Elk Hunt Report: Filling my freezer & ending the era of cluelessness

The final resting place for our 4-point bull in the Flattops. It yielded about 150 pounds of meat.

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.

Morapos Creek

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.

The Flattops are home to the largest migratory elk herd in the world. We hunted GMU 12, in the northern end of the range near Sleepy Cat Peak.

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.

Glassing from Baldy Mountain, purposely tucked into the trees for some defense against a blustery southwest wind.

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.

Wet, sleep-deprived, and intimidated by a snowy forecast, Steve takes a refreshing mid-day cat nap.

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.

Day 2

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.

Overnight the Flattops had turned into a winter wonderland.

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.

Side-hilling across snow-covered 30-degree slopes littered with blowdowns.

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.

Boom.

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.

About 350 yards after being shot, the bull laid down here and probably would have died here, if we had given him more time before tracking him.

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.

Including the bone, each hind quarter weighed about 45 pounds. It produces a few nice roasts and a lot of burger.

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.

To cool the meat, we hung it in camp overnight. Some of the meat bags were protected from precip by the spruce branches; the others we protected with a poncho, left.

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.

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