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.

Caltopo / Google Earth Mapping Integration
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I’ve sang the praises of Caltopo before on the blog and it’s time to do an update on a couple things.

“Maps on the Cheap”

“Caltopo – More Online Mapping Features”

First off, they’ve gone to a “free to try/pay to play” approach. Paying the $20 annual fee for complete services – a Jackson I’ll happily part with – enables you to print PDFs larger than 8.5″x11″, save more than 10 maps online, and a few other critical features.

Second, I’ve recently begun utilizing the built-in integration features with other mapping applications – handheld GPS units (import .GPX extension files) and Google Earth (import .KML extension files).

For users who are more comfortable with Google Earth’s map navigation functionality, this opens the door to use Google Earth as your primary map exploring device and then connecting into Caltopo to utilize its superior map management and printing capabilities.

I estimate Caltopo will save our Wyoming antelope hunting crew at least $50 in map expenses this fall, all while putting better maps that are fully customized and higher resolution into our hands.

Elk Bed = My Bed (Gatewood Cape Tent/Poncho)
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I’ve had some really good nights of sleep on the top of a mountain, I’ve also had some terrible ones. Occasionally, the reason for a lackluster night of shuteye is because lightning threatens to vaporize you and all your belongings or perhaps there is a nosy mouse that is continually rummaging through your Ziploc of trash (all the while sounding as if it’s a 300 pound bear). But most of the time, it’s because you’re trying to stay on top of your sleeping mat without rolling down the mountain or there is a root that will not stop jabbing you in the kidneys. The frustrating thing is that finding an optimal spot for one person to sleep isn’t generally the problem, it’s that finding a spot big enough for 2 comfortable sleepers often seems impossible.

Enter the Gatewood Cape.

Now every elk bed is a potential human bed, every spot that used to be frustratingly perfect for a single person but insufficient for the needs of a two-person tent approach – those issues are resolved. The weight savings are exciting too as it replaces a heavier tent, replaces my rain gear, and serves as an effective pack cover. To be almost 5 years deep into a minimalist approach to backpack hunting and be able to shave a whole pound from my gear list is huge. All at a reasonable price tag too – a Happy Meal over $100.

Shoot over to Pete’s blog for a more complete “backyard” review that he posted last week.

2016 Archery Elk Gear List
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September is creeping closer and with that slowing advancing calendar is the onset of dreams filled with steep beetle-killed timber slopes and bugling bull elk. Last night I emptied out the tupperware containers and did some minor revising to the gear list. Major additions since our 2014 adventure…(click on links below to check out our last archery elk hunting adventure)…

Day 1
Day 2, AM
Day 2, PM
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Conclusion

…include the Kifaru Mountain Rambler pack (which comes at a significant weight cost but infinitely more comfortable and bomb-proof than my Badlands 2800), Clip-Shot camera accessory, exchanging a roll-out Tyvek groundcloth for a Tyvek-constructed bivy sack, trading my Stoic merino 1/4 zip for a MEC quilted hoodie, and going improv on my whiffle bat bugle.

All told, my naked carry weight is 40.78 pounds for a 7-day pack. Minus a minimum wearing weight (boots + base layer + outers; 5.09 weight) and bow (5.56 weight), pack weight is within ounces of 30 pounds flat. That includes a pound and a half daily allotment of food (x7) and a liter of water. If you’re wondering where the stove, kettle, and fire starting materials are, Pete is carrying that – I’ve got the shelter.

DIY Whiffle Whistler (AKA Elk Bugle)
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Cheap, lightweight, effective, DIY – count me in.

An $8 kid’s whiffle bat that I found at the local Walmart and $3 of digital camo ace wrap delivered by Amazon. Throw in a razor blade to make a few modifications, and that’s all you need to create a big volume, lightweight elk bugle. Dimensions don’t matter a whole lot, but I suggest starting at maximum size and then trimming away material until you reach balance between bulk and performance.

Using your choice of diaphragm, a bat bugle will carry your volume past that of many market products. It’s loud! That said, a diaphragm lets you control not only pitch but volume, so you can keep it in check when low-mid volume calls are in order.

