I’ve finally had some time during this post-holiday season and write down some notes from my hunting trips this year. As we wrapped the 2022 season I was able to spend time chasing birds, mule deer, elk, and whitetail. We had changes in our family life as we welcomed our new baby girl into the world. Where the COVID pandemic gave me an opportunity to get out and move, the birth of our baby girl had me on the couch more often.
My wife and I also worked with a realtor in the Kremmling, CO area to help us secure mountain property — and after a lot of ups and downs during the process, we put in an offer on and later secured a property that would become a base camp. All the while our hunting group picked up another hunter, someone entirely new to hunting but he had heart, determination, and other skills. Danny Schutte brought with him a professional chef background and he’s Manny’s cousin. I don’t know what I was thinking, taking on another new hunter in an area I was still learning and trying to find success in. But after working out team dynamics, he’s got a standing invite back to camp.
Impending weather, gear requirements, and just having two new hunters — Manny having been unarmed in past seasons had me change up the plan to have us car camp rather than pack in. It would take away some of the calculus of splitting up gear, moving long distances weighted, and as history has taught us — sometimes you pack in to a place that had no critters. This allowed us to pick a new spot each day, and run rigs from base camp that were capable of tackling the mountain roads.
After months of preparation, group texts flying back and forth it was finally here. The day we left for the mountains arrived simultaneously too early and long awaited. We generally leave the day before the season early so as to have camp set by mid morning and we’re able to run roads and check local conditions. If something is broke, we can run to town and make sure we can fix it. That sort of thing. We met in the dark around 5:00 in the morning outside my house in the south Denver metro. I think it’s the earliest I can reliably get Manny to my place knowing he has to wake up and pack much earlier.
We tried our best to caravan to the mountains, but quickly lost Danny. Zigging and zagging amongst the campers hauling up to the mountains. We met in town at the Kremmling Mercantile for gas, and headed into the hills to check truck camp locations. I had about a dozen marked up on the map, and we needed all of them. Many spots were taken on my list of easily accessible spots knowing Danny’s truck wasn’t necessarily up to the task. We set camp and were able to find a suitable place that wasn’t super crowded. From our camp we would be able to easily access the area I wanted to focus our efforts.
Opening day came quickly. We walked to a nearby trailhead that led into a drainage I had my eye on — as did several others. I wanted to get to an area deep on the backcountry but just couldn’t manage it. The walk with too much gear after not exercising to my potential just wasn’t going to happen. Danny being new at this adjusted his gear before we left. Then again after we got to the trailhead, and again at our break points. It takes time to establish a system, eventually everything has it’s place. But not this trip.
That day we saw plenty of fresh sign but no critters to speak of. Ultimately we saw few hunters despite all of the other signs that they were around. So much for the orange army and the pumpkin patch we’d seen in years prior.
On day 2 we got to an alternative trailhead a little later but ultimately should have adjusted for altitude and our cardio, starting earlier. It took way longer for me to get to where I wanted reflecting on how little I worked out with the new baby. In years past the time it took me to hike into these spots was significantly less, showing me how much being a couch potato affects your ability to traverse terrain effectively.
I got to my spot and had day old and fresh tracks everywhere. We Scooby Doo’d and each had safety zones assigned. We roughly knew where each other were, but this is when Danny broke loose and we had to rely on his wife texting us over our inReach to get ahold of him. When we finally regrouped we ensured that each of us had our inReach IDs in our contact lists so we could text each other’s units directly over satellite.
Danny found some excellent sign and a bedding area, likely used for intermittent feeding during a stop through on the elk’s circuit in the valley. Good sign, no critters yet again.
By day three I was itching to be able to produce animals and put them in front of my hunting crew. Everyone had a mule deer tag, and an elk tag. So I took them to my mule deer spot. Driving in the dark from the Pass side to the river valley was an experience, with the blackness of a void from the narrow mountain road with a snowy mountain side appearing from the inky blackness a quarter mile away. This was the first real sketchy mountain driving Danny had experienced, and while I had faith he’d be able to do it if pressed, I didn’t want him to experience what I had my first year back here.
