Robert Durham, an Atlanta hunter in Steamboat Springs on Friday for the opening of elk rifle season, listens as Vanatta Outfitters guide Chad Bedell helps him correctly site his rifle before the start of the season.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Robert Durham, an Atlanta hunter in Steamboat Springs on Friday for the opening of elk rifle season, listens as Vanatta Outfitters guide Chad Bedell helps him correctly site his rifle before the start of the season.

Big bucks said to be prowling high country in Northwest Colorado

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Denver-area elk hunter Steve Wyatt looks over a map with the Division of Wildlife’s Christy Bubenheim at the DOW’s Steamboat Springs office. Bubenheim said warm temperatures have made hunting difficult so far, and will again for the first rifle season, which opened Saturday. Cooler weather could benefit an influx of hunters expected for the more busy second and third seasons, however.

— Hunters were cautiously optimistic late last week as they prepared for the first of the four elk-hunting rifle windows that will represent the bulk of the big-game animal hunting season in Northwest Colorado.

The first three-day season opened with Saturday morning’s sunlight, and by the time the first rays played across the high mountain forests in the region, hunters already were eyeing their first prey.

Their guides, who’d been spying those animals for days and weeks in preparation for the big-money swing of rifle season, spent most of last week restocking their camps and preparing.

“There’s a real good herd this year,” Silver Creek Outfitters guide Dave Keller reported Friday morning from the camp he set up for his first-season clients. “There are a lot of bulls this year — more so than normal.”

Keller was confident he’d have his hunters locked on animals for early morning kills as soon as the season opened, but he echoed the voice of many hunters and experts in the region when he said despite a nice herd and healthy bucks, this is yet another season that’s demanding all of his guiding savvy.

Higher and higher

Nearly a decade of drought in the region spoiled area hunters, Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said. The search for water forced elk herds into predictable patterns, and hunters could simply wait in an easy spot to get their trophy.

Now, several years of wet springs and summers have turned the tables, and for the third consecutive fall hunting season, the elk are playing hard to get.

“We’re still finding animals, but they’re moving really early and really late, so we’re struggling to catch them in the daylight,” Keller said. “Right now, it’s still too warm. We need some miserable weather.”

Some on the hunt’s front lines said animal loss from the devastatingly snowy and cold winter of 2007-08 still is being felt. Many found plenty of reason for optimism, however, and said the herds have started to recover from that setback.

Last year’s mild winter was a saving grace to elk herds and then an unusually wet spring helped keep the food supply steady.

Everything’s not perfect, of course, which is why hunters are only cautiously optimistic.

It takes a good cold spell to move the elk from the forested high country. That hasn’t happened yet.

“Hunters are getting a little better at finding them up high, a little smarter,” Hampton said. “Elk have a tendency to stay at least a half mile off roads and trails, no matter how much you use a trail. They get into the dark timber where no one can find them. The darker, nastier it gets, the better it’s going to be. When you think you can’t go any further, that’s the right spot, or at least close.”

This year’s hunts

Cedar Beauregard, an avid hunter based in Steamboat Springs, already had waged a long and successful season and cashed in all his tags before the rifle season that started Saturday.

Between him and his wife, Kelly Beauregard, they brought down six animals: including three elk, one of which Cedar took on a hunt with his 3 1/2-year-old twin boys, Adrian and Caman. The couple also got a nice deer and two bears.

“That bear got way too close,” Cedar said about the beast he took while watching a water hole from a small blind. “I took a picture of him with my cell phone and wasn’t going to shoot him because it wasn’t very big. Then it saw me take the picture and came over to within three arrow lengths, so I had to shoot it.”

Gary Troester, of All Seasons Taxidermy, said he didn’t see a big haul from the archery season and has noticed a decrease in hunters, which he credits to the nation’s down economy.

He bagged his own trophy last weekend with a bow by filling a mountain goat tag he had.

“It was a 9-inch billy, which is a really nice, respectable goat,” he said. “It was above treeline, just in some short grass. It was really rocky and steep — almost too steep. When you shoot a goat, there’s a good chance they’ll roll down the slope, but this one didn’t.”

On the elk front, he said the first animals usually hit his locations — there’s one in Craig and another in Steamboat — mid-morning of opening day. He said that hunting addicts wouldn’t be able to keep themselves from Colorado’s high country and that even if the first season is slow, things could change quickly.

“The weather should get here soon, and that will make it all a lot better,” he said.

Cedar Beauregard said the elk population he saw in his hunting wasn’t huge, but the elk he did see were.

“The numbers are down since we had those two big winters, but the size of the bulls is impressive,” he said. “I saw three or four really nice elk in places I used to never see a big bull.”

His tip for hunters: Don’t always look as high as has been necessary in years past. A 24-year hunting veteran of Northwest Colorado’s backwoods, he said this year’s crop of berries and acorns has proven particularly large, and that’s helped keep the herds a little lower than he expected.

“I cut open the stomach of one (elk) cow I took, and it was solid berries,” he said. “Now, the acorns are ripe, too. It’s kind of an unusual pattern this year. The acorns are going off, and that doesn’t happen very frequently, so the elk are attracted to the scrub oaks. I would concentrate on that and wouldn’t go as high this year.

“People won’t see that many elk, but they should wait for a decent-sized one when they do. They’re out there.”

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