After hunting many years without success DJ decided after watching a hunting show on television to book an outfitter for his next year’s hunt. He contacted his lifelong friend and hunting buddy to join him in his dream of hunting the illusive wapiti in the mountains of Colorado.
The first task at hand was to decide what area that he wanted to hunt. After much research and talking with the Colorado Division of Wildlife about elk herds and populations it was decided that unit 77, 78, and 771 may fit the need. There are aspen meadows and lots of grasses, dark timber canopies and steep slopes with plenty of water. All the right ingredients for that special hunt.
Next was to contact the local USDA Forest Service to get a list of outfitters in the general area that is authorized to provide the needed service. After narrowing the area to be hunted it was decided to check into several outfitters and the cost involved in hiring there service.
Outfitters, who do you, trust? How do you know what you are getting? Will you get value for dollar spent? Do they provide quality equipment and camps? What do their prices cover and are there any hidden prices. These are all good questions that need to be asked before a deposit is sent.
After receiving a few names we moved on to making that initial contact. That first email or phone call.
We contacted three outfitters in the general area that we wished to hunt with. The first outfitter to contact us was Crazy Horse Outfitter. I was greeted with open arms like we had known each other for years.
The phone call was easy, the man we talked to introduced himself as Willie. Willie listened to what I had to say and ask, he then began to explain in a slow and easy tone to understand, stopping every so often to ask me important questions about what type of hunt we wanted. Willie was very generous in his time and explanation of what to expect and what our trip would include.
After a good amount of time discussing hunting and exchanging questions, we ended the conversation with a friendly gesture of good luck and happy hunting. I felt no pressure and actually felt relieved. It was a great conversation, very informative.
As I reflect on the conversation I realized that Willie, an outfitter of many years, a man that had taken on the legacy from his father had answered all my main questions and gave me a feeling of going to visit an old friend.
I had told Willie that I would contact my hunting buddy and we would discuss the hunt. At this point I knew who I wanted to hunt with but I had to talk it over with my buddy.
I contacted several references, they all came back favorable.
However in all fairness I tried to contact the other two outfitters that finally returned my call days later. I felt uncomfortable about that as would they be slow in responding to me as a client if I needed them. So after much ado my partner and I decided on Crazy Horse Outfitter. This took about a week and when phoning Willie back he was glad to receive my call and vote of approval for his operation to provide our much needed service.
My partner and I had no experience booking an outfitter, so we had no idea what to expect next. We knew we would have to send the outfitter money.
We had also heard horror stories of outfitters taking money and then disappearing. But I reassured my partner that not only did we get Crazy Horses name from the local forest service office but they had been in business 20+ years.
In talking to Willie, I was instructed that he would send me a contract via email. All I had to do was print it, fill it out, attach a check and return it to CHO. It was very easy and took just a couple of days as my partner had to read, fill out his medical information and sign. Once CHO received the contract with our deposit we were booked. The contract was fourteen pages long and contained a very comprehensive client profile for our safety and a complete contract of trip agreement.
After reading the contract I knew this operator was for real. It was all there and I knew that he knew what he was doing. I felt at ease knowing that Crazy Horse Outfitter would take care of us.
Once booked I phoned and emailed Willie several times and each time a response was quick. We had decided on a fully guided high altitude camp.
Oh, before I forget! The main issue that arose from talking to Willie about this type of hunt was that we were to get in shape. He was very straight to the point about the only limitations in the hunt would be our physical ability. Willie was honest and made it a priority for my partner and I to walk and exercise. He referred us books and stories of how the big bull got away because the hunter could not go the distance. In all of the articles that he referred us to they (every one) talked about getting in shape.
After reading and hearing about getting in shape it became apparent that we needed to work to be ready for the hunt. Willie explained it as the super bowl of hunting. An athlete must get in shape and prepare mentally for the game. Hunters must do the same, hunting in altitude is strenuous. You are hunting side by side with a guide that lives at altitude and walks up and down mountains at 10,000 feet like walking across the room to close the door. Although they are very understanding when it comes to making the hike or the shot, sometimes it is necessary to put out that extra effort to position one’s self and make it happen. That is not always an easy thing to do coming from sea level.
I can only imagine the disappointment in a guides mind when he has done his job and taken you there, only to find that you could not catch your breath and steady yourself for the shot or keep up during the stalk . Not to mention the disappointment of the hunter after paying the fees and travel expenses. Looking forward to the hunt for months and not make the shot. This will not happen to me.
