Morapos Creek delivered last year, our first hunt in Colorado’s GMU 12. Steve and I saw elk or fresh elk tracks several times per day, encountered few other hunters, and shot a 4-point bull on Sunday afternoon.
Unfortunately, our hunt ended how most of mine have: with empty coolers, and regret that I couldn’t stay out a few more days. But at least Noel and I got really close: we tracked a half-dozen cows for five hours, but spooked them in thick timber before we were able to get off a clean shot from 50 yards.
When I began to write this report, it was not my intention for it to be 2,500 words. But in recent weeks I’ve learned that at least a few other hunters learn from my reports — including out-of-state Kyle, who shot a bull on Wilson Mesa, and a local trail runner who ID’d me while I was on a long run — so I included more detail than an unsuccessful hunt might warrant.
Friday: In position
Under overcast skies and in mild temperatures, Noel and I departed the upper Morapos Trailhead around 4:30 pm, aiming for a well protected camp at the base of Baldy Mountain. The trail was in tough shape — it’d been badly rutted by horses and was very muddy — and I hoped that the freezing temperatures and snow in the forecast would firm it up and fill it in.
Steve planned to meet us in the morning. He wasn’t able to get out of work early, so he would drive up afterwards and camp at the trailhead. It would be a short hunt for him this year: he’d have to leave on Sunday afternoon so that he could be back at work on Monday morning to manage a systems integration.
Noel and I pulled into camp with our headlamps on, and quickly pitched our floorless mids and laid out our sleeping pads and bags. A few inches of snow covered the ground at 8,600 feet, except under our spruce cluster. For dinner we had Ramen noodles with homemade pesto (made with homegrown basil).
Saturday: Opening day
My alarm went off at 5:15 AM, two hours before sunrise. Since we planned to return to this camp tonight, we left behind anything we didn’t need for the day. I had bought into the plan yesterday, but now questioned if the weight-savings justified the sacrifice to our flexibility. My shelter (with stakes and ground sheet), sleeping bag and pad, and a day’s worth of food weighed only about 6 pounds.
When we joined back up with the trail, we saw one set of tracks in the light dusting of snow that had fallen overnight (much less than the 3 to 5 inches in the forecast). I correctly assumed it was Steve — the length and power of his stride is rare among hunters.
In the snow we also saw tracks from a small group of elk, but we didn’t feel that they were fresh enough to chase.
Like last year, we spent the first few hours of opening day atop Baldy, glassing the meadows and stands of aspen below. Also like last year, we saw nothing, except for two other hunters on the Salt Park Trail and an approaching storm that would soon shut down this vantage point.
Down valley, hunters were having more success. I heard at least eight shots; Steve said it was more like eighteen. We speculated that they were coming from private land, on which we saw at least one-hundred mule deer during the drive in on Friday night.
After losing visibility in the storm, we descended Baldy’s north ridge towards the game camera that Noel had installed a week before First Season. The results were discouraging: a bull, one week earlier; a cow and calf, a few days ago; and a half-dozen hunters, two of which were perched on a knob 50 yards away.
During a break in the weather we discussed our afternoon options. One was to hunt the dark timber in Baldy’s northern valleys, where Steve and I had bumped a bull and a small group of cows the year prior. With no wind or noise-muffling snowfall, we deemed it a low-odds strategy. It also seemed too ambitious given the remaining daylight and the location of our fixed camp.
Instead, we decided to hunt Baldy’s west slopes. In one shallow draw we intersected a set of cow-and-calf tracks, climbing towards Baldy. We decided not to pursue, for the reasons cited earlier.
In the next draw we saw a group of five hunters, which appeared to have a few father/sons in it. Upper Morapos Creek is public land and has good wildlife habit, and we expect to see other hunters here. Nonetheless, we were getting frustrated with bumping (and being bumped by) other hunters at every turn. I can’t imagine what’s it’s like during First Season — Noel said that the trailheads were completely full the weekend before it started.
