Up your chances with a guide
Estimates put the size of Colorado’s elk herd at over 300,000. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to find ” especially when you’re looking for them, gun in hand.
In western Colorado, the elk herd in the White River National Forest and Flat Tops Wilderness Area is a mecca for hunters. Unlike other herds that rely on government handouts to make it through the winter, the White River National Forest herd is a healthy, self-sustaining group of animals that provides plenty of big-game sport in some of the most beautiful country in the world.
In the thick of hunting season, though, some of the more trafficked areas of the forest can seem downright crowded, and the sheer number of hunters can act as a deterrent as animals move away from the racket. The option is to go deeper into the woods, but that’s not easy for hunters who don’t know the area, aren’t experienced outdoorsman ” or both.
Enter the hunting guide. They don’t come cheap, but for that once-in-a-lifetime hunting experience (or once a year, if you can afford it), it’s hard to beat the odds of having at your side someone who knows the area, the weather, the animals and all the ins and outs of tracking, selecting, killing and packing the animal out. What’s more, most guided hunts operate on horseback, allowing hunters to cover more ground and also to ditch the tents-and-sleeping-bags life in favor of basing out of a lodge.
“Guides know the country, they know the patterns of the animals, like where they’ve been that summer before the season started,” said Adrian Brink of A.J. Brink Outfitters near Gypsum. Brink, who with partner Jim Brink has offered outfitting services in the area for several decades, said hunters with little experience as well as those with plenty
of hunting savvy like to work with guides.
Horses make a big difference, too,
“We go into a lot of country you normally couldn’t get into it without an outfitter with horses, so you can hunt more in the backcountry,” she said.
For outfitter Ron Hilkey, guides make a difference for all kinds of hunters.
“The young ones who’ve never hunted like to have a guide, if they can afford it,” Hilkey said. “The older guys are tired of drop camps and walking and all that. They like to get on the horse and have some help. And they like getting back to a good, home-cooked meal, a bed with sheets, showers and all of that.”
Hilkey, who runs Adams Lodge Outfitters out of Meeker, laughed and said it’s the only way he’d hunt.
“I wouldn’t hunt if had to do all that camping,” he said.
Drop Camp Vs. Fully Guided
Many outfitters offer a few options when it comes to helping hunters. At the top is the one-on-one private guide, usually parceled out in 4-7 day increments, with costs starting in the $2,000-$3,000 range.
Drop camps are another possibility. In this scenario, a group of hunters is transported to a pre-made camp ” often a cabin or group of cabins ” in the woods. Hunters are in charge of their own meals, and typically are on their own when it comes to hunting ” although some drop camp options include guide services. Drop-camp service also usually includes tips on where the animals are, as well as help getting a kill from camp back to base.
As Brink said, a lot of the real work comes after the kill.
“Elk is very good to eat, but it’s important how you take care of it after it’s shot,” she said. “We’ll pack it back to the barn and hang it in there if it’s cool enough. Elk is like beef; it’s better if it ages, but it has to be cool.”
The knowledge and experience of a guide can also be critical in having something to hang in the barn in the first place.
“A lot of people simply don’t know how to hunt,” Brink said, adding that knowing when not to shoot can be as important as taking a good shot. “A guide will help a hunter know when a shot is too far, or in a place that’s hard to get out of, or if it’s simply too late in the day.”
An ill-advised shot, Brink said, can mean tracking a wounded animal in the dark through dangerous country ” something a guide will likely steer a hunter clear of.
But whether it’s an old hand or a tyro on the trail of a Colorado elk, Hilkey said employing a guide simply makes for a better experience, since the hunter can focus on the hunt and not on the many details that go into such an outing.
“Some clients save for years to do a guided hunt,” he said. “They just like the experience of hunting on a horse and getting to where don’t see many other hunters. There’s also the camaraderie of hunting with a few good friends.”
For many hunters, he said, hunting elk in the Colorado backcountry is something they’ve looked forward do doing for years.
“It’s like a dream come true for these guys,” Hilkey said.
By Alex Miller of the Vail Daily.