As a relative newbie to big game hunting, I always jump at the chance to try a new type of hunt or check out a new area. After about 5 years of chasing elk and deer, I’m always anxious to hunt with new people and learn more. A few months back a BD member, Peter Reardon contacted me and invited us out to check out the Rocking R Ranch that his son Dan had purchased in SW Colorado. The ranch is located between Cortez and Montrose Colorado at the base of Lone Cone Mountain. All together the lodge has over 5000-acres of prime deer, elk and turkey ground.
After a little back and forth, Jason Hayashi and myself went online and bought over the counter elk tags and also entered the draw for a buck tag in the same area. As luck would have it, Jason and I were both fortunate enough to draw buck tags to go with our elk. We quickly recruited a couple more BD friends, Yale Combs and Todd Brown, for this new adventure.
After a few short months we were on our way. Todd and I were still licking our wounds from a very tough archery bull elk hunt in Montana just four weeks earlier where we came home empty handed. Unfortunately the warm and mild conditions that brought SoCal such an awesome fishing season were causing headaches for elk hunters in the West. The mild conditions didn’t give the elk any reason to leave the high ground and deep valleys that they like to hide in when pressured.
We would be rifle hunting with the Rocking R team right on the heels of an epic archery season they had enjoyed recently. Their archery hunters had multiple plays on animals each day with nearly a 100% success rate.
We arrived at the ranch one evening in late October after a long but easy 13-hour drive from San Diego. We were immediately met with smiling faces, giant New York steaks and cold cocktails. After getting the rundown from the guides we hit the rack, tired but excited.
We would be hunting the third rifle season for the area. The Rocking R properties had been left untouched for almost two weeks to allow the animals to settle back in after the earlier seasons.
The next morning Todd and I would split up and hunt with guides Joel and Neal on one of the several leased properties Rocking R has. As we quietly snuck into position, we immediately spotted elk working a remote tree line. A few minutes later, the bulls began to bugle and from several directions! We put together a plan to stalk the first group of animals nearby but they slowly slid into the thick trees and we made the decision to back out and not pressure them without a clear shot.
As we were beginning to pull out, we heard a huge ruckus that turned out to be turkeys and a ton of them. A couple minutes later a parade of 60-plus turkeys trotted across the same prairie we had spotted the elk on. It was really cool to see that many birds flocked up like that.
After that play, Joel wanted to investigate some of the other bugles we had heard. We changed position and began glassing. We immediately found another herd of about twenty head, including a couple really nice bulls. We quickly split up and tried to put the sneak on the animals from a couple directions, but as they often do, they vanished into thin air. Again we decided to slide out and not pressure the animals.
Later that day the guides would get permission to hunt the adjacent property where we presumed the animals went. We spent our afternoon looking and looking but to no avail.
On the second and third days of the hunt the wind blew a sustained 20-knots with gusts doubling that. These two days were filled with lots of long sits and hikes with almost zero animals spotted. The wind had the animals bedded down in the thick cover and they practically vanished.
Day four brought snow and calm conditions. This weather shift had the animals out and about after two days of being holed up. Right off the bat we spotted a cow elk while getting geared up at the truck. A few minutes later we had some does walk right past us. We spent the morning chasing deer and elk in the heavier cover by following the fresh tracks in the snow. We had several close calls with both a nice buck and some elk but just couldn’t connect. As we were returning to the lodge we saw deer EVERYWHERE.
It was like the woods had suddenly come to life.
We spotted a couple of nice bucks from the road and I jumped out and gave chase. As I tried to stalk the first buck, I kept getting busted by bigger and bigger bucks with does in tow. Two of these bucks were monsters. One 6×6 was 36”+ wide and would have scored over 200”. Fortunately I had the wind in my favor and continued to sneak my way through the brush. I finally was able to get within 150-yards of this big monster. I raised my gun and put it on my shooting stick. As I prepared to shoot the big buck slid to my left just behind some scrub. I had this monster in my scope and I couldn’t get a clean shot! I lamented on whether to take a shot and hope for the best or just try and wait him out. Eventually the big buck and his two buddies trotted off into the sunset. The thought of watching that buck walk off still makes me sick to my stomach.
