An Elk Hunter’s Quest for a Birthday Bull

There comes a time when a bowhunter has to dedicate their time to tagging a bull elk. Last fall, I did just that.

An Elk Hunter’s Quest for a Birthday Bull

Pursuing either the snot-nosed musky, screaming, slobbering bulls or more elusive, silent targets is a challenge I embrace. Most years, I purchase an over-the-counter archery elk license. With about a month of hunting time available, I often continue to work and schedule events during those dates and hunt when I can.

When we don’t commit our time to the hunt, we limit our chances for success. I’ve missed days of archery hunting for Russian bear hunts with Sako Rifles, early season waterfowl hunts in Louisiana, off-roading Nissan Titans across Colorado and various other work-related adventures. Many happen to land on it, so I call them birthday trips.

When my daughter headed off to college, I decided to try to get a Colorado limited-draw archery elk tag. Low and behold, I did. So, last fall the in-season trips were cancelled and a birthday bull became the goal.

The author with her bow in the saddle scabbard, pursuing Colorado bulls.
The author with her bow in the saddle scabbard, pursuing Colorado bulls.

Scouting Begins

While teaching at a ladies cast and blast, a conservation officer shared an area where he’d always seen huge bulls in the unit I had drawn. Another friend told us the location where his daughter shot her bull in the unit. Hikers mentioned seeing huge elk herds and trails obstructed by beetle-killed timber.

Hunting the wilderness is a joy because you’re far from most civilized things, including four-wheelers, chainsaws and masses of people. My husband, Hank, and I spent the summer riding neglected trails and using our cross-cut saw to make our way through the maze of deadfall. We researched the tips we’d received. I prepared my body for the 9,000- to 12,000-foot elevations where we scouted and at which I’d be hunting.

Hunting elk in the mountains of Colorado requires an archer to be in shape. I worked out and shot my Mathews Monster Chill. I practiced shooting positions with my loaded Alps pack. I rehearsed scenarios, including holding at full draw for extended periods and up-close shots. What I didn’t practice was passing on high-quality bulls.

I knew that a bull with a rack 320 inches or larger would be reasonable in the unit. I chatted on the phone with my daughter and she chuckled saying, “You’re going to need to be patient.” She knew we’d run into many smaller bulls during the hunt.        

The Hunt Begins

As it turned out, I had many close encounters with bulls, just like I’d rehearsed, but then I had to cope with the scenario I hadn’t practiced — passing on bulls I’d happily shoot on the other side of the mountain.

The first morning we snuck in on a 5x5 bull that would’ve scored around 320. His eye guards were as long as my arm — and the mass! I felt no breeze as I nocked an arrow and sized him up. “He’s a shooter,” I told myself as he stood broadside at 30 yards. As if he could read my mind, my husband looked at me, shaking his head and mouthing the word, “No!”

I remember thinking, Are you kidding me? I could tell he was an older bull; probably on the downhill slide. He must’ve been a monster a couple of years ago. On the “over the-counter” side of the mountain, he’d have been a prize. I told myself, It’s only the first day. You’re going to see a better bull, as I put my arrow back in the quiver. 

Ups and Downs

This encounter was only the first of many I recorded during the season. Any archer who’s spent time in the woods knows the challenges a hunter faces getting in range for a shot. I faced them all: being busted by cows and spikes, swirling wind carrying my scent the wrong direction, logs or brush obstructing my shot, down-pouring rain and more.

With each stalk came adrenaline followed by the dump. Each morning before 9:00 am we had approximately three close encounters. I’d nock an arrow, prepare, and then return my arrow to the quiver.

Can you imagine the stress of finding bulls only to have them bust and run or never give you a shot, or watch a 390-inch bull come your way only to be detoured by a satellite bull attempting to steal his cows?

Each high led to a low and the anxious thought, What if I don’t tag one? Still, each experience added to this priceless hunt.

Birthday cake for the birthday girl.
Birthday cake for the birthday girl.

Ins and Outs

Hank and I packed our camp in and out three times. Our second trip included experiences similar to the first, except this time the “what if” became louder in my mind — the days were dwindling.

We honored my birthday during a midday rest in front of our Ellis Shackleton tent. I chuckled, “It’s a good thing I celebrate all month.” The gift of a birthday bull could still happen. Older and maybe wiser, I became more determined, and the intensity picked up.

One morning, after three wind-foiled stalks, I made a beeline up the mountain where a bull screamed in the dark timber. I nocked an arrow then signaled to Hank that I’d be going up and over. Hank knew what I needed and used his Native RIPIT to entice the bull.

Bow in hand, I slipped into the dark timber. My eyes adjusted to the shadows and I caught movement directly ahead. With the bull still bugling below, I hadn’t expected to come face to face — 12 yards exactly — with a huge bull. He stood staring at me as I held my bow up, making a half-hearted attempt to “hide” behind it.

Typically I lower the bill of my cap to conceal my eyes from animals, but not this time. I knew he saw me. I stood motionless as steam rolled from his nose and slobber from his mouth. The bull was doing everything possible to understand my outline and scent. Finally the bull gave a “Pop! Pop! Pop!”

