AAR: Colorado Archery Elk Hunt

Bottom Line Up Front: I planned, prepared, and executed an archery elk hunt in Colorado this year. In accordance with the US Army’s Operations Process (plan, prepare, execute and assess), this is the assessment and after action review. In true BLUF fashion, I didn’t get an elk but had a great experience!

AAR: Colorado Archery Elk Hunt

Photo I took in a valley I hunted in Colorado in the Rio Grande National Forest in GMU 81.

Introductory Comments

I will cover 4 main areas in this post: physical training, nutrition, gear, and the hunt itself. If you have any follow-up questions and want to discuss anything further, post it in the comments below to facilitate discussion. Here are the 5 Ws to get this started.

What: DIY OTC Archery Elk Hunt. DIY = Do It Yourself as in no guides or outfitters. OTC = Over the Counter as in this hunting license was not part of a limited draw. Archery = bowhunting (compound bow and arrows), no guns allowed. All western states have some form of a raffle or preference point system to hunt there to limit who can hunt and where. Some states have an option to buy hunting licenses over the counter, meaning if you meet the qualifications, you can buy one without “winning” one. Bad news is the out-of-staters in Colorado pay $629 for the elk tag! It’s $49 for residents.

Who: Me and a battle buddy

Where: Colorado, USA. Rio Grande National Forest. Colorado Game Management Unit (GMU) 81. Public land.

When: September 2016

Why: To challenge myself mentally and physically; try new things; and bring home natural meat I got on my own (kill what you eat).

Background

As a teenager, I got really into health and fitness, exercise and nutrition specifically. Not until I got to my mid-twenties (2006) did I consider where my food was coming from (who produced it, where it came from, how it got to me). I started to read about this more and the more I read, the more it seemed the animals I was eating were not maybe being treated the best. Long story short, I thought the best way to do the least harm was not to eat meat, which then became all animal products. I was basically a vegan/vegetarian for 6 years. No meat, not once (including throughout all of US Army Ranger School – yes, really). Then I started to learn more about nutrition than just macronutrients when the Paleo movement started to take hold. I slowly over a few years realized by not eating meat and animal products, I was not eating like humans were meant to eat; I was impacting my health and performance; and I wasn’t actually doing the least harm by just not eating animals. So this doesn’t become a long story, the bottom line is I came to believe I should eat animals humanely raised, on natural diets, without hormones and antibiotics. A grain-based diet wasn’t harm free – think of the amount of petroleum used to doing factory farming or the thousands of small animals displaced or chopped up in large farm equipment. So, I was back on meat and animal products but I now cared heavily about where they came from. Performance and appearance improved on a Paleo diet as you would expect.

I never hunted growing up. As a vegan I obviously didn’t hunt (I despised hunters, thought it was cruel and sadistic in fact). But when I started eating meat again, I started thinking I should maybe have more of a connection with my food. I didn’t have any idea about hunting (seasons, methods of take, regulations, strategy, etc.), but I wanted to. Meat that is naturally raised outside of a farm, naturally fed, and humanely killed (and by me) seemed like a good thing. I went a few years without taking any real action on hunting because there was so much I didn’t know that I just couldn’t take the first step. Then one day last year, two co-workers of mine were preparing for the hunting season. I mentioned how I wanted to hunt but didn’t know anything. They quickly got me going, told me the basic rules, took me to get a bow to hunt with, helped me with my basic gear, took me to where they hunt, and sat me in a tree stand. From there I was able to refine my skills, gear, and knowledge. At the end of the season I got my first deer. I skinned it, gutted it, and prepared the meat all on my own in my garage. Between my family and my dog, we ate every piece of it that was edible.

I wanted to step up my hunting a little, so I started to learn about western elk hunting. Basically I did research into time of year, location, and the rules to hunt for elk in Colorado. Many eastern deer hunters do this every year and there is a ton of info on the things you need to prep for it. So in January, I brought it up to one of my hunting partners that in September we were going elk hunting. I would do all the leg work. I just needed some backup for safety and help packing out the meat. He was in.

