First Elk Hunting Adventure in the Zirkel Wilderness

by Eric Jensen

Recently, I returned from my first elk hunt, which was in Colorado's Mount Zirkel Wilderness area. Due to last minute changes, my normal hunting partner, Rita, was unable to go. However, she recruited her fellow Minneapolis firefighter, Ben Pena, to join me. It worked out well since Ben's an experienced hunter and many grades above yours truly in regards to navigation in the Rockies.

Ben has spent lots of time in Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains hunting mule deer and scouting elk, but this was his first elk hunt. His skills using USGS maps, a GPS and a compass were a huge help. He also understood that different slope directions effect weather, sunlight, vegetation and the direction of storms and wind. As a Midwestern hunter accustomed to flat terrain with dense woods and open fields, adjusting to the new terrain was a huge challenge.

We started by hiking the Swamp Park Trail to the South Fork Mad Creek canyon where we camped. A good portion was rugged uphill hiking, which took more than three hours. For the next day and a half, we hunted the nearby woods and meadows, climbing up to an open hillside to glass down into the canyon. There, we saw elk sign, including bull rubs, but they appeared to be old. We also saw mule deer, blue grouse and some black bears.

We concluded the elk had to be higher up, as the weather was warm, signs were old, and we heard no bulls bugling or cows mewing. We relocated nearly a thousand feet higher at 8,700 feet. On the way, we met a group of hunters from Kansas who had a large camp and horses. They said they'd seen some elk but they weren't bugling as much as normal. We also heard this from another party later in the hunt. The common belief was the elk were less active due to the massive amounts of green grass around this year, which came from the combination of a snowy winter, wet summer and warm weather. Elk have thick skin, seek cool places and eat green grass. In the normally dry climate of the Rockies, elk seek small pockets of moist areas in late summer and early fall. But this year, green grass was abundant.

Ben dissented slightly; he thought the elk were more cautious due to the hunting pressure. Even though we were in a wilderness area inaccessible to motorized transportation, the area was used by elk hunters and some others traveling on horseback.

After relocating, we saw more elk sign. It was on a steep hill covered by dark, thick timber on a plateau leading to a meadow and pond. We finally we had encouragement when we heard an elk bugling after dark. The next morning, we intended to hunt the same pond, but by navigating through the thick timber and deadfall in the moonlight and with minimal use of our headlamps, we ended up a couple hundred yards to the left on a steep hillside of pines, aspens and green grass. We missed our spot but were in good elk habitat, so we decided it was a good spot for our hunt.

At first we didn't see any elk, but later that morning, we finally had an encounter. We were slowly working a ridge line when we heard a bugle in front of us. We guessed it to be half a mile or less away, but it ended up being much closer. While making a few cow calls along the way, we approached as quietly as possible. Each step was taken with great care, but our caution wasn't enough. Suddenly, there was the motion of a large animal running away, snapping large branches and twigs. We caught glimpses of antlers disappearing into the distance. The spooked bull was gone, but my heart pounded as I shook with excitement! Our guess was the swirling winds brought our scent to the elk.

That night, hopeful to see more elk, we planned for a trip to some meadows much deeper into the backcountry while taking our entire camp on our backs. We could hunt and then set up camp wherever we landed... hopefully near an elk kill. Afterward, we'd travel back or start packing out a kill the following day and head for home.

That night it began raining at dinner and was still going when we woke at 3 a.m. We were wrong when we concluded it would soon pass. At 5 a.m., we were ready to take our tent down after packing our gear and eating a breakfast of coffee, muesli, powdered milk and bacon. But the rain now more intense, we decided to re-sort our gear to keep things dry.

From that point, we were stuck in the tent for a full 12 hours. I watched as the clouds thickened and the rain intensified. Visibility went down to a mere two or three hundred yards. You couldn't see across the canyon, and the entire sky and surroundings were gray. Finally, the showers weakened, and we saw bits of sunshine. At 5:30 p.m., we left to hunt nearby as the sky finally turned blue.

In the pre-dawn hours, we packed up and began the day's hunt. We found a good area with a grassy meadow below a steep aspen ridge. As we traveled, we heard a bugle, but some distance off. Soon, we met some hunters from Iowa who said they'd experienced less elk activity than years past and killed nothing this year, which was uncommon. They were packing up and leaving that day but recommended some spots. We headed in their suggested direction and found a remote meadow with low-lying wet areas surrounding it. We saw excellent sign of the bull, including the tree a rutting bull had stripped of bark, fresh tracks and scat. So, we called but to no avail.

After working that area, we walked up high hoping to use the ridges to cross about a mile and a half of ground and reach a trail that would take us back – all while doing some hunting on the way. It was much tougher than anticipated. We climbed up several hundred feet in elevation and walked down and up a steep canyon with tons of deadfall. There was concern about reaching the trail before dark, but suddenly, there it was.

By this time, we had walked 12 hours, with a few short breaks, while carrying about 50 pounds on our backs and our bows in hand. After nearly being ready to give up on hunting, I was again ready to shoot an elk now that we found the trail.

Relieved we wouldn't be stuck outside at night, we walked with a spring in our step. Suddenly, Ben saw elk about a hundred yards away. We quickened our pace and started cow calling, hoping to draw them to us and cover our approach. One cow went in a different direction than the others and looped around behind us into a draw we had just walked through. As she walked into the opening, Ben saw her and advised me to get ready to shoot. My "training" as a hunter kicked in. I knocked an arrow and when she walked broadside into the clearing and stopped, I aimed and released the arrow.

It was a clean miss. She heard the noise of the arrow and quickly trotted off. I had made a common mistake for terrain like that. In one moment, you're in thick, gnarly timber with small openings that cause you to overestimate distance. Then when you come upon an open draw and look at a large animal, you underestimate distance. We hadn't had time to get out our rangefinders. I thought the cow was 40 yards away, but it was actually 60 yards. Ben was still impressed that I didn't skip a beat after the grueling walk. Had I been less tired or more experienced at elk hunting, I would have walked closer to the draw while she approached, or let her pass and stalked. My movements would've been hidden by the small aspens and pines at the edge of the draw.

The hunt was a "non-success" in terms of game meat but nonetheless it was a great adventure and learning experience that deepened my commitment to both elk hunting and conservation efforts that protect backcountry. Being in the wilderness is a challenge, but it's also a relief from noise, pressures of everyday life, cell phones and the omnipresent media. Wilderness hunting teaches you that you don't need that much sometimes – simple meals and a dry place in the tent will do.

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About Caitlin Thompson