Preparing for that first big hunt
Vail CO, Colorado
If you’ve already applied for limited licenses, you’ve already gotten the word, good or bad, on your luck with the draw.
You know where you’re going to be hunting, who your hunting buddies will be, and who has horses or a good ATV to pack out your game meat. You have probably been hunting in Colorado’s back country at least once before. That means that the following tale probably isn’t for you.
If this is your first big game hunt, or you missed the application deadline for any deer or elk limited licenses, you may be hunting on a possible left-over license for a few areas, or you’ll more likely purchase the bull elk only license over the counter at the nearest license agency.
And you’re not apt to be picking up a deer license unless there might be a few left over here and there, as the deer licenses are issued by the drawing system only.
That being said, keep in mind that if you’re a bow hunter, you still have a chance for an either sex elk license in many areas, and yes, you can purchase such a license over the counter.
Hunt for information, first:
If you have the time, you should plan on making phone calls, visiting a Division of Wildlife office, attempting to track down a DOW field officer or whatever it takes to arm yourself with hunting information. Some of this detective work might also involve visiting an office of the U. S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for maps and information where motorized vehicle travel is not allowed on national lands, which make up about a third or more of the state.
The Division of Wildlife has data from the past several seasons including which areas produce the most success for both deer and elk. Topographical maps help you keep from becoming lost, and show what the terrain looks like up ahead.
Remember that big game animals, including both deer and elk can be found all the way from the sagebrush flats to above timberline and everywhere in between. With timberline often being found close to 11,000 feet in elevation, you better start exercising now, or plan to travel easy and slow come the hunt.
Get a copy of the 2007 Colorado Big Game information brochure and check out what’s required for hunter education training, clothing, minimum rifle caliber, and all that need-to-know stuff, and do your best to find someone to partner up with for firsthand information about different hunting areas and techniques.
A good big game outfitter complete with guides is always the best way to go if you’re a first-timer. Locating the nearest shooting range would be the next consideration, as unchecked rifle sights and lack of familiarity with your gun will definitely be a large handicap for a successful hunt.
Learning the lay of the land
Rather than attempt to bore you with data you can get as little or as much of as you want through the Internet or by phone and foot effort, here are some thoughts about the different types of game cover you’ll likely encounter in many different areas or the state.
River and stream bottoms sport cottonwood, tamarisk and willows lower down, and can also include quakies and dark timber farther up in elevation. If the country is steep and rocky, it can be extremely difficult to hunt in many cases.
Farther up, you’ll run into oak brush, and I mean a large bunch of it. This stuff isn’t tot terribly tall, but it can be terribly thick, and even without leaves still on, a herd of elephants could easily hide in relatively small patches. But there’s often good feed in the oaks, including good grass for elk, and acorns for deer, with assorted shrub species for both deer and elk thrown in.
In a dry year, watering spots can be good spots to watch, especially when either inside or close to good cover of any type. Your topographical maps will provide good clues where these spots might be located, and they also show drainages, lakes and open country, too.
Oak brush is often mixed in with quakies, and large stands of aspen also provide cover, food and water. Then you’ll run into pinon-juniper (P-J or cedars) stands that don’t look particularly productive at first, but can hold lots of game.
It’s deceptively difficult to see anything in the cedars for any distance if the ground is rather level. If the P-J cover has ridges, walking on one ridge while watching another ridge or ridges at the same time will make game spotting easier, but shots tend to be longer, so take along your shooting sticks or bipod to help make that first shot count.
There are times when two hunters can help each other by each taking a ridge, moving relatively parallel and slow, with a chance of pushing out game where the other hunter will spot an animal.
If a ridge or mountain has cover, most likely there’ll be dark timber or quakies on the north sides and oak on the south. Patches of dark timber with quakie inserts are good game holders, with both deer and elk using the cover of the quakies to move from one timber patch to another to reach feeding areas or bedding grounds, depending on the time of day.
The game likes the shady side of the terrain during warm days, and might move out into small openings early morning and evening for a snack. Scattered patches of sagebrush are food sources in the later seasons, and also have some grasses and small shrubs mixed in at times.
Any time you find a couple of dark timber patches with a narrow band of quakies or oak touching in between, that might be a good funnel area to watch for game moving between the two timber patches. Again, if the wind is favorable, one hunter can move through one timber patch or the other, while the partner watches the natural path in between.
The driver should move slowly and as quietly as possible, all the time looking for animal legs or maybe even a bedded animal in the timber. At higher elevations, isolated timber patches might be the major cover available for animals in that area, so again try the drive and spotter technique, if the first day or two doesn’t produce a shot by just sitting and watching.
In really dry weather, a drink might be their first consideration, so the best thought for the first day or two is to select a good observation spot, depending on wind direction, and use those binoculars a lot. Try to keep as low a profile and a thin silhouette as you can to keep from spooking game by attracting attention to yourself while you glass everything in sight. Take your time, and check out the shadows and as far into the brush and trees as you can.
Locals ” the best source
Many landowners are a bit hesitant to grant hunting permission, especially if you are strangers to them. But if you do secure permission to hunt on private property, try for as much terrain information as you can, and also learn if game has been seen in a particular area. Always ask where to park or where you can or cannot drive.
Don’t park where you’ll block a gate or parked farm equipment be sure to ask where any livestock might be pastured, and leave gates as you find them, either open or closed. A departing thank-you is always a good idea, especially if you plan on returning another day, or another year of hunting.
You might encounter cowboys, sheepherders, energy drillers and workers who could be a current source of where game has been spotted. Even other hunters, especially if they’ve been successful, can be a valuable source of information on roads, trails and game location. Mailmen, road maintenance crews, surveyors or anyone you meet in the hunting area could be a good potential information source.
A dry fall means that most roads and trails will be reasonably passable. Rain and/or snow means you’ll surely get stuck or worse if you’re not properly equipped with winch, tire chains, tow chain or cable and at least one good long-handled shovel. Those high-lift come-along jacks are great if you have enough chain or cable to reach a tree or boulder to get out of a hole or off a rock.
Any precipitation or fog can get you turned around in no time, even in familiar terrain (been there, done that!) so be sure you’re equipped with GPS, compass or both, and of course accurate maps of your area. If you have a commercial radio in camp, you can check weather forecasts.
Don’t necessarily think that a snowflake or two on the nose means you’ll have to spend the winter on the mountain, but use good sense in leaving if it seems the thing to do. Rarely, sudden and severe snowstorms require a bulldozer to get hunters out of trouble, but to my knowledge, no hunter has had to spend the winter in hunting camp, although there have been occasions when a vehicle or two didn’t get out until late spring.
That commercial radio will also let you check out the Buckskin Network that broadcasts daily emergency messages to hunters. Be sure to leave good information and even a map of your intended hunting area. And if you move to a different spot, get word of the change back to your home.
One key contact is the Colorado Division Of Wildlife at (303) 297-1192 and http://www.wildlife.state.co.us.
Make your own phone contact list and have it handy in camp. Stay hydrated every day, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Get as much rest and sleep as possible. Dress to stay warm and dry, and take some first aid items with you. A warm hat and gloves or mittens will really feel good in the cold mornings, and during the day in bad weather. Good binoculars and one of those little cable cleaning rods help you see and identify game and keep your gun barrel clear of mud or snow. Have a great hunt.