So it began, I enrolled in the local gym. Since it was winter the gym would have to do. I began working out two days a week and gradually built up to 4 nights a week. Cardio machines, free weights and weight machines. I began to notice the difference in climbing stairs at work. My wife began making comments like, Your Losing Weight? My self esteem began to increase and I felt healthier and stronger. I could not wait till the weather warmed outside so I could get out and walk and hike. I knew I was getting ready for the big game, a weeklong game of endurance and adventure. I felt like I was in high school again, on my way to the state finals. I knew that my guide would not have to wait on me; even though I would not be accustomed to the altitude (lack of air) my muscles would be strong.
Time pasted quickly, my family was amazed at my tenacity,disapline and focus. I read books on elk hunting; I watched elk hunting shows and studied topo maps of the area. I learned the play book; I got in shape and focused my mind on the game at hand. It was all coming together. After seven months I was ready, I had been on the firing range every weekend. I knew my rifle inside and out. I could load it, bolt it, hell I could take it apart and put it back together in the dark.
I was ready and so was my partner, he had matched my extreme conditioning and activities to the tee. We had shared activities two to three times a week. Discussing the soreness and the new feeling of found power in our bodies. We shared thoughts about what we thought it would be like to hunt on the top of the world. We grunted, groaned and made promises like it was New Year’s Eve resolutions to never get this out of shape again.
Time has come, we left for Pagosa Country. It was a sixteen hour drive, seemed like an eternity. However the next thing I knew we were driving into Pagosa Springs Colorado. The air was brisk as it was an October afternoon. The air felt good as we exited the truck to stretch.
The town was bustling with hunters, we commented, I hope they are all not going to the same area as we are. But realizing that the wilderness is a big area it just seemed like a lot of hunters because they were concentrated in town.
We checked into a local hotel that Crazy Horses web site had linked us to. The people were nice and very friendly. As we settled into the motel I gave Willie a phone call to let him know that we had made it in ok. The plan was to meet with him later that evening to discuss the trip and where to meet in the morning. We were excited, after months of planning and anticipation we were finally on the last leg of our long awaited journey. The adventure of a life time. We are here, we are actually doing this. It is truly a dream come true.
We met Willie at a local restaurant, he was a medium height man that was in his 50’s yet looked like he was in his 30’s. He was well spoken and we could tell he was educated and an old hand at the game. He gave us the since of confidence and spoke only in facts and matter of facts. A true honest man of honor.
The time for the morning departure was set; we would meet our outfitter at the staging corral 18 miles northwest of Pagosa in the Piedra Valley at 8am.
As we said good night the excitement really took on a new level of intensity. We arrived back at the motel and wanting the night to be over we jumped into bed in hopes of falling asleep so that the night would pass. Ya, right.. I laid there thinking about all that I had read and seen on TV. I played the television hunts over and over again in my mind, how I thought it might be. I could almost see the elk in my mind, time seemed to stand still. Then it happened, the alarm sounded! Where had the night gone, did I sleep or was it merely a form of conscious dreaming. It did not matter; It was the day of pack in and time was wasting.
Breakfast was a donut and a cup of coffee from the local convenience store. It was eighteen miles to the corral then another ten or so to the trailhead. Once we arrived at the corral we saw people in cowboy hats scurrying around the horses. Saddles being placed on horses and equipment being loaded on the truck. Willie introduced us to the other guide and cook. Things were moving fast. Horses were loaded and the next thing we knew we were following a trailer load of horses to the trailhead.
Nine miles later we arrived at a busy trailhead. There were other hunters there saddling horses and loading out for the backcountry. It was amazing, our outfitter and guide were together they had done this many times. The provisions and our personals were loaded on pack stock in a short amount of time. Our things were covered and secured with ropes on the pack horses. Stirrups were set and instructions were given, before you knew it we were on the trail. I watched as we rode out, the other hunters were still loading and trying to get on the trail. Their horses were fidgeting as they were new to the country and what they were expected to do.
Our packs were well shaped and neat; they looked like well wrapped Christmas gifts going down the trail. Our string of horses was 9 deep.It was evident that our outfitter was a professional. We left the others behind and a small grin creped across my face, I was proud; I was in a dream, a real life adventure just like the ones we read about in a magazine or book. I was with people that do this as a way of life and it showed. I am sure in the back of those people’s minds at the trailhead, they were green with envy and if not they should have been.
The day progressed; we rounded corners on the trail to reveal new and exciting country. The meadows and streams were out of a magazine. I pinched myself several times to make sure I was awake and not dreaming. It was incredible. The horses were relaxed and working like a well oiled machine. It was a site to behold.
