Last Saturday I shot and killed, and then — with the help of my hunting partner, Noel — field dressed and packed out a cow elk from Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness. It was my first-ever successful hunt, and the emotional and physical effort was about as significant as I expected.
Next week I will share a lesson-filled “notes for next time” post like I have done here and here. But first I want to capture the story. Like my Run Rabbit Run 100 race report, I won’t apologize for writing a long post about a big experience.
Warning: This post contains two graphic images.
After two unsuccessful First Season Rifle hunts in the Gore Range (report from 2014), Noel and I changed our strategy this year. We chose GMU 29, which encompasses the Indian Peaks Wilderness and the foothills west of Boulder, so that pre-season scouting would be more convenient. And we chose Second Season Rifle, for which both elk and deer tags are available, so that we would have more options and better odds.
On our scouting trips — which probably should have been longer and more frequent — we found areas with extensive sign (e.g. high-use game trails, raked saplings, fresh droppings) and we identified various ways to the hunt the unit depending on the conditions and time of day (e.g. timing of the first winter storm, dawn versus mid-day). Noel spooked a bull elk in thick timber and I heard bugling from a few camps, but only our trail camera — installed by Noel at a 10,400-foot pond — positively confirmed where they had been. We last checked the camera on Thursday; it had not captured any action in two weeks.
We theorized that the game were still high in their summer ranges. The weather would not have pushed them down yet: so far this year, October has been a continuation of September — it has been abnormally warm and dry, and the high country is still snow-free. Moreover, hunting pressure during earlier seasons would have encouraged them to remain in these less accessible regions. A first-hand account from Gear Junkie’s Sean McCoy of his First Season experience in GMU 371 — the topography of which is similar to our GMU 29 — confirmed our suspicions.
But without concrete proof of their recent whereabouts, our most promising plan for opening day was to get high and scan with our binoculars. After all, you can’t shoot one until you find one, and searching for them in thick timber is generally unproductive.
Noel suggested that we start at unnamed 12,000-foot peak above the Fourth of July Campground that was surrounded by alpine and sub-alpine terrain. It was not all visible from a single vantage point, but we could split up and scan the areas below from various lookouts.
Rather than camp nearby on Friday night, we stayed on the Front Range and got a very early start instead. Noel picked me up at 3 AM; we left the trailhead by headlamp at 4:30 AM; and by daybreak we were in position.
I was not terribly confident in our plan, even though it was our best one. In past hunts, elk have proven elusive, and we had only one piece of definitive information about their whereabouts: they were not hanging out near our trail camera. Plus, it was opening day, and I wasn’t feeling that lucky.
Noel and I agreed to split up and to check in at 8 AM on our two-way radios. I parked myself southeast of the summit at 11,600 feet, overlooking a shallow alpine draw sandwiched by two gentle ridgelines. I took a few photos, put on my Sierra Designs Elite DriDown Parka, loaded three rounds into my magazine, grabbed a turkey sandwich from my food bag, and started glassing.
Within a few minutes, a bull elk appeared on the skyline of the left ridge, nearly 800 yards away, grazing peacefully in the morning sun and calm air. Another bull became visible, too. This was exciting, but it did not help me: my hunting license was for a cow only, and I feared that I was simply looking at a “bachelor party” of sub-trophy bulls, with no nearby herd of cows.
But then I saw a cow elk emerge from the krumholtz spruce, and soon another three of four just behind her. The hunt was on.
I grabbed my rifle, binoculars, Primos Hoochie Mama Cow Call, and radio. Everything else I left at my lookout — the risk of a long return trip seemed outweighed by the benefits of being light and mobile. Already my heart was racing as I jogged down into the draw so that I could get out of view and into the krumholtz. I noticed that the herd was moving away from me, too, though I wasn’t sure if they had seen me or if they were naturally moving that way.
