Hunters of today face many challenges, especially we "Baby Boomers" who are now plus or minus forty-five years old. Common concerns for hunters of all ages are lack of quality game, limited access to private land, exorbitant trespass fees, and reduced opportunity to hunt public land through the imposition of license drawings and harvest quotas. Fully guided hunts address some of these problems. However, the cost can be prohibitive. There is another, although not much talked about factor - the "I'm capable of going it on my own" feeling all hunters have.
After having hunted western game for thirty odd years, a person develops a certain amount of independence and confidence in his or her ability to hunt certain species, and may well take pride in being able to say "I did it on my own." Sometimes, as in the case of dangerous game, a guide may be recommended, or even required by law. But, deer, elk, and antelope do not present that problem.
The other choice, going it alone, deep into a national forest, with a pack on your back, may soon have you wishing for real livestock to carry your gear!
>There is a third choice, one that solves all of these problems, one that I had wondered about for years - the drop camp. A drop camp solves all your problems. IF you pick a good outfitter as I did in 1990, and IF you pick a cooperative state as I did with Colorado.
Although there are many variations, the basic drop camp idea calls for an outfitter to provide the hunter with transportation for himself, his gear, and his game, in and out of the back country. And, in the case of Triple-O-Outfitters with whom I drop camped, to provide exclusive use of a completely equipped camp. The hunter is strictly on his own and is responsible for caping and quartering of game. Having had some difficulty filling my elk tag in the past, I was subject to some justifiable ribbing from my partners, Jack Rivers and Gar McDonald. I think I once heard the average elk hunter scores once every seven years, which made them way ahead of the game and me somewhat overdue.
All three of us had deer and elk tags when we arrived at Larry and Reta Osborn's ranch, owners of Triple-O-Outfitters, a day and a half before the opening of Colorado's third combined elk and deer season. The Osborns turned out to be the kind of people you'd like to meet anytime, but even more so when you're a long way from home and more or less dependent on them. A twelve mile drive brought us to base camp at the edge of the White River National Forest, and we were soon riding up the trail with Larry and Isidro, Larry's top hand, and two pack horses. After the ride in, Larry gave us an hour of riding the hunting area before leaving us at the comfortable camp, complete with cots and foam pads, sheepherder stove, cook stove and a very adequate woodpile, which we found out later, had been cut by hand The forest service does not allow chainsaws in the area, and wood not burned must be scattered about when the camp is removed at the end of the season. Keeping this area pristine is of great concern to Larry, and his appreciation for the mountain quickly rubs off on his hunters.
The following day was spent scouting and glassing as best we could without spooking game out of the area. It was soon apparent that hunting the oak brush and quaking aspen at 8,500 feet altitude would be quite different from hunting our native Washington, where Jack and I live at sea level and Gar not far above.
Although no game was sighted, there was sufficient sign to get the idea that elk were present in good numbers, and opening morning found us eager and ready. Gar, the young buck of the group, had a plan involving a goodly piece of Colorado real estate. And, why not! One of the great things about the drop camp was that you could roam wherever your heart desired without having to be concerned about a long meat pack. Isidro would visit the camp each day for the first five days and could pack game from wherever it was down. Jack and I had stands picked out for sitting. Like the old bull, our theory was to walk less and accomplish more when we got there.
In the morning, four inches of fresh snow greeted us and it snowed lightly as I made my way to the stand I had picked. Huddled underneath a pine tree, I had a great view of a small natural drainage, running from a swampy area directly beneath me. Perhaps a thousand yards away, three timbered draw merged like spokes on a wheel, to a brushy hillside on my left, topped by what is locally called "Dead Horse Point," named after an unfortunate greenhorn hunter who accidentally shot his rented horse there.
As is became lighter, and the snowfall eased, a long string of shots came from Gar's direction. Right direction and distance, I thought, but too many shots. Gar is a hunter class benchrest shooter who routinely hits an inch and a half ring at three hundred yards with a hunting type rifle and six power scope! No, it wasn't Gar.
Just then a noise in the timber to my right caught my attention. Not seeing anything, I turned back to the area I'd been watching just in time to see a large deer body disappear up the closest draw. Sneaking from my perch, I managed to get directly below the buck as he angled up the draw. And, what a nice buck he was! His rack was high, fairly wide, and heavy. But, fortunately for the buck, he had only two points on each side. A legal buck to be sure, but not one I wanted to take in the first half hour of a nine day hunt!
Settling back under the pine tree, I checked the lenses on the 3x9 Leupold perched atop my McMillan stocked 700 Remington 7mm magnum and appreciated momentarily what a fine tool this rifle is. Capable of superb accuracy, it drives the 140 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip at 2965 FPS on the first shot out of a cold clean barrel. Which, to my way of thinking, is the shot a hunter should concern himself with.
Not more than five minutes passed before I noticed a cow elk running full tilt down the bare hillside toward a clump of trees in the bottom, about 400 yards away from my stand. Behind her came another and another until eighteen elk were in sight. Upon reaching the quakies in the bottom, the elk stopped and milled about nervously. Knowing I dare not move, but feeling as though I should do something to get a better look at them, I gave a single bleat on my cow call. As this was my first practical use of the call, I was greatly surprised when a young cow bolted from the thicket directly toward me at what I can only describe as a comical gallop with her nose pointed straight up in the air.
When she had closed half the distance, she lowered her head, ran back to the milling herd, and proceeded to lead them right to me! Passing in single file within 75 yards of me, the elk count was fifteen cows and three spikes. As they continued to head for the lower country behind me, and my pulse stared to return to normal, a huge cow stepped into the open from the pines to my right. After a long minute of looking and testing the air, she followed the same course as the first bunch. Behind her came a dozen or more cows, some pausing within fifty yards and looking in my direction. I, of course, was frozen, barely daring to breathe or blink. The parade continued with three more spikes, the last one turning for a look back toward the pines. Following his line of sight, I soon spotted two large elk standing motionless in the dark timber. Before I had time to raise the 7x30 Leupold binoculars that hung from my neck, one of them, a three point, trotted from the trees.
Finally, the last elk stepped out, walking slowly but, as the others had, directly toward me. At 100 yards, I started counting points, one, two, three, four, five, BANG! The Nosler did its job very quickly and humanely, as it had on other occasions, and I had my bull, a 6x6 whopper!
As I finished drawing the bull, Isidro came riding into sight with pack horses "Snorty" and "Doctor D." I had walked toward the trail, and stood about fifty feet from the downed elk drinking a Coke from my fanny pack when he arrived. I truly wish I had a video of Isidro's face, as his puzzled look turned to one of shock as he finally saw the bull. I think he was more excited than I was!
All went well until it was time to load the head and cape. Doctor D's eyes showed white all around, his nostrils flared, and when an antler tip poked him in the flank, the rodeo was on. I don't think Isidro could weigh 140 pounds soaking wet but I'll tell you he can show an 800 pound pack horse who's boss quicker than you can say "Loco en la cabeza"!
In the days that followed, we saw a combined total of perhaps three hundred elk, and both Jack and Gar passed up smaller legal animals claiming I had shamed them into it. Did I feel sorry for them? HELL NO!