This year is a lot different than most. I’m in the elk woods solo, and chose to go in heavy. Each year I’ve been qualified as a resident of Colorado I’ve picked up an over-the-counter (OTC) elk tag. This year I didn’t draw any mule deer tags, only elk. So I’m heading out there hunting a critter I’ve not seen during the season by myself.
This year I changed tactics a little bit. Packing so that I could camp from my car with the option to spike camp means that I can have the best of both worlds. Unfortunately my buddy and hunting partner Manny had shoulder surgery so he’s out of the mix. Not being able to drive his manual Jeep at all, and his arm still not ready for anything strenuous for another several weeks means I’m in my giant backpacking tipi alone. I’m prepared for weather, but the forecast looks to be rather warm despite second rifle being moved to over Halloween.
My wife is none too pleased that CPW chose to put the season over Halloween but there’s not much I can do about it. Perhaps next year I’ll attempt to draw some muzzeloader tags so as to get some time back.
After spending nearly two weeks frantically trying to ensure I had everything in it’s place to go hunting it was finally time. The truck was packed and I said goodbye to my wife and boy as they slept. It was an easy run up I-70 in the wee hours, Loveland Pass already had a fair blanket of snow amassed.
Curious as to what we packed for our Colorado OTC Elk hunt this year? Check out my packing list.
I was heading to an area outside of Kremmling, Colorado that has off and on been my base camp for grouse, trout, foraging, and now deer and elk. Picking my way down one side and up the other of the canyon was tricky but there was only one other truck ahead of me by a little after seven in the morning. Arriving at camp at a place I’d previously marked the air was still crisp out but the rising sun soon warmed it. I paced around like a dog looking for a spot and sited my tipi.
The tipi is a little bit of a struggle to pitch alone but it wasn’t that windy so I had that going for me. Guying out the stakes was the most tedious because someone cut my guy lines off last year when we scuttled camp so I had to fabricate new ones on the tailgate of my truck.
As time passes I realized my new camp location was going to be very, very busy. Trucks passed one after another, electric fans screaming in agony as automatic transmissions and engines overheated struggling with elevation, being drug through the mud, and being drug over rocks. Surely my alignment shifted further just describing the ride. Then came the quads and side by sides. I should know now that’s the way of things around here. If you want to hunt public land elk and not get away from the roads prepare for quads ripping down every two track.
But I’ve got a strategy I’m hoping pays off. I’m going the opposite way of almost everyone else. There’s some creek drainages off to the west, with predominant winds coming from the west. Pointing my nose into the wind I can look for elk on the meadows surrounding these high mountain creeks. Worst case scenario, I spotted a beaver in the pond below. I could always bring home a pot roast.
The alarm on my phone rousted me at four in the morning but it wasn’t quite necessary. My neighbors their generator all night long. As a snorer I can deal with a drone but man when I woke up it irritated me all over again. I made sure all my things were together and after some oatmeal kitted up and rolled out. Unfortunately in order to get to where I was going I needed to descend several hundred feet only to gain that elevation back but without a trail through mature sage brush. Not ideal. Insult to injury once I did manage to get to where I was going, a pretty great glassing knob, my phone was near death. I’d charged it to 56% before I left and when I checked my course on the way to the glassing knob it said 3%. The cold will do that.
I saw a few does at first light and a bunch of hunters. Every large rock outcropping had a pumpkin sitting atop it with a high powered rifle. Overall the day was pretty uneventful, I heard a bunch of shooting but most of that was at mule deer — a tag I didn’t currently have. I’d missed my chance on leftover day when a meeting of mine went long. By the time I’d been able to check my phone, all doe and buck tags for my unit were long gone.
Want to check the leftover tag situation in Colorado? Check out our Colorado Leftover List, updated automatically when new tags are added!
Insult to injury? My buddy tried to turn his buck tag in to the CPW and it either never hit the list or wasn’t present on the reissue list and went straight to leftovers. Apparently that happened one week and the usual 12 pages of reissue licenses went to 2 pages. Somehow they’d skipped the reissue list and went straight to the piranha.
Alarm went off to my legs still throbbing from yesterday’s hike. I’m going to do it again. In part because stubbornness is a family tradition, but also because it keeps me on the high ground away from most of the weekend warriors.
Over coffee I scrutinized maps and weighed the options of moving my truck closer to where I’d come out on the road when I’d completed my walkabout. There’s not really great options other than driving the road system and dropping pins where to leave your truck if you’re trying to be mobile.
Lesson learned. Maybe.
