Bowhunting Black Mesa

By Michael Barrett

First printed in The Australian Archery Journal, Edition No 15 1994© Australian Bowhunters Journal Pty Limited

Greg and I awoke on the fourth morning of our two week hunt for elk in the San Juan Mountains, in Colorado. Both stiff and sore from the hard hunting we had done on several previous days.

It was surprisingly warm in the sma11 two man tent we had set up the night before on the face of Black Mesa. We were camped approximately 3000 metres above sea level. We quickly got our gear together and ate a light breakfast, then started down the face of the mountain.

The going was hard in the dark, we had gone about 200 metres when the first bugle came up from the valley below. EEEUNGH Ugh, ugh, ugh, with a shrill whistle like call and then a chuckle came again. Greg and I listened, trying to pin point the bull's location. We heard another call, from a different bull, then another bull answered. At long last, the elk had started to call!

The sun was just starting to come up, and for once, the wind was perfect. We moved quickly and quietly down the trail, well used by mule deer and elk. The elk kept bugling to each other as we travelled about one kilometre down the path. Finally, we spotted the animals.

Seven elk were feeding and milling around on the edge of some black oaks and aspens. Just inside land owned privately and fenced, a large 6 x 6 bull was alert, but not showing any interest in the cows or the 3 x 3 bull who was chasing them around. The smaller bull was bugling, but the 6 x 6 was keeping quiet. At one stage, the young bull set his desires on a mule deer doe, and chased her around the clearing. She was one of three mule deer feeding with the elk. The other two were bucks and had very large racks. These were the first polished out mule deer racks we had seen. The wind changed. As quickly as it changed, the animals were gone.

Devil's Chair Dan Juan Mts Colorado. Michael starts his hunt. Photo Joanne Cummings.
Deeper into the privately owned land, and out of our reach. Two other bulls continued bugling. To our left was a young animal that sounded like it was I further up the slope. Our decision was easy we started down the mountain, to the other, older sounding bull. A very well used trail followed the fence line down, we moved down slowly. The path was steep, and the fence had signs posted every 100 metres stating "No Hunting, Private Property". Some of the signs were damaged from elk and deer rubbing the velvet off their racks.

From scouting the day before we knew that the fence turned away from the Masseurs edge and the remainder of the valley was huntable State lands Finally the fence kicked back to the left. The bull was still calling, he sounded about 600 metres down the ridge.

Greg suggested we follow the edge of the Mesa around. The way the wind was, it was the only chance we had. We carefully moved closer. We had only moved 150 metres, when Greg spotted an elk under a juniper pine. It was a large bull. Greg motioned for me to move in. Slowly I covered the distance between us. When I was 40 metres away I had a clear shot. However, I couldn't see the bull's rack clearly. By law I had to take an animal with a minimum of four points on either side, or brow tines longer than five inches. I kept still, and waited. Four or five long minutes passed by but it seemed a lot more. Eventually the elk moved. As he stepped into a clearing I was disappointed as he had a very large body, but his rack was small. However, it was still a legal 4 x 4.

The bull turned and moved along the edge of the mesa, travelling 60 metres. We waited for a few minutes, then Greg bugled. The answer came immediately and the bull was obviously close by. We checked the wind, then moved towards the call.

The author with his 4 x 5 bull elk taken at Black Mesa Colorado.
A bull worth punching the air for.

One hundred metres along the edge, a sharp crack to our right and lower down the steep slope. Thinking it was the same bull, we waited and listened.

The amount of noise indicated that there were several animals feeding. I moved over to the edge, to glass the area. Four cows and one calf feeding. They were unaware of our presence. A large cow started to feed towards me, travelling up the slope. At five metres, she turned, and offered a perfect quartering away shot. I tried to signal Greg, to see if he wanted to take the cow. He misunderstood my signals, and backed away.

The elk fed along the edge towards the bugling bull. We followed, keeping them in sight. A bull bugled. It was close, probably less than 100 metres away. Greg nodded, and moved forward. I had travelled 40 metres when I spotted the elk to my left. I looked around and saw two elk 60 metres away, and both were bulls. I could see their racks. I was not at all disappointed, both were quite reasonable.

Half hearted, the bulls started a sparring match and slowly they moved closer to us. Greg signalled to move into a gully that was 20 metres in front of us. Once in the gully, I started to crawl towards the elk. I couldn't see the elk, and it seemed that I had a mild case of buck fever and I was fighting it the best I could. The bulls walked towards me and I was caught in the open, with less than 20 metres between us. I knelt down, and stayed as still as possible, behind a small bush. The elk were still unaware of our presence. Greg cow called and the bulls both looked up straight away, searching for the cow. They were staring directly over the top of me, looking towards Greg.

I was told not to make eye contact, I was keeping as still as I could and looked over my arrow at the elk. The arrow seemed to be dancing on the rest, surely the elk could see it. I concentrated on checking the racks 4 points on the left, four points on the right he was legal. The bull moved behind an aspen tree. I drew my bow, an Oneida Strike Eagle set at 76 pounds. My 2117 arrow was tipped with a Thunderhead 125 and much to the surprise of the Yanks, I don't use sights or a release and I shoot instinctively. I waited for the bull to step out, as he did I released. As quickly as the arrow hit, he was gone. The arrow passed straight through his shoulders.

I started punching the sky, then I turned to look at Greg, we then sat down and waited. After 15 very long minutes, we crawled to the arrow. The penetration looked good, and the shot looked perfect, but there wasn't a lot of blood. We sat back down and waited for a further 40 minutes.

The trail was relatively easy to follow. The bull had only travelled approximately 80 metres. An extra point on one side made my bull a 4 x 5. The arrow had taken out both lungs from a relatively short shot of 15 metres.

Greg congratulated me, then he had to cut out the date marks on my tag and place it on the bull's rack, I was still shaking and couldn't manage it at the time. After lots of photos, we started to pack the meat out. Vehicles are not allowed access to Black Mesa, but other hunters in our camp helped carry the meat, cape and rack out.

Michael with his mule deer doe taken at Ground Hog Resevoir.

I shot the elk at 7.18am, by the time we had finished packing and cleaning the elk, it was 4pm. Many other hunters use mules and horses to make carrying of the meat out a lot quicker.

Over the next few days, I relaxed and we took the meat to a cooler in Cortez whilst I kept some of the best cuts which I cooked straight away. Greg continued to hunt hard. He never got a good opportunity at a bull. He had wanted to take one bigger than the 6 x 6 already on his wall.

For the remainder of our stay in Colorado, I hunted for mule deer bucks, I was unsuccessful but eventually took a doe on the second last day of our hunt. I took the doe from the same valley as the elk.

The area we hunted was a popular spot, we encountered other hunters every day, most had not been successful. The unseasonable warm weather was blamed for the elk not bugling. The hunters who could, were waiting for the weather to turn bad. Snow and sleet seems to get the elk really stirred up and bugling. The weather started to turn bad the weekend we left.

My elk's rack is small, but because it was my first time hunting such a magnificent animal with a bow I was still very happy. I look forward to going back to hunt for a larger elk on Black Mesa. This hunt started in Australia with a roadside stop to help some fellow bow hunters with a flat tyre. That was my introduction to Greg Pleasant, a Texan working in Alice Springs, and a very keen bow hunter. Over the next two years, we shared many a hunt all over the Northern Territory. Greg's photo's of his 6 x 6 elk and some encouragement from him to visit the States, made this trip possible.