By Michael Deming
Whenever you think about trophy mule deer, Colorado has got to be at the top of your list. If not, it should be since the world record mule deer comes from there. He was taken in Dolores County, which is in the southwest corner of the state. It is also the home to Colorado Hunting Expeditions, one of our newest Platinum Approved Outfitters. Although they didn’t harvest the world record, they consistently harvest some of the largest mule deer in the state.
This consistent success is what put Colorado Hunting Expeditions on my radar. These majestic giants are what keeps me up at night. I finally had the pleasure of meeting Robert (Bob) and Terri Luna, the owners of this first-class operation in Las Vegas at the Safari Club International Show. With over twenty years in the business, Bob and Terri have figured out how to consistently get it done. Not only on deer, but also on elk. Bob took the time to explain this area of Colorado to me and even though I’m originally from southern Colorado, I seldom hunted over in this area. It has a lot of private property and for that reason, we had stayed away.
The private property situation in this area is the reason that these bucks have the opportunity to get so big. Genetics and age are the key factors in growing big bucks. Colorado Hunting Expeditions not only have deer, but they also have a good number of elk on these sanctuary properties. Colorado is more known for their quantity of elk and not so much their quality, however, with ranches bordering Utah, they often harvest bulls larger than average on some of these ranches.
Knowing that we wanted to hunt with Bob as soon as possible so we could evaluate their operation first hand, I was willing to hunt whenever he had an opening. He said that he had one opening for early archery elk on one of his ranches near Pagosa Springs and the guide would be someone who has been on this ranch for half a dozen years. It had some surrounding public ground on this 3,500 acre ranch which would hold a good resident herd, but would get even better as the season rolled around. All I wanted was an opportunity to evaluate his operation and this was perfect for me and my schedule. So, we were booked for the first week of September.
We rolled into Pagosa Springs on September 3rd, only to be greeted by daytime temperatures in the high 80’s. Not exactly what you would hope for on an early archery elk hunt, but Lester Hawkins, our guide and ranch manager, assured us that we would be into elk. After settling into my 1200 square foot master suite and being served up a nice ribeye for dinner, we decided to settle into the Jacuzzi out on the deck. It wasn’t exactly what you would consider a rough backcountry elk hunt, but I enjoy having a comfortable hunt like this every now and then. Actually, I don’t mind them all of the time!
Lester picked us up well before daylight, but since we were staying on the ranch, we didn’t have to travel very far. We drove to the middle of the ranch and Lester explained that the elk would come out into the fields on the lower portion of the ranch and would gradually work their way back up into the timber to bed as daylight arrived. With the wind blowing from the mountains down into the fields, the plan would be to spot the elk and then flank them in hopes of getting a shot.
A distant bugle snapped us into reality and made us focus on the task at hand; find the elk. As we searched through the grey light in our binoculars, Lester picked up the herd still out in the fields. The closer it got to daylight, the more the elk communicated. There were at least seventy-five elk in the field and well over a dozen bulls. One of them was a nice, mature bull and exactly what we were looking to put our tag on, but he was the first one into the trees. It took nearly an hour for the rest of the herd to disappear into the trees and the wind to change directions. We covered the half mile of distance pretty quickly and were immediately into the elk. They had no idea we were in the country, but we also had no idea where the big herd bull was either. This game of cat and mouse continued for nearly two hours before we finally decided it was best to move out and wait for the evening hunt.
Early afternoon had us rolling the dice on where we thought the elk would enter the field. There were several ponds at the base of the hills which spread out over a mile. So, it was like a game of roulette on where to go. Lester said to just take our pick and hope for a break as the elk seldom come out where they went in, but that it does happen. He told us that one of the draws did get hit more than others and based on his encouragement, we set up where we would have a fifty-yard shot when they entered the field.
The wind wasn’t exactly ideal, but we figured that we could pull it off. The plan was for Lester to sit off at a distance and spot the mountain and give us an indication if we were in the right place when the elk showed up. Another 80-degree day blessed us, which meant the elk would be moving very late and probably be pretty thirsty when the golden hour finally came. My good friend and cameraman, Wes Atkinson and I settled in for the long wait.
