Mulhall column: The hunter, the hunted and Hot Elk in Heat
Every fall for the last five years, I’ve gone elk hunting — usually during muzzleloader season — with my friend Carmine. So far, we’ve hunted the Uncompahgre Plateau, Thompson Divide, Lizard Head Pass and twice on the upper Fryingpan.
Carmine has harvested several elk over the years, but since we began hunting, we have yet to see a single elk, though on our way home in 2015, we did spot a small herd browsing on the Telluride golf course.
A coworker of mine calls hunting “taking your gun for a walk.” As accurate as this is for me, I can’t help think the ASPCA could use the volunteer hours, though no shelter dog I’ve ever met would willingly accompany us over some of the terrain we’ve hunted. More than once on a steep side hill, snaking a dismal way through mazes of deadfall in various stages of decomposition, I have questioned hunting’s popularity, to say nothing of my offseason willingness to go.
It’s when I’m straddling a subalpine fir trunk, balancing a rifle on my downhill shoulder, and getting branch slapped by a dead limb whose brittle needles coat my grimaced teeth with grit that I know any self-respecting dog would prefer a ride on the roof of the Romneys’ station wagon. Some might even take their chances with the rear bumper of the Griswold Family Truckster.
To hunt elk, smell is key. This is not to say your olfactory system helps you find elk, though Carmine tells me if you come upon an area where an elk herd has spent any time you’ll know it by the barnyard bouquet. Rather, smell is key because elk think you reek. One article I read said, simply, “If elk smell you, they’re gone.”
The number of days you hunt protracts this dilemma. As many Coloradans know, each 10- to 15-hour day of hiking without bathing compounds the challenge of odor management. Even if you can bathe at day’s end, a hunter still needs to mask the fragrance of common soap and shampoo.
There are soaps that claim to leave you smelling like “nothing,” if such a state is even humanly possible, and there are spray bottles of scent neutralizer you can mist all over yourself and your gear before you hunt, but the most intriguing product we’ve come across so far is “Hot Elk in Heat,” a product name that for reasons I decline to explore reminds me of the 1983 Loverboy hit, “Hot Girls in Love.”
For eight bucks plus shipping, you can get a 1.5 ounce squeeze bottle of Hot Elk in Heat in a resealable plastic bag. The bag is important.
According to the website, this product is harvested at “the very peak of the estrus cycle.” Some calls even Mike Rowe won’t take.
There really is no accurate way to describe the smell of Hot Elk in Heat. Some years ago the Denver Zoo kept a Maned Wolf, a South American canid that looks like a red fox on stilts. The wolf’s territorial markings were so off-putting they changed crowd concentrations under different wind conditions. Hot Elk in Heat is a lot like that Maned Wolf exhibit.
To use Hot Elk in Heat, you cut a 3-by-5-inch strip of faux chamois, and then you cut a pair of half-inch slits near one of the shorter edges through which you run a 20-inch length of string. You douse the chamois with the product and tie it securely around your ankle. According to theory, as you walk through brush, this malodorous ankle flag lays trail of natural cow elk scent. According to my theory, you tie it around your ankle because it’s as far away from your nose as you can get.
There’s something about leaving an estrus scent trail I find troubling. I understand the importance of hunting into the breeze and minimizing your stink, but the female elk scent trail idea keeps me looking over my shoulder for a wide-eyed bull. You don’t want to miss with a muzzleloader in any case, but if you’ve laid down a cow elk scent trail and have to turn and fire on an amorous bull, a missed shot may come at a bigger price than you care to pay as you rummage through your possibles bag for a speed loader.
Despite our considerable scent mitigation efforts, my elk hunting record remains cheerless. Nevertheless, we plan to try again next year.
I’m optimistic, too. My modest angling accomplishments give me confidence I may one day succeed at elk hunting. Any accomplished angler understands that reverence for trout is threshold to catching one. Norman Maclean wrote about this in “A River Runs Through It”: “If our father had had his say,” Maclean wrote, “nobody who did not know how to catch a fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him.”
Surely the same holds true for hunting elk.
Whether the day comes I fully understand this, Carmine and I will continue our annual backcountry campaign as long as our will and good health hold out. We’ll also continue to break hunting camp, successful or not, with the ceremonial emulation of the Hot Elk in Heat patches.
Mitch Mulhall is a longtime resident of the Roaring Fork Valley. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.