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Elk 1, Skurka 0: Lessons Learned and Relearned

If I were an elk, I'd live in the Gore Range. It's big and spectacular.

If I were an elk, I’d live in the Gore Range. It’s big and spectacular.

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.

During a blizzard, in the middle of the day, and in sub-alpine forest should Rob and I have expected to spook the elk that was bedded down just minutes before we arrived? If I better understood their behavior, I could better evaluate where, when, and how to hunt.

During a blizzard, in the middle of the day, and in sub-alpine forest should Rob and I have expected to spook the elk that was bedded down just minutes before we arrived? If I better understood their behavior, I could better evaluate where, when, and how to hunt.

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.

Bonney Pass (12,800 feet), steep and choked with hard snow. Without traction, we deemed it unsafe and started a 2-day bailout.

Bonney Pass (12,800 feet), steep and choked with hard snow. Without spare time to let it soften up, we bailed out.

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.

Posted in on October 16, 2014
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19 Comments

  1. Dave on October 16, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    There was an article somewhere which analyzed success-rate of the persistence of hunters. It is probably comparable to the success-rate of thru-hiking.

    If I recall, the ones who put in at least two weeks always come home with the elk, whereas the ones who only go out on weekends seldom yield anything. In short, the more day in the field, the more likely one will be successful in the harvest.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 16, 2014 at 2:20 pm

      I definitely believe that. The more time that you’re out there, the more likely you are to find one that you can shoot, because of either luck or more comprehensive scouting of areas, or a little bit of both.

  2. Ross Gilmore on October 16, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    For me hunting is the process of the hunt. I don’t need to hunt in order to survive, so I enjoy the process. More often than not I strike out, and at times do not take a shot because it’s not the exact animal I want. I enjoy the process. I enjoy being out in the woods and testing myself. A successful kill is only a small part of it.

    Back country hunting on public land is probably the toughest type of hunt. I forget the exact number, but in my state (NY) according to the DEC, about 90% of hunting occurs on private land on prepared locations. That is where you see the high success rates, and the hunts they show on the Outdoor Channel. We have a lot of public land that can be hunted, but few people attempt it. Ten miles into the woods, and you are alone. It’s a tough way to hunt, and success rates are low, especially with limited time.

    Great post. I look forward to more.

  3. David Ellzey on October 16, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    Isn’t #3 applicable to most things in life?

    Anyhow, back when I used to hunt public land we would spend about 5X the time scouting pre-season than we would spend actually hunting. My buddy and I had a fairly good success rate with rifles but never got anything with bows despite significant practice.

  4. Jake on October 16, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    No worries man! It sounds like you’ve identified most of your shortcomings in this year’s hunt and I’m sure you will be better prepared for next year. I struck out in Colorado this season too and there’s nothing like an 18 hour drive home to replay all of my mistakes in my head! My humble advice to you would be to hunt more species than just elk. Any hunting experience whether it be for big or small game will help you mature as a hunter, and for elk I thought that the CPW website’s “Elk University” was very helpful for becoming more familiar with elk. Good luck and thanks for putting together such a great site and especially your detailed packing lists!

  5. Sam on October 16, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    So, when are you headed back out, Andy? And did you get a deer tag also just so you can fill your freezer?

  6. Philip Werner on October 17, 2014 at 6:34 am

    Andrew – I am a big believer in self-education, but perhaps hooking up with a professional hunting guide for a trip might accelerate your learning process. The biggest benefit wouldn’t be getting an elk, but in learning how they plan and the lessons they’ve learned about elk migratory patterns and behavior. Boy, this sounds like the backpacking fundaementals pitch, but there’s some truth to it.

    • Kevin Timm on October 17, 2014 at 11:00 pm

      Andrew , I’ve been schooled by the wapiti several times before as well, however this year was good for me and my son. Sometimes it’s a little bit luck , sometimes not. I personally love the challenge of elk hunting and the way it makes my senses aware in a way few activities do. My biggest change this year , was mostly understanding the areas that are natural funnels and areas that are off the beaten path hiding areas. Ironically , on one scouting trip after a dusting of snow I saw a lot of cougar tracks near one of the funnels I had identified. I guess the cougar had the same idea as me. Those things helped , as well as persistence

  7. Joe on October 18, 2014 at 6:47 am

    Regarding:

    I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much. You had “adult responsibilities” before marriage and business, they were just slightly different responsibilities. Planning and coordination of schedules is key. Maybe you could include your spouse as a hunting partner?

