Steamboat Springs First-season elk hunters are gamblers and this year, they stand to hit it big.
The best thing about the first season (Oct. 15 to 19) this year, is that the elk haven't been pushed off public land by hunting pressure. The potential downside is hot weather that leaves the elk skulking in the highest elevation timber stands they can possibly find.
The clear skies with snow at the highest elevations this week gives hunters a good shot at finding elk below 9,000 feet in favorable visibility -- without the muddy, rutted roads that sometimes come with an October snowstorm.
"With all of the recent heavy snow, the hunting should be getting good," longtime area guide Dirk Vanatta said. "The elk are coming out of the real high country and you don't have to hunt at 10,000 feet."
A year ago at this time, Vanatta said walking through the woods was like walking on Corn Flakes -- the twigs and leaves on the forest floor crunched with every step, alerting wary elk to the approach of hunters. This year, even at lower elevation, soaking rains that fell Oct. 9-10 will help hunters in the stealth department.
The elk herds of Northwest Colorado are better fed going into winter this year than any of the past three seasons.
"There seems to be a lot of elk out there, and there is so much grass," Vanatta said. "The grass should help antler growth, and we've seen some nice bulls, but nothing bigger than in years past."
The long-term forecast for the Upper Yampa Basin from the National Weather Service predicts plenty of sunshine through Monday with high pressure breaking down Tuesday leading to a mix of rain and snow Tuesday night. That means until the last day of the first season, hunters probably will have to hunt in dark timber in spite of the 6 inches of snow that has pushed them to lower elevations.
Hunters who are willing to walk or ride horses a good distance from roads have the best chance at success, Vanatta advises. While hunting in timber, Vanatta said, it's necessary to move slowly.
"Take just a few slow steps, then stop to glass the timber," Vanatta said.
The tines of a bull elk's antlers appear remarkably similar to dead fir branches, and unless hunters are willing to proceed cautiously, they may never see the bull that got away.
Successful hunters may have their elk tested as a precaution against Chronic Wasting Disease at four Colorado Division of Wildlife centers in the region. They include the Craig Warehouse at 1715 Yampa Ave., (970) 824-2502; Meeker Service Center, 73485 Colorado Highway 64, (970) 878-6090; Steamboat Springs Service Center, 925 Weiss Drive, (970) 870-2197; and the DOW Work Center in Walden, 285 Grant St., (970) 723-4625.
-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org