Even the best-laid plans sometimes go wrong. As hunters, when heading into the field, we attempt to control as many variables as possible. Exploring Colorado’s backcountry requires knowledge of the terrain, proper nutrition and hydration, functional equipment and an appetite for adventure. And while we can control most of these variables, there’s one factor that is always out of our control – weather. This doesn’t mean hunting should be tabled until the weather is ideal; it simply means we need to adjust our strategies and approaches to work around what we cannot change.
On a recent grouse hunting project, Jerry Neal and I headed to the mountains of northern Colorado. Driving north along Highway 9 in Grand County, we were surprised to see fall colors splashed across the landscape. The aspen color change appeared to be weeks ahead of schedule and meadows had already filled with golden hues. The change was early, but this was a familiar looking environment, a setting woven into the fabric of hunters through years and miles spent in the field.
As we drove along, reminiscing about hunting and fishing with family and friends, the excitement to reach our destination grew. There’s just something special about the early hunting seasons – the sights, sounds and smells evoke memories of past adventures and heighten my appreciation for Colorado’s spectacular landscape. Rounding a bend near our final destination, we came upon a hillside blanketed by hundreds of greater sandhill cranes. Caressed in evening’s golden rays, the large cranes were an incredible sight. With perfect lighting, the temptation to derail our schedule was too great. Knowing that the delay would have us unloading gear, and feeding and watering the dogs in the dark, we quickly pulled to the side of the road, grabbed binoculars and scanned the crowded hillside in amazement, unaware that the next few minutes would provide valuable local insight to frame our entire trip.
Popping out from a roadside brush pile, a local farmer beelined toward our Jeep. A quick scan of his face revealed a sense of approval, possibly of our interest in the cranes or the fact that we had ventured into his corner of the world. From the middle of the road, he began explaining that he too was a fan of the cranes, continuing his story with each step until his arm was resting on our side view mirror. Taking pride in the cranes’ endorsement of his farm, he remarked that the cranes had made annual visits to the farm for as long as he could remember. As he shared arrival and departure schedules, estimated bird counts and generations of history with the cranes, I glanced across the road to a large, nearly dry pond, a stark and desperate looking environment. The farmer caught my gaze and his demeanor shifted, a rush of seriousness sweeping over his face. He revealed that it had been a hot and dry summer – with little moisture since spring – drought conditions as bad as he could remember. His statement was not searching for a response. It was a hard fact, foretelling what we would see on the road ahead. This dose of reality trivialized the dancing cranes and reminded us that we needed to be moving on. We were still an hour outside of grouse camp and the dirt and gravel roads ahead were better traveled in the last minutes of remaining daylight.
Dusty, and I Mean Dusty Roads!
Just a few miles further and we entered national forest land, moving from smooth paved roads to gravel and dirt, a transition that in years past, signaled we were almost there. As soon as we left the blacktop, the vehicles began drumming up a cloud of dust like I’d never seen – dust so fine that it passed through the air vents, filling our eyes, noses, and lungs. You could literally taste and smell the dryness the farmer had spoken of. The dust quickly reduced visibility to less than 50 feet. At one point, we actually had to stop and let the lead vehicle get further down the road so that we could safely navigate a shoulderless section of the road.
After a slow and careful 45 minute drive, we arrived in pitch black to set up camp, and feed and water the dogs. As we prepared for bed, we discussed our hunting strategy, curious about how the conditions would affect scenting for the dogs, bird behavior and food sources. The clues had been accumulating over the miles, but the reality hadn’t fully sunk in. This was not going to be a typical grouse hunt.
Sharing the Field
The timing and nature of grouse hunting season brings added benefits to bird hunters who are also big-game hunters. Grouse hunting offers the opportunity to be outdoors and get great workouts, while also gaining insight into what elk are doing during archery and muzzleloader seasons and ahead of the rifle seasons. Our grouse trip was taking us into some of Colorado’s prime deer and elk habitat, where we knew that there would be no shortage of big-game hunters. To some, hunting grouse during big-game seasons may seem like a conflict of interests, but the two activities can actually play very nicely on the same field. In some cases, grouse hunters can provide just enough commotion to increase daylight elk activity.
Our early morning ride to our first hunting location took us past several big-game hunting camps. Strangely, many of the hunters were still milling around their camps. We stopped for a couple of quick conversations, probing for any helpful grouse information. The conversations all turned to talk of elk. A common theme resonated among the hunters. “We’re not seeing elk.” They shared similar stories about spending morning and evening hours driving the roads, walking trails and glassing acres and acres of meadows and open land in search of elk on the move. Seeing neither hair nor hide, frustration levels were high.
As we continued on to find birds, we moved from grasshoppers in meadow areas to areas of oak brush, serviceberry, chokecherry and Vaccinium. With the heat and the dry conditions, it was essential to locate the limited food sources where the birds would be nesting. Interestingly, while moving between several of our grouse hunting locations, we were pushing elk from their beds. And with two hunting dogs and three hunters approaching, the elk were holding to their beds until we were within 75 yards. The elk did not want to leave the comfort of cool timbered areas. And when they finally felt enough pressure to vacate the timber, they were not busting out at high speeds. They were conserving energy and quietly moving out.
While we were resting and rehydrating the dogs and ourselves, I thought back to some interviews Jerry and I had conducted last year. In anticipation of another hot and dry late summer season, we had asked CPW biologists for tips on hunting elk during unseasonably warm weather. They relayed a series of tactics that they knew were effective, but also physically demanding.
- Target north-facing timbered slopes.
- Look to higher elevation transition zones.
- Locate quality forage and water.
Watch the following video for detailed explanations by the biologists.
Over two full days of hunting, we saw more elk than grouse – big healthy cows that knew how to thrive in a hot dry climate. As the biologists had suggested, the elk were there; the weather was simply not encouraging their movement. They were storing energy and waiting for the weather to push them to new terrain. But for now, they are thriving in an environment that will test even the most prepared hunters. And if the warm temperatures hold, hunters will need to head into the timber to find the elk.
Extreme Fire Danger
Heading home, we saw more evidence of just how dry it is. As we drove toward Steamboat Springs, we spotted a large plume of smoke over Rabbit Ears Pass. The Silver Creek Fire had flared up and high winds were rapidly advancing across the landscape, threatening residents, ranches, and public lands and leading to the evacuation of hunters and campers in the area. Fire danger is high around much of the state, so before you head out for your hunt, make sure you are aware of fire restrictions and road closures in your area.
There is still time for cooler weather and snow to move in, but this may be another year of hot and dry hunting in Colorado. For us, heat was an inescapable factor – tough on dogs and hunters needing to cover miles of terrain in search of grouse. And right now, this seems to be the case when searching for elk. While the elk may not be in their usual places or easily visible, know that they are still around. It just may take some physically demanding tactics to locate them!
As always, good luck and please enjoy the privilege of hunting some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes! I know that I’m looking forward to the sense of accomplishment that comes with the added mental and physical challenges of a true adventure on my upcoming elk hunt.
Written by Doug Skinner. Skinner is an editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Video by Jerry Neal. Neal is an editor of Colorado Outdoors online and works as a public information specialist at CPW’s Denver Headquarters.