Quest For 8: This Adventurous Hunter Decides to Set His Sights High — to Pursue Colorado’s Eight Big-Game Species With a Bow
Posted on May 1, 2014
Born and raised in Denver, I moved to Eagle, Colorado in 1996 to begin a new era of my military career. My daily routine included flying nearly every day over amazing mountain landscapes and unavoidable frequent sightings of wild animals. My childhood was filled with bird hunting but never any pursuit of big-game species. All that was about to change as I wanted to hunt these animals and just somehow knew I should do it with a bow.
My first hunting season was a total joke, I borrowed a bow and a co-worker did the same. We planned to hunt elk and had loose plans of where we would go on opening weekend. The day prior to opening day, my co-worker dropped out of the hunt. I asked to borrow his already borrowed bow and thought I might convince my brother to join me; he hadn’t ever shot a bow. When Wes answered the phone I asked him if he wanted to go bowhunting for elk the next day. Surprised and doubtful, he willingly drove to Eagle, fired about a half-dozen arrows at a hay bale in my apartment parking lot, and we were “ready” for the next morning’s hunt. I’m sure you can imagine how funny we must have been, but I was hooked—I was made to be a bowhunter.
By the 1997 season, I was much better prepared. I bought a Jennings Buckmaster bow from Cabela’s and was a pretty good shot. I talked to a few people about my new sport but really never found a good mentor or information source to learn the ropes. All my knowledge would be learned through trial and error—mostly error. Elk were my only target in those early years, always hunting over-the-counter units across the countless acres of national forest throughout the central Rockies of Colorado.
In 1998, my brother arrowed “our” first elk, an old cow that walked into our ambush location. We still had much to learn; a big dead elk on the ground, deep in the wilderness was a tall task for us rookies. We eventually prevailed in spite of the nasty cut on my brother’s hand, delivered by my clumsy knife. After a late night of packing meat our night-cap was a trip to the emergency room to stitch Wes’ hand. A couple weeks later I managed to kill my first elk while hunting solo in the same area; a 5 x 5 nice bull that seemed like a monster to me. Solo hunting success would become a common theme for me in the years to come.
I was a bowhunting addict now and somewhere along the way I decided that the Colorado Big 8 was my goal. I began to accumulate preference points for a variety of species and my journey was underway.
Black Bear 2003
Most bowhunters understand the amazing repellent effect a hunting tag has for a particular species. It seemed that in all my earlier years of bowhunting adventure, bears were a common sight. Wes and I almost had to kill a bear out of self defense and had our campsites ravaged by these hungry creatures numerous times. We even had a bear drink an entire 18-pack of Bud Light that I had packed into our remote wilderness campsite; I can only imagine the hangover! After I began to acquire tags to actually hunt them, bears became scarce.
As we climbed the mountain one early morning in search of elk, some quiet voice inside encouraged me to look over the ledge on my left. Sure enough, as I peered down the hill a bear was ambling our way from about 40 yards. I looked at my brother, his eyes huge with concern. “Are you gonna shoot it?” he asked with trepidation in his voice (Wes really doesn’t like bears, and our near self-defense shooting of one a few years earlier still had him rattled).
“Hell yes, I’m gonna shoot it” was my whispered reply. The chocolate-colored bruin walked to 15 yards on our downhill side. I let the arrow fly and the bear exploded with a furious, growling, downhill sprint. We gave the bear some time before we started the tracking process. The easy-to-follow blood trail led us across a treacherous mess of boulders, deadfall trees, and thick brush. Every additional step along the winding trail increased our anxiety of coming face to face with a wounded bear (Wes was predictably pulling up the rear of our three man tracking crew. Did I mention he really doesn’t like bears?).
Movement ahead caught my eye but I wasn’t certain is was our bear at all. We moved very cautiously and finally saw the dead boar. The movement we saw was the bear’s last; he was down without any further drama or excitement.
After a few pictures I began to work skinning and disassembling the beautiful bear. I was pleasantly surprised at how clean and smell-free he was. I expected that bears would be stinky and dirty but this bear was anything but that. Wes and Bryan left me alone to my work in pursuit of a bugling bull across the ridge. We agreed to meet in a few hours for the trip back to camp with my prize.
Bighorn Ram 2006
In 2006, I deployed with my Army unit to the Horn of Africa in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. I knew that I would miss the entire bowhunting season back home but applied for an unusual Bighorn hunt that occurred in November. While deployed I learned that I was successful in the draw and would have a tag waiting for me upon my return to the U.S. in October.
