Technological advancements have affected every aspect of modern life, so it is only fitting that it has affected modern elk hunting. Today’s hunters have tools available to them that were inconceivable even 20 years ago. None of these tools will revolutionize elk hunting, but learning to use them to your advantage can improve your knowledge, your odds of success, your comfort, and your safety. Advancements in synthetic materials and metallurgy have created lighter and better performing gear, but the biggest leaps in technology have been in navigation and information gathering. Other Elk Hunting University "lessons" will go into detail on specific gear selection, but I will touch on some advancements and how you can apply that to your gear. However, the main focus here will be navigation and information technologies to improve the way you hunt and select where or when to hunt.
Synthetic clothing materials have created lighter weight, waterproof, breathable, scent proof, and silent fabrics that are all the rage. These aren’t cheap, but neither is wool anymore. Wool is the gold standard by which hunting clothes are measured, and no synthetic can rival the warmth and silence of wool, nor do they insulate as well when wet. However, wool is typically heavy, so outer garments are not well suited to the mobile western hunter. Light wool pants, sweaters or shirts, used as an intermediate layer is where wool still shines brightest, as modern synthetic undergarments and lightweight waterproof outer layers can be used over wool clothing.
Another modern convenience is the hydration bladder. It hasn’t revolutionized hunting, but it is much more convenient than having to dig through a pack for a water bottle. If you are in the market for a new pack, you’d be wise to focus on those with hydration bladders. Titanium cookware, smaller stoves, and lighter tents have also increased the mobility of the back pack hunter.
Rifle stock technology has greatly advanced for those looking to save weight and increase durability. Carbon fiber, Kevlar®, Aramid®, and other materials are being used to drop firearm weight more than any other single advancement outside of titanium receivers. However, while using a titanium receiver requires the purchase of a new gun, simply changing the stock out on your old rifle can save over a pound. Aluminum scope mounts, and smaller, yet brighter optical coatings also allow you to save weight on your gun. Further advancements in gunpowder technology and case design allow hunters to save weight and/or increase power in lighter, more efficient, short-action cartridges, and shorter rifle barrels. Archery equipment has also advanced over the past 20 years with lighter, faster equipment for extended range and more accurate shooting. These advancements are incremental steps to decrease weight or increase performance for gear we already have.
The common availability of the personal global positioning systems (GPS), satellite phones, and beacons has added to the gear we now use! GPS technology is the foundation of our modern star-wars weaponry systems, the way most land surveys are now conducted, and preferred method for global navigation. The GPS has many beneficial uses for hunters and outdoor recreational users. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain all of what it does and how it does it. I suggest that you search some websites such as geocaching that has some very good articles on buying, setting up, and using a GPS. (The site has information on almost one million hidden caches that you can search for and develop your GPS skills. Many are probably located right in your neighborhood!) I will leave the detailed discussion of using the GPS in the field to lesson 5 - Pre-scouting about using maps and a GPS to find elk.
Satellite beacons, radios, and satellite phones have become common place among hunters. Satellite beacons are useful, especially if hunting solo in a wilderness area. They allow loved ones to know your last location, and some models also permit one to send a signal letting folks know that you are either alright or in need of assistance. Satellite phones, of course, allow you direct communication with folks back home, but are expensive. There are services that rent satellite phones and can be a valuable investment if you are hunting alone in the back country. Radios are much more commonplace than either of the above devices. To avoid ethical and legal violations, radios should only be used to let others in your party know your location and status. Garmin Rino® GPSs have the added function of having a radio built in to them. This can be used for direct communication with your party, but the digital radio also sends your location out to other Rino® users within range, displaying your location on a map every time you touch the "push to talk" button. Not a big deal, just something to be aware of when considering purchasing one.
Another major advancement has been in information technology. The Internet has revolutionized the speed with which we can obtain information. Google Earth® and Geographic Information System (GIS) overlays have revolutionized remote scouting. Google Scholar® and the digitizing of scientific journals have given those with a thirst for knowledge—beyond what the average hunting magazine can offer—a new source of high quality information. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and other government agencies have also responded to the public’s thirst for previously low demand information by publishing harvest and population survey results, game management plans, habitat management plans, and travel management plans. Lesson 2 - Planning a Successful Elk Hunt, touches on the information available on the CPW statistics page. You really need to spend some time on it to understand the true art of reading and interpreting the vast amount of information you can get from the site.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other state game agency websites are not just for posting regulations, seasons, and license fees. Harvest stats are available, for example, and are great if you know what you are looking for. Most people are only looking at success rates, while some also pay attention to hunter numbers. Yet few people bother to truly compare which seasons are best in an individual unit. Without getting into how to select a unit (covered in other articles), one can select the best time to hunt a unit by seeing how success rates and hunter numbers vary over time. Some units are better in earlier seasons, others better in the later seasons. In Colorado, of the four rifle elk seasons, first season is traditionally the highest success rate, which then falls off significantly in second season, bottoming out in third season, then increasing again in fourth season. Second season usually has the most hunters, but other seasons can vary wildly depending on access conditions in each unit, perceptions of historical game movements, and tag allotment.
