Colorado Hunter 2018: Hamilton family keeps up traditions, competitions while hunting throughout years
Be it elusive fowl, clever deer or even a hulking bear, the Hamilton family has seen beasts of all sizes while traversing the terrain of Northwest Colorado. But, no matter what types of outdoor adventures they have seen over the years, no matter how many trophy-level animals they harvest, no matter how tough the elements may be, it’s taking on each new excursion as a family that means the most.
For decades, the Hamiltons have enjoyed the hunting opportunities afforded in the region, both as their own form of recreation and as a professional venture that has been a major part of their lifestyle.
The beginning of the saga
While many in Colorado’s Moffat County trace their traditions back more than a century, the legacy of hunting didn’t play a large part in family patriarch Greg Hamilton’s life until about 1960.
Though his father, Fred Siebott, enjoyed the activity, running the family hardware store in Craig took up much of his time during Greg’s childhood.
A high school sophomore at the time, Greg began hunting heavily with friends Dave Silver and Jake Russell as they explored areas like Thornburgh Mountain and Morapos Creek.
Their quarry? Mule deer.
“There weren't as many elk back then,” Greg recalls.
As he grew up and started a family of his own with wife Jane, his focus turned to other pursuits. Greg and his sons, Brian and Eric, and daughter, Ann Marie Roberts, bonded after years with small game, such as rabbits and especially fowl.
A particular favorite among all members of the family was hunting geese, and Greg said he and his kids were among the first in town to get out and start shooting, whether it was lengthy trips or just a single-day drive into the wilderness.
“It was pretty much just the family then, that was the fun part, and we looked forward to all the opening seasons, especially the birds,” he says.
As Brian and Eric grew older, they expanded their horizons to larger game, taking on elk and deer.
Among Eric’s fondest memories was his second time harvesting a deer, at age 13, when he successfully brought down a buck he remembers as a monster.
“Just a giant deer, about five by four points,” he said.
Greg had also gotten a kill on that trip, Eric said — notably smaller — and the father and son placed their deer in the bed of Greg’s truck and proceeded to parade the pair around Craig to show off their successes.
“We tied the horns up and drove around town for hours,” Eric says.
For Ann Marie, being the youngest meant being introduced to hunting a little later, though having two brothers also meant she had to prove herself.
She got her chance when she nailed a dove, after which her teenage siblings jokingly told the excited adolescent she had to eat the bird’s heart.
So she did.
Or, at least, that’s how it appeared as she performed sleight-of-hand worthy of David Copperfield, palming the organ as her brothers watched, impressed.
“You can’t cry when you have two older brothers,” Ann Marie says with a laugh.
Hunting at home and elsewhere
Brian left his Colorado home in 1989, relocating to Idaho, and currently resides in the town of Salmon, a community of about 3,000, which he describes as being “more in the fat part of the state, away from the panhandle.”
“It’s about 150 miles from everything,” he said, noting its similarity to Craig as a rural spot.
A job with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation means he sees a great deal of the Gem State’s natural resources, and he sees even more hunting with sons Tyler, Tucker and Zane.
Much of the recreational activity remains the same as in his own childhood, though he says the terrain is trickier than he recalls Moffat County being.
“Quite a bit steeper out here than in Colorado,” he said. “A lot more public land, and your day always starts out with a climb up a hill.”
Elsewhere, Eric has made hunting his career. 2018 marks his 25th year as owner of Big Rack Outfitters, which provides guided hunts on private land on game management units throughout Colorado’s northwestern corner.
Aside from allowing him to earn good money doing what he loves, he says the business is something he can share with the people he loves.
Eric’s wife, Keri, first attempted hunting while enrolled at Fort Lewis College in Durango, though it wasn’t until she met her future husband that she truly gained an appreciation for it.
“It wasn't appealing to me, at first, and I had no idea what I was getting into,” she says with a laugh.
After the two tied the knot, Keri played a small role in the business, mostly cooking and performing other tasks for visiting hunters.
“As I was around it a little more, it seemed fun, so I thought maybe I wanted to give it a whirl,” she says, noting it didn’t take long for her to fall in love with it.
Keri says she harvested her first deer about 20 years ago, but the memory remains strong, because she promptly leapt into action.
“I field-dressed it and used everything they taught me. I had to take care of it; it wasn't like I'd shoot it and they'd do the rest of the work. I had to field dress and do all of that myself,” she said.
The couple’s three children — Matthew, Alex and Halle — have since become an integral part of Big Rack, spending months of the year ensconced in the hunting world.
Even before they could possess a license, they were part of the process. Keri recalls she was one month from giving birth to Halle when she shot a cow elk.
“That's one of my favorite family memories, because most people wouldn't think someone eight months pregnant would even want to go out in 20 degrees below zero,” she says, chucking. “Matthew was 8, and Alex was 5, and they were right there, helped spot it and helped load it up. It was a family ordeal from start to finish.”
Each of the kids claimed their first deer with the same .243 Winchester, Eric points out.
