Newbies: Where To Start
Here is a sampling of some of the typical questions I get from Newbies about hunting in Colorado:
Where do I start?
Where do I go?
How do I begin?
How do I find out what to do?
I don't know enough to even ask the right questions!
Well, if this is you, don't feel like the Lone Ranger. Between the multitude of new hunters, returning hunters who still don't have a clue, residents who are just beginning to hunt, and those hunters who have recently made Colorado their home, there is a long learning curve to go up.
The common denominator I find among all these groups is the desire to shortcut the learning curve, which I completely understand, by finding out a buddy's favorite honey hole, watch where others go, pick the brains of those who are willing to share, etc. We all need a jump start somehow, somewhere. But sometimes, that information is not available, not easily obtainable or just not quite enough.
This article is to provide you Newbies with some basic tools to get you pointed in the right direction, to fill in some of those gaps that you have not been able to find with your own research. Add what I provide here to what you already know, or don't know, and develop a game plan for your Colorado big game hunt.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of what you are really seeking, I'm going to discuss the one thing that is oftentimes overlooked - evaluate your limitations (physical and gear) to hunting your chosen game. For example, let's say you want to hunt mountain goat but you have COPD. Or, you want to do a wilderness hunt for elk but have bad knees. It is commonly known and an accepted fact that hunting success and personal fitness are directly correlated. So, addressing limitations first will get you in the right playing field when considering what you need to do to move up the learning curve.
Now, even though those two examples are a little extreme, they are in fact real and I have personally guided hunters with those limitations and worse. But, allow me to be more subtle with the usual and typical things that hunters overlook. For example, if you are overweight, out of shape, smoke all the time, or have some physical limitation, then hunting in the high elevation of Colorado will be a problem for you. That doesn't mean you won't be able to hunt, it just means you need to address those limitations as much as reasonably possible. If you're out of shape, then get in better shape. You don't need to be a marathon runner, you just need to be in better condition than you are right now; any progress is a major plus. However, nothing you do will allow you to circumvent the problems associated with higher altitude and the lack of oxygen. But, your recovery time will be shorter, your suffering will be less, you will be able to adjust quicker, and your overall experience will be much greater. Now, just in case you didn't read between the lines, let me restate myself for emphasis: you will be walking around on uneven ground for hours on end, hiking up and down terrain steeper than most of the rest of the country, carrying an extra 25% of your body weight, with clothes and footwear you probably never wear the rest of the year, and all this on less oxygen. For example, if you hunt at 6,000 elevation you lose 20% oxygen, at 8,000 elevation you lose 26%, and at 10,000 elevation you lose 31%.
Once you have a good idea of your physical limitations, you should only hunt in areas that are complementary to those limitations. Don't ignore this. People die every year in Colorado because they disregard their physical limitations. For example, let's say you smoke and are out of shape. But, you've been able to exercise throughout the summer. Instead of just being able to walk around the block, you can now walk for 30 minutes without getting winded. Even though that is a big improvement, I'd suggest you stay away from wilderness hunts and steep terrain to giving preference to lower elevation areas.
The other limitation is vehicles and gear. For most, this is not an issue. But, your experience and ability to use those things properly may be a problem. For example, much of Colorado's backcountry can only be accessed with 4-wheel drive (4wd) vehicles and/or ATVs. Of course, if you drive your 4wd here, you obviously know how to drive it. But, how often do you drive it in mountainous terrain, such as steep or narrow roads that, at the blink of an eye, may turn muddy or be covered in knee-deep snow? How can you handle such terrain when the mountain goes straight up on one side and straight down on the other? Yep, you guessed it. There are many hunters that can attest to the fact that their truck had to be hauled off the mountain or left where it sat - over the winter - because of their inability and lack of experience in getting it off the mountain.
Now if you're unsure about any of this or the following, you can always choose to use an outfitter. They have the training, experience and gear to fill all those gaps, whether it's because of physical or gear limitations or for those who are not quite ready to jump headlong into a do-it-yourself (DIY) hunt. Many Colorado hunters choose to use an outfitter just for that reason alone - to learn all about the in's and out's, the to-do's and the taboos.
