It had come down to the last few minutes of daylight on the last day of first rifle season. I sat facing a broad and sloped clearing, having trekked some 15 miles along valley floor and up through a suffocating oak-brush-covered hillside to get to the spot I’d seen elk the night before. As the sun made its fade away shot beyond the mountainous horizon, I heard a crisp bugle on the evening breeze. Like that surge of adrenaline as you come down the home stretch of a marathon, my sleep-deprived and physically exhausted body charged back to life. I knew the call was at least 1,000 yards or more to the west and daylight was fading. It was a long shot, but the only one left.
More reaction and instinct than deliberation, my brother and I grabbed our gear and cut several hundred yards downhill, back through the labyrinth of brush, and began running the fence line along the mountainside. As I feared we might, having guessed at the herd’s location based on what we could hear, we overran our mark. My brother grabbed my shoulder and turned me. Four bulls stood, 200 yards away, frozen as they spotted us. I raised my rifle, but in a second they were off. Without hesitation, my brother blew a cow call, freezing them for the second time. I edged around a bush, knelt, and found the biggest of the bunch in my scope. Facing me, I placed the crosshairs between the bull’s shoulders and put pressure on the trigger. Concussion. Five days worth of raw emotion broke through the dam and washed over me as I watched that beautiful 5×5 crumble to the ground. I’d never worked harder for a bull.
Five days worth of raw emotion broke through the dam and washed over me as I watched that beautiful 5×5 crumble to the ground.
If you didn’t love the ritual, the process that public land hunting is—months of preseason scouting, 4 a.m. mornings and late nights, dozens of miles a day on foot and many more in the truck or ATV, hours of glassing mountainsides, the chill of the freshly awoken world, with heaping portions of sleep deprivation and exhaustion thrown in—there are easier ways to get your meat. But a bloodless, sanitized, pre-packaged pound of burger doesn’t bring me the satisfaction or joy that comes with the investment of my whole person in the vigorous work of hunting. It’s a test of character. It requires a general practitioner’s perfection of skill: glassing, tracking, stalking, calling, orienteering, marksmanship, packing out, butchering and, finally, the touch of a master chef. It’s hard to tell which is more enjoyable: the sweet taste of hard-earned backstrap—salted, buttered, peppered and grilled to perfection—or the satisfaction of having provided manually for your table.
As my friend Toby, a Colorado native and elk junky, says, most of the hunting happens before the season ever starts. This is especially true when you’re hunting public land. For the most part elk are a migratory bunch, which means what you see in August isn’t necessarily what you get in October. Patterns can also change from year to year based on hunting pressure and weather, so it’s imperative to scout multiple areas and be flexible once the first shots are fired. Like a good NFL coach, success depends on solid planning and an ability to make in-game adjustments. Rather than focusing on just one area, it’s a good idea to isolate a few prime spots and scout hard. I rely heavily on my Garmin GPS, a good mapping program (OnXMaps), and paper maps from the BLM and Forest Service. I break out the spotting scope and binos about mid-summer and spend most weekend outings with the family, glassing and looking for sign in between fishing and camping, and that takes me up until opening day in September (archery) and October (rifle).
We began our season in a forest area, but the swarm of the “orange army” had the elk population pretty well hunkered down. After 3 fruitless days of hunting, we decided to check out a State Wildlife Area (SWA) about an hour away. The change of scenery saved the season. In 2 days we saw no hunters and a solid group of elk, including an impressive 6×6, grazing in the evenings. We pulled an all-day Hail Mary on the last day, which put us in the midst of the herd with a season-saving shot. My brother and I cleaned and quartered the bull with headlamps in the darkness, making it back to the truck at 2 a.m. with more packing to be done the next day with my dad’s help. Though followed by perhaps the most grueling work of the hunt, the frame packs come out like crowns of laurel after an Olympic feat.