Physical Fitness

Planning & Preparation

I took the advice of many people who hunted the west who said far too many people prioritize weapon skills or gear and neglect physical preparation. To me, this is the most important thing so I didn’t need any convincing. If you can’t get to the animals (or to the military objective), you aren’t killing anything (accomplishing the mission). The good news for me is my job requires physical fitness, so I didn’t need to train-up per se. A lot of hunters who are planning to go to the mountains to hunt are in terrible shape. It doesn’t require great physical fitness to drive your truck to within 100 feet of a deer hunting spot, walk 100 feet, sit down for hours, and, if you are lucky, drag a deer 100 feet back to the truck. These guys have to actually go on a dedicated training plan. I am already trying to be in the best shape I can all the time, so all I did was add more walking with a heavy pack then I normally would.

My training program is already summarized in this article. If you are into the specifics, read it and come back.

Basically it is a General Physical Preparedness (GPP) program base with some added weighted walking. Even this wasn’t much of a change for me as I have been walking regularly with weight on me since 2014. I really began to value walking and especially the functional value of walking wearing a weight vest or a ruck sack while doing it. I can’t remember a time for many years that I didn’t walk without wearing added weight in fact. I stepped up the walking on hills, off sidewalks, with my hunting boots on, and with more weight (60-75lbs) to prep for Colorado though. This was a hunt-specific thing. I will continue to walk as frequently (3-4 times per week, 30-90 minutes) but with my normal 30-40lbs.

Execution

I was most definitely physically prepared. I hunted for 6 straight days. Hiked with a 25-60lb pack the whole time. I logged more than 100,000 steps. Climbed the equivalent of 440 floors (about 4 times the height of the World Trade Center). Camped at 9000 feet. Reached elevations of up to 11,000 feet. I felt no significant soreness other than some tight hips after a 2-hour initial ascent into our first campsite about 2.6 miles up hill into the mountains. I felt the obvious effects of elevation in that I would get winded sooner, but I just rested longer or went a little slower and it went away. The physical prep was a sustain!

Nutrition

Planning and Preparation

I made absolutely zero adjustments to anything I was eating or supplementing with to prepare for the hunt. I am pretty tight on my diet all the time.

I chose to bring food that was light and high in fat. Fat has the most calories per gram, so generally, the higher in fat, the better the calories to weight ratio. I was looking for a 100 calories per ounce minimum ratio that most mountain hunters recommend. For example, the nut & fruit mix below supplies 1440 calories and weighs 9.24 oz for 155.84 calories per ounce. Here is what I chose.

I ate the same thing every day. 2500 calories total to keep the weight down. I carried 7 days of food into my first campsite on my back. I cut from my initial plan of 3000 cals per day to 2500. I am fat-adapted and fast regularly so I know I can dip into fat reserves easily with no loss of energy. Why not use the thousands of calories in stored fat I already have on me?

  • Clif Builder’s Bar: 280 cals, 2.66 oz., 105.26 cals/oz.
  • Jif To Go Natural Peanut Butter Cup: 250 cals, 1.64 oz., 152.44 cals/oz
  • Back to Nature California Coast mix of fruit and nuts: 1440 cals, 9.24 oz., 155.84 cals/oz.
  • Heather’s Choice or Mountain House dried meal: Average of 500 calories, approx. 5.2 oz, 105.26 cals/oz. I had 7 different main meals so this is their average. I got the sampler from Heather’s Choice and supplemented the 4 main meals with 3 more Mountain Houses. The Heather’s Choice are much more expensive (double) but much better tasting and better for you.
  • Note: I planned for no supplements of any kind. Some guys are doing drink mixes or other pills for performance, and while potentially valuable I do not think they are worth it.

Execution

I ate the Clif bar with peanut butter upon waking at camp, brought the nuts and fruit mix on the hunt grazing throughout the day, Heather’s Choice/Mountain House main meal back at camp at night. Only had to carry the 9 oz. of nut mix with me in the pack. No issues with energy or hunger. I could have eaten more for sure, but I was fine with this. Lost 5 pounds on the trip. Probably intramuscular glycogen and some fat. Will be back to normal weight quickly. Sustain the food plan, but the improve is the main meal selection. I tried brought 7 different ones, but they weren’t all equal tasting. The Mountain House beef stew was tragic. I know now which I like better, so I’d get multiple of those next time. The Heather’s Choice were probably worth the extra cost.

