If 2020 was a year of uncertainty and disconnect, 2021, for me, was a year of breaking out of that uncertainty and disconnect. I didn't advertise or pursue trips very aggressively in 2020 purely out of apprehension with the climate of Covid. I decided in 2021 that it was time to start doing some things that had been on my mind for a while.
First of all I picked up the Hog Island Skiff for Brazos on the Fly and it could not have been a better year for it. If you missed out on the opportunity to book a trip last spring and summer you missed out on a great time. The water was high and the striper were all over the river. I'm hoping this dry streak we've been in doesn't last too long this year. Regardless, we'll find fish somewhere.
Next, Hannah and I took our trip to Belize. That was nothing short of amazing but I'll let my previous blog (Belizean Bliss) lay that out for you.
We also took our usual family trip to Colorado and enjoyed some mountain rain, sunshine, trout, and family time. The mountains are always a welcome break from the summer climate here and it always seems like we've hit a reset button when we get back home.
In the middle of all that, Hannah had shoulder surgery and while we were in the waiting room I happened on to an almost once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Frazier Outfitters in Colorado posted that they had a cancellation on a land owner voucher for an archery elk hunt in September. My dad and I have been playing around with preference points in Wyoming the last few years and have entered a few draws but have been unsuccessful. When I saw the post from Frazier Outfitters I had to give it a shot. As it turned out, I was the first person to contact them about it which put me first on the list. It was for an archery hunt and for only one hunter so, it wasn't exactly what my dad and I had been hoping for but it was an elk hunt, it was on horseback, it was in our favorite region of Colorado (an area my dad has a nostalgic love for elk hunting in), and it was with an outfitter we knew to be reputable. We booked the hunt shortly after.
My dad has been an irreplaceable figure in my life and the older I get the more I realize how fortunate I am to have him. When I was in middle school and high school he promoted the idea of me going on elk hunts with him and his hunting companions several times. I was just young and dumb enough to think that I had some future in football and so I opted to stay home every time. For some reason, the fact that I was never more than 135 lbs. before my senior year never registered with me that I was probably more apt to be good at track or something along those lines instead of full on contact sports with people twice my size. Even breaking my femur during sophomore year 2-a-days didn't totally dampen my spirits. I started two-a-days my junior and senior year both but both times decided on the first full day of pads that it wasn't worth it anymore. Now, I don't regret totally the time spent in football and athletics. I learned about myself and how to test my limits and be a part of a team. I made some good friends but, looking back, the old friends I keep close today are the ones I spent time hunting, fishing, and camping with more so than playing sports and had I realized that back then, I would have gone elk hunting with my dad much sooner.
In preparation for the elk hunt I now had to get a bow and practice. The hunt was scheduled for mid-September and it was mid-June when we secured it. At that point I had not shot a bow in more than 10 years. I have always wanted to get into traditional archery hunting so I ordered a recurve and set to work. That proved to be a bit of a lofty goal and after shooting my shoulder to pieces, my good buddy Hayden offered to let me borrow his old Mathews compound. That turned out to be a much more realistic goal. I practiced daily for the remainder of the three months I had to prepare. I became comfortable making shots at 45-50 yards and felt good about my chances if presented with a shot. I also signed up for the MTN Tough work out programs and completed the 6 week 30-30 body weight program with weekly rucks and felt good about the shape I was in going in to the hunt. I gathered some more pieces of gear and got my student's lesson plans all set up for the 6 days of school I would miss and we set out on our trip on Thursday September 16.
My dad had never done a guided elk hunt for himself. All of his hunts were either solo or with a few other friends. I always admired that he had done all of them on his own and often looked at guided hunts as unnecessary as a result. The last five years or so I began to realize that my dad, as active and spry as he is, would not always be able to make it into the back country and I now NEEDED to make this hunt happen before I missed out on the opportunity. With the unfulfilled draws in Wyoming I was beginning to lose hope for that to happen. Now, we were loaded up, and headed West on the road we'd taken so many times before on our way to the mountains for vacation. My dad was the dad that even when we were "grown" would climb into the back seat between my sister and I and read a book for the duration of vacation. Books like (my personal favorite) Goodbye to a River, Treasure Island, The Yearling, Moby Dick, and so many more. Often times, I would have the usual teenage attitude of pretending to not want him to do so. But that is a memory I will cherish forever, and my soured adolescent mind would quickly soften to the idea shortly after he would begin reading. I tried very hard to distance myself from family at times because, for lack of a better reason, I could just be a pretty big ass sometimes. Looking back, I realize how big of an ass I was, but as with so many other things you can't make up for those actions 20 years later.