After participating in the birth of all three of my boys, I’ve learned that some things just never happen at convenient times. It’s often the same with hunting. By the time I’d sent that 140-grain Nosler AccuBond through that bull, night was fast approaching and we were at least 3 miles from the truck. That’s why I always carry a pack loaded with the essential gear—I want to take care of my meat quickly and carefully so that it’s clean and can cool. After field-dressing and quartering several elk, I won’t leave home without: a good knife that will hold an edge; a sharpening stone; a bone saw; game bags; extra water and food to replenish your energy stores; a headlamp; a cell phone or small camera for pictures; and, when possible, hunt in pairs. Field-dressing and quartering an elk is a ton of work when done well, so a second set of hands is always helpful. Friendship never blossoms more fully than in the soil of sacrifice and the mutual sharing of work.
A GRATEFUL LIFE
Like a rancher or farmer, it’s essential to know how to nourish and take life when necessary. That’s part of what it means to be a human, hunter, provider and food producer. Make no mistake, when you pull that trigger, you’re taking a life. But in some mystical way that life, both taken and given, is transformed into nourishment and life for you and those around your table. The best way I know how to respond to a life given, as that bull’s was, is gratitude and respect. From the forest to the butchering block, I try to express to my children how grateful I am to be fed by this beast’s life, because I truly am.
Two are better than one, because they both have a mutual reward in their toil; if a man falls, his brother will pick him back up. So the saying goes, and it’s never more applicable than when hauling meat on your back. Not only does extra help cut your work in half, the conversation speeds time and shortens the hike. I’m a firm believer that hunting is and should be enjoyed as community, young and old, male and female—both the enjoyment of the work and the nourishment of the table. I’m always surprised how many people respond enthusiastically when I ask them to help with the pack-out, whether it’s my 3-year-old son or a friend from the neighborhood. All you really need is a healthy set of legs and a sturdy frame pack (I always keep a few extra laying around). As agrarian communities share in the harvest season together, so the great meat harvest is best when shared.
One of the great transformations that takes place is the change in aromas from my garage to my grill. We hang the meat, preferably in temperatures between 32 and 37 degrees, for a number of days to age it. The smell in the garage is unmistakably one of death. As we cut, grind and package the meat, it too goes through a transformation. Silver skin and gristle get removed, while pork fat gets added to the ground burger. It’s a family affair, and the boys especially love to run the meat grinder. I invested in a Waring MG1200 commercial grinder, which was worth every penny for this meat-eating family. That bad boy will churn through over 5 pounds of meat in under a minute, even on the finest setting. By the time the grill gets fired up, there’s a whole new set of smells that sets the mouth to watering.
THE FINAL TRANSFORMATION
The moment, for me, is when I sink my teeth into that first bite of freshly harvested meat. For the ultimate pub burger, I like to keep it simple: my wife’s homemade hamburger buns; extra-sharp cheddar cheese; ketchup and mayo; home-cut and baked potato wedges; and a liberal seasoning with McCormick’s Pub Burger blend. For the ultimate tenderloin or backstrap, I also keep it simple: rub down with olive oil; grill to perfection, turning once; salt and pepper; cool; pad with butter; and finally, serve. A glass of iced Bulleit bourbon and a cigar afterwards make for one damn fine evening.
Looking for a different kind of winter getaway? Colorado offers world-class predator hunting, as well as skiing, snowboarding and craft-brewed nightlife.
With major big game seasons wrapping up in December and snow piling up aplenty January through March, Colorado becomes a winter wonderland for predators of all shapes and sizes. Sure, you can hunt most predators at other times statewide (coyotes, for example, are year-round), but there’s something magical about this timeframe that makes a trip westward especially worthwhile.
If you’re planning a mid- to late-winter trip to Colorado, there are plenty of ways to get the most out of the experience. Not only does the state boast of excellent predator hunting, it also ranks as a top destination for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, as well as craft breweries—there are over 300 statewide—and unbeatable mountain townscapes. Here’s how to get the most out of your next winter adventure.
Predator hunters who hail from the East, South, or Midwest need to experience the unique sights and challenge that is western predator hunting. What are you waiting for?
TWO PRIMARY STATE REGIONS TO CONSIDER
It’s a bit oversimplified, but there are basically two regions of the state to consider. The eastern plains, which we’ll call anything east of I-25, are predominantly comprised of private land, which means you’ll either have to go door to door or entrust yourself to the services of a local guide with private access. There are more coyotes in this part of the state, however, so a little extra legwork (or cash) may be worth it. If you do go the DIY route, keep in mind that the eastern plains are vast, and most landowners see coyotes as a nuisance, so there are plenty of people who’ll grant you access.
