Planning a Colorado Elk Hunt - Part 2

The moment I found my 2017 AZ Bull…Hoping to recapture this moment this year in CO!!!

The moment I found my 2017 AZ Bull…Hoping to recapture this moment this year in CO!!!

Well, it’s been a couple months since my first post walking through all the facets of planning an out of state hunt. (If you missed that one, check it out here) At this point, I will be hitting the mountain in almost exactly three months, and I couldn’t be more excited! I also couldn’t be more aware that there is still so much to do. So, at the three-months and counting mark, here is what I’ve done and where the whole process stands.

Fitness…shift focus

I decided this trip was happening at the six-month mark (back in March), and at that point I still had plenty of time before I had to worry about my cardiovascular fitness. I love spending the first quarter of the calendar year focusing my fitness efforts 100% on strength. Why wouldn’t I? I get to eat ALL the food, lift heavy stuff, and feel like a beast for a few months…it’s wonderful!!! During that time, I surpassed the strength PR’s I was aiming for, and I basically felt like Eddie Hall! Then, I reached the end of that progression and knew that I needed to start worrying about cardio again. Unfortunately, I know myself and I know that I HAAATE cardio! But, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

At this point in the journey, I have shifted to a strength maintenance mode, and started trying to incorporate cardio at least a couple times per week. I like using hill sprints, some high-rep barbell lifts that specifically relate to climbing a mountain with weight in your pack (weighted step-ups are great…and terrible!), and I’ve even been known to use my wife’s Beach Body subscription to run through some quick cardio workouts in a pinch (I know what you’re thinking, and NO, I don’t use “Hip Hop Abs”).

It definitely feels weird hauling a barbell plate around the desert, but it’s great training for when it counts!!!

It definitely feels weird hauling a barbell plate around the desert, but it’s great training for when it counts!!!

But, my favorite way to train for the cardiovascular event that will be this backpack hunt at elevation is to throw weight on my back and climb up a mountain. I’m blessed to live in an area with plenty of trails and mountains to climb, so I’ll throw some weight in my hunting pack (a 45lb. barbell plate from the home gym works great…you could also use a heavy bag of sand from the hardware store) and go for a hike. This helps me practice exactly what I’ll be doing this fall (albeit at a much lower elevation), and is a nice break from the monotony of staring at the squat rack in my home gym every morning. It also lets me break-in my new boots, which is a brilliant segue into the next section…

Gear

I mentioned in my last post that I have an ongoing list of gear upgrades I know I need to make before this hunt, and as a bit of a gear junky, I have more than enjoyed keeping an eye out for great deals and researching every nuance of the items on that list. So far, everything I’ve purchased for this hunt has been on a weekend sale or had a great coupon code I found…I haven’t paid full retail price for any of it, and it’s sort of a personal mission at this point to get through the entire list that way! As I said before, having that list months in advance gives me time to wait and search for these deals…I’m not just one week out from the hunt filling a massive cart at Cabela’s and cleaning out the kids’ college funds to pay for it all.

The last time I took the boots on the left in the snow, I almost died several times. It was definitely time for some fresh tread!

The last time I took the boots on the left in the snow, I almost died several times. It was definitely time for some fresh tread!

One of the big items I needed to get was a new pair of boots, as two seasons had worn the tread clean off my last pair. Now, of all the gear items you need to buy well in advance of your hunt, boots are at the top of the list! Hunting boots are not the same as a pair of tennis shoes you’d wear out of the store and be perfectly comfortable in…they have to be broken in. Generally, they’re made of leather, lined with Gore-Tex, and the sole is a lot stiffer than those Nike’s you run errands in. You need to put some miles on those things to soften them up, let them form around your particular foot a bit, and to find if you have any hot-spots or blisters waiting to happen. Better to know and take action now than 5 miles back in the woods when you’re just going to have to watch your boots fill up with blood as you destroy your feet trying to get off the mountain. I just bought mine (on sale, of course) a couple weeks ago, and have already put a couple short hikes on them. They’re still getting broken in, but I can already tell these are going to be my favorite boots I’ve ever owned (be on the lookout for a full post on the subject in the near future).

