CO Elk Hunt 2016 – Day #1
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With a great night’s sleep under our belts, we drove off the mountain and circled around to a bend in the highway where we planned to bushwhack into a high country basin that would open our self-coined “Ultimate Loop”. With 10 days supply of food and supplies, our plan was to encircle a couple prime basins that we’ve had tremendous success in before – nearly 45 miles marked on Google Earth. We were going to hit all the “unreachable basins” along the way, stockpile a dead elk or two, hike out when all tags were filled, then start the process of guiding hired mules in to our waiting meat caches. That was the plan.

The sun illuminated our next “hunt of a lifetime”, we pushed further up into the basin. We were hopeful that the steep terrain, abundant deadfall, and lack of any obvious human/horse trails would up our odds of finding elk close to the road.

As elk sign grew in abundance and freshness, we slowed to throw some bugles and cow calls up into the surrounding country but with no response.

At around 1,500 vertical feet into our ascent, we finally reached the bench where we supposed elk would be most likely to bed. Taking our time to get the thermals in our favor, we swung up, around, and onto the bench to set up and give some enticing calls. We found a NICE bull elk that had died during the previous month or so, but that didn’t deter us. We were interested in the live elk that we hoped inhabited this rugged basin.

After 5 minutes of calling and no responses, we decided to slip further along the bench employing a stop-and-go strategy. Mistake…should have waited 10 minutes. At the very next bend in the terrain, we were almost freight-trained by a couple cows and medium-sized 5×5 bull elk homing in on our setup. It was definitely frustrating to misfire on our first encounter of the trip, but getting into elk just 2 hours into a 10-day hunt had our confidence skyrocketing.

Within an hour, we decided to trek up through the remainder of the basin and conquer the last 1,100 vertical feet before midday temperatures made hiking too hot. On our way, we got sidetracked by a north-facing slope full of ripe currants.

This last picture bears an explanation. While scarfing down currants, we watched a cow elk pick her way up through the boulder strewn hillside and bed down in the patch of timber cliffed in in the background.

You can actually see her butt in the lower right in this picture. Whether it was the oozing confidence in our 10 more days or if neither or us were all that excited about punching our tag on morning 1 on a cow, we bypassed what would have been an almost certain shot opportunity. There was ZERO way out of that timber patch except by coming back down the exact trail she had used going up. It was an archery elk hunting slam dunk if there ever was such a thing. Oh well, hiking onwards and upwards.

Before exiting that basin, Pete got a glimpse of 9 bighorn ewes and lambs in the scree-littered high country. It was a heck of a hike for our first morning, but I was feeling no ill-effects of altitude sickness – very thankful for the sleep acclimatization at high elevation!

The midday consisted of ridge-running some mountain tops in search of a safe route of descent into another secluded and rugged basin that held tons of promise. I won’t say that we ever found a safe way down in the basin, we found a way. Probably the steepest descent I’ve made to-date and on small boulders that were shifty and quite frankly scary.

It was so steep it was dizzying at times and I took quite a while to pick my way down the rockslide. Amazing how innocent something can look on Google Earth, terrifying in reality!

Within 30 minutes of reaching “flat” ground, we were greeted with our first dose of precipitation. An angry thunderstorm rolled through from the southwest and we each took shelter in our tents for a couple hours. Great excuse to take a nap! At one point, Pete poked his head out to glimpse a few cow elk beating a retreat to a patch of live timber for shelter.

Around 5 PM, the weather cleared off, we had spectacular and inviting country below us, and hopes were high. It didn’t take long to locate a bugling elk, but he never gave off more than a half-dozen half-hearted bugles. Possibly calling from his bed, he never fired up and worked our calls even though we setup on him for a half hour or so.

We peeled off quite a few more steps before dark – running into a band of 4 mature bighorn rams and going to sleep while watching/listening to a really nice herd bull corralling his harem almost 1,500 vertical feet below us in an avalanche chute cross-canyon. It was a great way to end the day and hopes were high that in the morning he would still be in the area. We had plans to interrupt his party!

2016 CO Elk Hunt – Expectations and Drive-out
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Normally I’d have articulated my expectations of an upcoming hunt of this stature, but I didn’t get around to it pre-hunt. That said, this hunt is in the regular rotation at this point, and my expectations had not changed any from the prior adventure in 2014. Any legal elk with a few extra parameters thrown in was my goal, and the expectations were high. Put in the time/work, opportunities should present themselves. Just in Pete and I’s elk hunting history together, our last 6 either-sex archery elk tags have gone on 6 archery bulls. AKA: expectations were high!

