Planning a Colorado Elk Hunt - Part 1

One of the bulls that got away in 2017…I still see him in my dreams!

One of the bulls that got away in 2017…I still see him in my dreams!

So, you didn’t get drawn for elk in your home state (story of my life here in AZ), or you live in a part of the country that simply doesn’t have elk hunting. You’ve watched all the shows, been sucked deeply into the YouTube vortex of Western elk hunting, and would LOVE to chase these majestic creatures this fall. But, where do you even start? It’s hard enough to navigate your local hunting options…now you’re gonna throw a dart on a map in an area you’ve NEVER been before, travel hundreds of miles, and hit the trail hoping that everything comes together? The idea of taking your first out of state hunting adventure is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.

And that’s where I find myself this year. The Arizona draw skunked me again (which was the statistical probability), and I promised myself last year that if I didn’t luck out with a local tag, I would finally commit to heading to one of several Over the Counter (OTC) states to chase elk with my bow. So, now I am deep in the research and preparation phase…like, scary-deep. I have decided to buy a tag, head up to Colorado in September, and chase some rutting bulls on a DIY hunt. It is beyond intimidating, and I often fight back that voice in my head that screams, “it’s just too much…maybe next year.” If you’ve ever seriously considered taking your own DIY trip out of state to go hunting, I’m sure you’ve heard that voice too.

So, here is what I propose: I will walk through the next six months of research and preparation, I’ll try to cross all the T’s and dot all the lower-case J’s, and of course I’ll go on the actual hunt and document what happens there as well. Through all of that, I’ll share the process with you fine folks. A few times over the next six months I’ll post updates on what I’ve discovered, helpful tools I’ve been using, and what I’ve been doing to make sure I’m as prepared as possible. Hopefully, this process will help answer a bunch of questions for the first time out-of-stater (a term I just made up right now). My biggest hope is that someone sitting on the fence feeling too overwhelmed to pull the trigger on that dream will feel like it’s achievable and will get out there and give it a try.

I am currently two weeks into this process, and I feel like I’ve already laid a decent foundation. In no particular order, here is what I’ve been working on / figuring out:

Budgetary Considerations

A solid financial plan for your hunt will keep you from getting stalled out before you even start…it’ll also keep you married!

A solid financial plan for your hunt will keep you from getting stalled out before you even start…it’ll also keep you married!

This is obviously the most boring part of the process, but the hunt isn’t going to happen if I can’t pay for it. Before I wasted any time planning an elk hunt that couldn’t become a reality, I had to get a realistic total of what it would cost. Then, I had to have a frank conversation with my wife about what it would take to pull this off. Now, I personally have a wife who is…how do I put this…friggin’ awesome! She is more than willing to send me on any adventure I want to take as long as we know where the money is coming from. So, with a CO out of state archery tag ringing in at $661.75 for the 2019 season, a rough estimation of gas costs based on a 1,000 mile round trip, and food for a 5-7 day backpacking trip, I set the budget at $1200 (knowing that something ALWAYS comes up and ends up costing a bit more than expected). Once you have the total cost in mind, it’s easy to reverse engineer how much money you need to save each month. At this point, the wife and I have agreed to set aside $200/month between now and the hunt, and that should cover it. If I had accepted the reality last year that it was not likely I would draw an AZ tag this year, I could have saved $100/month for the whole year, and still been prepared to take the trip. Live and learn.

Though it doesn’t really make or break the budget, how many people (if any) you plan to go with will affect your bottom line a bit. One of the first things I did when draw day came and went and I decided I was heading to CO was to start the conversation with a couple hunting buddies who may want to go. Don’t get me wrong, I am fully prepared to head up there solo if need-be, but if one or two friends wanted to come along for the ride, it would reduce all of our gas costs a bit, and there may be some bulk-food bargains we could capitalize on together. Whatever your plans for companionship in the back country, now would be the time to put those feelers out there because your buddies will have to begin doing the same prep you’re in the middle of, and they’ll need time to pull that off successfully.

