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Up to your ears in elk

By By Otha Barham / outdoors editor
Sept. 12, 2003
If you have always said that one day you would like to go elk hunting in the Rocky Mountains, now is a good time to make the trip.
The decline in recent years of mule deer in the mountain west has coincided with an explosion in the elk population, especially in the state of Colorado. The change that has occurred with each of these two popular game animals may not be related. But the fact remains that the aspen thickets, oak brush ridges and juniper clumps of Colorado have more of these large deer that the Indians called wapiti than anyone can remember.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife has tried to stay ahead of the game in holding elk numbers to reasonable levels to avoid a die off, overuse of the food resources and crop damage. But hunters have been unable to take enough of the animals to stem the rise in elk numbers.
Additional elk tags were assigned many of Colorado's nearly 200 game management units, so many that large numbers of tags are never issued. Take a look at that list on the Division's Web site, Colorado issues elk licenses specific for each type of hunting; rifle, bow and muzzle loading. Applications are for specific units or groups of units. There are usually statewide licenses as well that apply to units not designated as drawing units.
Preferred status
The state issues a "preference point" for each year you do not get drawn for the unit you apply for. Applicants with the most preference points are first to be selected for the hunts. Hunters with no preference points can draw in some units while the best units those managed intensely for big bulls may require many points for a successful draw.
My brother is going to one of the top units this month, having drawn for bull elk with 15 points. Fifteen years of waiting is a long time, but this hunt will occur during the rut when the bulls are screaming and tearing up the country and he can use a rifle. Bow hunters usually can get into the high point areas with somewhat fewer points, but of course they get far fewer shot opportunities with the short range weapons. Applications for cow elk require fewer points of course.
There is a short article in this month's Field and Stream magazine that gives information on hunting Colorado's elk. The article describes a "do it yourself" hunt made by a small group who wanted to hold costs down. Each man spent less than a thousand dollars for the basic costs including the license. I usually spend a bit more than that for the same type hunt. Costs of ammunition, keeping up equipment, ATV registration, a rented horse to get game from a deep canyon, all will raise expenses. But an elk hunt is worth its cost even if just for the experience of camping in the beautiful mountains.
Having imparted the good news, lets look at some of the rest of the elk hunting story. Aside from those who bag their elk with the aid of luck, and there are many each year, elk hunting is tough. Jim Zumbo, perhaps the best know elk writer who is addicted to the sport, has written a book called, I believe, "To Heck With Elk Hunting." He swears off every year only to begin planning for the next season within weeks. If you hunt elk a lot, you will fail to bag an elk more than you will succeed unless you hunt high dollar elk on certain private ranches.
For years, the hunter success rate in Colorado the state containing the biggest herd of these animals has been under 25 percent. It has risen very little during the current glory days. You can raise your odds in many ways, space here being insufficient to cover them. But getting where the elk are is essential of course and a rule of thumb is to penetrate the huge forests further than other hunters and hunt the undisturbed herds.
Big hunt area
There are 26 million acres of federal land alone open for elk hunting in Colorado. Few hunters will venture more than 3 miles or so into the vast forests. The young and the strong who are willing to pack in across blowdowns, rock slides and vertical game trails have the best chance of scoring.
Don't rely on luck, unless of course you are one of the chosen ones like my preacher brother. I took him on his first elk hunt and he killed a 4×5 bull the first hour almost within site of our spike camp. This was in the days of fewer elk and his was the only bull taken on that mountain that day.
I could claim that my scouting and insistence that we pack deep into good territory should be credited. But I know his luck. If you are a member of that select circle, just saunter up a roadside ridge, station yourself in a low saddle and wait for the struggling hunters below to run a trophy bull up the draw.
The rest of us have to get in shape and pay a big price in effort . And after sometimes years of pursuit, we finally get a shot. The moment comes when your lungs are screaming for more air, one foot is slipping on shale and the other is balanced on a shaky root to keep you from falling into space, and your scope's crosshairs are dancing like Brittany Spears on steroids. That's elk hunting reality.