I reached the ridge, descended slightly to the other side, and hugged a line of krumholtz as I moved towards where I had last seen the herd. As I worked my way slowly and quietly around a crest knob, the herd came into view again, maybe 50 yards away. They were all grazing, and clearly not aware of me or on alert. Clusters of krumholtz to my left and right afforded me coverage, but it also gave me a narrow alley of visibility.
To minimize the risk of being seen or heard, I dropped to my belly and removed my hat, binoculars, and cow call. Then I crawled closer for a clear shot. The easiest target was a bull, and I actually had to wait for him to move out of the way to reveal the cows.
A more veteran hunter may have patiently scanned the entire herd before picking their animal. Instead, I took aim at the healthiest cow I could see that was also favorably positioned, something between a full broadside and quarter-away. I was thankful that I had a short shot and that I was in the prone position, since my crosshairs were much jumpier than they are at the shooting range.
Before pulling the trigger, I had the same feeling I get before, say, skiing over the lip of a really steep slope. It’s not a decision I could take back — I would be fully committed.
The cow jumped and ran right, out of view. The whole herd went in the same direction, before trotting back to their original places — I don’t think they knew what was going on, or where the shot had come from. If I had a second tag, or if Noel had been with me, it would have been another easy opportunity.
Before the herd trotted off the ridge into the krumholtz, a few elk looked back to where they had initially run. I understood why when I rounded the corner and saw a downed cow, about 20 yards from where I had shot her. Within 60 seconds there was no movement.
It seemed unlikely that the cow would get back up even if I approached her, but I didn’t want to chance it. Conveniently, I had to retrieve my backpack anyway.
On the hike over, I tried calling Noel on the radio. Surely he would have heard the shot and would be trying to contact me, too. But I couldn’t reach him: either he was not on the radio, or my low-quality units were being overwhelmed by calls from Front Range sources. I regret not having invested in a better radio like the Motorola Talkabout MS350R.
Then I recalled having heard a shot just before mine. I thought it was further down valley, but perhaps it was Noel’s, and the blast had carried oddly through the mountains. If he was preoccupied by his own kill, he would not be trying to reach me.
Noel and I still had not connected by the time I returned to the cow. And I was increasingly convinced that he had shot an elk, too, which meant that I was on my own. F—, it was going to be a long day. I sent a custom message, “Brown is down,” with my SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger. (Read my long-term review of the Gen3.) I also turned on my cell phone, which had service; I called Noel and my wife Amanda, but didn’t reach either.
There was no sense in waiting. The temperature was climbing and the sun was strong on this south-facing slope. I had already stripped down to my Ibex Hooded Indie and Sierra Designs Silicone Trail Pants, which is remarkable for 11,000 feet in October.
The cow laid on her left side, with her right side up. There was some blood on her coat, but no obvious puncture. I should have looked harder, but I didn’t have the mental faculty to recall that the entry wound would be on her right side. She was definitely dead, so I was a bit freaked by the gurgling of blood in her lungs.
Prior to this elk, the extent of my butchering experience was whole chickens from the grocery store, which, mind you, are already defeathered and gutted. I was about to discover if watching online videos of the “gutless method” like this one, this one, and this one had adequately prepared me to butcher a 500-lb animal.
Since I’m known to be squeamish around blood and to pass out easily, I was especially concerned about this aspect of the hunting experience. But as I made my first cut from the rear quarter knee joint, along the belly, and down to the front shoulder knee joint, I recalled what my friend Jeremy Humphrey had told me: that butchering an animal seems to channel the inner caveman, making it feel much more natural than you would ever think. I was oddly comfortable with it all.
I had caped the cow’s right side and removed both right quarters when Noel finally arrived. He had heard my shot but did not associate it with me, and he couldn’t get through on the radio either. I was delighted to see him: not only did I now have help with the monstrous effort of field dressing and packing out the meat, but it meant that we didn’t have two downed elk.
As our game bags filled with quarters, backstraps, tenderloins, the brisket, and rib and neck meat, we dropped them in the shade of a nearby krumholtz stand. We flipped her over and repeated the process. We found the mushroomed bullet on the outside of her chest cavity, thankfully just short of the left quarter — we had already lost some of the right front quarter and right rib meat due to being bloodshot.
