Bow Hunting for Elk in Colorado's Gunnison National Forest

By Jay Cassell For eight months, starting last February, I went to the gym near my office in New York City every lunch hour, five times a week. I got on the stationary bicycle and cycled for 40 minutes, then went on the treadmill for 10, running at full incline as fast as I could. After that, I'd hit the weights for another 20 minutes, then head back to work. Starting in June, I also had a personal trainer helping me with my routines, making me work on muscles I didn't even know existed. Why on earth would I torture myself like this? Simple. I had a Colorado elk hunt planned for late September. It all started in January when one of my colleagues at Field & Stream, Greg Gatto, told me he was putting together a group of five hunters to go bowhunting for elk for a week in the Gunnison National Forest. He wanted to know if I'd like to go. He had hunted with an outfitter, Terry Commander, owner of Commander and Company, the previous year, and had really been impressed with her operation. The plan was to put in for elk and mule deer tags, so if we were lucky, we would each get chances at two animals. Having never bowhunted for elk (I've bowhunted for whitetails back home in New York, as well as turkeys), I said yes in a heartbeat. "This is tough country," Greg told me. "It's really steep, and the air is thin, so you'd better get in shape." I did, and was as ready for the thin mountain air as I could be. This is Greg with a raghorn elk he shot on the last day of our hunt. Distance? Four yards. Yes, that's right, I said four.Jay Cassell
The hunt began with a flight from New York to Grand Junction, Colorado, on September 22. I met up with Greg, Brian Peterson (also with Field & Stream), Eric Barnes, and Jake Fagan at the Grand Junction airport, then the five of us piled into a rental car and headed out of town. We eventually found some National Forest land where we set up targets we had bought at Sports Authority and sighted in our bows. We watched Brett Favre and the Jets lose to San Diego on Monday night football, then got up at 4 the next morning and drove to Paonia, Colorado. This is Butch's Cafe, the only restaurant in Paonia.Jay Cassell
Greg ordered two big pancakes. Little did he realize that when Butch says big, he means pancakes the size of pizzas.Jay Cassell
A 45-minute drive out of Paonia brought us to the trailhead, where we met guides Rodney and Dusty for the 3-hour early morning horseback ride into camp. Terry was already in camp. Here, Eric (left) and I get our gear ready for the ride.Jay Cassell
That's me on Friday, my horse for the trip. Friday was a great horse, though he was one of those animals who had a mind of his own. Every time the packtrain would stop, Friday would kick up dirt, stamp his hooves, then turn around and look at the other horses. Sometimes he'd also decide he didn't like the trail, and try to head off on his own. But I've ridden a few mountain horses on trips over the years, and know enough about getting the difficult ones to behave that I was able get Friday back on track. We got to camp without incident.Jay Cassell
Greg gets his horse ready.Jay Cassell
The ride in was inspiring, with incredible scenery all around, and got us primed for the upcoming week. Once, we saw a brown-phase black bear on a high ridge, but he was gone by the time I could my camera out.Jay Cassell
The cook tent was the nightly scene of great dinners and was where we made all of the next day's plans.Jay Cassell
Here, Terry points out a likely spot while Eric looks on.Jay Cassell
Eric sorts through gear in one of the bunk tents. The first few evenings we didn't need our wood stoves, but later in the trip the temperature dropped into the 30s at night - even though it stayed in the 70s during the day.Jay Cassell
Most of the guys hiked up to Lookout point the first afternoon we were in camp to get a sense of the lay of the land. As you can see, the view from Lookout is amazing.Jay Cassell
Commander and Company hunt an area that stretches 7 miles by 10 miles. It's open to the public, though getting in there without a horse is tough. During the week, we saw only three other hunters.Jay Cassell
That first afternoon I hiked up a nearby drainage with Bill, another guide in camp. We heard no elk. Here, Bill glasses a distant ridge.Jay Cassell
Jake, hunting with Greg, shot a bull near the Lookout late on that first afternoon, just before dusk. It was a solid 35-yard shot, and the bull went down immediately. Then it rolled downhill for quite a ways before piling up.Jay Cassell
That night, Terry cooked up a monster roast beef and fresh vegetables for the gang. She's easily the best camp cook I've ever met. We all celebrated Jake's bull - his first elk ever.Jay Cassell
Eric got a bull the next day. Greg called that one in as well, and Eric shot it at 6 yards. The animal was so tuned in on Greg's calling that he didn't even see Eric standing by a large ash tree as he came rushing in.Jay Cassell
The rest of the week played out with a lot of climbing, sucking wind, climbing, sucking more wind, and then calling. That's me glassing a canyon.Jay Cassell
And bugling.Jay Cassell
Dark timber. We could actually smell elk in here as we still-hunted through, but we saw and heard nothing.Jay Cassell
Taking a page from the Keith McCafferty playbook, Greg built a debris hut to weather a passing thunderstorm.Jay Cassell
Snow fell on one of the high peaks. It snowed 15 inches during the week after we left, which would have meant tough climbing and hiking, but then more elk would have come down from the high country, looking for food.Jay Cassell
Here's our gang (minus Eric, who had to ride out early) at the end of the hunt. Brian and I didn't get elk, and no one got a mule deer - they were higher up in the mountains than the elk were - but that was okay. A 60% success ratio (3 out of 5 hunters) is as good as it gets in bowhunting. The area was loaded with elk, the camp was well-run, the food was great, and the guides - especially Rodney - knew the area intimately.Jay Cassell
Recommended Gear:
Sitka 90% Jacket (shown) and Pants
Patagonia base layers (various weights)
Smartwool socks
2 boots - Lowa Tibet GTXs and Wolverine Archers
Cabela's lightweight raingear
Brunton Epoch 8.5x43 binocular
Nikon Archer's Choice rangefinder
DeLorme PN-20 GPS
Motorola Talkabout EM1000R Two-way radios
Browning Black Ice flashlight, Petzl headlamp
Marmot 5 degree mummy sleeping bag
Timber Hawk 1750-cubic-inch Rut Buster hunting pack
Duluth Trading Co. first aid kit, collapsible water bottle, ditty bag
Diamond Liberty compound bow
Easton ST Epic arrows
Rage 125-gr. Mechanical broadheads
Primos Hootchie Mama, Imaka Da BullCrazy, and Pack Bugle elk calls
SKB bow case
Field & Stream Online Editors