Colorado - Mule Deer & Elk
I have hunted the last couple of years in Colorado for Elk. I’m returning this year, although I’m going to a different unit and at a different time. You can read about my plans for this years Colorado hunt on my Upcoming Trips page. Below, I’ll give you a brief summary of my experiences hunting Colorado.
2005 Colorado Elk Hunt
In the fall of 2005, my friend Jeff and I made our first hunting trek to the west. Neither of us had a clue what we were getting into. One of our friend’s father-in-laws went out every year on a DIY and invited us along and offered to show us the ropes. He gave us a list of supplies to bring, which included the following:
• (6) 5 gallon collapsible water jugs each
• (4) coolers each
• A good tent
• A WARM sleeping bag
• A folding Chair
• A portable stove
• (1-2) gas lanterns each
• Good flashlight and extra batteries
• Warm layered clothing
• GPS if we have one
• Our weapons and ammunition and a knife
• An ATV each
• A good attitude
We went out for the second rifle season, which was October 22-29. I drove us out in my 4wd Supercrew F150. We met up with the group outside of the Grand Mesa where we were planning to hunt unit 42 and filled our water jugs at a convenience store. We bought food for the week at a grocery store and filled our coolers with ice and beverages.
We planned everything to arrive the day before season started and we had camp set up within an hour and were ready to explore. We rode our ATVs about 3 miles from camp and parked 3/4 of the way up Hightower mountain. From this point on it was foot traffic only. We hiked a game trail to the top and I about died. It was only an elevation change of about 1700 feet, but it was steep and the air was thin and I thought I might die on the spot. We hiked about 1000 feet down the other side and our friends father in law, pseudo guide told us this would be where we were hunting the next day.
At 4:00 the next morning we started out towards our spot. By 5:30 or so, we had arrived and hunkered down. We were told to stay in this spot all day and not to move around. We were assured that at some time the Elk would come through. We did and they didn’t. We were both used to deer hunting on stand and we faithfully sat their ALL day without seeing or hearing a single elk.
We did get some excitement, though, when shortly after first light two massive mule deer came up the mountain directly towards us. The larger of the two had a rack that had to have been an easy Boone and Crockett. To this day, I still have never seen anything like it. It was amazing! During the course of this trip we saw at least a half dozen B&C quality mulies and we were in the heart of public land! On the third or fourth day, we sat and watched two mule deer bucks fight off and on for over an hour. It was an incredible sight. Too bad neither of us had a deer tag.
The immenseness of the mountains were calling Jeff and I and we decided that we wanted to do some exploring. Instead of going back to our spot the next day, we went hiking in the mountains. We spent the next five days hiking and exploring and generally had a great time. As I already mentioned, we never saw an elk, but we saw LOTS of mule deer bucks.
Since we abandoned our post on the second day, some other guys in our group took up station there. On the third morning, they got a big bodied 4×4 elk in the EXACT spot that Jeff and I sat on the first day. We ended up spending that day (and I mean that entire day) helping them pack out their meat. I thought the climb in and out of that spot was rough the first time, but it was nothing compared to making the climb with 125lbs of meat on your back. For the second time on this trip, I thought I was going to die!
Lesson learned: Get in shape before going to the mountains to hunt! BTW, I had participated in a triathalon just 3 weeks before this trip and the mountains still kicked my butt.
The weather was beautiful during this entire trip. It would get cold at night and very warm by midday. We were continually shedding and then adding layers. Ultimately, we didn’t harvest any game on this trip. However, we had a terrific time and decided that we would definitely return for 2006 and return we did.
2006 Colorado Elk & Mule Deer Hunt
We were a little (and I use the word sparingly) smarter for 2006. For instance, in March we both put in for a mule deer tag. Unfortunately, I was the only one to draw a tag. Jeff got a preference point.
I was smart enough to get into better shape for this hunt (Jeff didn’t have any trouble on either hunt). So, the thin (but very fresh) air and my lungs got along quite well. We ended up camping close to where we had camped in 2005 in a nice (more secluded) area that Jeff and I had discovered while traipsing along the year before.
There was one major difference in 2006. Although, we were there at the same time of year, this time we arrived to deep snow. We set up camp in a foot of snow and hiked through snow all day every day. We were camped at about 8,500 feet and their was elk sign everywhere. Fresh droppings and huge deep trails that look like cattle made them were everywhere. Amazingly, once again we did not get a shot opportunity at Elk.
