In the small northwestern Colorado town of Maybell, the morning came on with low-lying dark clouds, rain and fog. For cow elk hunters, including Diane and myself, the nasty weather was a welcome respite from a week of too much sun and too much heat, even up high in the magnificent Danforth Hills.
After a short drive, we parked the truck and began the tough, hard-breathing ascent to a high, juniper-strewn plateau. The plan, once in place, was to glass the ravines and draws for an unsuspecting cow elk working its way up toward the bedding areas among the scrub oak clusters and timberlines even higher up.
Dropping Diane off in a nice spot with lots of visibility in spite of the mist and fog, I worked my way up through the sage and junipers looking for a place worthy of a morning vigil. There was ample sign. Fresh elk and mulie deer tracks were evident, along with plenty of droppings, some old but some with that telltale sheen that quickens any hunter’s pulse rate.
Soon, through the shifting mist and juniper groves, an expansive buff-colored meadow of tall sweetgrass showed itself. The meadow was festooned with dead juniper trees. In some ways it reminded me of a Maine bog, and it spoke to me of elk country in every way. I settled in along the meadow’s edge, mesmerized by the shifting clouds of mist and the feeling that this would be the place where an elk tag could be filled, not tomorrow, but today!
This was no place for daydreaming or nodding off. Although I could see for maybe 300 yards to the edge of the mist, the light was flat and there were dark bunches of sage among the tall grass and dead junipers. You had to look carefully and often. During my second scan, movement was detected. Moving ghostlike from right to left was a large critter at about 180 yards. A cow elk?
Laying the Ruger One .270 atop the shooting stick, the slow-moving critter came into view in the scope. Then it stopped and munched at a shrub. Crosshairs aligned. Safety off. I could see antlers, a big rack. My heart sank.
I clicked the safety back on and lowered the gun. The critter, I could tell, was not an elk at all. It was a mulie buck and a spectacular one at that, equipped with what looked to be a formidable rack.
My cow elk never showed that day, or any other, for me or for Diane. Between us our scopes had dialed in a coyote, a bull elk and an untold number of mulies, of both persuasions.
The mulie deer story in Colorado is an interesting one. There are three different rifle seasons for elk. Mulie tags are only issued during the second and third elk seasons. So a first rifle season elk hunter, no matter how fat his wallet, cannot legally take a mulie.
Those of us who have hunted elk in Colorado, usually first rifle season, just never bothered with mulies. We are having second thoughts. Honestly, and I have a witness, we must have seen 300 or 400 mulies in a week. With or without a tag, seeing so many deer makes for an exciting week.
Puzzling to me, however, is that Colorado wildlife officials continue to express concern about “dwindling mulie numbers.” You couldn’t prove it by my experience. In northwest Colorado, mule deer are everywhere, almost as plentiful as sage rabbits. Officials say that Colorado has between 400,000 and 600,000 mule deer. (Compare that to Maine’s estimated whitetail population: 200,000!)
Lou, a bewhiskered Californian and diehard mulie deer hunter we met at the campground, told me that he has hunted both mulies and elk, and much prefers mulies, to eat and to hunt.
Maybe Lou has the right idea.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide and co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors.” His email address is [email protected] . He has two books, “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.”