watched as it fell short smashing into a boulder. The bucks were confused and jumped back 5 yards trying to pin down what had just happened. I quickly knocked another arrow and put my 50 yard pin at the top of his back and released again. This shot hit home, but the strong crosswind had carried it behind the lungs and into the buck’s midsection. As the bucks moved off to the west the smaller buck kept physically pushing the big framed buck to keep moving. I watched as they moved across the basin and realized I would have a chance to cut them off at a funnel near timberline if I moved quickly. I was inclined to let the buck bed down and die, but with the smaller buck’s nudges I was worried they would make it into the timber below and be lost forever. I quickly dropped behind the ridge and ran down to the rock pile I had originally glassed the bucks from. As I crouched in the boulders the bucks came by at 75 yards. I gathered all of my equipment and prepared for the sprint to beat the bucks to the obvious funnel below. When I made it into position 10 minutes later I was perplexed as I couldn’t find the bucks. Just then I noticed them 200 yards from where I thought they would be, staring holes into me. I let them ease over the ridge and again cut the distance as quickly as my conditioning would allow me to at nearly 12,000 feet with a 40 pound pack on my back. When I reached the ridge they dropped over I looked down just in time to see a coyote jump out of the rock slide and square off with my buck. At this point the huge framed buck’s faithful companion finally left his side. I was just 60 yards from the wounded buck, watching him repeatedly run off the coyote like a bull with a matador’s spear in his side. Finally at 30 yards the coyote saw me sneaking in and took off running. The big buck stood broadside, almost completely spent but ready for the next predator approaching from above. As I released the arrow at the buck I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. He spun around and ran downhill with the arrow hanging by the fletching until his shoulder snapped it off. He made it about 60 yards before collapsing for good.
As I gathered my thoughts I felt the full spectrum of emotions that we as hunters feel when we take an animal. I was on a 20 minute adrenaline fueled mission to make sure I didn’t lose this majestic creature and to make sure I did this monarch justice. Now I had finally succeeded I was sorry for what I had put him through, yet overjoyed to have killed my first archery animal all coupled with a huge adrenalin dump. I can not do the emotional experience justice in print but many of you reading will understand exactly what I was experiencing.
As I prepare to cook the last package of steaks from that high country monarch tonight I am grateful for the experience and for the wonderful protein the hunt provided my family with. The buck ended up scoring right at 170” in velvet with a 31” mainframe and huge G2’s. I will always stare at my wall in admiration and gratefulness of that awesome buck.
While growing up, my father taught me several important lessons about keeping my skills sharp as a bow hunter. One lesson that still holds true for me today is keeping my shooting skills honed in for when they matter most. While bowhunting in the backcountry I keep my shooting fresh by finding targets in my natural surroundings to help build confidence during the hunt. I have found that shooting your bow in the same environment you are hunting in will further build the confidence you need to make the shot you’ve worked so hard for.
While much has changed with the technology in the equipment I shoot today, the foundation of my shooting regiment has stayed true no matter where I am hunting. Most of my hunting during my teenage years and through college was done with a traditional bow. During this time, I depended on stump shooting in the backcountry to help refine my instinctive shooting skills. I always carried a couple of flu flu arrows in my quiver for stump shooting or the occasional blue grouse I would happen upon. My dad showed me an amazing trick to convert my field points on my traditional cedar shafts into stump shooting machines. By removing the field points I carried for small game, I instead adhered .38 caliber casings to the end of my shafts. With the new blunt tips attached to my arrows I was able to shoot stumps without sinking my shafts too far and losing them .
These days I typically depend on a compound bow for my high country expeditions. As compound bows have become increasingly faster, archery target manufactures have had to meet the demand and increase the durability of their targets. While targets are being produced in all shapes and sizes, I have yet to find a target small or light enough to carry into the backcountry to my spike camp. As weight is always a factor in backcountry hunting, an archery target is obviously not a practical tool for spike camp. While many of my hunting days are spent miles away from any road, It is still a priority for me to find opportunities to shoot while I am off the grid.
Using .38 caliber casings was a great fix for my traditional cedar shafts during my college years. However, after I started depending on a compound bow for most of my hunts I adapted to bludgeon tips for the carbon arrows I was shooting. Most bludgeon tips that you find for carbon arrows are designed for bird hunting. In fact, the bludgeon tips I shoot are perfect for head shots on birds like grouse and turkeys. While I use these tips for small game, I have also found that they can stand up to a beating when used for target practice.
Shooting stumps with a traditional bow is perfect practice for hunting because the height of a stump often resembles the height of a big game animal. However, shooting stumps with a compound bow can be a bit dicey because the speed and kinetic energy transferring through a carbon arrow is too much when hitting a dense object like a tree stump. So, my brother and I started looking for other inanimate objects around our spike camps to shoot that were more forgiving on impact. What we came up with was simple and abundant, especially near or above tree line. Between all of the pocket gophers, ground squirrels and voles there happens to be a plethora of den tailings found in or around tree line. When these critters dig their dens they leave a pile of loose dirt that makes the perfect backstop especially when found on the upside of a slope. We quickly learned that the lightest target for these den tailings is a piece of orange flagging. In fact, I find myself packing a few extra strips of flagging in my pocket so I can set up targets and shoot while moving from camp to my hunting zones.
Shooting a carbon arrow at speeds near 300 feet per second at a piece of dirt definitely has its inherent risks. Always make sure to investigate the area you are shooting at and remove any rocks found around your target. Additionally, it is just as important after each shot to diligently inspect your arrow for any cracks in the carbon. It is truly amazing how resilient blunt tips are when hitting a target that is somewhat forgiving as they do a great job protecting the integrity of the arrow.
I always leave room in my quiver for at least two arrows with bludgeon tips. As I mentioned earlier, I am extremely weight conscious when packing in gear to the backcountry. However, having the opportunity to practice my shot and pick up some dinner easily trumps a few extra ounces in weight. Remember, as archers, it is our responsibility to be prepared and make the most ethical shots possible. Boost your confidence while in the backcountry and make sure to sneak in some practice shooting on your next archery hunt.