After four and half hours in the saddle we finally arrived at our accommodations for the next five days of hunting. As we rode into camp it felt awesome, what an entrance we made. The wall tents and the views that accompanied the camp were tremendous. We dismounted and the work began, for the guides and cook that is. We were instructed to settle in and unpack our things. Walk around and relax while the cook prepared the evening meal. The horses were tended and turned out to graze in the nearby meadow. Have you ever seen horses free grazing at 10,600’ in a meadow of knee high grass? The back drop was of a range of mountains topping out at 13,000’, my camera could not hold that many pictures. The memory card is not that big. Glad I brought an extra memory card; I took picture all the way in. It seemed like around every corner was another Kodak moment.
Dinner came and my partner and I were amazed at the cuisine. The first night was a simple salad, spaghetti and bread as there was not time for a large scratch meal to be prepared after arrival. However, I hope my wife does not read this as the spaghetti was the best I have ever had. It was made with fresh vegetables. The garlic toast was browned on the open skillet.
Out of this world, cookies for desert and we were set. While eating Willie explained how we were to get up at 4:30am, we would eat breakfast and then we would have to make a good hike to where he knew there were bulls. He had heard them a few days before we arrived in what he calls a honey hole. Could it be this easy, just follow your guide out there and boom it’s over. No way, yet the excitement was more than this low Lander could stand. Another sleepless night, in the quite you could hear a bull bugle in the distance. I do not know if I slept but before I knew it the tent flap opened and the cook said, breakfast will be ready in twenty minutes.
In the cook tent was the smell of bacon cooking and the activities of guides getting ready for the game. Water bladders being filled, lunches loaded into day packs. Scent applied to clothing. Headlamps were on their heads and The transformation from cowboy to guide was complete. These guys are pros, high tech equipment, state of the art clothing and boots. Expensive range finders, binoculars, knives, bugle tubes and calls of different makes and styles. They are serious and know there game. The conversation was around, Willie will take me and Charles will take my partner. Once we get one down then we will focus on filling the next tag. These guys talk about it like it’s just an everyday happening. Confidence is high.
Willie informs me that we have an hour walk in the dark, layer your clothing so as to not sweat. We leave in 30 minutes. As I finished my breakfast of eggs, bacon and homemade biscuits I wondered if I had eaten too much. I had taken notice that Willie had folded a piece of bacon in a biscuit and he was ready to rock.
Well all good easy things come to an end. We left the light of the tents and ventured into the vast darkness by headlamps. It was a clear night and the stars at that elevation are so close that you can almost pick them out of the sky. It was beautiful, the meadows were bright and you could see by star light. But in the timber the shadows and darkness closes in around you. Sounds of movement and noise of water flowing. After about thirty minutes we stopped to cool our selves. Willie whispers to me, from here we climb. I have managed to stay up and thought it was going to be a piece of cake. Then it happened, we started climbing.
The incline began to increase; I could feel it in my lungs and legs. Willie would stop every twenty steps or so, he leaned over and said; There is no training for lack of oxygen but your recovery time is what matters. He was right, if we stopped I recover my breath quickly and we were ready to go again. This is where my working out paid off. I was keeping up and it was grand. The terrain flattened to some degree and we stopped for a few to cool down again. The eastern sky was starting to lighten up, day break was coming. Willie said we are almost there; I don’t want to walk in there in the dark with lights. We could run them out, so we wait a few and let it get a little more light. It was a good thing as I was breathing hard and sweating like a race horse, yet Willie was calm and cool. Go figure.
Long shadows began to appear and the forest seems to illuminate with a dull light as it began to break day. The eastern sky was brightening up, birds began to chirp. The forest began to awaken and noises of movement were evident, A chipmunk darted to the knot on a log and stopped..He sat up right and was looking at us as if to say Busted. He darted off as fast as he had arrived.
Then it happened, a bull bugled in front of us, it was loud. I had heard that sound many times on television and even in the distance but this was close. Willie turned and looked at me, whispered 100 yards max. We have the wind on them and the forest is quiet. Place your feet like you are walking on egg shells, go slow. We inched our way forward, and then the bull bugled again. This time he made a growling noise at the end of it. Then the chirping sound was heard. Willie leaned over and stated, he’s got cows with him. We will have to be very cool going in. More eyes and ears to bust us. Then the bull let go again, but this time he sounded further away. I grabbed Willies coat tail, when he stopped I whispered is he leaving. Willie said no he most likely had turned his head down and away from us giving the impression that he had moved further away.
