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Is Colorado the last, best chance for the elk hunter with no license and no plans? I think it is. With 92 units available in Colorado for over-the-counter elk license purchases, there is an incredible selection of units with terrain and levels of remoteness to appeal to hunters of all levels. Most elk taken in these OTC (over-the-counter) units are 2 year old raghorn bulls sporting small 4 and 5 point antlers. That being said, Colorado is big enough and rough enough for elk to find places to avoid hunters for years on end. Some bulls have gotten big, with monster OTC bulls taken in recent years that rival those bulls of tightly managed units of Utah and Arizona.
Choosing a place and unit to hunt with 92 units to choose from is a daunting task for the would-be elk hunter and the first step an elk hunter needs to take in the planning process is to check your expectations. Only about 1 in 5 elk hunters goes home successful and of those, a big majority of those successful elk hunters are those who have taken cows during the various hunts and or bull hunters who have taken an elk in the first couple days of the first, limited rifle season that starts at the tail end of the elk rut.
A few months ago, EHM editor Ryan Hatfield and I were discussing OTC elk hunting in Colorado, the best options and what it takes to be successful. Ryan said that he was interested in hunting OTC elk and really didn’t have a good starting point and felt many EHM readers would find this information useful. A comprehensive breakdown of 92 units in Colorado including herd dynamics, hunter success, terrain and habitat and potential for older age class bulls was what Ryan hoped for. All this in an easy to read 6-page layout complete with charts, graphs and text was my mission should I choose to accept it. No problem.
While I have a pretty good knowledge of many of these units through first-hand experience or solid anecdotal information from other successful hunters, there were many units I really didn’t know a whole lot about other than a camping trip in the area in the past. I was going to have to do some research myself, coincidentally doing what I was to educate and advise others of in my article. I went to the Colorado Parks & Wildlife website (formally the Colorado Division of Wildlife, DOW) referred to now as the CPW and quickly found that there is an incredible wealth of information available to would-be elk hunters in Colorado.
In recent years the CPW has really done a great job entering the information age in an effort to educate big game hunters to what Colorado has to offer. The most interesting and subject appropriate part of the CPW website that I found was the Elk Hunting University section. Launched in 2010 as an effort to help and support elk hunters both resident and non-resident, the Elk Hunting University online program is an incredible succession of articles over the last three years, covering about every aspect of elk hunting hunters could think of. It is complete with links to other aspects of the CPW’s website including specific unit and area information and interactive maps detailing elk habitat usage and migration corridors. It would take 2 or 3 full Elk Hunter magazines, cover to cover to detail the amount of information available to those visiting the CPW’s online Elk Hunting University.
Instead of trying to come up with a set of charts breaking down all 92 OTC elk units in a surface scratching amount of detail, I am instead going to give EHM readers my anecdotal takes and experiences of the different areas of the state and what hunters can generally expect from these different areas. Additionally I will delve into the Elk Hunting University webpages and where savy hunters can garner useful information of the many OTC units in the state of Colorado. Immediately after this magazine goes to print, Elk Hunter Magazine website will have this article published online with interactive links to the CPW’s Elk Hunting University. I will provide correlated links to what I feel is some of the most useful aspects of the EHU and how to apply it to OTC elk hunting in Colorado.
OTC Season Options
Elk Hunters have basically 3 season to choose from in regards to OTC elk license opportunities in Colorado. The first is archery which is a month long season starting the end of August( August 25th in 2012). Elk are scattered far and wide in Colorado but suffice it to say much of the lower elevations in Colorado should be ruled out and elk will be mainly found between 8,000’ and 12,000’ feet in elevation this time of year. This would suggest that archery OTC elk hunters start their area selection process in units that have alpine and sub-alpine terrain adjacent to designated and non-desiganted high mountain wilderness areas. The logistics of hunting this unforgiving country and packing an elk out of it should be obvious.
The second combined rifle season is the next option. This 9 day hunt typically starts near the 20th of October(October 20th in 2012). Usually there has not been much snow accumulation in the Rockies other than on the highest peaks and additionally the rut is over. The bulls are tired from the rut and the survivors have just gone through surviving the first rifle season which just ended two days before. Elk hunting is very challenging in this hunt for those reasons as the animals are pretty spooky and the weather is still mild on average. Crisp mornings and bluebird days are more common than not. The elk tend to stick to shaded heavy cover and sitting watch over a beautiful “elky” looking high mountain meadow is a good recipe for tag soup. You will have to rely on good old fashioned still-hunting and shear luck to make your hunt a success.
