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Notes for next time || My first successful elk hunt: Lessons, advice & tips

A remarkably good (but not exceptional) elk trail in a remote part of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Clearly, they're out there.

A remarkably good (but not exceptional) elk trail in a remote part of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Clearly, they’re out there.

Fall is arriving quickly in Colorado. Snowfall is sticking on high and northerly aspects. My last ultra marathon of the season is on Saturday. Of course, the days are shorter, the leaves have turned, and my raised beds are no longer producing. And, finally, I’m also dusting off my hunting equipment for the upcoming big game season.

Last year I had my first successful hunt. I think about that cow elk everytime that I dig into my chest freezer, which is nearly empty after 11.5 months of elk chili, elk burgers, elk brats, and elk roasts.

Elk chili, coincidentally what we're having tonight for dinner.

Elk chili, coincidentally what we’re having tonight for dinner.

To improve my odds of refilling my freezer, I looked back at the notes that I had typed up after last year’s hunt. Reflections on GMU 29 and 371 I shared earlier; here are the others:


Logistics

It was more enjoyable to start very early on Saturday morning than to camp out on Friday night, as we’d done in the past. We were able to do last-minute prep in the comforts of a warm house or vehicle. And it gave us a little bit of extra time to prepare, rather than laying in the dark for 13 hours.

Gear

Both of our (new) knives had to be sharpened while field-dressing and deboning the elk. This is a skill, and difficult to do with a dirty knife. So that I can avoid this fuss and so that I can always have a sharp blade, afterwards I bought an Outdoor Edge Razor-Lite with replaceable blades.

Cotton meat bags seemed more user-friendly than nylon meat bags. They were less slick. They allowed fresh air to reach the meat. They absorbed blood, reducing the volume of liquid flowing around. And they could be easily cut in half and re-tied, to make the load more manageable.

If there will not be snow on which to place the meat, pack a cotton bedsheet so that the meat can be kept off the ground and thus clean. The animal’s cape can be used for this purpose, too. However, the cape is in your working space and it tends to get contaminated by dirt and hair.

Keep meat bags inside of heavy-duty 2-mm trash compactor bags or 3-mm contractor bags to contain blood while packing them out. Otherwise, the blood may stain other equipment and/or soak through the pack fabric.

In regards to sizing, I normally use a 20-gallon bag when lining a medium-sized 3-season backpack. A large-volume hunting pack would take multiple 20-gallon bags or one 42-gallon bag. These bags need to be in addition to the bags used to waterproof your gear.

My lightweight pack liner was split by the shifting of heavy meat bags inside my pack. Blood stained the pack and began dripping out the bottom.

My lightweight pack liner was split by the shifting of heavy meat bags inside my pack. Blood stained the pack and began dripping out the bottom.

Strategy

Develop multiple hunting plans in your GMU so that you can react to the weather and to changes in seasonal patterns, e.g. a late rut. Thankfully, we were able to go with our highest-odds plan because the weather forecast was ideal, if a bit hot.

Trail cameras are revolutionary: they add observation data to a hunting plan with a minimal investment of time.

A bull elk captured by Noel's trail camera, which he installed at a 10,400-foot pond.

A bull elk captured by Noel’s trail camera, which he installed at a 10,400-foot pond.

Splitting up has obvious advantages and disadvantages. You cover more ground, but you risk missing a herd. Also, rendezvousing can be messy unless you have a very clear plan.

Our two-way radios were worthless, and we were unable to get messages to each other through the interference. I would expect better performance when further away from the heavily populated Front Range.

Field-dressing

Immediately prior to firing my rifle, I had the same feelings as just before a cliff jump. There are good reasons to hesitate, but it will be okay — just for it.

Even though the odds are against you, have a plan for butchering and processing if you get one. Have coolers in the truck. If you will use a butcher, know their address and hours. If not, have DIY equipment ready to go, not sitting in your Amazon cart.

The process felt very natural and intuitive. I’m not exactly sure why: Was it because I watched field-dressing videos on YouTube, because I have some basic anatomy knowledge, or because humans have been butchering animals for hundreds of thousands of years? Maybe it was a little bit of all of those things.

We used the gutless method and were happy with it. It only has one crux cut: the tenderloins.

As time wears on, butchering seems to become more difficult. You get tired. There are fewer big cuts of meat. And you lack landmarks (e.g. quarters) to help navigate the meat areas.

With a tenderloin, the most difficult cut with the gutless method.

An evening kill would be hard. You’re tired by dark anyway, and then you must complete in the dark a monstrous task.

Magpies arrived on the scene within 30 minutes. We felt confident that none of the animal would go to waste.