As we closed the gap the elk noises became all that one could hear. The woods were full of elk in front of use. Then Willie froze in his track, his arm reached back for me and stopped me in my tracks. I heard him very softly don’t move. There in front of us at about 30 yards was an elk butt. The animals head was behind a tree. I couldn’t breathe, was it a bull, did it know we were there. Then as quickly as I had seen it disappeared behind a tree. How in the world does a 600 pound animal the size of a horse disappear? I heard Willie say, it’s a cow. The bull is straight ahead at about 50 yards in the timber. He knelt down slowly and with a hand gesture brought me along side of him. He already had his shooting sticks placed and was waiting for my gun to brace it.
Before we could get set the bull moved away behind a cow and disappeared. Willie whispered no worries, he is still there. Just out of site, then the bull let one go again. A bugle of all bugles. The hair on my neck stood up it was loud and intense. Willie motioned slowly for me to follow, we moved to a fallen log and he put me in shooting position. I was ready, all my dreams, all my planning had led to this moment. My breathing was shallow and my hands trembled. Willie was calm and cool. He had a call in his mouth and one in his hand. He took a deep breath and let go with a mew, mew, mew sound.
The forest exploded the bull in front of us let out a chuckle and a roar so loud that I stopped breathing all together. Then just behind us and downhill about forty yards another bull bugled, then the one in front again, then a third up on the slope above us. They were all around us.
Again Willie cow called and again the bulls went off, then they began to feed off each other’s madness. Willie turned and smiled, and then I saw a bull coming through the timber. Willie put his binoculars on him and said he is a small 4×4, wait we are in no hurry. Good thing, when I put the cross hairs on him I had not changed the setting on my scope and all I could see was hair. In a flash the bull moved behind some down timber. The bulls were still bugling then we heard the big bull, it sounded like he was grunting and growling, Willie raised his bugle tube and let out a truly loud and enthusiastic bugle with several cow calls following. The timber broke and there at forty five yards was a 6×6 bull with his head back in full bugle. The bull turned and hid his head and shoulder behind a tree. Willie whispered get ready, mew, mew said Willie. The bull stepped out and I heard my guide say, KILL HIM. I had taken a deep breath and placed the cross hair just behind the bulls shoulder. I squeezed the trigger and the gun that I had been carrying and complaining about the weight sprung to life. It roared, the recoil forced me to lose site of the bull.
In a split second the roar of the rifle had stopped my heart. I could not see the bull he was gone. Willie turned and smiled at me, in that second I thought I missed and Willie was laughing at me. Willie said let’s set here for a few he’s laying just behind that log. He pointed at the log. I could not believe the words I had just heard. My heart was in my throat, my heart was racing and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Then I saw over the log a horn moved and seemed to spin in the air, I gasped. My guide said no worries he’s down and is not going anywhere. We waited what seemed like forever yet I know it was only minutes. Then Willie stood up and motion for me to follow him.
As we closed the distance I realized how this all seem like a dream. It was in slow motion yet happening so fast. It was bigger than life and the feeling that I have never felt before. It seemed as though everything stopped, even time its self. We approached the log and then there laid the bull, the horns were magnificent, dark black and counted a strong 6×6. A mature bull elk in his prime, he was awesome and huge. I never imagined how big they were until now. It was like walking up to a big horse with horns.
I began to shake, all the adrenaline came full circle. Again it was like being in a dream. Willie extended his hand and congratulated me on a job well done. I looked at him with respect and a true realization that this man had brought my dream to fruition. In a matter of a few hours had fulfilled a year’s worth of planning, effort and focus. These guys make dreams come true; they spend their days guiding folks like me into the rugged wilderness. There it is, laying there in front of me. The hunt flashed before me and I knew that there is no price to much to pay for the feeling that I had achieved with the help of a guide.
How long would I have hunted before I would have had the opportunity to harvest an elk of this stature? A wall hanger in most people’s book, although it did not score high in Boone and Crocket it was never the less my trophy. It would hang on my wall as a remembrance of this hunt and the year of preparation that went into it.
What can be said about an outfitter or guide, if they know what they are doing and are quality people the dollar for value is definitely in the hunters favor. They are masters of their world and achieve greatness through making people happy, sharing what they do best and make it seem so easy.
Today, my bull hangs on the wall and I still return to hunt with Willie, although I have yet to kill a bigger elk I always have opportunity and a great hunt. We have become good friends and enjoy each other’s company every year for a week. We share phone calls throughout the year as I prepare for another adventure. It gives me incentive to be the best I can be to enjoy what I enjoy most. The time that I spend in the mountains knowing that someone looks out for me and shows me the best of the wilderness in a short amount of time that I have, Each Year.
Steven “DJ” Lipe
If you would like to hunt with Willie at Crazy Horse Outfitters check out his listing here at HuntingLife.com