Another thing in the budget category I’ve started looking at is necessary gear upgrades. There are a couple things that have been on my list as needed upgrades before ANY hunt, and I’ll have to address those before embarking on this grand adventure as well. I like to keep the list on my phone as I think of things or discover gear shortfalls while out hiking or during local Spring hunts. Then, I can keep checking online sales, set search alerts for used gear on Offer-Up and Craigslist, and just keep my eyes peeled for the best possible bargain. The beauty of being six months out is I have time to watch and wait for the right deal…if I was trying to throw all this together in August, I’d be forced to pay whatever price to whomever happened to have what I needed in stock.

Where in the world should I go?

Seriously, where do you even begin looking with a map this complex?

Seriously, where do you even begin looking with a map this complex?

Okay, now that the nerd stuff and spreadsheets are out of the way, how does a person stare at a map of an entire state he’s never hunted and isolate a few good options to start hunting? Knowing that schedules and funds will most likely not permit me to put boots on the ground beforehand, I want to make that drive with a phone full of waypoints and backup plans to maximize my chances of actually finding elk. Fortunately, we are living in a golden age of technology, and there are a ton of really helpful resources out there.

First of all, any out of state hunting trip should begin with a visit to that state’s game and fish website. You want to get a feel for units, fees, laws, and any nuances that may differ from your state (are there antler-size requirements, can you use mechanical broadheads, etc.). Once you have a feel for that, it’s time to start trying to narrow down units. In my case, CO has over 100 units open to the OTC either-sex archery elk hunt…that’s a lot of options to try and whittle down. My thought process was that I wanted to find the best possible unit or couple of units in the Southwestern part of the state, simply because that will save me miles and time on the road. That’s when I turned to huntscore.com - this is a great free resource, though it only covers a half dozen or so western states. This website considers a number of different factors (access, opportunity, success rates, etc.) and comes up with an overall score for each unit in that state. I simply scrolled through their top results looking for units that fall in the SW portion of the state.

Once I had a few unit numbers to consider, I then went to every hunter’s old friend - GoogleEarth. I have a love-hate relationship with GoogleEarth: I love being able to check out details, water sources, and even game trails in some cases from the comfort of my couch; I hate the fact that I have yet to wrap my head around the fact that if terrain looks easy from the air, it’s probably pretty hard, and if it looks pretty hard, it’s probably impossible to traverse! I have fallen into that trap more times than I can count…but I digress. Now that I have the state narrowed down to a couple units of interest, I’m looking for good elk habitat. I’ll do another post specifically on this subject at some point, because it’s a huge conversation all by itself.

One amazing thing I discovered about CO in particular is that they have a whole pile of helpful google earth layers you can download for free. So, for the cost of a few MB on my hard drive, I can now look at elk summer ranges and breeding grounds, and I can even overlay hiking trails to determine access points and potential crowding issues. So, at the end of the day, I have narrowed a state I am completely unfamiliar with down to a unit, down to a couple areas that look like they’d have great elk activity in the transition from summer ground to rutting, and a couple trails and access points off the highway. Now, I’m still working on my quiver of backup plans, and intend to do further detailed research (which I’ll post about later). But for now, I already feel incredibly less overwhelmed at the prospect of figuring out where to go.

Obviously, there are no guarantees…but being able to see where the elk are SUPPOSED to be is a great starting point!

Obviously, there are no guarantees…but being able to see where the elk are SUPPOSED to be is a great starting point!

Active Preparation 6 Months Out

While I would consider myself a truly obsessed hunter and I would like to be the kind of guy who is ACTIVELY staying prepared and dialed-in for hunting year-round, the truth is that I definitely can slip into an off-season lull from time to time. I’ve been known to leave my bow untouched for months at a time, and for my boots to acquire more household dust than trail dust during the off-season. So, wanting to maximize everything that I CAN control with this big adventure, here are just a few things I’m currently working on:

Fitness

Long-time readers of this blog are well aware that I’m a big fan of barbells, and am pretty consistent at training all year round. However, I firmly believe that the focus or type of training may need to vary throughout the year depending on what you plan to be doing. As summer ends and the fall approaches, I’ll certainly be wailing on cardio, rucking up hills and trails, and trying to do a lot of specific training for the rigors of long days backpacking at the insane elevations of CO elk country. However, as I sit in here in March with six months until I hit the mountain, this is the best time to train for strength. I almost always use January as a great time to re-set and I spend the first few months of the year focused purely on strength. In fact, I leave cardio completely alone for this season to maximize my body’s ability to recover from extremely heavy workouts and build muscle.