The pack-out

After the kill, settle in for a long day. It will take 1-2 hours to field-dress the animal, and then multiple round-trips back to the vehicle with meat and gear. Kill-related adrenaline will not sustain you through the entire process.

In the car, keep a “pack out kit” with clothing and footwear that are comfortable for extended hiking. In particular, we both longed for a pair of shorts in the mild temperatures.

It was a mild October day and Noel and I were both longing for shorts during the arduous pack-out. We stripped down to our underwear instead, and made a note to leave “pack out clothes” in the car next time.

The pack-out effort cannot be understated. Prepare for 150 to 200 pounds of meat, plus possibly the antlers, and plus the weight of gear. It took us two round-trips, carrying 50 to 70 pounds on each trip. I have no immediate plans to hunt solo for this exact reason — the effort is almost too monumental for one person.

Fewer slower and heavier trips are better than more faster and lighter ones. The increased hiking speed with a lighter load will not offset the time lost to hiking back into the woods to the kill site.

If you feel that your kill was “lucky,” no doubt you’ll feel that you earned it by the time you reach the vehicle with your last load.


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7 Responses to Notes for next time || My first successful elk hunt: Lessons, advice & tips

  1. Tyler Mertz October 12, 2016 at 9:03 pm #

    Congratulations on your elk last year! Good luck in this next season. And if you find you have too much elk meat, go ahead and send some my way.

  2. Jeff M October 13, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

    Good luck on your hunt this year- I just got back from my first elk hunt a few weeks ago where my partner managed to stab himself in the knee when we were skinning it. After getting him back to camp safely I had to spend the next day carrying the entire elk out of the drainage we shot it in back up 1000+ ft to the trail. Luckily we were able to find a horse packer out there that helped us get it back to the trailhead. Like you said, a monumental effort for a single person.

    Good hunting!

    • Andrew Skurka October 13, 2016 at 3:19 pm #

      Yikes, hopefully he’s okay. This type of injury does not sound uncommon — several veterans recommended that I put some blood-clotter in my first aid kit for this exact reason.

      Congrats on the elk. This in CO or somewhere else?

      • Jeff M October 13, 2016 at 4:23 pm #

        I had quick-clot powder in my first aid kit that worked well to stop the bleeding of the puncture wound (along with gauze and a bunch of tape). I would definitely recommend having it along. My partner has a lot of experience with wild game and butchering, but a slip of the knife with a moment of inattention and we had a fairly serious injury to deal with.

        We were in the Frank Church/ River of No Return wilderness in Idaho – really remote, rugged, and scenic area.

        I was not ready for the size difference between elk and deer. It took me over 6 hours to move the thing a half mile or so up a steep hillside. Fun in retrospect, I guess.

  3. Mike October 20, 2016 at 11:45 pm #

    Any comments as to how the Flex Capacitor worked out as a hunting pack? -I’m especially keen to hear how it stood up to the carry out.

    • Andrew Skurka October 21, 2016 at 8:53 am #

      This isn’t the first place that I have shared my experience on using the FC last elk season, so excuse me if I’m repeating myself.

      I went out with the FC originally because I was product testing. In the car I left a more serious meat-hauler, a Kifiru, that I figured I would use if we actually got something. Elk down, field dressed it. I loaded up my FC with about one-quarter of what we had, hoping that we could limit our pack-out to two round-trips each (there were two of us). When we arrived back at the car, we weighed everything with a fishing scale. My load was 69 pounds, including the pack. I looked the pack over and didn’t see any stressed seams, and it had carried shockingly well even though the prototype’s torso length was a little tall for me. So I made the second round-trip with it, too. My load on the second trip was 60 pounds.

      Each load was about 2.25 hours out, and about 1.5-1.75 hours back up.

      If you need any more evidence of how I thought about it, I just wrote the SD product developing asking if I could use a FC for my hunt next month. I still have that Kifiru in the garage, but I think the FC worked just as well for what I’m doing.

  4. Mike October 21, 2016 at 4:49 pm #

    Oh, thanks for that Andrew -I’ve found the original post now too.

    I do some hunting here in New Zealand and as I’m the wrong side of 50 now I’m looking at options to lighten my load, so as to protect my knees. I looked at lighter weight packs, but most ultra light packs aren’t designed to cope with heavy loads of venison. To make packs lighter they skimp on the harness so heavy loads are pretty uncomfortable. The FC seems to be better suited to the task in this respect.

    Some of my hunting is in fairly tight bush and soft packs are more stealthy for this. But I’ve taken to zipping up a light weight blaze orange vest over the pack -that goes a long way towards deadening the sound of scraping branches.

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