The third combined rifle season is also a 9 day hunt and starts around the 1st of November give or take a few days(November 3rd in 2012). With a week long break after the second season ends, there are some appealing aspects of knowing the elk have had a chance to settle down a little from the last season. Additionally, the later in the fall a season starts, the more likely the hunter is to have to benefit of snow. Snow during an elk hunt can definitely help an elk hunter with the added advantage of increased visibility of elk and also the fact that elk can’t hide their presence in snow. Some years there can be too much of a good thing for elk hunters with snow virtually shutting down many parts of the high country and really limiting access. It is then that only the most driven and hard working elk hunters are successful while the others sit in the cabs of their pickups sipping coffee and complaining about the lack of elk and all the snow. Me? I never curse a snowstorm in the Rockies during hunting season because I know how good it can get. It’s just more work.
Where and When in the OTC Units
Colorado is so varied geographically speaking that there are options for every level of hunter and what type of hunt they choose to participate in. That being said, I want to re-interate the fact that elk hunting is hard and many good hunters go home without elk every year. There are some relatively easy elk hunts out there but they almost always involve hunting on private land that usually involves a fee for trespass or a guided hunt. The days of knocking on doors hoping to get permission to hunt elk on private land are pretty much gone and if someone suggest otherwise they are full of bull. Elk hunting on private land is big business in Colorado and most likely someone has already leased the hunting rights on that private ground you are eyeballing.
When choosing an elk hunting area in Colorado, the San Jauns of southwestern Colorado should come up pretty high on your short list. Problem is these units are a pretty long list as the San Jauns are the largest mountain range in Colorado and hold some of the largest contiguous roadless areas in Colorado. I flew over the San Jauns in a commercial airliner last year and was amazed at how big these mountains really are. All or parts of OTC units 65, 70, 71, 711, 73, 74, 75, 751, 77, 771, 78, 80, 81 are in the San Jauns and there is a really good elk population in the San Jauns. In 2007 and 2009, I accompanied friends on bighorn hunts, backpacking deep into the San Jauns both times. My experiences showed me that these San Jaun elk don’t spend quite as much time in the alpine as other areas I used to hunt elk in the alpine along Colorado’s front range. They seem to really like the high mountain timber and aspen forests just below timberline during archery season and during the later OTC rifle seasons are involved in a gradual and weather influenced migration to lower country. Hunting the San Jauns usually involves an investment of time and energy. This country is so big that first time elk hunters spend much of their time simply learning the units. Utilizing the links on the CPW’s website for the Game Management Units interactive maps and the Hunt Guides available for the region will help you start the process of narrowing your search for an elk hunting spot.
The Northwest region in Colorado is home to the largest elk populations in the state. The famous White River herd that summers on the Flat Tops and migrates through the Piceance Basin and the Bears Ears herd both number in the many thousands of animals. There is terrific archery and early season hunting opportunities for elk in the higher country but come the later OTC rifle seasons, weather or lack-there-of and private land become the largest contributing factors to hunter success. Hunting pressure is heavy in the OTC seasons primarily because of the shear number of elk and also the relatively mild terrain in the western part of the Northwest area. It’s a rare bull that gets to live long enough to be a six point and 300 class bulls are nearly non-existent. Taking a big bull in the Northwest area is probably one of the most difficult feats in hunting public lands. Units 3,4,5,11, 12, 13, 14, 23, 24, 131, 211, 214, 231, 301, and 441 make up much of the Yampa and White River drainages and this is the elk factory of northwestern Colorado. With all the hunting pressure on national forest lands in this area, there is a massive hunter induced migration opening week of the first rifle season. I have hunted and guided in this area and can say I was truly amazed at how hundreds and thousands of elk bailed out of great elk country on national forest lands onto private property during this time. I took my first bull, a crooked antlered little raghorn, in the Bears Ears area when I was 20 and found him by himself hold up in a north facing quakie forest a couple miles from the nearest road. Elk learn early in this area where it is safe to go and there is a real frustrating aspect of hnting the Northwest to see literally thousands of elk in hayfields around Craig, Colorado waiting out the onset of winter in plain sight to all who pass by. See the 2010 EHU article “Understanding Elk Movements” for more information on this very real phenomenon.
