Big-game hunters heading into the field in search of Routt County elk this week need to mind their p's and q's: Staying patient and quiet in the field are more important than ever in this week's conditions, local hunting experts say.
Without significant recent moisture, all of the aspen leaves that blew off the trees last weekend are drying out on the forest floor. That means it will be difficult to stalk game this week as the first combined deer and elk season gets under way and continues until Oct. 24.
"It's like walking on corn flakes out there," veteran hunting guide Dirk Vanatta said. "It's awful noisy with all the leaves on the ground, and with so many people out there this week, it makes it awful tough to get close to elk."
Bob Reinier at B&L Taxidermy agreed with Vanatta and pointed out that a little snow can make a big difference.
"The first part of the first season (Oct. 9) was a little crispy," Reinier said. "But that last Wednesday was a big bull day."
Reinier said the snow that fell in the mountains surrounding Hayden and Steamboat on Tuesday night translated into a bunch of elk being shot on the final day of the season as the weather pushed them out of the timber. The result was obvious that afternoon as trophy animals began to pour into his shop.
District Wildlife Manager Susan Werner said anecdotal evidence suggests hunters in the first season were successful.
"There are a lot of elk in the (national) forest and on private land, and most of the camps we visited had elk in them," Werner said.
Now that the herds have been stirred up, she expects the animals to be more scattered this week.
Vanatta guides on the large Cross Mountain Ranch south of Hayden, near the Beaver Flat Tops. He said he has been seeing an unusually high number of elk since late August. However, all of the shooting during the opening separate limited elk season Oct. 9 to 13 has had the effect of pushing some of the herds out of the national forest onto private land.
Still, Vanatta said, hunters with cow tags should see lots of animals, as the cows and calves begin to bunch up for migration much later in the fall.
"One month ago, the herds were no bigger than 50 elk," Vanatta said. "Recently we've been seeing herds of 100 or even a couple hundred."
The prospects for snow this week are not very strong, but the temperature should moderate early this week after pushing 70 degrees during the weekend. Warm temperatures can cut both ways, Vanatta said.
The mild autumn means that elk will be out and active only for a few hours in the morning and again in late afternoon or early evening, narrowing the window of opportunity.
However, warm temperatures also mean the elk have a greater need to find water. That fact points to an obvious strategy for hunters.
Vanatta suggests that hunters find the patience to sit quietly in a favorable spot at the edge of a meadow and simply wait for animals to appear. Paying attention to which way the wind is blowing, as well as likely approach and escape routes for the animals will pay dividends. Vanatta said wise hunters will sit down with their backs against a shade tree and wait for other hunters to push the game to them.
"The elk still have to get out in the open and feed where the grass is best, no matter how spooked they are," Vanatta said.