Notes for next elk hunt: Tips on strategy, location, shooting & dressing

I hunt just a few days each year, and don’t invest significant time or thought during the long period in between. Among a few smaller things, here are some takeaways and learned lessons that I want to incorporate into our 2018 plans:


The best advice we received on hunting strategy was from a Craig local at the Subway: “Find the nastiest, darkest shit that no one else wants to go into. The game will be in there.” This succinctly describes our experiences from years past — for much of the day, elk take refuge in these shady spruce-covered areas. Whenever we entered the dark timber we always got into game.

Hunting the timber is limited only by the limitations of your patience. How slow can you hunt? How invisible can you be (e.g. no swishy clothing, no breaking branches, no winding). Remind yourself that you’re not hiking — you’re hunting.

A fresh (but quickly filling in) bedding area left by a lone bull elk, in thick timber.

The winds were fierce on Friday night, and it snowed for most of Saturday and Sunday morning. Yet, the game seemed to continue to move, during the storms and perhaps more actively when it was calmer. During a lull on Saturday afternoon, we encountered fresh tracks at over 10,000 feet made by two does, and then saw two cows about 300 vertical feet below a ridge, near their bedding areas. On Sunday morning we intersected the filled-in tracks of a small herd (probably cows) that had moved overnight. When the storm started to clear on Sunday, we saw two does grazing in the open and then our two bull on the move.

This year the conditions were not sufficiently severe to push the elk to the lower elevations. When we drove over Rabbit Ears Pass, there was thin snow lingering on north-facing slopes in the shade. But other aspects were snow-free, and same for lower elevations. The grazing at 10,000 feet in Colorado in early-November isn’t great, but they can make it work and it’s better than being shot.

Morapos Trailhead

There was  good mix of habitat and terrain: open meadows, aspen stands, and dark timber; below the trailhead (to the west on public land and downstream on private land), there is scrub oak, pinyon/juniper, and sage.

It’s pretty, but lacks the dramatic topographic relief found, say, further south in the range. But this was an advantage: Steve and I could quickly and easily cover distance and pack out an animal.

Typical terrain in upper Morapos Creek: open meadows, aspen stands, dark timber, and scrub oak.

A handful of base camps occupied the trailhead, but it seemed relatively low pressure. We never saw hunters further out than one mile from the trailhead, and conversations suggested that 1-2 miles was the max for most of them.

Hunting pressure seems to have a logarithmic pattern: the further you get from population centers, the less pressure you encounter. To get away from other hunters, drive to remote GMU’s with limited motorized access, find unfriendly trailhead roads, and hike several miles into the backcountry (preferably uphill). Hunters on horseback can get even further into the backcountry, but thankfully there aren’t lots of them.

In the parking lot, other hunters reported seeing “herds” move through the area in previous years during Third Season. And they relayed general frustration among trailhead-based hunters about the lack of activity during the first few days of the season. They were all hoping for bad weather, to push the game down.


A single trekking pole is too wobbly for faraway shots. It’s better than standing, but using two crossed trekking poles or a backpack would be more stable.

In the hunt report I already talked about our one awful mistake: not giving our bull enough time to die after he’d been shot. Instead, we approached him too quickly, and he ran another mile.

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.

Create a post-shot ritual that distracts you from your impatience. Make coffee, hike back to the truck, take a cat nap. Only in some extenuating circumstances should you push it, like if a blizzard is covering up tracks and the blood trail. Darkness is not a valid reason to push — the trail will remain hot overnight, and you can recover the animal in the morning.

When approaching a down elk, be prepared for it to jump. Have a round in the chamber. Have a cow call ready. Start watching it from a distance, and don’t get any closer if there are signs of movement.

Gut shots are not quickly fatal. Our bull went 400 yards before bedding down, then three-fourths of a mile after being spooked. It was not a positive experience for either party.

Field dressing

If dressing an elk is not yet natural, freshen up with a YouTube video before you leaave. I like this gutless method with Fred Eichler. While he pulls all the required meat off a cow in 10 minutes, expect it to take longer — you’re probably not a pro, and you’ll want to get cleaner cuts than he does in the video. Also, communicate beforehand with your hunting partners what method you will use, so that everyone knows how it will be done in the field.

Alaska Game Bags are heavy, but otherwise they are excellent: they’re durable, breathable, and non-absorbent. Afterwards, throw them in the wash (hot cycle) and reuse them.

We cooled down the meat quickly by hanging it in camp. It wasn’t necessary, but we protected the meat from wet snow using a poncho.

We both used razor blade knives and loved them. It ensures that you always have a sharp blade, and it saves time. I went through three replacement blades, but could have used just two. My Outdoor Edge Razor-Lite was the preferred size, over the Havalon Piranta.

Pack two pairs of surgical gloves per person per animal. You may only need one pair, but are easily cut and can get messy; and they weigh nothing.

A handful of 6- or 8-foot long cords were very useful in cooling down the meat overnight. With them, we were able to hand the Alaska Game Bags from limbs.

Flagging tape was unnecessary for us, but it easily could have been helpful, like if it’d been snowing hard or if a shot animal dropped below the snowline.

For other details about my field dressing kit, refer to my gear list, After the Shot.

On our 4-point bull, each hind quarter weighed 45 pounds with bone-in. A front shoulder weighed 23 pounds with bone-in. Then we had three bags of assorted meat (e.g. prime cuts, rib and neck meat, and a deboned shoulder) that weighed 58 pounds total. A total of 172 pounds including three bones.

Packing out

An initial short leg through nasty terrain (e.g. uphill, off-trail, blowdowns) or to a nearby camp provides the opportunity to judge the number of trips necessary to pack out the entire animal. It may also be safer than over-loading at the start.

My pack was 65 pounds on the first trip and 67 pounds on the second. I’m not sure what Steve’s loads weighed, but they should have been similar.

Steve tiptoes across a shallow stream while carrying about 65 pounds of weight.

Our Nissan Rogue was tight on space with one animal plus personal gear. Two animals would be a stretch, but probably doable.

A utility sled could have tremendous value on a big bull or with multiple animals. Leave it in the car, and bring it out for the second round-trip (and third and fourth, if you’ve done really well). Dragging meat and gear on a slippery sled is easier and saver than carrying it out, especially with a net downhill.

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