Dry, crunchy elk-hunting conditions changing over to fresh snow for final days of Colorado rifle season

By Tom Boyd
Real AspenOctober 25, 2011
Happen upon an elk hunter in Colorado's high country during the ongoing rifle season, and they'll likely have one eye on the sky, hoping for some sign of moisture.

They're likely to get their wish starting tonight, with a winter storm moving in that's expected to leave several inches of snow on the ground through the end of the popular second rifle season on Sunday, Oct. 30.

So far, though, it's been dry and sunny throughout Colorado. And that creates crunchy conditions on the forest floor, not exactly ideal for stealthy movement. Pine needles crack underfoot. Aspen leaves are anathema. In the whispering silence of a big-game hunt, each boot step on dry leaves might as well be a shout of warning to nearby game.

"Every year is different. This one is very different," said Dick Ray, president of the Colorado Outfitters Association.

An elk in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Dan Davis

Ray, who runs Lobo Outfitters near Pagosa Springs, said some elk in southern Colorado herded up and headed for lower ground during a massive, but isolated, snowstorm in the Wolf Creek area. On the other hand, many of the elk are still alone or in small groups, enjoying what's turned out to be a prolonged warm spell.

"Down here (in southern Colorado), the aspen leaves and the oak leaves have just begun to turn. Consequently, you have full foliage, which you seldom ever, ever have this late in the year," Ray said.

Warm conditions coupled with a remarkably wet, late spring, have complicated matters even further in all but the southeast region of the state, where drier conditions prevailed. Colorado's elk can find water and foliage almost anywhere they choose to meander — and without cool weather and snow, most aren't herding up and heading for the low country quite yet.

That leaves hunters in a bind. They can't hole up near water and wait for the elk, and it's too late in the season to bugle them in. On the other hand, when hunters get out and move, they've got to navigate through dry, crunchy conditions.

Big bulls didn't get big by playing it casual with warning sounds. From that first pre-dawn feeding, to the afternoon regression, on to the evening browse, bulls and cows always travel warily this time of year. Cup-shaped ears up to 6-inches long capture the subtlest of sounds, and each ear can pivot individually — like radar — toward suspicious sounds.

"Their biology over thousands of years is survival," said Randy Hampton of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "This isn't about being geared to hear a hunter coming. This is about hearing a mountain lion coming, a bear coming, a wolf coming — and bears, mountain lions and wolves are a lot quieter than we can be."

Consider that an elk also has millions of olfactory nodes within its protracted snout, all evolved to capture the scent of danger, and suddenly that sweaty, hard-hiking hunter crashing through the bone- dry understory doesn't seem like much of a threat.

Yet even in warm, sunny years, about one out of every five elk hunters harvest an animal.

Ray and Hampton agree there's no one secret to success, but those who can handle the intimidating, log-strewn terrain of dark timber tend to get to tell all the good stories in the pubs, Hampton said.

"If you talk to 100 hunters, you're going to get 55 different ways to get an elk," Hampton said. "But of the 20 guys that got an elk last year, I would bet you almost to a man they worked the dark timber in these kinds of conditions."

With more than 40 years experience hunting all over North America, Ray said every year presents its own set of challenges, but with the right attitude and skill set, any hunter can find success. After all, the elk "don't disappear," he said.

"Nothing will beat woodsmanship skills, like getting up early, being there early, having the wind in your face and the sun at your back, seeing the game before it sees you and hugging the shadows," Ray said.

"You don't need the latest brand of camo, you don't need much of anything except good woodsmanship skills and a good attitude, and you can still go out there and have a good time."

Those with one eye on the sky may just find their reward, too. With expected snow tonight and Wednesday comes a dampening silence and a fresh tablet of whiteness for the elk to scribble their tales of comings and goings.

So a hunter can always take heart that, even if those faint remnants are all that's to be seen of this year's elk, many a good story is still out there waiting to be told.

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