I hunted solo during many cold days looking for sheep. The opening day provided me with an unsuccessful stalk opportunity but not a single ram could be found since—nearly 15 hunt days ago. As I topped a ridge one morning I encountered another hunter and his non-hunting companion. We were talking together about the lack of sheep in the area when a ram suddenly appeared on the adjacent ridge. The animal was looking directly at us as we stood silhouetted on the open hillside.
The other hunter was in pursuit of a ewe so the opportunity was mine to pursue. Because the ram was already looking at us, I guessed that my best option was to let the ram continue to watch the other hunters as I slid away for an end-around stalk through the thick pine trees between us. My newfound hunting buddies agreed to keep the rams attention, and I was on my way without hesitation.
About halfway to the place where I thought the ram was, I heard a loud whistle from the other hunters. I knew this was a signal for me to abort my stalk plans. I returned to the hillside where the other guys were still standing; they informed me that the big ram walked past them at only 25 yards. My heart sank. It felt as if my best and possibly only chance had just evaporated. The guys pointed me in the direction the ram was headed and I gave chase, blindly trying to find the ram in thick, tree-covered cliffs.
Pure instincts were guiding me as I worked across the hillside cliffs. Without any tracks to follow on the rocky surface I was beginning to accept the idea that my bighorn ram tag would go unfilled. Just when I had lost nearly all hope, the ram miraculously appeared ahead on a small cliff. The ram was intently looking at something uphill which allowed me to quickly close the distance between us. As my hand reached for the rangefinder attached to my hip belt, the ram began to move quickly along the cliff edge. My window of opportunity was closing rapidly.
I immediately nocked an arrow, drew, and shot instinctively. I saw the puff of dust rise from the ram’s side and heard the sound of my arrow shattering into the cliff wall behind him. The ram trotted across the cliff and disappeared behind the rocks. Only seconds later I heard the sliding, crashing sounds of the mortally wounded animal falling from his perch above and into a cliff-side tree. Without even thinking (or breathing) I hit my knees in a quick prayer of thanks. I had done it! Perseverance had paid off!
Whitetail Deer 2009
Colorado isn’t known for its whitetail deer population. The species is only found in certain areas across the eastern plains of the state where expansive shallow canyon lands surrender to agricultural fields. Nearly all the land in eastern Colorado is private and access is difficult to acquire. Through extensive research, phone calls, and personal visits, I eventually received permission to hunt from a few willing ranchers. Most of these land parcels were small but I knew whitetail deer lived in the area.
Although there were a few locations where treestands would have been strategic, I didn’t care to use one. Heck, I didn’t even own one. Even if I did possess a treestand I seriously lacked the patience to use it anyhow. Spot-and-stalk was the name of the game, and those whitetail bucks made a fool of me again and again over many days. It seemed that most times I ventured to the plains the wind was light or non-existent. Lack of wind made stalking to within bow range of a bedded whitetail buck nearly impossible. The endless cycle of finding a buck, making a stalk, and getting busted, was really fun. It did, however, begin to get frustrating.
One particular morning I spent a couple hours stalking a pair of bucks lazily basking on the sunny side of a shallow draw. The terrain and wind wouldn’t allow any further movement for me and I chose to just wait and see what developed. I was on the tip of a small finger, shielded from view by the tall sandstone wall above me. I could move easily on the finger without detection. As I was periodically checking on the status of the two bucks, a new giant appeared down the draw. This amazing buck was walking directly toward me.
Within a minute he was standing directly beneath my little finger ledge less than 10 feet away and almost directly below me. Crouching, I drew my bow then rose to lean over the ledge. I had no idea how to aim at something this close and the size of this buck had me rattled. Although I aimed at the dirt under his chest, my arrow skipped harmlessly off his back. The buck ran 100 yards and stopped to lick the small trickle of blood from the new scratch on his back, not knowing what had just happened.
As the giant wandered away in the direction he came from, I moved up to check on my lounging bucks. They were now on the move and were walking down the coulee in my direction. I only had a moment to get prepared for a shot and delivered an excellent arrow to the lead buck. I watched him run across the drainage and into another pocket where I later found him piled-up under a ledge.
Spot-and-talk tactics for pronghorn across the high desert of eastern Colorado is tough, to put it mildly. I had been trying my best at this endeavor for a couple years with a bunch of laughable attempts and a few great opportunities. Heat, rattlesnakes, and cactus made the adventures even more dynamic.
As the 2011 Pronghorn season advanced, so did my desire to retreat into the high mountain meadows to chase my favorite species—elk. My patience ran dry (seeing a pattern here?) and I finally resorted to the purchase of a ground blind.
