Where the Continental Divide Meets the Sky

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Bucket List Bull by Lee Gerhard

Bucket List Bull

Lee Gerhard
November, 2015

He materialized abruptly, statuesque, fully sky-lighted on the ridge behind us, posing as if for an insurance ad, antlers gleaming in the early morning sun, the herd of cows working their way around the knoll in front of him. He was café mocha from the tip of his nose to the front of his shoulders, antlers gray and ivory. Behind the shoulder his color abruptly tawny with a dark underbelly and buff butt. Six tines on each antler, the bull commanded his harem, the world and the moment.

The steep and rough knoll was dressed in fall wardrobe, sun-bleached rounded clumps of dusky sage rising from short tan grasses and small angular beige rocks covered by colorful lichens. No trees or shrubs obscured the magnificent animal.

I squirmed in the blind to get my rifle bore pointed in the right direction around Paul Schleppy, my guide, who was trying to get out of my way. I got the crosshairs on the bull just as he turned and squeezed the trigger. I saw him jump and then he was over the ridge and out of sight.

This was more than “just another hunt.” It was unfinished business.
The last words I heard from Mose were from his hospital bed. The old mountain man was my western outdoor mentor. He came out of Utah, a young fifteen-year old kid with an unhappy childhood. He cowboyed for his neighbors, drifted some up north, then through a winter in North Dakota. But unlike some today, he grew into himself, with solid values of right and wrong. Lean, almost spare, he moved through the west riding the rodeo circuit, hunting, fishing, and trapping. Once he got established I don’t think he ever strayed north of Colorado again. I found out later this mountain man was a very respected member of the business community, not just a cowpoke who could catch fish and shoot elk.

Gone are men like Mose. He said to me, voice hoarse from the ravages of his illness, “It looks like I’m at the end of the trail, young fella, and I know I’m gonna die. But you know, I’ve had a good life. I’ve hunted all I wanted, and caught a bunch of fish. Ain’t no one had a better go at it than I have.”

He ended with, “You’ll get that big bull elk, just wait. And it won’t be long. Maybe this year, maybe next.”

It’s been a lot of years since Mose died. And to top it off, added to the infirmities of old age, one little tick bite a few years ago has left me with stumbling feet and bad balance. Getting around in the woods and rocks is pretty dang difficult, in some places impossible. It was a guided hunt or nothing.

The Buffalo Creek Outfitters accepted me despite my handicap. We had fished there before, so my difficulties were not unknown to guides and management. In another run of luck, circumstances worked out that my two turkey and prairie chicken hunting companions, Steve and Bill, joined me on this hunt and no one else was booked. We three had the run of the ranch.

John Ziegman runs a tight outfit He manages not only the Buffalo Creek Ranch, but also three others. On those ranches he runs a full cow-calf operation, along with large scale commercial haying and some associated side businesses, such as logging pine-beetle-killed trees. Then there is the recreation business, fishing and hunting. Nestled against the rise of the Rabbit Ears Range on the west edge of North Park and hidden behind Buffalo Ridge, Buffalo Creek Ranch exemplifies non-bureaucratic wildlife management as it should be practiced and with great success. Where else do elk hunters have 90% success in fully wild animal hunts? And where else does a fly fisherman’s arms get tired from fighting wild trout? What other ranch has created its own elk sanctuary, where even its own hunters may not tread? And the fishing is all “catch and release?”

For me, the early morning stumble over the rocky slope to my blind was tough, but I am always excited to start a hunt. I only hoped that I would see a bull within range during the five days I had to hunt. This first morning was just a tantalizing edge of a never-to-be-forgotten hunt, I was sure. Paul helped me clamber up the gently inclined ladder and into a chair. “I could get used to this kind of hunt,” I said as I settled in. There was wind, it was not warm up here at over 9000 feet, but the blind blocked the wind. I wore warm boots, but they made no difference really, since my feet and ankles are mostly impervious to cold owing to the tick bite.

As the dawn grayed then slightly brightened, my view from the saddle in Buffalo
Ridge faced southeast directly where the sun would rise. The ridge steepened upwards into pinions and firs interspersed with sightings of rimrock boulders. Behind me was a treeless ridge, steeply rising from behind the blind, capped by a layer of beige rock. To the east I could see into North Park and the faint outline of the crest of Rocky Mountain National Park. To the west was the valley in which most of the Buffalo Creek Ranch resides.

My old eyes are no match for younger eyes. I saw nothing moving, but Paul identified several cows, then two bull elk near the top of the ridge in front of us. As the glaring sun rose I had difficulty picking them out of the brush, but finally spotted two of the cows. I never did see the bulls. They were at least four hundred yards off (I used my brand-spanking new range finder to verify this), out of my comfortable shooting range.

But they made me happy. Seeing elk early on the first morning is a great sign that there really is real opportunity to tag an animal. I had five days, and if seeing elk early in the first morning was any indication, my hopes for that one shot seemed possible. One caveat, though. Here, if you shoot and hit an animal, that’s your only shot. If the elk gets away, you are done hunting. So you either get the animal or go home empty-handed. No do-overs.

A quiet whisper from Paul’s radio said that Steve had connected with a nice bull already, just after first shooting light. He bagged his over by Buffalo Peak, northwest of us by a couple of miles.

My stomach lurched. One down. Will I have a chance? Will Mose’s words haunt me or help me? Will I yank the trigger in excitement if I get a shot? Or will I quietly squeeze the trigger? I never know.

Less than an hour later, Paul nudged me to look behind the blind. A stream of cow elk moseyed around the ridge behind us in single file.

“Get ready!” Paul said.

I didn’t need to be reminded that the bull follows the cows, not leading, taking no risk. I waited, worked gradually towards position to fire. The cows sensed or saw some movement, then the bull appeared on the ridge.

My rifle jerked against my shoulder, but I don’t remember hearing it. It was less than a hundred yard shot, but steeply uphill. With this ammunition, Hornaday SST in .30-06, the bullet should strike four inches high at 100 yards. I held just under his brisket. I saw the elk jump up and forward.

It’s an interminable wait. Intellectually you know you have to wait so that if the animal is seriously wounded, it isn’t spooked to keep running. But there is no way to see over that ridge from the blind. One minute. Will I have an elk, or are we going to spend the rest of the day tracking? Two minutes. What if we can’t find it? My hunt would be over. Five minutes. I know I shot well. But was the shot good enough?

Finally Paul said, “Sit here, I’ll work my way up the ridge to take a peek.”

Ever so slowly he climbed up the rocky slope, quietly as possible. My hands seemed to tremble, but that must have been my imagination. When your guide doesn’t flat out say, “You got him,” it’s tense time. But a faint hope stirred in my head when three ravens flew in and circled over the ridge, but seeing Paul, moved on. But hope, yes. Maybe. I thought talked to Mose, confiding my unease to his memory.

Then I saw Paul bounding down the ridge and I knew. That bull had not gone but a few yards before toppling over. Cross one bull off that bucket list.

Funny thing, though, Mose, he was a six-pointer when I shot him, but he’s now a five by six. He fell hard enough to break off the top tines on one antler. But you don’t mind, do you? Well, I did it, Mose, just as you said I would. Just took me thirty years.

This may be my last elk hunt. I hope not. My bucket list gets shorter all the time. Some of the items on it might be better left unaccomplished. Sometimes the anticipation of joy to be found is greater than the actual joy when a wish become reality. Creating memories is by far more important than acquiring things.