Michael Abell

Feast and Famine

Michael Abell
Feast and Famine

            Every hunter has been there, that season or seasons where you just cannot seem to get it done. The two years when you didn’t even see a whitetail buck worth hanging on the wall or the three years in a row where you killed one at dawn on opening day. Success or failure in hunting seems to be extreme, more like feast or famine. While it’s true that the entire hunt cannot be called a loss if you don’t harvest an animal, the experiences we have afield and the anticipation of success are really the driving forces behind what we do as hunters. But by the end of the season if you eat your tag, it’s failure.

            We knew we wanted to bowhunt elk. We knew how to hunt whitetails and turkeys. We had our Army training and we had the spirit to try. That sums up where we started our elk hunting journey. While planning that very first hunt, I was fortunate to meet Jim Hockenberry. Jim is a Vietnam Vet and he used to be an outfitter in Canada and Colorado. Jim knows the elk in the Gunnison National Forest probably better than anyone. He doesn’t outfit anymore, but he does rent cabins, provide easy access to public land, help recover animals and give expert advice. It was a perfect fit for us and we decided to stay with Jim that very first year. We have hunted with Jim every year for a decade now. I have learned more from Jim about elk behavior, tracking, meat preparation, and how to hunt the Rocky Mountains that I could have ever learned in a book or in a seminar. His mentorship has been a real blessing and now I bring new hunters with me as often as I can. I help them, sure, but what I really do is introduce them to Jim.

            As our fifth year of hunting elk approached, I spent some time thinking about the crew that was going with me. My lovely wife, Aline, would be on her third elk hunt. She hunted hard in bad weather her first year and wasn’t successful. The second year, she arrowed a mature cow on the first night and spent the rest of the week butchering the cow and relaxing. Before we left for home it was in vacuum sealed meal sized portions in the freezer in the trailer. Love that girl. My long-time hunting partner, Command Sergeant Major Marshall “Mark” Ware, had been every year I’ve been. He arrowed a big 5x5 bull his first year, but since then had been unsuccessful a couple years. A close friend, Major Andrew “Quail Head” Caldwell, had never hunted with us and hadn’t bow hunted in years. He paid for a rifle elk hunt with an outfitter the previous year and didn’t even see an elk. Meanwhile, I killed an elk every year, two bulls and two cows, plus a big Pope and Young black bear. We hunt the early season, usually alone, spreading out over different spots in the same basin. Even though we hunt similar terrain on the same days, our results vary widely.

            Last year, there was a drought in the area we hunt, and the bears were hungry, skinny and aggressive. They were close to hibernating but had not put on enough weight. The drought made mast production, acorns and berries, very poor. The bears had little forage all summer and were aggressively pursuing any food source 20 hours a day. In fact, by the time we got to Aline’s cow last year there was a bear eating it. It only went about 75 yards from where she shot it. That same year another hunter in camp had to fire warning shots to prevent a black bear from attacking her. This year, there was an abundance of acorns and berries. The bears were rolly polly and almost friendly. I suppose it is feast or famine for the bears too.

            Prior to the hunt we had decided to hunt elk and black bears. It’s really an elk hunt, but black bears usually make an appearance and give one of us a shot, so having both tags is smart. Plus, Mark has been trying hard to kill a fair chase black bear for a long time. The elk tags are over the counter, but the bear tags are a draw. In July, we were relieved to discover we all drew bear tags. I called Jim to tell him we all had bear tags and to make final coordination. He told me the last two months had been dry and most of the water holes were empty. There are about seven water holes, one big meadow, two old established wallows, and four big ridges we normally hunt. Of those seven water holes only three held water and the wallows were dry. After talking to Jim, I decided that I would insist that Mark, Aline, and Andrew hunt the water. That gave them the best chance of killing an elk or a bear. I had been very successful in previous years and thought it best to defer to my crew. Maybe one of them would kill early and I could go sit their water hole after they harvested. I could also do some exploring. I thought I’d walk twice as far as we ever have and search for a wallow or water hole to sit on. There had to be one we didn’t know about or one Jim hadn’t told us about.

            In the area we hunt the elk are extremely pressured. We often see other hunters. We hear them drive the roads, get out of their trucks, bugle, get back in and drive away. We also run into game wardens, who want to interrupt our hunt to check our tags. I don’t know why they can’t show up in camp and check our tags. It seems they must walk around the elk woods in the middle of hunting season looking for hunters like big uniformed smelly elk repulsion devices, but I digress. So, in the area we hunt the elk aren’t just call shy, they are known to run away from calls. We hunt them the way Jim taught us, by ambushing them, much like you’d hunt mature whitetail bucks. Jim tells all the hunters who stay with him, “Leave your calls at home, find an early season wallow or water hole, sit as still as possible with the wind in your face as long as you can, and you’ll see elk, probably kill one.”