I held my position, running scenarios through my mind. Maybe I can draw fast and drill him in the chest, I thought. I knew even if he didn’t lurch, it was a terrible shot.

Suddenly, everything became silent.

I wanted Hank to call, but nothing. Head down and ears forward, the bull “popped” at me again. Holding my position, still “hiding” behind my bow and conversing with myself, I began the Lord’s Prayer.

Finally, Hank made a chirp from the RIPIT and the bull’s gaze shifted. The elk went right, uphill, and I drew my bow, following him with my bowsight, waiting for a broadside shot. The downed logs blocked his vitals. He busted when he caught sight of my “assistant” over the knoll. I let down my bow and quivered the arrow.

He’s not the one. The hunt went on, yet its end drew nearer.

Last Call

During an evening hunt, Hank called in the trees behind a Montana Cow Elk Decoy, which stood some 15 yards behind me. The elk herd was near and elk sound abounded. Finally, I saw antlers charging through the trees. I drew — holding — waiting. The bull emerged, its focus intent on the cow elk decoy. The bull made its way to the two dimensional cow; I tracked it with my sight pin. Realizing something was awry, the bull paused at 15 yards. I touched the trigger of my Little Goose release and my arrow soared. The arrow hit with a “Whap!” My patience proved powerful. The birthday bull was down; the real celebration commenced.

The net Pope & Young score of the Colorado bull, after deductions, is 341-3/8 inches.
The net Pope & Young score of the Colorado bull, after deductions, is 341-3/8 inches.

Sidebar: Elk Hunting Gear

Whether you’re heading to camp via horseback or on foot, never carry more weight than you must. My husband and I get away with carrying more on our horses, but we don’t go overboard. Extra horses means more to take care of, and you need to have room to pack out that big bull. Here’s what I bring on a horseback archery hunt in the wilderness.

Archery equipment: Mathews Monster Chill SDX, Little Goose release, and Gold Tip Kinetic Pierce 400 Platinum arrows with 100-grain Muzzy broadheads and Heat vanes.

Clothing: Sitka Women’s Sub-Alpine system including two pairs of pants, two shirts, jacket, hoodie, ear wrap, cap, and rain gear. One set of WSI Sports HeatR gear base layers and socks. Danner boots, Merrell hiking shoes, Carhart leather belt windicator and lip balm. 

Miscellaneous gear: Leatherman Wave multi-tool, Havalon knife, Leica rangefinder, Swarovski Optik 8.5x42 EL binocular, Garmin Oregon GPS, Carlton’s Fighting Cow and Boss call, Native RIPITZ diaphragms, Primos Mewie Grande call, Guide Gear bow scabbard, Montana RMEF Cow Elk and Elk Rump decoys, cross-cut saw and hatchet. 

Hunting pack: Alps Outdoorz Allure pack, JetBoil, small fuel cell, lighter, LifeStraw water filtration bottle, Allen wrench set, knives, Zippo emergency fire kit, para cord, SunJack solar charger, USGS topo map, compass, TMS Outdoors emergency kit, headlamp and game bags. 

Camp: Ellis Shackleton tent, cowboy bedroll, sleeping bag, air mattress, hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpaste, face wipes, sunscreen, toilet paper, folding shovel, Katadyn 10 L Base Camp Pro Water Filter, Clean Trek shower wipes, Balleck Dry Shower, Fossils Snap Bowlz and Case Knive’s Hobo utensils.

Food: Mountain House meals, instant oatmeal, Chaga, homemade jerky, nuts, dried fruit, smoked oysters, squeeze cheese, mustard, crackers, Wilderness Athlete Hydrate and Recover, and a Little Debbie Harvest cake.

Sidebar: Elk Hunting Colorado

In Colorado, there are units that a hunter can simply purchase an elk hunting license over the counter. In other units, licenses are limited. To hunt these limited license areas, you must apply for the draw. Draw success varies, depending on the unit.

There are a few ways to decide where to apply to hunt. Friends who have knowledge or experience in particular areas are helpful. Also, look to Pope & Young and Safari Club International record books to see which areas produce high-quality animals. Another resource is Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) hunting statistics.

Go to CPW’s website at to view Colorado’s hunting statistics. Under the “Things to Do” section, go to “Hunting.” Open the Big Game Hunting Guide, where you’ll be able to view hunt codes and the statewide map of hunting units. Use this for reference as you decide where to hunt.

Use the hunt codes and map as you navigate to the “Big Game Hunting” section then access “Hunting Statistics.” Scroll down to “Elk” and open the statistics document. Note the number of licenses available for each hunt code, how many hunters applied, the percentage of success in the draw and how many preference points may be necessary to draw a tag.

In the hunting statistics you can view the prior 2 to 5 years, then compare the units and choose where you’d like to hunt. To up your odds in successfully drawing a limited archery elk license, choose more than one hunt code when completing your online application. There’s room for four choices; go ahead, fill them out.

If all of this is confusing, use the link on the CPW webpage to view an instructional YouTube video or call CPW’s customer service.


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