The one downside I’ve seen mentioned on some forums was that bat bugles sometimes have a weird vibration in their tone. Whether it was the compression camo wrap or the choice of bat brand – I didn’t experience anything but sweet elk music. On the same forums, I saw multiple mentions that many elk calling competitions have gone so far as to outlawing some bat and “bucket” style bugles. Gives an unfair advantage, makes the elk music too sweet – hmmm…sounds like a winner in the elk woods.

At 3.5 ounces and $11 all in, this is a new addition to the arsenal that I can’t wait to try out this September.

Kifaru Hunting Pack – Mountain Warrior
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A hunting pack called the Mountain Warrior, it must be awesome. My how things have changed in the 4 years since my initial gear up for run-and-gun elk hunting in the mountains. Eberlestock was an option back then, Kifaru was just getting its legs, Badlands was a reputable brand, and Sitka was the standard. Now, options have tripled, even quadrupled, at a minimum. As long-time followers might remember, I’ve run the Badlands 2800 in the original bat-wing style for several hunts running now with absolutely zero complaints. So why consider a change?

??

But I did and made a change. I went top tier and bought a lightly-used Kifaru frame off a hunting forum and decked it with a Mountain Warrior pack topped with a Longhunter Lid set-up. The improvements over my past pack are significant. It’s top to bottom bombproof. It’s got a lumbar pad. It’s got more room than my prior packs. It’s got a meat shelf that puts the weight of a packout close against my back. It’s versatile. It’s got a lot of straps. A LOT of straps!! That’s my main complaint, my only gripe actually – it’s complicated. If Stone Glacier achieves an elegant but effective simplicity, then Kifaru offers efficiency with all the bells and whistles. That said, my complaint – Kifaru’s complexity – led me to discover one other huge plus, their customer service. A++ grade in that department.

The most critical part of any good product review remains…bloody it up! Can’t wait to put it through the wringer, chasing elk in Colorado first, and hopefully gunning for antelope in Wyoming in October. Tag results for the second hunt available tomorrow!

Cross Cut Mapping Technique
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The importance of studying maps and planning elk hunting routes that maximize your strengths cannot be understated. As I look at the ever growing archive of Google Earth files and saved Caltopo maps, I’ve tried to amalgamate most of our mapped routes into one single categorical label.

My elk hunting buddies and I are reasonably fit, willing to pack an elk out from almost anywhere, consider a hunt’s enjoyment nearly ruined if we encounter other hunters on the mountain, and seek to maximize the utility of our lightweight approach by bivy hunting along 3-5 day loops. We also try to minimize trail miles, and hopefully, target spots that get better as hunting pressure on the surrounding landscape intensifies.

I’ve come up with the term “cross cut mapping”. Now I’m neither a carpenter, nor the son of a carpenter, but my dad was never afraid to tackle anything around the house growing up, so by default, I’m a competent wood worker. A rip cut is when you cut with the grain of the wood. For instance, you take a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood and turn it into 2, 2 x 8 sheets of plywood. A cross cut is when you take a 2 x 6 x 8 piece of lumber and cut it in half to create 2 4 foot pieces of 2 x 6. Simple, and most of you know this.

To describe cross cut mapping, let all access points, trailheads, parking lots, dead end forest service roads, and trails represent the grain of the landscape. To hunt with the grain of the landscape is to batter the ground in the same manner that it’s meant to be walked. Along trails, from primary access points, following the natural seams and contours of the landscape.

A couple years ago, we got a hair-brained idea to consider the Maroon Bells Wilderness area for our next DIY elk hunting adventure. Now, we’ve since tossed that notion aside, but I’ll use some mapping examples to illustrate what I’m talking about. In fact, feel free to go hunt these exact loops and tell me what you see. They’ve got the PAG stamp of approval (inside joke there).

If you’re hunting with the grain of the landscape, you’d just stay on the dashed trail leading up East Creek drainage. There is nothing wrong with that, you might kill an elk, it’ll be easier packing since you’re near the trail, and navigational worries are kept to a minimum, but it doesn’t maximize our skill set and approach to elk hunting. Now look at the red trail we digitized in. See how it initially uses trail to gain elevation but quickly deviates to a side hilling approach to probe likely benches and attacks some really steep terrain to access some hanging basins that are perched way above main trails in the area.

You can click on the map photos to view at full resolution.

