What a Trip!
I've been waiting for some time to write about another story we taped this fall for Outdoors on the Farm. I traveled to Meeker, Colorado, for an elk hunt at the Louisiana Purchase Ranch (LPR) and had a great time visiting with ranch owner Rick Tingle about his farming and hunting operation.
While I've always wanted to do an elk hunt, Rick spurred my interest in the hunt at his ranch for a couple of reasons. Number 1: They've got elk! Number 2: Rick is working hard with the National Resource Conservation Service to change the way the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ground is managed.
Rotational grazing is nothing new to American agriculture. But, using rotational grazing on federally owned land is ground breaking at the LPR. Not only is the development of fenced off, smaller and more-manageable paddocks a way of getting more (and more nutritious) forage from the BLM ground, it is also helping to improve the availability of water for livestock and for wildlife. Reason: Each paddock needs a water source for the livestock (and it's hard to keep the wildlife away from a full water tank).
Meeker, Colorado, is in the northwest part of the state: North of Rifle and south of Craig. I researched the area a bit before heading out for this hunt -- but I mostly focused on elevation. I didn't really check into the habitat. I just figured it would be the "dark timber" Colorado is famous for. Wow... was that wrong! The mountains are legitimate mountains... up to about 9,400 feet. But there is very little dark timber. Most of the cover on the mountain sides is oak brush that can easily be grazed by wildlife and livestock.
One of Rick's long-time guides set me straight on how the BLM ground should be managed on the first day I arrived at camp. He explained, "The way to manage this BLM ground is to put enough livestock on a small enough paddock to graze it down hard in 20 or 30 days then move the livestock to the next paddock and let the grazed area recover. As soon as the new browse starts to grow in that grazed off paddock, it will be covered up with deer and elk in there feeding on the tender new growth. It's the best way to get manage this ground... hit it hard with livestock and then get out of the way and let the wildlife have it."
This guide has lived in the Meeker area all his life (he joked that he's moved five times but found his way back each time so he must belong there). Rick hasn't and the rotational grazing tactic he brought with him from Louisiana seems to be taking hold in the high ground.
Rick also operates a commercial forage operation. Normally, Rick says they harvest just one cutting of the alfalfa-grass mix. It's not just because of the short growing season in this part of the world. In fact, before fall feeding patterns for the deer and elk took hold, Rick said some of his fields had alfalfa that was standing nearly knee high. When I visited with Rick during Colorado's first rifle season starting Oct. 22 this year, these fields looked like they'd been recently harvested.
"The deer and the elk have grazed off these fields," explained Rick. "I'm farming this ground, but I've also made the choice to manage this ground for the wildlife and that means making sure there's an adequate food supply available. This hay ground is as important to my hunting business as it is to my farming operation."
Unfortunately, I didn't kill an elk on this trip. In fact, I didn't pull the trigger. I got close a couple of times, so I thought I'd share how some of that went down:
We'd hiked fairly deep off the path up the mountain and were heading deeper in for an all-day hunt. Jeremiah was our guide for the day and I was hunting with Dobey Walker from Texas. On the way in, we spotted a nice bull making his way along a ridge below us. Without getting too excited, Jeremiah told me to get ready and picked out a spot on the ridge below us. If we could get the bull to that spot, I'd be pulling the trigger. I was getting organized and asked, "How far?" His answer: "750 yards." My reply: "Ummmmm... I haven't practiced out to 750 yards." Jeremiah's calming response: "That's okay... it's about 400 yards down, so shoot at 350 yards. We've done this before."
Unfortunately, that bull made a move over the top of the ridge and despite an effort to get around and in front of him again, we never saw him again.
We spent the day on a rock shelf overlooking a small watering hole in the bottom of the canyon. Again... a long shot that would be as long as it measured because it was so far below us. We suspected the bull from the morning had made it over into this canyon and was holding up. We sat there all day watching, listening, hoping (and, yes, we took a nap or two) and we didn't see another elk that day. It was nearly 80 degrees that day (even in the high country) and the elk and mule deer had no intention of getting up and moving around until well after nightfall.
We learned from another hunting group later that night that a group of five bulls had made its way down the ridge towards the waterhole and held up about 100 to 150 yards up from the hole. Of course, that put them on the other side of a small ridge that was covered with the oak brush and some aspens. We never saw those bulls making their move.
Believe it or not... I consider that one a "close call!" It was awesome seeing that bull down on the ridge below me, picking out a spot to shoot, getting all "bulled up" for a shot... and then feeling the disappointment when it didn't happen. That -- the company I had that day and the scenes I saw -- is what hunting is all about.
Another close call came the next day. After putting the miles on the boots the day before, we were putting some miles on four tires in the back country. We'd drive to a canyon, glass for a while and then make our way to the next bowl. We saw plenty of mule deer on this day, but we made it all the way to the back of the property without seeing an elk.