Driving under similar circumstances I was met by a dually pickup truck coming the other way. Butt clenched we’d passed and both needed to fold mirrors even as I put my passenger tire half way up the mountain side and the other driver was flirting with the abyss. Today going to my ridgeline for mule deer I whiffed it walking in 4 does presented themselves very near the trail. Didn’t have a round chambered, had difficulty with sight picture. Ultimately once I chambered a round I apparently filled my Aspen tree tag. An embarrassment, but something I have to live with. At least I didn’t wound an animal.
After that I marched to my ridge and saw 12 deer pretty much immediately as the sun was rising warming the sage and juniper casting warmth on my right cheek. They were fairly far away but not out of range. However, I’d convinced myself now that I wanted a buck. The day came and went with only two smallish mule deer bucks presenting themselves across the draw.
Manny departs. He managed to schedule a Disney vacation during elk season, which we’ll have a hard time letting him live down. But in fairness, CPW does keep moving the season on a five year plan. We went to my property to rejigger equipment then off for a midday hunt in the Wilderness, seeing Manny off and back towards Denver. We walked through the boundary into the wilderness and found some great glassing rocks into amazing views — but not the unit I had tags for. The ridgeline separated two units, and the one we had tags for was more level.
After walking two miles uphill in the snow we paused to check our GPSes and take a slight breather. Then it happened… we bumped a nice Wilderness bull elk off bed.
We had SSW winds, 6″ of snow covering the ground. The light of midday was being sucked away by scorched trees from a previous fire. We decided now was as good of any to set up and see if the bull came back.
It was the first legal bull I’ve seen during my entire four years experience elk hunting in this low success rate OTC unit. But we’d found it. What’s more, we found him from a hot tip I’d received years earlier by a fellow I met in the back country during COVID. While scouting for elk and hunting grouse I was working meadow edges in the backcountry when I stumbled on his camp.
He was surrounded by his llamas and had a great spread with a SeekOutside Tipi, a cook tent, latrine tent, and temporary posts to lash up his pack string. With nobody around for miles we had an hour or two to shoot the breeze and talk about hunting. It turned out he was the former Kremmling BLM Area Manager — a detail that came in handy as we discussed when we liked to hunt the area. He was set up as a backcountry palace for his family to come in and out during archery season. We drank coffee and talked, and I walked away with ideas for following seasons to fill tags.
I’m extremely thankful that my staunchness and Danny’s scatterbrained nature helped put us into this situation on this warm day with favorable winds. In all likelihood we won’t see that bull again but I’m hooked. I want to do this absolutely as long as I can.
Other than being snuck up on by a curious racoon it was otherwise uneventful, and we slogged out before we’d need to use headlamps to light our way. No more sightings of the bull, and no sounds. When he’d bounded away from us he very likely went up and over the next ridgeline into the fallen timbers. This was a place that would take him minutes and us hours to traverse.
Day 5 saw us going back to the river valley with somewhat unfavorable winds, but those same winds seemed likely to put burnt trees on our heads in the area we’d been in last night. So, back to mule deer. We bumped one walking in off their bed, they moved away in relative silence despite the crisp layer of ice on the old snow.
Later I had a three by two and doe pair sneak up over my right shoulder. Ran down the hill upon me turning, got the buck stopped with a meh but only presented a butt shot before moving off. The doe kind of snort wheezed and stodded directly into some bushes out of sight. Having both a buck and doe tag in my pocket I should have focused on the “easy meat”, but the hope for a buck was overwhelming me.
Three more deer headed uphill next ridgeline over. The winds were whipping up and with winds swirling, we were likely going to have to walk bedding cover.
