This was my fifth year of elk hunting, and finally I may be getting the hang of it. While I’m pleased that my chest freezer is full again (thanks to a four-point bull that mistakenly skylined himself at 2:30 in the afternoon, more details below), I’m perhaps happier with other things that went right.
Specifically, my hunting partner Steve and I chose a productive hunting unit, and found a low-pressure trailhead with good access to seasonal habitat. We saw and bumped multiple animals, suggesting we knew where they would likely be (i.e. elevation and terrain), given the time of day and the weather conditions. And we patiently stalked two bulls until we could take a kill shot.
Most definitely, I’m still a beginner, have a lot to learn, and expect to make more mistakes. But I seem to be beyond the era of cluelessness, when all of the above conditions were the opposite: we didn’t know how to select a hunting location, where to find game, or how to hunt them. This was the liability of picking up this activity in my 30’s, not growing up with it.
In five seasons I have hunted four locations: the Gore Range (2x, GMU 371), Indian Peaks Wilderness (GMU 29), Raggeds Wilderness (GMU 521), and now the northern Flattops (GMU 12). The Flattops — which also include GMU’s 23, 231, 24, 25, 26, 33, and 34) host the largest migratory elk herd in the world, about 40,000 animals.
Despite proportionally intense hunting pressure, we opted for the Flattops anyway. We (rightfully, in hindsight) thought that we could comfortably hunt a few miles further out than other hunters would wander. And we felt that with so many animals around, our respective orbits would be more likely to intersect than in a less densely inhabited GMU like the Indian Peaks, where finding a needle in the haystack seems to require more luck.
To avoid a repeat of last year in the Raggeds, when Steve and I got within 250 yards of a 15-head herd but couldn’t get a shot on a bull (for which we had a tag) without spooking the cows (for which we did not), and also saw a handful of mule deer (for which we didn’t have tags either), this year we had a bull tag, two cow tags, and two buck tags.
We agreed to let the day and the circumstances dictate our choices. For example, if we could take simultaneous shots on two cows, we would, but one-elk-and-home would be acceptable. Mule deer were off-limits until at least Sunday, because they provide less meat.
We departed Craig, Colo., the closest big town to Morapos Trailhead, at 5 pm, and were particularly encouraged by the final 30 minutes of the drive. Small herds of does grazed in each hay field that we passed, with a few bucks mixed in. We didn’t see any elk, which confirmed our suspicions: given the relatively warm and dry weather, both recently and throughout October, they were still up high, with no incentive yet to migrate down.
The upper and lower Morapos Trailheads were about one-fourth full, which made Steve giddy. He had scouted Marvine Creek — an easily accessible trailhead east of Meeker — during the first weekend of Second Rife season, and reported few positives: he struggled to find a parking spot, and bumped other hunters everywhere he went.
As Steve and I loaded up our backpacking shelters and beans & rice dinners in our 2.5-lb backpacks, prepared to spend up to four days in the backcountry before needing to return to the car, we looked enviously at the handful of wall tents with wood stoves that other hunting parties had, especially given the forecast: 10-20 inches of snow through Tuesday, the first major storm of the winter.
Towards the end of civil twilight, an enormous full moon rose out of the east, allowing Steve and I to keep our headlamps off as we hiked comfortably 3.5 miles through open meadows and aspen stands. We pitched camp under some protective spruce near a flowing creek, ready for a pre-dawn start on opening day.
Day 1: In the ballpark
The wind picked up overnight, with regular 30 or 40 mph gusts that sounded like approaching freight trains. Steve and I both struggled to sleep, with Steve later describing his night as, “a series of short naps.”
We packed up and climbed 700 vertical feet by headlamp to the top of Baldy Mountain, which overlooked a shallow meadow-streaked basin sandwiched by Horse Ridge and the divide north of Sleepy Cat Peak. If not for the blasting wind in our face, it was a perfect lookout.
The vantage point also allowed us to watch the storm front incoming from the southwest. Within in an hour, Baldy Mountain was enveloped by a blizzard, forcing us to descend.
At the Subway in Craig, a local — who, like us, was grabbing a last-minute meal before driving to his hunting spot in the upper Yampa watershed — had offered advice that succinctly summarized our observations from past years. “Find the nastiest, darkest shit that no one else wants to go into. The game will be in there.”
When Steve and I looked at the map, we thought the ravines north of Baldy Mountain would offer that kind of terrain: thick spruce groves, steep aspects, and blowdowns, with open meadows and aspen stands nearby for hearty grazing in the morning, evening, and dark.