So I hiked back up to the same glassing spot I’d perched on the day prior. Less in hopes that I’d see something from glassing and more because it would afford me a place to perch before I made a circuit of north facing slopes that agreed with my wind direction. There could be a chance that a cow/calf combination could be hiding out in the dark timber. Judging by the map this would be an area most people wouldn’t want to pack out of. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I want to pack out of here, but the sign was fresh enough, and I did hear some traffic from critters back there yesterday. So we wait for midday when they bed.
But the best laid plans of mice and men… Sometimes you wake up at 4 in the morning, hike down the mountain to hike up another one with only the light of a headlamp to light your way, find your perch in the pre-dawn hours, get settled in and watch the sunrise. Sometimes you do all of that and an hour later 6 people come into the center of your area like a pack string an set up on the knob below you. I can only hope that they have the same idea as me and will move midday to stir up critters. Until then I wait.
Now I could have been furious, I’d put in all this work to get to where I was before daybreak. But instead I regarded the troop with fascination. A little over 25 years ago that was me bundled in a hoody and orange vest, freezing my butt off and fighting with my little brother. In 10ish more years that will be my son joining the clan of hunters.
Not too long after seeing the family at 10:00 a clattering downhill made me quickly take a look around myself. Five mule deer does making a break for it uphill after crossing a creek. Despite best efforts, no doe tags for me this year.
A Long Walk
I decided to spend the next few hours going on walkabout. There was some dark timber surrounding me and the wind was right to do a few loops through it. If you’ve never hunted the beetle kill areas of the West know that it’s like hunting eastern clear cuts on steroids. It’s absolutely nuts. However, I did manage an encounter with 2-3 more mule deer does, bedding just about where I thought they might be this time of day.
I might not be able to find elk, but I certainly have validation to find deer where I suspect they’d be. Northern slope meant the grass hadn’t been roasted by the summer sun. Dark timber with beetle kill meant perceived safety. While I’m not sure deer eat rosehips it was certainly a great year for them. I stopped to pick some and check them out and they were the size of Gobstoppers!
Another few hours of running circles around in the timber left me with a total of about 10 mule deer for the day. Still no elk despite some amount of sign. The high desert climate of Colorado meant that mummified elk poop can be a year old, and tracks stay in the dirt seemingly indefinitely. If it isn’t fresh sign, just keep moving.
Hiking back to camp I was stopped by an ATV bound ranger for a license check. Rookie mistake, I’d detached my carcass tag from my giant CVS style receipt that constituted my tag for my cow tag. He didn’t have any duplicate tag forms on him but said he could swing by camp tomorrow. I mentioned I’d be driving the roads dropping pins for next outing when he got me… If I was driving then why not go to the office in Hot Sulphur Springs! Shit. I guess I have my day planned out tomorrow regardless.
In the evening I ended up driving some of the roads dropping pins for a later hunt after checking some of my usual evening glassing areas were already pumpkin patches.
The fire in my stove had gone out but I only woke up once in the night to add mini logs to the coals. No huge surprise there. I expected a fresh coat of snow on the ground but was only met with cold dry ground. Sleeping in because of the weather and cloud cover I allowed myself extra time for breakfast. I heard three reports from the same rifle at almost 0730, but until that point had heard no ATV or road traffic at all. Last night there was a steady filing out of trucks dragging trailers down the mountain, so this may be it. This may be all the out of towners and hardcore folks.
Once I managed to roust myself out of the tent, I made my way into town, picking my way down the mountain road. Despite the forecast it was actually pretty pleasant. Pulling up to the area office I threw myself at the mercy of the ladies at the counter. They all were super pleasant to work with and even checked the leftover list for me for a tag. No dice. I’m hoping to pick up a tag for a mule deer in my unit of someone turns one in last second. That would let me bag a doe and have meat in the freezer. But alas. So I left the office with a fresh unmolested cow elk tag as the rain set in.
I headed back to camp for some food, and much to my surprise my neighbors were milling about camp. Then I saw that their meat tree was quite full. I’d talked to them earlier and while they didn’t have cow elk tags they had OTC bull and both sexes for mule deer. While I gnashed my teeth at them hunting predominantly off of their quads, they were way more successful than I was. I was able to get several pointers from them as far as locations. Knowing I was doing everything the hard way they were free with their tips.
In the afternoon I decided to go back to a glassing knob I’d first checked out with Manny on the last day of the season last year. Having seen what I thought was a bull elk there I’d take my chances and hope that the pressure from the opening weekend had something hiding down deep in this Rocky hellhole a creek or two had cut out of the earth.
