Bowhunting in the High Country
Posted on March 7, 2011
The author took this 2006 bittersweet bull on the evening his mother suffered a fatal stroke.
By Larry D. Burcz
The 2008 hunt was special. It really stands out because of the context of my prior two Colorado adventures. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to bowhunt elk and bear in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains every year from 1997 through 2006. However, that 2006 hunt leaves bittersweet memories. That year I filled a “cow only” tag on opening day. Elk meat is a priority objective. With that satisfied, I could be picky going after a good bull. In our camp there’s always a “hard luck” buddy with an empty cooler.
I spent the whole third day of that hunt with a vocal bull and his chirping and mewing harem of two dozen or so animals. The thermals finally switched in my favor at 5 PM, and I made a clean shot on the nice 5Ã—5 as he was hooking a cow 20 yards in front of me. It was a sweet end to a thrilling day in the mountains. That’s the sweet ’06 memory. The day, however, was not over.
When I arrived in camp late that night, there was a message that my 95-year-old mother had suffered a fatal stroke during that final hour while I was waiting for the bull to make his mistake. The cycle of life in the wild and in our fragile human lives was so conspicuous as my son and I prepared to drive back to Michigan. Every animal I’ve ever killed has provoked thoughts of our Creator and my own mortality. This one really weighed heavy.
I arrived home with a serious health problem (pulmonary embolism) brought on by the long, non-stop drive. I came out of the hospital with pinched nerves in my back. That and the associated leg problems have plagued me ever since..
It was a physical struggle preparing for the 2007 hunt. I had gone through more diagnostic and therapeutic back exercises than I care to remember. It was an uncomfortable drive west but awesome anyway once I reached the front range. The day before the season opened, I had a recurrence of an irregular heart beat problem (A-fib) that had been under control for the prior 10 years. When it failed to stabilize, I left camp for the local hospital. The problem quit at lower elevation, but the docs advised getting back to my Michigan cardiologist ASAP. I left the truck with my son Matt and was on a plane the next day. I always said that “getting to be in the mountains one more time” was the real motivation for my annual trips, and the hunt was just a bonus. I was grateful to see the wonders of the mountains in 2007, but I sure missed the hunt a lot more than I anticipated..
With those 2006 and 2007 memories still fresh, I headed west again in 2008. I’ve been at that age where I recognize my days of mountain hunting and climbing trees are numbered. I’ve always had a strong emotional and spiritual response to the beauties of nature, but this trip across the mountains had me choked big time. Never did it mean so much to me. Elk camp was so very inviting. My hunting would be a lot more timid due to the back and leg problems, but I was ready to act my age and enjoy every minute of it.
I spent opening day sitting on a well-used seep in the bottom of a canyon. Elk were seen and heard a half dozen times by mid-afternoon. I had a legal raghorn pass and drink for 5 minutes at 20 yards. With an extra cow-only tag, I was happy to save the young bull for another year or the later gun hunters who don’t have the cow option. Early that evening a fat cow came down and gave me a quartering-away opportunity. Knowing how game movement and weather can change hunting fortunes, I took the 25-yard shot. The shot looked good, but I gave the animal an hour before taking up the trail.
She was down the canyon 150 yards and about 35 yards up from the bottom. With an hour of light left, I decided to blaze a path to a cattle trial where a little strobe light and my gear could lead some anticipated help into the skinning and quartering job. Just as I started the dressing task, I heard a heavy branch crack behind me.
Looking over my shoulder there was a large bear looking back up from the bottom of the drainage. He smelled the kill, and I was in his way. A few yells and hand claps did not discourage him. My pepper spray was back with my other gear and I was not going take my eyes off him. I back-stepped out to get the pepper spray. Coming back 10 minutes later, I would not have been surprised to find the elk with a new owner, and he’d get no argument from me! Fortunately he was gone.
Bear season did not open until the 4th day of our hunt. Although baiting is not legal for bear in Colorado, taking advantage of natural carrion is permitted. I set up my Lone Wolf Climber over the meager remains of the elk carcass and did get to see the same big chocolate bear that tried to help me with my cow that first night. He had a distinct blond strip, like a mane, on his neck. A miscue on my part resulted in no shot. That same evening my son Matt took a nice 5Ã—5 bull not far up the canyon.
The second day after Matt’s elk kill, he set up my Lone Wolf over that fresher carcass and killed that same bear I had seen twice before. He scored at 19 1/16 inches and was 10 years old. Another bear visited before he even took up the blood trail. That was my queue to try the same site the following day.
With a half-hour of daylight left, a big, dark brown bear with a redish gold saddle worked his way toward the chewed up rib cage. Thick vegetation left only select openings for a shot. He walked right past the carcass without stopping. Then the old bear stopped, turned, and slowly came back toward the shooting lane. I was at full draw following his rib cage. As my fingers relaxed, he took a step toward me–too late, the arrow was on its way. The quartering hit looked questionable. Instead of exploding in a roar like every other bear I’ve taken, he just stood there with his head between his front legs grooming his underside. I was too amazed to try a follow-up shot.
After 20 seconds he slowly walked on a quartering line up the opposite side of the canyon. His moves were labored, and it looked like he was stopping just as he went out of sight in thick cover 70 yards away. All was quiet as darkness closed in.
I waited for another hour before starting down the tree. Moving with a poorly hit bear possibly bedded so close seemed like a bad idea. Five minutes before the descent, I started playing a chorus of multi-age elk talk. That continued until I was well out of the area. I hoped the familiar elk sounds would cover my exit.
Early the next morning an easy trail led to a well marked bed where I had last seen the bear. A short 30 yard trail went back down to the wet bottom where the boar had expired, possibly while I was still there–50 yards from the stand. He was an 18 year old with teeth worn back to his gums. He scored 19 4/16 inches.
Yes, it was a special hunt. Both of the old bear came back. One of the old boars came back for a tempting meal (his last), while the other just came back to experience the blessings of the mountains and the hunt. As a bonus, I shared a great camp with my son and the other good camp-mates. The fine dining and fond memories are still fresh.