Why Hunt Rocky Mountain Elk? (Part I)

For those who have never hunted Rocky Mountain elk (C. e. nelson, also known as the Yellowstone elk) and are contemplating a public lands elk hunt, it can seem like an incredibly daunting, even overwhelming proposition (true) with a steep learning curve (also true). There’s no way to sugarcoat it and there are no shortcuts. Public lands elk hunting is a tough game, physically and mentally, but don’t just take my word for it.

Many hunters follow Randy Newberg—of “Fresh Tracks” and “On Your Own Adventures”—and know what an accomplished elk hunter and dedicated public lands defender he is. Randy said (in the 8/2/19 Outdoor News): “I live in a great place for elk [Montana] and hunted my first six years without firing a gun at an elk.”1 I had a similar experience during my early years hunting elk in Colorado.

“I started buying all sorts of equipment because I thought I had the wrong stuff, but those were excuses,” Randy added. “I was just being lazy and not investing the time to understand what elk were doing when I was hunting them. Those six years of struggling were key for me and not a waste of time ... I was failing for a reason. When I quit looking for shortcuts, it suddenly seemed like elk were everywhere. I’d urge people to get over the belief that a gadget will fix everything. And there is no Elk Hunting for Dummies.”2

Given the inherent difficulties, asking “Why Hunt Rocky Mountain Elk?” seems appropriate. For going on fifteen years I’ve been chasing elk in southwest Colorado’s high and wild San Juan Mountains. During that time, I’ve managed to put some bulls in the freezer and have written a few related Colorado Outdoors stories. Below are passages from the first five, which may provide some useful insights and hopefully help shorten the learning curve for new elk hunters.

1.) “Five Tips For Beginning Elk Hunters.” Colorado Outdoors: 9/19/14. “In the words of America’s greatest hunter-conservationist, Theodore Roosevelt, ‘When hunting him (wapiti) … he must be followed on foot, and the man who follows him must be sound in limb and wind.’ And that’s somewhat of an understatement. In most elk country, the term is ‘climbing’ rather than ‘hiking.’”

“Dozens of studies over the past 30 years have reached the same conclusion: the more roads, the fewer mature and large-sized game animals will be found. For Colorado’s elk hunters, the importance of roadless land is obvious: of the 15 most-hunted game management units (GMUs) in the state, 14 contain at least 66,000 acres of roadless acres, and 12 have more than 100,000 backcountry acres.”

2.) Part 1 of 3: “Elk Hunting: The ‘Bear’ Facts.” Colorado Outdoors: 11/17/14. “Friday afternoon (Oct. 17) I hiked for more than a mile through a maze of fallen timber and steep, lung- and ankle-straining cliffs (gaining some 1,500 feet) to my spike/high camp in … the Weminuche

Wilderness. There I planned to spend all week hunting along aspen- and conifer-clad high mountain benches amid some of the most surreal southern Rocky Mountains terrain and fall colors anywhere.”

“Saturday morning at first light I was in a blind overlooking a small meadow in the vicinity of several water holes. Hearing cow elk mewing and chirping on the bench (out of sight) above my blind accompanied by a bugling bull, then encountering a cow and calf while stalking back to camp later that morning would have been more than enough to call this a successful hunt … four days later on the last day of my hunt … a stout 6×6 bull [came] strolling in for a morning drink.”

3.) Part 2 of 3: “Elk Hunting & the ‘Sixth Sense.’” Colorado Outdoors: 11/26/14. “With the possible exception of the pronghorn, there’s likely no keener eye, ear, nose and nerve combination in nature than that found in the genus Cervidae, the deer family. And within the deer family many would argue that elk are the most difficult to hunt for a number of reasons, including finely tuned senses that help them evade hunters in the vast majority of human-elk encounters.”

“Elk traveling in groups are usually led by an older, more experienced cow that has survived many encounters with predators (human and otherwise) thanks to her keen senses and adroit evasion skills. She peered cautiously down the trail, unable to discern my motionless form sitting in the early morning shadows, and took a few more tentative steps. Behind her another adult cow appeared, then another, followed by a calf. The bull, if there was one, would be last in line.”

“Then antlers appeared behind the cows … The cow still stared, but antlers have turned into a head … the cow took a peering step forward. Finally, the bull moved into the clear. One quick, deep breath (‘steady,’ I whispered) and the morning calm was momentarily shattered by thundering hooves along with the death bellow of a 6×6 bull, but it was over in seconds.”

4.) Part 3 of 3: “Elk Hunting: After The Shot.” Colorado Outdoors: 12/8/14. “It’s 8:10 a.m., and I’ve just spent perhaps two minutes as close as 25 feet to a small group of elk (three cows, one calf and a bull). The encounter ended with one shot fired, a thunder of hooves and the echoing bellow of a sizable bull. Although I’m confident the shot was fatal, the bull did not drop in his tracks, and I wait 15 minutes before trailing him.”

“While waiting, I recall the words of a fellow elk hunter, Allen Morris Jones, in ‘A Quite Place of Violence’: ‘A badly wounded elk, if it doesn’t die immediately, will usually go only a short distance before lying down, sick. If given enough time, maybe just a few minutes, it will die there. If it’s forced to keep walking, it can walk its wounds away.’”

“After more than two hours of repeatedly climbing down and up the unforgiving slope, I’m starting to doubt my shot placement … Standing where the bull was, I face the direction he ran, start walking, and within seventy-five yards (at 11:10 a.m.) I’m standing over a burly 6×6 bull. Missing such a large animal seems equivalent to not noticing an M-1 Abrams tank sitting in your driveway on the way to work, but I was overly focused on tracks and walked right by. It’s pushing high noon and warm, around 60 degrees, so it’s time to get to work.”

5.) “Wapiti Ambush (Part One: Mountaineering With A Gun).” Colorado Outdoors: 7/28/14. “The weather was picture-perfect (for sun bathing, but not elk hunting) in the wilds of southwest

Colorado during second rifle season (October 19–27, 2007), and, as a result, the elk were spread out and staying put at whatever elevation felt comfortable. The warm, dry conditions also made our every step sound like a marching band moving through the woods.”

“Although the … snowless postrut conditions kept most elk up high, spread out, and hard to find or approach, I managed to see some big bulls and several cows (from a distance), which was more than reward enough for a hard hunt. I also lost nearly five pounds from the ‘mountaineering with a gun’-like effort. And like in mountaineering, where summits are the icing on the cake, it’s the harvest for hunters that tastes the best, but it’s the hunt (and climb) that fills us up.” Next up, “Why Hunt Rocky Mountain Elk?” Part II.

For additional elk hunting information see:

  • Colorado Parks and Wildlife Elk Hunting University.
  • “Peak Elk Hunting.” Bugle: September/October 2013, p. 64.
  • Sylvia Kantor. “Seeking Ground Less Traveled: Elk Responses to Recreation.” Science Findings #219 (U.S. Department of Agriculture-Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station): September 2019. https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/scifi219.pdf
  • David “Elkheart” Petersen (Colorado BHA founder) books: www.davidpetersenbooks.com

David Lien is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation.”3 During 2014 David was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation”4 and in 2019 he was the recipient of BHA’s Mike Beagle-Chairman’s Award “for outstanding effort on behalf of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.”5

About David Lien

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