The popular hunting magazines display colorful photographs of huge bull elk standing in open meadows and presenting easy targets.|
The reality in the mountains of Colorado, however, is far different.
Hunting elk is one of the most exciting big-game pursuits in North America. But stalking these animals is challenging, and most hunters won't get easy shots.
"What the hunting magazines show is usually not the case," says Patt Dorsey, with a slight laugh. An avid big game hunter, Dorsey is also an area wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
"You're a lot more likely to find elk on a steep hillside in thick timber than out in the open," Dorsey said.
The success rate for hunting elk in Colorado during 2006 was about 24 percent, which is about average. Hunters purchased a total of 236,508 elk licenses. Total harvest was 56,933 elk. The breakdown: 26,827 bulls, 27,399 cows and 2,707 calves.
Cold weather and snow during the first rifle season helped hunters find more bulls last season. During the 2005 season, warm weather kept elk high and spread out, so fewer bulls were harvested. The tale of the two seasons: Elk hunting can be dependent on the weather.
If weather is warm, elk stay at high elevations and in the timber to help them stay cool. Consequently, hunters need to work harder to get shots. When snow falls, they move to lower elevations and bunch up.
Elk are very smart animals, Dorsey explains. They quickly sense movement in the woods and at any hint of danger move quickly and hide in rugged, difficult terrain. Further compounding the challenge for hunters is the fact that elk typically gather in groups of 10 or more.
"That means they have a lot of eyes looking out for each other," Dorsey says. "They are very communicative and will talk back and forth with barks. If one gets spooked, they're all spooked and they're gone."
Unlike deer, elk are not curious animals - they won't stop to look at what's near them.
"Once elk start running they usually won't stop until they believe they're safe. They can easily run for a mile or more," Dorsey says.
To hunt elk, the first thing Dorsey advises is to get off the ATV and walk. It's rare that a hunter will see an elk from a road during the season - let alone get a shot. When elk start hearing the noise of vehicles they move far away from roads.
Elk are most active during the night and are likely to be grazing in transition areas -meadows next to heavy timber, where different types of vegetation meet, just above or below ridgelines. The transition areas provide not only good food sources, but also good escape routes. Hunters should watch those areas at first light and at dusk.
During the day, hunters need to move into the dark timber and not be hesitant to hunt in difficult areas. Hunters should move as quietly as possible for short distances, and then scan the woods for 10 minutes or more before moving again. Even in dense forest it's a good idea to use binoculars so you can discern subtle movement or colors in the trees.
"With binoculars it's a lot easer to see the tip of an antler, or an unusual horizontal feature in all that vertical," Dorsey says.
If you find the areas where animals graze at night, it's likely that you'll find them in adjacent safe areas during the day.
Elk like to remain in one area for most of the day. So a stealthy stalk is the key. Hunters also must be willing to venture into difficult terrain and thick forested areas.
When hunting in areas with roads, move far above or far below the roads to find elk. In areas where there are two roads, locate the most difficult terrain in between.
Elk will move to lower elevations as the weather cools - but it must be a substantial change. Snow that allows tracking always provides hunters an advantage. Elk usually won't make a big move to lower elevations until the snow depths are a foot or more.
Elk can be found in the mountains throughout Colorado, but the most renowned area is in the northwest region of the state. The largest herd in the area, 40,000 animals, summers on the pristine high plateau known as the Flattops and migrates 50 miles and more into the vast undeveloped and lower altitude areas of Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties. The areas hold abundant habitat where elk can thrive during the winter when temperatures are relatively mild compared with other areas in western Colorado.
"There is a lot of transition mountain brush which they like and plenty of room for them to spread out in the winter range," says Darby Finley, a terrestrial biologist for the DOW. "They follow the food and there is a lot of it throughout the year."
Wherever you choose to hunt, be sure to line up your shot carefully before you pull the trigger. Because of their size and endurance it can be difficult to knock an elk down. It's important to hit them in the critical area of the lungs and the heart. Aim just behind and below the front quarters.
Colorado is the only state where an elk license can be purchased over-the-counter. That fact draws a lot of hunters to Colorado; but there are enough elk to provide good hunting opportunities for anyone who buys a license.