Published December 09, 2007, 12:00 AM

Colorado high

I fall into a common category of hunter. Money is an option, yet I dream big. I have heard story upon story from hunters who have traveled to Colorado elk hunting only to come home with tales of blaze-orange-covered mountainsides and ears still ringing with the sound of four-wheelers.

By: By Mathew Sanders,

I fall into a common category of hunter. Money is an option, yet I dream big.

I have heard story upon story from hunters who have traveled to Colorado elk hunting only to come home with tales of blaze-orange-covered mountainsides and ears still ringing with the sound of four-wheelers.

I have also heard success stories that had a $6,000 bill. These stories are what drove me to plan my hunt through an outfitter who offered a drop camp.

The drop camp seemed logical because of the reasonable price and potential for less hunting pressure. I did extensive internet research on outfitters, followed up by telephone interviews and calls to references.

Over several weeks, I narrowed the list of choices down to an outfitter who was priced fairly and provided a drop camp that interested me. The criteria that appealed to me was a wood cabin in the heart of elk country, minimal hunting pressure and no additional charge to pack out a downed animal.

At the start of the planning process, there were four of us chasing this dream. Our group evolved to two via the church and the courtroom. One of my friends got married and the other got divorced, so neither could continue planning for the hunt because of financial reasons. That left my dad and me.

Initially, I was upset because I didn’t want it to just be me and my father out there. Our relationship is great, I just didn’t think it was safe. My father had a heart attack a few years ago and due to his medications he couldn’t travel fast. He could travel far, but one of the medications reduced his natural adrenalin, making frequent rests a must.

We could travel as far as we wanted, we just had to budget for down time. I thought this would be a hindrance, but it turned out to be an antidote to the unforgiving mountain, which I will explain later.

I can’t stress enough the value of proper planning for a trip like this. I am a list guy. I have a list for my whitetail bow hunts, a separate one for my turkey hunts, two different lists for waterfowl hunts and a list of where I keep my lists. It keeps me organized and confident I have everything I need to be safe and successful.

My small daypack contained a survival blanket, matches, lighter, Alaskan game bags, knife, flagging tape, basic first aid dressings, water, granola bars, Sagan field saw (pelvic and rib saw), GPS, compass, camera, portable hack saw, rope and my hunting license. I also had a large back pack that I used to carry my outer clothing, sandwiches and more water.

I also brought a Rubbermaid tub of camp gear. It contained clothesline rope, clothes pins, WD40, compact propane grill, knife sharpening steel, ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen, Icy Hot (similar to Ben Gay), foot and hand warmers and wet wipes.

The cabin at the drop camp was to have everything else we needed: two beds, propane heat, stove and oven, paper towels, several gallons of water, pots, pans, utensils, and soap. The only other things we needed to bring were food, sleeping bags, pillows and our vast wardrobe of hunting clothes.

Arrival at camp

We arrived at the lodge a day before the opener of Colorado’s early elk rifle season. We were greeted by a friendly guide who invited us into the main lodge for coffee and conversation. We visited for an hour or so about elk, bear, and rare mountain lion sightings before loading our gear on a chained 4 x 4 pickup and heading to our drop camp.

If you take part in a drop camp, it is important to understand this is a business. You must respect that. If you only pay for a drop camp, you will not get the benefit of a guided hunt.

The guide likely knows the best way to kill an elk in that area, but you didn’t pay for it, so you may not get that information. I accepted that before arrival, so I was happy to get any “I’d go over there”, or “they’ve killed lots of’em over there” I could get.

I prodded for the information and took what I could get, but understood that any information was a bonus to what I had paid for.

We spent the first day scouting. Our base camp was on a couple hundred acres of private land next to thousands of acres of public land. There was a thin strip of private land, not owned by the outfitter, between our camp and the public land, but we had walking rights to trespass the land.

Even though the land we intended on hunting was public land, the access to it was difficult, except from our location, so we expected to see no other hunters.

The October leaves were continually falling from the aspens from the time of arrival through our departure, so trails would be evident through the hoof prints and compressed or lack of leaves.

On this initial day of scouting, I found a beaten-down trail leading to a creek. It didn’t take me long to dismiss this sign as evidence of the 20 head of cattle roaming the private land. I figured they had somehow ventured onto the public land and carved this trail just to tease me.

We had a good meal and planned the first day’s hunt: Get up early, climb the mountain and set up in the woods awaiting the mighty elk.

Day one: Open season

We woke up and dressed to fend off the 20-degree cold. We followed our plan and climbed the two miles up the mountain. As the crow flies it was probably a lazy mile, but the up and down of it made us dripping puddles of sweat.

Upon our arrival at the random place in the woods, my father and I were both exhausted and the hunting season had started. We each took a stump a couple hundred yards apart and watched the sun rise.

Over the next two hours, the sweat I had generated on the climb froze and chilled my body to the point of discomfort. I was not hypothermic, but was aware the discomfort caused me to move just enough to be ineffective in the woods.

Mid-morning, my dad and I teamed back up and discussed our plan. It was simply brilliant: get comfortable with the surroundings.