Sure enough, within a half-hour of dropping off Baldy Mountain we bumped a small cow herd, with only Steve seeing the rear-end of the group’s slowest member. We followed their footprints in the fresh snow, probably foolishly: in the time that we crawled a quarter-mile, they could already in the next county.
The experience was a good reminder that, when hunting dark timber, there’s no such thing as hiking too slow — assume that elk are bedding behind every tree, or long before you spot them they will have heard or spotted you, and be gone. Also, hunt into or perpendicular to the wind.
Upon reaching the Wymore Lake Trail, we took refuge from the wet snowfall under thick spruce. It was an emotional low point for both of us: we were sleep-deprived and uncomfortably damp, and questioning the viability of hunting in these conditions.
But after cat naps and hot drinks, we decided to hike back up to Baldy and hunt another of its north ravines. By following the trail, we could quickly cover miles and perhaps crisscross fresh tracks.
The snow depth at 10,000+ feet was significantly greater than at our break spot, now in excess of 6 inches since that morning. Thankfully, it had stopped snowing, and a friendlier-looking southwest sky suggested these drier conditions would hold for at least a few hours. We intersected the tracks of two mule deer, and followed them until we saw two does (for which we did not have tags).
We returned to Baldy Mountain by 4:30 PM, glassed for as long as we could withstand the howling wind, and hiked towards the northwest end of its ridgeline. Just before we planned to begin our second descent, I spotted two cow elk immediately below us, grazing in open timber. I quickly dropped my pack onto the snow to use as a rest, chambered a round, and opened my scope caps. Unfortunately, as soon as I had brown in my crosshairs, they bolted — we were directly upwind of them, and I assume they caught a whiff.
Upon reaching their tracks, we first followed them backwards, to see where they would lead. Within one-hundred yards, we found their daytime bedding areas, which we thought might be the case: they were hungry after hunkering down all day, and (as if on cue) they had just started moving.
Then we began to follow their tracks steeply downhill and into, of course, the dark timber. We tracked them for a while but eventually gave up — we weren’t getting closer to them, and it was nearly nightfall. A four-hundred foot descent got us to the valley bottom, where we found water and a spruce-protected campsite. The timing was ideal: just after washing out my dinner pot, it began to snow again.
It snowed most of the night, transforming the northern Flattops into a winter wonderland. We slept in, lacking enthusiasm to face the conditions, and made breakfast in camp. If the conditions did not relent, we agreed that we would finish the day at the car, which we could use to access lower, drier, and warmer terrain, or to simply go home.
Based on our opening day experience, we decided to hunt Baldy’s north ravines again. The more conventional morning strategy — to glass from a high vantage point — was impractical: between the snowfall and the low clouds, visibility was too limited.
Six-hundred yards out of camp, we picked up hours-old tracks of a small elk herd. We followed them backwards into one of the north ravines, which made us think it could have been the same herd we bumped the morning before.
We continued uphill: hike, stop, scan, and repeat. It was snowing heavily so we didn’t bother with our binoculars — they would have become useless within a few minutes.
A half-mile uphill we found the bedding area of a lone bull elk, with fresh tracks leading away from it. He wasn’t running, which made us think that he wasn’t overly concerned about us (perhaps our smell or sounds were still far off) or that the timing of his departure was merely coincidental. It became clear that it was the former: he took us on a heinous contour across snow-covered 30-degree slopes and into Pick Up Sticks-like blowdowns. We tracked him for three hours, covering a mere mile. Steve and I both ran for Duke and are training for a sub-2:30 marathon in Houston in January, if that tells you anything about the topography.
Around 2:30 PM the bull’s tracks pulled out onto Baldy Mountain’s open west face. I saw two does in the meadow below, happily grazing under clearing skies after a snowy night and morning. And then I saw an even better sight: two skylined elk, hiking right-to-left, about one mile away. In my low quality 9-power binoculars, they appeared to be cows.
Steve and I decided to abandon the lone bull elk, who we felt was simply screwing with us, and take chase.
The final hunt
We intersected the duo’s tracks in a shallow draw and followed them into an open aspen forest. This was our best chance so far, so we were extra careful in our stalk: scan the forest with our binoculars, hike, stop, scan again. Tracking them was exceptionally easy in the new snowfall. The wind direction was ideal: in our face.
