Elk Hunting University (EHU) seems to have had a good number of students "enroll" since we began in late March, 2010. Since then, EHU pages have been visited more than 205,000 times! We hope our "students" have learned a thing or two about Colorado elk hunting.
This effort has been unique in that we have never tried to "teach a course" in hunting via the Internet. Most of us have learned to hunt following a mentor around in the field for several years and making a lot of mistakes as we went along. We're sure that those who are new students of elk hunting will experience some of those hard-learned lessons this fall, but that is what this pursuit is all about in the first place.
We want to keep this educational program going through the 2010 big game hunting seasons and into the spring of next year, so we are going to post some "class notes" for students. Our thought is to provide you with some interesting reading as you prepare for your elk hunt, or as you sit by the fire and reflect on the past season during this winter. We will add notes here as they come available, as we find some good stories or just to let you know how the season is progressing. We have asked some field officers, biologists, and, yes, some good-old-boys and -gals to send in some tidbits that we can publish here.
One section of Class Notes we will add to as we can is called "Recent Scouting Reports". These are short notes from field officers; but please understand that we will not cover the entire state, just what pops up as we roam around the woods this season.
First, take a moment to look at a short video, then come back here.
Bet that got your heart pumping! Our video crew shot some great footage in August and early September; we'll share these here from time-to-time.
Recent Scouting Reports
Kenny Marcella on Hunting Trophy Elk
- Good numbers of elk are being seen in the Hightower and Porter Mountain areas, east of Collbran in unit 421.
- GMU’s 23 and 24 (White River elk herd's summer range)—Elk are well distributed across most of the traditional summer range from the Flat Tops Wilderness to the lower portions of the national forest adjacent to private property. Elk group sizes appear to be smaller than in past summers, resulting in better overall distribution. Traditional calving and summer ranges still include Sand Peak, Lost Park, Big Beaver Basin, and Milk Creek. Vegetation conditions are good as a result of consistent summer rains. Vegetation conditions are excellent across transitional and winter ranges for this herd north and west of Meeker, again due to consistent and substantial summer moisture. *** We have been in Unit 14 several times this summer, hiking the trails in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Snow is 100% gone, even at the highest elevations, and things are starting to dry up. However, in the past week we have been getting monsoon rains nearly every afternoon which should help keep the vegetation moist and add water to small ponds and creeks. Good numbers of elk have been observed near timberline and in the open meadows below the tree line; lots of cows and calves, few bulls spotted. Elk are found throughout this unit—not necessarily just in the wilderness areas and not always up high. There is great elk habitat—from the valley's floor to near the tops of the higher peaks. *** Hunters should concentrate their efforts to the type of terrain and style of hunting they prefer, and, if they don’t find animals, should be prepared to move a few miles and try again. *** Also, bark beetles have killed nearly 90% of the lodgepole pines and dead trees are beginning to fall. In the short term, this will make access and packing-out animals difficult for hunters. In the long term, it will improve habitat and produce some tremendous forage for big game animals. Many roads and trails will be closed for the rest of the summer and into the fall to remove dead trees than may present hazards. Hunters should call the "Hazard Tree Hotline" at 970/870-2140 for up-to-date access information in the Steamboat Springs area. *** Also, we have a new Web page, Road Closures, that provides links to Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management road closure information.
- We spent two days in Unit 231 two weeks ago (in the Little Flat Tops). We saw about two dozen elk, with several nice bulls in the mix. At elevations from 10,000–11,500 feet there was elk sign on nearly every trail and meadow we walked. As is always the case, the farther you get away from human disturbance the more elk you will encounter. The "Hazard Tree Hotline" for the Yampa area is 970/638-4516.
Okay, I sat down with a sage elk hunter—Kenny Marcella—and asked him to share some of his thoughts about hunting trophy bulls. Now, as we have tried to do through this whole course, this is not a polished, edited article, written by someone in an office. Rather, it's by a fella who gets his boots dirty, gets sore and cold chasing a bull, and who gets great pleasure from the chase—though not always the harvest. Thanks, Kenny, for adding your thoughts to this pursuit we call elk hunting.
“You first have to decide what you would consider a trophy for you. Everyone has a different opinion of what a trophy is to them. Many are satisfied with just putting a nice 5x5 bull on their wall. Yet there are the ones that set their sights and goals a lot higher.
