The San Juan Mountains in autumn. Photo by David Lien.
It’s mid-October in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. The scrub oak is turning russet, aspen leaves are a bright shiny yellow, and golden crowns are growing thinner by the minute — yellow forms floating to the ground creating a carpet of wet, decaying leaves permeating the game trail I’m sitting next to.
It’s 8:10 a.m., and I’ve just spent perhaps two minutes as close as 25 feet to a small group of elk (three cows, one calf and a bull). The encounter ended with one shot fired, a thunder of hooves and the echoing bellow of a sizable bull. Although I’m confident the shot was fatal, the bull did not drop in his tracks, and I wait 15 minutes before trailing him.
While waiting, I recall the words of a fellow elk hunter, Allen Morris Jones, in “A Quite Place of Violence”: “A badly wounded elk, if it doesn’t die immediately, will usually go only a short distance before lying down, sick. If given enough time, maybe just a few minutes, it will die there. If it’s forced to keep walking, it can walk its wounds away.” Read more
A black bear in southwest Colorado. Photo by David Lien.
I’ve hunted public lands in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado since I first started chasing elk, and there’s no bigger, better, higher, wilder place to spend a week-plus during October pursuing the king of America’s big-game animals. I’m also fortunate to know one of our nation’s top traditional-bow elk hunters and hunter-conservationists: Durango-based David Petersen, author of “A Man Made of Elk” and many other hunting-conservation books.
Prior to my annual San Juans elk hunt in the mountains north of Durango — during second rifle season (Oct. 18–26, 2014) — I exchanged a few emails and met up with David, who’s also the founder of the Backcountry Hunters & Angler’s Colorado chapter. David provides me (and others) with updates on what he’s hearing and seeing regarding local elk activity. On Sept. 15, David reported on one of his elk hunt encounters:
“I really blew it tonight. It’s been a slow season, which is becoming a pattern in recent years … There was some bugling last week but it mysteriously shut down last weekend … coincidentally with the opening of black powder season … I did my usual ambush sit … and was walking out … [and] saw something I thought was a bear (tons of bears this year) … and here comes a lone 6×6 bull just clomping along …”
“He crossed in front of me at 20 yards, broadside, walking slowly; a near-perfect setup. I took the shot and heard a loud ‘Crack!’ and saw the arrow take a sharp left 45-degrees and pass under and in front of the bull. A clean miss … That’s why we call it ‘hunting.’” Read more
Aspen trees in their autumn splendor. Photo by David Lien.
Fall is by far my favorite season, for obvious reasons. And if I was king, I’d simply declare 12 months of October, then set up camp in one of my wildest kingdoms: Colorado’s high and mighty San Juan Mountains. During October 2012, I hiked out of this wild kingdom without an elk, despite having multiple close encounters with bulls and cows, including enjoying the company of a small elk herd rousting me awake in camp several nights running.
It was the second year I’d hunted this section of Colorado’s San Juan National Forest, and my first year of backpack camp (vs. car-camp) hunting. I found a place far enough from a road to find elk, but not as far as the outfitters/horse hunters who seemed to be around every bend in the adjacent wilderness area. Where I was going, you had to go on foot, and the San Juan Mountains are (to borrow the Backcountry Hunters & Angler’s tagline) made for “using the quads god gave you!”
Although only about a mile from the nearest road, the precipitous terrain, in between, gains over 1,500 feet, forcing would-be elk hunters to climb around (or straight up) nearly vertical cliffs and onto high ridges while negotiating a disorienting and exhausting maze of fallen timber separating aspen-clad benches that provide precious little in the way of flat tent terrain. But this is standard stuff in Colorado, which is why I refer to elk hunting here as “mountaineering with a gun.” Read more