So we checked the map and found a protected valley to get out of the high winds. Having parked the truck further adown along the forest road we stopped for a bite, talked with some other hunters and then moseyed into a protected valley for a large loop of walking and sitting. There was plenty of sign, but nothing other than long views and empty forests materialized before us.
Finally, Some Success
We decided with the amount of time we had left to hunt that we would move somewhere and sit until last light. It was already day 5 and we had more time behind us than ahead of us. I wanted to sit a ridgeline I knew would produce deer, so Danny and I picked our spots where we’d spend the evening. Twenty minutes before last light, the forest in front of me, sitting the ridgeline trying to eke out the last bit of the day — the forest came alive. Slow footsteps of two does walking towards me. At around 40 yards I raised my Ruger and was able to drop the lead doe, the other bounding off a short ways before pausing to regard me with skepticism.
As it turns out, cutting meat with a professional chef is easy. We divvied up chores and got the deer processed out and into game bags pretty quickly all told. Danny and I were able to maximize yield as best as possible while being time expedient. We managed to pack all the deer into two large reusable game bags. The hike was steep but not altogether long back to the truck. Our new neighbors, camped directly inside the trailhead turnaround didn’t bother poking their heads from their wall tents. After picking our way past some ornery megafauna back to town we stopped for some ice. Then it was off to my place to get the meat chilled in the big cooler. With any luck next year there will be a freezer. Then it was back in the truck to head to camp.
Remember those high winds? Well, when we finally managed to return to camp after all of that, what did we find? We found our equipment yardsaled across the campsite from the high winds tossing everything. One of the nearby campers seemed to have very nicely put things in a pile. However, at 1100 at night it just wasn’t the welcome sight we’d hoped for. We got reguyed out and started drying gear a little after midnight. Dinner followed with some celebratory beers. This day deserves a little more story, because I’m leaving out a lot of details of the longest day I’ve had hunting yet — and will be the subject of another post.
We slept in, thinking we needed to ride to Hot Sulphur Springs in order to get my doe CWD checked. We were under the impression that both buck and doe had been selected for checks in our unit, and they had, but my particular hunt code was spared. So it was just a trip to the Mercantile followed by some hot chow at the Grand Old West on town.
Rellenos really hit the spot after eating all the food I could add water to and conduct some mathematical equation on hydration for elevation. Ugh. We had weather coming in, and my wife was keen to have me back home so we figured one last hunt to try and bag something, and get Danny to fill a tag. While I wanted to get more meat to stack deep in the freezer, more snow was piling up, and the idea of breaking camp weighed heavy.
A Final Push
Pulling into the trailhead at 2:30 or so after prepping our bags seemed like enough for an evening sit. But the mountain weather had other ideas. Despite pulling multiple reports from our inReach and comparing it with print offs I had for the areas we were getting almost double the amount of snow called for.
It was snowing mercilessly, and no one had been on the trail ahead of us through newly fallen snow. So we had to break trail, uphill. Lungs and calves burned, on more than one occasion I wondered what the hell I was doing out there. But, it was our last outing and Danny was the last man standing at camp with tags unfilled. So it made sense to give it the college try to get something. After all, I still had four potential tags to fill myself.
We managed to get ourselves into position only to have snow soak through our puffy insulating layers and start to work it’s way further in. That’s when I got the message from Danny that an inversion was upon us. A haze filled the air like in a werewolf movie. With snow and haze on the last day we had we called it quits and walked out. No animals seen, none harmed.
That was the last evening of hunting. We broke camp at a leisurely pace the next morning. Well, as leisurely as we could manage while shoveling even more snow off the tents. The addition of my family’s property in the area made for a nice staging place before heading to a camp. Being able to leave a truck somewhere safe or ditch gear that wasn’t going to be used was excellent. It’s funny that I wait 51 weeks of the year to get to this season and it always seems to go so quickly. We’ll be back next year, educated further and ready to put on the chase.
|Check out our previous year’s trip notes for more information on the area, and our OTC elk and mule deer experience in Kremmling.|