A topic that falls under the gear category is clothing. If you're a newbie, you certainly don't want to look like one or talk like one, right! So, to resolve that, you go and read all the articles about proper clothing and spend the next two paychecks getting top of the line hunting clothes. DON'T. The animals don't care if you spend $100 for camouflage pants or $5. Just make sure they are comfortable, blend in somewhat to your surroundings, are quiet when brushed against stuff or when you move around (such as pulling back your bowstring), and don't attract any of those "clingy" burrs (they grab most things so don't let this be a deal breaker). Also, don't wait until hunting season to start wearing those boots, unless you like blisters and sore callouses.
Well, let's move along and assume you are a DIY hunter and have already assessed all your limitations and want to know where to go from there. I will assume you have already met the Hunter Education Safety requirements. If so, the next thing to address is the animal you want to hunt and tag options. Many hunts (species of animal and game management units (GMUs)) are by draw (lottery) only and you may not be able to hunt for several years. Given that, I'll just assume you'll want to hunt the most popular animal, elk, because you can easily get an over-the-counter (just go buy one) tag for most GMUs. You will also need to get a Colorado Big Game brochure, which provides a wealth of information about hunting all of Colorado's big game. Plus, it (and this website) will provide need-to-know information as well.
If you live in Colorado, go and experience the public land (national forest or blm land) closest to you - hike, backpack, fish, camp, sight see, ride 4-wheelers, mountain bike, drive your 4x4 truck or anything else you can think of. Take your binoculars with you if possible and "glass" any distant terrain. If convenient, talk with anyone else you may come across while out and about...be inquisitive. Also, get the most detailed maps about the same area and familiarize yourself with the terrain, flora and fauna (take special note of these), local names of landmarks, creeks, drainages, peaks, natural springs, forest service or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) roads, etc. These maps come from various places. For example, if you hunt BLM or National Forest land, you can go to one of their offices and view available maps. There are also private businesses that provide maps as well. If time permits, venture off the beaten path and get up close and personal to what's out there. All of these activities will give you a "general feel" for the area. By default, you will eventually acquire most of this knowledge just by your interaction with your community, work, church, friends, etc.
I'd like to take a side trip and more extensively discuss maps and what can be done with them. No matter where I hunt or how familiar I am with an area, I always take my maps. To begin with, a map will "initially" show you everything you don't know. It'll bump you up the learning curve without driving a single mile, taking one step, or even breaking a sweat. A map will help you "discover" where your quarry may be, or may not be. Either way helps you narrow your search. A map will also help you "comprehend" the general "lay of the land" until you can actually step into it, see it for yourself up close and personal. Once there, use the map to hone what your senses are telling you. At this time is when you also need to incorporate using a compass and gps; know how to use both: distances to this place and that; what is where; which way is which ... all those goofy sayings. You may not realize it now, but that information may save your bacon one of these days, or even tell you where that trophy may be heading next after you spooked it.
If you do not live in Colorado, then plan a vacation here and do the above activities. If your loved ones want to vacation elsewhere, then just plan a scouting trip with the same "discovery" purpose in mind. If you drive, pick the area of the state closest to you. If you fly, go to the area closest to the airport but far enough away from population centers. If none of this is possible for pre-hunt scouting, do what you can and keep reading below.
It is highly unlikely that you, no matter where you live, will put the time in and do all of the above that I have recommended. That is perfectly ok, it will just take a longer time to get where you want to be. Getting to a point where you feel adequately prepared and knowledgeable about hunting in Colorado takes lots of hours in the field and boot miles. Other than getting real lucky, there are no shortcuts here. So, if you can't get all of this done before you hunt, then what is one to do? Well, you get your best learning experience by doing. With all that being said, let me venture out on a limb here for a bit. Many of the GMUs and species require multiple years to get a tag. For example, it is not uncommon for out-of-state muley hunters to wait for over a decade to get a muley tag in one of the premier units. It is also very common for those same hunters to arrive ONLY a couple of days before the hunt and expect to get the trophy of a lifetime. Website rules prevent me from using the appropriate verbiage expressing how ridiculous that would be.