Steve spotted the elk first, and whispered at me to stop and get down. To our surprise, we realized that they were bulls, not cows, which meant that I would be taking the shot since I had the only bull tag.
We estimated the distance at about 200 yards, which is within my shooting comfort zone. I would have preferred to use my pack as a rest, but I needed more height to get above the undergrowth, so instead I used a lone trekking pole. There was no time to fashion DIY shooting sticks with the Voile strap and cord that I was carrying for this purpose — the elk were looking back at us, suspecting something was up but not yet sure of it.
One of the bulls turned broadside to me, looking right, giving me a clear view of its vitals. I took a few a few steadying breaths, and took aim.
They book took off, out of view over a small rise. One was clearly stumbling, but we didn’t see it drop. It was 3:20 PM.
And this is when we made our biggest mistake of the trip. We took a few minutes to put on clothing layers and get some food, but we didn’t wait nearly long enough. We should have found something to do — take a nap, make coffee, write in a journal, climb a nearby peak. Anything to pass time and give the bull a chance to lay under a spruce and die peacefully on its own time.
In 2015 my cow elk fell 30 yards from where I shot her, and didn’t make an effort to get up. Even so, I walked a mile round-trip at 11,000 feet to fetch my backpack before I approached her. This time, however, after about 10 minutes Steve and I began to follow its tracks. Hike, stop, scan, repeat, with rifles loaded and prepared for a second shot.
After 225 yards we reached the point at which the bull had been shot, and then followed easily the blood trail from there. Interestingly, the uninjured bull seemed to be staying with the injured one.
Again, Steve was the first to see the injured bull, laying under a spruce at the edge of a meadow, about 350 yards from where it’d been shot. Unfortunately, we were only 20-30 yards out when we saw it, well within earshot and easily visible. I aimed my rifle at it again, looking for movement, but I only had a good shot on its head, due to the way in which it was lying down.
When Steve took another step forward, the elk looked up, mustered all of its energy to get on its feet, and bounded away like it’d never been shot. Neither Steve nor I managed to get off a second shot on the moving target. Clearly, it had not been shot in the vitals. (It turned out to be a gut shot, about 6 inches off. I’m not sure if I jerked during the shot, or if the bullet grazed an aspen shoot.)
We looked at each in disbelief, feeling utterly stupid for just having committed this rookie mistake, and for having extended this painful process for the bull.
Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, Steve and I decided to give the bull more time. We sat down, sent out a message via inReach, and hiked back to the shot location to retrieve a glove liner that I had accidentally dropped. After an hour, we thought it was time to try again.
We tracked the bull across a meadow, through aspens, and even a spruce forest. This made me nervous, as I fully expected the bull to lay down in the thick timber. Instead, it had passed right through the area. When we reached the edge of a wetland, we spotted the bull across the way, moving very slowly. We saw it drop, then stand back up and walk a few more feet before it dropped again. It was tough to watch, and we wanted it over with.
We crept into the meadow to get within shooting position. I shot it once in the neck, and it was over.
Dress, pack out, and process
Field dressing the bull took longer than we would have liked — about three hours for four quarters, two backstraps, and two tenderloins, plus some rib and neck meat. Steve had never dressed an elk before; it was only my second time; and we were doing it by headlamp. Temperatures were in the high-20’s, but the rigorous work kept us warm. If our hands got cold, there was an easy solution: warm them up on the carcass, which retained its warmth through the end.
Once we were done, I scouted for a campsite, and found a nice horse camp 200 yards away, by the creek and under some spruce. We transported our gear, the meat, and the head in five total round-trips (two for Steve, three for me), and based on that experience we figured we could pack everything out in two round-trips each in the morning. To cool the meat overnight, we hung the game bags from a blowdown and on some tree limbs.
On Monday morning, we had breakfast and double-shots of coffee before shouldering our massive loads. My pack weighed 65 pounds on the first trip out, and 67 pounds on the second. Thankfully, it was a relatively short and easy hike out — both round-trips totaled 5+ miles with 700 vertical feet of gain and 1000 vertical feet of loss. We were done in four hours, breaks included. The meat weighed 172 pounds, including two hind-quarter bones and one shoulder bone; we de-boned the other shoulder because half of it was too bloodshot to carry out of the field.
We pulled into Boulder around 5 PM and split the meat in half. I returned home and got to work. My tenderloin and backstrap steaks were in the freezer before bed. Most of the roasts and burger were in the freezer by Tuesday afternoon, with some lingering work through Wednesday morning.
