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Notes for next elk hunt: Tips on strategy, location, shooting & dressing

I hunt just a few days each year, and don’t invest significant time or thought during the long period in between. Among a few smaller things, here are some takeaways and learned lessons that I want to incorporate into our 2018 plans:

Hunting

The best advice we received on hunting strategy was from a Craig local at the Subway: “Find the nastiest, darkest shit that no one else wants to go into. The game will be in there.” This succinctly describes our experiences from years past — for much of the day, elk take refuge in these shady spruce-covered areas. Whenever we entered the dark timber we always got into game.

Hunting the timber is limited only by the limitations of your patience. How slow can you hunt? How invisible can you be (e.g. no swishy clothing, no breaking branches, no winding). Remind yourself that you’re not hiking — you’re hunting.

A fresh (but quickly filling in) bedding area left by a lone bull elk, in thick timber.

The winds were fierce on Friday night, and it snowed for most of Saturday and Sunday morning. Yet, the game seemed to continue to move, during the storms and perhaps more actively when it was calmer. During a lull on Saturday afternoon, we encountered fresh tracks at over 10,000 feet made by two does, and then saw two cows about 300 vertical feet below a ridge, near their bedding areas. On Sunday morning we intersected the filled-in tracks of a small herd (probably cows) that had moved overnight. When the storm started to clear on Sunday, we saw two does grazing in the open and then our two bull on the move.

This year the conditions were not sufficiently severe to push the elk to the lower elevations. When we drove over Rabbit Ears Pass, there was thin snow lingering on north-facing slopes in the shade. But other aspects were snow-free, and same for lower elevations. The grazing at 10,000 feet in Colorado in early-November isn’t great, but they can make it work and it’s better than being shot.

Morapos Trailhead

There was  good mix of habitat and terrain: open meadows, aspen stands, and dark timber; below the trailhead (to the west on public land and downstream on private land), there is scrub oak, pinyon/juniper, and sage.

It’s pretty, but lacks the dramatic topographic relief found, say, further south in the range. But this was an advantage: Steve and I could quickly and easily cover distance and pack out an animal.

Typical terrain in upper Morapos Creek: open meadows, aspen stands, dark timber, and scrub oak.

A handful of base camps occupied the trailhead, but it seemed relatively low pressure. We never saw hunters further out than one mile from the trailhead, and conversations suggested that 1-2 miles was the max for most of them.

Hunting pressure seems to have a logarithmic pattern: the further you get from population centers, the less pressure you encounter. To get away from other hunters, drive to remote GMU’s with limited motorized access, find unfriendly trailhead roads, and hike several miles into the backcountry (preferably uphill). Hunters on horseback can get even further into the backcountry, but thankfully there aren’t lots of them.

In the parking lot, other hunters reported seeing “herds” move through the area in previous years during Third Season. And they relayed general frustration among trailhead-based hunters about the lack of activity during the first few days of the season. They were all hoping for bad weather, to push the game down.

Shooting

A single trekking pole is too wobbly for faraway shots. It’s better than standing, but using two crossed trekking poles or a backpack would be more stable.

In the hunt report I already talked about our one awful mistake: not giving our bull enough time to die after he’d been shot. Instead, we approached him too quickly, and he ran another mile.

About 350 yards after being shot, the bull laid down here and probably would have died here, if we had given him more time before tracking him.

Create a post-shot ritual that distracts you from your impatience. Make coffee, hike back to the truck, take a cat nap. Only in some extenuating circumstances should you push it, like if a blizzard is covering up tracks and the blood trail. Darkness is not a valid reason to push — the trail will remain hot overnight, and you can recover the animal in the morning.

When approaching a down elk, be prepared for it to jump. Have a round in the chamber. Have a cow call ready. Start watching it from a distance, and don’t get any closer if there are signs of movement.

Gut shots are not quickly fatal. Our bull went 400 yards before bedding down, then three-fourths of a mile after being spooked. It was not a positive experience for either party.

Field dressing

If dressing an elk is not yet natural, freshen up with a YouTube video before you leaave. I like this gutless method with Fred Eichler. While he pulls all the required meat off a cow in 10 minutes, expect it to take longer — you’re probably not a pro, and you’ll want to get cleaner cuts than he does in the video. Also, communicate beforehand with your hunting partners what method you will use, so that everyone knows how it will be done in the field.

Alaska Game Bags are heavy, but otherwise they are excellent: they’re durable, breathable, and non-absorbent. Afterwards, throw them in the wash (hot cycle) and reuse them.

We cooled down the meat quickly by hanging it in camp. It wasn’t necessary, but we protected the meat from wet snow using a poncho.

We both used razor blade knives and loved them. It ensures that you always have a sharp blade, and it saves time. I went through three replacement blades, but could have used just two. My Outdoor Edge Razor-Lite was the preferred size, over the Havalon Piranta.