"What is a trophy? You can look for books like Colorado's Biggest Bucks and Bulls; this will tell you a lot and help you with a ton of information that has been documented. You can look into the record books for Pope and Young, and Boone and Crockett, and SCI (Safari Club International) record books. These are some of the largest animals harvested in the world. I like Colorado's Biggest Bucks and Bulls since it is all about Colorado.
"So, you have read through some of the entries in the books and you have decided to hunt a bull in the 360+ class. Without realizing this, you have just cut your odds of harvesting a large bull of this class by 60%. Nearly all GMUs that have elk will have that typical 5x5 trophy—when you start looking at the 360+ class, this limits those areas another 50%.
"One factor in your favor is that Colorado has more elk harvested every year than many of the "elk states" even have as their total elk population! This works in your favor of sure numbers of animals to choose from. Even with these large numbers, the huge, 360+ bulls are not the norm. Keep in mind, we are talking about public-ground elk hunting, not private ranches that require large sums of money to hunt. Still, in my opinion, I would bet 80% of the large trophy-class bulls are taken on public ground.
"So. You have now set your goal and have a vision in your mind as to what quality of bull you are hunting.
"From your record search, you will notice that many of the large animals have been taken in recent years and there is a huge gap since the last majority of entries. This is because of many factors: In the old days, the men and women who hunted did not have an interest in entering their trophies in a book; they hunted to feed their families. Also, they did not have the communications equipment we have today. We have a communications network today that travels faster than the speed of sound, where years ago it took a while for the news to get around and verified. Today, you can snap a photo on your telephone and have it on the Internet in less than 20 seconds for friends and family to see. Same theory works with finding animals. GPS equipment can mark where you found an animal living and you can find the area in the dark. In the old days, you had to stumble on the area and try and remember how you found it!
"Get some maps. Listen to people talk. If you are in sporting goods stores you can get some pretty good information from other hunters, who always like to talk about the large bull they saw in an area. Some keep it a total secret, but they listen to anyone else that will talk. I would look for maps of areas that have had large bulls harvested in the past. The chance of large bulls living there still, or in the future, is very good.
"There are many factors for bulls and bucks to get large. Anyone that spends a lot of time in the hills will know what areas have good feed, good cover, and seclusion for the animals to live without being bothered. Then, of course, there is always the exception to the rule and a large bull will spend its entire life on the fringe of a nice alfalfa field next to a highway! It works both ways here in Colorado since we are living in the mountains where the elk live.
"I look for access to the area. Many areas on the maps will show you points of access for you to go without traveling across private property. Maps are your friends on paper. Get them—get many—and study them. Knowing the land and its formations is priceless when it comes to hunting trophy elk.
"One thing you will need to remember: with over-the-counter elk licenses and hunting public ground, you will be running into other hunters in pursuit of the same thing you are looking for. I can tell you by my own experience the large bulls are still there. Even on heavily hunted grounds. I have harvested many large bulls and I have yet to hunt on private ground. I hunt on Forest Service lands and BLM lands exclusively. There is one big secret you must understand—you will have to go farther into the forest than the average hunter is willing to go. I will bet most hunters do not like to travel farther than a half of mile or so. Remember you have to pack it out, which pretty much limits the numbers to only a few more.
"You will have to find a place where the animals find seclusion and safety. Watch for long fingers of spruce and fir trees, that spill into open meadows, and at timberline. When you are hunting lower-lying areas, same theory applies: find the pinions and junipers that lead to feeding areas. You will need to find the pinch points and narrow places the animals have to travel to feed.
"Elk are animals of habit and will travel corridors to feeding areas nearly daily at lower elevations. (This is not totally true for high-elevation elk.) At timberline they will find a small patch of trees and feed on the edge, and after storms feed on the sunny sides of hills early in the morning and right at dusk and sunset in the evening. I have found many of the trophy elk are done feeding before 8:30 a.m. Again, there are some out there that feed longer, but in my experiences they are done early.
"I feel they don't get big by being out in the open! I would bet that nearly all trophy elk are taken in the early morning hours, when elk are caught leaving their feeding area to a bedding area. Yet again, not the rule. I have heard of many hunters harvesting nice bulls in the evening. I just don't like hunting late because of many factors that can cause you to not recover your animal or other problems that can occur, like snow during the night or rain after your shot, factors on recovering your animal or not the following day, or late and early on into the next morning.