Another piece of gear I upgraded this year was my hunting pack. Quick story: the elk I shot in 2017 was the first real test I put my old pack through, and it failed miserably! There I was, three miles from the truck, with 3-400 pounds of quartered-up elk meat lying around me and my two hunting partners. For the first time ever (that’s my fault, for sure…I should have tested it before), I unzipped the “meat compartment” so I could load it up. That sucker flopped open a whole 2…maybe 2.5 inches, and that was it. That was all the room this company had designed for me to slide meat between my pack frame and the main compartment. If I had just been squirrel hunting, I’m not sure I would have been able to pack the meat out in that thing! So, we changed plans, and I took my father-in-law’s pack frame he brought out to help us haul the meat with. No slight to him, but that thing was NOT designed for this purpose. It was a plastic frame that we had jimmy-rigged the belt and shoulder straps to earlier that year for the purpose of helping him haul his tree stand into the woods. I ratchet-strapped (you read that correctly) two elk quarters and a bit of my gear to that thing, and hauled it out of the woods. This thing was bending, cracking, the padding on the hip belt felt as if it had been designed by the guy who made the Saw movies…it was the most miserable three miles of my life!

Yes, those are ratchet-straps securing two bone-in elk quarters to my back…I will NEVER wear that pack frame again in my life!!!

Yes, those are ratchet-straps securing two bone-in elk quarters to my back…I will NEVER wear that pack frame again in my life!!!

All of that to say, I knew that before this big elk hunt, it was time to step up to a real hunting pack. There are a bunch of companies out there, and if you start digging-in to the seriously hardcore hunting packs, you’ll be shocked at the price tags. However, when it comes to key pieces of gear, I’m becoming a big believer in the “buy once, cry once” philosophy…there’s usually a reason the more expensive stuff costs more. Personally, I landed on the Exo Mountain Gear pack. It’s a small company (with a big reputation) based out of Idaho, and the guys who run it are terrific! I’ve had the chance to talk with them a couple times, and they are just good dudes who are passionate about hunting and providing the best packs to help other guys be successful in the backcountry. I haven’t yet hauled an animal out of the woods with the pack (fingers crossed for September), but as I’ve been training with those weighted hikes I mentioned earlier, this is by far the most comfortable pack I’ve ever used. I’ve been backpacking since I was a Boy Scout, and I’ve used a handful of different packs over the years. It’s amazing how all the spots that used to hurt after a long, heavy hike (shoulders, upper back, hips) don’t feel anything when I’m wearing this pack. At the end of a long heavy hike, it’s my legs and lungs making me want to stop…everything else feels like it could keep going for miles! Seriously, I know it’s not a small expense, but if you’re in the market for a new hunting pack…give the Exo a try!

I ACTUALLY HAD THE CHANCE TO TALK WITH THE EXO GUYS ON THEIR PODCAST A LITTLE WHILE AGO. YOU CAN CHECK OUT THAT EPISODE HERE (WE SHARED SOME LAUGHS, A COUPLE GOOD HUNTING STORIES, AND TALKED ELK HUNTING TACTICS…GOOD DUDES!!!)

Every time I hike with weight in this pack, I’m amazed at all the things that DON’T hurt!!!

Every time I hike with weight in this pack, I’m amazed at all the things that DON’T hurt!!!

Talk to a Game and Fish Biologist

This is something I had always heard of people doing, but had never had the opportunity to do. Now, every state staffs their game and fish offices a bit differently, and I have learned this isn’t always an option. I once called a field office in my home state of AZ and asked to speak to a biologist about a certain hunting area…the lady on the phone sounded like I was insane for even thinking that was a possibility. Knowing that a pre-season scouting trip is not in the cards for this Colorado trip, I was really hoping to speak to someone with first-hand knowledge of the areas I planned to hunt. Turns out, the CO Parks and Wildlife service is much more helpful than the lady I talked to in AZ.

I had to call two different offices (because my plans A, B, and C span two different units which are managed by two different regional offices), but in both cases I was instantly able to speak to someone who spends more days in the field keeping track of these majestic beasts than I can even imagine. After about 20 minutes on the phone, I had a page full of scribbled notes, had eliminated my Plan B as it didn’t seem like what I was looking for, but was also given a replacement spot to try. He even went into detail about the elevation and foliage where I could typically find elk hiding out in my Plan A spot. I was then able to go back into my OnX Maps page, find that foliage from the air, and drop a pin to go check it out once I’m there. I couldn’t be happier with the help I got from these guys!

Looking at maps and scribbling notes while trying to absorb more helpful information than I even remotely expected!!!

Looking at maps and scribbling notes while trying to absorb more helpful information than I even remotely expected!!!

