Last fall, Colorado elk hunters anticipated their best season ever, hoping to harvest more than 60,000 animals. Due to near-record-high elk populations in the state, the Division of Wildlife authorized the sale of either-sex elk tags that could be purchased over the counter. (In the past, a lottery drawing was in effect for hunters who wanted to obtain an antlerless tag.)
When the elk seasons came to a close in early November, some 51,000 animals had been taken, making the total the third highest harvest on record. Of that total, approximately 26,000 were antlerless elk. Despite the huge harvest, however, many unsuccessful hunters complained about a lack of elk.
**Excuses, excuses **
At a sportsmen’s show in Denver last winter, I visited with many hunters who offered opinions on why they didn’t score. “The elk stayed high,” one of them said. “We didn’t have horses, so we couldn’t get to them.”
“The elk were low,” said another. “Most of them were on private land and I couldn’t afford to hire an outfitter or pay the lease fee.”
“The state is full of beans,” another stated emphatically. “We ain’t got near as many elk as the wildlife guys think we do. You can’t hunt what ain’t there.” His opinion turned out to be one of the most frequent I heard.
Then I chatted with a hunter I know, a man who is a cut above most elk hunters. He showed me pictures of nine elk that members of his 10-man party took on public land without using horses or hiring an outfitter. I asked for his take on the unsuccessful hunters, and the answer paralleled my own thoughts. “There are plenty of elk, but the fall was hot and dry,” he said. “They were just being elk, holing up in the timber. Some hunters didn’t know how to dig ’em out, or were unwilling to work that hard.”
Unlike our other big-game species, elk are newcomers to North America, traveling here from Siberia by crossing the land bridge to Alaska during the Ice Age. That was only 10,000 years ago — a comparatively recent immigration, biologically speaking. Elk were always residents of bitterly cold, heavily timbered regions, and their ancestral traits carry to this day. To an elk, the heaviest stand of timber on a mountain is as desirable a hiding place as a dense brier patch is to a cottontail rabbit. The thicker the better.
Statistics show that only some 20 percent of all elk hunters are successful each year. While the steep mountain slopes and vastness of elk habitat are primary reasons for the low harvest, elk’s ability to hide in the densest timber makes them extremely elusive — they’re perhaps not as crafty as whitetails, but certainly more inaccessible.
So how do you resolve the dilemma of not only locating but also getting a shot at timbered elk? In two words: with difficulty.
Success depends on your willingness to work hard. If your idea of elk hunting is to drive backroads in your pickup and glass for feeding animals in meadows, you’re a prime contender for the group that goes home empty-handed. Since firearms seasons are usually scheduled after the rut, your chances of calling an elk with a bull or cow call are poor, though there are some exceptions (see sidebar). That leaves the most logical strategy: Get in the jungle when elk are moving.
FORGET THE CLEARINGS
As is true for all animals, elk habits are dictated by their feeding patterns. Since they are grazers, preferring grass to brush most of the year, this dietary preference requires the elk to go to the food, which is most commonly in meadows and open glades or parks. Hunters often watch these areas during daylight hours, but their efforts are largely futile. Where hunter pressure is heavy, elk will feed in the meadows at night and be bedded in deep timber, or on their way through the timber to bedding areas when shooting hours begin. For that reason, yourr best chance of even seeing an elk is to be in their hideaway when they’re active.
In some forests, adequate food is available in the timber so the elk don’t leave at all, even during the night. These are among the toughest of all elk to hunt, because only hunters willing to leave roads and human-traffic trails are apt to spot these animals. Elk use trails in the heavy forest; the wise hunter will locate them and watch. It’s a good idea to remain on your vigil long after shooting hours begin, because other hunters may push animals past your vantage point.
Bedded elk are at their peak of alertness. They lie quietly in the forest and can hear every sound in the heavy timber or brush. According to the textbooks, elk are supposed to be in their beds within a half-hour of sunrise and remain there all day. I suspect that plenty of elk have never bothered to read those books, because the animals will often casually move about in the forest during the day if they feel secure. That’s another reason you should stay in the woods all day. Resist the urge to head for camp during midday. Bring lunch with you and nap in the woods if you’re tired, which is practically a given because of the physical demands of hunting the mountains. Even tough, seasoned guides and outfitters will take a daily power-nap, but they’ll do it where an elk just might wander by.
If you aren’t physically capable of making strenuous climbs, you should be able to find a spot where your pals can drop you and you can then meander downslope to a lower road. Spend the day working through the timber, and have your buddies pick you up in the bottom at dark. If you kill an elk, field-dress it and note the site with your GPS or flag a trail to the road so your pals can help get the elk out later. And remember to remove the ribbon when you leave. If your physical condition is less than it should be, consider pairing up with a buddy so you’ll have help if you need it.
** DRIVING FOR ELK**
There’s a popular bit of wisdom directed at drives for any big-game animals: You don’t drive them where you want them to go, but where they want to go. This is especially true with elk. Some herds may refuse to move but will mill about and remain in the heart of a thicket or blowdown. In many cases, forests are so vast and steep that it’s impossible to place blockers on all escape routes.
If you opt to drive, consult a map and select a spot where your party can thoroughly cover the area you intend to hunt. A heavy stand of 50 to 100 acres of timber surrounded by clearings or open aspen woods is a good option. Stay away from big country where elk can, and will, disappear without you ever knowing. Scouting will allow you to find places where you believe elk are bedded.
Elk hunting can be as easy or tough as you want. If your idea of a successful hunt is just being in the mountains and enjoying the experience, that’s perfectly fine — and admirable. But if you want to beat the odds, head for the timber and prepare to work hard. That’s where your elk will be.