I live on the coast of South Carolina. As I am writing this, the elevation on my Garmin watch reads 11 ft. above sea level. Hard to imagine that in just a couple of months, I will be chasing bulls in the Colorado Rockies.
I am a late-in-life bowhunter. I grew up with a Dad who loved to hunt quail and ducks so my early years were filled with feathers. I was introduced to bowhunting by my brother-in-law who turned me on to whitetails in my 30’s. It wasn’t until my 40th birthday that I got my first taste of bowhunting elk. I am fortunate to have a very good friend who owns a ranch in Wyoming and he invited me to come along in September 2003. Luckily I was able to draw a tag that year and I spent the entire summer practicing at longer distances and shooting after running sprints in my driveaway. We arrived on September 8 in the late afternoon, did a little scouting and then got ready for an early morning the next day.
The story about that first day of elk hunting deserves more details and explanation. But, suffice it to say that everything came together perfectly, and I can still remember watching the flight of my arrow closing the gap toward that first bull. He only went about 50 yards and piled up on top of a flat rock. We did not even have to bend over to field dress him. His net score was 301 3/8, but the score was not important, it was the thrill of the entire experience that made such a lasting impression on me. I was hooked.
There was a long gap between that first bull and my next opportunity. I didn’t appreciate how incredibly lucky I was to draw a tag that year in Wyoming. The realization came into focus as I continued to enter the draw in several western states year after year with no success. Between not getting drawn for a tag, raising three kids who all played sports and trying to run a business, the chance to get back after big bulls waited a long 15 years.
In 2019, I decided to bite the bullet and do a private lands hunt in New Mexico with Freedom Outfitters. I took my middle son as a graduation present from college along with one of my best friends. What a great hunt. We all three scored on big bulls, with my friend George scoring the largest bull at 345”. The next year, we stayed with Freedom Outfitters but moved to a different ranch located in Ute Park, New Mexico. We had been spoiled by the hunt in Roy, which has an elevation of about 6,000’. Ute Park was a little different. In the Ute Park valley, the elevation is about 7,400’, but that’s the base. Our best opportunities were at about 9,000’ which is a big jump from my sealevel house in South Carolina.
In 2020, I was lucky enough to take my best bull that grossed 351”. The following year, my friend George scored on another great bull that scored almost exactly the same. For me the coolest part of that hunt was that I was right behind George ranging the bull as he closed the gap. George let it go at exactly 41 yards and we both watched as the big bull collapsed in the wide open in front of us.
We had two great years in Ute Park, but the ranch was a little small for two hunters and we wanted to experience some new country. So this year, we are headed to a new ranch in Colorado near La Veta. Our hunt will start September 24th and last for six days. Over the years, my setup and gear have definitely changed as I learn more about what I need and don’t need on these once-a-year hunts. Keep in mind that these are not public lands hunts. We usually stay at a house located on or near the ranch, so we stay light and agile. So here’s my gear list:
- Bow - As our shots seem to get a little longer each year, I have been looking for a new bow that I felt comfortable with out to 80 yards. So, I recently purchased a Bowtech Revolt X80. I’m pulling 80 pounds with a 31” draw length. I shoot a very stiff 260 grain Easton carbon arrow (that they have stopped making - lucky I have about 2 dozen left) with a 100 grain Grim Reaper Razortip mechanical broadhead. I know that a lot of people love Rage, but I have never been as accurate with them as I am with the Grim Reapers and I will always default to shot placement first. I also shoot a fixed pin site. I have lots of friends have adjustable sites but I have heard a few horror stories about guys not moving the site prior to the shot, so I am sticking with the fixed pins. I have an adjustable on my backup bow that I am trying to get used to. I also have a few friends using the new Garmin sight. They seem to be great, but to me it takes a little bit of the human element out of it. I think of bows like golf clubs. If you like your setup and shoot well with it, that’s all that matters. This new Revolt has been great so far and I am excited to get a chance with it.
- Bow Sling - Going all the way back to when I was 40 (2003), I have used a Primos bow sling that they no longer make and it has worked very well. The only negative is that when things happen really fast, it does take a few seconds to take off and you have to remove it completely from your bow. Several times I have dropped it to the ground and had to go back and pick it up. This year, my bow guy sold me on a My Sling-A-Ling. It is made from paracord and has a magnetic sleeve that attaches to a magnetic sling magnet located on my riser. You never have to remove it from your bow, just slide the sling over to the side using the magnet and the sleeve and it stays neatly out of the way.
- Boots - A great pair of boots are essential. For the last 4 years, I have worn a pair of Danner Vital 6.5” boots. These boots have been great. But last year, we clocked over 10 miles a day and my feet definitely felt it. This year, I am trying the new Kuiu Scarpa R-Evolution K boots. I wanted something with a little more support and a more aggressive sole. I have started breaking them in, so we will see how they perform this year.
- Day Pack - There is a little-known company out there called Insights Outdoors. They make a very cool one-of-a-kind compound bow pack, but that would be overkill for the type of hunting we are doing. Luckily, they make a super-light day pack called the Drifter. It weighs less than 2 pounds and has enough room for extra clothes, back up release, hydro flask or water bottles, my bugle, diaphragms and anything else I need to carry. It has a breathable padded back panel and a MOLLE type attachment system. I really like this pack. I was using the Badlands Scout day pack. But, it is very small and I had a hard time getting all of my stuff in so I made the switch.