Another example of the same thing. Most hunters are going to work the trail up towards American Lake, loop up towards Hayden Peak, and be back to the trailhead by dark. The red trail is great 2-3 day loop hike that hunts through a perfect combination of steep dark timber, open high country, and hanging basins inaccessible from the main trails below. It smartly uses an established trial to gain most of the initial elevation and then spurs off side hill.

I think the cross cut analogy should be making sense by now. At some point, you might have to deviate from the well traveled path in order to find unpressured elk in hard-hunted areas such as OTC Colorado. Hunting against the grain isn’t for everyone, and it can definitely put you in some uncomfortable situations if you’re not careful. In fact, we very nearly over-extended our abilities to pack out an elk in our 2014 hunt, so we’re still learning. That said, hopefully this cross cut mapping mindset will help you see something a little different the next time you look at a topographical map of your hunting area. It’s worked for us and we’ll be putting it to the test again this fall with some new elk hunting spots in Colorado.

Tyvek Bivy
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Always pushing the envelope of what is most effective yet minimalist for our continually evolving Western hunting plans. This was Pete’s doing.

Traded out our usual Tyvek ground cloth for 2 individual bivy sacks. We’ll still use the GoLite Shangri La 2 probably (though a Cuben fiber tarp is intriguing), but the switch from simple ground cloth to containment bivy should accomplish several things.

1) With total containment, it’ll be easier to stay dry when water is deluging out of the sky and forming small rivers on the ground.

2) The Y2K zipper will allow us to unzip the sacks during dry weather to prevent excessive condensation, so I’m not too worried about that.

3) You can’t slide out of a sack, it was a frequent problem with the ground cloth with even the most subtle slope to a sleep site.

There’s essentially a 1-2 ounce penalty for each of us only because of the extra weight of the zipper and the little bit extra amount of Tyvek required to build the sacks.

Push comes to shove and the bivy sacks could be used to spend a cozy night curled up individually in nearby elk beds.

Just one more piece of gear that allows us to better execute our highly mobile and adaptive hunting style out West!

The Importance of Season Dates – Hunting Out West
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At a minimum, my brain is always at least a little preoccupied with mulling over future hunt plans. Mule deer or elk? This state or that state? Apply for a tag this year or just grab another preference point? Go for an early season hunt or try a late season rut hunt? Tackle this new area or go back to where I have gotten results before? Got to remind my hunting buddy to not miss that draw deadline… On and on it goes.

In laying out a long-term hunt planning calendar, I sketched out the next 5 or 6 years of plans. It’s a crowded list and work/family-vacation schedule will dictate many of my hunting plans; however, there are certain things that exert more influence on my decision to say — hunt the 3rd mule deer season in Colorado in 2015 or 2016. One of those most important things is season dates.

Here are 4 things I’m looking at relative to how season dates can create a better situation for success in my future backcountry plans, first starting with an example from back East that I’ve seen play out numerous years in the past.

In North Carolina, it’s uncanny how a group of shooter-sized bachelor bucks can be sticking to a twice-a-day, during the daylight, almost to the minute schedule during the last week of August and through Labor Day weekend of September. It’s also uncanny how that same group of bucks will break up as velvet starts to tighten and become extremely unpredictable just a day or two before the start of archery season comes in. Obviously they have a calendar…sure does seem like it. It’s actually really intelligent management by the state wildlife agency in charge of managing the resource, a week earlier start date to archery season would create conditions where mature bucks are too vulnerable to harvest. It’s not by accident that the NCWRC starts archery season when they do – that being said, in years where archery season shifts a couple days earlier than normal, those are prime conditions to maximize chances at a still-in-his-summer-pattern archery buck.

4 examples out West:

*I don’t know the exact determinant for how season dates are set in Colorado, but it must go something like this…X season will start on the 2nd Saturday of November. Just like Thanksgiving can show up early and late in one year versus the next, so can certain states’ season dates. In 2015, the 3rd season mule deer hunt starts on October 31 and runs 9 days. In 2016, that same season starts on November 5 and runs 9 days. That is a huge difference when colder weather and proximity to the rut are the biggest contributors to a boom versus a bust year’s harvest. Lots of guys holding those PPs waiting for the season dates to roll around more in favor a big swell-necked muley buck.