Pack two pairs of surgical gloves per person per animal. You may only need one pair, but are easily cut and can get messy; and they weigh nothing.

A handful of 6- or 8-foot long cords were very useful in cooling down the meat overnight. With them, we were able to hand the Alaska Game Bags from limbs.

Flagging tape was unnecessary for us, but it easily could have been helpful, like if it’d been snowing hard or if a shot animal dropped below the snowline.

For other details about my field dressing kit, refer to my gear list, After the Shot.

On our 4-point bull, each hind quarter weighed 45 pounds with bone-in. A front shoulder weighed 23 pounds with bone-in. Then we had three bags of assorted meat (e.g. prime cuts, rib and neck meat, and a deboned shoulder) that weighed 58 pounds total. A total of 172 pounds including three bones.

Packing out

An initial short leg through nasty terrain (e.g. uphill, off-trail, blowdowns) or to a nearby camp provides the opportunity to judge the number of trips necessary to pack out the entire animal. It may also be safer than over-loading at the start.

My pack was 65 pounds on the first trip and 67 pounds on the second. I’m not sure what Steve’s loads weighed, but they should have been similar.

Steve tiptoes across a shallow stream while carrying about 65 pounds of weight.

Our Nissan Rogue was tight on space with one animal plus personal gear. Two animals would be a stretch, but probably doable.

A utility sled could have tremendous value on a big bull or with multiple animals. Leave it in the car, and bring it out for the second round-trip (and third and fourth, if you’ve done really well). Dragging meat and gear on a slippery sled is easier and saver than carrying it out, especially with a net downhill.

17 Responses to Notes for next elk hunt: Tips on strategy, location, shooting & dressing

  1. Ed Tyanich November 14, 2017 at 5:37 pm #

    Andrew,
    I’m guessing you both used the Flex Capacitor packs.
    How did they do with that weight? And how do you think they would handle 80-85 lbs?
    Most of the 25 or so elk I have packed out in Montana have been pack weight of 85-135 lbs. although I thinking that more trips at lower weight might be better in the future.

    • Andrew Skurka November 14, 2017 at 5:56 pm #

      Yes, we both used the Flex. I think you could probably put more weight in it than we did, but it will get increasingly uncomfortable, due to the sheer weight and to the limitations of the pack.

      I used a prototype of the Flex to pack out my elk in 2015. And this year I used a production model. I don’t plan on using something different next year, even at the risk of needing to pack out another 10-20 lbs more on each trip if we shot an older/bigger bull.

      Eh, 20 pounds more would be pushing it. Guess it depends how far away the car is.

  2. Ed Tyanich November 15, 2017 at 8:52 am #

    Thanks for the response.
    I have used more hunting specific packs over the years but I think I’ll give the Flex a try next year. I like the idea of a 2.5 lb. pack.

  3. jeff November 16, 2017 at 10:11 am #

    Hi Andrew – thanks for these posts recapping your hunting trip. I am also a long-term endurance athlete who has started hunting in the last several years; your commentary and insights as you go through the same learning experience are valuable and interesting to read. Congratulations on a successful hunt!
    -Jeff

  4. Doug K November 28, 2017 at 9:15 am #

    echoing Jeff’s thanks – these posts are interesting and useful.
    The ‘utility sled’ can be a basic hardware store sled, I have a 6ft one which I’ve rigged with poles and a waist harness for dragging loads in snow. Or, what the cowboys call a ‘calf sled’, more robust but heavier..
    I have a pickup truck now, never did get all the blood out of the carpet in the minivan.. not an ideal hunting vehicle..

  5. Edgar December 23, 2017 at 6:30 pm #

    As someone who is new to hunting as well, I very much enjoy reading, besides articles written in professional magazines (e.g. my state’s fish and wildlife digest), your thoughts, tips, trials, and tribulations in this realm. Brings it a little closer to home for me. Thank you.

  6. Joe December 24, 2017 at 11:48 pm #

    Good stuff. I watched the Eichler video. Impressive, but I like the heart and especially the liver too much to go gutless.

    Many don’t realize that game liver has a much milder flavor than commercial liver. I have converted several liverphobes into game liverphiles over the years.

    • Andrew Skurka December 25, 2017 at 9:15 am #

      Any favorite liver recipes? Maybe I would pack it out next time. Admittedly, a liverphobe now, would probably wait until father in law is visiting so he can eat my leftovers if it ends badly.

  7. Joe December 25, 2017 at 3:03 pm #

    I’m a simple man in general, but especially regarding liver.

    Liver goes well with two, maybe three things:

    Onions-essential. Bacon-almost essential.

