In the words of America’s greatest hunter-conservationist, Theodore Roosevelt, “When hunting him (wapiti) … he must be followed on foot, and the man who follows him must be sound in limb and wind.” And that’s somewhat of an understatement. In most elk country, the term is “climbing” rather than “hiking.” As a result, when someone asks me about elk hunting in Colorado the first thing I mention is getting in shape, even if they already appear to be generally fit.
I also emphasize that there’s no magic formula for putting an elk in the freezer. Even with more than 250,000 elk within our state’s borders (Colorado is home to somewhere in the vicinity of 40 percent of the entire continental elk population), less than 30 percent of elk hunters harvest an animal in a given year. And over the years, I’ve made plenty of mistakes and have been among the 70 percent enough times to internalize the following hard-earned elk hunting lessons.
1. Get in Shape!
This can’t be emphasized enough, and jogging (not running) is the answer for me. Each morning during the months leading up to fall, I get up an hour or so early and jog for half an hour, covering three to four miles. That’s about it, and come September-October I’m fit enough to move through the mountains at a steady pace.
Of course, hunters coming from lower elevations will face additional challenges (i.e., adjusting to Colorado’s elevation), even if physically fit, but they’ll adapt more quickly and be less likely to get sidelined by acute mountain sickness (AMS) if they leave the “spare tire” at home. “Up to 42 percent of visitors to Colorado fall prey to AMS,” says Peter Hackett, M.D., a Telluride-based altitude specialist, “and you can feel the effects of AMS at elevations as low as 6,500 feet.”
The symptoms are mostly a headache, fatigue, lack of appetite and restless sleep, but they usually subside in a day or two. The tried-and-true remedy is drinking lots of water (above 10,000 feet the rule of thumb is one gallon of water per person/per day). But at the end of the day, nothing can change the fact that chasing elk is “hard work disguised as hunting,” as Thomas McIntyre wrote in his Sports Afield article “EZ Elk.” If you’re in good shape, the work will most likely be tough but manageable instead of debilitating and demoralizing.
2. Get Good and Well-Tested Boots.
Elk hunting is done on your feet, and a well-worn/tested pair of boots is the most important (in my opinion) item on your gear list. Nothing is more distracting and painful than hot spots that turn into blisters that transform into raw, oozing wounds. Bottom line: If you can’t hike hard for several hours every day, you likely won’t see/shoot an elk (unless you’re incredibly lucky). Make sure your most critical piece of equipment is up to the task.
3. Get Your “Boots on the Ground” and Scout
One of the turning points for my elk-hunting sojourns was finding an area that seemed to hold elk throughout the fall, and then committing to learning the terrain/habitat idiosyncrasies of that area. During my first several years of elk hunting, I changed hunting locations often and never really learned the habitat and habits of local elk.
You’re looking for water holes and wallows, open, south-facing slopes/ridges (where elk often feed in the evening/nighttime/morning) and dark-timbered, north-facing slopes/ridges (where they generally sleep during the day). Benches of mixed aspen and conifer, well watered and interspersed with secluded grassy parks, will also attract elk.
There may be terrain features that will funnel elk as they move through the mountains: benches, saddles, meadows and drainages. You can learn an awful lot from maps and other resources, but if you don’t get your “boots on the ground” and scout the area far and wide you’ll never know for sure what’s there. As famed big-game hunter, Jim Zumbo, said in his book “Hunt Elk,” “You can’t kill an elk unless you’re out where the elk live.”
4. Get away from roads.
As Zumbo alludes to, no one can expect to kill an elk if all he wants to do is step out of a warm truck and walk 300 yards from the road. Yes, it happens once in a while, but the vast majority of these hunters won’t put meat in the freezer. Dozens of studies over the past 30 years have reached the same conclusion: the more roads, the fewer mature and large-sized game animals will be found.
For Colorado’s elk hunters, the importance of roadless land is obvious: of the 15 most-hunted game management units (GMUs) in the state, 14 contain at least 66,000 acres of roadless acres, and 12 have more than 100,000 backcountry acres. And, as explained by renowned southwest Colorado elk hunter, David Petersen, “Road camping is easier and more comfortable, while backpacking will get you into bigger, wilder, quieter backcountry. I say, backpack if you can and while you can. There’ll be plenty of time for comfort in our graves.”
5. Get ready to skin/quarter/haul meat
Before planning an elk hunt on your own, do yourself a big favor and think seriously about the consequences of a successful hunt and know what to do with your elk once it’s down. Elk are huge animals, and it takes careful planning long before you pull the trigger or release an arrow. In the words of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers co-chairman, Ben Long, “Gutting an elk is a bent-over, head down, muscle-straining job that demands attention.”
Actually, I prefer quartering without gutting, which makes sense if you generally hunt alone and are more than likely carrying the meat/quarters out solo. For the task, my post-shot gear list includes two knives, sharpening steel, cotton meat bags, a small saw (to make quick work of leg and other bones), several pairs of medical gloves and an external frame pack.
Traditional Bowhunter contributor Karl Van Calcar summed up what happens after an elk is down in his article “A Hard Day’s Elk” by saying, “As I stood over him, I really started to wonder what I had done. He was enormous and there I was by myself on a fairly steep hillside with darkness falling. At that point, I was reminded of a hunting buddy approaching an elk he had shot. He sniffed the air and said, ‘It smells like work!’”
David Lien is a former air force officer and chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers . He’s the author of Age-Old Quests: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking and was recently recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”