Gear

Planning & Preparation

I read hundreds of posts about gear. Which boots were western hunters wearing, which packs were they using, which optics, which tents were light yet durable, etc. With every piece of gear there are 3 factors to consider: quality, cost, weight. If you want high quality and low weight, you will pay the most. If you want to pay less, you can go down in quality and/or up in weight. When you are carrying everything around, how heavy it is matters a great deal. Like any Soldier or hiker knows, ounces equal pounds. Sounds obvious, but it means that if you put a whole bunch of little things or add a few extra ounces here and there in your pack, they start to add up. It may not seem like a big deal to get a tent that weighs 2.6 lbs or 3.6 lbs, but that may change the cost by $100-200 and it adds a full pound. And if you did that with every piece of gear, you may go from a 40lb pack to a 55lb pack quickly. I chose some combination of quality and affordability. I would say everything I got was in the upper end of quality. I could have spent thousands more on tent, optics, and clothes easily. I still spent thousands.

I went all the way and prepared a super geeky packing list with every item. You can download the list in Excel (if you want to edit it for your use) or PDF (if you want to just read it): Excel Version or PDF Version. For the 1% of you who care about this level of detail, you are welcome.

I prioritized my boots and pack above all else with clothing a close third. To quickly hit the highlights, here are some notes. I will review my tent, sleeping pad, binos, tripod, water filtration, etc. in an upcoming post to get into great detail to keep this post a reasonable length.  UPDATE: It’s posted. You can find the full packing list review here.

  • I chose to wear Salomon X Ultra 2 Mid GTX boots over the much more robust boots other western hunters were wearing. I initially got some Lowa Tibets after hours upon hours researching boots. I got them slightly too small but I figured this out after 20 miles of hiking in them, so I as I relooked my options and instead of another pair or a similar full leather boot, I chose a lighter boot, almost a water proof hiking shoe really. The Lowas are awesome boots, but the X Ultras were about half as heavy. I saw another experienced hunter do a gear layout and he was wearing them, so I felt better with my choice.
  • I went with the Mystery Ranch Metcalf (NICE Frame) pack. It is around 4000 cubic inches and meant for 5-7 days. Has a meat hauling capability too. I went with MR over others due to trusted reviewers recommendations and price. I got the Metcalf for $350 on sale. New it would be over $500. I was going to bring the larger Mystery Ranch Marshall pack (6000 cubic inches), but chose the Metcalf due to constriction to a smaller daypack and the fact that more pack space might mean you take more crap you don’t need. My philosophy was if I can’t get it into/strapped onto the Metcalf, I don’t need it.
  • For clothing, I chose to wear mostly Kryptek gear. To my surprise, most serious western hunters wore gear from Sitka, First Lite, or Kuiu but not many recommended Under Armour, which is the high end of what I have seen in eastern deer hunters. Kryptek is upper end but not crazy expensive for my budget. I had a lot of hunting clothes/outdoor clothes already, but I needed some more lighter stuff for sure. I chose Kryptek due to quality, military affiliation, and price. I got everything I bought on sale or used too.
  • PRO TIP #1: You can get gear that other people either bought but never used or barely used on hunting forum classifieds. Find out what you want, then wait for it to pop up and jump on it. I got almost all of my gear from 3 places:
  • PRO TIP #2: Use CamelCamelCamel to alert you to Amazon price reductions for other gear you want to/need to buy new.

Execution

  • The Salomons performed great! Only some minor irritation and blistering due to wet socks and hills, but not show stoppers. I didn’t feel like I needed more ankle support or a stiffer shank, which is what most people say the need in mountain boots. They are water proof (GTX = GoreTex) and performed as such. Only potential issue is due to the lack of height, it is easier to get water in them walking across streams. This happened to me a few times, where the water was just above the boot. A taller boot would have stopped it probably. Socks stayed dry easily during rain and walking in the wet woods though. I would wear them again, so they are a sustain. The lightness versus a clunky leather boot was totally worth it. Improve is the insole. Should have gotten something like Super Feet that are so popular.
  • Metcalf pack was a total sustain. I filled it completely with all my gear and then it performed perfectly as a daypack. I never got the chance to try the meat hauling unfortunately…
  • Kryptek clothing was awesome. I had a good system going with many various options to find the right gear for the weather. I ended up wearing the Prana Stretch Zion pants 4 of 6 days. I initially planned to keep them for backup, but I hiked in initially in them and was so impressed with the weight and performance, I kept wearing them. They weighed half as much as the Kryptek Alaios that I planned to wear. To be fair, the Alaios is a mid-season pant so it is supposed to be more robust.

