How do you define a successful hunt? This is a topic I have talked about a lot in the last week. For many a successful hunt is when you fill your tag or shoot your limit. Its true that being out in the field and finding the animal you are after and killing that animal is a success. But I don't think that has to be the only type of success you can have. Over the last couple weeks I was fortunate enough to make my way from Minnesota to the North central part of Colorado for my first elk hunt. I knew going into this that the odds of getting an elk on my first trip and on public land were not in my favor. For the area I was hunting last years success rate was 15 %. That is for the whole elk season including archery, muzzle loader and rifle. Knowing that I was still all in.
I was heading out with three of my old Army buddies Ben Pena, Mike Keller and Andrew Merryman. Of all of us only Ben had been to this area and had an idea of what we were getting into. We didn't have horses so we were going to need to pack a weeks worth of gear and food about 9 miles back into the wilderness. Going in we ran into several groups of muzzle loader hunters who had varying success. We ran into one group out of Kansas that had managed to tag 3 out 5 of their tags and that seemed promising. As we hiked in it became very clear that we were the only ones going in and of all the people we ran into we were the only ones on foot. Everyone had horses and after a week in the wilderness I can certainly see how they would have been helpful.
The first several days we were out there the weather was absolutely gorgeous. We saw lots of good elk sign and were very hopeful that we were going to get a chance at an elk. On our third day in we saw what would turn out to be the only elk of our trip. We bumped it while walking along a ridge about 40 yards away. It was a small bull that wouldn't have been a legal bull to shoot but it was the first elk we had seen and got us all pumped up for the possibility of getting one. After seeing that one it made everything seem that much more interesting. Every twig that snapped or leaf that rustled could be an elk and had me in hyper alert mode. On a couple of occasions I was sitting in the woods waiting and would hear something that I was certain was going to be an elk only to find out it was a mule deer or a squirrel.
That kind of excitement and anticipation is something I haven't felt in a long time. I had a picture that my daughter had drawn me that I brought out with me and I would look at this picture and absorb the area I was in and try to imagine how big and wonderful the Rocky Mountains would seem to a 7 year old. Or how excited my son would get if he saw a deer standing 8 yards away from him. In those moments I would hear another twig and it would center my focus in whatever direction the sound came from and I would be zeroed in waiting for an animal to appear. On occasion an animal would appear but it was never the animal I was after.
When I went into this trip I had a few goals. One of those goals was to see some very specific animals. I wanted to see a Dusky grouse, a bear, an elk, a moose and a big ass mule deer. I was fortunate enough to see all five. My other goal was to be able to make it through the whole week without quitting. What I mean by that is I didn't want my stamina to be a problem. Starting back in January I started running, and I ran a lot. There is an old saying that, "legs feed the wolf". I am very happy to say that is very true. All that running paid off and at no point and time did I feel my legs or my lungs were over worked. When I do this again I will keep training the same way with one addition. There is no substitute in the gym for carrying a 70 pound pack. So when we do this again I will add a couple hikes a week carrying a heavy pack to my training.
Towards the end of the trip I was a little concerned that I wasn't going to see a bear while up in the mountains but luckily for me on the hike out towards the end of the trail we saw a bear on the trail about 80 yards ahead of us just strolling down the trail. I was soaked with rain and worn down after a week in the mountains. After walking 9 miles in the mud and rain I saw the bear and was instantly recharged and excited. It was awesome.
I really like the picture above for two reasons, you can't see them but there were trout in this little pool which were really cool to see. The other reason is we came across this pool after 3 days of hiking around the mountains and I was getting a little ripe at that point. As soon as I saw that it was about 2 feet deep in the middle I stripped off all my clothes and strolled in. It was cold, but it felt so good. After that I was ready for 4 more days of hard work.
We hiked to the top of a couple of peaks to see if we could spot anything and even though we didn't see any animals we were treated to some of the best views I have ever seen. These pictures don't quite do them justice. The whole week as I hiked it seemed every fifty feet I went was a better view than the last. At one point when walking into an Aspen grove there were all these ferns that seemed to be glowing a brilliant golden color.
So back to my original question, What is a successful hunt? In my opinion this was one of the most successful hunts I have ever been on. I didn't bring home an Elk but I brought home an experience that will help shape the way I hunt in the future and a new drive to get back out into the mountains as soon as I can.