We chose to debone the quarters. It adds time to the field dressing, but it reduces the pack-out effort. It may ultimately save time, too, if reduces the number of round-trips.
The field dressing took about 3 hours. Obviously, we’re not going to post a how-to video anytime soon.
Before we started making big trips back to the car, we wanted to better shade the meat. So we made three 15-minute carries to the north side of the ridge and cached everything in another krumholtz cluster. Even though we were at 11,000 feet, the task was relatively easy: from the carcass, it was just a 300-yard walk through tundra to an established trail. Based on these shorter trips, we determined that we could make the full pack-out in just two round-trips.
A cow elk will yield about 150 pounds of meat, trimmed and deboned. Noel and I also had about 35 pounds of gear and food each, including our rifles. The math doesn’t lie, but it seemed abstract until I shouldered the first load.
My pack weighed 69 pounds for the first carry: 59 pounds of meat and 10 pounds of gear. Noel’s weighed 67: 45 pounds of meat and 22 pounds of gear. These are exact, not exaggerated, weights: I had a hanging scale in the car.
It took us 2 hours and 15 minutes to descend 3.5 miles and 1,200 vertical feet to the trailhead. We took a half-hour break and hiked back up, reaching our cache by headlamp at 7 PM. We had been awake for 17 hours straight and moving for almost 15. We were both worked, but reinvigorated by having just one trip to go — and by a 100-mg dose of caffeine each.
Our loads on the second trip were less back-breaking: I had 60 pounds with 35 pounds of meat and 25 pounds of gear; Noel had 52 pounds, with 32 pounds of meat and 20 pounds of gear. Just before 10 PM we reached the car.
Our total meat yield was 171 pounds. There is no better meat: it’s organic, grass-fed, free-range, and humanely treated. It will feed my family — and some lucky friends — for the next year.
Noel carried it down with a Kifaru Bikini Frame + Highcamp 7000 bag, while I was testing a prototype backpack that I’ve been developing with Sierra Designs. It is fully featured, weighs just 2.5 pounds, and carried the first 70-pound load well enough that I stuck with it for the second trip, even though I had another Bikini + Highcamp pack in the car. A limited release of this pack is planned for Spring 2016.
For a few hours on Sunday morning, Noel and I trimmed off excess fat and cleaned the meat of any dirt and hair. We set aside the tenderloins and backstraps, which are the prime steaks, and a football-sized roast from the rear quarters, and prepared everything else to be dropped off on Monday morning at Arapahoe Meats.
Hopefully, Noel and I need to make another drop-off soon — he still has an unfilled elk tag.
Are those the Merrell Capras? If so how did they hold up under the weight of the pack while you were packing out?
Yes, they are. They were brand new so I can’t speak to their durability yet. So far, no issues at all. That they didn’t need “breaking in” is a testament to their design, I suppose.
I have a small-volume foot, and the Capras run large. This is perfect for a boot, though, since I always wear a thicker sock with this kind of footwear. In retrospect, I would have gone with a breathable trail shoe, but Noel and I were expecting to spend at least a few days out and the forecast was stormy.
Very interesting read. I’ve been contemplating going for my license up here in Canada. Now to make the time.
Very nice write-up. Not very often I enjoy hunting trip reports like this.
This was fun to read with your Strava track up alongside your report. Any of this meat going to end with you on future backbacking trips in the form of Jerky?
Congratulations on a successful hunt. You certainly put in the time and effort and it finally paid off. You mentioned that you did a “gutless” field dressing, and I’m wondering if you pulled out the liver, kidneys or what was salvageable of the heart, or were they left with the gut pile? And did you pack out any of the bones to harvest the marrow? No judgement if not, just wondering.
My father-in-law, a longtime hunger in Michigan, asked me the same question — the liver is his favorite.
The heart was pudding, and we left the liver, kidneys, and bones. Maybe I’ll do it differently on a future hunt, but I think a conventional field dressing was about the extent of what we could manage this time around.