The Hunt

Planning & Preparation

I learned a lot about elk hunting strategies and techniques. Books, articles, videos, everything. I was prepared within reason as much as I could without ever having been elk hunting or even in the Rocky Mountains. I chose GMU 81 specifically based on data from Colorado’s Parks and Wildlife web site and reading web forums (Rokslide mostly). You can download past year’s statistics to determine previous percentage of success and how many hunters go there. You can then find the percentage of public versus private land and topographical data on other sites. I aggregated all this and liked 81 the best. I then found some other hunters who had been/were going there who gave me some specific places to start. That is how I determined my exact spot. Each GMU is large so even if you plan to go to one, there are hundreds of normal size areas you can hunt, so you probably need some guidance to help you whittle it down. Be clear though that there is no substitute for in-person, boots-on-the-ground reconnaissance. I know this all too well through military engagements, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to know the area just through imagery and maps.

My plan was to walk in far from the trailhead in an area of tough terrain and set up camp. I know most hunters won’t go far from their truck (less than a mile is what most say) and most won’t go into the thick stuff that is far and/or high. I planned to go to the places no one wanted to/could go due to what I believed would be my better physical conditioning.

Here are some resources I used that were valuable:

  • Colorado Parks & Wildlife – the basics, rules, and regulations plus links to other resources
  • Rokslide – Articles and the best western hunting forum for Q & A
  • Hunt Talk Forum – Good web discussion forum
  • DIY Hunting Maps – Unit Information
  • Colorado Hunting Atlas – Mapping & herd info
  • CalTopo – Best mapping resource I have found
  • Google Earth & Google Maps
  • Sole Adventure – Personal blog of an elk hunter. Best single resource I found as it is basically a book/how-to. He addresses in multiple posts just about every aspect of western elk hunting.
  • GoHunt – I used this site a little during a trial period, but if you are trying to compare states and units and are willing to pay for the service, this site will save you a ton of time and give you the analysis you need.
  • Randy Newberg’s YouTube channel
  • Elk101

Execution

It seemed like all the western hunts I saw involved sitting on mountains and glassing (using binoculars or spotting scopes), looking for the herd, then maneuvering on them. Where I was, that wasn’t possible. It was far too thick. It was also unusually quiet this year apparently from what I heard from other hunters I encountered in person and online. Normally you can hear elk bugling or bugle at them and they will respond. Without hearing them, it is far harder to find them. I spent the first half day on the ground at about 9400 feet and about 3 miles from the trailhead. I thought this would get me away from other hunters and into areas elk would go due to hunting pressure. While true that I didn’t see any other hunters where I was, I also didn’t see any elk. I hunted 3 main areas over the course of 6 days. After spending a few days in each area and not seeing any usable sign of elk activity, I opted to move on versus stay there. Not sure this was a good idea or a bad one because as any deer hunter knows, sometimes they just aren’t in an area then the next day, they are everywhere. I realized after two days that hunting at the mid-9000s wasn’t enough. You have to get higher, or at least this year you did. The higher I got, the more sign I saw. By the last day I was at about 11000 feet, at the top of the mountain, hunted hard, set up ambushes, and stalked but didn’t have any luck.

Concluding Thoughts

I learned a ton that I can apply to future hunts. I had such a good time planning, researching, choosing my gear, and reading to prepare for this. I think I found a good area that I am familiar with personally that should produce results. I can focus my online research and map recons to that. I also refined my packing list and know what I need to keep, remove, upgrade, or add. I left very happy and ready to come back. I can’t lie though – my morale was hurting on day 3 after I had hiked myself miles up into the harshest areas to not even hear let alone see an elk. However, by the end of the hunt, I was already planning my return trip. I will try to get out there again next year, but I will probably be moving this summer and to an area farther from Colorado than is practical to drive. I am working the logistics already.

I will leave you with a few more photos. As I said, if you have any questions, post them to the comments below and I will respond. Feel free to share your elk/hunting experiences as well. I would love to hear them.