“We made sure to have them use that, and we want to pass that on to the grandkids someday,” Eric says. “I found that rifle when I was in college and held onto it for when I had kids. I can remember, when we were kids, we grew up shooting single-shot, bolt-action .22's with open-sights. I think we still have those rifles; they must be 50 years old.”
Game for any game
Eric describes the family’s “passion” as mule deer, but the Hamiltons are game for almost any game. A turkey hunt in Wyoming this spring was a trip the parents hope to make an annual one.
“Lots of family time, and it's great to have two college kids back with us for four days of that,” Eric says.
An ongoing project is bear-hunting, which they’ve found tougher, but the challenge is part of the fun.
It was when Alex — now 20 — was 13 that the family had its best encounter, felling ursine quarry on their property south of Hayden.
“My dad and I went one way, and my mom, brother and sister went another, because my brother had a tag, too, so were on both sides of the mountain,” Alex recalls. “We were sitting there, waiting on a log, and I actually fell asleep, because I thought, ‘no way are we going to kill a bear this late in the day.’"
She was awakened by her dad screaming, “Bear! Bear! Bear!” as a 400-pound black bear came into range.
Alex took aim, fired … and missed.
“I think that just pissed it off,” she says.
She got another chance as her father distracted the bear from fleeing. Her followup shot was a direct hit.
Even so, she and Eric didn’t get too close to the still, curiously silent beast.
“We were always taught that we had to wait to hear the death moan, and we never heard it,” Alex says. “We ended up waiting for a long time, until Matthew and Halle and my mom could come over with us. Once they got there, we walked up on it, and it jumped up on us and scared the heck out of it, so I shot it again, and it rolled down the hill.”
That hunt was one of many that have instilled a sense of competitiveness, says Keri, though her claims that she’s the best shot in the family have also added to that.
“Everybody wants to one-up everyone else, so that's kind of a fun tradition,” she says.
Keri says it’s Halle who has a “target on her back” in terms of deer, having bagged the biggest buck in fall 2017, but as the 14-year-old tells it, that almost didn’t happen.
“We hadn't seen anything all day long, so we kind gave up, and we were listening to the radio,” Halle recalls.
The song playing — Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” — stands out to her, though the deer her brother spotted while driving was straight ahead, glimpsed through the windshield rather than the rearview mirror.
“He's always been my guide, and he always makes it a fun experience,” she said.
Keri said the trip was one of many instances of her son’s knack for making a hunt successful for himself or others, leading her to nickname him “Mr. Lucky.”
Besides working for his dad, Matt, 22, has also lent his guide expertise to clients in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, though it’s back home where he’s truly in his element.
“I think the land we have is great, just because we do hunt in so many different places, and each place has different terrain that fits each species of animal,” he says.
While Eric and Keri’s children have already logged considerable time in the field, their cousin still has many years in front of him.
At 9 years old, Ann Marie’s son, Zeke, has some time before his first official hunt, though she’s already anticipating it will be a huge milestone for him. She plans to have him in tow during a cow elk hunt later this year.
“Getting to gut his first deer or elk will be very exciting. It's one thing when you're watching somebody, but when you get to do it, it's so different,” she said.
Ann Marie also works for Big Rack, cooking for hunters, and she enjoys having her son in the atmosphere.
“He sees hunting groups, guys coming in and trading stories. He sits there and he listens to them, and it's good for him to be around that kind of stuff and to understand it's a bonding experience with your buddies or your family,” she says. “Eric's kids and Zeke have the chance to socialize with complete strangers who come back and become friends, so they learn how to talk and listen and be around people you're not normally around. It's given him a different outlook on respect and socializing.”
Seeing his grandchildren embrace the hunting lifestyle is something Greg has loved, most importantly, their learning to hunt the right way.
“I go with them, but it's their parents who are doing the teaching. All of them are super-safe; safety is the first thing they ever taught them. That was the biggest thing we stressed all the time,” he says. “Thank God, after all the years we've hunted, we've never had an accident.”
Halle, likewise, says safety has been a cornerstone of her childhood.
“I've learned how to approach animals safely and the importance of hunting in our community,” she says. “I think that growing up with outfitters going in and out of our house constantly has made me better socially, and I can talk to adults better, too.”
Her siblings have started looking into becoming a larger part of the business in their own ways.
While she thinks Matt is the one who’s got the guide skills, Alex is interested in training hunting dogs, likely more as a hobby than a profession, but there’s no telling what could happen.
“Dogs are so smart, and I'd like to get more into waterfowls,” she says. “It's awesome to see animals work for something they were bred to do. Any type of dog could be a hunting dog, but there are definitely dogs that enjoy water more or that would be better retrievers.”
She adds that joining her family on so many excursions and interacting with so many clients has played greatly into her adult life.
“There's people who will be a part of my life forever that I've met through hunting,” she says.
Matt says his love of the industry was solidified during his first official hunt, which was just him and his father.
“He’s the one who introduced hunting into my life and has continued to feed my passion for it,” he says. “My dad has shown me so much about it, and there isn't a part of it that I don't like, so I would be happy to make a life that is centered around hunting.”