By Michael Deming
It is no secret that Colorado is home to the largest herd of elk in the United States. Colorado also tops the list of Boone and Crockett mule deer harvested as well as overall mule deer numbers. Antelope is another great resource found in Colorado and even though they don’t tout the numbers Wyoming holds, it has a very healthy heard and mature bucks can be had if you hunt the right unit. It is safe to say, Colorado should be at the top of every hunter’s bucket list on places to go.
Understanding the preference point system and how long it will take you to draw a specific unit, researching the hunt unit you choose and scouting the unit when you get the tag may all seem like a daunting task to those of you not familiar with the process, but it is actually fairly simple once you have a basic understanding. However, for those of you who want the perks that Colorado has to offer, but don’t want to go through the process, you need to know about the “Ranching for Wildlife Program” and Papierski’s Big Game Hunts out of Craig.
The Ranching for Wildlife Program allows private ranches the ability to set their own season dates within a certain framework established by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Antelope season runs for a sixty day period and elk and mule deer seasons run for ninety days, which gives you the ability to hunt from the early season, when muleys are in full velvet and big bachelor groups, to late into the rut. Elk can be hunted when they are screaming their heads off in September, until the last of the big herds migrate onto their winter range with herds of 500 not uncommon. These liberal season dates and the ability to pick your weapon any time during the hunt make Ranching For Wildlife a sure win for the big game hunter. You aren’t restricted to a specific weapon or dates as hunters in the rest of the state. These Ranching for Wildlife units are very limited within the state and drawing a tag on one of these units is reserved for residents of Colorado only. However, non-residents can purchase a hunt on these ranches as long as they book early.
This is where John Papierski comes in. John runs an 18,000+ acre Ranching for Wildlife unit in northwestern Colorado near Craig. The ranch John hunts allows for a dozen mule deer and antelope to be harvested annually and only forty elk. This area is known for its high mule deer and elk numbers, as well as some of the hardest to draw units in the state for antelope, but limiting the tags with these liberal seasons keeps the quantity and quality at a premium. It would take ten plus years of building preference points to draw a rifle antelope tag in the unit where John’s hunting operation exists, which is what brought me back again this year.
We endorsed John’s operation many years ago when I hunted with him and harvested an 87” antelope and I’ve since been back on several occasions to share the camaraderie and great hunting experiences. I feel like I’m coming back home to hunt with my family instead of doing a guided hunt, which is probably why his returning clientele rate is so high.
We arrived for the opener of antelope season on August 15th, a day early, which would give us an opportunity to drive around the ranch and see what was available for the next morning’s hunt. Fellow pro staffer and good friend, Ray Kemper from Creede, Colorado joined me. Even though he wasn’t restricted to his bow on this hunt, he had been practicing all summer long and wanted to do his best to get it done with archery tackle. The plan would be for me to shoot first with my HS Precision 6.5X.284 topped with a Vortex HS LR scope and try to harvest a buck that would top my previous record of 87”. The rest of the remaining time would be spent doing spot and stalk with Ray while I filmed.
On the first morning out, John thought our goal of 87” was a bit lofty due to the drought conditions of the spring. He said good bucks were a plenty, but the caliber of buck I was looking for just hadn’t developed. We immediately changed our plan to focus on a good buck, but specifically one that would provide great video and allow me to take a shot in excess of 500 yards to see if my long range setup was as good as I felt it was on the range.
Finding a “good” buck in this country is extremely easy and within an hour, we had glassed up over a dozen bucks in the mid to high 70’s range, but none that really got me excited. Even though it was mid-August and the rut should just be getting started, several bucks seemed to be in full swing. We spotted one heart shaped buck that commanded respect from all of those around him. It was obvious this was a big mature buck that had taken a beating from the drought. As we looked at him through the spotter from over a thousand yards away, he ran off every other buck that came into his view. His swagger back over the top of the hill after running off a competitor was all I needed to know this guy was worthy of my tag. John said, “we can do better”, but there was just something about this buck that had my attention.
We gathered our gear and with Ray on the camera, we closed the gap. The buck continued to chase off suitors and he even went off of the property to the south on one occasion. He disappeared out of sight for several minutes and we were about to throw in the towel on the aggressive buck, but John picked up his horns as he walked back up the ridge. If he crossed the fence back onto our ranch, he was going to be just a hair over 700 yards, which was well within my comfort and accuracy range. I settled in behind my rifle and watched the buck’s every move. It was almost like he knew what would happen if he crossed the fence back to our side. I had settled in on the only flat surface I could find, which unfortunately was loaded with cactus, now making my wait even more uncomfortable. The sun had just crested the hill behind us and lit the buck up like a Christmas tree against the green grass. Finally, he ventured to our side of the fence and started to polish his heart shaped horns in preparation for the next battle. Once he was confident that his armor was ready for battle, he strutted out into the open and broadside. I had already adjusted my turret and settled the crosshairs tight behind the shoulder when he came to a stop. Ray confirmed that the tape was rolling and we were good to go when I sent the 140 grain Nosler Accubond downrange. It hit exactly where I had hoped and the buck immediately lay down to expire. It was hard to believe my long awaited hunt was now over.
With several days left and Ray shooting his bow, we knew we would be happy to be done so soon with my rifle hunt. The afternoon hunt yielded a buck we named “Sweet 16”. He was in that 16” length range and well over 80” B&C. I tried to talk Ray into shooting him with the rifle, but he was having none of that. I spotted and filmed from the truck as Ray closed the gap down to 135 yards, but the big brute wasn’t going to let him get any closer. He sprung from his bed and ran towards him as only an antelope can, passing by us inside of 80 yards and laughing as he did. “Sweet 16” had done what it took to gain our attention and focus for the next few days and even though I consistently hounded him to pull out the rifle and put this trophy on the wall, he stood strong and committed as an archer. Fortunately for “Sweet 16”, my tag was already filled because I’m not a purist, but an opportunist.
The last morning of our hunt yielded a sighting of ‘Sweet 16”, but unfortunately the sweet smell of love had gotten his attention and his date was several miles off of the ranch making him safe from our arrow. We looked in every spot we could imagine to find something of equal value, but just couldn’t turn one of those 80-plus inchers up, so Ray decided to do as I’d done and just find a good buck which would allow for a great spot and stalk opportunity on film.
In this area of the country, it doesn’t take long. Ray found a good buck tucked away under the lip of a hill which would allow him to get within 75 yards, which is well within his ability. An hour later, I was zoomed in from 800 yards as Ray was at full draw. He sent the arrow into the buck with a fatal blow to both lungs. His final run took him over the top of the hill and just out of view of the camera when he expired.
What an great experience with Papierski’s Big Game Hunts and John once again. We had the benefit of seeing the great number of bachelor herds of big mule deer bucks on this ranch and I was sorry I didn’t book a muley hunt with him earlier when there was a spot left. The drought didn’t seem to affect their antler growth as much as it did the antelope and the first few hunters in camp with deer tags proved it.
If Colorado is on your bucket list of states to hunt or you would just like a great experience with a family type outfitter, give John Papierski a call. He is involved with each and every hunt and their ranch does a very limited amount of hunts each and every year, so, booking early is essential. This operation has been on our endorsed outfitter list for six years and we have hunted with him on three different occasions. Visit John’s website at www.papierskihunts.com or give him a call at (970) 629-2266.