Proud of you, Andy! 150 lbs of meat will go a long way even if you end up splitting it with Noel.
Thank you for sharing and your personal humility. I believe in the ethical hunter and in the art of the hunt. Never allow for the idea that this is inhumane or savagery, those who choose to hunt and fish and farm have a much greater appreciation from which our food comes and acknowledges the sacrifice both the land and animal give for our sustenance.
I became a fan of yours learner to hike and camp better but appreciate your hunting insight as you continue to embrace the outdoors at an even more intimate level.
Nice! If your a meat eater everyone should do this from time to time to remind us of the life given for the life received. I don’t particularly “enjoy” hunting but to participate consciously and unwasteful manner to put some good meat in the fridge for me makes it something special and something I am truly thankful for.
Nice write-up. Looking forward to your over the top analytical critique of the event. Also glad your squeamishness did not overcome… desensitization must be working!!
Glad you found this post, Frank. I was planning to send you the link since we had talked in-depth about my squeamishness.
I have always been under the impression that the AMAX was to lightly constructed for big game, the picture looks like textbook expansion, did the core separate?
I have been rooting for you to have a successful hunt since your first write up, congratulations and enjoy the fruits of your labor!
Hornady has both the VMAX and the AMAX bullet. The Vmax definitely comes with the warning not to use it on thick skinned critters. However, the AMAX is definitely designed for larger game. Looking at the bullet I had the same question as to whether or not the core separated. At the range of the shot I would have expected a little more expansion. The load is on the “hot” side of the scale for the 20″ bull barrel it was built for. So, Andy is probably getting close to 2650FPS out of the barrel. A few FPS shy of SAAMI spec but makes MY accuracy desire.
The 168gr .308 is as close to a do everything round as you can get as it maintains best average of velocity, maximizes (well really minimizes) drop and maintains long range accuracy the most well, average of the 7.62X51 range of 110gr to 220gr bullets. If I was building an elk only round I would probably lean towards a 185 Barnes triple shock boat tail.
However, proof being in the pudding, The round penetrated through the heart and expended somewhere around 80-90% of its energy as it turned the heart into, wait for it, pudding.
Hope that was not more technical of an answer than required.
Excellent summary “BIL”, thank you. I do agree the that the “proof was in the pudding”, the end result was ideal.
Greetings from Germany.
¨Waidmannsheil” would be the term here for a congrattulation for a successful hunt. Nicely written and with respect for the animal, thats really important.
Appologize my english, i’m geeting worse and worse.
Have a nice day,
Excellent report Andrew. Congratulations to you both! That is so much meat. Out of anything you’ve written on this topic, this article has convinced me to get more into hunting and learn how to do it.
Cannot disagree, it’s great to know someone who has been doing it awhile and is game to show a newbie the ropes.
Congratulations on the successful hunt! With your intelligence and drive it was only a matter of time.
I think you make an outstanding ambassador for hunting. Hopefully your excellent posts on the subject will inspire others with interest in the outdoors and similar values to give it a try.
Congratulations Andrew. I just stalked and shot my first deer this week as well. A moving experience as you say. One note on the Motorola radios you mentioned- my partner and I had that set and they were also fairly worthless for any effective communication in the backcountry. We have yet to find any short range radio set that is more benefit than frustration and annoyance. If you manage to find something that works please let your readers know!
And again, congratulations and thanks for the detailed account.
Congrats on filling your first tag Andrew! Being a self taught hunter I could relate to a many of the question/concerns you mentioned – particularly once the animal is on the ground. Really enjoyed this post and photos and look forward to your “lessons learned” post. Cheers to many great meals from this fine elk.
Very interesting write up, I’ve never hunted but your description really made me feel the emotion of it.
One critique, I love your gear reviews and I hope the references are profitable for you, but the product placement here seemed forced, awkward and distracted from the story.
Noted, thanks for your thoughts.
Very good post-action writeup and shows your respect for the hunt and the animal’s spirit. Never had elk but eat deer now and then and one of the best ways is to make sausages.