I ran into a guy on a quad who when we got to talking turned out to be the XO of one of the Marine units on Buckley Space Force Base (still have a hard time saying it with a straight face). He had a mule deer buck tag and was looking to punch it with a nice one. As it turns out he didn’t bother with an elk tag as he’d just tagged a hell of a bull (440lbs hoof weight 300+ inch bull) in Arizona unit 9 for archery. We parted ways, coordinating where we’d be glassing and wished each other luck.
On the walk in it started snowing that icy rain that soaks and pelts you with ice balls. A 4×3 mule deer busted from the junipers at extremely close range and trotted off down the mountain. Exactly to where I’d be glassing. At least my judgement seemed sound.
The wind whipped my face and pelted me with ice and nearly soaked my down jacket before I threw on the rain gear. I did everything I could to keep warm and stuck it out. Across the way about a dozen mule deer appeared out of what seemed like thin air. They just conjured themselves into being. I fiddled with my spotting scope despite the pan head being loose and a torx bit being required to tighten it down. Seriously who keeps a torx set with their hunting gear? Probably people who hunt with a Tikka and build their own furniture from flat packs.
I kept looking each doe over, hoping one was uncharacteristically dark and would key me into some cows elk, but nearly all had the characteristic white tips of the ears of mule deer. I got off the knob just as it was really getting dark. Met again with David the Marine and discussed placement in the morning. I keyed him in to the buck I’d seen, and as I don’t have a tag it’s free beer for me to give away. This isn’t like hunting whitetail back east. I’m not looking for Ol Lockjaw next year. I’ve seen nearly 3 dozen deer not even trying so far in four days in the area. Granted a dozen were on my drive back into town.
I had the idea that I had to get higher this morning. Closer to snow line I could get and the closer to the adjacent GMU that allegedly had a bunch of elk hanging out on a ranch, the more likely I could pick off a straggler and make something happen. When I woke up it was already raining like crazy, I thought it should all be snow. After all Catie texted me and said there would be snow, and when I had signal I saw there was an NWS Boulder weather statement that seemed dire.
Driving a couple hundred feet up from camp I found the snow. At least that would mean maybe that I could see something. So I strapped on the pack and walked to a glassing knob and waited for light. With nothing much to go on I walked down an ATV trail after hearing most of my fellow hunters had some modicum of success back there. It’s more mule deer country than elk, but it likely sees traffic during third season when the snow drives elk down.
Glassing in a Snow Storm
Walking down the trail looking for some meadows I saw a dark shape moving out of the corner of my eye. Wind was whipping the snow around but I threw up the binoculars. A bull moose! It’s always fantastic to see bull moose, and what made it more special was that there were two of them just hanging out. I ran back to the truck for my spotting scope and tripod. I’d ditched them to save weight while hiking. Silly me. I watched the moose for more than an hour before it was back to the truck and camp for early lunch.
Whether an old wives tale or not, I’ve been told if there’s moose in an area there aren’t likely to be elk. I do know that the area still held plenty of mule deer. But the search continues.
In the afternoon I drove around some, checking on the road conditions north of me. Plenty of folks seemed to be road hunting, causing traffic jams at wide spots and high points. People just don’t always have mountain manners. I dropped some pins and learned some new spots, I’d heard of an area that might hold more grouse than most based on another hunter’s intel — and now I had a road to go with the story. It certainly looked grousy enough.
Be careful what you wish for. The snow line came down the mountain this morning, and I was awoken to snow sluffing off the tipi sides slowly. I have no idea how much accumulation I’ve received so far at this point, and can only think enough to stuff my face with breakfast biscuits and gravy and a cup of coffee. It’s clear by the way the tipi sides are bowing slightly that I got some snow on the sides.
I want snow, I do. Snow means the elk move from the high country to the area I’m in now. However it also makes mountain road travel that much more hazardous. For the last two years I’ve been the trail boss with my buddy Manny when we choose to scuttle camp. When I’m alone I’m the only one to confer with for an answer on staying or leaving. When I’m alone I tend at least in hunting situations where I have a lot at stake to push my limits while knowing where they are. However, having kids changed that. I don’t want to do anything that would endanger myself to the point of no return. So I lean more conservative in things like throwing my truck down or up a snow covered mud slick mountain road.
I decided to go out above camp as it became light. I think I’m the only one back here with a truck rather than a quad, and to get out today I’ll likely need to chain up. But I found a knob I wanted to glass from when the weather finally subsided. Marking the map, and heading down the hill I attempted to load my rifle. Jam.
