The big game

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For some people, the fall may be the time to reflect on the expired summer and take in the beauty of the colors before snow blankets the ground. For others, it might just be a painful void between the mountain biking season and ski season. For an estimated 300,000 people, the fall is what they've been waiting for all year. It's the time to load up the truck with camping gear, rifles and ammo to go hunting for elk and deer.

The first of four big-game rifle-hunting seasons kicked off Saturday, meaning thousands of locals and visitors will roam the woods in search of their ideal elk or deer to stalk and harvest.

Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Tyler Baskfield said last year 337,000 deer and elk licenses were sold during the rifle seasons. About 198,000 were residents and 139,000 were nonresident. The actual number of hunters is slightly less because some people hold an elk and a deer license.

"We are expecting a little bit of a decrease this year because of the increase in licenses (prices for nonresidents)," he said.

DOW officials also are concerned that the number of hunters in the state could go down because of the slacking economy.

"When people start worrying about money, hunting is the first thing that goes," Baskfield said.

It may be too early to tell how the numbers are looking, mainly because the first season, which is from Saturday to Tuesday, is for draw tags only for cow elk and deer. That means the licenses are only available through the DOW and local businesses that sell over-the-counter licenses which aren't able to wage the number of people walking through their doors.

Early estimates do show that the DOW sold 50,000 tags in the first season, which is slightly lower than last year, Baskfield said.

Despite that, flare orange-clad outdoorsmen are converging on the county.

"We are starting to see quite a few hunters coming in," said Virginia Paxton, owner of Spiro's Trading Post in Oak Creek. "If we haven't see them come in, we've seen them drive by."

The rifle season is of particular importance to locally-owned businesses in the county. Last year, Routt County officials estimated that hunting and fishing in the county generates $40 million for local businesses here, and a big slice of that is big-game hunting.

"It's important," said Lorraine Johnson, who owns Rainbow Sporting Goods in Hayden. "It puts the gravy on the potatoes."

The core of Johnson's business is local patronage, but hunters loading up on supplies during the fall helps push the company over the hump during the slower winter months, she said.

Division of Wildlife area manager Mike Middleton said as far as he has seen, the numbers seem to be normal. However, as far as hunters finding animals, Middleton said the prospects are looking good.

The snow that recently fell in Routt County is a helping hand from Mother Nature.

"It will make for better tracking conditions," Middleton said.

Last year, a snowstorm hit northwest Colorado the night before the second rifle season opened. The result was one of the most successful hunts ever recorded in the area.

"Though the early indications is that license sales are down a little bit, I suspect, with the snow, success will be good," Middleton said. "But it's hard to predict these things."

The last three rifle seasons are spread out through November, taking place from Oct. 20 to 26, Nov. 3 to 9, and Nov.10 to 14.

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