            By the good Lord’s grace we arrived at Jim’s after a twenty-five hour drive in good shape before lunch on Friday. Since we had all hunted there before, except Andrew, we set about getting our gear together and discussing strategy. After lunch we were ready to hunt and general locations were decided. Aline would hunt “Emery’s Pond”, the draw leading to it, and the meadow above it. Yes, my wife, Aline, hunts public land by herself with a bow. Mark would hunt “Muskrat Pond”, the high ground to the northwest and the meadow to the southwest. I would take Andrew to the bottom of “Dirty Meat Gang” draw above “Beaver Pond” and drop him off. I would hunt “Linda’s Wallow”, which was dry, but sat astride two well used trails.

            About ten minutes before dark I heard movement to my rear and climbed up and looked with my binoculars, it was Jim and Mark. That could only mean one thing – Mark was successful on the first night. I scrambled down the trail and came up behind them making enough noise for them to hear me. Mark said one word with a wide smile, “Bear”. Jim was asking about a blood trail, Mark laughed and said, “Don’t think you’ll need one.” I was shocked to see Muskrat Pond, normally about the size of a basketball court full of water, wasn’t much bigger than a kiddie pool. But I was awful happy to see Mark’s boar lying dead near the water. The bear had walked in during the last of the afternoon light to get a drink and Mark put a fatal arrow in him. It spun to bite the arrow like a dog chasing its tail. Mark nocked another arrow and shot it again, it laid dead where the last arrow hit it. I was so proud. Mark finally had his fair chase bear. Back at camp with Mark’s bear, we learned that Andrew had seen a cow and calf elk, plus some turkeys. Aline hadn’t seen anything but had a wonderful evening in the mountains. Everyone was excited for the first full day, tomorrow.

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            The first full day was beautiful, warm, and calm. We all headed out on our own and had a great morning. Andrew saw another cow and calf. The rest of us saw nothing. That evening Aline discussed with me privately, that there was no cover close enough to the water to shoot this year. Emery’s Pond had dried up and the pond edge was now over fifty yards from her stand. I asked her if she wanted me to hang a stand on an aspen closer to the water for her. She said, “No, two well used trails go right passed my stand and I can hunt them on the way to the water.” That was a good logical call, so I did not encourage the new stand location idea anymore.

            The second morning I headed out very early in the dark with my climbing stand and went up “Reverend Weiss’s Draw”. It’s a great travel corridor between dark timber bedding and open meadow feeding areas. I got to see a wonderful show of mule deer coming in and out of the timber. I could have arrowed a half dozen or more, but I saw no elk or bear. Mark saw nothing. Andrew saw a cinnamon sow with cubs. Aline had a long fifty yard plus shot on a good bear drinking at Emery’s Pond and it didn’t work out. She was ready to move, but strangely decided she didn’t want me to hang a new stand closer to the water’s edge. That afternoon we had some intermittent storms and the gorgeous rainbows and clouds associated with fast moving weather at 9,000ft were unbelievable. I believe the sky is the Lord’s canvas and he is magnificent painter. Mark had a big bull and cow elk come in together, but he didn’t get a shot. Andrew saw a whole flock of turkeys. I saw a bunch more mule deer. Dear Aline saw nothing, again.

            That evening, I discussed with Jim about letting Aline hunt his alfalfa field, he agreed. He has a ladder stand there and she would at least see mule deer. She had never hunted there before, as we don’t normally hunt on Jim’s ranch. Aline agreed and the next morning I would walk her into that area and help her find the stand in the dark. Then I would back track down the valley and go up the next drainage to Emery’s Pond. I was on a mission to find the right tree and hang a new stand for Aline. After I picked a tree, I planned to sit there a while. If that bear came back and gave me a fifty yard shot, he might get an arrow for breakfast.