"Early in the warmer season, you will need to find slopes that face the north. These slopes stay cooler during the day, and yet allow feeding a short distance from where they bed for the day. Early hunts—find the cool spots to find the elk. On colder hunts you need to find similar areas, but now you will need to find the sunny sides and saddles the animals travel through to get from the bedding area to the feeding area with little pressure from predators—including yourself.
"Until the mid 1980s, elk seemed to be reclusive animals. Since the state’s population growth in many of the outlying areas and in the mountains, elk have adapted and spend time nearly everywhere, no matter if people have cabins or homes nearby in the mountains.
Some hunters are lucky and just stumble onto a large trophy bull, yet others spend their entire hunting life in pursuit of the large trophy for their collection.
"No matter how you look at it, hunting is still 90% luck and 10% skill. My grandfather and father both stated "if the animal is there when you are, you harvest. If not, you don't". You cannot harvest an animal if it is not in the area. Some areas are better than others, some are labeled as "trophy areas". I feel all areas are trophy areas for someone. Colorado is blessed with many places to potentially find the trophy of a lifetime. If you find one in the 360+ class you did very well.
"I have heard people say "that person has a knack for finding large trophy bulls". This can be true and yet I would bet my last dollar that that hunter has done his/her homework. You just can't keep putting large animals on the wall if you don't have a plan and knowledge. I will agree—some just stumble on a large bull, but that might be the only bull that they ever harvest or they never get a chance at another even close. That is more the normal pattern from what I have found. My belief is that timing is the key factor in hunting and finding a large bull on public ground. If you are in the right place at the right time, you will succeed; if you are not, the chances dwindle to nothing.
"Hunt slowly when you are in pursuit of a large bull. If you walk too fast you will pass them up. Large animals will watch from a distance and usually have a vantage point where they can see nearly 360 degrees around them with escape route only steps away. Use your eyes and look for any small movement. I have found when I have harvested large bulls I usually don't see the entire animal; I see an eye, an ear, a leg, or, in many cases, the rear end. If you are walking very slow usually the rear end is not traveling away from you too fast, and you will still have a chance.
"Use the cover to your advantage just like the large bull will. Don't skyline. By this I mean do not walk on top of a ridge—the animal will see you a mile or more away. Learn to stay lower, off the top of ridges, and try and stay on the fringe of tree stand, not in the open. I try to keep the sun to my back and I sneak in the shadows of the trees. Do this and you will blend in better.
"Another thing I will highly suggest: hunt where there are no roads or ATV trails. I hear it every year from hunters that they had their hunt ruined by an ATV. To me that makes no sense—if you are hunting away from roads and trails you will not and should not have this happen. I hunt in areas where the access points are reached by some on ATVs, but they park and walk. I could be one of the fortunate ones, but I feel if you are off the beaten path and truly hunting for a trophy you will not be close to a road or ATV trail.
"I also hear from others that they say they traveled 10-50 miles each day and never saw an animal. If you are traveling that much, you are in too easy of an area to travel and the animals aren't going to be there. You have to go that extra mile and get in a bit deeper to harvest the trophy of a lifetime.
"Each area in the higher ground GMUs have potential for large trophy elk. I truly believe if you suggest an area for me to try and find a trophy elk, and it has good cover and in a reclusive area, I can find a large bull in there. I will do my homework and I will find them. If I can do it, I know you can do it also.
"One thing that has puzzled me for many years is the belief that you have to hunt in the premium areas to harvest a large bull. Some think you have to have 15 or more preference points to get into an area that only has large bulls; they could not be more incorrect. I have never had to use more than 4 points in a GMU to find a 360+ bull, and that was only once; they only gave minimum licenses in that area for the first season due to weather for the later seasons. I can usually draw a bull license with 0-1 point in the later seasons.
"I am not short of talking to the Local DWM for the unit I will be hunting. These men and ladies from the Division of Wildlife are a wealth of information when it comes to their GMUs and the animals and species in the unit they oversee. Talk to them. Get to know them. They will help you succeed in your hunt.
"Get into shape, get off the couch, and walk the hills. I usually don't like to scout my area too late. In fact, I usually get into my hunting area right after I get notice of my license. Usually in June I find out whether I drew or not. I do not scout during any of the hunting seasons. I am one hunter who reverses this process. I find that if I find the animals before archery season, I have a pretty good idea they will be there during my season. This sounds bad, but, in fact, if you are in the back country too much, the animals only get pushed back into it farther. With little or very little pressure of scouting up until the season, I find out that with me not there watching, someone else can’t see me in the area. I have found out that if someone sees your vehicle at a trail head many times before season, they assume you have found a good animal and you are watching it. If I find one deep in the woods, I leave it alone. I know the animal has found seclusion and safety, so I back out. This has worked for me in the past.