The other part of the state, which we’ll call everything west of I-25, is generally more mountainous and contains thousands upon thousands of acres of public land, either in the form of BLM, state wildlife areas (SWA) or national forests. Many of the wide open BLM stretches in the western part of the state are fantastic for song dogs, bobcats and rabbits. The best way to hunt these areas is to purchase a BLM map or, even better, a mapping program for your GPS like HuntStand hunt map for the state of Colorado. HuntStand is ideal because it includes private landowner names, hunting units, BLM land, forest areas, SWAs and more. If you don’t have the time to pour into maps and scouting, a guide is an essential asset and can get you on dogs in no time. For a substantial list of outfitters that can be searched by region and species, check out ColoradoOutfitters.org.
Making a “bucket list” western cougar hunt? Scoring early might give you several prime chances to thin some of Colorado’s strong coyote population.photo courtesy of Quentin Smith
GO WEST FOR ABUNDANT LIONS
Speaking of the northwest part of the state, the area from Meeker to Craig offers some of the best mountain lion hunting in the country. Quentin Smith, owner and operator of QRS Outdoor Specialties, said there’s an unbelievable number of mountain lions in the area surrounding the White River.
“I think if people really knew how many lions were around, they’d be shocked,” Smith said. “We generally run anywhere from 12 to 15 hunts a year and guarantee you’ll get put on a cat, 100 percent success. The hunting is simply that good.”
Eastern predator hunters accustomed to thickly wooded terrain may be shocked to find how effective glassing for predators can be in many areas of Colorado. Bring good glass and use it often.
It’s not cheap, as most mountain lion hunts run you around $5,000, but it is a fantastic opportunity to check another item off your bucket list, especially if you’re already in the area. Nearly all the hunting is done with dogs, which tree the cats until the hunting party arrives. Prime-time hunting happens roughly December to February, while the season runs November 16 through March 31. If you go the DIY route, an out-of-state license will run you $351.
SKI TOWN USA
The other major benefit to hunting west of I-25 is proximity to world-class skiing and snowboarding. If you’re near Meeker or Craig, Steamboat Springs is a few hours away and offers some of the best powder the state has to offer. There’s also Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Loveland, Keystone, Winter Park, Vail and Aspen, among many others. If you’re further south, there’s Telluride, Silverton, Monarch and Durango, while more to the west you’ve got Crested Butte and Powderhorn.
Abundant coyotes and lots of public lands should make Colorado a must-see destination for any avid predator hunter.
Driving to your adventure might be the best way to ensure the most hassle-free gear transport and hide handling, but of course flying is an option. If you don’t want to fly into Denver International Airport (DIA), there’s an airport in Hayden, Grand Junction, Aspen and Eagle, each of which provides access to skiing and the northwest part of the state. Keep in mind that it is wintertime, so flights can often get rerouted because of inclement weather. The typical “worst case” scenario, however, isn’t that bad—you’ll generally get sent to Denver where a shuttle bus will take you the remaining couple of hours to your destination.
KICK BACK WITH A BREW TOUR
If you spend any time on the Front Range near Denver, consider tapping into one of the state’s richest resources—craft breweries. The Coors tour in Golden is good, but the real adventure is found by exploring one of the state’s 300 craft breweries, many of which are Denver bound. Among the top experiences, the Boulder Beer Company (in Boulder) was the first craft brewery in the state and serves an amazing variety of award-winning beer. There’s also a pub full of good eats, trivia and occasional live music.
Few states do winter adventure as well as Colorado. Sure, pack your favorite predator rig, but also consider adding your skis, snowboard, and maybe even your flyfishing gear.
On the larger scale, Breckenridge Brewery (based in Littleton) started out 25 years ago in Breckenridge and is now one of the 50 largest breweries in America. The Farm House restaurant sits adjacent with a menu chock full of ranch-style food, while tours can be scheduled as well. For more of a mountain flavor, check out the Glenwood Canyon Brewpub in Glenwood Springs. It’s got 17 award-winning beers to its name from the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup, and the menu is loaded with good eats, including the Canyon Buffalo Burger.
