How, Where, and When to Get Healthy Meat

We know humans have been hunting since we evolved on the savannahs of Africa millions of years ago. It’s in our nature to hunt and until the last several hundred years we hunted only for food because hunting was dangerous and difficult. If you broke a leg hunting three thousand years ago, that was pretty much all she wrote. Luckily, since the invention of guns, hunting got a lot easier and people started to hunt for other reasons, like status and trophies mounted on their livingroom walls. But I digress . . . Let’s get back to the food issue.Since people have hunted for food, we have developed traditions and rituals surrounding the hunt, like people everywhere tend to do. I have my own rituals; you’ll have yours, too. When I go hunting, I like to . . . well . . . let’s just say have some serious fun with stories, libations and such around the campfire before heading out to harvest elk early in the morning. It’s in our nature to hunt and it’s a heck of a lot of fun, too.

Though hunting has developed into a significant industry, with people paying thousands of dollars to harvest trophy animals, the majority of hunters still head out to put food on the table. It’s the original incentive to hunt. For me, and my hunting buddies, it’s extremely gratifying to serve elk burgers or tenderloins to our friends while we tell the story of how we harvested the meal. In this article I’ll discuss the basics of how to hunt elk for the dinner table and we’ll go over why we do it, why it’s good for us, and, more importantly, where and when to hunt. As all experienced hunters will tell you, the hardest thing about elk hunting is putting yourself in front of that elusive perfect shot. 
One more thing: In Colorado—and most of the contiguous United States—we have killed off most of the large predators that kept the elk population in check. Without natural controls, the elk population would grow larger and larger leading to significant problems for us. A 600 pound elk coming through your windshield at 70 miles per hour can be a significant problem. Or they might eat up all the grass in a rancher’s meadow where he wanted to graze his sheep or cattle, and break down a bunch of fences to get to that grass. Or, and this is really important, they’d be getting overcrowded and transmitting diseases like brucellosis or necrotic stomatitis amongst themselves, or dying from starvation because they managed to eat all of the fodder in their area before winter ended. In short, without us hunters managing the population, taking on the role large predators once had, they’d get in big trouble on their own. Population management is an important part of maintaining healthy herds and healthy rangeland. Without natural predators, it falls to hunters like you and me to do the job.

As I mentioned earlier, elk meat is very healthy. It’s free range and organic. Nobody puts antibiotics or hormones in their food to fatten them up. That happens naturally in high mountain meadows with highly nutritious foods. Nobody prods them with cattle prods to load them on trucks. They live pretty happy healthy low stress existences for the most part so animal welfare advocates aren’t up in arms like they are over how domestic livestock are raised.

Elk meat is lean and rich in protein, B vitamins, and iron. If you like to eat red meat like me, this is the really good stuff that “organic” people pay top dollar for, if they can get it at all. But as hunters, we can get it for the price of a cow tag and a bit more for our hunt. Last year I shot a nice, fat cow north of Hayden. She probably weighed 550 lbs on the hoof. By the time I got her home, cut up and in the freezer, I had about 140 lbs of super nutritious meat to last through the year. I figure with the extra $250 I spent on gas and food and a little more for camping equipment, that works out to about $2.14/lb, an excellent price for high-quality, nutritious, low-fat red meat.

Now, some people say hunting is cruel and to kill an animal is wrong. I agree that to kill an animal for the wrong reason is wrong, but for the right reason it is absolutely necessary. I’ll tell you what’s cruel; letting an animal starve to death, or letting an animal die of a disease that you could have helped to prevent. Or, how about hitting it with your car and letting them run off injured only to die of starvation and in pain? Compared to this, a quick kill by a well placed bullet is humane. If you’ve ever watched a pack of wolves take down an elk, you know that elk suffered. As responsible hunters we have the duty and responsibility to practice shooting so when the time comes we can dispatch that animal quickly and with minimal suffering. Always practice shooting and take only clean shots. Enough said.

I’ve talked about the benefits of meat-hunting like it being healthy and the need to manage animal populations, and each hunter will have his or her own personal reasons. Now let’s talk about how it’s different from trophy hunting. Some will tell you it’s easier—and it often is. You might consider it the “gateway drug” for hunters. I started by hunting cows for a number of years before building the confidence and skills to move on to hunting big bulls.

A trophy hunter will spend a lot of time scouting to know where the big bulls are, and scouting is important for cow hunters too. They may pay guides thousands of dollars to get them on private land or pack them miles into the forest to find the big daddies. They will spend days, if not weeks, working themselves into the right spot to be there at the right time. They will blow bugles and cow calls; they’ll buy decoys and expensive cammo to get in close. Hunting for trophies requires a unique skill set, tremendous patience, often a good deal of money, and usually several preference points. Hunting for the table on the other hand is whole different ball game.

First of all, your objective is different—cows not bulls. Second, you are typically hunting with a rifle—not a muzzle loader or a bow. Third, you can usually draw the tag you want the first year. (I know some of you are thinking “But I hunt for cows with my muzzleloader” and yes, some people do, but this article is written “in general”, and in general, people hunt in later seasons and with rifles for meat.) Fourth, meat hunting is typically ambush hunting, not stalking. You usually wait to find them migrating, get yourself into position and wait for that fat cow to walk by. Fifth, by the later rifle seasons the elk are more skittish because they have already experienced significant hunting pressure; this is one reason you may have to take a longer shot, 100 to 300 yards or more, not 25 to 100 yards.

As you probably already noticed, trophy hunters usually hunt in earlier seasons set aside for muzzle loaders or bows or the first 2 rifle seasons. Meat hunters tend to hunt in the later rifle seasons. This means that the animals have probably begun to migrate and there is often snow in the ground. After the first few snows come in at high altitude, the animals start to head for lower altitude where food is easier to find. They start to herd up in large groups for safety and head out into open country. For many years I’ve watched a group of several thousand elk gather on the winter wheat fields northeast of Craig in November. This pattern repeats itself throughout the state wherever large herds are in the Colorado High country. For elk, the herd instinct is strong and you should use this to your advantage.

Now, this hunting later in the year brings up an important point—snow. Snow is your friend and your enemy. If you’re hiking around in the woods all day with your pack and your rifle, and your GPS and your water bottle and your maps, etc., you can work up quite a sweat. When there’s snow on the ground and the sun goes down it gets cold fast and you can be stuck deep in the woods freezing your kiester off! If you’re not careful, you can get into real trouble, quickly. Remember that and be prepared for a cold walk out. Those guys that were hunting bulls back in mid September had it easier. The days were longer and there’s usually no, or very little, snow around and it’s not as cold and snowy as mid-November or December. Now the flip side of the coin is that you can track in snow. You can read where the elk are and follow them. Also, snow makes elk move, and when they move they’re easier to find.

I hunted for a number of years in units (Game Management Unit, or GMU) 3 and 301 , west of highway 13, northwest of Craig. It’s rolling sagebrush country with lots of public (BLM and state) land. In early rifle seasons, the elk hunting usually stinks but in the late rifle seasons (3, 4, and the late, late season in December) it can be fantastic! When the snows roll into the Elkhead Mountains northeast of Craig, the elk head west southwest to lower altitudes near Maybell and along the Yampa River. They migrate through these sections right across the public land—where you can be waiting.

by G. M. Moore


About bebeebill

I have a passion for the great outdoors. I love to take kids hunting for the first time. I broker Texas ranches in between.
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