Sometimes hunting is about the kill. Sometimes it is just as much about the people, the places and the effort.
That was the case for Tyler’s Alan Martin whose latest hunt may be his most memorable. Martin has hunted elk maybe 30 of the last 35 years on public land in Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest. In that time he has killed a total of just four elk, two with a compound bow and two with a recurve.
This year’s journey actually started on a hunt in 1980 near Rifle when Martin met Colorado hunters Al and Ray Kettle.
“Shortly after meeting them Ray guided me to a creek on the edge of an alfalfa field where I shot a mule deer buck at 50 yards. Ray was only 16, but was really into hunting. Al, his dad, was a true mountain man. All he carried was a bow, one arrow, a handmade knife he made and a can of sardines,” the hunter noted.
That chance meeting turned into an invitation to stay and hunt elk. It was a life-changing moment.
“We only got to hunt a few days, but that was all it took to hook me. I continued to hunt with them for elk for the next five years or so. I lost touch with them over the years when they moved out of Colorado,” Martin said.
Martin continued to hunt, first packing in on foot and later on horseback.
With his normal partners backing out this year, Martin initially decided not to hunt, but had a change of heart just weeks before the season. His wife, Paula, who enjoys the time in the mountains, agreed to go with him.
“I knew it would be difficult because I needed to shoot my 47-pound Bob Lee recurve, get the horses certified and conditioned along with gathering up all the camping equipment for a 10-day camp,” Martin said.
He also needed to contact Ray Kettle, whom he had reconnected with several years earlier, to see if they knew of any good areas. Kettle said he and his dad would be in their old stomping grounds on opening day.
Headed for an area he hadn’t been in 15 years, Martin was confronted with change including a fence blocking a logging road leading to their camp. That forced a roundabout trail to camp and a change in hunting tactics. Eventually they arrived where they needed to be and Martin immediately started scouting.
He hunted four days alone. On the fourth day he finally found fresh sign of elk. However, Ray Kettle, who had been hunting with a friend who tagged out and left, contacted Martin about teaming up. Martin decided to spend his last day in the mountains with Kettle.
They got a late start on a trail that started easy through the foot hills, but became more difficult as they went higher. It took an hour to climb a steep half-mile trail and another hour to the ridgeline where the elk lingered in the cool mountain air in early season.
They immediately saw sign. Kettle made several cow calls while Martin used a locator bull call. It brought in two spikes that were legally off limits.
Another 300 yards in and a bull responded to Martin’s call.
“It sounded about 600 yards away so we moved about 100 yards toward him. I gave him another bugle and he answered. We kept up this process a couple more sequences until we were around 200 yards apart. About that time Ray spotted two cows and a bull about 60 yards away,” Martin said.
Kettle drew his compound bow and took what Martin considered a long shot at one of the cows. He made the shot and the cow went down in the trees.
All the time Martin’s bull was still bugling in the distance, and the hunter bugled back. While Kettle stayed with his cow, Martin attempted to close the distance. The bull continued to show interest, but was hung up tending cows.
As the hunter inched closer, another bull crossed within 100 yards, but disappeared in the brush. In an effort to draw his bull out Martin was about to start thrashing a young spruce to imitate another bull in the area when he spotted the his bull coming toward him.
“I laid the stick down, got down on my knees and checked the possible shooting lanes ahead of the elk. I had a good lane picked as the elk proceeded in a slow walk. I estimated this would be about a 30-yard shot,” Martin said.
Shooting without sights, Martin waited on his opportunity.
“As he got almost to the lane I drew my bow. Within another split second I had picked the spot and released the arrow. The bow was quiet and the bull wasn’t aware of the arrow headed his way,” Martin said.
He connected, but farther back than he had hoped. He again bugled to calm the bull now walking into the timber.
“Within minutes I heard him crash. I knew it was now just a matter of tracking him down,” he said.
Instead of waiting his customary 30 minutes Martin immediately followed the blood trail to the 5X5 bull that had gone down less than 100 yards away.
“As I approached the bull, I couldn’t help to see how big this animal was. I had never tackled anything this big by myself,” Martin said.
It was a chore he wasn’t completely prepared for either after having left the bulk of his cleaning tools in camp to lighten his pack. It took hours to prepare the meat and then begin the walk down the mountain for his horses to pack it out.
“I finally ran into Ray at the top of the ridge about half way back to camp. He confirmed that he had gotten the cow. I told him my story and we celebrated our success. I had been on many bowhunts, and the odds of what we had done were near impossible,” Martin said.
It was a short-lived celebration as recovering the meat from two downed elk took well into the next day.