I must have slipped and stuttered as I was sending the round home because the lip slipped from the extractor and the bolt would not fully close. Back to the truck. I was worried the round has become lodged in the barrel and I’d have to remove the bolt and work on it. The plan would be to take the bolt out, drop the floor plate and deal with it at camp later while uncasing my backup gun. The “dark timber” 35 Whelen another Pennsylvania southpaw had built for his own elk adventure and sold to me. It’s range would be limited but I ended up not having to use it. On the tailgate the round was removed quickly and a new one was sent home just as expeditiously.
Heading down the hill once more I followed my own footsteps. Frustrated at losing a half an hour or so I made haste to my knob to glass since the weather had lifted albeit briefly. When I stopped short to check my line it sounded like a pile of lumber suddenly shifted. It was an antler amongst the brush below me. It was either the biggest mule deer I’d ever seen a rack of, or the only bull I’ve seen in the woods during the season. Either way, after the initial crashing I heard nothing. So I sit and wait.
Wait I did. All day until about 5:30, and do you know what I saw? Only other hunters. Two guys in a red and black razer side by side glassed from beside where I’d parked my truck for almost an hour. Meanwhile I had a more commanding view from my knob and could see things they could not. But hey, I chose to walk downhill and not hunt directly from my truck. On the way home I was treated to a great sunset and two mule deer doe grazing in the high sage. They knew I didn’t have tags.
It took until now to kind of realize that if I wanted to fill my elk tag I needed to cover some ground. It wasn’t enough to cover ground simply on foot — I needed to travel around the GMU. I needed to hop in the truck. So rather than waiting for daylight I set out with a few goals in mind. I wanted to check out a town on the map I’d never been to, one that would have been painful in the summer to day trip to. Toponas looked like a small ranching community between Kremmling and Steamboat Springs that had access and public land at elevation. Stagecoach Reservoir also had rumors of an elk herd nearby. One that was close to town, but the elevation difference meant people would likely be horse bound or not getting up to the top of the small State Wildlife Area.
Long story short, Adams SWA near Stagecoach Reservoir was packed with people this late in the hunt. It’s close to a resort town (Steamboat Springs) and you can feasibly hunt elk from a ski resort condo while eating steak and sleeping in a real bed at night. That’s not usually my style. There were several fifth wheel horse trailers in the parking lot, and I didn’t even slow down as I passed the trailhead.
Toponas is promising. Ranch gates are easily opened, so long as you practice your mountain manners and you stick to the county roads and close the gates behind you — there’s access to an extremely large swathe of public lands from the town. However, riding solo I drove very quickly to the snow line. While I can self recover generally, and my truck has a powerful winch, I was not ready for snow up to my bumper. I drove the roads, dropped waypoints, and resolved to come back in the spring to scout it out with my friends.
Realizing I’d spent a ton of time and gasoline running the roads scoping out spots to no avail I wanted to get back into my area and examine some closed logging roads. There was an extensive system of old logging roads that had been gated. Based on satellite imagery they were popular hunting camps — many of them had pickup trucks and base camps already established. However, some smaller trailheads you could only park a car or two. Driving back towards my camp I found one such tiny trailhead.
Back to my Old Tactics
I settled in for the evening on some closed logging roads. If I was going to make a play on some traveling elk, this was how I was going to cover some ground and learn new territories in the last third of my season. At a quarter until three I heard cow locator calls in the woods, I answered, it answered. I waited and proceeded and called again and it called from a distance.
Sure enough, as I approached where I thought it might have been coming from, unseen to me some crashing occurred in the dark timber just out of view of the meadow I was approaching. They were elk, and I’d been busted. I pinned the spot on my map as I’d only seen on other pair of boot prints and this area was somewhat circuitous to get to.
I agonized over it for a nontrivial amount of time. Would they be back? Could a mule deer make that noise? Was it just a calf or two or did that even matter? The season ends on Sunday but I’m breaking camp and heading home Saturday. Tomorrow is my last full day to hunt at all. This was the first time that sign looked like elk, and smelled like elk. So I decided to double back and wait neat the meadow edge where I’d bumped them. Presumably they’d want to feed near dark there, so at 1545 I decided it was time to pick a spot and wait.
They’re Just Big Deer, Right?
It was still plenty warm in the sun but I threw on the rest of my camouflage gear so as to limit opportunity to be skylined. With the clear sky again tonight it was a matter of time before it got really quite cold again. I figured investing the time now and walking out with the aid of a headlamp could mean my season would be done tonight. There were a lot of variables to consider. Chief among them would be… Would the elk return here?
