The elk in Northwest Colorado have been dining exceptionally well this summer and that's welcome news for anyone hunting for a trophy bull this season.
"Antler growth is better than it has been in five to 10 years," said Tom Bowers of Colorado's High Lonesome Outfitters.
Leland Reinier of B&L Taxidermy, an avid bow hunter, agreed. He said a 3- or 4-year-old bull that would have been a puny five-pointer last season is apt to be a broad-beamed six-by-six this year.
Reinier and Bowers attribute the difference to an improved diet.
"There's a lot more feed out there than there has been in the past," Bowers said. "In the area where I hunt, there's feed I haven't seen in 12 to 15 years, and that's after the sheep came through."
This year, the antlers on bull elk in the mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs seem to be bigger in terms of mass and the length of the tines, he added. The growth of antlers is supported by higher protein and mineral content in the forbs, grasses and shrubs on which elk browse. The difference is evident in how lush the fall grasses are.
Reinier and hunting buddy Cody May had an interesting experience while bow hunting Thursday near the base of the Sleeping Giant west of Steamboat on the lower Elk River.
Reinier wasn't hunting because he bagged his bull on the sixth day of bow season. May, who operates Black Hat Outfitters, has had plenty of opportunities to put an arrow in a bull, Reinier said, but has passed up half a dozen because the elk weren't big enough to suit him.
On Thursday evening, the two men waited where they knew elk would come out of the timber to drink at one of two ponds above a meadow. Reinier had a cow caller in one hand (his favorite device, called "Primo's Hoochie Mama") to bring the bulls in and a videocamera in the other to capture the action.
"We were just sitting in a grove of aspens using the cow call, and a bull came in on us silent as could be," Reinier said. "We caught him at 50 yards coming through the trees. He was a little four-by-four and Cody didn't want him."
The young bull didn't catch on to the presence of the two men until he caught their scent. He barked out an alarm once or twice and sauntered off.
Using the Hoochie Mama, Reinier called in the same bull two more times. Each time they lured him to the same spot, and each time he spooked when he detected their scent. By the third time, the two men were barely able to stifle their laughter.
"I got about 15 minutes of good video," Reinier said.
Bowers said a good strategy for hunters, or even people who want to spend an evening listening to elk, is to begin by using a bugling device to locate the animals. Next, a cow talk device will call them in. When "cow talking" a high-pitched squeal and grunt is indicative of a cow in estrus, Reinier said. Calling in elk is easier than ever thanks to devices such as the Hoochie Mama -- anyone who can squeeze a rubber bulb can imitate a cow elk. A simple twist of the device raises and lowers the pitch, Reinier said. A lower pitch makes the sound cow elk use when talking to other cows and calves. Bulls are listening for the high pitch of a cow that is ready to mate.
Some bow hunters this fall have been reporting the elk are at high elevations; others say they have spotted bulls rolling in mud wallows at low elevations.
Bowers said that, because of the abundance of good feed almost everywhere they range, elk can be found from 8,000 feet elevation to 14,000 feet.
The reports from bow hunters are good news for rifle hunters who purchased licenses for the first special elk-only season Oct. 11-15.
"Everybody is getting into them," Reinier said. "I don't know anybody out hunting who isn't seeing them."