What lessons did I learn and relearn on my Colorado elk hunt last week? Here are the big three:
1. In order to shoot them, you must find them
It’s called “hunting” for a reason — it’s not as simple as just shooting and processing. While many hunters have filled their tags on the first day of the season, that is the exception. More often, it takes multiple days of being in the field. And that is still the exception: in Colorado, the average statewide elk harvest rate is only about 20 percent, which means that that 80 percent of hunters return home with empty coolers.
Noel and I never found elk, and thus never even had the opportunity to take a shot. I blame this squarely on my lack of pre-season research. While I hunted this same area last year, too, I still have much to learn about it. Between seasons I should have spoken with individuals who are knowledgeable of the area, e.g. game officers, seasoned hunters, local landowners, and outfitters. They could have helped to narrow my search zones, shed insight on normal elk behavior, and update me on current movements and activity.
Since I live just 2 hours away from the hunting unit, it was also foolish not to scout the area in the months, weeks, and days prior to opening day. Elk move regularly, so past observations do not guarantee future ones, but there are patterns in their behavior. If I had found elk in the first day or two, I would have credited luck; more likely, those days would be spent making up for the pre-season scouting that I never did.
2. Be elk
I generally understand how elk behave seasonally and daily, but not well enough, and definitely not specific enough to my hunting unit. Hunting is an odds game: overall, the odds are against me, but there are ways to increase them, which is why some hunters fill their tags year after year.
If I better understood elk behavior, I could make better decisions about where, when, and how to hunt in the context of seasonal changes, current weather, and pressure from other hunters. My hunting strategies were really just guesses, as I don’t have enough personal experience to thoroughly evaluate each option and select the one with the highest odds.
Were the elk more likely to be North Fork Tenmile Creek, Meadow Creek, or South Willow Creek? In lodgepole pine at 10,000 feet, sub-alpine spruce and fir at 11,000 feet, or alpine meadows at 12,000 feet? To where do they move during the morning, mid-day, and evening? Are they most likely be found by glassing, using elk calls, or stalking quietly? Now what if it’s been a mild October? What if it snows 6 inches overnight? And what if yesterday there were multiple gunshots nearby?
When I can anticipate the behavior of elk based on the interplay between all of these variables, I’ll be a much more successful hunter.
3. Block out time for ambitious outings — they often demand it
A primary reason that two of this year’s personal trips — the Wind River High Route and this elk hunt — were unsuccessful was my failure to block out adequate time for them. Instead, I blocked out only enough time for everything to go perfectly. But on ambitious trips with a lot of uncertainties and variables, that often does not happen.
In the Winds, we needed to give the snow on Bonney Pass a half-day to soften up before we could at least attempt it. But we had other places to be: Buzz, to Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City; Peter, a retreat in California; and me, back to my lovely wife and office. We didn’t feel like we could spare a half-day (and possibly lose it, if the pass still didn’t go), so we bailed out.
On my hunt, I knew that I’d left behind some unresolved issues when I left on Friday afternoon. But I had my elk tag and a hunting buddy, and I was hoping that these issues wouldn’t simmer over while I was out. They did, and I returned home on Sunday night, with 60 percent of the season remaining. An opening day kill is always a possibility, but to maximize my odds of success I really needed to have stayed out there for the entire season, and ideally for a few days before, too.
Of the three lessons I learned and relearned last weekend, this one is perhaps the most important. Prior to 2011, I could dedicate myself fully to my expeditions, as I didn’t have any “adult responsibilities.” Now, I’m married, run a business, own a home, etc. and the success of any future adventures will at least partly depend on my ability to get buy-in and avoid conflict with these other entities.