It was dark as I walked to a lonesome windmill pond in the vast pasture landscape. Luckily, I had familiarized myself with how to erect the new blind the evening before and it went up with ease next to a pile of rubble concrete to reduce its obviousness. The sun was just peeking above the horizon and the small herd of pronghorn behind me cast long shadows across the ground. The does came to the water first along with their playful fawns. I was in complete disbelief as these critters that often spotted me a mile away now stood at 20 feet, oblivious to my presence inside a fabric blind. The only buck in the herd was last to appear and uninterested in drinking any water. He walked past my blind at 20 yards and took my arrow in the center of his lungs.
The entire herd ran away in the direction they approached, shadows dancing across the prairie. My buck went a short distance and lay still in the cool morning air. I was beginning to think that my Big 8 dream might actually become a reality.
Mountain Goat 2010
Like others who have drawn once-in-a-lifetime type tags, the notification struck me as surreal and exciting. This was it! My last “difficult” species to draw and an undoubtedly tough hunt was in my future. I would be hunting near Mt. Antero, Colorado, a peak that reaches to the heavens above 14,000 feet. All my research, training, and preparation for the hunt were certainly worthwhile, but none of it prepared me for the mental challenge.
Mountain Goats are tough animals, and for good reason; they live in the most inhospitable places in North America. The places they call home are like a nightmare for us two-legged, non-wild creatures.
The day prior to opening day, I established a base camp at about 11,000 feet accessible via a nasty 4-wheel drive road. Numerous old trails still exist across the rugged mountains from earlier years of gold and silver mining. These old roads and trails were extremely valuable to cover ground in the valleys en route to the high peaks where goats roam. In the short remaining hour of daylight I wasn’t able to glass any goats yet I crawled into my tent with confidence and high expectations.
At first light the next morning, I found a group of nine goats on a high grassy slope at around 12,300 feet. I knew that my best avenue of approach was to climb the opposite side of the mountain and descend along the spine of the ridge above the feeding animals. About an hour and a half later, I arrived at my predetermined point on the ridge. The wind was already quite strong and the temperature was only 20 degrees; my water bottles were frozen! As I peeked around the ragged boulder face of the ridge to look for the goats, I was disappointed to find that they were already on the move and side-hilling the loose shale slope below me. I watched them for several minutes as they disappeared in the adjacent drainage to the west. Without any other animals in view, and having already climbed a nasty hill to get there, I elected to pursue the herd; I would later severely regret the decision.
For over four hours I struggled side-hill across the wicked-steep face of loose boulders and shale. Two hours prior the goats had disappeared over the top of the mountain on a path that was impossible for me to follow. The hillside became a living nightmare that I would later refer to as “Hell Mountain.”
At this point all I wanted to do was get off that mountain. I could either go back the way I came (which I knew was terrible) or continue side-hill all the way around to the other side where the journey began. Either choice was awful; I chose the latter hoping to find a different goat to stalk or possible better travelling conditions. Six hours later I was back at the morning’s start point, completely exhausted and bloody from countless slides and falls. I knew one thing for certain. Mountain Goats were safe from my arrows on that particular mountain forever; I was never stepping foot up there again.
The next days of hunting were full of exhaustion, frustration, snow, and a few blown stalks. I spent over two hours one day in a stare-down with a big billy goat. He had me pegged at 40 yards. Never get into a staring completion with a goat; they will win. Several times I found myself virtually paralyzed against cliff walls, unable to climb or descend with crumbling granite under hand and foot and my bow strapped to my backpack. I began to question my own sanity and safety in those wild lofty peaks. Shooting arrows at these crazy steep angles and cross-hills was tough, producing a couple missed shots. I had practiced steep angle shots, but nothing like what I encountered up there.
Over the next two weeks I made several trips in and out of base camp to get a real night’s sleep and recharge my internal battery at home. I could almost feel the weight loss my body was experiencing. At home, the practical side of my mind tried to convince me to not return and just give up. Determination won the mental battle and I returned for one more attempt.
In the same cliffs I had come to love for consistent goats and hate for their treachery, were once again my destination. From across the basin I glassed three goats about halfway down from the top. Around the bowl and into the cliffs I pursued. I arrived above the three goats, now bedded for their typical midday rest. I had no shot and again I waited like so many times before. The sun is brutal at 13,000 feet and it cooked me accordingly. I knew the exact distance to the bigger nanny in the group and just needed her to stand. What I didn’t know was exactly how to aim it to compensate for the steep downhill slope; my shooting confidence had been rattled by earlier missed shots. Two hours into the waiting game the nanny stood and predictably stretched in place. This was the moment I had waited for and my arrow was on its way. The arrow exploded into the granite under the goat—another miss. The goats scrambled down and across the cliff walls.
