CPW Field Journal ‘Adult-Onset Hunting’ (Part 4)

Photo by © Wayne D Lewis(CPW)

Photo by © Wayne D Lewis(CPW)

CPW Field Journal

When it comes to outdoors expertise, no one understands Colorado’s fishery and wildlife resources better than Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s diverse staff of wildlife managers, park rangers and biologists.  For these dedicated individuals, working for CPW is not just an occupation but a way of life.  When they’re not enforcing fish and game laws, patrolling state lands or conducting fish and wildlife research, most CPW employees are avid sportsmen and women who spend their leisure time hunting and angling throughout the state.  Here, CPW staff share their personal stories and experiences, provide on-the-ground field updates and offer a unique, “inside” perspective on all things hunting and fishing in Colorado.

GIS Analyst Chris Johnson

GIS Analyst Chris Johnson

In this special, multipart series of CPW field Journal, Chris Johnson, GIS analyst for CPW, shares his experiences and thoughts as a first-time hunter.  Johnson is part of a growing trend of adults, known as “Adult-Onset Hunters,” who are taking up hunting as a midlife pursuit.


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Part Four:  “My First Elk Hunt: What I Learned”
Go to Part Three of This Series

Photo by Chris Johnson/CPW.

Photo by Chris Johnson/CPW.

It’s been several weeks since I returned from my first hunt.  I purposely held off on writing my final entry to give myself time to reflect on my trip.  I won’t beat around the bush and make you wait until after the proverbial commercial break to tell you that I did not harvest an elk.  In fact, if you must know, I didn’t even see an elk.

From what I have heard it was a tough fourth-rifle season for most folks hunting in the White River valley this year.  Actually what I heard most was, “Well . . . that’s hunting.”   And it is.  In 2012, the success rate for fourth-rifle season in GMU 24 was 34 percent.  Given my lack of experience and, if I have to be honest, my level of commitment, I’m not at all surprised I wasn’t successful.  I was counting on Lady Luck, but as we all know she can be a fickle mistress.

On my return, the question asked immediately after “Did you get one?” was “Would you do it again?” I have asked myself that very question regularly both during my hunt and ever since.  The honest answer is: I’m not sure yet.

For the record, hunting is hard.  There are many ways to hunt, and I can only speak to the way we hunted.  I stayed in a yurt two miles up a four-wheel-drive road on the edge of Forest Service property.  We were advised to hunt high based on where elk were being harvested during third season.  If we weren’t seeing any sign up high, then we’d want to hunt low.  If hunting low didn’t pan out, then we should work the dark timber.  Let me translate that for you: Elk move around a lot for reasons we don’t fully understand and they could be anywhere.  Happy hiking!

I will not lie.  There were moments as I huffed and puffed over downfall in knee-deep snow that I thought maybe this just wasn’t my thing.  In the weeks since, I’ve admitted to myself that everything I read in my research talked about physical conditioning. Getting myself into better shape shouldn’t be a roadblock for future endeavors.  If anything, it could be a reason to go again.

In addition to the physical hardships, there is a tough mental component to hunting. I think I was prepared from a gear standpoint, but I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t entirely confident in my skills. Not knowing where specifically I wanted to go (or why) was especially frustrating on my first day out. It was difficult to sit still. When I did move, it was random and without true direction. I changed my mind more than once and ended up wasting a lot of energy. I saw some sign, but it was impossible for me to tell if it was fresh. After a while, it occurred to me that I wasn’t even certain what “fresh sign” meant. I began to understand why my fellow hunters seem to be obsessed with the behavior of elk; you kind of have to be.

Photo by Chris Johnson/CPW.

Photo by Chris Johnson/CPW.

There were some great things about my hunting trip aside from the hunting. Living in a yurt, without running water or electricity, was like stepping back in time.  Life slowed down.  Work around camp had tangible and immediate payoffs, and leisure activities were fairly wholesome.  I had many hours of entertaining and, at times, enlightening conversation with my friends. I managed to read “Farewell to Arms” in its entirety.  I went to bed bone-tired and woke up anxious to best my four-legged prey.  I was filled with warmth watching a snowshoe hare dart across the beam of my headlamp and amazed at just how loud the flutter of wings can be when you are hunkered down as the sun rises. My first cup of coffee tasted better than usual. I was awestruck watching a snow squall move down the valley. I’ll let my photo speak for one of the sunsets we were treated to.

Photo by Chris Johnson/CPW.

Photo by Chris Johnson/CPW.

Even though I came home with mixed feelings about my trip, I did spend some time putting my mapping skills to work.  I ran some analysis to isolate ridge lines just above south-facing slopes of a certain pitch.  With some extra time, I might intersect those spots with public land. You know, just in case I do decide to try again next year.   I’ve since had numerous discussions on the pros and cons of various rifle seasons. And on the way home from Kansas during Thanksgiving break, I found myself looking hard at river bottoms just outside of Topeka for signs of deer. The antelope herd I saw around Limon made me think that might be an option I should look into. I’m not sold on hunting yet, but man is it infectious.

Photo by Chris Johnson/CPW.

Photo by Chris Johnson/CPW.

I will leave you with this thought: If you are an outdoorsman who appreciates the concept of eating local, and you are up for a challenge, I recommend you give it a shot. For you Coloradans, you don’t really have an excuse.  There is nowhere else in this country where you can experience an elk hunt the way you can in Colorado — harvest or not — and it’s almost in your backyard.

Happy New Year, all!  Thanks for sticking with me and here’s to success in whatever your adventures are in 2014!

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Have you been on a few hunts already but still find yourself wondering about the basics of elk hunting?  There are a wealth of resources, on a variety of big-game hunting topics, available through Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Elk Hunting University program. EHU will guide you down the path to harvesting your first Colorado elk. Topics include hunt planning, buying and/or applying for licenses, necessary equipment to include in your hunting pack and what you’ll need to do once you’ve harvested your first animal.

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