We ended the day on Baldy’s open west shoulder, from where Steve and I first saw last year’s 4-point bull. The only elk we saw this time were four miles north-northwest, happily situated on private land about one mile from the National Forest boundary. That evening we heard no shots anywhere.
Our alarms went off early again, and we filed out of camp in the dark towards a long meadow where we saw three mule deer grazing the evening prior. We hadn’t been to this area before either, and were curious about it.
With temperatures in the teens, we sat on the edge of the meadow, hoping that elk would arrive for a morning feed. I was the first to become too impatient (and cold), and collected the group.
Fueled by coffee, we started to hunt our way back to the trailhead. We crossed one set of elk tracks, but lost them in an area that had melted out yesterday afternoon. We also spooked three mule deer — we’d seen their tracks, but without deer tags we didn’t care.
Run-ins with other hunters were more reliable. One hunter had entered our morning meadow. We saw one staked out above Konopik Reservoir, two above Cove Reservoir, and a mule train south of Iles Mountain. And at a random spot in the woods a half-mile from the trailhead we encountered two more.
We pulled into the trailhead around noon, discouraged with the hunt thus far. Steve needed to leave, but Noel and I planned to continue on after replenishing our food bags.
It was snowing hard, probably at a rate of two inches per hour. And it wasn’t supposed to let up, with the forecast calling for six inches overnight, three inches on Monday, and more snow Monday night into Tuesday. After Steve left, Noel and I huddled in my Ram 1500 rental, cranked up the heat, and discussed our options.
Heading back out into those conditions was about the last thing that I wanted to do. Attempts at hunting were unlikely to be productive: the game would be bedded down and waiting it out, and the snow would curtail greatly our visibility. In addition, I was unexcited by the prospect of several days with damp clothing, damp boots, and a damp sleeping bag.
To pass a few hours we agreed to drive into Craig, Colo., where cell service and a Mexican restaurant might lift our spirits. If conditions were favorable at these lower elevations, we could also hunt a few small parcels of public land.
At the lower elevations the conditions were no better: it was windier, and squalls of wet snow regularly rolled through. So we settled on cell service and a restaurant meal.
Over a bottomless bowl of tortilla chips and a massive plate of deep-fried chili rellenos, Noel pitched a trip-saving plan. He reminded me that he had a basic base camp setup in his car, including a 14-foot tepee tent and a small propane heater.
Tonight we could stay dry and warm in the base camp, and in the morning depart for Wilson Mesa, an area to which we hadn’t been but about which we’d heard good things. On Monday night, we could camp in the backcountry, or return to the relative luxury of our base camp.
We drove back to Morapos, arriving just before dark. It took us only about 30 minutes to set up the tepee, which was as comfortable as I’d hoped: it was storm-worthy, spacious, and reasonably warm. Noel dried out his feet and boots with the space heater, while I tried to suppress my excitement about tomorrow so that I could get to sleep.
Monday: Wilson Mesa
Overnight the storm dropped 4 to 5 inches of snow at the trailhead, but had cleared by 5:30 am when Noel and I emerged from the tepee — we could see stars. We correctly speculated that we’d find several additional inches atop Wilson Mesa, another 1,000 feet higher.
By headlamp we began the tough hump to the mesa. Normally, a climb with 1,000 feet of vertical gain wouldn’t phase me, but the trail was slick and even more rutted than the upper trail, and my pack weighed 45 or 50 pounds. Noel and I were prepared to spend the night atop Wilson Mesa, and had a full day’s worth of water.
We chose to hunt Wilson Mesa for several reasons. First, it was the only zone within a practical distance from the trail (about 4 miles, plus/minus depending on the terrain) to which we hadn’t been. In the other areas we had seen no elk and little recent sign. Second, other hunters we’d met at the trailheads were reporting more success and sign in that direction. Third, we’d never been up there, and wanted to scope it out — after all, we’re still learning this area.