An hour into the sit, Wes suddenly whispered, BEAR! I had purchased a bear tag due to the high density of bears in this area, so we immediately went into kill mode. At sixty yards, he was well within my range, but he was chewing on an old elk leg giving me the opportunity to stalk in closer. Wes and I closed the distance to twenty yards before we decided to let this young bear get some age under his belt. He had a great coat and was a sure thing at this distance, but I was more focused on elk unless he would have been a whopper.
As we laughed about the bears’ shock of us being so close to him, we heard the first bugle. It sounded raspy and low, so we hoped it was the herd bull we were looking for. We moved closer and closer, but the bugles were few and far between. Next we started seeing cows and juvenile bulls enter the field several hundred yards to the north of us and with limited cover, we knew we would only get to watch if something didn’t change. As we moved along the edge of the hill, I caught movement in the wallow below us. Low and behold, the big herd bull had left the entire herd for a drink in the open field wallow. How had this happened without us seeing him? The roll in the hill provided him just enough cover to stay out of sight, apparently.
We quickly made a plan to stay low and close the distance as much as possible. When we reached the last of the cover, he had his head down and was still drinking. I dropped my pack, nocked an arrow and set my sight for the appropriate range. It was at the edge of my effective range, but with his head down and relaxed, I knew I could pull it off. I consistently shoot 4” groups at this range and I knew this bull was going to be mine. I clipped onto my loop, took a deep breath and drew my bow. I stepped out from behind the cover to settle in for the shot just in time for the bull to finish his drink. The bull stared at these two bizarre objects that had snuck into his kitchen with that “nice try fella’s” look on his face. Dang it! So, very close, but no cigar. At least not today. Well, we tried our best!
The next morning, we were right back after him again and Lester had their play book. At first light, we were already in the trees and had eyeballs on the big bull. Within thirty minutes, we were well within bow range of nearly half the herd, but the cover was thick. The overnight drizzle of rain had quieted down the forest floor, making stalking a dream.
The bull bugled and broke the silence. It sounded like he was screaming in my ear. Lester caught his movement first as he was following a cow and was pushing her right towards us. I ranged several objects and got set for the shot. At fifty yards, he started rubbing a small clump of oak brush which gave me a chance to draw my bow. I came to full draw and anticipated his next move. There was a window to the left and one to the right, but no shot where he stood.
I had just about reached my limit of being at full draw, when the dreaded warning bark of a cow sounded the alarm to the right of us. She had slipped down the hill and caught our wind and my opportunity disappeared as my bull ran straight away. This guy surely had someone watching over him, but I was sure that we would get an arrow in him if we stayed persistent.
For the next five days, this game of cat and mouse continued with the big bull. I passed on other bulls each day because this had become a game of one on one with two professionals. I had decided on day two that it was this bull or something bigger or nothing for me. In the end, he proved that he was better at this game than I was. He knew the mountain, wind and how to use his other elk friends to stay on the winning side of the game. The hard-core rut never kicked in to get him to throw caution to the wind either. I’ve never had so much fun hunting elk while not being able to punch my tag. I was in great elk every day and even during the early part of the season. Bob was right, he had elk and lots of ‘em. I will definitely be back to hunt elk with Colorado Hunting Expeditions in the future.
After seeing all of the photos and mounts of twenty plus years of trophy mule deer hunting during our stay, I’m even more certain that I will be there to hunt mule deer as soon as an opening presents itself. In fact, the Sportsman’s News team has purchased one of these premium late season deer hunts for our Pro Membership Sweepstakes. This hunt will be given away in the early part of 2017 for a 4th season deer hunt. This will include one of those very limited landowner vouchers, which allows you to hunt without having to draw a late season tag. It also includes the fully guided hunt at one of the lodges and most importantly, lots of big rutting mule deer. Colorado Hunting Expeditions, visit them on the web at www.coloradohunting.com or give them a call at 970-882-5400.