Written by Bruce “Hutch” Hutcheon
For the last thirty plus years it’s been my privilege to hunt Colorado and the awesome big game animals the state has to offer. Many people reach out to me from the various hunting Forums for tips, techniques, where, when, and how to go Elk hunting. I thought it was time to these questions into an article.
When is the best season to hunt elk?
First, you have to determine what weapon you’re going to use. Colorado offers archery, muzzleloader and rifle seasons for bulls and cows. Over the years my favorite has been the September archery season. The draw of the high country with its bugling bulls is too exciting to pass up.
The neat thing about Colorado is that there are cow elk tags leftover tags that are available for late seasons for those field to plate hunters. Yes, you can get two elk tags in one year by paying attention to the regulations offered by Colorado Parks and Wildlife .
My second choice for hunting elk is with my rifle during the latest season I can get an OTC (over the counter) tag. Late seasons have the elk in migration mode and can get them into the sagebrush and oak brush elevations. This fact plus the possible benefit of snow cover makes it easier to spot elk with your (spotting scope from a mile or more away.
Where should I plan to hunt?
Long gone are the days of getting away from the crowds by hiking, packing or four wheeling into hard to reach basins. The technological advancements within the hunting industry allow someone in Ohio to have as much information on access roads, water sources, bedding areas and food sources as the local in Craig, Colorado. I miss my honey holes where I could almost guarantee daily elk encounters. These are no more because everyone can find those holes online.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife provides an excellent research tool for planning your Colorado hunt. This GIS information will enable you to see burn areas, migration patterns and historical seasonal use areas plus a whole lot more. Invest the time now for your hunt in the fall.
Where should I plan to camp?
I’m the type of personality that likes to be away from other hunters. I will haul my camp in the bed of my truck or on a flatbed trailer. Remember if you can find a campsite on a county or Forest service road so can everyone else. Case in point; I rolled into a really great camping area at night only to find other camps already there, two days before the opener.
How do I overcome this trend? I look for camping spots well away from the numbered routes.
Dead ends make people uncomfortable. This featured Forest Service Road led to a trail head camp site that was less than 2 miles from a herd of elk. I passed up a five point bull on that hunt.
Research, Research, Research. Have two or three camp sites in your unit as potential places to set up. If this is your first trip West, DO NOT arrive at your preferred destination in the dark.
One of my past honey holes was right off a county road then transitioned into a poor forest service road. The campsite of choice is right where the road dropped into an aspen jungle and no campers could travel.
What weather conditions should I be prepared for?
Know before you go is wise advice for any hunter in the Rocky Mountains.
There are plenty of mountain weather forecast sites available but one I like, and use is Mountain Forecast. With this site you can find the mountain range and major peak information. Take a look and its Free to use.
Rocky Mountains (USA) Flat Tops Area – Lat/Long: 39.97° N 107.12° W Derby Peak
You never will go wrong using NOAA Weather. My advice is to check the weather forecast 30 days, 10 days, and 24 hours before you leave on your hunt. Yes you might have to repack a bit, possibly add chains to your kit if you’re hunting early season but being prepared has saved many a hunt for your truly.
I got hammered once in Wyoming hunting Antelope in early October when the weather went from shirt sleeves and jeans to rain slickers and rubber boots.
Have layers based on the elevation you’re hunting. Early morning is cold, midday its warm and late evening its cool. You should dress for the time of day and the forecast. Always have a wind breaker in your day pack.
I was sheep hunting sitting glassing at 12,000 and was glad I had pants and jacket to put on when an afternoon squall came through.
What type of vehicle do I need on Forest Service Roads?
Leave your all-wheel drive at home unless you’re towing a Jeep or UTV. Again, now your weather forecast as you might need chains to get in and out of your area even in September. Rain and snow are not your friends in the mountains!
Four Wheel Drive is a must. Bring along a come along, saw, shovel and chains.
Hutch Hint: Use your highway tires till you get to Denver, Colorado Springs or Fort Collins then switch out to off road tires. This trick saves on tread wear and gives you better gas mileage.
How do I make a food plan for the hunt’s duration?