My strongest recommendation for "newbie" hunters has always been to turn their hunting trip into a scouting trip, just take along your weapon. Don't even think about hunting; only think about scouting. All the things I mentioned above, you must now do during your hunt. This will move you up the learning curve at a rocket's pace and your odds of filling your tag will be at its greatest point.
After some exposure to a GMU, you should get an idea as to whether you and it will be a good fit. You know your limitations; the GMU will either surpass those limitations or not. Even pushing the envelope a little would be acceptable because not every inch of ground has to be hunted, but rather knowing how to hunt around it.
I've had many hunters ask about the most densely populated elk GMUs and where the largest elk herd is located, which is in the White River National Forest area. The logical thinking is that more means improved odds. If Colorado were flat and access/elevation were not an issue, that may be true. But, the most successful hunters are those that are intimately familiar with the GMU hunted. If you hunt a GMU with enough frequency such that you are qualified to say that it has a poor success rate based on your intimate knowledge, then it is time to change GMUs. Until then, don't be hopping around for greener pastures; that'll only leave your freezer empty.
Sure you're a seasoned hunter, or maybe not. You may have lots of kills under the belt along with your years' of experience. However, if you're reading this article, it may be because you're lacking experience in hunting Colorado. Given that, I need to bring to recollection some of the rookie mistakes seasoned hunters make due to the fact that normalcy in Colorado is not found in most states.
It's very likely that most of your hunting experience has been on a level playing field. Well, Colorado is anything but level making actual shooting distances very deceptive. For example, let's say you're on top of a ridge and see an elk herd at the bottom of the drainage about 350 yards away. If you're zeroed in at 250 yards, where do you put the cross-hairs? Well, to make a kill shot, you'd need one more tidbit of information ... the angle. Most "modern" range finders make this adjustment, but not everyone has modern equipment. Let's assume a 45 degree angle. With this information, you wouldn't make any elevation adjustment; you'd put the cross-hairs dead on. If you don't know why that is the correct answer, then you need to do some homework so you'll understand the reasons plus it will also make you a better shot.
As inferred, hunting in Colorado without "any" range finder is stupid because estimating correct distances is mere guesswork at best. And then add the problem of angle adjustments, well, you can see why its very critical to address this problem before you hit the field. In addition, since most shots are at an angle, the size of your target is smaller - the steeper the angle, the smaller the target - requiring more accuracy and causing shot placement to change.
This most frequently overlooked suggestion should probably go at the beginning of this article: Contact the wildlife officer for the unit you'll be hunting. Yea, I hear all the stories about how they're always out to get you, interfering with hunts, treating every hunter like a suspect, blah, blah, blah. So what? They are just doing their job and there's nothing you can do about it so suck it up. In the meantime, put all that aside and use him/her as your best information source for that unit. When a wildlife officer takes over the enforcement of the game laws in a specific unit, their first mandate is to get to know the area inside and out: the land, roads, animals, terrain, property lines (private/public), etc., etc., etc. They are out there day in and day out. Other than an outfitter, they will know all the in's and out's, quirks, and movements of the animals and their habits better than anyone. So, do your homework first, have your maps ready and call them to try and set up a meeting. You'll be surprised at the valuable information you'll freely get.
Well, here are some things that I plan on adding to this article sometime in the near future. 1. Why practice is more important than you think...a live animal that gets your blood pumping and causes your stable hands to go to mush is not the same as a target. 2. When closing the gap for a closer kill shot, does one keep the boots on or off? At what point does "previously covered" smelly socks and feet negate the quietness of the moment? 3. Cover scents and natural cover scents...sagebrush anyone? 4. Sweating. How cow, slow down! You're just making yourself unnecessarily tired and stinkin up the place in the meantime. 5. Treat those achy feet and hot spots...boot preparation. 6. Elk calling, when and when not, positioning. 7. Tracking. 8. Field Dressing and Meat Preservation 9. Proper 4-wheeler usage. 10. Camping where the game are. Say what? Let's remove that "I'm stupid" sign on your back and correct that stinkin thinkin.