For two seasons Noel, Steve, and I had hunted GMU 12, a productive — and popular — unit in northwestern Colorado. We had some success, tagging a young bull in 2017 and having an almost successful timber sneak last year, but had made several realizations about the location:
- To reliably find elk, we had to hike 4 to 5 miles and climb 1,500 vertical feet on muddy horse-trodden trails, and that far out we still competed with hunters on horseback;
- We lost a full day to the drive (10 hours total), which usually represented a significant share of our available time off; and,
- Enthusiasm for scouting the area beforehand was low, due to the drive time and its lackluster backcountry aesthetic.
So as the draw deadline approached in April, we put in for a different unit that we thought, at least on the whole, would be better.
Pros and cons: GMU 29
GMU 29 is our backyard. It encompasses roughly the southern half of Boulder County, stretching from I-25 to the Continental Divide. It can be a difficult unit to hunt, as I’ve previously explained:
- The big game population is small — it and adjacent GMU 38 are home to only 1,200 elk.
- Harvest numbers are low, with just 71 total elk taken last year.
- The limited public land is concentrated in the western one-fifth of the unit, with an additional patchwork of smaller holdings in the foothills.
But we decided to go for it anyway. The easy logistics were very appealing. We were successful here before, back in 2015. And I’d found many honey-holes while trail running and backpacking in the summer months, where they’d still be during a normal Second Season.
Noel and I successfully drew cow tags. Steve put in for a bull, but had to settle for an over-the-counter tag that wasn’t valid for GMU 29. So it would be just Noel and me.
The worst case scenario
As a non-landowner, perhaps the biggest risk of hunting GMU 29 is heavy early-season snowfall. If their food sources get buried, the elk must drop eastward, out of the high elevation public lands and into the lower elevation patchwork of public and private. There, the elk can find food and safe zones; meanwhile, we find No Trespassing signs and limited access points to public land.
Early-season snowfall is a low but legitimate risk, and this year it happened during Second Season. Noel went up to 11,000 feet on opening day, October 19, and was chased out on Sunday by blizzard conditions, reporting a foot of fresh snow, 3-foot drifts, and 30 mph winds.
Due to responsibilities at home, I couldn’t go up until Thursday. It had snowed again on Wednesday night, and the scene became increasingly laughable as we approached Hessie Trailhead at 9,000 feet. When we stepped out of the truck, we landed in 15 inches of snow!
Noel and I had discussed the merits of bringing skis or snowshoes, and had decided that, “If we need them, the elk aren’t there.” But to shoot one you first need to find one. And to find one, it can be sometimes helpful to determine where they are not.
So we slugged up the road to Buckingham Trailhead, four miles and 1,000 vertical feet uphill. We crisscrossed a handful of mid-storm tracks, all going downhill, which confirmed our suspicions. At Buckingham, the snow depth was consistently two feet.
Weeks ago, Noel and I had settled on a hunt plan:
- Plan A: Out of Buckingham Trailhead
- Plan B: Way above Hessie Trailhead
- Plan C: Above Caribou
- Plan D: Jenny Creek via East Portal
Due to the snow, these four areas were entirely out of commission. The deep snow made it impractical for us to hunt, and the elk probably were no longer up there anyway.
So we were onto Plan E.
Deflated, we returned to Nederland to have a late lunch and to re-study our maps of the lands between the Peak to Peak Highway and the Front Range metro area. We decided we would work our way west to east, finishing near Gross Reservoir. Noel likened our prospects to finding a unicorn.
That afternoon we hunted the outer edges of West Magnolia, a mile outside of Nederland, but saw nothing to change our moods. We crossed a few deer tracks, but they were vastly outnumbered by those of humans, dogs, and vehicles.
It was already 29 degrees when we returned to the truck at 5:30 pm, and it was not lost on us that my house — with a cuddle-loving old cat for me and a guestroom for Noel — was just 45 minutes away. Tonight, we could be home before we’d have pitched camp here; and tomorrow, we could be at the trailhead before we’d broken down our camp.
So we jumped into the truck, bound for Boulder. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to test some new gear — including a Seek Outside Siplex shelter and a Sea to Summit Ether Light pad — but my own bed sounded better.
From 0 to 100
On our way out to the Peak to Peak Highway, I spotted three does grazing in the woods, just off the road. We didn’t have deer tags, but it gave us an idea. Rather than take the most efficient route back to Boulder, via Boulder Canyon, we opted to take Magnolia Road, which in places cuts through US Forest Service lands — maybe we’d see something.
Sure enough, as we rounded a corner, a half-dozen cows and calves ran across the road just in front of us. Noel pulled over a little bit beyond, and I turned on GaiaGPS to determine our location and the surrounding land ownership. Fortuitously, it was public.
I grabbed my rifle out of the back, chambered a round, and hiked briskly into the woods, hoping that I could get within range while maintaining my cover and while there was still light. When a shot corridor finally opened up, I took a knee, waited for the next cow to enter my sights, and fired. Noel was 20 yards behind me, and had tucked behind a tree when he saw me get into position.
It felt like a good shot — I was steady and within 100 yards, and she was broadside and slightly quartering-away. But it was difficult to distinguish her: she didn’t have an obvious reaction to the shot, and keeping eyes on her in the timber with other elk nearby was like a shell game. I thought I saw her go back towards the way they had came, but I wasn’t entirely sure. So I took note of the shooting lane and her approximate location when I’d shot, knowing this information would be helpful to have later.
We quietly hiked back to the truck, where we tested our patience by waiting an hour. It took us a few minutes to find the blood trail when we returned to the site, but after that she was easy to track in the snow. We found her a few minutes away; she had not suffered for long.
Noel and I field-dressed her in about an hour, and packed her out in just half that, with five light round-trips between us (rear quarter x 2, front quarter x 2, and backstraps + tenderloins + rib meat + personal gear). Compared to our 2015 hunt, when the pack-out was 12 miles with 3,300 vertical feet of gain, this one was a breeze.
As we drove back to Boulder, we were still in disbelief. It was not the elegant backcountry hunt that we had envisioned or wanted, but we were thankful that it’d still worked out and that our freezers are stocked for the winter.