OUT: Sunday Column October 19, 2008

Elk hunters eager for the early elk-only season find their hopes dashed

Call it the hex of the full moon.

Or “Gone with the Wind,” but I seem to remember that title already being taken.

Elk hunters eager for the early elk-only season that ended Wednesday found their hopes, and in some
cases their tents, dashed after the opening weekend offered a full moon, snowstorms and tree-toppling winds.

“That first day was pretty much miserable conditions for hunting all around the Gunnison Basin,” said J Wenum, area wildlife manager for the Division of Wildlife in Gunnison. “It was dependent on where you were but if you were in the higher elevations it was not favorable to the hunters.”

The first season usually means the opportunity to test your mettle against elk that haven’t seen much hunting pressure other than the occasional bowhunter or blackpowder hunter.

But even early elk aren’t easy, especially when a full moon keeps them active all night.

“They must have night-vision goggles,” laughed one blaze orange-clad hunter in a pickup headed up Ohio Pass. He and the driver had stopped to query one tired-looking hunter as to his efforts and, upon learning there wasn’t an elk to be seen, nodded in agreement.

“We walked all around that basin and didn’t see hardly any sign,” said the driver. “But I’ve heard there are 400 elk down on Castleton Ranch.”

The ranch is a large chunk of private land at the foot of Castle Mountain, bordering the east edge of the West Elk Wilderness area.

Nearby, the popular Mill Creek trail offers access to the wilderness area, and well before Saturday the trailhead was dotted with campers and tents. It appears hunters hoping for a wilderness elk might have pushed the herd to the sanctuary of private land.

Saturday’s wet-and-cold storm was probably fierce enough in southwest Colorado to dampen some hunters’ plans, said Joe Lewandowski, DOW spokesman from Durango.

“The winds really got whipping on Saturday and it got really cold,” Lewandowski said. “It sounds like a lot of folks might have packed it in early in the weekend because of the weather.”

He said the winds, suspected to have reached 40 mph or greater, were stiff enough to knock down some 100-year old spruce trees near the Durango fish hatchery.

Similar blustery conditions were reported by Wenum in Gunnison.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of snow, maybe 4 or 5 inches up high,” he said. “But we had persistent winds, up to 40 or 45 miles per hour, and it knocked down some trees in the south end of the basin.”

Blame it on the weather, economics or the cost of a tank of gas, but most areas reported fewer hunters and lighter harvest this year than last.

“Generally things seemed a little slower than last year,” said DOW Northwest Region spokesman Randy Hampton in Grand Junction. “Darby Finley (DOW biologist in Meeker) said the harvest up there seemed hit or miss although hunters in the mid-elevations are having some success. He also thought the windy conditions might have affected elk distribution some.”

One bright spot, Hampton said, came from district wildlife manager JT Romatzke in Parachute, who reported the harvest seemed “better than last year.

“Maybe those hunters staying close to home did better,” Hampton said. “But the overall season seemed slower than the last two years.”

Saturday was opening day for the first combined deer-and-elk season and the turnout for this nine-day season should be higher. The effects of the sagging economy will be revealed when it’s seen how successful the lure of over-the-counter bull elk licenses is in attracting nonresident hunters.

The season runs through Oct. 26 and covers two weekends, a deliberate move by the wildlife commission to make more opportunity for resident hunters.

The weather is forecast to stay mild early with some light snow for the high country near mid-week.

Last winter’s deep snows and cold hit deer herds hard in Gunnison, Middle Park and the upper Eagle River. In most of these areas, deer licenses were slashed.

Elsewhere, however, the DOW has been reporting deer herds in good shape.

It’s something even Rhett Butler might give a damn about.

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