Good to see another hunting post! I grew up hunting, but really like seeing your perspective as an adult that made the conscious effort to start hunting. My dad and I backpacked into Unit 12 for first season and he was able to take a cow this year.
Curious, what’s the hunting strategy for GMU 12 during First Rifle. I assume they are mostly still high, so for best odds you have to go get them, instead of hoping they wander down low.
We picked an area that was fairly roadless and went in towards the edge of some huge dark timber areas. There were guide camps higher above us and the road hunters were hitting the areas below us. We saw elk and sign each day and I think we ended up basically right in the middle of where they were moving around to avoid the other hunters higher and lower.
What caliber and type of rifle were you and Steve carrying?
We both have a Tika T3 Stainless in .308.
Very nice. I just finished a Precision Rifle course at Gunsite Academy in October. If you’re interested in learning how to manually range and engage targets out to 1000 yards, I highly recommend it. 🙂
Congratulations again on your successful hunt!
Second, out of curiosity, why elk as a “starter” animal? I’ve seen it as a popular choice for novice bow hunters. I’ve only hunted small game (mostly upland birds) and haven’t had the that itch extend to any larger game. Is it the quantity of meat? Taste of elk vs mule deer?
It’s purely a meat-to-effort calculation.
Expectations of weight of boneless meat for mule deer, http://www.backcountrychronicles.com/mule-deer-pack-out-weight/
For elk: http://www.backcountrychronicles.com/elk-pack-out-weight/
On average, for elk and deer between 1.5 years-old and 6.5 years old, an elk will yield 2.7 to 3.7 more meat. So you’d need to harvest 3-4 mule deer to get more meat than what you’ll pull off one just elk (assuming the same ages). There are more mule deer around, but I think you’re 3-4x more likely to get one.
Thanks! Makes perfect sense. Enjoy your harvest!
for those of us who don’t know hunting jargon, what does it mean to bump an elk?
They spot you (through sight, sound, or smell) before you spot them, and they take off. If you bump an elk, it’s worth stopping and considering why. For me, normally it’s because I’ve been hiking through the woods, not hunting them.
Hi! Do you have to worry about other predators (bears, mountain lion, etc.) coming into your campsite with that meat hanging next to your tent? thanks!
In some areas, yes, but I hadn’t heard of issues in this particular area.
In the northern Rockies I’ve heard that some grizzly bears equate the sound of a gunshot with dinner. Maybe backcountry legend. Or maybe they simply smell the meat and come running — they have a great sense of smell.
I’m sure that wildlife problems are the same for backpackers and hunters. Bears that have become “trained” to be comfortable around humans are the biggest concern. And usually you find those bears in high-use areas like National Parks (where hunting is generally prohibited) and easily accessible Wilderness Areas like the Maroon Bells-Snowmass.
We hunt Admiralty Island in SE Alaska, and it’s conventional wisdom there that you watch your back when field dressing. Hunting in pairs, one for the deer, the other watching out for bears, is routine to some extent.
People here do think that bears seem to associate gunfire with a carcass. With a bear every square mile, it seems likely.
We spent three days “sleeping with our meat” on an elk hunt in Alaska this fall in brown bear country. Not my idea of fun, but thankfully, no encounters with Mr. Furry.
bears in hunting areas are hunted, and are unlikely to be a problem.. they have a healthy fear of humans.
We hunted GMU 41 on Grand Mesa where there may be more bears than elk, based on sign (tracks, scat, etc). Saw one bear once, when hunting elk. When hunting bears, none seen..
FYI, in the hunting world you really don’t want to publish specific trailheads/trails/mountains as it could result in an influx of people, especially on a successful hunt like yours. i would strongly urge you to rewrite/edit this article to omit specific names.
This has gotten so bad in recent years that some of the more successful/famous hunters aren’t even showing photos/videos of mountain peaks or easily distinguished landmarks.
Just wanted to caution you about this.
I considered this, but withholding information is counter to my general efforts to offer helpful information. I also struggle to see the “influx of people” happening — we got a single 4-point bull, and we were beyond the practical hunting range for about 95 percent of hunters; and my hunting readership is tiny. Finally, there were about a dozen other locations in this area where I would have preferred to hunt if the forecast had been different.