Natural Diversity Information Source (NDIS) allows a hunter to look over maps of game movements and land ownership. The system is free and takes a bit of work to understand all of the potential uses, but it is a good tool when looking for an inexpensive means to research data. It should be used in conjunction with Google Earth to view aerial photos of the areas in question and be considered another tool in your high-tech toolbox for elk hunting!
A commercial mapping application you might like is HuntData’s big game maps. The program offers a variety of applications and uses information from CPW public domain to provide you with quality information. HuntData does the homework of compiling the available data from the information provided free from CPW with some innovative applications of overlays and 3D images. These easy-to-use applications allow one to overlay elk migration and concentration maps or landownership maps into Google Earth, right over the top of the aerial photos. A slider bar allows you to fade the overlay in and out to make sure you are looking at the correct spot in the photos.
If you can’t interpret what you are looking at in Google Earth, then it won’t do you much good, so practice is a big part of the game. While it may be obvious which features are trees, what hillsides are open, and which mountain is bare rock, it does take some practice. Aspens and scrub oaks whose leaves have fallen off are extremely difficult to pick out from grassy areas. So look closely! Having some knowledge of what vegetation to expect at different elevation ranges also helps. Looking at a conifer at 6,000 feet or 11,000 feet, a little bit of knowledge should tell you the low elevation trees are pinion pines or junipers, not big spruces or firs.
Google Earth will also show you where timberline is in your area, and just how high you may need to be hunting. In some places in Colorado, timberline is barely over 11,000 feet, in others; it is close to 11,700 feet. While some topographic maps will show you that a ridge is barren, you won’t know whether it is alpine tundra or rocky scree without looking at the photos. Identifying parking areas, trails, and water sources are also important skills when using Google Earth. You also need to be able to tell the difference between rangeland and irrigated croplands that elk may be feeding in at night.
Your Google Earth maps will allow you to create wind direction maps. (By tilting the viewing angle, you can simulate a 3D view.) Having an understanding of thermals will allow you to create trails to your hunting areas that will not blow your scent to where you expect the game to be located. Knowing that your scent will fall early in the morning before the sun warms the mountains, then rises until the late afternoon when the sun falls below the horizon, will help prevent blown stalks or blowing your scent from your vantage point into the game. In general, hunt up the mountain in the morning and down it in the afternoon. The prevailing winds blow west to east, but use your maps to sketch out alternate plans for unusual weather patterns. The other great thing about the 3D view is that you can get an idea of the areas that will be visible from a specific vantage point.
A good investigator can use a variety of seemingly non-hunting related information products, photos, and descriptive prose to create a better picture of their new area of interest. A way to "ground truth" or educate your mind’s eye is to use Google Earth’s embedded photos to get a more realistic view of an area. Look past the hikers posing in the foreground to get an understanding of the scale of the terrain and type of habitat. Find pictures of an area by doing a search for outfitters or professional photographer’s portfolios to look at the landscape. Looking through outfitter web sites will also give you a feel for which trails are being used and possible camp locations. The USDA Forest Service can also help you figure out where permitted outfitter camp locations are located by calling the regional offices and asking some very specific questions.
Herd management plans and habitat management plans can also be found on state and federal websites. These will give you a leg-up on other hunters for determining where the game may shift their concentrations. Hunters often exclaim that a specific drainage used to be great in the "good old days", but the elk or deer are just no longer there. The game may have shifted their usage to an area where prescribed burns, wildfire, or timber harvest has produced younger, more palatable forage, and the vegetation in the previous drainage is now older, more fibrous, decadent, or grown over in a thick stand of lodge pole pines. The USDA Forest Service posts travel management plans, letting you know in advance which roads will be gated and which will remain open for hunting season. You can also find out when cattle are being removed from the public land in your area.