The guys we were hunting with that morning were from the south camp... about 5 miles south of the camp I was staying in. As we pulled up to the last overlook of the morning, one of the guys hunting with us said, "I'm surprised we haven't seen any elk. We heard them bugling when we stepped out of the cabin this morning!" Of course that was after we drove about 7 miles of rough roads to the back of the property! Needless to say, Jeremiah restarted the truck and we headed back for the front-half of the property to look for these bulls.
And we found them... unfortunately it was after another guide and pair of hunters had found them too. Two dead elk later and we were about to be out of luck. We stopped and talked with the other guide, who informed us there was a bull "around that little rise right there."
We eased the vehicle into toward the bottom of the gully and just before getting to the bottom, this bull busts through the brush, clears the fence and flies nearly 15 feet through the air right in front of us. We got through the gully in about 5 seconds; had a shell in the chamber in about 7 seconds and were standing on top of a small ridge in front of us in no time at all -- and the bull was gone. Seriously... gone -- disappeared! But... again... I'll call that one "close." (It's as close as I've ever been to an elk anyway!!)
That afternoon it started a light rain. It picked up a bit toward evening as we were making our way straight up a ridge. Honestly, it didn't look that far to the top of that ridge. But when we got to the top and looked back at the Suburban sitting at the bottom, that big old tank of a truck didn't look so big! We were a long ways up, but hadn't traveled very far north to south in making the climb. We tucked into some cedar trees on top of a ridge for an afternoon hunt and it didn't take Dobey long to spot elk. They were a long ways off... at least 1,500 yards. But we could see them and watch what they were up to. We counted 25 or 30 cows and 15 to 20 bulls in the group. One of them was a huge 7X7 bull that dwarfed other "shooter bulls" around him.
Jeremiah was working the calls and got at least one bull to commit to making the trek down the ridge they were loafing on and across the hayfield on the other side of a ridge right in front of us. More than once we were convinced we had a bull coming over the top of the ridge... they sounded really close, but we just couldn't get one to commit to making the move over the ridge to get close enough for a shot.
On that ridge nearly a mile away, we could see two bulls fighting and the evening was calm enough that we could hear the horns bashing together. That... along with Jeremiah calling and bulls returning the bugle and the company I had and the scene I was seeing -- is what hunting is all about!
Just because I didn't get a chance to pull the trigger on a bull doesn't mean the area doesn't have elk. I was hunting the first season and the weather simply did not cooperate. It was unbelievably mild and the elk were scattered out across miles and miles of high country. There was success in camp... three nice bulls were killed while I was there along with several nice mule deer bucks and even a really nice black bear.
When I was preparing for the hunt, I told my wife Sue, "Hey... If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it right because it's a once-in-a-lifetime deal." Now I've got to figure out how to tell here I'll be heading back to the Louisiana Purchase Ranch as soon as I can!
Check out the LPR website: When your there, be sure to go to the "2011 braggin' page" and look for Kenny from Texas (mule deer); Don from Texas (mule deer and bull), Royce from Texas (mule deer and bear) Dave from Texas (mule deer), Butch from California (bull) and Dobey from Texas (mule deer).
I don't know how I got in with so many Texans on this trip, but these are the guys I had the privilege of spending time with and getting to know on my trip to the Louisiana Purchase Ranch. Since then, Don has sent me another picture of a successful Axis deer hunt in west Texas. I'm hoping I get a chance to cross paths with these guys again, along with Danny, Walt and Jim from Louisiana.
And, of course, I'll be requesting a chance to hunt with Jeremiah when I get back to the LPR. But Rob, Casey, Stormy, Nick, Roy, Bud... they all seemed to know what they heck they were doing out there. I did get to spend some time with Casey and his knowledge of the area is impressive.
And then there is Rick, Teresa and Missy. Rick describes himself as a "duck on the pond -- calm on top and paddling like hell underneath" to keep things running around there. I tried to pay attention to all the things Rick was managing at the ranch... and there are a lot of moving parts to a two-location camp with 16 hunters total in the two camps. I think that's where Teresa comes in... Rick might be paddling like hell, but I think Teresa has things pretty much under control. (That should score me some points for my return trip!!) And Missy made sure everybody in camp had plenty to eat... morning, noon and night. No matter the time in the morning or at night, she got the crew very happily fed!
One last note. If you've ever thought about doing an elk hunt but just never felt like you were in good enough physical condition to do it, you've got to look into this part of Colorado and the Louisiana Purchase Ranch in particular. I'm NOT saying this was an easy hunt. In fact, I'll be in much better shape the next time I hunt in those "hills!" But these guys make good hunting accessible to almost anybody. I won't call any of the guys that I hunted with "old," but a few were carrying quite a bit more experience with them than I've got... and they had successful hunts!
Prepare the best you can for a trip like this, but don't let the physical demands stop you from doing it! This country is wild and demanding, but the guys at the LPR will get you in position for a successful hunt!
Finally to the farmers and ranchers... if you make this trip, don't be afraid to sit and talk farming and cattle with Rick. I don't care where you're from, you'll leaving knowing you've spent time with "good people" at the LPR.
And most importantly, keep on having fun outdoors on the farm!