PEAK-TIME HUNTING: FEBRUARY & MARCH
While coyote hunting goes on year round, February and March are the peak times for winter hunting. If you do plan on hunting during big game seasons, make sure you check the Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) website for specific regulations. For instance, it is illegal to hunt small game with a centerfire rifle larger than .23 caliber in regular rifle deer and elk seasons west of I-25, unless you have an unfilled deer or elk license for the season and unit you are hunting. If you are hunting with a smaller caliber, a small game license is required. There is night hunting, too, but you need a special permit for the area you’re hunting. An out-of-state small game license, which includes your furbearer’s license, runs you $56, while a mandatory habitat stamp is another $10.
When the temps drop, work BLM roads and check fields for ‘yotes as you drive. Try to find places to setup where you can walk over a hillside or ridge without making too much noise.
The weather is also a major factor, so stay abreast with the HuntStand Hunting app. The app is also great for checking out available roads, as well as satellite and terrain views of potential hunting areas, not to mention the app’s indispensable value in determining the wind direction and therefore best setup and access strategies. One reason to avoid a December or January trip is the propensity for extreme cold—several weeks in late December and early January this year were in the -20s and -30s. There can still be good hunting during those conditions, but it limits how much time you’ll actually spend outside the cab of your truck. On the flip side, the rabbits have been out in force, so even if the coyotes aren’t stirring there’s plenty of shooting to be done on the coldest days.
MATCH TACTICS TO THE TERRAIN
Distress calls, like rabbit distress, work well in the wintertime, but it’s also a great time to get your howl on. When the temperatures drop, work BLM roads and check fields for ‘yotes as you drive. Try to find places to setup where you can walk over a hillside or ridge without making too much noise. If there’s deep snow it generally makes for a quieter environment, whereas extreme cold and light snow make for a noisy walk into your set. I’ve even had surprisingly good success walking the brushy, thick bottoms of canyons—you never know what you’ll kick out of there. Try to avoid areas where mountain lion hunters have been through and head out following fresh snow.
Colorado predator hunting is a bargain; an out-of-state small game license, which includes your furbearer’s license, runs $56, while a mandatory habitat stamp is another $10.
Likewise, most places you’ll setup can also be good for bobcats, so don’t be afraid to use your woodpecker distress call. Before you leave a set, use the ol’ pup distress call, which works wonders. Especially if you’re hunting forested areas or short, narrow draws, it may be a good idea to bring a shotgun along for close encounters of the furry kind.
When you find open country, spend some time glassing. Not only can you pick out predators in the distance and tracks in the snow, giving you a better idea of animal movements, there’s also an incredible variety of other wildlife to take in. There’s elk, big horn sheep and more to be seen, so stop and enjoy the scenery from time to time. Glenwood Canyon along I-70 is a popular place to spot bighorn sheep, sometimes alongside the highway, as is the stretch near Georgetown. Further south, near Salida and the Collegiate Peaks, there’s also plenty of big horn sheep viewing.
CONSIDER A FLYFISHING SIDE-TRIP
Whether you spend most of your time in Denver or in a mountain town, chances are there’s a pretty famous trout stream to fish nearby. February and March are equally good for trout as for coyotes and other critters, especially when the weather is overcast and warmer (in the high 20s or 30s). Key in on tailwaters where the water comes off a dam and is warmer, making for good fishing all year. The South Platte in Denver is good, as is the Frying Pan near Basalt and the Blue River near Silverthorne. In the northwest, stretches of the White River are excellent and the Green (flowing out of Flaming Gorge in Wyoming and Utah) is also superb.
Sunset on a prime stretch of Colorado coyote country. Scenes like this, and many more, await those willing to brave the cold and snow and head west for an exciting winter predator adventure.
[READ NOW] WINTER FLYFISHING ADVENTURE: COLORADO
You can get maps from the CPW website, or check out its Colorado Fishing Atlas for regulations and areas with public access. Local fly fishing shops can be your best friend for fishing reports, and most mountain towns near major waters have them. A five-day fishing license for non-residents is only $21, or you can purchase an annual for $56. If you go the guided route, many outfitters will accommodate for either predators or fishing, weather depending. Tad Howard, owner and guide at Colorado Trout Hunters can take you to dozens of places around Denver or deeper into the mountains.