- Binoculars and Rangefinders - Obviously, having a great pair of binoculars is essential to elk hunting. I use a fairly old pair of Zeiss Victory 8x45 binos with built-in laser range finders. Zeiss makes great glass and these binos have been with me on whitetail hunts in Texas and all the way to New Zealand to hunt Red Stags and Tahr. They are slightly heavy and a tad bulky. I rarely use the range finders though, mainly because they are so heavy that you can’t throw them up and down easily if you need to re-range something in an instant. For that I have a Bushnell Broadhead laser range finder with built-in arc technology to give me true ranges when shooting up or downhill. This is really important. On the same hunt in Wyoming where I killed my first bull, I watched my friend take a shot from an elevated position on a great bull and he did not compensate for the downhill shot and barely nicked the bull right above his shoulders. It was gut wrenching. I swore then that I would always carry this type of range finder. Up until this year, I have been using a Badlands Bino XR case. It has a built-in rangefinder holder on the bottom. But, my binos barely fit and I don’t like the range finder compartment under the glasses. So, this year I am going to try the Kuiu Pro Bino Harness with an attached rangefinder holder. I am left-handed so now the rangefinders can sit on the left side of the bino case and be easy to get to without looking down.
- Navigation - When you are hunting unfamiliar territory, there is nothing better than having the OnX Hunt app on your phone. Shooting an elk on someone else’s property or on public lands without the proper tag will get you in big-time trouble. The OnX Hunt App will keep you straight and out of the dog house. It is a must for the western hunter. I also wear a Garmin tactix Delta GPS watch when I am hunting. It has a night vision mode for low light conditions, an altimeter and logs my heart rate, respiration and calorie burn. It has dual-format GPS coordinates and built-in topographic maps as well.
- Calls - I try to keep things fairly simple when it comes to calling. Since I don’t live out west and I only get a few days each year to hunt, I am not that experienced of a caller. The call that has closed the deal for me more than any other is the Primos Cow Girl. I can keep it between my teeth when the bull is closing the distance and call without using my hands. It’s easy to blow. The only problem is when you drop it out of your mouth, that’s it. If you have a bull staring a hole through you, there is no way to get it back into your mouth. So, I have moved more toward my Rocky Mountain Calls Mellow Yellow Momma. For bugling, I use a Rocky Mountain Calls Bully Bull Extreme Grunt Tube and several different versions of their diaphragms.
- Wind Detector - Maybe the cheapest but most important piece of gear you just have to have. The way the wind swirls and moves in the mountains is just different and unpredictable. Last year, on our first morning hunting, we had a nice bull work to within about 40 yards of us. I was at full draw and just needed the bull to take one more step to clear some brush obscuring his vitals. Just then, I felt a slight tickle on the back of my neck as the wind shifted. The bull immediately turned and hauled ass and it was over just as quick as it had begun. I carry the Dead Down Wind Hunting Wind Detector. They cost $4 each and I keep them in good stock.
- Clothing - I am not really tied to any one brand when it comes to hunting clothing. The main thing is that they have to be quiet and comfortable and wick moisture. Kuiu and Sitka both make good stuff. I also like other brands like Heybo. For base layers, I do like the Kuiu Peloton Zip Off bottoms. I am not much of a wool guy, so I like the way these feel against my skin but I really like being able to get them off when it gets hot without having to take off my boots and my pants. For Base layer tops, I like Kuiu’s Peloton 97 Fleece Zip-T Hoodie. I also like Sitka’s Core Lightweight Hoodie with built-in face mask. For a second layer with a little added warmth but not too much bulk, I really like Heybo’s Wanderer Hoodie. For pants, I like Kuiu’s Attack pant or Sitka’s Traverse pant. Both are very good and quiet. For jackets, I have an older version of the Kuiu Super Down jacket. It’s super quiet and warm, but not too warm when you are on the move.
- Knives - I carry several knives with me. Some I carry into the field and some I leave at camp. For field work, I like to carry the Williams Whitetail Skinner. It’s plenty of knife to field dress a big bull. It is made with M390 steel and it holds its edge way longer than other knives. I also carry the Williams Paracord knife and usually attach it to my pack using the Kydex sheath. I can get to it easily and it’s ultra-light. I also carry a Work Sharp Guided Field Sharpener with diamond plates and angle guides. It’s small and light. For caping I like the Williams Glide 6.5 folder. The small blade is perfect for detail work.
- Headlamp and Flashlight - Since I am prone to lose or misplace my headlamps, I stopped buying the super expensive brands and settled in on a GearLight LED headlamp. It pivots, has seven modes and also a red light feature. I rarely use it so it usually just stays in my pack. For a flashlight, I stick with GearLight’s compact TAC LED super bright flashlight. It’s small, durable and easy to pack.
So that’s my list. But like I said, I think hunting is a lot like golf. Different gear fits different people just like golf clubs and you need to feel good about yours. Did I forget something? Most likely. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments below and good luck out there this year.
- Scott Brandon