We still hunted a small part of the mountain keeping our hunting skills in mind by moving quietly and not covering a lot of territory. We had a lot of land around us and the last thing we wanted to do was scare the elk off the mountain.

We found a wallow with little sign, but marked it on the GPS in case we needed it. There was no calculation to our hunting other than to carefully walk around and let our instincts and experience guide us into confidence.

Around mid-afternoon, we trekked back to camp and had a bite to eat while discussing our findings: very little elk sign, but complete confidence. We stood on the deck of our cabin and looked at the mountainside before us. We stood in silence, analyzing the terrain.

My father brought me up hunting the Sheyenne River Valley of North Dakota, which was ironically a small-scale picture of the land before us. We were accustomed to hunting an area with a winding river surrounded by rising wooded hills. We were now at the bottom of a mountain with low-lying cricks and a towering, aspen covered mountain.

“Right there” my father said, pointing to the mountain in front of us.

“Where?” I said, snatching my rifle off the deck railing, assuming we were being attacked by one of the black bear that haunted my dreams from the night before.

“That saddle,” my dad said, casting his finger upon the vast wilderness before us. “That’s where I want to go.”

I carefully set my rifle down. Still quietly catching my breath, I focused on where he was pointing.

I saw where he was pointing - a small saddle in the mountain. “How simple,” I thought.

We had hunted whitetails this way for as long as I could remember. This was no unveiling strategy. You look at the land to determine where and why the animal would travel there.

The unpressured elk should take the path of least resistance from their bedding area on the mountain to the water source of the creeks below. This saddle appeared to be a subtle dip in the mountain, leading to land we could not see.

Earlier in the day, we scouted areas near the saddle so we decided to wait until the next evening to hunt it. That first evening, we set up on some clearings close to camp and enjoyed the company of some mule deer, but no elk.

Day two

The first day, we tried to travel at my pace which I learned was a mistake. As I mentioned earlier, I thought my dad would slow me down on this hunt.

He did, thank goodness.

My pace the first day resulted in clothes soaked with sweat that eventually froze, for an uncomfortable and restless sit. We discussed this and planned for it on day two.

We woke up early, budgeting for a two-hour climb. On day one, we only gave ourselves an hour. On day two, instead of wearing our clothes, we packed our clothes … nearly all of them.

On the climb, I was dressed in long underwear bottoms, a t-shirt and a light orange vest. My dad had on jeans, a t-shirt and his orange vest. The 20-degree temperature was noticeable when we stepped out of the cabin, but was quickly unnoticed, as was our sweat.

We went at my dad’s pace. Once our pumping hearts were heard, we rested until they calmed. We climbed the mountain with ease, and arrived at the wallow, dry and still in the dark. We noticed on the first day that by noon the sun would warm the mountainside to a comfortable 50 degrees – a perfect temperature for us, but balmy for elk growing their winter coat.

We hoped one or two would visit the wallow.

We sat in our positions until around 1 p.m., taunted again by mule deer, but no elk. We went in search of the saddle. It didn’t take long to find it. We found disturbed leaves within the saddle, indicating something had recently passed through.

My dad set up above the saddle with a clear shot of anything that passed through it. I dropped down below the saddle, closer to the creek. We waited.

There was still an hour and a half of daylight left when I heard my dad shoot. I readied myself for a missed elk to run down the mountain to me. It didn’t come, which was no surprise.

Dad doesn’t miss that often. I waited for the excited scream that always indicates my father has got something. It seemed like it took forever. Finally …

“Mat!” he yelled.

I smiled. It sounded like an urgent cry for help, but I knew my dad was standing over a dead elk.

As I approached, I first saw his smile, which said it all. He had done it. He had traveled from the flatlands of North Dakota to the mountains of Colorado and taken an elk.

The beautiful animal lay before him in its massive beauty. We were both in awe of the enormous creature.

I have seen videos of elk hunts and stood a fence away from farm-raised elk in North Dakota, but none of that prepared me for the sheer size of this wild animal.

We must have looked at the 600-pound cow for an hour before field dressing her. We took our photographs and he told the story of enjoying the woods when the mystical creature appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on the saddle.

Was surprised. He instinctively raised his gun and fired a perfect double-lung shot.

“Grab that leg,” he muttered, trying to saw the pelvic bone.

Over the last few years I had prided myself in heading off his orders with undivided attention to the duties of a field dressing assistant.

Years of butt-chewing made me quite proficient at holding legs, finding knives and getting the “gimme that!” I had slipped, still insane about the size of the animal.

I grabbed the leg, throwing in a “yah, I know” for good measure. I held the cow’s leg and looked at her hoof. “What a huge hoof,” I thought. “It’s as big as the cattle back home.”

It hit me like a ton of bricks – cattle did not make the beaten down trail I had seen on the first day of scouting, it was made by elk. I had dismissed the sign due to inexperience and the red herring 20-head of cattle that roamed the adjacent private land.

We finished dressing the animal just before nightfall. I left my sweat-drenched hat near the field-dressed elk to deter unwanted scavengers. We went back to base camp and told the outfitters we had marked the way to the downed elk with flagging tape.

