Don’t think for a minute that hunting season in the San Juans has always been the way it is it is now – bow season in early September – a smallish number of hardy, camouflage-clad hunters rather nostalgically trying to recreate the past. Well, sort of. But, having married into an early day ranching family immediately post WWII, I’ve seen it all.
Well, actually, when I first arrived in Norwood fresh out of college, the Colorado Division of Wildlife had temporarily stopped issuing big game hunting licenses. The deer herd was thin and the state’s big-game managers were hoping the herds would sufficiently multiply to allow some well-regulated deer hunting. However, a lot of San Miguel moms and dads raised their kids on poached deer, and who could blame them? By about the 1930s and 40s, big game seemed plentiful and times were tough for everyone, from struggling ranch families to miners and everyone else, during those depression years. Not to make too much of hard times, Watch readers will recognize a few similarities to our present economic predicament.
But today, hunting season is still big business here. Guides and outfitters compete with each other to lease privately owned ranch land (the Herndon Ranch included) for bigger bucks (oops) than many a rancher could have imagined 50 years ago. Of course, the National Forest offers plenty of hunting acreage for the hardier hunters, but hunting has become something very different – a costly, guided, pampered outing where the hunter-client is virtually assured a kill – deer, elk, bear – or simply the trophy head, if that’s what they want.
And this takes me back to a very old 1945 Herndon family photograph, showing Steve’s dad and other family members gathered around a huge buck, strung up to display its trophy-sized rack of horns. The photo itself has taken on legendary proportions: listed in the publication Boone and Crockett as a top-of-the-line trophy rack. Oddly, though, the Herndon family had little personal enthusiasm for big-game hunting. Instead, like most other Lone Cone area ranchers with cow camps strategically located in big-game country, we found ourselves playing host, guide and outfitters to nonpaying friends and relatives.
About the same time, big-game hunting emerged as a commercially viable outdoor recreation business here. Outfitters began to lease private ranch land for exclusive hunting for their clients – and ranchers welcomed the new income. Moreover, the fall hunting season turned out to be great for businesses in Norwood and other small towns. Restaurants, motels and the like prospered.
In 2009, four Norwood area guide and outfitters have web pages that plug their services. The Bray Ranches, one of two local outfitting enterprises, describes itself as “20,000 acres of private property nestled in the San Juan mountains...Whether you are a hunter, fisherman or just want to get out and see some wildlife, Bray Ranches offers adventure second to none.”
Outfitters here assure their paying hunters “full service” and “quality hunting experience, with private lodging facilities, hearty meals and, well, “full service.” Throw in a wilderness experience, and you’ve created a new business for the well-heeled. And what a leap this is for Norwood’s resident historian, Howard Greager, whose books and presentations have enriched us all. Howard says that during his boyhood in Norwood, “We had deer meat all the time. That was all we had during the Depression. Families had lost everything – there were no jobs.”
He recalls that four or five men with rifles would go out and drive a herd of deer to an appropriate spot, the shooting would start and soon there was meat for a number of needy families. In about 1920, Howard says, the first trainload of elk from Jackson Hole, Wyo. arrived at Fall Creek, in San Miguel Canyon. They happily relocated on Wilson Mesa and apparently didn’t move into the Lone Cone area ’til the late 1930s. In any case, big game hunting flourished here and we now have so many “seasons,” from bow hunting to an assortment of rifle seasons running well into November.
Interestingly, our current economic shakeup and the rethinking of what’s meant by sustainability, natural food and the like, has prompted a new interest in wild game.
And why not? Processing is readily available, freezers make it all very easy, and well, cool to harvest your own meat.