Dustin Hardage
Unit 61 colorado elk

My Colorado elk hunting public land experience turned out to be amazing.  I was blessed to get a large 6×5 bull and my hunting partner got a 6×4.

I built up 8 years of preference points in order to hunt the Uncompahgre (unit 61) in Colorado. Some times it simply feels good to know that a year of planning, researching and preparation can pay off.


It came down to the last morning and my body was worn out. Mentally, I had almost conceded that this was simply not going to be my year. I had seen and heard many elk and even missed a 6×6 bull on day two. I had my chances and I thought I had blown it.

However, this hunt was dedicated to my grandfather, so I mustered up all my energy and gave it one more try.

On the evening before the last day, I ran into some fellow Texans and they pointed me in the direction of  several bulls they had seen. That next morning at sunrise, the majestic bugling began. I could hear more than 7 bulls and we started communicating back and forth. A couple bulls got close, but they just wouldn’t fully cooperate.

It was 8:30 am and I faced the most critical decision of the entire hunt. Should I leave these bulls and head back to the saddle where I had missed a bull on the second day, or stay and see if I could make something happen. I chose to leave.

By now its 9:30 am, and based on previous experience, it was really rare a bull would be out in a saddle area similar to where I was headed. However, this was the coldest day of the entire trip and weather was moving in. My hope was the colder temperature would keep the elk out feeding longer.

Another advantage was my hike in would be much quieter than normal because the ground wasn’t frozen like on previous trips in, it was wet. This eliminated the excessive crunching noise of my size 14 boots and would be absolutely key to me encountering a bull.

Dustin Hardage bull elk Unit 61

Inside I wanted to move at a rapid pace because I was feeling the urgency of getting to the saddle. Fortunately, I kept it slow and steady, hunting the whole way.

As I tediously gazed left to right proceeding slowly through the mixed pine and aspen, I noticed some movement.

There was an elk about 80 yards away. I could see his entire massive body, but his head was behind a tree. I couldn’t tell how many points he had, but I knew he was legal (as a spike was legal in this unit).

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

– Roman philosopher, Seneca

When I hike in I always keep my shooting stick extended and ready to shoot from a standing position. This paid off big time. However, just as I laid my rifle on the stick, the bull raised his head and stared right at me.  Now we were frozen, but I couldn’t attempt to move my eye down to the scope. I knew if I moved at all I would be busted.

We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Then he put his head back down and continued grazing. This was my chance. I lowered my eye to the scope, took a deep breath, exhaled, and pulled the trigger. He dropped.

Colorado hunting unit 61

As I watched him lie still,  I noticed another 5×5 bull about 20 feet to the left of him, and then another 4×4 off to his right. I had never even seen them until now.

After I was certain he was dead, I stood there in the eerily silent woods just taking in the moment, reflecting on the last 7 days and the year building up to it.

Inside I screamed with excitement and felt my grandpa was in some way celebrating with me.

The emotion and memories of my grandpa and our many hunting adventures was overwhelming. There was such an empty void because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to call him and share the hunting story.

I couldn’t believe I did this with only 2 hours left on the last day and only 1/3 of a mile from the trail head.

Then I fell to a knee and prayed. I thanked God for watching over us the entire trip and for providing us with two glorious bull elk.

All the hard work, preparation and perseverance actually ended in success. My Colorado elk hunting public land experience was over.

elk hunting unit 61

“The mere fair-weather hunter, who trusts entirely to the exertion of others, and does more than ride or walk about under favorable circumstances, and shoot at what somebody else shows him, is a hunter in name only. Whoever would really deserve the title must be able at a pinch to shift for himself, to grapple with the difficulties and hardships of wilderness life unaided, and not only to hunt, but at times to travel for days, whether on foot or on horseback, alone.” – Theodore Roosevelt 1901

Related blog posts about the Colorado elk hunting public land in unit 61:

Resources for Colorado elk hunting public land:

Do you have plans for Colorado elk hunting public land?