*Dad is building points for a early muzzleloader tag in the areas where we OTC archery elk hunt. It’s hellacious country and we’ll recruit the help of a packer to get us in and out, but we’ll likely wait for a year where the muzzy season dates are pushed as far back into September as possible to take advantage of the peak of the rut. If the tag and season dates can align, that’s a close to a slam dunk hunt for a big bull elk that I know of.

*Several sportsmen groups pushed for Colorado’s unique early rifle hunt (usually constrained to high elevation, above timberline areas or a few of the state’s wilderness areas to be pushed back a week. Competition with archery hunters and “unfair” susceptibility to harvest by long-range hunters was enough to get those season dates pushed back. Even so, those start dates will fluctuate in coming years between the 5th or 6th of September and mid-teen dates. Similar to the NC situation, early season dates will encourage far more of those big high country mule deer to be still in velvet and still be at or above timberline before dropping into the dark timber until the November rut.

*Those are very specific situations, but here’s an example of how season date structure can positively affect a whole state’s hunt quality in certain years. Wyoming is such a state. Regardless of where the 15th or the 1st or the 10th or the whatever other date falls in terms of Monday versus Thursday versus Sunday…that’s when the season starts. This creates situations where opening day pressure can be severely inflated if the start date coincides with a weekend opener. Conversely, an opening day on Tuesday might really weed out the competition for a season opener.

Use these tips as you plan your long term hunt schedule. Many states publish 5-year plans and I’ve been using those to organize the 7 or 8 trips I want to take in the next 5 to 6 years. Just one more method to the madness!

Don’t Scout…”Hunt” – DIY Hunt Preparation
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“Don’t scout” is likely to be taken out of context and I’ll be labeled a lunatic amongst all Easterner DIYers gone West for big game hunting. The case I’m trying to make is this – for those of us with flexibility to make a scouting trip for a fondly dreamed of Western adventure – don’t. I propose that you should instead “hunt” the unit DURING the actual hunt dates a year or two in advance. I suppose that a goal of finding a Boone & Crockett contender might not be compatible with this suggestion, but for the rest of us (e.g., “I’m happy with any nice mature specimen”), “hunting” the unit prior to your actual drawing the tag makes infinitely more sense.

Here’s why?

Scouting gives you no understanding of hunter density/competition. It will likely give you a grand estimate of how many hikers use the wilderness area you’re planning to hunt during the warmth of late summer, but that’s not what I’m interested in personally. “Hunting” will tell you where the pressure concentrates and how critters react to that pressure.

Scouting tells you exactly where animals are located during the dates when you are there. With each passing day, the probability decreases that animals are still locked in those same patterns. If it’s early season mule deer you’re interested in, one week can make a huge difference as big bucks tend to drop into heavy timber once their velvet comes off in early-mid September. “Hunt” when you’ll hunt.

Scouting tells you where food/water sources are located during the dates when you are there. High country vegetation is extremely ephemeral – going dry quickly in the dry heat of summer, saturating quickly during monsoon season, and getting buried during the first snows of late September and early October. Same thing applies to water. I think by now the point is becoming clear.

The biggest thing I’ve learned about hunting out West is that if one can manage his/her expectations, then the trip WILL be a success – no matter the outcome of actually filling your tag. I can think of no better way to over-inflate expectations of a DIY OTC elk hunt than to visit in late July and stare in awe at the herds of elk congregated in the timberline portions of rugged wilderness units. They ain’t gonna be there in mid-September.

I’m still developing a code of ethics for “hunting” a limited draw unit, but I have tentative plans to make a mid-September jaunt into the Colorado high country to “hunt” for timberline mule deer. The unit also happens to be over-the-counter elk which explains why my hunting buddy Pete will be accompanying me. It will probably take me 3 or 4 more years to draw this coveted tag, but when I do I’ll obviously have a huge advantage over people first encountering the unit, and a lesser but still significant jump on those who have only scouted the unit. A Western hunt doesn’t fit time-wise or money-wise into my 2015 calendar or bank account, but I can certainly carve out a long-weekend scramble and burn some credit card points on airfare to ease my wanderlust for another year.

More “hunt” details to come at a later date.

Infolinks 2013