My 2015 archery season started off like a wildfire. I had patterned a group of speed goats quenching their thirst at a stock tank and, on opening day, skewered one of my best bucks to date. The following week I boarded a plane destined for south Florida to hunt whitetails in the rut – no, I didn’t believe it at first either. Aside from the torrid temperatures and swarming mosquitos, I had the time of my life. In addition to punching a brute of a Florida buck’s time card, I also sent brand-new Easton arrows (to be introduced in October – more on these later) into a healthy hog and an alligator. It was, to say the least, an epic hunt.
Naturally, I went into my 2015 Colorado general archery elk hunt overflowing with confidence and, as I believe before every hunt I embark on, fully expected the end result to be a bloody arrow and backstraps. The bad news: No such luck. The only thing I bloodied was my leg on a barbed-wire fence. As for backstraps, I have to settle for pronghorn.
What went wrong? As a bowhunter, I consider myself a true student of the game. I never think I know it all (take the know-it-all route and this game will humble you faster than a jack rabbit fleeing from a coyote), and I continue to evaluate my performance and learn from every day I spend afield. The first problem on this hunt: Hunt pressure.
In my opinion, nothing negatively affects natural game animal activity like negative hunt pressure. Though my companions and I packed 4 miles into a wilderness area with 50- to 60-pound packs on our backs, we ran into throngs of hunters. We didn’t know how to react. We’d hunted this spot, in complete solitude for the most part, for three years running. The trail was beat with boot tracks and lined with horse droppings. The elk – elk that would normally respond well to bugles and cow talk – would give a single courtesy bugle before moving away and vanishing without a trace.
In addition to the serious amount of hunt pressure, the nights were warm and the mornings were a far cry from cold. Typically, we awake to a stiff frost and breath that rolls white. This year my hunting partners and I slept with one leg out of the sleeping bag, and not once did we get the pleasure of the backcountry morning shivers while dressing in our tents in the predawn darkness. The unseasonably warm temperatures hindered bugling activity in the mornings and evenings. During the dead of night when, in years past, sleeping had been difficult due to the insane amount of bugling activity, we were lucky to hear an elk or two sound off.
Lastly, and perhaps the biggest reason I didn’t punch my elk tag, I refused to adjust and change to the conditions. My partners and I continued our calling efforts, doing our best to force something to happen. We would get on a bull, the bull would bugle and then he would walk away. We got frustrated. We began walking into elk as we desperately tried to make a bull – any bull – come to the call. After all, that’s how we all like to hunt elk. I mean, who doesn’t? Few things trump a big bull snapping young aspen trees like toothpicks as he saunters into bow range. This year, it just wasn’t going to happen.
You’d think after all of these years I’d know better. What I needed to do was find a heavily pounded elk trail and wait. I could have also camped out over a well-used wallow, watched elk from afar and tried to make a stalk, or tried any one of numerous other tactics. Instead, I tried to do things the way I wanted them to work. You can see how well that worked out for me. Bowhunting is about being flexible. It’s about adjusting your strategies to match the current mood and habits of the animals you’re hunting. And, especially for me on this trip, it’s about being a constant learner. Whether I will get back into the elk woods for a long weekend at the end of September remains to be seen, but I can promise you that if I do, I will hunt according to the mood and habits of the elk I’m chasing.