Have you already done a Colorado elk hunting public land trip?

I usually only do Colorado elk hunting on public land. I’d love to hear about your Colorado elk hunting public land experience.

Leave a comment or contact me via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

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17 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Dustin, this was a fantastic story for a great hunt. So cool to see the pictures and hear the details. Can’t wait to read your other two blogs on elk hunting. Especially like that Theodore Roosevelt quote… and it’s so true of hunters in this day and age. Have you read his “Hunting Trips of a Ranchman” yet? Various places online where you can see it, but here’s a quick bit on Elk Hunting of his: http://www.bartleby.com/52/9.html

    • Glad you liked the story. It was an amazing hunt. Thanks again for passing along the two hunting stories as well. Can’t wait to read them both.
      Dustin Hardage

  • Here’s another called “Hunting the Grisly and Other Sketches by Theodore Roosevelt” – http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3337 Love that project Gutenberg makes these old books free for people to download and read. I first read this one in 2006- there’s a certain section that references his hunting in Texas with dogs that was especially interesting for me. My grandfather and his father and his father hunted deer, fox, and coyotes with hounds, so that’s the tradition i grew up with as well (though it’s not very practical to keep a pack these days when you aren’t a full on “dog man”). Thanks again for the cool blog, excited to dive in more.

    • Jason,
      Thanks for passing this along, it looks very interesting. Can’t wait to read it. I never had the luxury of hunting with dogs but have always wanted to, particularly for mountain lions. Maybe one day. Glad you enjoy the blog.
      Thanks again,
      Dustin Hardage

  • Hey Dustin,

    Great Bull!!

    I actually drew a 61 first season elk tag for this fall!

    I was wondering if you might be able to offer some advice as to an area or drainage I might consider???

    I was a guide for 15 years in Units 54 and 55 and would be more than happy to reciprocate the kindness?

    I look forward to hearing back!


    • Kirk,
      Thanks for the compliment. It was a lot of work … but a lot of fun. I responded to your email as well and sure, let’s connect and exchange information about hunting areas. That would be great.

    • Kirk, I see you use to be a guide in 55, I am taking my son there for the first time this year (been hunting 15, terrible) 1st Rifle cow tags. I have my maps in hand talked to the biologist would you mind sharing your expert knowledgein the area and shoot me an email to possibly get us started. I have a couple picked out and would like tyo run them by you and see what you think.

    • Kirk, I drew a 54 archery tag for 2016. We are leaving September 9th for a 10 day hunt. Packing in with horses. Never been there, any advice? Please email me, thanks.

      Paul Clancy

  • How do you ever get to go on a hunt of a lifetime if you never can afford it?? Please let me know if there anything out there that’s cheaper.. Thnx

    • Actually there are a lot of variables on what makes a hunt expensive or affordable. Where do you live? What would you like to hunt? I can definitely give you some ideas on how to experience a great hunt on a budget.

      • Learn the area’s topography and features (water, feed, and travel routes) like the back of your hand and be prepared to hunt when and where other folks don’t. Get up early and stay out late. Have a good attitude. Any elk on public land is a trophy.I was wondering if you might be able to offer some advice as to an area or drainage I might consider???

  • My experience, Pick an area large enough to contain the seasonal movements of the resident elk and preferably an area without motorhead access. Early, mid- and late season elk have different haunts depending on hunting pressure, weather, and snow depth. Learn the area’s topography and features (water, feed, and travel routes) like the back of your hand and be prepared to hunt when and where other folks don’t. Get up early and stay out late. Have a good attitude. Any elk on public land is a trophy.

  • Seeking friend to hunt with 2nd or 3rd season. don,t have truck or 4×4 Will share expenses -over the counter elk hunt. Live in Calif and have hunted Colo. many times. 818-793-8379 Would also go with group of hunters


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