    In any case, I think I think you’ve gained some really good take-home lessons as evidenced by your blog post. And think of this: there are a lot of folks that never ever get a chance to go out on an expedition like this with a good friend. Your trip was worth it for that very reason!

    You’ll get one next year, or maybe you’ll get a mule deer.

    Cheers,
    Joe

    PS- I’m devouring your book BTW. Nice and condensed text and up to date.

  8. James on October 19, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    Andrew-
    I’m about 20 years older than you and like you are Eastern born and a self tought hunter and rifleman. I’ve hunted all over the Rockies for the last 30 years.. As the bankrobber once said “you have to go where the money is”… I bet the unit you are hunting is very popular with Bow and Muzzleloading hunters in the Early August and Sept Elk seasons and not so much when the high country meadows are coveted with snow. Bulls follow the cow elk herds during the rut..And the cows need GRAZING MEADOWS which means NO SNOW.. I bet historically most seasons the Elk have moved out of the hunt unit you selected by Mid Oct. You greatly affect your hunting success by the hunt unit you choose.

    All the preseason scouting in the world will not produce shots at elk if the animals are no longer there during the season you are hunting them. The most import “scouting” you will ever do is in selecting the unit you will be hunting to begin with. If you put the same effort into researching the hunt units you choose as you do the routes for your long distance hiking expeditions you will become a much more successful hunter.

    Remember- the question is -“where will the Elk herds likely be during the season you are choosing to hunt…”?

    You are a good guy…I wish you all the luck in the world in your future hunts..

    BTW, you need to look into winter cow tag hunts on private land to fill your freezer this winter..Great hunting /packing /field dressing experience- MUCH higher success rate (although no slam dunk)/ an ecologically sound hunt( Thinning the herds) AND the best Elk meat you’ll eat..
    Try it .

    • Andrew Skurka on October 19, 2014 at 8:07 pm

      Good points. The unit I have hunted the past two years, GMU 371, has an average harvest rate for First Season Rifle that is among the best in the state, usually 25-30 percent. There are more fruitful units, but most of those are not guaranteed in the lottery (more hunter applications than available tags), whereas 371 is (so long as you list it as your first preference).

      I’m really convinced that my shortcoming is the lack of field time that I’ve dedicated to it. It’s more difficult to learn how to hunt than to backpack, and it is wildly optimistic to think that a first-time backpacker would have a flawless trip on their first or second time out. Why would I expect that with hunting?

  9. vache d'abondance on November 12, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Didnt know you were a hunter, -1 for you.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 12, 2014 at 11:30 am

      If you’re not a vegan, your statement makes you a hypocrite. Shame on you for consuming animal products produced through highly industrial and ethic-less means, and then poo-poo’ing individuals who want to take control of their food chain for the purposes of their physical and spiritual health.

      • Julien on December 13, 2014 at 10:24 pm

        Didn’t know you were a hunter either… +1 for you.

        • Andrew Skurka on December 14, 2014 at 1:43 am

          Based on my record, I think being called a “hunter” is generous. Next year…

          • Pete on January 7, 2015 at 3:03 pm

            Even vegans are a bit hypocritical if they think it makes them somehow superior to hunters because of it. The resources used to produce tofu (or whatever else you eat or wear) have a huge detrimental impact on native fauna. The only real way to drive this impact to zero is to stop existing. And, we’d all miss the heck out of them:)

            Andrew,
            Better luck next year. And, thanks for all the great ideas and inspiration.



  10. Jesse on January 3, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    No, you are a Hunter. If it were easy it would be called killing and everyone would be doing it.

    This just became a site I frequent.

    Look forward to more.

    +10

  11. Tristan on December 30, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    Andrew,

    I hunt 371 every year, awesome place to get deep in the forest. It took me 5 years to find a way around that mountain, where I wanted to hunt and once I got there, it is absolutely worth it. Everything I’ve ever read about elk hunting is true, if not modest. The muzzleloading season there is especially exhilarating. First time I’ve ever had a conversation with a bull. I wish I had remembered that the bull won’t come down to fight, you have to go up to challenge them.

    Tristan

  12. DoleWhipDad on July 24, 2016 at 10:20 am

    I did not grow up in a hunting family in WI, but had an interest and a great mentor who has become an even greater friend. As I stumbled upon your website in helping to prepare my Boy Scout son for his first (and mine too) bacpacking trip, I just realized the multitude of crossover skills and knowledge that backpacking and hunting provide. Thank you for this realization and I think after our first bacpacking trip, we will add backpackers to our list of favorite things!

    Hunter +10

    Go Duke +10

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