Going off the beaten path

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From food and equipment to travel and lodging, planning an annual hunting excursion can be expensive.

That's why many hunters, particularly those from outside Colorado, look to maximize their experiences through a variety of private hunting services.

Hunters can find solitude and lots of elk on about 3,800 acres of oak brush- and aspen-covered land north of Craig. Robin and Willie White lease the private land and offer trespass-fee hunting through their business, The Craig Wild Bunch.

The Craig Wild Bunch, originally a group of locals looking for a reprieve from competition on public land, now attracts a core group of hunters from California, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and other states.

"We get the actual true-blue, working-class hunter interested in doing their own thing," Robin White said.

Although the business offers guides for first-time hunters, The Craig Wild Bunch specializes in self-guided hunts. Hunters camp with their own equipment at the ranch compound or stay at motels in Craig.

To minimize effects on the land and to ensure an authentic experience, no motor vehicles are allowed in the field, and no more than 20 hunters are out at one time.

Prices are $1,000 for bow hunters and $1,250 for hunters with rifles or muzzleloaders. Young hunters who qualify for youth hunting tags and who are accompanied by a parent are charged half-price. The Wild Bunch will pack out one deer or elk for the price.

Hunters who want to focus solely on the hunt can opt for full-service hunts through companies such as Eagle Spirit Outfitters in South Routt County.

The company leases 20,000 acres of private land for its guided trips, which offer hunters a good chance of harvesting a trophy elk.

"We are fortunate to have some of the best guides in the industry," owner Jim Sanchez said.

As many as seven experienced guides are available, including his sons, Joseph and Jacob Sanchez, who also lead guided trips in Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

The family, which has operated the business for 14 years, carefully manages the land to minimize pressure on herds: They only guide mornings and evenings, not midday, when animals are bedding. They also designate "pristine" areas where elk can find refuge.

The result is a lot of successful hunts. About 50 percent of archers and 85 percent to 95 percent of rifle hunters harvest a bull elk, Jim Sanchez said.

"We usually have them in animals every day," he said. "It's a very exciting and traditional hunt."

When they aren't tracking trophy elk, hunters relax in a comfortable lodge with private bedrooms and bathrooms, a lounge and dining area. A full-time cook keeps hunters nourished with hearty, home cooked meals.

Five-day hunts with Eagle Spirit Outfitters cost bow hunters about $3,500 and rifle hunters about $4,500.

Straddling the Colorado-Wyoming border is the Three Forks Ranch, offering hunters a premier hunting experience on 50,000 acres of private land in Colorado.

Depending on the animals hunters hope to harvest -- antelope are the least expensive and elk are the most expensive -- hunters pay $3,250 to $6,750 for a five-day stay at the ranch.

Included in the price are guided hunts, with one guide for every two hunters, luxury rooms and five-star dining.

New this year, the ranch has an air taxi service for its clients, as well as clients of other outfitters and sporting resorts in the region. The taxi takes visitors from Denver to Three Forks, Kremmling, Saratoga, Meeker and other areas.

The well-known ranch, which regularly hosts hunting shows for the Outdoor Life Network and ESPN, is booked for the 2006 season and is taking reservations for 2007, general manager Jay Linderman said.

Although the ranch has its share of affluent clients, it also is a popular hunting destination for middle-class hunters, he said.

About 95 percent of hunters harvest an animal on the land.

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