Completely disgusted with myself, I moved as quickly as possible in their direction hoping for another opportunity. As I stood on a high perch unable to descend or traverse any farther, the larger nanny appeared below me at about 30 yards. This time my shot was without contemplation, an almost instinctive shot I’ve delivered so many times before. This arrow found the mark and the goat was mortally wounded. As I watched her expire from my small rock perch something whizzed past my left ear so close I felt the wind it generated. I lurched right, my immediate thought was that a bird had buzzed my head, but an impact below me answered the question; a softball-sized rock probably travelling at terminal velocity had scarcely missed my skull. Dislodged a thousand feet above me, the spinning projectile missed killing me by an inch.
When I reached the beautiful goat, the stillness of the mountain and the conclusion of the incredibly difficult hunt wet my eyes with emotion.
Mountain Lion 2011
My great friend, Bryan, put me in contact with a local rancher near Eagle, CO who sometimes chases lions for fun. Unfortunately, both of Jim’s good hound dogs had recently died of different causes and all he had now were a couple pups who hadn’t ever treed a lion. He said he was happy to let me tag along when he worked with his rookie tracking dogs. This situation was perfect as I didn’t have the money or desire to use a professional guide on any hunt.
After a couple unsuccessful trips looking for fresh tracks, the early morning sky cleared from an overnight snowstorm. I was looking for tracks on one side of the valley while my dog-handling acquaintance scoured the other. After several hours without a track I drove down the road in my truck to another area. As I drove down the mountain, Jim’s truck flew around the bend in front of me and we nearly collided. He jumped out of the truck and hollered a few excited words. His message was clear—follow me!
Jim had actually spotted a lion crossing the road in front of him, an incredibly rare and lucky occurrence. We drove to the place the cat crossed and ventured up the mountain with the dogs. As we meandered up and across the mountain it was obvious we had two different lion tracks, one older and one fresh set laid by our quarry. The young and inexperienced dogs were running confused and bawling non-stop with the fresh smell of lion in their nostrils. The dogs quickly ventured far ahead and we had to stop and listen carefully to hear their howling barks. Jim was certain by their sound that they had a cat in a tree. I must say, I had my doubts but followed obediently. Sure enough, half-mile up the mountain the dogs were going crazy at the base of a huge juniper tree.
It took a few moments to see it, but then I saw the face of a cat looking down at us. The lion was clearly a small one but Jim was really excited for his dogs. I wasn’t certain that this small lion was worth shooting but Jim really wanted that cat on the ground for his dogs to solidify their mission. The shot, the recovery, and the pack out were all without incident. My lion was certainly small, but it was a lion nonetheless. I chalked it up to a success, especially knowing that I may never again have an opportunity like this without a professional guide.
Mule Deer 2011
The tale of my mule deer hunting is one of many disappointing seasons. Close calls, blown stalks, clean misses, and an unknown status of a shot taken, sum up my years pursuing mulies. Safe to say, mule deer had become my nemesis. In 2011, I was determined to take a mulie and complete the journey I had begun years earlier. Even with this resolve, my high alpine mule deer hunt was being influenced by a deep desire to chase elk. The Colorado seasons coincide and like many years prior, I simply needed to have the action of run-n-gun elk hunting.
I stuck it out in the high basins and hillsides in spite of this desire to be elsewhere. After several unsuccessful stalks and a bunch of hiking and glassing, a small buck presented himself in a perfect location for a stalk. It was late afternoon and I concluded that if he presented a shot I would take him. The position of this young buck in a ravine allowed me an easy and fast-moving stalk. As I approached the upper edge of the crest between us I nocked an arrow. Crouching for the final 15 yards, I kept the terrain between his eyes and me. If the buck was still in the same location as before I estimated my shot would be about 25 yards.
Near the top I drew my trusty Jennings, stood upright, and steadied the sight on the feeding buck’s vitals. He never knew what hit him as my arrow passed trough. I watched him go down with the setting sun creating a postcard image behind him. My prayers went up at that moment, thanking God for all my amazing blessings, and for helping me achieve this personal goal – the Colorado Big 8.
“This time my shot was without contemplation, an almost instinctive shot I’ve delivered so many times before.”
“Safe to say, mule deer had become my nemesis.”
The author hunted more than two weeks before arrowing his great Colorado bighorn.
Text and Photos by Matt Dorram