Your Introduction to a Colorado DIY Public Lands Bull Elk Hunt
Getting geared up and executing a Colorado elk hunt is quite a big undertaking when considering all the factors. From deciding if you’re going to specifically identify a unit to apply for tags in, whether you’ll pursue elk during the rut for an archery hunt high in the mountains, or sighting in your rifle for a second, third or fourth late season tag. Are you planning to pack into a high mountain camp location with horses, on foot, or strike out early every morning from a local home or hotel room with nearby forest service access? Planning to hike from the trailhead early every morning, utilize ATV/UTV or even E-bikes? The multiple considerations from which area you’re hunting all the way down to what type of bullet you use can be the deciding factors on whether or not your cards line up, and you have the opportunity to put crosshairs on one of the most elusive and intelligent animals roaming the Rocky Mountains.
In this article, I’ll primarily focus on the hunting methodology that we’ve found to be the most effective in finding animals, developing a game plan for a hunt, putting a stalk on the animals, and effectively harvesting a bull elk.
A Love of Hunting Since My Childhood
First, a bit of my background. I grew up the son of a Rocky Mountains outfitter and hunting guide in the West Elk Mountain range, spending many days as a child following my father into difficult, secluded terrain to pack out hundreds of elk, deer and bear over the years. Hunting is still part of my lifestyle as an adult, both for sustenance and as a an escape into wilderness.
My main companion on this 2021 DIY elk hunt is a great friend from college, Dylan. Since his successful harvest of a large 6×6 bull elk in 2018, I got the nudge from Dylan that we should start hunting together and spent the last three years hunting multiple units with Dylan, hiking hundreds of miles, and never getting the right opportunity to shoot an elk. We joke that we just enjoy “hiking around the woods heavily armed.” This year, everything lined up for us.
Dylan and I decided we would bank some preference points this year and purchase an over-the-counter second season bull elk tag, which allows for significant flexibility for hunting, allows access to the majority of hunting areas in the state, and three good units very close by to our two different home towns.
Before Sunrise or Sunset: Timing is Everything
Hunting in Colorado is completely different from Midwest and in Eastern states. For the majority of hunters, there is no sitting in a tree stand waiting for a big animal to traverse along a migration corridor to feeding grounds. Multiple factors affect the location and timing of elk. Food, water, weather and other pressure from hunters will primarily affect where elk herds will be. Otherwise, it’s a big guessing game on where you’ll find these animals.
Imagine you’re wearing a good pair of heavy long johns, a sweater and your beefiest winter parka… on a sunny day at 9,000 feet in elevation. Tell me you’re not sweating or uncomfortable. You’ll want to find some dark timber or a north-facing slope in the shade where you can rest until sundown. That’s an elk’s life.
Time and time again, we find out-of-state hunters hiking hard during the middle of the day hoping to run across a roaming herd of elk on a hot hillside. Well, you may find them there, but it’s going to be either very early in the morning or right before the sun goes down. Their heavy coat to survive frigid winters in Colorado is so heavy that animals will typically spend the majority of the day hunkered down in a shady spot, below a tree, near a water source or hiding in a cooler part of the woods amongst dark timber, north-facing slopes or even snow. Elk typically will wake up before sunrise, graze meadows and areas with feed, hunker down through the hot portion of the day, and then revisit the same feeding grounds as the sun is going down.
There’s the first part to finding a high country animal. Get in a position to glass with good spotting scopes and binoculars. Get there early in the morning before sunrise, and in the evening before sundown. You want to be in a location where you can see more terrain, and spot animals coming out to feed.
From there, the next step is to formulate your plan of attack. Are the animals on public land you can hunt? Are there ridge lines to disguise your approach until you’re in a shooting position? What are the wind and thermals going to be like? If your first shot wounds an animal, where’s the natural direction it could run to? Where are the other hunters, did they see the animals too? Where’s the closest ATV trail to the animals and which out-of-state grandpa is going to possibly ruin your hunt by going along on his ATV spooking the game?
In most cases, we prefer to locate animals in their evening feeding and grazing pattern, so we can plan a hunt for the next morning. If successful in killing an animal, you then have all day to gut, quarter, and pack it out, instead of working in the dark.
After three days of unsuccessful spot, stalks, and hiking 19 miles in total, Dylan and I packed up from my hometown and took all our guns, gear, and Polaris General and put together ideas to hunt in the Gunnison wilderness surrounding his hometown.
After a day hiking and hunting an area that was previously successful for Dylan in 2018, where he killed a large 6×6 bull, he pointed out a ridgeline on the mapping program we should hike into and glass the surrounding valleys.
We pointed the Polaris General out of the parking lot around 4:30 p.m. and traveled 14 miles up rugged roads, past other hunting camps and roaming hunters sitting along meadows waiting in their trucks. After almost an hour, we arrived at our trail and set out with our rifles, spotting scope, and binoculars for a decent two mile hike to the high-mountain rock field.
Planning, Tracking … and Still Too Far Away
We pulled the Polaris General out of the parking lot around 4:30 p.m. and traveled 14 miles up rugged roads, past camps and hunters sitting along meadows waiting in their trucks. After almost an hour, we arrived at our trail and set out with our rifles, spotting scope, and binoculars for a brief hike to the high-mountain rock field.
After almost an hour hiking and ready for some water and granola bars, we perched and set up our glass. The sun was beginning to set, giving a soft amber light to the quiet wilderness. Almost immediately even with the naked eye spotted the tiny movement of a pale, bull elk coat navigating its way across a hillside through the dark timber. I quietly slapped Dylan’s arm, pointing him in the direction with his 65x spotting scope to get a closer look. Finally zeroing in, we ascertained the bull I spotted was amongst 5 total animals. Four smaller ones and the larger 6×7 bull. We were shaking with excitement. After 19 long miles of hiking steep terrain the last three days, we were finally seeing some game. But we weren’t even close to being able to get a shot.