            The third morning was absolutely still and gorgeous. Aline and I took our time getting to the alfalfa field and were surprised by a distant bull bugle high above us on the mountain. After she was safe up on stand, I started walking toward Emery’s Pond at a slow clip and enjoyed watching the sun come up. It was a long walk and I had a climbing stand on my back in addition to my normal load. About half way up the draw towards the pond, I heard a bull bugle again. He was far away. The still windless morning helped the sound carry a great distance and it echoed down the valley. I wondered how far away he was and thought about calling back to him. I walked on, climbing slowly higher up the draw toward the pond dam at Emery’s. As I got to about a quarter mile from Emery’s, the bull bugled again. Then rapidly another bugle. I stopped, took a knee and watched my hands shake. I have never hunted bugling bulls. I have only seen it on TV. It had a tremendous effect on me to hear a bull bugle like this. The heavy load I was carrying had me dripping with sweat, so I stayed on a knee resting and decided to take a break.

            Just then he bugled again! I thought, “I have got to have a call somewhere in my pack”. I dropped all my gear, clawed through my day pack, hands shaking, please let there be a little reed call in here, please. PRAISE THE LORD! A dirty old mouth call at the bottom! I put it in my mouth and tried to call, nothing. I spit and said out loud to myself, “Okay Mr. Wizard, take a deep breath, clean the call and try again”. A rough cow mew came out this time, immediately answered by a bugle. He was probably three hundred yards above me. Oh Lord! A bull answered me! Oh dear God, how cool was that! Wait, this might work! Okay, try again. A better cow mew came out the second time and his bugle cut me off.

            I stripped off everything but my base layer, grabbed my bow, and ran for the meadow above Emery’s Pond. I got to the pond damn and hid behind it, nocked an arrow, took a deep breath, drew my bow, emerged all at once above the pond damn ready to shoot a bull in the meadow beyond. And he wasn’t there, damn. I stood there dejected and started to giggle to myself. Then a hundred yards above me the bull weaved and cracked his big rack through the scrub brush and stepped out into the edge of the meadow. I froze and thought, “Way to go dumbass, now you’re busted, sky lined on a pond damn, idiot!” But the bull didn’t see me, he looked left and right, liked his nose twice and started down the hill toward the pond. I dropped down behind the pond damn shaking and thought, “Camouflage works…well that makes sense…my calls were 200 yards down the valley behind me…he thinks the cow is way down there…not here at the pond…oh crap my hands are shaking too bad to shoot…I think he’s a legal bull…couldn’t tell how big…but legal for sure…I cannot hear anything…I’m going deaf…no that’s my heart pounding…shit I’m holding my breath…okay breath…relax…breath”. When my hands stopped shaking and I could hear again, I could only hear one sound, glug, glug, glug. The bull was drinking on the other side of the pond damn I was hiding behind. I thought, “How long was I holding my breath? Oh Dear Lord! I won’t be able to range him. Who cares, he’s so close you can hear him drinking”. I drew my bow on my knees, stood up fast and was facing a giant bull just across the water hole. I put both my 20 and 30-yard pins on him and let the arrow fly. He was hit hard, exploded out of the water, spun about and stopped to check his back trail. He stood there broadside staring at me and bleeding – bad. I picked up my range finding binos and took a range 54 yards. I put down my binos and still he stood there, bleeding. I nocked another arrow, drew and still he stood there. The second arrow also found its mark. Two fatal shots anchored him and he wobbled back to the edge of the meadow, where he fell and died.

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            I don’t think I walked back to camp. It was more like floating. As soon as I came through the gate, I ran into Mark and Andrew who just got done butchering Mark’s bear and putting it on ice. They noticed my quiver was two arrows light and asked what happened. I told them I called in a bull and shot him twice. Initially, they, “called bullshit”. But they could see I wasn’t yanking their chain and I’m a horrible liar. Then we all started whooping and hollering. That’s when Andrew asked, “Well, how big is he?” I said, “He’s a stud, my biggest bull by far, but I’m not sure, my hands were shaking so bad I couldn’t count tines, I could barely get a range.” We took our time gathering up proper knives, saws, game bags, and some bottled water while waiting for Aline to come back in for lunch. She decided to go back with us and skip her afternoon hunt.

            The bull was a 7x6 and a monster. We took some pictures and then Jim looked right at me and said, “You got a knife right pardner?”…”Yessir I do”…”I will be back with mules, I’d like to see those shoulders off when I get back”…”Yessir”. Aline stayed with me, helped me skin and quarter the elk, while the rest of the crew went back with Jim. Jim returned with two mules and his grandson, Ty, to help recover the bull. I had the shoulders off already with Aline’s help. Jim and Ty made short work of the rest of it. One of the mules was very young and had never packed out an elk, which made for a little more adventure. It also caused the older mule to be loaded pretty heavy. Jim decided we should leave the cape and antlers, because the young mule wouldn’t carry it and the old mule was loaded down. We would come back later as we had most of the day left. I said, “No way, I’ll carry it”…”Mike it’s a long walk and we can come back and get it”…”With my luck a bear will get it”…”Mike you don’t have a packframe and it’s heavier than you think”…”Don’t care Jim I’m not leaving it up here.” His cape, skull, and antlers were awful heavy and without a pack frame it was no fun, but we all got down the mountain back to camp safe.

