Catching up with the Vanatta brothers: Longtime guides are hunters to the core

Hunting has been a family affair for Steamboat brothers Lonny and Dirk Vanatta since childhood, and they’ve made a business out of the sport for nearly 30 years, guiding for Vanatta Outfitters in Routt County. Owner and guide Lonny, 58, and his younger brother and fellow guide Dirk, 46, spend two-and-a-half months every fall leading back-to-back hunting trips on a 25,000-acre ranch north of Hayden. Their priorities don’t change in the offseason, when the brothers spruce up their hunting camps, gather shed antlers and squeeze in a little time to hunt for pleasure. “It seems like that’s about all we do,” says Lonny. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” We caught up with them in a rare moment between scouting, scoping and skinning.

Colorado Hunter: What was it like growing up in northwest Colorado?

Dirk Vanatta: We were both born and raised in Steamboat, and I just like the small town atmosphere, where everyone knows everyone.

Lonny Vanatta: Our grandparents grew up just outside of town, but we grew up right in Steamboat, and we both just love the outdoors. We both grew up hunting and fishing and it’s a great town to enjoy that in.

CH: How did you get started hunting?

LV: We grew up hunting with our dad and family and friends and it was pretty much a way of life when we were young. We set up camps with friends and family and we all hunted together. It continued to be a part of our lives as we grew up and still is.

DV: We’re the only two brothers, but I think we’re more into hunting now than any other family members. We grew up hunting grouse and small game together, and as we got older we got more big animals.

CH: What are your hunting trips like?

LV: We spend all fall on big game hunts. We usually have two hunters per guide and about eight hunters per week. We get a variety of people, some bringing their boys, on up to 80-year-olds. On most trips the two of us are out there together.

DV: A lot of people are on their first elk hunts, but some have been hunting for years. And we become lifelong friends with some of them. I’ve also taken my 13-year-old daughter Jordan hunting. She got her first elk last year with one shot.

CH: Any brotherly competition when you’re out hunting together?

DV: No, not really.

LV: All of our guides are really helpful toward each other, so there’s no competition at all. Everyone shares information. We want our hunters to succeed. We’re all after the biggest trophy we can find, but there’s no competition at all, which isn’t necessarily true with every family or company out there.

DV: But there’s always something to be learned from one another, even after 30 years.

CH: What else do you like to do together?

DV: We like to go out shed antler hunting in the spring. Then we make a big pile in the garage.

LV: It’s fun. We also spend a lot of time working on our hunting camp in the summertime.

CH: What’s your most memorable hunt together?

LV: Some of our really memorable trips have been hunting some of the trophy areas in Brown’s Park. We definitely like hunting for trophies more than we do younger animals. Those trips are always pretty special for us. We have a lot of long days and we work hard, but when we get into the woods and hear that first elk bugle in the morning, it makes our job all worth it. We like it during the rut, when the fall leaves are turning. It’s just a special time to be outdoors and in the woods.

DV: My favorite trips have been in September, my favorite month of the year. It’s not only because of the colors, but the elk are bugling, and I never get tired of that sound.