I have hunted elk most of my life. My father bought seven sections of ground near Del Norte, Colo., in the early 1950s and hired a fellow named Eph Schaffer to manage it as a cattle ranch. Nobody had ever taken Angus cattle to that country. Everyone assumed that the winter would be too much for that breed. They were wrong.
The cattle did very well, and when I was 14, their son Jim who was 10 years old, and I started a life-long partnership in search of food for the table. We started with 22 rifles and 410 shotguns. We put rabbits, pheasants and such on our plates, and dreamed of hunting deer and elk. We eventually grew enough to shoot a 3006 and a 270 and started hunting with precision. When Jim was 19 and I was 23 he called and said that he had just acquired an outfitter’s license and was the youngest outfitter in Colorado. When I was 64 and he was 60, he called me up to report that he had just renewed his license, and he was the oldest outfitter in the state. I don’t have enough paper and ink to tell you the stories of those years. He died a few years ago and is buried on the ranch looking at the mountains we hunted so hard. It ended a portion of my life that I cherish forever. One of the honors of my life happened when he named his daughter Danette. She is awesome.
The elk I want to tell you about came to my attention during a muzzleloader hunt in the early 1980s. Jim and I didn’t get to hunt together very much after he started outfitting and I was a little bit busy in my life. We decided that we would try to do a muzzleloading trip by ourselves as often as possible, and we did several of those hunts. Jim was a master horse person. His animals would take you places nobody should go in those mountains. We were young, strong, and focused and we knew that country and the elk pathways very well. I had built a replica of an 1830 Jedidiah Smith 58 caliber octagon barrel smoke pole, and his was 54 caliber. We were well-equipped.
Muzzleloader season is just before rifle season during the rut. If you have never heard bull elk screaming their heads off, you have missed one of the most basic sounds on this earth. That sound has driven more animals and hunters crazy than any other sound I have ever heard. I still choke up thinking about it after all these years.
We were in a fairly deep canyon following a creek when I heard a bull scream about 200 yards or so up the hill. We had good wind, and the forest was thick, so we had time to think and plot. I was wearing an old army surplus jacket that I had worn turkey hunting in the spring. For some unknown reason, I reached into the jacket pocket and found a diaphragm turkey call. It had never occurred to us that we might be able to call an elk, and I remember the exact moment that Jim and I looked at each other and had the same idea. I tried to squeal the call, and it sounded like a sick predator call. Then the most amazing thing happened – that bull answered. I bailed off my horse and started slowly up the hill squealing occasionally and he continued to challenge what I assume he thought was another bull interested in his cows. It took about 30 minutes to get to a clearing and set up behind some brush. That bull ran into the clearing, reared up on his back legs, and screamed about 50 yards from me. He then worked over some brush with his horns and came walking down the hill swinging his head side to side. I dropped him at about 30 yards and my concept of elk hunting was forever changed.
Very soon after that event, I began to see bull elk calls and cow calls advertised and for sale at Cabelas which provided all the documentation for the item. They are now a part of almost every elk hunt across the country. I have always thought it was strange that nobody had that idea that I was aware of before that moment in the hills, and then they were everywhere. I think that says something about the collective intelligence of the human race, but I’m not smart enough to define it.
My 40 years of hunting with Jim Schaffer are part of my mind and it comes up with more frequency than I can describe. I have been blessed with far more good hunting and fishing partners than I could ever deserve—I can tell you a similar story about all of them. We are busy now watching and helping their kids achieve goals. It is a constant challenge and gift. I hope all of you have kids and grandkids to enjoy. Count our blessings.
Doctor Dan Witt is a retired physician and a nature enthusiast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.