Designed specifically to offer stand-out low-light performance, Team HuntStand put this exciting new design through its paces with impressive results.
As any seasoned hunter can attest, big game animals seem to show up when the light is at its worst, either at the beginning or end of the day. In the past that’s where lesser scopes suffered, but Leupold introduced the VX-3i, the latest edition in the VX-3 series of riflescopes, this year to dominate in low-light situations. The new scope features Leupold’s Twilight Max Light Management system, featuring coatings that help bring out the reds and blues of the color spectrum, the two colors that are most crucial in failing light. When the light’s at its worst, the VX-3i is designed to be at its best.
The Leupold VX-3i 4.5-14x50mm reviewed here featured the Custom Dial System (CDS) turret for rapid long-range elevation adjustments. The scope comes with a standard ¼-MOA turret, but the Leupold custom shop will build you a yardage-based turret when you send in specific load data.
Focused Low-Light Performance
While it does borrow some of the midday, high-light performance in order to increase low-light transmission, I shot the 4.5-14x50mm variant of the scope in both conditions and found it to be incredibly sharp in either case. For the hunter it’s an acceptable tradeoff, since such a high-percentage of shots are taken in failing light. The edge-blackened lenses also help to cut down on glare if the sun’s directly overhead on cloudless days, and as always Leupold’s glass is second to none when it comes to clarity and contrast.
To set eye relief on the VX-3i, simply loosen the focus lock ring and then turn the entire eyepiece until the crosshair becomes sharpest for your eyes. Once you’ve got the focus set, tighten the focus lock ring back down.
To see just how well it’d perform in a real-world scenario, I mounted the VX-3i to a Bergara B-14 Woodsman in .270 Winchester, an ideal combination of caliber and scope for anything from whitetail to western mule deer, elk and black bear. I sighted the rifle and scope in, then tested a variety of loads from Federal and Hornady for accuracy at 100 yards. To get a feel for the low-light capabilities of the VX-3i, I shot it at midday and in diminished light, including in an afternoon downpour.
Tested with four different loads from Hornady and Federal Premium, the VX-3i and Bergara B-14 Woodsman in .270 Winchester handled them all with relative ease. Hornady’s American Whitetail with InterLock bullet produced an impressive group of .44 inches at 100 yards.
Customized Long-Range Accuracy
The VX-3i utilized for testing featured a Wind-Plex reticle, allowing for quick in-scope windage adjustments, and a Custom Dial System (CDS) turret for elevation adjustments. The beauty of the CDS turret is that, once you’ve decided which load you want to use for hunting, Leupold’s custom shop will make you a load-specific turret that features yardage instead of ¼ MOA markers. That’s a pretty handy feature if you’re like me and don’t care to bring an abacus into the field with you. In any event, the turret gives you plenty of MOA adjustment out past 1,000 yards.
[WATCH NOW] RIFLESCOPE ADVICE: SETUP, SIGHT-IN AND HUNT
Before you have a custom dial made, however, I’d recommend sighting in first, then shooting multiple loads with your rifle of choice. Since barrels are like people and often have a personality all their own, your rifle may like different loads. Shoot several brands and bullet styles, as I did for testing, then have a turret built for whichever load performed best (and fits in your budget).
Once you’ve got your rifle and VX-3i on paper at 25 yards, it’s time to shoot at 100 yards. I recommend a paper target with 1-inch squares, which allows you to know how far your in-scope adjustments need to come. While MOA does not equal inches, four clicks (¼ MOA each) amounts to roughly 1 inch at 100 yards.
Getting Dialed In
One great feature on Leupold scopes is that they’re incredibly easy to mount and dial in. I ordered scope rings and mounts from Leupold for the VX-3i, which are the Remington 700 style for the Bergara rifle. Once you attach the bases to your rifle, you’ll use a wooden dowel to turn the rings, locking them in place. You can then attach the scope and move it forward and back to fit your body and eyes.
