Colorado hunters detail wild game harvests from the field to their Thanksgiving tables |

Colorado hunters detail wild game harvests from the field to their Thanksgiving tables

Jay Vestich of Edwards glasses the Williams Fork Range in northern Summit County for elk during this past hunting season.
Photo by John Duke

SILVERTHORNE — Mahting Putelis says the turkey he and family will feast on this Thanksgiving was a wily bird. Putelis knows this because he spent four hours during five consecutive springtime mornings in the pine woods of Roosevelt National Forest hunting for wild turkey. He mimicked female turkey gobble calls to draw in the bird for a shot from 25 yards. 

With plans to host his extended family for Thanksgiving dinner this year, Putelis thought it was the perfect occasion to use his harvest of the 14-pound wild turkey as the holiday centerpiece. It will be an early morning for Putelis, who is planning to brine the turkey for 45 minutes per pound before smoking it at 225 degrees for 30 minutes per pound.

Putelis will complement the wild turkey with a caribou backstrap roast from a packraft hunt earlier this year on the tundra near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

“That connection with our food is something that we are highly diligent of,” Putelis said. “Probably one of the more important things for us is knowing where our food comes from.”

Putelis is one of many hunters across the state who will use their hunting harvests from this year as part of a Thanksgiving meal. Similar to Putelis, Micah Shanser of Silverthorne will offer backstrap cuts harvested from a mule deer buck during his family’s Thanksgiving meal.

Shanser, the Central Rockies Group Director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, harvested the deer during a September day after coming down from a bow hunt on a ridge of Ptarmigan Peak in Silverthorne. While returning to his truck, Shanser saw two bucks running from private land to public land. He spent the next two hours observing them from about 100 yards out, getting to know their movements. He ultimately took his shot from about 30 yards, grateful he hit the buck in the lungs leading to a quick death.

Shanser understands that hunting wild animals might seem cruel to non-hunters. But ahead of Thanksgiving, a holiday historically rooted in giving thanks and sacrifice for the blessing of the harvest of the preceding year, Shanser views ethically harvesting wild game from public lands as the ultimate example of having a spiritual connection with the natural world.

“One of the big traditions for humanity is we are here on the backs of hunters and gatherers,” Shanser said. “Traditionally, it’s been an honorable role within the tribe to be a provider. There’s a piece of receiving an animal, if you shoot an animal, honoring it by telling the story of the shot it took.”

The powerful energy that overcomes many Colorado hunters with a successful harvest correlates with the challenging and exhausting effort it takes to ethically take a wild animal. Putelis is excited to share that element of the hunt at Thanksgiving dinner when serving the caribou roast.

The bounty was hard to come by. Putelis got the caribou after flying into Fairbanks, driving 10 hours north and then putting a blow-up raft into a river that he and his group floated. They then walked up another river before his foursome set up camp. Putelis said caribou have the longest migratory range of any mammal, so the challenge in hunting them varies. That was especially so on the Alaskan tundra, where the flat and jagged nature of the terrain made it difficult to find solid footing to carefully approach the animals when traversing through the willows.

In the end, Putelis shot the caribou from about 200 yards. The group then transported the quartered 50 pounds of caribou meat on their packrafts, and Putelis brought it home to Colorado via his airplane carry-on.

Come Thursday, Putelis will sousvide the wild game, cooking it to 130 degrees for about three hours after adding a few spices, red wine and some liquid smoke.

Michigan native John Duke of Leadville has yet to take an elk in his four years hunting on public lands. Spending much of his time in the Williams Fork Range and Eagles Nest Wilderness, Duke said the criss-crossing man-made recreational trails in the forests create islands in the deep wilderness that elk, by nature, stay away from. Large numbers of hunters coming up from the Denver area also push elk into deeper stretches of the deadfall-dense wilderness that many out-of-state hunters aren’t fit enough to hike into.

For a relatively new elk hunter like Duke, despite his effort to maintain the fitness required to successfully hunt elk deep in the Gore Range, it’s easy to end the season without a kill, or “tag soup” as many hunters refer to it.

Despite his tag soup this autumn, Duke will be making his mother’s old venison meatballs recipe with elk meat harvested near Salida that was gifted to him by a friend. Duke will serve up the venison meatballs at his friendsgiving meal. When he does, similar to Shanser, Duke knows he’ll be sharing the story of the effort behind not only the hunt but the work leading up to the hunt. Duke said he spends much of the summer hiking in his favorite public hunting terrain to maintain his fitness and to observe the elk. It’s the beginning step in the daunting yet rewarding, field-to-table process.

“The biggest challenge is they have an extreme sense of smell and very good hearing,” Duke said. “If you get winded 300 to 400 yards out, that’s it. Your biggest challenge is to get within 50 yards of these animals without them knowing you’re there. They aren’t dumb. They are designed to survive, especially against some humans that are made of jello and popsicle sticks. We are not the ultimate predator anymore.”

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