We spent the first night in Raton, NM and got up early and made it to the Cabins at Lost Trail around 11:00am. Dick Davis, Daylan Nixon, and Chris Weber were there to greet us. Almost immediately it was obvious these guys were going to be fun. Dick runs the outfitter operation at Frazier Outfitters and the Cabins at Lost Trail. He's a hoot to be around and reminded my dad and me of our late friend Randall Weems. He also has a passion for fly fishing so naturally, we had some things to talk about. Of course, my guide for the hunt ended up being the Texan, Daylan who as it turns out, had done some day work briefly with a classmate of mine. Chris, the Nebraskan was the guide for our camp companion Lynn and was about as good of a story teller as I've ever seen. From the start they were sharing knowledge, hilarious tales, and beautiful trails with us. Our mounts were solid and never gave us any issues. The ride in to base camp was at a leisurely pace and didn't take too long. We base camped at around 11,000 ft.. This altitude would have been manageable had we gotten there a couple of days before to get acclimated. As it was, we were pretty winded much of the first day.
Upon arriving at camp, we unloaded our gear and settled our tents. The guides and Dick were busy getting their end of things squared away and horses tended. Dad and I grabbed a fly rod and hiked down to the creek. It was a beautiful creek teeming with cutthroats and brookies. They were skittish but we managed a couple of brookies. It was during that short fishing foray that I broke down a little the first time on this trip.
As most high mountain streams are, this one had ample switchbacks and marshy areas. As my dad turned to lead off to the next good stretch to fish, he hit a boggy hole and went down hard. He'll probably hate me telling this but it was another moment I won't forget, though I wish I could. In that moment, as he laid face down in the plush grasses and dusty, yellowing willows, a million thoughts flooded my mind and tears welled up in my eyes. I of course, asked if he was okay and helped him get up but the thoughts were racing around in my head. I knew that at his age many people could fall like that and would be headed back down the mountain in pain from an array of injuries. I could see that he was visibly a little shaken by the fall. Very little has ever shaken him physically in my presence and it hurt me to see the evidence of that. Though he did not suffer any injury (that he told me about anyway), this moment was the tangible realization for me that I had very nearly waited entirely too long to take this trip with my dad. For the remainder of our little fishing expedition we were both fairly quiet. I'm not sure about him but I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the open valley we were in with its yellowing scrubby willows along the creek bank, the turning of the aspens, the bluebird skies, the rhythm of the horses hooves still clopping along in my ears, the vibrant colors of the brook trout we had caught, and of course the fact that I was finally sharing all of this with him. All of that coupled with the now the haunting and vulnerable image of this man that now symbolized the frailty of the time I have to spend with him. It was too much all at once and I was holding back tears for most of the evening, at times unsuccessfully.
Our walk back up from the creek was helpful for both of us to realize just how unacclimated we were! In the 1/4 mile walk back up to camp we stopped two or three times with heavy chests grasping for any oxygen that they might find. I gained a headache and I'm pretty sure Dad did, too. We ate a great meal of beef tenderloin and wonderful sides and made a plan for the morning. The camp meals were all fantastic and just what you need to refuel after a long day of hiking and hunting. Dick was a first rate cook and host. I must digress and apologize that I am not naming any of the creeks, mountains, or landmarks but even if the lands are public, I would rather let you find them on your own.
The hunting was everything I had hoped it would be. Daylan is for lack of a better term, a mountain goat. He can cut a trail up 400-600ft of deadfall-timbered-mountains in the dark quicker than most people can cut a trail from their car in the parking lot of Target to the door. However, he was a great guide not only because of his ability to move and put me on elk, but also his ability to gauge the abilities of his clients. From day one he had a good idea of how far and fast we could push based on my abilities. I never felt that I was going to keel over but I did feel pushed past my limit a few times. I expected and welcomed that, though and was very grateful for Dayan's intuition and dedication to getting me an elk. I had never experienced bugling bull elk like this before. If you never do, I pity you. It is an archaic but ethereal feeling to be far from civilization, with only a bow, and hear a 700 lb bull elk bugle from the dark as you hike to get into position. The sound can be heard on any digital platform of course but in that format it loses its luster and sounds anemic. In person, in a hunting situation, it triggers something inside you. As cliché as it may sound, it rouses a certain primeval validation to the drive to hunt and pursue game. I can't say if it would have felt the same behind a rifle, but with only a bow against such a formidable and resilient animal it stirred more than a few feelings deep inside me.
Some of you may want the nitty gritty details of the hunting itself. If so, give me a call and I'll gladly go into that. For this blog, I'm keeping it somewhat sentimental.
The first morning went well but we were a little late and the elk had already started moving into the timber. That evening Dad went with us back to the same spot. The warm afternoons had the elk staying in the timber until late and we ended up pinned in the trees with several bulls bugling in three different directions of us. We saw a large black bear on an elk carcass from the previous weeks of archery season. There were a few moments of redemption for my image of Dad from the previous evening. About halfway to our planned hunting area, Daylan stopped us for a breather and turned to my dad and said, "Robert, I mean it when I say this...You're tough." My dad chuckled and replied, "well, I'm glad to hear that because I was starting to feel like I wasn't!". I don't have any proof of this but I would bet Daylan got tired of hearing heavy breathing behind him! That evening, moving from tree to tree, crouching, nocking arrows, un-nocking arrows, Daylan's cow and bull calls, the bulls calling back, and my dad beside me, was good enough for me to pack up and go home happy.