Here’s what I recommend you do to ensure you have enough fuel in your body for the hunt. Google your required intake for a strenuous daily activity and add five hundred calories to the result. An example for you is a 200lb man that is 6 foot tall and strenuously hiking in the Colorado mountains will burn 3783 calories per day. You are going to need to eat more than your regular share of protein as well as Carbs.
I’m a mountain house customer so I buy two person meals and supplement with Ramon noodles, nuts, fruits, and grilled beef if at a base camp. In a spike camp it’s all Mountain house breakfast lunch and dinner. Here’s some excellent information from ELK 101 – Cory Jacobson
Oh yes, hydration goes along with the daily food plan. Oh, lay off the alcohol until you’re acclimated to the elevation you’re hunting. No bueno amigo if you overindulge in the mountains. How much water you need to drink depends on a number of factors, such as the activity you’re doing, intensity level, duration, weather, your age, your sweat rate, and your body type. A good general recommendation is about one half-liter of water per hour of moderate activity in moderate temperatures. You may need to increase how much you drink as the temperature and intensity of the activity rise, pay attention to your body..
How to navigate safely in the mountains?
Old school compass and topo map skills are still in use today. Unfortunately, people, me included, have let technology replace basic land navigation skills. Make sure you know how to use the phone apps and always carry a regular compass and a copy of a paper map.
Lesson learned the hard way are never fun when it comes to navigation especially at night. Know your tools and plan your way points each day before leaving camp.
If you do down an elk, you better know the quickest and safest way back to camp in the dark.
Invest in Pre-scouting to make your hunt more successful.
Yes, keyboard time beats any other activity you can do except physical conditioning to prepare for your hunt. With Hutch On Hunting consulting services, I walk you through the onboarding Map App process saving you hours of ramp up.
Example: How to go from Denver to Forest Service Road 841 – Green Gate Camp
Took me less than a minute to pull up my waypoint screen share and insert. Yes, this was one of my favorite September camps but no more. Last time I was there over ten camps, and thirty hunters were camped here. Bummer.
Broken in Boots and Good Glass are your most important tools.
You should spend hours behind your spotting scope during your hunt. If you hike up to a saddle looking over two basins, you can cover both sides in a day. You can’t cover that amount of ground in a day. Strategy; at dawn and dusk, sit and spot are your mantra for an early season Elk hunt. Spend more time glassing with the best optics you can afford. Cheap optics will give you head aches and eye strain. Your optics will outlast you if you buy good quality pairs of binoculars. Spend your money on two things great optics and great boots. Binoculars used for distant scouting are great off a tripod. The spotting scope that will help you close the deal from a couple of miles away.
Hint: If you see a herd with a shooter bull go to bed in the morning from two miles away where do you think they will be in the evening just before dusk? So why are boots so important. They are what allows you to move to your ambush spot and carry your elk off the mountain however miles that might be. Do Not Ever hunt in a new pair of lace up boots. If your feet are gone so, is your hunt. If you’re hunting in September, you might get away with a shorter break in period for cross trainers like the Merrill Moab’s, (my personal early season favorite). Make sure you have insoles and mole skin JIC you develop blisters. If you’re hunting later in the year then go with lace up boots well broken in…wear them to work, walks with the dog and to the gym. You are investing time and money in your hunt and the most critical aspect of your success is your feet.
Mental toughness is a must.
For those who might be interested I’m 76 years old, a disabled vet with two total hip replacements, three lower back surgeries and two pins in my right shoulder. Last year I hiked above 12,000’ and took a nanny mountain goat with the assist of a good friend. I carried the fount shoulders and the head off the mountain while carrying my rifle. It took me 17 years of applying for an either-sex tag in Colorado. I got-er-done!
Was it a hard ascent and descent yes but I just took another step. It will be my last high altitude hunt, but its memory will last forever.
Mental toughness is a personal thing for each of us. Some make it look simple and others work like a dog to stay the course and grind away. You decide your own success by your physical preparation, but the mental conditioning is a whole lot harder to prepare.
Wrap up – Make my on the ground experiences work for you this year. Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or to get even more personal advice join me at http://hutchonhunting.com. I will look forward to seeing your trophy photos.