Later that afternoon, we dropped Todd off in one of the elk blinds on the same property and Jason, Joel and I went deer hunting. Within a few minutes we spotted a group of deer. Jason and I closed the distance and spotted a really nice buck. We quickly used the cover to sneak within 150-yards of the deer. As we got into position the buck walked off into a bush. I left Jason to go to the other side of our cover to have a look. As I look back at Jason, he’s all lit up and getting into position for a shot. BOOM! Buck down!
I rushed back to Jason to take a look and I see another bigger buck step out of the brush. I quickly drop and put the crosshairs on him. This was a very big 5×5 and I began to squeeze the trigger.
Suddenly the deer turned and I stopped my finger just in time.
Now I was looking at the butt of this awesome deer and I was posed with the same question, take a “Texas heart shot” or let him walk. I had seen the two biggest bucks of my life (easily!) and I had to let both of them walk.
Jason and I walked up to his animal and we were stoked to find a really nice 3×3 buck. This was his first big game animal I couldn’t have been more stoked for him. After snapping a few hundred pics, Joel quickly gutted and loaded up the beast and we were on our way to get Todd.
It was getting dark fast but as we rounded a turn I noticed a big animal off in the distance. We all jumped out of the truck and gave chase. At about 300-yards we can tell it’s a nice bull. We closed in another 100-yards and I got in position for a shot. In the low light it was kind of hard to find the vitals but he turned just right and I let it fly. I could see the impact right where I wanted it. As the animal staggered around, I sent another round down range to seal the deal.
It turns out one of the other hunters had tried to kill the same bull earlier in the day they were unable to get a shot. Joel knew this animal was in the area and led us right to him. After four days of tough hunting conditions, it felt great to have an animal in the cooler.
On day four the plan was for Jason and Todd to hunt elk and Joel and I would look for those two bucks. After a couple of hours of searching we hadn’t seen anything but does. Finally we caught a glimpse of a nice buck, but not a giant like the other two. We attempted to put a stalk on him but he shot off as we approached. We were sure he had left the property when he took off. As we continued on our way, there he was standing on the hillside looking for whatever spooked him. He could see us but wasn’t sure what we were.
I quickly got ready to shoot while Joel glassed the buck.
This was a nice deer, but after the two giants we were after he just didn’t seem huge. I sat there staring at this animal from 220-yards beating myself up as to whether or not to shoot him. Then he turned his head and I could see his mass. BOOM! The well-placed 180-grain bullet dropped the animal in his tracks.
This was my third buck ever and easily my personal best. As we walked up on the animal the size of his body was just amazing. This deer was ready for the rut with a huge swollen neck and a giant body. He was just a perfect specimen of a big Rocky Mountain Muley with a nice light coat and powder-white face.
After a quick photo shoot, we went to pick the boys up. They had radioed earlier asking if we heard the shot and Joel replied with a quick “miss” and a smirk. As Todd went to load his gear in the back of the suburban he let out a loud “You sons of bitches! Whoo!”. He was just as stoked as we were to see that big buck. We went to grab Jason and replayed the gag all over again. We all had a good laugh and headed back to the lodge.
On day five, the animals appeared to go back to hiding. The entire group hunted hard and despite their efforts no more animals were seen or killed.
Despite the unusually warm and tough conditions, we all had a great time and are already planning on coming back in 2015. Dan and his crew truly run a top-notch operation. The team of guides he has assembled are all young, energetic and aggressive. We never even saw a hint of ego from the crew and their attitudes were always great. We saw these guys climb mountains to scout and push for us that would have killed an average man and they did it with smile. It’s easy to tell that they all love to hunt as much as we do.
The lodge side of the operation was equally awesome. The lodge was big, clean and featured double rooms with one bigger bunkroom. Each room had its own bathroom and plenty space to spread out all of your gear. Peter and Derek made three great meals each day and there were always plenty of snacks, beers and cocktails available for self-service.
Over the years it’s become easy to spot the charter or hunting operations that “get it”. These guys definitely fall into that category. They really do care about your experience at the Rocking R Ranch and bend over backward to make sure you have an awesome time. They worked hard from before sun up to well into the night to make sure every detail was handled.