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Set your sights on Colorado elk
Wilderness hunting for big game is always exciting. When the prey is North American wapiti or elk, the experience is nothing short of exhilarating.
Picture the setting: 2.3 million acres of glacier-carved mountains soaring to just shy of 13,000 feet above sparkling lakes and rushing streams, alpine beaver meadows and glowing aspen groves, thick fragrant forests of fir and spruce.
Who owns this splendid spread? You do, if you live in America. It's the breathtaking Flat Tops Wilderness Area in the White River National Forest, an hour or so north (as the golden eagle flies) from Interstate 70, the great intermountain highway slicing through the canyons and peaks of western Colorado's Continental Divide. And it is home to one of the most robust populations of wild elk in the U.S.
Elk are impressive creatures. Female or cow elk are six and a half feet long, nose to tail; weigh 500 pounds; and stand four and half feet at the shoulder. Male or bull elk are eight feet long, weigh 700 pounds and stand five feet at the shoulder. Bulls grow yearly-regenerating bone antlers, which--on a seven-year-old mature animal--spread more than four feet across. When elk mate in late summer and early autumn the bulls swagger and release piercing guttural cries (called "bugling") day and night.
While the Flat Tops Wilderness is public land, it is real wilderness. Some Coloradans have spent years equipping themselves and pursuing elk on their own, but unless you are Jeremiah Johnson, I don't recommend it. Instead, do what I did: turn to the experts. I hired Winterhawk Outfitters, a local company that has been guiding hunters to elk in the Flat Tops since 1982. I wanted to experience a true hunt by horseback, up before daybreak and in the saddle, following the ancient and honorable ethic of fair chase-a far cry from the phony fenced-in game-farm operations offering cushy pickup-truck transport afield, early cocktail hour and guaranteed kills for a steep price. That is not true sport.
I wanted to experience the real thing. And I can't wait until next season.
The Magnificent Wapiti
About 10 million wapiti or elk once grazed prime grassy habitats from the Olympic Mountains to the banks of the Potomac. By 1900 the species was extinct east of the Mississippi and reduced to remnant populations throughout the West, including as few as several hundred animals in Colorado. Today that state is home to the largest concentration of the regal Cervus elaphus in North America; hunters harvest more than 50,000 each year. This wildlife success story is not an accident.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife charges hunters handsomely for the privilege of chasing elk ($546 for a non-resident season license) and uses the funds to studiously manage the herds. To pull the trigger legally, a hunter must make sure the elk in his sights has at least eight points on its crowning rack of antlers.
Colorado also conducts an elaborate series of openings and closings during the hunting season, from archery-only weeks beginning when the high-elevation aspens turn brilliant yellow in late August to rifle weeks stretching through the snows of early November. It makes licenses for the most desirable openings available only through a public lottery or draw. (Visit www.wildlife.co.us for information.)
To book a trip, contact Winterhawk Outfitters, 19561 Kimball Creek Road, Collbran, Colo. 81625, (970) 487-3011, www.winterhawk.com.
The closest airport is Eagle County Regional in Vail, Colo.