Photo by Joel Reichenberger
A pair of mounted elk stand guard at B&L Quality Taxidermy in Steamboat Springs. The elk rifle season opened Saturday, and hunters expect at least an average season. A spat of cold weather and snow could help improve it, but a few weeks of warmer weather could spell trouble and make the animals more difficult to find.
Elk rifle seasons
Season 1: Oct. 10 to 14
Season 2: Oct. 17 to 25
Season 3: Oct. 31 to Nov. 6
Season 4: Nov. 11 to 15
There's plenty that goes into a successful elk hunt: a steady aim, a thorough knowledge of the backcountry and reliable equipment.
But as important as all that is, the consensus among those in the know is that something else entirely will decide what elk season 2009 is remembered for.
It's all about the weather.
"That's what's really important," said Randy Hampton, a Division of Wildlife spokesman. "It is all so dependent on the weather."
The elk and deer season is already well under way. Archery season opened late in August and ran for a month, and the muzzleloading season has come and gone, as well.
Attention began to shift to rifle season Saturday as the first of the state's four elk rifle seasons opened. It runs through Wednesday. The second season starts next Saturday and runs for a week. The third season starts Oct. 31 and runs for a week, and the final elk opportunity of the year starts Nov. 11 and wraps up Nov. 15.
The success so far has been hard to quantify, Hampton said. A detailed survey meant to study hunter success rates won't be completed until March. But anecdotal evidence has pointed to an average season.
"I've been getting an average number of animals," said Gary Troester of All Seasons Taxidermy. "I think it's going to be a better year than last, but it won't be as good as it was three years ago."
That might not be great news for hunters hoping for a bountiful harvest, but it's a welcome change from what was a frustratingly barren experience in the past several years.
Weather conspired against hunters each of the past two years.
Mild and snowless autumns left the elk high and hunters high and dry. Without snow to drive the herds, elk stayed in the difficult-to-reach dark timber at higher elevations.
Of course, it did eventually snow during the 2007-08 winter, and it never stopped, resulting in a record-breaking year for Steamboat Ski Area.
That, in turn, helped spoil the 2008 hunt. The deep snows left herds stranded in unfamiliar areas, and the winterkill was unusually high.
A cold snap helped early season explorers find some success, but generally when hunters went prowling for their prey in the fall, the elk that had survived were hard to find.
The weather this year already has proven a defining factor. Late September snows have helped start the process of moving the herds into the easier-to-access lower elevations.
Sometimes it has a positive effect.
The wet June also has been a factor.
"The elk are extremely well horned this year because of the good grasses early," B&L Quality Taxidermy's Bob Reinier said.
"Whether or not it's a late spring makes a difference in how their horns grow. If they don't get the nutrients from the good green grasses early, their horns don't grow as big.
"This year, they have great horns."
It's not all great news, however. Hunters looking for those larger-than-usual trophies will have their work cut out for them.
For the second consecutive year, hunters are finding a scattered and sometimes difficult-to-find herd.
"Because of how available water is and how green all the foliage is, the animals are more widely distributed and aren't as dependent on water holes as they were in drought years," Hampton said.
It's a similar situation to what hunters found last year when the massive snowmelt resulted in plentiful water. It's a far cry from the drier years that marked the earlier sections of the decade.
People got used to sitting on water holes and waiting for animals to come, but that's not how it was last year and won't be how it is this year, Hampton said.
"Some of the techniques used during those drought years won't work as effectively, and people may have to go out and find the elk," he said. "But that's what hunting's all about."