Physically, my back has recovered from this spring’s firewood cutting incident, and I was confident that I’d be able to survive whatever the mountains could toss at me. Mentally, it was a whirlwind of busyness to get ready for this hunt, and even now, on the backside of the trip’s return, I’m swamped with responsibilities as the Wyoming antelope trip looms on the horizon. Not sure my killer instinct was on its razor-edge heading out, but nothing a little fresh elk scat and screaming bugles won’t inflame.

The drive out started at 4 PM on Saturday September 10th, leaving my in-law’s house in North Carolina. Pete stopped in from his place in VA and we struck out on the straight-through marathon drive to SW Colorado. Somewhere along the way, we pit-stopped to purchase our elk license from a Colorado Walmart, and the trip was without incident. No vehicle issues, no traffic, safe driving despite the bumpy road sleep, a good trip.

Our was to, and our successful road trip out enabled us to, climb a nearby mountain facing into several of the drainages we hoped to hunt with a couple hours of daylight left. This was a great idea on several fronts. (A) We were able to spot a hunting camp, a train of pack horses, an orange-clad muzzleloader hunter, some mule deer, and a veritable absence of elk from over 2 miles away – relevant and recent information for our route planning. (B) We had a nice warm-up climb with acclimatization sleep at 11,000′ elevation before our hunt officially started early the next morning. I had a ferocious headache by the end of last trip’s first day, and I hoped this proactive step would help alleviate my concerns of a relapse/repeat.

Despite the lack of elk sightings from afar, we were excited to sleeping on top of a mountain, and we went to sleep expecting great things of the next 8-10 days.

Ohio Deer Scouting / Stand Preparation
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Had a chance to double check stand sites on a number of public land spots over the weekend. Everything looked great and excited to see what this fall’s deer hunting season will hold. It’ll be a little different in that I won’t be hunting the early season at all due to elk hunting/antelope hunting, but that’s certainly a price I’ll GLADLY pay. Beyond that though, my buddy Clint drew a limited lottery partner hunt for the first half of the deer season – weekend hunting only. That hunt has HUGE potential, and I’m also waiting to hear what parcel I drew in the Granville municipal archery program. Depending on that selection, I could have another humdinger of a spot for this fall.

This is just one spot that we cleaned up over the weekend. I hunted this spot twice last year, and dad hunted it twice. 6 does and 7 buck sightings in total and a lot of anticipation building into this fall for this stand site. It’s always a gamble from year-to-year as these fields are in a pretty fast rotation between soybeans, corn, grassy field, and more weedy “old field”. For my hunting style, I strongly prefer the latter and when an “old field” rolls over into a food source, I’m usually moving on and looking for somewhere else to hunt.

Recipe: Chicken (Squirrel) Noodle Soup
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It has been a long time since I’ve eaten squirrel, so long in fact, that I was a little apprehensive going into this meal.

Step 1: Brown squirrels in bacon grease with generous dash of salt, pepper, pressed garlic, and diced onion. The intent isn’t to cook through, just caramelize/brown on high heat.

Step 2: Cook on high for 3 hours in crock pot. A little beef broth and more onions keeps things moist. Squirrel is ready when you can use your fingers to pick all the meat off the bones.

Step 3: Incorporate normal chicken soup ingredients but substitute in the broth from the crock pot. We steamed some carrots, celery, and cooked up some egg noodles to add into ours and it turned out great.

Remote Scouting for Elk Made Easy!!
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‘Tis the season for mountaintop selfies. ‘Tis the season for remote digital scouting. ‘Tis the season to saturate your preferred hunting area with hunting pressure for next year.

Just yesterday on a very popular bowhunting forum – “I killed my first bull in Unit 81 Colorado. Hunt was incredible, elk everywhere, bugling enthusiastically dawn to dusk, can’t wait to go back to our secret honey hole next year.” [slight paraphrase]

Obligatory selfie. Thank you sir for your donation.

I decided to time myself in theft of his hunting spot. 90 seconds. 30 seconds to pull up a map of GMU 81 in Colorado, 15 seconds to open Google Earth, 45 seconds more to spot 3 expansive stream-bisected mountain valleys that jumped off the map. Sure enough, one of the three is the exact match. Another minute or two to verify the rock outcrop on the far side of the basin and to compare the different turns and winds of the creek. Another minute or two to plan my hunt there for 2017. Only kidding on the last part.

Word to the wise – be smart about photos that you post if keeping your spot a secret from the masses is a priority.

Infolinks 2013