As the sun went down, we packed up our gear and hiked back to the UTV in the dark by the light of our headlamps. Once home around 9 p.m., we planned our stalk the next morning. Looking at the contour lines of the mapping software, we were going to plunge down 1,700 feet in elevation from our position the night before to get adjacent across the canyon, showing approximately 400 yards across per the mapping software. A longer and challenging shot. The bullet I was using was a Remington 30-06 Springfield with 180-grain pointed soft point, would drop 9 inches at 300 yards and 26 inches out to 400 yards. I made the mental note.
The next morning, we were up at 3 a.m., too excited to eat breakfast. Hiking by headlamp, we checked our progress on the mapping software apps on our phones to ensure we wouldn’t pass our cutoff location, where we dipped off the top of the ridge and began our descent into the mountain canyon from the top. As the faintest light began to show, we clicked off our headlamps, adjusted our eyes to the dark terrain, and continued downward. As the daylight began to creep in, we were sat on the edge of a sagebrush meadow, trying to use our binoculars to peer across the valley and spot elk. As visibility improved, we spotted them across the valley.
With further spotting, we were able to determine there were two spikes, a 3×3, the same 4×4, 4×5, and a new 5×5 bull. But no big bulls. From our meadow, the shot was 585 yards, much farther than anything either of us had ever practiced. We sure weren’t going to try shooting 600 yards for the first time with the risk of wounding an animal and not killing it.
Where had the big bulls from the night before gone? And then, there is was. A big bull in the dark timber down the valley to our left.
Double the Luck: Two Big Bull Elk in Range
Dylan smacks my shoulder and whispers to me, “Dude. They’re both there. The two bulls.” Immediately, I dove back into my binoculars and was barely able to make out another set of antlers feeding in a small meadow behind the first big bull 490 yards away. If we were going to get a shot on these elk, we needed to move laterally on our side of the valley to get directly opposite the timber they were feeding through. I told Dylan the plan and we slowly navigated our way back into the trees, making our way to the next top of the meadow where we believed we would get a better view.
As we crept to the edge of the next sagebrush meadow, we could see the bulls picking their way through sparse pine trees opposite us. We crept to a sitting spot, Dylan situating his rifle in a secure position on his shooting sticks, while I sat against the steep hillside, cinching my rifle sling around my left arm, and resting the barrel on the top of my pack. I was in a good shooting position. Like we had fantasized about for years, two big bulls grazing across a valley from us. Dylan whispered he was going to shoot the bull on the right. I knew to target the animal on the left, a little higher than the animal on the right.
As I tried to calm my shaking arms and heavy breathing, I peered into my scope. I zeroed my crosshair two tick marks above the bull’s shoulder, knowing my ammunition would drop almost nine inches from zero before it would strike the animal. My bull stepped forward out from behind a tree. I scoped to Dylan’s bull, his was in the open as well. I cleared my throat, “Dylan, this is about as good a time as any, you ready?” “Ready.” “Three, two, one…”.
BANG! My bull dropped like a sack of concrete out of the bed of a truck. I racked another round into the chamber and kept the safety off, ready to shoot again if he got up. Dylan proclaimed “I hit mine—he’s moving!” He’d hit his bull behind the shoulder, in the correct spot, but the resilient animal had begun running across the hillside. I keep my crosshairs on my elk, making sure he doesn’t rise. BANG! Dylan shot again, missing his second shot at the running animal.
Dylan’s bull went from full sprint to tumbling down the steep face. It slid down the mountainside, almost all the way down the rock fields, to just above the creek with bitterly cold water until we lost view of the animal.
I sighted back in on my animal and could see it lightly kicking. He wasn’t getting up. Dylan and I looked at each other, shaking with buck fever, and exchanged some profane congrats to each other. Three years and lots of miles on our sore legs had just paid off. Everything had finally worked. I had killed a large 6×7 bull elk and Dylan had gotten a large 5×6.
Harvesting the Kill & Hiking the Hill
We pulled our Garmin GPS from the pack and sent texts to his brother and my father, notifying them of our success. “Two big bulls down.”
Harvesting an animal in the back country three miles from the nearest trail is hard in itself, but you’d better have some good friends that enjoy exercise and miserable work. Dylan’s brother, Tyler, loaded his dirt bike and got to our trail within an hour with Dylan’s girlfriend, Shay, riding on the back. By then, we had quartered Dylan’s bull above the creek and packed the quarters in to game bags. As Tyler and Shay arrived, we hiked up the hill to my bull, and began quartering the massive 800 pound animal. The sun was fading, but we’d done it. Two animals packaged and ready to hike out.
After the long, miserable, and demoralizing hike out with 90 pounds of meat and two elk racks, we were more exhausted more than we’d ever been before. The best part was, we had six more quarters to freight out the next day.
All packed up, we began our trek up the slope, attempting to cheer each other on, as each of us freighted 90-120 pounds of meat on our backs. After two miserable hours, we crested the slope and found our way to the UTV. Six quarters, four people, and some great memories made their way off the mountain. We pointed our large antlers out from the truck bed as a signal to all the other frenzied hunters in the area. Some heads definitely turned on the way home.
About the author:
Jake Hubbell is a real estate broker and Realtree United Country Land Pro at United Country Real Estate in Hotchkiss, Colorado. He is an outdoorsman and adventurer, hunter and fisherman and excellent real estate marketer, especially for hunting and recreational properties. Learn more about Jake at www.UCColoradoBrokers.com.