GUNNISON Colo. — Luck trumps skills every time and, yes, getting an eyeful of elk, a bull at that, and in reasonable shooting range, involves a basket full a good old- fashioned luck.
There he was, a decent bull at about 200 yards, a slam dunk if ever there was one. I belly crawled under the low limbs of a convenient pine where I could sneak some long looks at the tan animal and I admired his dark antlers, counting the points time and again to be sure that he was carrying a legal load of head gear.
This is exactly why friends and I had driven cross country and rode hours in the saddle. A chance to take an elk, America’s most coveted big game animal and surely the dream every hunter dreams.
It’s the first rifle season here in the southern Rockies, the first five-day season of three or more that run from Saturday to Wednesday each October week. Hunters who hope to hunt this area must apply to be drawn and since there is such limited access here, a draw is almost certain.
We are smack dab in the middle of the West Elk Wilderness Area, a national treasure, an expansive piece of wild and remote real estate that is as much vertical as side to side. We are camping at a few feet less than 10,000 feet, an elevation that can bring about some serious health issues. The air is thin and dry. Very thin and very dry. I stuff wet tissues in my nose to stem the discomfort and earn every labored breath.
The peaks around camp shoot up to 12,000 and even 14,000 feet. They are majestic and worth the price of admission, elk or no elk. The night stars shine bright and clear, the morning frost twinkles like silver as the rising sun pushes over the eastern peaks. It’s the best of the best, a theater of a wild scenes.
We’ve spent hours patching the tent and cursing the bear that had such bad manners and sharp claws. The big boar reminds us of his nightly presence by leaving tracks and scat nearby.
We’ve weathered opening day huddled under pines and doing the best we could looking into clouds that dipped lower and lower, sometimes limiting vision to a few yards.
Now add a steady wind-whipped shower of snow that blurred eye glasses, rifle scopes, binoculars. But by the afternoon of day two of the short season, a clear sky and warming temperatures had melted away much of yesterday’s white blanket.
We hunt from a drop camp, a working man’s type of hunt where any animal scored is due to one’s personal hunting skills and luck. No guide along, no help in anyway. Here a hunter climbs his own mountains, searches for his own game, meets his own challenges.
The state average for elk hunters is under 20 percent. Our group of four downed two elk, jumping our average up to 50 percent.
Lucky, that is, to have the opportunity to enjoy such a hunt. We planned the trip for over a year, paid a reasonable fee for horse and mule service into a remote area, applied for and received non-resident licenses, and more.
We used Eagle Mountain Outfitters, a small and caring company that caters only to drop camp hunters. We hunted unit 54, just 30 miles west of Gunnison, a trip that involves 1,500 miles of interstate, and another very rugged three hours of four wheel grind into base camp plus a long horse ride to our camp.
I settled cross hairs on that bull, felt Lady Luck’s hand on my shoulder and squeezed the trigger with confidence. Mission accomplished.