The opportunities hunters and backpackers out West get is simply salivating for folks East of the Divide…
When planning and luck come together hunting can seem simple, almost easy. Lots of work goes into those moments, and it is important to savor them.
Funny, Noel said something very similar as we debated whether we deserved our meat: Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity
Luck is 90% hard work! Great job on the hunt Andrew.
Great post, you represent hunting extremely well. Thanks for sharing your experience so vividly with everyone, you presented this in a thoughtful and respectful way. Showing not only the animal, but what you gained from it is important.
well done indeed, congratulations !
I know how hard it is.. took us five years of hunting.
When my son got his elk, we were actually in a puddle of blood while field dressing.. ew. Took a bone saw and got the heart out whole, it is now cut in half and exhibited in a jar of alcohol, at the AP Biology classroom at his school 😉
Congrats on a successful hunt!
Given your DIY approach to most things, next time around I would encourage you to process your own meat! Not because there is anything wrong with taking game to a meat shop, and I understand processing is intimidating the first time around. However, I think if you try it you will really enjoy it. Having good friends/family help with the process makes for a great day. An electric grinder for venison burger and some meat packing paper are the only mandatory items. I suggest ending the day with grilled venison ribs and a nice cabernet.
I think that’s the plan for next time. I thought it would have been a bit audacious to purchase a meat grinder, paper, seasonings, etc. before I’d ever had a successful hunt. But now that I’ve done it once, and could in theory do it again, I can better prepare for DIY processing.
Congratulations on a fine hunt! I enjoy reading your blog posts regarding long distance backpacking but the elk hunt has been a nice diversion from the usual topics. I tried to hunt the Flat Tops Wilderness during the third rifle season several years ago. We were unsuccessful in bagging an elk but the experience was outstanding. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Sorry to hear guiding is off the table for 2016, but because of work it probably wouldn’t have been a good year for me anyway. That said, happy to see you re-dedicate to quality content, which is already excellent. I hope the anti-hunting posters haven’t deterred you from writing a “notes for next time” post as you mentioned in the second paragraph.
Also looking forward to your updated book.
wow, this article is making me hungry! I can vividly recall the last time I had my friend’s elk breakfast sausage, my stomach is growling just thinking about it! Much better than venison IMO.
this ellk had a much better life than the chicken you got at the grocery store, that’s for sure.
Andy, thanks for the write up. I am a hunting mom. I started hunting antelope in WY and learned by myself how to big game hunt and process the meat. My husband doesn’t care for hunting. Each year, my goal is to put two antelope in the freezer, then if I don’t get an elk or a deer, at least I have something. If I get an elk/deer, I have more ability to give meat to family/friends. I live in the Front Range too. I have harvested one cow elk, numerous antelope does, and several deer. I hunt for the experience of challenging myself physically, mentally, and emotionally, and of course for the tasty meat! Keep at it!
Andrew, great article, I really enjoyed it. I know this article is a bit dated, but I will be hunting directly adjacent to this area in a couple weeks, and was curious on your hike in/out. I scouted this past weekend, and traveled the 4th of July trail to Caribou Lake beginning at the Diamond Lake trailhead. There we’re so many day hikers there, I felt awkward hiking with my bino’s, camo, and elk call hanging from my neck. My biggest concern, is with this many hikers, I’m afraid that come opening day I will have someone call the police or game warden if they see me with a rifle, and if successful, an antler rack hanging from my pack. Did you experience any troubles with your pack in/out on this trail? How far off the trail did you travel until you reached your lookout spot?
Since it was a beautiful Saturday in October, the 4th of July TH was very busy, probably not much below typical summer levels. It was very apparent to the day-hikers that we were hunting (safety vests, rifles, blood-stained packs) but we had no issues with anyone.
Most foot traffic stops at by Arapaho Pass or Diamond Lake. I’d recommend avoiding these corridors or getting beyond them (since the game won’t be hanging out near the trails there anyway).