At dusk there was banging and clattering across the meadow from me, trees snapping and conifer boughs shifting but no elk materialized. Worse it gave me images of yet another bull moose raking trees with massive antlers. I’d seen a cow moose just minding her own business in the pass earlier in the day, so it wasn’t lost on me that they might be about. I had convinced myself that it might be a moose in the brush rather than going to check it out in the last minutes of daylight. Hindsight being 20/20 this was a mistake that I could have, should have, probably acted on.
Darkness fell. I was without an elk on the ground. One more day to make something happen.
The alarm for four am came all too quickly and in hindsight perhaps I should have set it even earlier. Everything was dry from last night with the exception of my hiking socks so it had stayed in the truck. The Jeep was already packed, and, even if it may have been bad juju it was a fresh socks and underwear day! Better late than never at this point in the hunt.
I wanted to go back to where I’d heard the elk and the thrashing in the woods the night earlier. I topped off gas in town and slugged down another coffee. At this point I felt like I was running on empty myself. On the road over one of the passes I was flagged down by three guys in a 1 ton Chevy. They had a flat and their lug wrench didn’t fit. The owner had changed his lugs to fancy ones but had neglected to change his iron.
I obliged and moved my gear around to get under my rear seat for the wrench. “Man thanks for stopping I hope a big one runs right across your face!” Said one of the trio of camo clad hunters. “Hah, yeah me too.” I replied handing them the wrench I had. Unfortunately it too was the wrong size. We parted ways and wished each other luck and I jammed towards the trailhead.
Both it and the adjacent trailhead empty, good. I soldiered on to one of the clearings where I’d first heard the elk cow calls, hoping against the odds they were still in the area. A shot. At 0845, and close. Had I bumped them in my attempt to stealthily move to where I’d been despite a fresh crust of ice on the leaves and snow? As noon approached I needed to move, I’d heard nothing for hours and the midday lull was approaching. Animals would be bedding and I’d need to find them rather than them happening upon me. Time for a walk. I plotted out a loop that would take several hours and put me back at the truck at dark, and set off.
Going on Walkabout
I fought my way through blowdowns following what seemed very likely to be moose sign. But I was on a mission. Now that I began my walkabout portion of my day I wouldn’t be satisfied until I was into elk again. That first cow call that was answered last night hit me the same way an interplay with a gobbler occurs on a box call.
The sun was now high in the sky but I wasn’t ready to shed layers.
During my walk I [assed the Pennsylvanians again that I’d met earlier in my trip and wished them good luck. It turns out that they were from around where our family cabin is in northwestern PA. But today I was on a timetable. I wished them good luck, the one son had already filled his bull tag.
Lots of sign, no animals. I maneuvered through several fields that looked like stock had been grazing there for weeks, except the hoof prints were most certainly my quarry. There were prints, rubs, the odor of elk, but no elk. By the snow they’d been there earlier in the morning or late last evening. But they were gone now.
So I walked. I walked more this day than I had any other two combined. Perhaps not so much in terms of distance but certainly effort.
Now I end my season much like I’ll begin my whitetail season in Pennsylvania. Sitting at a terrain pinch point at the top of a valley head with the wind in my face just waiting for a critter to pass by.
The final day of the hunt came all too quickly. It wasn’t the last day of the season, but it was my time to break down camp and go home. I luxuriated over some of the last breakfast from a pouch — some Jalapeno Cheddar Biscuits and Gravy and waited for the sun to rise. I waited still longer for some of the moisture to burn off of the tent and for the tent stove to cool to the touch.
Wandering to the point just off of my camp I looked for the beaver I’d seen on the first day. Maybe there was a Lewis and Clark pot roast swimming about below me in the dammed up water. Unfortunately he had some other engineering tasks to attend to indoors, and he wasn’t there.
Much like in years past, it’s a solemn experience breaking down camp for the season. I knew I wouldn’t be back here any time soon. Very quickly it would be accessible only by chained up rigs with brave souls willing to risk their lives on the steep and narrow mountain roads, or by snowmobiles ripping up and down the centerlines. Unlike years past I had at least encountered elk this year, and found fresh sign. Every year is a learning experience to be shared. Without more senior western hunters in my direct orbit I had to learn a bunch of this on my own. But I’m not without resources — and hopefully after three Colorado big game seasons behind me I can use those resources to fill my first big game tag next year.