    Potatoes are a good complimentary dish. (This ain’t health-food.:-)

    When I arrived at the University of Montana in 1976, I fell in with a few natives who allowed me to hunt elk with them.

    They had a semi-firm rule that everyone gathered back in camp by noon. A hot track was an exemption.

    If anyone had an elk down, everyone went to get it with frame packs. We split all meat evenly.

    We took onions, bacon, and a cast iron skillet to the kill, built a fire, and feasted on liver and onions before the pack out.

    Great memories.

    Fry the bacon. Remove it, and fry the liver and onions in the heavenly bacon grease. Add the bacon back in.

    Black pepper is good, but not absolutely necessary.

  8. Joe December 25, 2017 at 3:18 pm #

    The mildness makes sense to me.

    The liver is a filter.

    “Factory meat” is full of chemicals.

    Poisons?

    Game doesn’t eat such filth, so it doesn’t collect in the liver, and corrupt the flavor.

    Along that line, regarding the efficacy of dehydrating one’s own food/buying dehydrated food.

    I’m with you on vegetables for sure. Electricity ain’t free, and my time has value. I buy my dry veggies.

    I do like to dry my own meat, though, for the above reasons.

    • Speedgoat September 5, 2018 at 6:27 pm #

      That sounds good, going to try that one!

  9. Joe December 25, 2017 at 3:46 pm #

    Oh, I forgot the most important thing!

    Don’t overcook it! Liver, like duck and pheasant, turns into grey rubber if overcooked.

    Rare is the ticket.

    Also, liver loses a lot in freezing. It’s still good, but like seafood, it is far better fresh

  10. Joe December 26, 2017 at 1:24 pm #

    Sorry, Andrew, I got off on story-telling, as I am wont to do…

    Recipe: Slice liver 1/2″ thick. Dredge in flour, pepper, salt mixture. The dredging is not necessary, but nice.

    Slice onion into 1/4″ wide half-rings.

    Cook a few slices of bacon crisp in skillet, and remove.

    Add liver and onions to HOT skillet of bacon grease. Brown quickly on each side. DO NOT OVERCOOK. It should be pink inside.

    Crunch up bacon and add back. Eat immediately. Doesn’t reheat well.

    Oh, and if you don’t like liver, I know someone in your family who will!

    Cube it up, package in Oden-size meals, freeze, and serve it to him raw.

    He will think he is a lion, and you are God.

    One elk liver should yield a few dozen meals to the little guy.

    • Andrew Skurka December 26, 2017 at 6:25 pm #

      Sounds good. I think you can make anything good with bacon and bacon grease, though.

      I’ve tried to feed Oden elk and venison. No interest.

  11. Ben A January 9, 2018 at 10:15 am #

    I’m planning an early season CO backpack archery elk hunt for 2019, 5-7 days and it’s becoming clear to me as I look at the gaps in my gear list versus my gear budget that I am going to have to be extremely frugal if I want even a chance at making it happen. The biggest ticket items on my to-acquire list are pack, footwear, and sleep system. I’ve already ruled out most of the hunting packs designed for heavy loads (KUiu, Kigali, Mystery Ranch, stone glacier, eco mountain) and am considering modifying a military surplus pack (ILBE or MOLLE II). Obviously they’re very heavy but they’re also available very inexpensively (~50 for the MOLLEII and about twice that for the ILBE). Is there another option I should be considering in that price range?

    For a shelter and sleep system I’m looking at getting a tarp, 20-30° down bag, pad, and ground cloth. Any tips on economizing there would be helpful as well.

    Ben

    • Andrew Skurka January 9, 2018 at 10:33 am #

      Yeah, sorry, good gear is expensive. But sounds like you’re on it early, which should help in buying only things that you need and in grabbing deals when they come up.

      I’m not familiar with the packs you mentioned, but the prices sounds good. Maybe try cutting the crap out of them to drop weight.

      Tarps are simple and therefore cheap, good call. Go with 700-fill down, and get one on closeout — the technology is not changing rapidly and you don’t need a current model. Good sleeping pads are expensive. For ground clothing, go with plastic window covering sheets and cut it down to size.

    • Doug K January 9, 2018 at 11:30 am #

      for heavy loads look for an external frame backpack – I got the Alps Zion from Sierra Trading Post for under $100. It isn’t ultralight but 5lbs is not bad and it’s lighter than my old NF internal frame. Also note that is just 1lb more than the equivalent Kuiu Ultra 6000 for $424..
      I’ve carried this on a number of hunt trips and been happy with it. In fact it’s my usual backpack for Scouts and other expeditions where I end up hauling big loads.

      Amazon has the Alps OutdoorZ Commander for $114. Ebay has even cheaper options.

      For early season the Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest is $30 – I’m still sleeping on one that is twenty years old..

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