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            We hung the quarters in the tack shed on hooks and spread the skull, cape, and antlers on the cold concrete floor. Then I collapsed exhausted in my hammock. Mark and Andrew were already out hunting. Aline got ready quickly and went out for the last couple hours of daylight. I’m not sure how long I slept, but I woke to see someone coming down the mountain in daylight. It was Mark, and there is only one reason for that, he’s shot an elk. He told us that he’d arrowed a nice bull, probably his biggest bull, about an hour ago. Jim said, “Ground your heavy gear, get your flashlights, pistols, and let’s go find the blood trail before its pitch dark.” We scrambled to get ready and headed out. Jim found the blood trail easily, but then started tracking uphill. Mark and I looked at each other, “Running uphill is NOT good.” We crested the summit at sunset and still hadn’t found the elk. Jim stopped abruptly and said, “Man I smell something, I think he’s close.” Mark and I were perplexed, we couldn’t smell anything. Jim was yanking our chains. He could see the bull not twenty yards in front of us, piled up under a big bush against an aspen stump. It was Mark’s biggest bull a 6x5!

            The recovery of that bull at night was an adventure. At one point Mark left me alone to go link up with Jim who was bringing the cavalry to get the bull out. I stayed with the elk and kept working on it.

I’m not sure how it happened, but I fell asleep. I had field dressed Mark’s bull, making only a small incision, because Mark wasn’t sure how he was going to have it mounted. So, I was covered to my armpits in blood and sleeping right next to a dead elk. I’m not sure what woke me up. It was pitch black all around. I was groggy and not thinking clearly. But I heard footsteps and a stick crack. My mind started racing.

What, where am I?

Man, it’s dark.

Man, it smells bad.

How long have I been asleep?

I’m cold.

I can’t see anything.

Oh crap, I fell asleep cutting up Mark’s elk.

My headlamp’s off.

Shit, where is my headlamp?

Worse yet, where’s my gun?

Okay, found my headlamp, it was on my head.

Okay, found my pistol, it’s in the holster.

Light on - scan my perimeter.

Nothing visible, be cool, calm down.

Note to self, sleeping on a dead elk, that you’ve field dressed and are cutting up at night in the Rocky Mountains is on the wrong end of stupid.

In my defense, I had a very long morning recovering my bull and was exhausted when we went back out for Mark’s bull.

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            Day four dawned and I dragged myself to breakfast and wished the hunters good luck. Mark was tagged out and exhausted. Aline was going back to Emery’s Pond, even though her lazy husband didn’t hang the stand closer to the pond the day before like he promised. Andrew was switching it up and going to Muskrat Pond. I set to work, butchering my elk. At lunch we learned that Andrew saw another sow with cubs and Aline saw nothing again. Mark and I hustled out at lunch and hung a stand for Aline within thirty yards of the water at Emery’s Pond. Everyone went hunting after lunch including me. At the end of the day, no one had any luck.

            Day five saw some weather rolling in, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Mark stayed in camp to butcher his elk. Andrew went back to Muskrat Pond. Aline and I walked out together, last day of the hunt, kind of romantic I suppose. I was amazed to find nothing had eaten my bulls’ gut pile. At lunch we shared stories. Andrew had seen a sow with one cub. I saw a sow with two cubs. Aline saw nothing. With only one afternoon hunt left we ate lunch quietly. Aline and Andrew still had both their tags and I still had my bear tag.

            That afternoon, I decided to go back to Linda’s Wallow, its closer, I was tired, and it has the best view down the valley. If nothing else I would have a great view of the sunset on the last night. About an hour into my sit a mule deer doe and fawn walked by at 18 yards. Then, a few minutes later directly in front of me a perfect 6x6 bull broke cover at 30 yards. Oh, dear Lord, why didn’t Andrew or Aline sit here? The bull was in range for a long time and although I enjoyed watching him, I wished someone else was sitting there. When I got back to camp, I found out that Aline saw a huge rutting bull moose! He came in glunking and walked right under her stand so close she could smell him. She got a great video of him. When Jim saw the video he said, “Yep that’s the big bull around here, he is Pope and Young for sure.” Poor Andrew only saw a sow with cubs again, but was upbeat saying, “Hell I made progress…I didn’t even see an elk last year.”