Day three

We awoke around sunrise and made our way to the carcass. It took a few hours to quarter the animal and get the meat in game bags. The horses and riders arrived shortly after we finished the last quarter. This is where our money paid off.

We had the work of quartering and bagging the animal, but the heavy hauling was included in our drop camp expense.

The outfitter’s son, Chris, arrived with a hand and three horses to make easy work of bringing the animal to the main lodge. My dad and I met at our drop camp to discuss my plans for the evening.

“Remember the cattle trail we found when we were scouting before opening day?” I said, pointing to that area of the mountain. “I don’t think cattle made that trail, I think it was elk.”

My dad looked at the distant dark timber outlining the creek.

“Hmm,” he said, thinking for a long time. “You just might be right ... good luck.”

My dad smiled and headed to town to find cold storage for his elk.

I changed clothes and made the relatively short trek to the creek. There was about three hours of daylight left. It was easy to find the trail as it was the only dark, muddy trail within the freshly fallen aspen leaves.

It was a simple trail that led from the mountain down to the low-lying creek. My difficulty was determining where to set up on the trail. I didn’t want to follow it too far up the mountain for fear of jumping bedded elk.

That was my greatest concern. I had read enough to know that when you spook an elk, it doesn’t just stop at the next hill.

The trail carved through a small group of spruce trees right next to the creek. When I stepped into this dark timber, I felt the temperature noticeably drop.

“This is perfect,” I thought. “Cold air, cold water, everything an elk on the downside of the rut needs.”

The problem was I was too close to the trail. The farthest away I could get while still maintaining cover and a shooting opportunity was 20 yards away from the trail. It would have to do.

I chose my spot to sit and then shed down to my long underwear. The next hour was spent clearing ground clutter and dead branches for a few shooting lanes. I doused myself with some cover scent and put my warm clothes back on. I sat and waited.

A guy has a lot to think about when sitting alone in some dark timber, virgin to the mountains, having recently stepped his tiny feet into bear tracks. I will not lie, I was a bit jumpy.

“Oh the bear won’t bother you,” the outfitter had said. “Just don’t get between her and her cubs.”

No foreshadowing here, I didn’t encounter a bear. I did, however, plan the battle several times in my mind. It kept me busy.

There was still an hour of daylight left when I saw his antlers. They were the only things visible when he approached as a small knoll hid his body. I readied my gun where I thought he would appear.

“Four points, count the four points,” I kept thinking.

This area of Colorado had a four-point restriction and I had mentally prepared for the moment.

He appeared a mere 15 yards away, right on the trail I had formerly presumed to be a cattle trail. He was a bit nervous and stopped. He slowly turned to the side, sniffing some branches, offering a perfect broadside shot.

I put the crosshairs on his lungs and fired. He thundered up the mountain.

The track

I didn’t hear him fall.

“Was it possible I missed?” I thought, waiting for an excruciating 20 minutes.

I couldn’t have. I was calm when I made the shot, minus the thoughts of being mauled by a bear, and my rifle was dead-on.

“He’s got to be down,” I convinced myself.

I’ve waited the acceptable time for lung-shot whitetail, but this was completely unnerving. I convinced myself that 18 minutes was close enough to 20 and took to the trail.

There was no blood where the elk had been standing. My heart fell. I started up the trail he had run. Still no blood.

I began a very limited area search of the aspens where I had lost sight of him. No blood, no hair, no tracks.

At this point, I theorized I had missed him. There were no signs of blood and he had run uphill after the shot. I was devastated. Then I heard a loud crash to my right.

Downhill, approximately 50 yards away, the elk lay, letting out his last breath. I approached the massive animal and felt numb. We had done it.

My father and I had done what we always talked about … Colorado elk hunt. The bonus was we both filled our tags. I admired the mystical elk and turned on my radio.

“Meet me in the meadow,” I said calmly.

“10-4,” dad said.

Until next time

Dad walked up to me, still out of breath from the half-mile walk from camp. He tried to ask me a question but had to take another breath.

“Five by five,” I said, saving him the asking.

“You’re kidding me,” he yelled, giving me a big hug.

I brought him to the elk and we both just stared at it awhile, smiling.

“You done good son,” he said.

I turned away, pretending to look for something in my pack while hiding my tears. It never gets old making your father proud. And I was proud of him too. He brought me up hunting.

A lot of people plan for one guided elk hunt in their life. To them I say, reconsider.

Initially I started off with the same plan. I was going to save my money and pay for one guided elk hunt and call it a lifetime.

I don’t have to do that now. I can afford three hunts like this instead of one guided hunt. Have confidence in your hunting skills and pay for a drop-camp.

Don’t be intimidated by the mountain, yet be prepared. I spent the fraction of a guided hunt and dad and I are preparing for another drop-camp in 2008.

Mathew Sanders, 35, is a sergeant for the Fargo Police Department. He has hunted for 21 years, concentrating primarily on whitetail bow hunting in the Sheyenne River Valley and Turtle Mountains of North Dakota. He has had articles published in Petersen’s Bowhunting Magazine. Colorado high By Mathew Sanders 20071209