Here’s why this matters in a hunting situation: while packing an elk miles out of the woods at elevation is primarily a test of your endurance/cardiovascular fitness, that type of fitness is the quickest to gain - there’s still time to get your heart, lungs, and mind ready for that. Strength is much slower to acquire, but is also much slower to decrease. And if you plan your training right, you can have your endurance whipped into great shape with a couple months of work before the hunt, but you can also have some significant strength reserves to fall back on from your focus on building strength and muscle early in the year. Mathematically speaking, if you are hauling a couple elk quarters in one shot, lets’s say your pack is 150 pounds - that’s going to suck for anyone! But if you built up your strength to where you’re squatting 300 pounds for reps, then that insanely heavy pack is not a huge percentage of your overall strength capacity (let’s say 50% for the sake of this crude argument). On the other hand, if you spend all your training time year-round focused on cardio, bodyweight calisthenics, and haven’t put more than 135 pounds across your shoulders for some sort of super-set pain-fest designed to give you that “burn” after 15 reps, then that 150 pound pack is gonna feel insanely heavy! Sure, you can power through the pain and your lungs will be oxygenating your blood with remarkable efficiency, but I would bet that pack weight - being one of the heaviest things you’ve lifted that year - is going to cost you along the way. Your whole body will simply not be prepped and strengthened for being under that kind of a load. In March, I’m a firm believer in a hunter’s training consisting of: lift, eat, sleep, repeat…until we get deeper into the Summer, of course.

Crazy faces like this lead to easier pack-outs…it’s science!

Crazy faces like this lead to easier pack-outs…it’s science!

Calling

I have yet to become what I would call a capable elk caller. Like most who have attempted to master this skill, I have a drawer full of old diaphragms I’ve tried…some worked, some didn’t. I have the handheld cow call, the bugle tube…it’s not for lack of gear that I have not yet mastered this art. It’s simply that I have not dedicated the time it takes to sit, practice, record myself, compare those sounds, make necessary adjustments, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’ve kept a couple diaphragms in my car to practice during my commute, but that has not yet turned me into an adequate caller. So right now I am going back through my Elk Hunting University module on elk calling, and pulling out my Elk Nut App to really dig in. My family tolerates it…my dog hates it, but this is what has to happen if I intend to locate and call in a bull this fall.

Practice makes perfect…unless you’re practicing wrong, I suppose.

Practice makes perfect…unless you’re practicing wrong, I suppose.

Shooting

As I said before, I am often guilty of letting my bow sit dormant in the off-season, then I try to be crazy-disciplined and shoot every day for the month leading up to season. This year I am committed to being different! Right now, while I’m six months out, I plan to shoot my bow twice a week. Yes, I should shoot every day if I want to truly be a master. Unfortunately, that’s not the life I lead (and honestly, it’s probably not the life you lead either). I am fortunate to have good shooting spots within walking distance of my front door, but a couple sessions a week while juggling all the other responsibilities of life is pretty good for me. I’ll increase that frequency as the season draws close, because other things will often take a backseat to make that happen. Right now, it’s pretty much about keeping the rust off, not necessarily becoming a completely different archer.

I should find myself here regularly…not just when elk season is breathing down my neck!

I should find myself here regularly…not just when elk season is breathing down my neck!


So there you have it. I’m really just starting on this adventure, and as I said I will keep you posted on what I learn along the way. Hopefully, at the end of it all, I’ll have some great stories (maybe an awesome video), and in the best case scenario, a freezer full of CO elk meat! If you are sitting there in the Spring sad about the fact that you don’t think you’ll be chasing elk this fall, what’s stopping you? Right now you still have the time to get things in order, save up some money, and get out there and give it a try. As the youngsters used to say: You Only Live Once! (They said that, right?) I knew if I kept waiting for the perfect year to give this kind of adventure a try, I’d be waiting a long time. So, grab your boots, your bow, and a map and get out there…worst-case, you have an adventure, make some memories, see some new countryside, and come back home. Go for it!

If you have yet to chase screaming bull elk with a bow and are wondering what all the fuss is about, check out this film from my 2017 AZ Archery Elk Hunt…it explains it all!