Legendary mountain man Jeremiah Johnson roamed throughout Colorado and other mountainous regions. He must have listened to the elk bugle just as we did on our recent hunting trip. He probably caught trout from the same streams we fished. We can never be sure, but imagining my footsteps tracing over his certainly adds a mysterious romance to the overall experience of my elk hunt.
Portions of the mountains Jeremiah Johnson once called home are now under the management of Three Forks Ranch. This Mecca of the fly-fishing world also offers some of the best elk hunting available in the western U. S.
When the CEO of SHE Outdoor Apparel, Brian Zaitz, asked me if I would like to go to Three Forks Ranch to represent the company and film an elk hunt for SHE’s Beyond the Lodge, I didn’t have to think twice about my answer. My good friend and Iowa native Kandi Kisky and our field producer, Kenneth Chesson, headed to Three Forks for our early October rifle elk hunt with high hopes.
Those hopes were soon jeopardized by a rough plane landing on Wednesday that damaged the video camera. Kenneth worked on the camera all evening but could not get it to operate properly. Our producer, Tom Miranda made plans to ship us a replacement, but it would not arrive until Friday. Fortunately, Chris Dorsey of Orion Multimedia came to our rescue and let us borrow a video camera while we waited for our replacement. We only missed Thursday morning’s hunt as Kenneth went to retrieve the camera. By that afternoon we were in pursuit of trophy elk.
Our guide, Dave Clements, mentioned that Three Forks may hold more elk than Yellowstone National Park, and I think he may be right. Our first excursion involved a 45 minute Polaris Ranger ride to the top of a mountain where it seemed we were on top of the world. The views were incredible and we saw elk right away. As we stalked through the snow we could hear them bugling in the Aspens up ahead. Dave led us up the mountain and right into the local elk herd. We peered from snow covered pine trees at the elk as they fed. The bull tending this herd was a small 5x5 so we decided to pass, hoping for a larger trophy.
You never know what you might see when elk hunting. We saw mule deer, antelope, foxes, and sheep. Although these sheep were not of the hunting kind.
Kandi and I took turns hunting. I joked that any time we came within range of bulls that we could very slowly sneak toward….they had my name on them and any bulls we had to chase up the mountain were hers. Everyone laughed, but I really wasn’t joking. Kandi was in much better shape and had no trouble keeping up with the guide. Me on the other hand, moved with the speed of a snail and the agility of the proverbial bull in china shop. We got to where we were going……eventually. The heavy snow didn’t help matters much. Kenneth was the only one who didn’t fall. Kandi’s mishap was captured on film as she face-planted into the white stuff. You will have to watch SHE’s Beyond the Lodge on Outdoor Channel to find out if the editor decides to air the tumble.
Much to his credit, Dave worked hard to get us into position for a chance at a big bull. On the third evening of our hunt Dave took us to a place where nearly 200 elk were scattered across the mountainside. The audio portion of this evening’s hunt is indescribable. Bull elk bugles rang out all afternoon as we slowly stalked up the mountain to get in range. Dave would creep a few feet, stop and glass through the Aspens, then give us the ok to go a few more feet, repeating this process for nearly 2 hours.
We got to within 200 yards of a nice bull. Dave offered his best cow elk calling imitations and it seemed to do the trick. The bull started in our direction, closing the distance to about 150 yards but he suddenly decided to bed down. I could only see his nose and part of his antlers whenever he turned his head. We were stuck, unable to move closer and unable to make a shot.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the bull got up, and promptly walked away from us. We followed, moving slowly as elk were all around us. We could see cows feeding throughout the area and at least a dozen bull elk fighting each other and chasing cows. We tried on numerous occasions to coordinate a shot at one of the elk. Each time I had a clear shot through the trees, Kenneth could not get a clear view of the animal through his video lens. And each time he could see the animal clearly, something would block my shot. It was frustrating and exciting. Their bugles were piercing, growling screams, almost like monsters trying to scare each other away. In fact, it became almost eerie as the light faded and the bugles intensified. We could no longer film the action as the woods grew darker by the moment. Dave said what we were all thinking, “Let’s get out of here before we get run over.” I have never experienced anything like that afternoon on the mountain.
The next morning Dave took us to the opposite side of the ranch on the Colorado side. (They have ground in Colorado and Wyoming). It took us a little over an hour to get there by pickup truck. Rain and a big bolt of lightning threatened to keep us in the truck. But after coming so far we couldn’t just sit in the vehicle. Fortunately the lighting stopped and the rain only pestered us occasionally.
As we came to a meadow, Dave went into that creeping-spot-and-stalk-mode again. No elk were below us, but bugles filled the air high on the mountain. We crossed the meadow and followed a game trail through some Aspens to a second smaller meadow. My faith in getting that bull to turn around and come back to the meadow was pretty weak. Much to my surprise, Dave did just that. He cow called and must have said just the right thing, because two bulls headed in our direction. The first one was the smallest and he walked broadside at about 200 yards through the Aspens. Dave thought the second, bigger bull would follow the first one. Luckily it decided to investigate Dave’s cow calling and came in almost “on a string” as they say.
As the 6x6 came out of the Aspens Kenneth and I were able to get the bull in our sights and Dave kept him coming closer and closer. I couldn’t shoot because his vitals were not visible above the grass. Finally, at 80 yards the bull stopped, now quartering toward us. I put the crosshairs of the Nikon scope on the front of the bull’s shoulder and slowly squeezed the trigger of the TC bolt action Icon .308.
We could see the moisture explode off of his coat when the bullet hit. He went down, struggled to regain his feet for a second or two and then stumbled, this time going down for good. He is a beautiful bull with symmetrical ivory tipped tines.
By the time we finished with our photographs it was 8:30 am. A bull was still bugling from the Aspens above us. I opted to stay with my bull while they went in pursuit of the other one.
About one hour later I heard a shot. It came from the area where Kandi, Kenneth and Dave had gone. It was a long morning as I watched the clock, chased ravens and other birds off my bull and wondered how long before a bear or mountain lion discovered the kill. Finally, Dave came back with good news, Kandi had a big bull down and he would return with the truck to get both our bulls.
They had to quarter Kandi’s bull and pack it down from steep terrain. Kenneth went above and beyond his cameraman job description in packing the quartered bull down the mountain. Dave cut my bull in half to get it into the back of the truck with Kandi’s and we headed back to the lodge.
With one day left on our hunting trip we got to experience some of the world-class fly fishing at Three Forks. I never really understood the allure of fly fishing, but after ten minutes of instruction from Dave I started to understand and appreciate the artistry and challenge.
Three Forks also offers horseback riding, sporting clays, mule deer and antelope hunting and several other activities. Check out The Lodge and Spa at Three Forks Ranch at http://www.threeforksranch.com/.
I must admit that elk hunting at Three Forks was on my “bucket list.” It was a privilege to imagine walking in some of Jeremiah’s footsteps; to gaze upon the mountains he called home; and listen to the sounds of decedents of bulls he may have hunted. But most importantly I enjoyed sharing the hunt with good friends and meeting so many wonderful people in a hunting camp like no other.