The National Interagency Fire Center is another site to keep your eye on during the summer. If you aren’t paying attention, you may arrive to a completely blackened landscape in October. No forage and no cover means no elk! You can also search for historical fire data to find 2- or 3-year-old fire sites that may be attractive to game. CPW herd management plans can also be used to identify problems with achieving desired harvest due to private refuges or other access issues. They can also give you a clue as to whether the CPW will increase or decrease tags, and why. The plans typically contain more than 20 years of harvest and population data. Next time someone tells you an area used to be great, you may be able to put that statement into perspective.
Internet discussion forums such as those on 24hourcampfire.com, BigGameHunt.net, and others are a new way of getting local information on specific hunting areas. Asking, "Where is the best place to elk hunt in Colorado?" will not likely garner much response, but asking more detailed questions about an area after you have done your homework will probably get you better information. If you haven’t done any homework prior to putting your questions out on the Internet, you won’t be able to see through "smoke screens" put out by those who don’t want any additional hunters in "their" area. If you don’t want to openly ask a question, use the search functions to see if someone else has asked questions about the area you are interested in researching. Searches may also turn up individuals who seem more knowledgeable than others; don’t be afraid to send them a private message instead of posting on the public forums.
The single most underutilized resource freely available to hunters is produced by the scientific community. Scientific journals such as the Journal of Wildlife Management are full of very specific diet, population, movement, and behavioral studies. It is expensive for a private citizen to subscribe to this and other journals (about $700 per year), but they are freely available at many university libraries and some larger public ones.
In these journals, place names will be mentioned; often maps will be incorporated into the document showing home ranges of specific elk herds and how they react to hunter pressure. Preferred seasonal forages will be discovered, and the peak date of the rut can be determined in a specific area. Your university library, if it has a wildlife or ecology department, may also have a thesis by master's degree students and PhD students on the elk or deer populations. These can be full books on the behaviors or demographics of an elk herd that you can hunt on public land. If your local university doesn’t produce its own wildlife research, those papers can often be obtained for free through interlibrary loan. Also, check out cattle and elk interaction studies in your area, and whether or not elk avoid them or the associated activities with public land ranching, or whether elk will prefer to move in behind the cattle that may be grazing down the coarser grasses, exposing the newer blades for the elk.
Don’t forget that, in addition to the published research, there are graduate students conducting new research all the time. Don’t be afraid to find out what students at Colorado State University—and other schools that produce significant wildlife research—are doing this year. Graduate students and technicians might love to have someone tag along and help with their data collection! By volunteering your services, you may be able to see where exactly the elk are during the summer, or gain insight you never knew to ask about. The CPW Volunteer Program has folks helping with every imaginable wildlife project. Sign up to be a volunteer and help with an elk count, big horn sheep count, or something in the area you are considering to hunt. Typically you are spending time in the field with a CPW biologist or wildlife officer and there is a lot of time to chat about your favorite subject, Elk Hunting!
Weather research can also be utilized to better time your hunt or better prepare you for the conditions you will encounter. Weather Underground (wunderground.com) and Weather.com have historical weather data and averages. Beyond determining what kind of weather to expect during your hunt, you may be able to fine tune your hunting plans by monitoring how harsh or mild the summer has been. If you were planning a hunt in a canyon-country unit, where water is much more critical, you’ll want to do some research to determine where the most reliable water sources will be. During wet years, marginal sources of water may hold game in an area better than in a dry year. Many times, smaller creeks won’t flow at higher elevations if the snowpack and summer rainfall was subpar. So don’t place all your planning eggs in one basket, and do some early scouting to help you figure out whether or not a certain water source will be dry. This is another reason to have a backup plan.
It’s not enough to merely educate yourself on elk behaviors, movements, habitats, and the like. If you’ve done your homework, you should develop a plan on how to apply that new-found knowledge to assist you in your hunt. If your research has uncovered a plant which elk forage on significantly more than others in the Flat Tops, for example, learn to identify that plant and where it grows. If you’ve determined when the peak of the elk rut occurs in the Poudre Canyon by backdating calving dates, be sure you are out hunting during that time period. If you’ve uncovered a behavioral study that shows elk flee towards the nearest private refuge in South Park at the onset of hunting season, position yourself to take advantage of this. This is the difference between knowledge and wisdom.
As you read through this article, you learned of the vast amount of information resources, new technology, and opportunities that have exploded in the past decade. Yes, hunting is still about the stillness of the woods at dawn, the chilling reverberation of a bull bugling to exclaim his dominance, and the heart-pounding anticipation of the stalk. But, to get there, use all the hunting tools in the tool box you have created.
(The mention of products, services, and web sites in this article does not constitute expressed or implied endorsement by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)