Wapiti Ambush (Part One: Mountaineering With A Gun)

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I grew up hunting, hiking, camping, canoeing, and trapping in the woodlands and wildlands of northern Minnesota in the Chippewa and Superior National Forests. But after moving to Colorado, I transitioned from northern Minnesota white-tailed deer hunting to southwestern Colorado Rocky Mountain elk hunting. My hunting grounds of choice: the Hermosa-Hesperus Peak Roadless Area in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. At 148,000 acres, it’s our state’s largest roadless area.

Mike Murphy, a renowned southwest Colorado hunting guide, knows this terrain from decades of boots-on-the-ground, leg-and-lung-burnin’ hunts. He’s guided untold numbers of (bow and rifle) elk hunters and has countless tales of tough hunts, client fiascos, elk rodeos, real rodeos, and bear run-ins. Mike will also tell you that Colorado elk hunting remains tops in the world.

With an elk herd totaling some 290,000 head, Colorado has the largest number of elk per square mile in North America, which feeds a $2-billion-a-year hunting and fishing industry in the state. And elk hunting alone contributes nearly $300 million to that tally.

In “5 Best DIY Bowhunts in the West,” American Hunter contributor Mark Kayser covers some key stats about Colorado elk hunting: “Several states have better bulls, but none offer opportunities like Colorado. The state has more elk than any other with an estimated population of 287,270 and an average bull to cow ratio of 30:100. With few exceptions, Colorado elk can be bowhunted with an over-the-counter tag… Colorado is full of rough country … Elevations vary from 7,000–14,000 feet; weather can change quickly in the high country from the 70s to a white-out. Be prepared.”

Former Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Director Rick Cables shares Kayser’s optimism: “Colorado really is the land of opportunity when it comes to big-game hunting,” said Cables. “The combination of accessible public-and private-lands hunting opportunities, over-the-counter elk licenses, and a large number of top-notch outfitters provide our citizens and hunters from across the nation with unparalleled opportunities. We are lucky to live here.”

And elk hunters who live in the vicinity of the San Juan Mountains are particularly fortunate.

A wild and majestic realm, the massive San Juans sprawl across 10,000 square miles; high, remote, and still mostly unmarred by the hands of man. The San Juans are characterized by hundreds of peaks above 13,000 feet and seven wilderness areas encompassing more than 800,000 acres (12 percent of the range), including the Weminuche, South San Juan, La Garita, Mount Sneffels, Uncompahgre, Powderhorn and Lizard Head.

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The weather was picture-perfect (for sun bathing, but not elk hunting) in the wilds of southwest Colorado during second rifle season (October 19–27, 2007), and, as a result, the elk were spread out and staying put at whatever elevation felt comfortable. The warm, dry conditions also made our every step sound like a marching band moving through the woods. The most common laments heard during this Colorado elk hunting season included guys complaining about hunting in 70-degree weather, the animals in dark timber and hunters “walking on corn flakes.”

Despite a dearth of elk sightings, for several days I hunted straight through from dawn-to-dusk, and on the last day of the season Mike Murphy and I seemed poised to outsmart a wily bull we’d pushed off his daybed on a high-finger ridge rarely visited by hunters or others due to its remote, rugged location. The bull bugled three times—each one noticeably farther away, and the first such vocalizations we’d heard in six days of hunting—as it retreated down the northern, shaded side of the ridgeline.

Mike suspected the bull thought we were fellow elk, and thus might return. Upon traversing the southern side of the ridge, opposite where the bull had retreated, we discovered enough fresh sign to suggest that this wily guy still had a harem intact, which meant they might return to feed in the evening, we hoped.

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It was still early afternoon, so Mike picked out a downslope location for our ambush site, and we settled in for a long afternoon of dozing (like the elk, hopefully, on the other side of the ridge) and waiting for evening, when they’d return for dinner. At 4 p.m., after hours of enduring biting black ants under a blazing sun, we rose from our daybeds and prepared for the evening hunt.

As we quietly settled in, Mike said, “When they come out the bull will be last. Don’t look ’em in the eyes, they can feel it.” It’s not the first time I’d heard that advice. In his book “On The Wild Edge,” traditional bowhunter David “Elkheart” Petersen wrote: “Two decades of devoted wapiti watching and hundreds of thrilling hours spent close to elk, deer, bears, and turkeys have convinced me that all evolved prey species are sensitive to front-set predatory eyes and can feel a carnivorous stare.”

“It’s a major element, I believe, of the mysterious ‘sixth sense’ hunters superstitiously grant to their prey and speak of with awe and frustration,” David says. “Accordingly, as the nervous bull inches closer, I squint my eyes to slits and look slightly away, avoiding direct visual contact, tracking my prey peripherally.” Prepared to put David’s technique to the test, Mike and I sit motionless watching, waiting, listening and hoping until dusk, but no elk appear. Time to return to camp and end our hunt.

Later Mike said this was the most difficult hunting season he’d experienced, and that finding elk in the dry, summerlike conditions was like trying to “find a needle in a haystack.” David Petersen echoed Mike’s observations: “I can’t recall a hunt up there where nobody killed …Very strange, and I’ve been hearing the same thing from all over—places that generally produce tons of elk, just nothing.”

Although the warm and snowless postrut conditions kept most elk up high, spread out, and hard to find or approach, I managed to see some big bulls and several cows (from a distance), which was more than reward enough for a hard hunt. I also lost nearly five pounds from the “mountaineering with a gun”-like effort. And like in mountaineering, where summits are the icing on the cake, it’s the harvest for hunters that tastes the best, but it’s the hunt (and climb) that fills us up.

Go to PART TWO of this article


David Lien is a former air force officer, chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and author of Age-Old Quests II: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking. He was recently recognized by Field & Stream magazine as a “Hero of Conservation.

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