One of the reasons I started doing my scouting this way is that many years ago I learned a lesson: I talked to several hunters that arrived at an area I was hunting as were they; and they got there several days earlier and walked the hills everyday leading up to opening day. They commented to me on the third day, that before the season started they saw many animals, and since opening day they had not seen anything, and yet there were no other hunters in the area. Duh. I mentioned to them that is why I don't walk around and scout that actual area I am hunting several days before the hunt. Animals leave under pressure.
"If I do scout, it is with a large spotting scope and binoculars, many miles away. Yes . . . miles away. This leaves the animals alone and under no pressure.
"A couple of final thoughts.
- Make sure you are physically fit to go deeper in the woods on your "Trophy Quest". Mental and physical soundness will make for a more fulfilling hunt.
- Make sure you can hit the animal and kill it efficiently and rapidly. Whether archery or rifle or muzzle loader—practice, practice, practice.
- You will need to be proficient with your weapon. Shot placement on a large bull is critical. They are huge animals, and a trophy of a lifetime is worth the practice time shooting in your back yard or range.
- I limit my distances to not more than 40 yards. Ever. Just because you shoot a large caliber magnum rifle, it still doesn't guarantee the animal will drop in its tracks. Use your common sense, practice again, get used to the rifle and its knock-down power. Limit your distance to safe shots. I know from talking to others when it comes to harvesting trophy-size animals, all common sense is thrown out the window. Now a 400+ yard shot you would have never taken on a cow elk is worth taking.
- Be proficient, know in your heart you can hit the 6 inch circle every shot at 400 yards. If not, don't shoot. Remember—bench shooting is different than shooting in the field. I can tell you that in my nearly 40 years of elk hunting, with many bull elk taken, I have only twice taken shots over 150 yards. Especially on a trophy-quest type hunt.
- You have to use your hunting skills. Another thing my dad used to say: "Anyone can shoot an animal at 400+ yards. That is shooting. But only a few can harvest an animal at less than 20 yards. That is hunting”. On 95% of my hunts I have harvested these large bulls less than 50 yards from me. If I can do it, anyone can do it. After all, we are hunting, and the experience of getting that close is not measurable on the scale for excitement. The adrenalin rush is so great from getting that close on the animal’s own turf.
"Taxidermy is one thing that always crosses the hunters mind. Take care of the animal once it is on the ground. Take very good care of the cape and skin after you down the animal. You will have to have instructions from your taxidermist beforehand on the proper way to do this, since you will be quite a way out in the field.
"Do you have a wall large enough to hang your trophy? Is the ceiling tall enough or are you going to have to either build an add-on, or store it in the garage? You have to think of this before you decide on hunting a trophy; is there enough space to put a full-shoulder mount on your living room wall? Keep in mind that a trophy bull, antlers and all the way to the chest, will measure over 60 inches from tip to chest. Measure your ceiling and see where the nose is going to hit on the wall. Will it fit in the front door with the door not having to be removed? These are only a few things to think about when deciding you want a large bull in your living or family room.
"Then there is the cost and the wait. The cost can be over $750 for the mount, and to have it seem to be bugling adds about another $150. Then the shipping . . . And the waiting period—can you be away from your mount for 1-2 years? Keep in mind that many good taxidermist are at least a year out on a mount being returned. Payment for the mount might be simple, but remember that jobs change and the economy changes. A thousand dollars is worth the price of a lifetime trophy to have on your wall, and the taxidermist will love you—as long as he has a good skin brought to him.
"There is a lot to think about when you decide on your Trophy Quest for a huge bull on public ground. One thing always to remember is only you can determine what you think is a trophy animal. In the hunting world, a 300 score seems to be the margin start for many trophy elk, yet I have seen many hunters with a 20 inch 5x5 bull happier than the guy that has just knocked down his third or fourth 350+ bull.
"In closing, there is a trophy elk in every elk GMU in the state, but when you want that 350+ bull you limited it to only about 20-25 or so GMUs. You have a very good chance in recent years with the high populations of elk all around. The sheer numbers of animals alone will add to the numbers of possible trophies out there for you to go after. Also remember, any large bull you kill on public ground is a trophy, and you did it yourself, on your terms and the animal's. You against him.
"Good luck, be safe, live, and make memories in the field.”