Thrill of the Hunt

The sun is just beginning to rise over the southern Rocky Mountains as our guide, Adrian Hesterman, disappears amid the thick sagebrush and scrub oak lining the top of the ridge. He’s taken his bugle call with him and a moment later the high-pitched intonation of his manufactured elk bugling echoes out over the valley below. At this predawn hour, the air is cold and still, and as soon as Hesterman’s first round of bellows fades away, it’s also silent. Another series of calls rings out, but they yield no response. A moment later, Hesterman reappears and makes his way back to the dirt road, his footsteps crunching over dried scrub and gold-colored leaves that had fallen earlier in the season.

“Nothing?” asks my hunting partner, Richard Kessler.

“Nothing,” Hesterman replies, adjusting the binoculars that hang from around his neck.

I’ve come to the slopes of western Colorado during the American elk’s bugling and rut (mating) season to accompany Kessler on his annual hunt, and as we stand atop one of the many ridgelines that make up his property—a property that spans 23,000 acres—Kessler and Hesterman survey the basic map of the landscape and formulate a plan. If Kessler wants to take down a trophy-sized bull this morning, we have about five hours to locate a herd with a dominant male that meets Kessler’s standards. Otherwise, we’ll have to wait until mid- to late afternoon.

During the hottest parts of the day out on the mesas and in the valleys, herds of American elk will retreat to the shade provided by dense pockets of coniferous trees; and rousing them from those locations isn’t an option. Female elk are known for their excellent vision as well as their skittish nature, and since a herd of elk is made up mostly of cows, a hunter’s chance of approaching them unnoticed is slim. Naturally, the last thing a hunter wants to do is scare off a herd. A startled elk can traverse a lot of ground in a short amount of time—full-grown animals can reach speeds close to 45 mph—which means that in minutes an entire herd could be a couple of miles (and several ridges) away.

Learning that a different guide had reported clamorous activity in a nearby area a few days before, Kessler and Hesterman decide it’s worth exploring. A short drive in a Jeep brings us to a new lookout point, and soon Kessler spots a few elk on a hillside about 600 yards away. It’s not much of a herd—only a few cows and one bull are in sight. But from what Kessler can determine with the aid of his binoculars, that bull has the look of the trophy that he’s been seeking.

“He’s a good six-by-six,” Kessler says, keeping the binoculars to his face. “What do you think, Adrian?”

Hesterman has his eye on the bull too, tracking the animal’s gradual movements through a long-range scope that he’s mounted to a tripod and placed on the hood of the Jeep. As Kessler explains, hunters always want a second opinion about the elk that they see or think they can see. With a scarce number of elk tags available each season, hunters fortunate enough to secure one know that they have just that—one chance. Kessler wants at least a 300-point bull this season, a very respectable elk based on the Boone and Crockett system of measuring antler size and dimensions. The largest bull taken on the property in the past five years registered 368 points, while the largest one taken this season was 345 points, though many others have fallen in the 320-to-325 range.

This one appears to be larger than average and sports a wide, whale tail–shaped rack of antlers with six distinguishable points on each side. After a few moments of silent deliberation, Hesterman offers his assessment of the animal. “Yeah, he’s pretty big,” he says.

We’ve found our target; but that target brings a greater challenge. Now we must find a way to get close enough to take a shot.

Richard kessler began hunting at the age of 10, stalking squirrels in the woods around his family’s home in Savannah, Ga. He soon graduated to deer, then wild pigs in the Savannah River swamps, followed by dove and quail and other types of fowl. He was in his early 40s before he experienced his first elk hunt in 1987, and it had a profound impact on him. So much so that when Kessler, who is a hospitality executive, looked to enhance his portfolio of hotels and resorts, he built a boutique lodge about 30 miles north of Grand Junction, Colo., on a 36-square-mile piece of property renowned for its elk and mule deer hunting. Thus, Kessler Canyon (www.kesslercanyon.com) was born.

“We’re along what has been known as a historical migration route for elk coming off the mesas and highlands and into the valleys,” says Bob Edwards, the lodge’s general manager. “Basically, the area has all the ingredients that make the elk want to come here—a place to sleep, a place to eat, and a place to propagate. The conditions just all come together in the area.”

However, the quality of the elk-hunting experience on the property wasn’t always so high. Before Kessler purchased the land in 2001, the previous owner had opened it up to the public for hunting purposes as a way to generate income. According to Kessler, that owner charged hunters about $5,000 to roam his property, and because he was hard up for money, the owner put less stock on the vitality of the herds that occupied his land and instead focused more on the money that he could make by selling the hunting rights. Prior to Kess­ler’s acquisition of the property, public hunters were taking about 50 elk off the land each year, he says, while today, the resort sells only 15 or so elk tags to guests each season.  About 15 or 20 elk tags are then offered to the public for the remaining few weeks of the hunting season, which runs from early September to mid-November. Those tags are provided by Ranching for Wildlife, an ecological management partnership with which Kessler Canyon is affiliated, and all public hunting on the land is strictly regulated by the organization.

