Steamboat Springs The woods during the early fall in Colorado are a stomping ground for a breed of big game hunters who are often put on a pedestal above the common high-powered rifle-bearing sportsman.
These guys, and gals, are usually covered from head to toe in camouflage clothing, with their faces smeared with black paint in hopes to better fade into the environment. In their hands are modified primitive hunting tools, mastered by our ancestors and predecessors to the great west. One, a black powder firing rifle that needs reloading with a ramrod after each shot and the other a stringed powered weapon firing arrows.
On the average, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has estimated that these early autumn hunters cover more ground than high-powered rifle hunters, usually are in the field longer and technically have less of a chance at killing their prey.
They are the black powder rifle and archery hunters. Often called primitive hunters, they are considered some of the most skilled and experienced of all the big game sportsman in the fall, said Dale Leshnits, chief of public affair for the DOW.
"The general wisdom is that they are guys that have moved beyond rifle hunting," he said.
Archery season kicked off on Aug. 25 and runs through Sept. 23, while muzzleloaders (black powder rifle hunters) were allowed in the field on Sept. 8 and wrap up their season today.
The DOW estimates that between 20,000 and 25,000 archers (or bow hunters) are hunting elk this year. They are joined by about 21,000 muzzleloaders, Leshnits said.
Though significant counts, the groups of archers and muzzleloaders are dwarfed by high powered rifle hunters who have four hunting seasons through October and November.
"We expect about 300,000," Leshnits said.
The number difference can be contributed to the higher degree of difficulty of the two sports, he said.
While high powered rifle hunters can take kill shots from more than 100 yards away, black powder rifle and bow hunters need to creep into, at most, 50 yards to ensure an ethical kill shot. Often times, it can take multiple years of hunting to find the perfect shot on an animal.
Jim Haskins, a local DOW officer, muzzleloader and archery hunter said he has heard of people taking shots past 100 yards, but more often than not, those long shots result in a miss or a wound that doesn't instantly kill the animals. The latter causes the hunter to track the animal, which isn't always successful.
However, one thing primitive hunters do have going for them is timing, Haskins said.
"They get first crack at the animals," he said.
After 300,000 rifle hunters take to the woods in October and November, much of the elk and deer are pushed off public land to private land. But the primitive hunting seasons are in the early fall and those hunters see herds that have not been stressed by other people in the woods.
"Almost everyone we are talking to has seen animals," Haskins said.
Gary Hacking, a bow hunter and muzzleloader from Boulder, said that is precisely the reason he goes out during the primitive seasons.
"I like the fact that there are less hunters in the woods," he said while on Rabbit Ears pass, between practice shots with his bow.
He added that primitive hunting practices are more satisfying, cultivating a greater connection between hunter, weapon and animal.
"It's more of a spiritual hunting experience," he said.
Thirteen-year bow hunting veteran Jim Hardman, a Minnesotan who is making his first hunting trip to Routt County, agreed.
"It's more satisfaction, factoring in all the time I put in it," he said.
Hardman and Hacking, like most other muzzleloaders and archers, practice their sport year round, unlike many high powered rifle hunters.
"When I rifle hunt," Hardman explained, "I go down to the range once before I go hunting."
However, perfecting the art of primitive hunting practices takes work all year round, he said.
"To be a good archery hunter, you have to practice all year round," Haskins said, adding that the same is true for black powder rifle.
While more popular, the high powered rifle hunters tend to take out their weapons once a year, right before it's time to hunt.