We had bears following us as we hiked (we’d see their tracks on top of ours whenever we backtracked) although we never saw a bear. The elk were around but we weren’t seeing them. I finally saw one on the fourth day, but it wasn’t shoot able. I saw it from the truck as we were returning to camp for a mid morning brunch. It was a couple thousand feet up a mountain and moving fast. We did try to go around the mountain and hike up to cut it off, but after several hours of hiking realized it was a futile attempt. It was the only elk we saw on this trip.
I did have a mule deer tag in my pocket, though. And we’d seen lots of massive muleys in this exact spot in 2005. Unfortunately, they weren’t around in 2006. We realized that the snow must have driven them down to lower elevations. On the fourth day we decided to drive into Colbran and Mesa and have a look around. We saw hundreds of deer down in the valleys grazing in the fields. We had been right, the deer had moved lower.
We took our maps and tried to locate the lowest elevation public land that was possible. We finally found something that looked good and set out to find it. It was difficult to find as none of the roads were marked. I later wondered if some of the locals hadn’t conveniently removed the signs? Anyway, we ended up finding a deer sanctuary. We drove up an old fire road on a mountain ridge overlooking a valley. We drove for miles before seeing any other hunters. To our surprise, the hunters we found were from Missouri! They said we’d stumbled onto their honey hole.
Every year this group of guys would elk hunt up high and then on their last day come to this spot and fill any mule deer tags they had remaining. We were up on a winding ridge that overlooked a valley that was probably close to a mile wide. We stayed between 500 and 1500 feet above the valley floor and just glassed. During the afternoon, dozens of groups of deer would materialize from nowhere and move out of the fingers on the edges of the mountain into the valley below. It was an amazing site to see. I still don’t know where those deer were prior to moving into the valley.
Jeff and I were having a great time watching these deer and we were literally running all over the mountain. We worked our way down into the valley prior to dusk and were probably a mile away from our truck and maybe 1,000 feet below it. When darkness came, we started working our way back towards our truck. It is amazing how big the mountains are and how small something like a truck is. I will admit that we were lost for several hours on a cold night. I might write a post about the entire experience at some time because it is funny in retrospect. I lost my gun for 3-4 hours that night, before later finding it again (talk about a needle in a haystack) and learned lots of lessons, like a GPS does no good if you have it turned off and didn’t bother to mark any waypoints (like where you parked the truck).
We drove back to our camp that night and got up early and returned to this spot the next morning. We arrived just as dawn was breaking. I filled my mule deer tag that morning. It was a culmination of two years of hard hunting and I was excited. For trophy hunters, mine wasn’t much of a trophy and I’m sure there are lots of people that would rebuke me for taking the deer I did, but I’m still proud of it. Chuck Strauss, the legendary taxidermist, who retired to live in the mountains he loves, is in the process of preparing that mount for me. I can’t wait to hang that nice 3×2 in my house. I’ll probably write some post about this harvest someday too, for its an interesting story how I ended up with the buck I did.
After delivering my deer to chuck to be caped, Jeff and I decided to try to climb higher and see if we could find some elk. Where we had been parked there was a beautiful peak and we wanted to try to climb to it. After several hours of hard climbing the peak didn’t look any closer, even though we had climbed almost 2,500 feet. This is another reminder of how big the mountains are and how small and insignificant we are in comparison. When we left that night at dark it was spitting snow and we decided to take our camp down and head into one of the smaller towns and try to get a room. By the time we were pulling out we were engulfed in a full fledge blizzard.
We were fortunate that we made it out. We heard later that several camps weren’t so lucky and some hunters had to spend several more days than they had planned waiting for things to clear up enough for them to be able to get out.
The weather didn’t improve overnight and the dump we stayed in (shower was covered in mold) didn’t allow for much rest. So, we decided to head for Missouri that morning. What an adventure. Almost every highway in Colorado was closed. Heading back East towards Denver was out of the question as the pass was closed in both directions, so we headed South towards New Mexico. That didn’t work either. We ended up on some mountain pass following a snow plow. That was one of the scariest drives I’ve ever made! It took twice as long to get home as it took to get to Colorado, but we made it.
What does a DIY trip cost? If you have most of the gear, which we were fortunate enough to have, it’s not very expensive. Here is a recap of our major costs:
$500 Bull Elk Tag & Habitat Stamp
$250 My share of truck fuel cost
$200 My share of groceries (we eat like kings)
$50 My share of propane & gas (heaters and lights)
$35 One night at hotel
$50 Meals and snacks while driving
$10 Cost of two showers
$1095 Total Trip Cost
Add approximately $300 to this if you draw a mule deer tag and another $450 if you decide to have it mounted by a taxidermist. I can assure you that the memories you make from one of these trips is worth every penny.
What a trip! I can’t wait to go back.