With an idea of when the elk were moving, we set out earlier on day two. Dad stayed at camp to rest away some altitude sickness. Daylan and I charged up the ridge to our little valley and got within a few hundred yards of timberline. There was a herd of 15-20 elk in the bottom and some up in a shadowy corner. Daylan predicted correctly that the largest bull was the one bugling from the corner. We never caught sight of him in that area due to his cows winding us on a split second updraft. We followed him across the entire valley bugling at him, pissing him off to no end. However, he wanted us to come to him if we really wanted his harem. When we finally caught sight of him and got a good look through the binos, we realized what he was. A brute of a 7x7. That was the last we saw of him as he went up and over a saddle into the adjacent valley where Lynn and Chris were hunting. That evening we hunted a different area on some wallows and had some closer looks but nothing in a shootable position.
As luck would have it Lynn bagged that bull on day 4 and he turned out to be an official score of 350!
Day three had us climbing above timberline again and I had two fast paced shots at decent bulls. One I refrained due to the angle and my lack of confidence in the shot. The second I guessed the range incorrectly and presumably shot high. Both were so fast paced that we had no time to officially range them prior to my shots. It was a bit demoralizing but we exhausted ourselves looking for arrows, blood, or dead elk and found none.
On day four we hit a different area. We were up high and around the edge of the trees from our left three cows came through within range. At this point, I was content to leave with a cow and was going through the thoughts of tapping Daylan on the shoulder and telling him I would take a cow. Just as that thought was formulating, Daylan glanced right and quickly said, "Shoot that bull!". I turned to the right and there, slowly walking towards the cows was a smallish bull, a "last day bull", if you will. Again, he left us no time or ability to range him without spooking him or losing our chance. I knocked, drew, mentally gauged the distance, held at 40 yds, and loosed the arrow. I immediately saw that I pulled slightly left and had obviously miscalculated the distance. Some frustrated words were yelled in a whisper. The arrow clearly hit low in the front shank of the left shoulder. High enough to draw a fair amount of blood for a trail, low enough that there was no way it passed through the leg and entered the chest cavity. The point of impact ranged about 45-48 yds. We found the shaft of the arrow minus the broadhead and about 5" of the shaft. The blood trail led us about .8 mile to where he bedded down, the wound plugged, and there was no more trail. We searched for the better part of the day, following the blood trail where we could, then walking transects, all to no avail. My hunt was over.
I held together well from the point of the shot, throughout the search, and the ride back to camp. At that point, I broke down again. Knowing the percent success of archery elk hunters, knowing the good fortune I had of having three solid opportunities, the remorse I had for leaving a wounded animal, no matter how minor the wound, the anticipation, effort, beauty, and sentimentality of it all culminated in me being a heaping mess for a few minutes that afternoon. Daylan, Dick, and my dad all shared words of reassurance and it eventually passed. The decision was made to head back to the cabins that evening. That night we all shared one more meal together, communed over good bourbon and scotch. It was as good of an end to a roller coaster hunt as I could have asked for.
As most outdoor experiences go, there was never a truly BAD moment. Disappointing results, blatant realizations, and physical limits were there, but if we don't have those moments we never truly learn how to deal with them. Here at home I can say "I'm going hunting", and almost guaranteed, if I'm hunting for meat, bring a deer home. To go, for the first time, into a different environment, with a less efficient weapon, to take down a much larger animal requires much in the way of preparation. I felt that I did everything I could given the time I had. It still was not quite enough. You can have the most perfect hunt you've ever dreamed of and still find a way that you could have done it more efficiently. I learned so much from my dad, Dick, Daylan, Chris, and Lynn this trip that I know, the next time I go elk hunting I will, without a doubt, be more prepared. In the meantime, I have plenty to look back on and smile about.
I find myself now, looking for ways to go and do. Last year was such a fun year. I spent a good amount of time with some of the people that mean the most to me in this world, made some unforgettable connections with new people, and saw some of the most beautiful places and things I ever have.
If you have ever found yourself thinking about a trip or something you didn't do with a parent or grandparent, please, do yourself a favor and find a way to make it happen. If you don't have a great relationship with one or more of your parents, try to reconcile that and make some lasting good memories with them. My dad was 67 during this trip. To think that I could have started doing trips like this when he was in his 40's but chose not to will haunt me forever, I'm sure. But I do have the memories from this trip and family vacations to hold on to.
Thank you, Dad for the trip and the memories. I love you.
Here's to 2022, and finding more ways to make memories with people you love.