             Another elk camp had come and gone. It was feast and famine for my crew. Mark and I were successful. Meanwhile Andrew and Aline were going home with their tags in their pocket. Nevertheless, we had an absolute blast and hated to leave, it’s one of our favorite places on Earth. The freezer was near full in our trailer as we pulled out of Jim’s drive and headed down the mountain. The hunt was a success and we all knew that, but it is impossible to get rid of a small bit of regret and feeling of failure when you go home with a tag in your pocket. The only way to cure it? Be successful next year.


Recipe –

Here’s what you need, “soup to nuts” to serve up your own similar elk hunt -

Ingredients:

____ A willing soul, a semi-stout heart, good legs, feet and hips – priceless

____ Time Off – (# of days) x (what you get paid daily) until you get it done = ???

____ CO Non-Resident Over the Counter Hunting Fishing Combo, Elk Tag and Habitat Stamp $661

____ CO Non-Resident Over the Counter Hunting Fishing Combo, Bear Tag and Habitat Stamp $351

____ Fee to hunt with someone like Jim $2,250

____ Gas & Travel $800 (KY to CO and back)

____ Archery equipment – you should already own it, your deer rig is perfect (fixed blade broadheads)

____ Clothes and boots – you should already own it

____ Blind or climbing stand – neither is necessary, but you should already own it

____ Pack, binos, rangefinder, etc. – you should already own it – deer gear is fine

____ Food & Water – Included, when you hunt with someone like Jim, but you can always add $$$

____ Meat hauling – freezer and drop cord $250

Total Cost: $4,312

Directions:

Well this is my way to cook up and elk/bear combo. There are certainly other ways. You could pay an outfitter about $6,500 and get everything done for you and potentially hunt private land too. Or you could pay an outfitter $3,500 for a drop camp. Or you could go DIY on public land and reduce costs, but you’re going to need a lot more gear, food and time. Realize the other costs like the licenses/tags are still there and they are expensive, no doubt. You could just do elk or just do bear to reduce the cost. Fall free range bear meat is very good, if processed and cooked properly. You must get the fat off the meat quickly after the kill, but other than that, you can treat the meat like any other game meat – UNTIL you cook it. Then you must cook it well done due to the possibility of trichinosis. We have eaten a couple of bears and enjoy the meat. At the time I’m writing this article, I have another fall free range Colorado bear in the freezer awaiting processing. The cooking is simple, treat it like pork you get from the grocery in terms of temperature when cooked. Paying to stay with someone like Jim is a bargain when you consider you get the following: hot meals and snacks, hardstand cabins with beds to sleep in, very easy walk-in access to public land, and daily showers. Now! Add in the fact that Jim will track and recover your elk – it is a SUPER cheap hunt. Now! Add in the fact that Jim will give you advice from the time you pay your deposit until you kill an elk, you get the point. I highly recommend you drive to Colorado for the hunt. Elk and bear are big animals. Getting your meat processed by a commercial processor and then shipped home is very expensive. Then how would you get your horns and cape home? Probably have the taxidermy done in Colorado and shipped home. Again – very expensive! The way we travel is to pull a small cargo trailer with all our gear in it. We also put a medium sized chest freezer in the trailer. We freeze our game solid before we leave. Then we don’t open the freezer until we get home. It’s always still frozen, 25hrs later, when we get home. Earlier in our elk hunting careers we tried coolers with dry ice and regular ice. It’s a mess and you’ll spend $200 in ice/dry ice. Please use only fixed blade broadheads on elk. I don’t care what you see on TV. I’ve personally witnessed the loss of more than ½ a dozen elk due to mechanical broadheads being used and failing to penetrate. Most folks simply don’t shoot enough kinetic energy or momentum. Now, if you’re shooting an 80lb bow with 550 grain arrows –maybe you could do it, but I would still go with cut on contact heads. All your deer gear is perfectly fine. My wife has killed 3 elk with a 53lb compound bow, shooting 370gr arrows and G5 Montec 100gr fixed blade broadheads. Save up $4,500 by putting away $125 in savings or a mason jar monthly and you can go on an elk/bear combo hunt every 3 years. Cut costs and you get there sooner. Remember, the hunt of a lifetime is really the hunt of a summertime. Life is short.