"Our mentor for how to hunt’ | VailDaily.com

"Our mentor for how to hunt’

Kathy Heicher
Jack Olesen/Special to the Enterprise

It was a fitting goodbye to a man who loved the outdoors and wildlife and knew the Brush Creek Valley probably better than anybody else. He taught a good many local boys how to hunt big game.

“He was our mentor for how to hunt, where to hunt, and love of the sport. He was our god on that stuff,” says Eagle resident Rich Parker.

Ranch hand

Robertson, 84, who came to the Eagle Valley as a child and spent the rest of his life here, died Feb. 20 at his home in Eagle. He attended school locally, and graduated from Eagle High School. As a young man and an adult, he worked as a ranch hand on numerous ranches in the Brush Creek Valley, gaining a knowledge of the country that served him well in his passion for hunting. Robertson seemed to know every inch of Brush Creek and its drainages. Bruce Creek, Hardscrabble Mountain, Adam and Eve Mountain, Coulter Ridge and Castle Peak were as familiar to him as his modest little house.

Eagle Police Sergeant Gary Ward, an avid hunter and a friend of Robertson’s, made a tradition of taking a fall drive with Robertson up Brush Creek to the country Robertson had hunted for years.

“He knew every creek, and every rancher who had ever been there. It was amazing to me,” says Ward.

Robertson, in his story-telling, would confide that as a ranch hand he would often sneak a little bit of hay, which was supposed to be for cattle, and unbeknownst to his boss, scatter it for the deer.

“You have to slip some off for those little fellas,” Robertson told Ward. “They have a hard time in the winter.”

Years later, Robertson worked as a laborer at the Kaibab sawmill in Eagle.

“Strong heart and good legs’

Robertson was known for his hunting style. Decades ago, before four-wheel drive vehicles were common, Robertson would drive his car up the creek, get out, locate an elk track and stay on it for days. Basically, he walked the animal down, mountain-to-mountain.

Thirty years ago, when asked by a newspaper reporter for the secret of successful hunting, Robertson thought only a few second before answering “a strong heart and good legs.”

Robertson killed his first elk at the age of 17, then bagged an elk annually for the next 36 years. That happened in a time when the local elk population was about a quarter the size it is now.

Perhaps his success is the reason Robertson seemed to have an endless supply of hunting stories – and rarely repeated himself when telling outdoor tales.

Jack Olesen of Eagle was a young man during the big-game season of 1976. Yearning to get his first bull elk, Olesen stopped by Robertson’s house and asked for advice on where to find the big ones. Robertson gladly filled Olesen in on a favorite hunting spot on Adam Mountain.

“With his advice, and some luck, I did get my first bull. Johnny was more happy than I was. From then on, we were best of friends,” says Olesen.

Indeed, that elk from supplied the antler rack perched on the dirt beside Robertson’s grave.

A cache of tricks

Rich McCain, 51, of Eagle remembers a time when he and hunting companions Al Colby and Ed Myers were in the midst of a frustrating elk hunt on Brush Creek. The hunters had spent a fruitless day checking out various creeks and drainages. Taking a break for lunch, they were at the point of swearing there were no elk left in the country when up through the woods walked a hunter.

It was Robertson.

He stopped long enough to eat a sandwich with the hunters, then headed back into the woods, despite warnings from the boys that he was wasting his time.

“Ten minutes later we heard two shots. We thought, “what the heck?’ The next day we found out Johnny had filled two licenses for guys he worked with at the sawmill,” McCain says. “He had two huge bulls, and we never even saw a track.”

Robertson developed his own cache of tricks for hunting elk. He taught many of those methods to younger hunters, who continue to guard the secrets. McCain says Robertson, known for his talent at bugling, was one of very few hunters who felt there was value in using a call to bring in elk. That method is now considered innovative.

Ward recalls the time he and Robertson were bugling elk in Sneve Gulch, above Sylvan Lake. They were looking in one direction for elk when a sizable bull, drawn by the bugling, sort of sneaked up behind them.

When the two men turned around, they were both startled.

“Well, I’ll be,” Robertson said. “He did hear us.”

A buck Robertson killed in 1958 warranted a listing in the Boone and Crockett record books, as well as “Colorado’s Biggest Bucks and Bulls.” Robertson got the buck while hunting in Fisher Gulch, 14 miles southeast of Eagle. He knew he had a trophy, but it never occurred to him to have it measured until several years later, when a friend offered to take it to Denver. The buck was recorded with 200 and 6/8 points, coming within 16 and 2/8 points of the world record for a mule deer at that time. Just a few years ago, when Jack Olesen’s son, Robert, shot a buck that scored 200, Robertson proudly posed for a photo with the antlers.

“This sure brings back a lot of memories,” Robertson said.

A simple lifestyle

Robertson killed his last elk in 1971, then, probably due to a back injury, gave up hunting. He continued to enjoy trips up the creek, bugling for elk and sharing hunting stories and knowledge with fellow hunters.

“You couldn’t go over there and spend just five minutes. You had to sit down and talk,” recalls Ward.

Jack Olesen has the same memory.

“My advice to anybody headed over to visit Johnny was to make sure they had the day off because they would be there for a while,” he says.

A bachelor, Robertson lived a simple lifestyle in his tidy little stucco home on Capitol Street in Eagle. He heated the house with a coal stove.

He never did have a telephone, explaining that he didn’t want to be bothered by “that thing” all the time.

He took great pride in the large, tidy yard outside his home with an ever-changing display of yard ornaments, varying from a plastic deer with a set of sizable real antlers to pink flamingos or Donald Duck. Drivers on the busy street often took note of the sometimes whimsical yard displays.

In recent years, Robertson’s health problems worsened. On Feb. 20, he took his own life.

“His book was pretty much complete. He didn’t want any more chapters. He’s a legend around here,” says Ward.

Following the memorial services Feb. 25, as the crowd dispersed, McCain quietly stepped forward and dropped a couple of items on top of Robertson’s casket. It was a couple of elk “buglers,” or teeth from a bull elk, considered by hunters to be a prize.

“He’s probably looking down now and counting the points on some elk,” says Olesen.

Memorial contributions for Johnny Robertson can be made to the Eagle County Limbhangers Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, P.O. Box 4108, Eagle, CO, 81631.


Johnny’s battling bucks

One of the trophies Johnny Robertson kept in the rafters of his garage was the locked antlers taken from two mule deer bucks.

In a story he wrote for Colorado Outdoors magazine, Robertson said he discovered the antlers while repairing fence for rancher Chet Mayer in the high pasture under Castle Peak, north of Eagle.

“A tangled brown mass along the fence ahead had caused me to stop and take a second look,” he wrote. “Riding closer, I discovered what appeared to be the result of a little dispute over a love affair that had taken place.

“Two great mule deer bucks – one with 17 points and a 27-inch spread, the other with 14 points and a 29-inch spread – had hopelessly locked antlers in deadly combat.

“For 100 years on the slope above, the broken brush and gouged earth still showed where the battlers had fought. Somewhere in this area these two muleys had come crashing together for the last time and then, with their antlers completely locked, had fought on down the hill to become lodged against the fence and die a lingering death of starvation.”

Robertson retrieved the double trophy with an ax.

“As I headed toward camp the thought struck me that both those old busters would have been a lot better off – if they had of just skipped the girls.”

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

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