Quietly, we crawled to the edge of a tall ridge. Taking care not to reveal our silhouettes on the skyline, we set up to glass the magnificent country for the elusive wapiti. Daylight waned as we began to pick apart the meadows and timberlines. Slowly panning the spotting scope over a gap in the trees, I picked out an elk; closer inspection revealed a herd on the move. Soon we were watching 30 elk calmly grazing in a distant meadow. It was the night before Colorado’s second rifle season, and we were six miles deep into the Flat Tops Wilderness. The sight of two bulls in the herd only a mile from camp had us skipping down the mountain to our cozy camp to dream of what tomorrow would bring on our DIY elk hunt.
As a young boy, I consumed books and articles with tales of wilderness hunts and dreamed of hunting in truly wild and remote places. In 1995, I went on my first elk hunt and have been blessed to hunt in many wild places since. In 2016, I joined four friends for a hunt in Colorado’s third largest Wilderness, the famed Flat Tops Wilderness. We enjoyed a great hunt and filled two of four tags. I will carry the memories of hunting with great friends in that stunningly beautiful place for the rest of my days.
A DIY elk hunt in a Wilderness area should not be intimidating; with lots of planning and hard work, it is achievable. In fact, today it is easier than ever because of the technology, information sharing and equipment that has developed in recent years.
Here are the basics to help you plan your own DIY elk hunt:
Begin researching your DIY elk hunt at least 12 months in advance. Colorado is typical of most Western states in that you can find a great deal of valuable data on Fish and Game websites. If you are short on time, there are magazines like Huntin’ Fool and web-site memberships like Gohunt.com that summarize much of the information. Start by looking for a unit in a Wilderness that has better than average success rates and good elk densities. However, these numbers should not be your only source of information while picking a unit.
Everyone will tell you to call the local biologist or warden, but I prefer to call the district Forest Ranger for the area. Rangers spend lots of time in the area you want to hunt and typically don’t get pestered by hunters. If you call them in the winter, they have a lighter workload and will happily take time to help you. Ask them about trailhead locations, trail conditions, recent fires and their advice on places to look for elk.
Reach out to hunting buddies or members of your local hunting club too. Keep relationships fresh and be willing to help others once you have a few years of experience to reflect on. Some units may require preference points to draw at tag, but there are many over-the-counter hunts as well. Several states have generous allotments of over-the-counter tags for Wilderness areas because not many hunters venture into them.
If you don’t live near your hunting destination, it might not be possible to visit the location prior to your hunt. If that’s the case, plan to arrive at least two or three days before your hunt. Use one day to pack in and one or two to scout ahead of the season opening. On-line scouting can be a tremendous help too. Google Earth, Colorado Hunting Atlas, onXmaps Hunt and similar technologies provide the ability to scout and hunt in a way never imagined a decade ago. From the comforts of home, you can pour over maps and satellite pictures of the exact locations you plan to hunt. You can even pre-program locations of interest into your GPS. Call me old school, but I still carry a compass and maps of my hunting areas. I like laying out the map to view the entire hunting area rather than just relying on the small screen of the GPS. I order the 7.5 degree quadrangle maps from the USGS. I lay them out and mark them up with notes at home. They are cheap and easy to use. Plus, if the GPS quits working, maps are a reliable back-up navigation device.
Logistics separate the amateurs from the seasoned veterans. The movement of hunters, water, food, gear and meat in and out of the Wilderness is never easy, but lots of options are available to suit your style of hunting. Wilderness areas have a strict no engines rule. No 4-wheelers, dirt bikes, generators or chainsaws. Everything you pack in must be on a horse, llama, or your back, and making firewood requires an ax and crosscut saw.
In 2016, we paid a local outfitter to rent three of his pack horses for the week with all the tack we needed. The horses allowed us to pack in our canvas wall tent and small wood stove. This provided us with a warm comfortable base camp in the middle of the Wilderness for our DIY elk hunt. Other options include renting llamas or going light-weight and backpacking in. I have backpacked on several hunts and like how that style forces you to downsize to just the basics. Backpacking gives the advantage of not being tied down. You can hunt with your camp on your back or move it closer to where you are hunting. If you kill an elk while backpack hunting, plan on four to five backpack loads of meat. Another option is to have a horse packer available on-call when you kill an elk. Some outfitters provide this option. You will have to carry a satellite phone or coordinate another way to communicate with the packer to make the request to get packed out. No matter which logistical options you choose, resist the urge to over-pack. Cut your gear down to the lowest safe level. Your back will thank you.
While it’s easy to imagine big bulls in every meadow of a remote Wilderness, the reality is that elk per square mile numbers do not increase at all. The advantage of hunting remote country is cutting the number of hunters you are competing with and increasing your enjoyment by having more real estate to yourself. My advice for any over-the-counter hunter is to kill the first legal animal you can. Two of my friends had cow tags on our hunt. They wasted no time and killed two cows the second day of the hunt. We were all excited with their success and quit hunting until we had those elk broke down, bagged and loaded on the horses. We shared the meat between everyone, so even though I struck out on finding a bull, my family enjoyed lots of delicious elk this past year.
Make the best of everything. It is a lot of work to hunt this way, so find enjoyment in all the details. While in camp, share the chores of making firewood, cooking meals, doing dishes, etc. Remember to have a contingency plan if someone gets hurt or sick. Talk about who will go for help, who will stay back and care for the one who is hurt.
For the best chance at killing a bull, plan on at least seven hunting days. Add two or three days on each end of that for 12-14 days total. Unfortunately, our hunt was cut short by bad weather. We used a weather band radio to get daily
weather reports. When the forecast turned to slushy, sleeting snow with accumulation building for several days, we knew we had to bug out.
While a DIY elk hunt in a Wilderness is challenging, it is also incredibly rewarding. From base camp, you can explore ever deeper into a place void of other humans. It is refreshing to spend time alone hunting—slipping through dark timber, having lunch on a high ridge and filling a water bottle from a thread of a cold mountain stream teaming with trout. A year later, I can picture every detail of being in the Flat Tops, and my heart yearns to return. In the end, a DIY elk hunt in the Wilderness isn’t about killing an elk. It’s about the journey that wild wapiti leads you on within the unbroken, savage landscape. It is in those places that man truly finds himself and his purpose on this earth.
This article was written by Bob Barteck, IAFF Local 425 Alumni
Looking for more info on elk hunting for beginners? Read our article “FIRST ELK HUNTING ADVENTURE IN THE ZIRKEL WILDERNESS”