Elk Hunting For The Layman - Part 2
By T. W. "Tommy" Cornelison
What follows is a detailed account of one of my self-guided elk hunts. This typical elk hunting trip started on Wednesday night before the opening Saturday of the first rifle season, with all of the camping and pack gear loaded into the noses of two gooseneck 24’ horse trailers. All of our food was loaded in the back of one pickup truck, and the horse feed was loaded into another. Then it was off to bed as early as possible.
Our camp, looking down from the plateau on which we hunted.
We were up at 1:00 am on Thursday to load the horses into the trailers and hit the road no later than 2:00 am for the five hour drive to Steamboat Springs, where we would all meet for breakfast. After breakfast it would be another hour and a half drive to the parking area at California Park, most of which is on forestry service roads. Now the fun begins. We unload the horses, some of which have not been ridden since the previous elk season, and none of which have been packed since then. The horses are saddled while everything is placed on tarps to be weighed and packed on the horses. Tents and other camping items are loaded first, with each animal loaded with as close as possible to one hundred pounds per side. We leave the staging area at about 11:00 am and start the climb to our camp which is another seven miles away. We are walking and leading the horses, and anyone not leading a horse has a backpack loaded with about forty pounds of crap. About a mile from the staging area we will stop to tighten all of the packs and make any adjustments that may be needed.
We reach the camp at about 1:30 pm and unpack the animals and then eat a quick lunch. By 2:30 pm, one man per horse will start the trip back to the staging area, this time riding instead of walking. The remaining members of the hunting party are responsible for setting up the camp and corrals. The riders reach the staging area at about 4:00 pm and start to pack all of the horse feed and as much of our food as possible (eight horses consume about one hundred and fifty pounds of feed a day) before starting back to camp about 5:00 pm. This second load of supplies will reach the camp well after dark at about 7:30 pm. If all has gone well, the tents are set up, the corrals are ready for the horses and supper is either ready are almost ready.
After the horses are unloaded and unsaddled they are led to the beaver pond for watering and a rub down before being placed in the corrals and fed. No one eats until the horses are cared for. Supper is eaten amongst a tirade of bitching and griping about who had to do the most work or who had the most aggravating horse to deal with. All of this is in good fun. No one wants anybody to know how much they are hurting or how sore they are from the hardest work they have done since last year’s hunt. Dessert is a cold beer or a glass of good whisky (notice there is no “e” in whisky, meaning Canadian or American whisky, not whiskey from across the pond) before rolling into sleeping bags for a night of sound sleep. Camp rules dictate beer or whisky only after supper with a two drink limit per hunter. I do not condone the mixture of guns and alcohol. Our rifles are visually inspected upon delivery to the camp and then placed back into their cases, not to be touched again until opening morning of our hunt.
On Friday morning we sleep in until about 7:00 am. Part of the camp will lead the horses to the beaver pond for water before feeding them while the remainder prepares breakfast. About 8:30 am, each horse and a rider will start back to the staging area to get the last load of supplies. This will consist of the balance of food, if any, rifles and ammunition, and anything that falls into the wanted category. By now the horses are into the program and things go much smoother than the day before. The men left at camp complete any setup that is needed and sort out the food items. The pack crew will not return until about 1:30 pm. After the horses are attended to, we will eat lunch. After lunch we climb to the plateau on which we will hunt tomorrow to listen to the bulls bugling and watch some of the elk moving around in the valley below. Camp rules dictate that no one is to go into the hunting area before opening morning and there will be no shooting, target practice, or sighting in of rifles. If you did not check your sights before leaving home, or you dropped your rifle on the way into camp you are just S.O.L..
Supper is a relaxing meal followed again by a dessert of the beverage of your choice. Everyone is in their sleeping bags as soon as it is dark hoping to soon fall into a restful sleep that will not come. Everyone is thinking of the coming sunrise and another elk hunt.
Those who have slept join everyone else around the fire about 2:30 am. The horses are watered and fed while breakfast is being cooked. Breakfast is served and eaten with a healthy helping of ribbing and joking about the results of the upcoming hunt. Newcomers and less experienced members of the camp are paired with someone who has several trips under their belt to make sure no one gets lost in the dark while moving to the area we will hunt. We leave the camp a little before 4:00 am to start our climb to the top of the plateau and to each of our favorite hunting spots to wait for shooting light. The horses are left at camp in the corrals with orange and pink surveyor’s tape tied to their manes and tails to prevent some inexperienced hunter from placing tag on one of them.
