Colorado Strikeout and a California Blacktail

Earlier this month my dad Mike, Ben Britton (KUIU), and I backpack hunted high country muleys in Colorado for the first 9 days of archery season. Since returning, I’ve debated on whether I wanted to post a story on the hunt, or just save photos for various uses in future posts and projects. While we had multiple opportunities on this trip- stalking mature bucks almost every day- none of us filled a tag.

It’s not the ‘unsuccessful’ part that has kept me from wanting to write about and share the trip, but more the fact that we were fortunate to be given some very detailed, quality information from a gentleman who has hunted the area multiple times in the past. Out of respect for him and the work he’s put in to build knowledge of the area and its animals over the years, I’ve been reluctant to share photos that might make the area easily searchable. So after plenty of cropping, editing, and setting aside certain images, I’ve got enough to work with for this story.

If you’re just here to see a ‘hero shot’, scroll to the very bottom to see the Blacktail I took last weekend here in California. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy our Colorado story.

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Loading packs for the hike in, the day before the opener.

After 17 straight hours of driving from Northern California, we reached the trailhead. Our pack in would begin at an elevation of around 9,500 ft, and end at around 12,500 ft where we planned to camp. The fact the we live at sea level and had no time to acclimate to the elevation made for a slow approach that first afternoon. Months earlier we had climbed Mount Whitney as a training exercise where all three of us felt the effects of altitude sickness- and the first couple days of this hunt weren’t much better.

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This would end up being our camp location for all 9 nights.

Since we weren’t able to scout prior to the hunt and it was our first time hunting Colorado on the archery season, the first day was spent covering ground and glassing to gather a pattern on which elevation, vegetation, and terrain the deer seemed to prefer. By the middle of the second day, we had it pretty well figured out. From that point on, locating bucks was not an issue.

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At almost any given time, we could go and glass up at least one of three groups of bucks that we hunted throughout the trip. Not that this should come as a surprise, but the hard part was closing the distance to get a quality archery shot. In watching video of others hunt the same region and terrain, the most successful stalks seemed to take place on the steep slopes with small patches of thick alpine willow. These setups allowed the hunters to rely on a consistent rising thermal and stalk in on bedded bucks quietly from above.

We only had one opportunity like this, which ended abruptly when a rock chuck picked me off and whistled relentlessly as I sneaked past his perch with just 30 more yards to go before getting into good range on three bucks below. Without a doubt, mature bucks have a commensalistic relationship with rock chucks. That was not the only time that one of us would be given away by the notorious whistling.

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This buck was alerted by a rock chuck as I stalked down the steep slope behind him.

The majority of bucks we worked on day to day were located in tall, thick willow patches on relatively flat ground on ridge points. On all but a couple occasions, they would position themselves at least 75 yards from the edge of the brush where getting in range would require making some serious noise. To complicate things further, they were very keen about bedding near the crest of a rise where wind had a strong tendency to swirl often. This was a common theme among the biggest bucks we hunted. All we could really do was watch them from above each day and hope for either a strong wind to cover noise on a stalk into the thick brush, or for one of them to slip up and bed within bow range from the edge of the willows.

From our best glassing locations, we could watch bucks on two different ridges each day, waiting for one of them to make a mistake.

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Unfortunately, each time on of the bucks made a mistake, so did we. All three of us ended up having at least one shot opportunity… and each arrow released sailed high for a clean miss. IF YOU ARE HUNTING EXTREME ELEVATIONS WITH YOUR BOW FOR THE FIRST TIME, TAKE SOME PRACTICE SHOTS AT CAMP BEFORE HUNTING TO SEE HOW YOUR ARROW IS FLYING. We failed to do this and it was likely the culprit for our high misses from 45-55 yards. Buck fever hasn’t been ruled out either though.

Now it’s not fun nor funny to sit and write about multiple misses on a single hunt. We take our pre-season practice seriously, from bow tuning to grouping broadheads, to shooting under duress, etc. We fully intended and expected to cleanly kill anything we took a shot at on this trip- and it didn’t happen that way. It was absolutely frustrating and demoralizing at certain times, but in my opinion those are feelings that in the end make a hunt memorable.

I shot over this buck, a deep forked 4×3 that was one of the biggest two we saw on the trip:

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Ben shot over this buck, a nice 4×4…

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…and then failed to notice that another buck was still in range and un-alarmed after the shot. This was a fun one to watch from the ridge above. Notice Ben (lower right) and the buck that he didn’t see (upper left) and ultimately walked away from.

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On the last day, my dad got in on this tall, heavy 3-pointer; a confrontation which ended in the buck’s favor.

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Aside from the bucks, the weather, scenery, and time spent together made for a great trip. On the second day before making the ascent from camp to the ridge after glassing from camp, Ben asked “so you guys gonna pack your raingear up there?” The sun was out and the morning was warming up nicely. “Might as well, you never know” I said.

Not more than an hour later we were introduced to our first Colorado high country thunder storm. Seemingly out of nowhere, hail up to the size of peanuts began to hammer down and lightning was cracking directly over head. From that point on there was no more questioning whether or not to pack the raingear- no matter how near or far we would venture from camp.

Each afternoon for the rest of the trip, the sky would close up and unleash its wrath- sometimes for just a couple hours, while other times it would last all night. It was a welcomed change of pace after nothing but weeks of 100+ degree temperatures back home in the Sacramento valley. Ben and I were wearing the Ultra NX raingear, which handled both the precipitation and the willow brush exceptionally well. Pack Rain Covers were also a key piece of gear.

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Water was quite plentiful, which was a treat for us having been used to hiking for water every couple days and carrying multiple days worth on our backs where we usually hunt in other regions. Here, we were literally never more than a 15 minute hike from a quality water source. We were using Platypus Gravityworks filters.

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After 7 days we were pretty much sick of Mountain House, so we started eating more Top Ramen. We had the Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy for the first time which was very good. And if you like the MH Beef Stroganoff, try adding one package worth of cooked Ramen noodles to it.

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Stormy night dinners were spent in here…

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One day we came across a nice patch of wild strawberries while cleaning up in the creek.

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Have to throw in a good skyline shot of a hungry Ben headed back to camp for dinner…

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All in all it was a great trip, one we would do again in a heartbeat. Definitely one of those trips where the success wasn’t determined by whether or not tags were filled. Next week we are off to Nevada for high country Mule Deer redemption, this time with rifles in an area we know well and have had previous success in.

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Lastly, here’s a Blacktail I connected on last weekend on the central coast in California.

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By on the coast, I mean On The Coast.

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I hope everyone reading this is having a great season so far. Be sure to send your best field photos in to album@kuiu.com to have your shot featured on the In The Field page.

Todd Harney

3 thoughts on “Colorado Strikeout and a California Blacktail

  1. Great story Todd. Every hunt comprises of trail and error regardless of your skill level.
    Wouldn’t be the same adventure if we weren’t thrown a few curve balls. A little dirty weather, some missed opportunities and a few good laughs with the boys (or girls). That’s exactly what it’s all about.

    • Thanks Bill, and you are spot on. If we could do it all over again knowing the same outcome was in store, we’d be all over it in a heartbeat.

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