One thing to note: I believe I was able to get such helpful information from these guys because I had already done my homework. I didn’t just call up the main office and say, “I want to hunt elk…where should I go?” If you call with that question, you may or may not get an answer. And if you do, I’m willing to bet it’ll be the exact same canned response they give to everyone who calls with that question. Now you and 24 other out of state trucks will be parked at the same trailhead waiting to compete for elk. Because I already had specific areas, trailheads, mountain peaks, etc. already picked out, I could ask very detailed questions and get very detailed answers. I also believe these biologists are much more willing to offer information and provide suggestions if there’s something you’ve overlooked when they see that you are passionate enough to have done a bunch of homework already. Why should they care about your hunt if it seems like you don’t care all that much? In short, if you’re planning an out of state hunt, call up their game and fish department and see if you can talk to a biologist. If you’ve done your homework, it can save you a whole bunch of wasted hunting time once you get up there and put boots on the ground.

Bear Tag or No Bear Tag?

A question I’ve had rattling around in my head since I started planning this trip was whether or not I should buy a bear tag as well. Colorado dropped their out of state bear tags significantly this year (only $100), and that has made it a very tempting proposition just in case the opportunity presents itself while I’m out there. At the same time, I have tried three times in the last two years to intentionally hunt bears here in AZ, and I haven’t so much as seen one when I was out there. Do I get a tag as cheap insurance “just in case,” or do I save the $100 (which is not a small amount of money in my world) and use it for other expenses?

At this point, bears are my bad luck animal…Their magical bear curse actually broke my Jeep on a hunt last year!

At this point, bears are my bad luck animal…Their magical bear curse actually broke my Jeep on a hunt last year!

What makes this such a difficult decision is that I feel like I’m stuck in a bear-catch-22. Based on Murphy’s Law, I am pretty well convinced that if I don’t have a bear tag, I will find myself running into bears every single day I’m out there. On the other hand, if I do have a bear tag in my pocket, I won’t see so much as a single pile of bear scat. In a way, that means that buying the bear tag would be a $100 insurance policy that a bear isn’t going to come in and tear up my camp, since simply by possessing the tag I can ensure a solid 50-mile bear-free radius…so it could be worth it from that perspective. Honestly, I’ll probably wait to make that decision until I see exactly where my budget and gear list stand in August when tags go on sale.

What’s Next?

Well, three months sounds like a long time, but it’s going to be here in a flash, I’m sure. In my last post, I committed to shooting my bow at least twice a week, and I won’t lie to you guys…it’s been more like once every two weeks. So, I’m kicking it into high gear, buying the box of arrows I’ve been desperately needing to pick up for a while (I was down to two in my quiver, which is a lot of walking back and forth to the target to retrieve my arrows every two shots), and I’ll be out there shooting at least twice a week now.

No matter what…this WILL be me at least twice a week!!!

No matter what…this WILL be me at least twice a week!!!

At this point, I have my Plan A, B, and C spots pretty well locked in, so I’m not spending as much time on Google Earth as I was in the early stages. I’m walking around with an elk call in my mouth a lot more, and really trying to dial in all the subtle nuances of cow/calf sounds, as well as a decent bugle. I have also learned the hard way that not testing your gear before you get out there (like my stupid old pack) has a way of biting you in the butt! So, whether I take a simple overnight backpacking trip somewhere, or even just physically test every piece of gear in my backyard, I will be making sure I use and am comfortable with everything in my pack before hitting the mountain in September.

One final thing I’m ironing out that is probably a little unique to my situation is that for the first time ever, I am bringing a dedicated camera man on this hunt! I have a buddy I work with who isn’t a hunter, but is an avid backpacker…and also happens to be one of the best cinematographers/video producers I know. He told me last year that his usual backpacking partner had moved out of state and his gear was getting dusty, so he’d be willing to come along and run a camera for me if I was ever taking a big backpack hunting trip. Once I decided I was going to CO this year, he was the second call I made! All of that to say, he and I are watching through some old projects and getting him familiar with the stylistic nuances of hunting films, and we’re talking through all the camera gear and best set-ups we can use between our two collections of equipment. I realize very few of you reading this will be contending with this added layer of complexity, but if you are planning to document your hunt in some way, now is the time to be figuring out how you want it to look and what gear you’ll need to accomplish that. (Be on the lookout for another post about that soon, as well)

Okay, that’s it for now. I imagine there will be one additional post right before the hunt, and then, of course, a full report at its conclusion. If you have any specific questions or thoughts on other things someone should consider when planning an out of state hunt, please comment below!