Looking up to the plateau from our camp
The climb to the top is an --- kicker. We have to stop several times to catch our breaths before making it to the top. After everyone is accounted for, we break into smaller groups to move on to our hunting spots. I am lucky. I hunt in a small bowl just over the ridge and have the least distance to travel, but also have to put up with everyone else stomping through the area where I plan to shoot my elk.
As it becomes light enough to see, elk can be seen by those in several of the open areas. The camp members with bull tags will be shooting first. Cow tags are filled only after all of the bull tags are filled. The sound of a distant shot can be heard and the elk start to move about. As more shots are heard you can see large groups of elk moving in single file to the south toward a private ranch that is closed to hunting and lies about half a mile away. This is no longer hunting and is fast becoming killing. You sit still in the spot of your choosing. I sit on a large aspen log with my rifle resting on my day pack on top of the stump. I ranged the ridge line around the little bowl I am sitting in so I know the distance I will be shooting. I use my binoculars to view the passing lines of elk moving past my location until I find the bull I want to harvest. I wait for the bull to pass a spot of known distance and take my shot.
I sit in the little strand of aspens on the left and shoot my elk leaving the pond
By 10:00 am we have filled every tag in camp, usually 8-10 bull tags and a couple of cow tags. Now the work begins. Each animal is tagged, gutted, and skinned down the sides to start cooling. By 1:00 pm we are on our way back to the camp for lunch and an afternoon of rest. We do not butcher our animals out of respect to any other hunters that may be in the area on this first day of the season. It is cool or cold enough to leave the meat overnight. It will be easier to butcher and bone out after the meat has cooled anyway. Supper will consist of fried tenderloins mixed with a heavy dose of b.s. Tonight we stay up while everyone tells the story of their kill, and we all laugh at the screw-ups made. The pressure is off. All of the tags are filled.
Sunday morning starts with tending to the horses and a hearty breakfast. Today we will be taking the horses to pack the meat back to camp. We leave camp about 8:00 am to start up to the top of the plateau. Several members will climb to the top, then the horses are sent up unattended and caught as they reach the top. It is too dangerous to try and lead the horses up the steep trail. A horse falling would wipe out anything or anyone on the trail below it. After all of the horses have reached the top of the plateau, then the remainder of the hunting party will follow. All of the elk harvested will be skinned and the meat boned out. The hides and bones will be left behind. The meat from one elk will weigh from 180-240 pounds and will be loaded one elk per horse for transporting back to the camp. The preparation of the meat and transporting it back to camp will take all day. At day’s end the horses will be watered, fed, and rubbed down. Butts will be dragging by the time the sun has set and supper is eaten.
Proof of a successful hunt. (The guy in the Hooters shirt is holding my rack.)
Monday starts with breakfast at daybreak. After each horse is fed and watered they are packed with the meat for transportation back to the trailhead and our trucks. A second trip will be made in the afternoon transporting any non essential items required for our last night in elk camp.
Tuesday morning we police our camp area after caring for the horses and eating breakfast. We make our last trip back to the trailhead leaving our camp area as it was when we first arrived. The trucks and trailers are packed and the horses loaded. We top off our fuel tanks and get a late lunch in Steamboat Springs before starting our five hour drive home. Another elk hunt is almost at its end and most of us are thinking this will be our last year. We are getting too old and it is just too damn hard to hunt this way anymore. It will be dark when we reach home. The horses will be returned to their stalls or home pastures just as tired as we are. A hot bath and a loving hug from the wife makes you almost feel human again. I am usually the only one that bathes while in camp. I will break the ice off of the beaver pond and bathe at least every other day, the rest of the guys are heathens and will go all week long without the benefit of soap and water.
Wednesday we meet up to process the meat. Cutting out roast, steaks, stew meat, and grind hamburger. The meat will be double wrapped before heading home to various locations around the country. We say a hearty goodbye to both old friends and the new friends made during our hunt. It will be several days before we start to think, “Maybe just one more year.”
I hope you future elk hunters have found this information and the narrative of one of my self-guided hunts both useful and entertaining. If any of you still want to try to kill your elk this year you have a little time left to apply for tags in a few states and there are a few guides or outfitters that may have some openings left to fill. If you have any questions I can be e-mailed at [email protected].
Tommy Cornelison was raised on a working ranch in South Florida where his time was spent hunting and working with cattle and horses. He is a General Contractor/ Construction Manager by profession which has allowed him to travel the country, working and hunting. Tommy is an avid hunter, shooter, and reloader and can proudly say he has taken all of his game with his own ammunition for the past forty years. Tommy is now building a custom 6.5 X 47 Lapua with plans for a 338 Norma Magnum to soon follow.