I set out on my yearly Colorado trip this year with one goal in mind: To harvest a big game animal with my 100-pound war bow. But since I was fortunate to have taken elk in the previous two years bowhunting on public land, I really had no pressure to get one with my compound.
Though I was fortunate to harvest those elk, odds of archery success are about 2 percent — and I’ve talked with more than 200 hunters in my area over three years and I’ve yet to hear of a single one taking an elk.
The odds are stacked against the hunter out in the areas I hunt, but that’s what makes it so fun. The thrill of accomplishing a seemingly impossible mission is well worth all the agony it takes to get to that moment.
I was so eager about this year’s trip that I even flew out in June to make a hiking trip to scout. The previous year I had hiked and run exactly 150 miles in my two-week trip, and this year my goal was to conquer 200. By the trip’s end my GPS watch had counted more than half-a-million steps and 210 miles.
I brought two buddies, but both left defeated earlier than planned before the first week was over. It rained every single day of the first week, and the challenge was too brutal for just about every hunter I spoke with on the mountain. Most people left without even seeing elk after a day or two to head for lower, more comfortable elevations.
I, on the other hand, had completed four marathons and a 12-hour ultra-marathon in the months leading up to this trip, doing 26-mile runs in the middle of the summer heat to prepare. I didn’t get the faintest bit sore, winded or have any bit of altitude sickness even though I was hiking about 12 hours every single day and taking zero breaks or rest stops.
To enjoy a Colorado trip at 11,000 feet elevation, endurance training is key — weights and strength are highly overrated in my opinion. Endurance is the most crucial element. I made many trips to the hilliest trails in Southwest Mississippi and Louisiana to train.
As for the lack of oxygen in the mountains, I find when your body is used to being short of oxygen from several hours of cardio a day in Louisiana, you can more easily handle the lack of oxygen up there. But for a non-runner, expect to be short of breath for days with constant headaches in the mountains.
I stayed the second week alone in the tent, but during the middle of the day I often hiked down the mountain to visit my wife and dogs. Our 15-year old Lab passed away the day before our trip, and I wanted to see my wife often — even if it was for just an hour. But I missed no hunts, and stayed on the mission every morning and evening with very little sleep.
My wife did have a blast at the nice cabin where she stayed, and caught fish in the river —including a beautiful 20-inch brown trout.
My hunting started with close call after close call. On the second morning, I saw four nice bulls at 40 yards broadside which I videoed, but couldn’t get close enough for my longbow.
One morning, I had the biggest, widest mule deer buck with more than a 2-foot inside spread at 35 to 50 yards from my lock-on for 90 minutes. But I could just never line up a close enough shot before the group of bucks walked off. That massive buck had been on my trail camera there a bunch of times — I originally thought it was an elk for about 30 minutes because the horns were so massive.
A spike bull gave me a great longbow shot opportunity, but the horns were about 2 inches too long to be legal in the 4-points-on-one-side or less-than-5-inch spike unit I hunted. Then, I jumped a cow which stopped broadside at 30 yards, but grass was covering the vitals so I had to pass.
I practice several times a week with my bow and shoot great with my string-walking gap technique up to 35 yards, but I wasn’t getting any shot opportunities. Still, I was seeing more animals than everyone else I spoke with because I was hiking through thick swampy blowdown terrain which had no other human tracks. Most hunters out there stick to the flat areas and fields — which is why most never see elk.
They have plenty of mule deer on the private land near the roads, but in the public mountains, those semi-tame deer are almost as elusive as Louisiana whitetails.
Finally, I had a chance on a big mule deer doe one evening. She walked out 27 yards from my lock-on and 3 yards in front of my trail camera filming on video mode. I drew back, but she looked at me. I held my draw for too long, and then redrew from an awkward angle. My power was spent, and the arrow sailed about 1 inch too low on the shot captured with the reverse angle.
I decided to switch tactics and hike with my wife in a lower-elevated area of gamble oaks one evening during the second week. She stayed back reading a book with the gear while I went stalking with only two arrows, my longbow, rubber knee boots and head camera.
After a few blown opportunities, I finally crept close to a big doe. She was slowly walking away broadside when I filmed my heavy PileDriver arrow sailing out 28 yards perfectly into the deer.
I sprinted back to my wife so fast that I was finally winded. I was huffing and puffing so much that she couldn’t understand that I was trying to say “Deer down!”
It was one of those evenings I’ll never forget. Even though it wasn’t a giant set of horns, to get my traditional bow harvest was worth every painful step.
And I didn’t give up the next day: I stayed on the high part of the mountain living in the tent focused on getting an elk or bear. A few guys saw some bears, and I had gotten two beautiful blonde bears on my trail cameras in the same picture. The trip’s videos and trail camera pictures can be found here.
The elk had moved out far from my tent area with all the pressure since the third day of the season, so each day I hiked three or more hours from my tent to get on fresh elk sign. Unfortunately, besides seeing a few elk far from bow range and hearing a few bugles, I had no luck with the elk or bears.
Fortunately, I did find some new great spots to hunt and took nearly a dozen grouse. On the final morning, I took two grouse on a 23-yard and 30-yard shot with my longbow to really put a great ending on my trip. As long as I have one tag left, I hunt to the last possible second — no matter how uncomfortable the conditions are.
I ended up making 12 trips up the mountain to the tent (4 miles each round trip) because I like to have loads of food and gear when sleeping up on the mountain. Just to hike up all my gear took three trips up and three trips to bring it down. Most people try taking everything at once, but when in ultra-marathon shape, a three-hour hike with walking sticks is nothing more than a 40-minute stroll with no sticks needed.
By far the most miserable parts of the trip were the freezing cold ice baths I took twice a day because I’m really big into scent control. Everyone else I spoke with rarely gets in the icy streams up there, but I take no such chances and use a fresh set of clothes for each hunt. I hiked over two dozen sets of clothes up the mountain, along with several pairs of boots.
If you're planning a tough Western hunting trip, I urge everyone to train for marathons and long trail runs, and the hunting experience will be a truly enjoyable, ache-free journey. Everyone seems to complain of some type of body aliment in some fashion, but these are preventable conditions.
However, I must say that I did take many hard falls because I was often running up and down the mountains. One spill left me with a badly bruised rib and back, another with a badly strained wrist. The rib fall was so bad it left me unable to use my longbow, and I took the compound a few days. That was bad news for the grouse, as I was stacking up those tasty birds left and right with precision shooting from a compound bow. However, shooting into the tree branches ended up costing me more arrows than I could count.
Finally, getting back from Colorado in tip-top shape, I won a short 3-mile dog race then a team 5k race before embarking on a 31-mile ultra-marathon with my dog. I fought off a calf injury and we got first place while setting the course record. I definitely owe all my racing success to these tough hunts I put myself through.
Back in Louisiana near sea level, everything I do in the woods seems like a walk in the park.