After you’ve tightened down the scope rings, you can set the eye relief by loosening the rear lock ring and turning the rear eyepiece until the reticle is completely in focus. This makes customizing the scope/rifle setup simple and pain free. This particular model also features a parallax adjustment dial on the left side of the scope. The dial doesn’t feature yardage delineations, but there is sloped gradient to indicate focus adjustments from close range out to infinity.
While you can bore sight your rifle without one, I recommend using a laser bore sight to save on time and money spent on ammunition. For the review of the VX-3i, I used LaserLyte’s MBS-1 laser bore sight, which fits snuggly in the barrel and allows you to line up your crosshairs and laser at 25 yards. Built with impressive internal components that make fine-tuned adjustments a cinch, the VX-3i was sighted in with just three shots.
Laser Bore Sights
Although you don’t have to, I prefer to use a laser bore sight to at least get myself on paper at 100 yards. This saves countless rounds of ammunition, a spendy commodity these days. Once I’ve matched my reticle with the laser at 25 yards, I then moved to paper at 100. You’ll want to set your scope to max magnification (in this case 14 power) and make adjustments on your turret until you’re where you want to be. My preference is to be 2 inches high at 100 yards. One nice update to the VX-3i is a larger contoured magnification selector knob, which allows you to make quicker power adjustments, especially when wearing gloves and/or chasing game in the field.
The VX-3i tested comes with a parallax adjustment dial, which more or less adjusts focus of the target at a given distance. While the dial does not include yardage, it is marked with a sliding scale that indicates distances from near to far, with infinity marked at the far end.
As I sighted the rifle in and tested accuracy on four different loads, I appreciated how accurate the adjustments were on the windage and elevation turrets. Lesser-made optics won’t adjust properly, but the VX-3i was bore-sighted and dialed-in with less than three rounds fired. It held zero throughout testing and the ¼ MOA adjustments held true. That speaks to the quality engineering and construction of internal components, something I’ve come to expect from Leupold.
I tested the VX-3i and Bergara Woodsman with four different loads: Hornady’s 130-grain SST Superformance, Hornady 140-grain American Whitetail, Federal Premium 140-grain Trophy Bonded Tip, and Federal 130-grain Fusion. Each load was exceptionally accurate, producing average groups well under an inch at 100 yards. The first load I tested was the 140-grain American Whitetail, which features Hornady’s InterLock bullet. It produced a best group of .44 inches, which indicates both an impressive rifle and an impressive scope.
Not only did I put the VX-3i through its paces from bags in the prone position, I also put it to work in typical field hunting positions at varying ranges. While a bench or sand bags help remove the shooter from the equation and test the accuracy of the rifle, scope and ammunition, it’s essential to practice shooting from the kind of field positions you’ll experience afield—sitting, standing, kneeling and from sticks.
From Bench To Field
While accuracy testing is typically done at a bench or, in this case, from a set of bags in the prone position, it’s important to practice marksmanship and get familiar with your VX-3i using field positions. If you plan on shooting off sticks, practice with sticks in the field. And since light conditions play such a pivotal role in hunting, make sure you get out there in less-than-ideal light. For testing, I set multiple steel targets at varying distances, then practiced timed drills in which I located, ranged and made a steady shot from a field position or from sticks. While it’s hardly the adrenaline rush of hunting, it at least simulates the steps you’ll take to make a clean, ethical kill, including making magnification adjustments. It also proved to me the simple yet astounding effectiveness of the VX-3i.
Since weather and light conditions are always changing, and you may be required to make a long-range or close-up shot on game, you need a scope for hunting that can do it all. Leupold’s VX-3i is an ideal hunting scope because it retains a crystal clear sight picture in all light conditions, but especially when the light fails. It also has blackened lens edges and coatings that reduce midday glare, and a CDS turret makes even go-long shots makeable.
At the end of the day, the VX-3i proved to be every bit as capable as advertised in diminished light. I honestly didn’t notice a decrease in image quality during high-glare, sunny conditions, either. The turret system on the VX-3i is simple to use, works consistently, and is backed by Leupold’s unbeatable gold ring, full lifetime warranty. For an elite-quality, long-range scope that carries an MSRP below $800, that’s an incredible deal.