Thanks for this really honest post. I’ve hunted (grouse and turkeys, though never deer or elk yet) since I was a kid, and have always felt a huge amount of reverence for the animals I’ve shot. I keep checking my Kindle a couple fo times a year to see if you’ve published any new books, because I really enjoy your stories and perspective. I moved from Minnesota to India, and then rural India a decade back, where my wife and I run a nonprofit (we got engaged on the Annapurna Circuit), and stories like yours give me a chance to escape the dust and heat. Cheers
Curious as to what kind of footwear you were rocking; I use trail runners while backpacking, even for tough trail, but haven’t thought much about what to wear hunting. Maybe it’s an old notion that’s not necessarily beneficial, but I’m inclined to opt for boots while out in the snow, even if they’re heavier than my normal backpacking shoes. Also, do you use a hydration bladder while you’re out in the cold like that? I know a lot of people complain about the hoses/mouthpieces freezing when you’re in adverse conditions, which could be a real issue. I also know the SD Flex has a shoulder pocket for a water bottle, so maybe a bladder is redundant.
1. Read this post, https://andrewskurka.com/2016/conditions-hiking-waterproof-footwear-winter-system/
2. The Salomons that I referenced in this post stayed at home this year, and instead I took some Merrell Capra boots. The Salomons are more comfortable but I wanted a bigger shoe so that circulation was not impeded and so that I could wear a liner + insulating sock if need be. My Salomons are just not sized right for this application.
3. I go with bottles in these conditions. Specifically, I used a HDPE Nalgene, which has a wide-mouth, making for easy filling and easy decanting of hot liquids like tea.
Ah, my bad. I had missed the reference to the Salomons, and to the Merrells. Thanks for the link, though. Definitely helpful. And as far as the water bottle, that makes sense.
Great article Andrew. Had my first hunt in November but was unsuccessful. Two questions. 1 Did you use your flex backpack to pack out the Ellk and if so how id it handle the 60 plus pounds?
1. Yes, I used my Flex, and so too did Steve.
2. 60 lbs is a lot of weight regardless of what you’re carrying it in, but besides that inherent fact I thought the Flex did really well. I was happy to get back to the car, but we didn’t have to stop for a break or to relieve our shoulders during the hour hike out (times two). This was my second time carrying out an elk in the Flex — I carried an elk out in 2015 with a near-finished prototype. It performed so well that year (way in excess of my expectations) that I have used it every year since, even though I have another pack that is more hunting-specific.
You guys are FUN HOGS! ;o)
Loved it. I started elk hunting when I was 45 with a very steep learning curve and zero guidance except for the Internet and dudes at gas stations. 12 years later I’ve had over 20 close calls but no meat in the freezer yet. More determined than ever, I just came back from first rifle and I’m getting ready for third rifle- it just so happens in the flat tops. yes I guess technically I’m still a novice elk hunter but I’m becoming at least an intermediate outdoorsman 🙂 thanks again. BL
Great post, I might have missed it but what do you do to stay warm in your tent? Just a really good sleeping bag?
Yes, just a warm bag, because that’s the most weight-efficient thing to do.
It’s really nice to have a base camp available so that you can dry things out. We did that the next year, https://andrewskurka.com/hunt-report-timber-sneak-morapos/
I must now say that, at 79, I’ve decided hunting big game in Nevada now requires some kind of motorize transport to cover the great distances required AND to haul out boned meat from a big game animal.
Therefore I’ve gone to an E-MTB (electric mountain bike). I chose an E-CELLS Super Monarch Crown. It’s over-the-top name kind says this bike IS kinda “uber the top” with 2 wheel drive, 2 batteries and dual suspension. But it can get me almost anywhere a horse could and carry out well over 100 pounds of boned-out meat.
My days of being able to backpack in and pack out the meat are behind me and this is the most cost effective and environmentally friendly way I could continue hunting. Naturally I’ll still have to do a lot of hiking as well to hunt successfully, even with an E-MTB.
How do you charge and e-bike in a emote car camp? With a “solar generator” (lithium iron phosphate battery) connected to a foldable Off Grid TREK solar “blanket” draped over theroof and windshield of my MAZDA CX-5 SUV. Charge the ECO FLOW Delta 2 battery by day and charge my bike batteries in the evening.
My buddy in Pennsylvania and some YouTube reports say that deer are not spooked by a person on a bike as they are a person on foot. Just another advantage of an e-mtb.
I do NOT want a Honda gas generator and the accompanying gas cans and noise. Plus the solar blanket and Delta 2 battery can be used at home in a power outage indefinitely.