Hunters are hoping the rut, elk mating season, has lingered into rifle hunting season, which would give hunters a big advantage as they stalk their prey.

David Hannigan/Courtesy

Hunters are hoping the rut, elk mating season, has lingered into rifle hunting season, which would give hunters a big advantage as they stalk their prey.

Routt County residents optimistic about elk hunt

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Dennis McKinney/courtesy

A herd of elk move through the Colorado high country. Elk and deer rifle season opened Saturday. What hunters can expect depends on who you ask, but many who keep an eye on the hunt say they are optimistic that this year will be a good one.

Hunting seasons

■ Deer/limited rifle

Oct. 22 to 30: Second season/combined deer and elk

Nov. 5 to 13: Third season/combined deer and elk

Nov. 16 to 20: Fourth season/combined deer and elk

■ Elk/limited and unlimited rifle

Oct. 15 to 19: First season (limited)

Oct. 22 to 30: Second season

Nov. 5 to 13: Third season

Nov. 16 to 20: Fourth season (limited)

Nov. 21 to Jan. 31: Late elk season

■ Bear/limited rifle

Oct. 15 to 19: First season

Oct. 22 to 30: Second season

Nov. 5 to 13: Third season

Nov. 16 to 20: Fourth season

— Dan Bubenheim followed all the rules he’s learned throughout the years.

He de-scented his clothing by washing it with a special detergent and letting it “marinate” in a bin loaded with dirt, pine bales and sagebrush.

He stayed mindful of the wind, always making sure it was in his face, and he hid in the bushes, observing every tip he’s picked up during decades of hunting elk in Colorado’s mountains.

It wasn’t his year, however.

“They call it hunting for a reason,” he said, like any good down-on-his-luck outdoorsman. “It’s not called killing. Not everyone gets something, and some years people are lucky and other years they’re not.”

Bubenheim came up dry last month when he took to the mountains during the weeklong muzzleloader elk season.

It was too hot, he explained, and the elk loitered in the dark timber, which made them difficult to hunt.

It was unlucky, but he said other hunters already are reporting better experiences, and he has a full schedule to prove it. Bubenheim operates Elk River Custom Wild Game Processing in Steamboat Springs, so in addition to always keeping an eye and ear on the elk hunt for his own hunting use, he’s plugged into the scene by his customers.

Despite his own frustrating trip to the high country, he’s seeing big things.

“We’re killing it,” he said. “I don’t think there are quite the number of hunters out there, but the percentages of what they got was good, for sure. I’ve been hearing a lot of good reports about hunting.”

Anecdotal evidence

If Bubenheim is right, he’ll be plenty busy for the rest of autumn.

Elk and deer rifle seasons opened in Colorado on Saturday after what were reported to be up-and-down archery and muzzleloading seasons.

This lottery-only first season runs until Wednesday, and the second season, also filled last spring via a lottery, begins Saturday and runs through Oct. 30.

The third season runs Nov. 5 to Nov. 13 while the fourth season is Nov. 16 to Nov. 20, and a late elk season is Nov. 21 through Jan. 31. Tags still are available for all of those seasons.

As for how things have been going so far, everything is purely anecdotal, and those stories are mixed.

“It seemed like maybe archery season was a little slower,” local Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife agent Jim Haskins said.

A clearer picture will emerge after the season, when herd surveys can be completed and the take tallied.

For now, some of the news is good. Some isn’t.

Ups and downs

The herds are down from what they’ve been in recent years, part of a Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife plan to bring them to more manageable numbers, but the drop has been gradual enough that hunters shouldn’t notice year to year, Haskins said.

At the same time, the weather has been advantageous and a problem, another example of the roller coaster that is hunting predictions.

In the high country, there has been no deep snow or cold snaps, which drive herds down to more accessible hunting spots. Just how much snow is required depends on who you ask, of course.

On a positive note, the long, wet winter and spring made for plenty of food in the region, which means the elk that survived the winter — it was a tough one, potentially affecting calves and the sick — should have thrived.

It also means they can be more spread out, making them harder to find.

That late start to summer may have pushed back the rut, or mating season, for elk. Usually, it’s that period that makes archery and muzzleloading seasons good bets. This year, though, the rut still may be in full swing, meaning elk can be called rather than simply waited on.

“Elk don’t have calendars,” Bubenheim said. “When I was up there, they were still saying to themselves, ‘It’s still summer. It’s not time to mate yet.’ Now the rut is a little late, and they’re just kind of getting started in full rut right now.

“Hunters in the first season will have a bang-up of a time.”

So what does it all mean? Are the signs good? Bad? Some of both?

Many simply are staying optimistic.

“It will be a good season,” Haskins said. “If this (relatively warm) weather holds up, hunters should be comfortable. This first season is always one of our best seasons on public land.”

Bubenheim also is optimistic, basing his bright outlook on what he’s heard and what he’s seen, if not what he’s hunted.

“It’s prime time right now,” he said.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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