About a half-mile after topping out on the mesa, Noel and I intersected the tracks of a cow and calf that couldn’t have been more than 6 hours old, after the snow had stopped. Our elapsed time was 2:20 and we were 2.75 miles from the trailhead.
Early on opening day of my first hunt in 2013, Rob and I had intersected tracks just like this. Being the total rookies that we were, we followed them at a normal hiking speed, still with our rifles attached to our packs, imagining that we’d get an easy shot while they were grazing in a meadow — just like on MeatEater. Instead, we bumped them about 400 yards later, and they all vanished into the forest like ghosts.
To achieve a different outcome this time, I suggested to Noel that we mentally prepare ourselves. If we slowly and patiently hunted these tracks, we might get an opportunity for a shot — in a few hours, this evening, or maybe even tomorrow.
After a quick breakfast we started our pursuit. Hike for 30 or 60 seconds, stop, glass, glass, glass some more. Repeat. Our visibility was limited to about 200 yards by the subtle terrain and the mixed aspen and spruce.
Two hours and less than one mile later, the cow and calf appeared to join four other elk. Their individual tracks meandered and suggested no goal or urgency. When their tracks splintered, Noel and I each followed an outermost track, so that we’d know if the group had fractured.
Soon the tracks started to loop back on themselves in a counterclockwise direction, and continued doing so until at one point we were just 400 yards from where we first picked up the tracks. We were conflicted about this trend: either the elk were inside this loop, and therefore weren’t far away; or, they had been inside this loop, but took off after seeing or smelling us as we unknowingly walked around them.
Three hours and 1.5 miles into our chase, we found elk beds in the snow. This made us nervous — Did they leave because of us? But we soon found a better explanation: horse tracks. We noted that the elk beds had refrozen, and concluded they’d probably been spooked by the horse, not us.
Thankfully, where the elk punched through their and our earlier tracks, the horseman followed our old tracks. We continued to follow the fresh tracks, which were more single-file and seemed to have more intent.
About a half-mile from the first elk beds we were surprised to find another group of beds. This time, they were still slushy, suggesting the elk were there very recently. Again we asked, Did they leave because of us?
At this point, Noel and I should have prepared for a shot, by putting a round in the chamber and carrying our rifles in our arms (instead of slung across our chests). But we thought we’d have time for that later. We also should have resisted the urge to pick up the pace — “They’re close! Let’s go get ’em!” — and actually slowed things down.
We followed the tracks across a small opening and entered a spruce grove. That’s when I first saw movement. I whispered back to Noel, and we both quietly dropped our packs and chambered a round.
Then I saw more movement through a small window in the spruce — six heads in succession, quickly moving right to left. There was no opportunity for a shot: it happened too quickly, and I never got a look at their bodies.
Noel and I slowly closed in, hoping for a more open shot, but they were gone. Our elapsed time was 7:20 and distance was 5.0 miles, meaning we’d been in pursuit for 5 hours and 2.25 miles, averaging less than 0.5 mph.
We were still hopeful as we hiked back to our packs. The elk had looked nervous, but not panicked. Maybe they would circle up again in a few minutes and a few hundred yards away.
But, no, that’s not what they did. Instead, they plunged over the southeast edge of Wilson Mesa, galloping at full speed down a 25-degree slope and lunging over downed trees.
Noel and I knew that these elk would probably not come back to us. But we decided to follow them anyway, at least until we found something better — they were still the freshest tracks we had. Plus, they were going in the direction of the trailhead.
The tracks took us across nasty sidehills and through thick scrub oak. It’s like they were f’ing with us. Our hopeless chase ended about two miles later, when the tracks crossed the Wilson Mesa Trail and entered private land.
Exhausted and deflated, Noel and I returned to the trailhead, disappointed by the result but encouraged by how close we’d come and optimistic about next year.