“He had his own needs and agenda,” Kessler says of the previous owner. “We had a different agenda. Ours was to build a bigger and healthier herd, and by doing that, everyone wins.” Kessler knew that the area had been overhunted when he purchased the parcel of land, so he abstained from hunting on it for the first two years of his ownership. Instead, he worked to restore a lot of the natural vegetation, he developed about a dozen water sources for the animals, and he’s now looking to plant seed for other types of grasses, which would provide a more diverse and abundant food supply for the various herds of elk and mule deer that traverse the land.

These are all actions that correspond to the lodge’s partnership with Ranching for Wildlife. Through its partnerships, the organization monitors participating private properties and rewards those that demonstrate a commitment to preserving, protecting, and improving wildlife habitats. Those rewards come in the form of a longer hunting season (guests at Kessler Canyon can begin hunting with rifles in early September if they so choose) and an allowance to use rifles over a greater period of time during that season. The program also allows the resort to sell hunting licenses and tags in advance. All elk tags for the 2013 season are currently spoken for, Edwards says, but he can sell tags now for the 2014 season only because of the property’s affiliation with Ranching for Wildlife.

Beyond that, Kessler has implemented strict rules for the property’s hunting trips, which cost $9,500 for four days of elk or mule deer hunting and $17,500 for five days of both. “If you wound an animal, your hunt is over,” he says. “You’re done. You bought that animal. It makes people think about what they’re doing and it prevents them from taking any crazy shots.”

Our best chance for a shot at that six-by-six requires taking a path that leads up to the crest of the hill above the small herd and slowly advancing in a diagonal direction back down the slope. The sun is now well above the horizon as Hesterman leads the way along the top of the ridge, while Kessler and I follow close behind, crouched low and in single file. We’re no more than 100 yards above the location of where the herd had been when we first caught sight of the bull on the opposite bluff. But that was almost 30 minutes ago. The hillside’s dense vegetation on our left has kept us hidden from the always-suspicious elk, but it’s also prevented us from tracking the animals’ recent movement. We pause to assess the situation, and both Hesterman and Kessler communicate using hand signals. Neither one speaks; only the sound of leaves falling from the branches of nearby sagebrush can be heard.

We push out again, ready to begin our descent toward the elk, when a mule deer buck suddenly bounds out of the scrub to our right and scampers away down the back side of the hill. My heart rate spikes and Kessler shoots Hesterman a worried glance. Did the sound of that mule deer alert the elk of our presence? It’s impossible to say. At this point, we can only carry on with the plan and hope it leads to success. Thirty minutes later, when we arrive at the original location of the herd, we have our answer. We are alone.

“Colorado elk hunting is very interactive, particularly during the rut and bugle season,” Edwards explains. “You’re either bugling or mewing and you’re enticing that bull into believing one of two things—you’re either the sweetest cow out there or you’re an uprising bull that wants to challenge him for his territory. You’re trying to get him to come to you; that’s the art and the special experience that you get with elk hunting, and that’s why hunters want to take that trophy elk during bugle season.”

The staff and guides at Kessler Canyon recognize that not every hunter wants the same experience, which is why the property can provide hunts that are as rugged or as comfortable as a hunter may want. However, Kessler believes it’s the high quality of services, amenities, and accommodations that set his property apart. “When you come to a place like ours, you’re not sleeping on the ground and you’re not cooking out of a pot,” he says. “You’re enjoying a cocktail while the chef is preparing a lobster or filet mignon.

“Every hunt is different,” he adds, “and each one stands out with a different personality of the experience. You never know what you’re going to see.”

He recalls a recent elk hunt with a friend who was bow hunting. As Kessler tells the story, they were both crouched down in bushes, bugling, when they heard a big herd of elk on the hillside below them. Before long, their efforts had coaxed a large bull up the hillside and to within 10 feet of them. “When you get a big 800-pound, five-by-five bull looking down on you and can almost feel him breathing on you, it makes you think twice,” he says with a chuckle. “Fortunately, he could never quite figure us out. He walked off, and my friend didn’t shoot. But it wasn’t five minutes later when a big six-by-six came up about 12 feet from us, and my friend said that was the one.

“He took him at about 12 feet or so,” Kessler continues. “But at that distance, you have to ask if this is the place where you want to be. At 100 yards it’s another situation.”

Kessler may have missed his opportunity for that large bull, but he believes the value of a hunt goes beyond its end result, and he’s not about to make a kill just for the sake of making a kill. Kessler also sees a growing number of the lodge’s hunting guests taking a similar approach. “If they don’t see something that they’re really after—something perfect—they’ll just enjoy the hunt and go away as happy as if they got something,” he says. “If they go in from the beginning with the attitude that they’re going to wait and only take the appropriate animal, they’re doing the right thing.”

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