The Roan Plateau also in the Northwest area encompases a large geographical area cut by canyons and narrow mesas and is also ground zero for natural gas drilling and development in Western Colorado. Units 21, 22, 30, 31, and 32 cover all or parts of the Roan Plateau which is bordered by Piceance Basin on the north, the Book Cliffs on the south, the Flat Tops on the east and the Utah state line on the West. There have been some really big bulls taken out of the area in the last few years primarily as a result of the enforcing of private oil lease property access and the rugged and wild nature of the Book Cliffs on the south. See the “Hunt Guides” information page for the Northwest region on the CPW’s website for more information on this area and the access issues. It’s not traditional high country elk habitat but this rough and wild slice of lower elevation elk county holds a few tremendous bulls for those hard working and lucky hunters. Archery hunting the Roan Plateau is a hot, dry challenging event but heavy cover allows dedicated, tough archers to get good opportunities. Rifle hunters can experience the worse road conditions they will ever see if the country gets wet snow or rain in hunting season. The dry dirt of the Book Cliffs becomes the worse clay you will ever see when it gets wet and often it doesn’t get cold enough at night to freeze the roads in hunting season resulting in quagmires the best chains in the world cant help you through.
Middle Park and North Park are areas that hold really decent elk populations. Like most OTC elk areas in the state, the presence of private land elk habitat is a blessing and a curse for elk hunters. These private lands reduce the hunting pressure on elk creating islands of safety and allow some elk to grow old. There is also enough heavy timber roadless country that elk have great cover and escape habitat in areas relatively close to winter range. The elk can and do seek safety in the heavy timber country and have very little ground to cover to winter ground if the snows come early, much unlike the elk of the San Jauns which have to travel dozens of miles to their wintering grounds. Much of the lower sagebrush country in Middle and North park is tracked with great access roads and road hunters and elk really are confined to the heavy timber and aspen country middle ground. One significant complication to hunting this area is the pine bark beetle epidemic of the last 6 years which has killed 90 plus percent of the lodgepole pine in the area. Now a few years later these dead trees’ roots are rotting and the millions of dead lodgepoles are falling down and littering the mountains and forests. Some places are very difficult if not impossible to navigate due to the incredible tangles of deadfall. Units 6, 16, 17, 18, 27, 28, 37, 161, 171, 181, 371 make up the OTC units of Middle and North Park.
The Central Mountains of Colorado are synonymous with the ski towns of Vail, Aspen and Crested Butte. Soaring landscapes, rugged mountains with peaks over 14,000’ and huge expanses of aspen and oakbrush make the Central mountains into terrific elk habitat. There is unlimitied OTC elk tags but there is enough wild and rough country for bulls to get big and old. Every year, a handful of 330 to 360 class bulls are taken in the Central mountain units by hardworking and lucky hunters. Some by early archery and muzzleloader hunters working the elevations near timberline from 10,000’ to 12,000’ feet and others by late season hunters taking advantage of early and heavy snows that sometimes blanket the central mountains. Within the Central mountains are the Holy Cross, Maroon Bells and the Hunter/Frying Pan Wilderness areas. There is an incredible amount of summer backpacking traffic in these Wilderness areas, most of which is near destination lakes in the alpine. Mature bull elk don’t much care for humans and don’t readily differentiate between backpackers and hunters. Avoid the obvious heavily traveled areas in the Wilderness near trails and lakes and instead look for alpine basins without those elements for archery hunting opportunities. Later bulls will get into small bachelor groups and stick to heavy timber and thick aspen forest in some of the roughest near verticle country in the Rockies. They are not afraid of rough terrain but they are crazy about avoiding hunters. Bulls also seem to congregate according to age class the later in the fall and you will often see a whole gang of raghorns but the bigger bulls are mostly solitary or in very small groups. Units 36, 43, 44, 45, 53, 55, 444, 471 521 make up a majority of the units in the Central Mountains.
The reason Colorado allows unlimited elk license sales is that hunters are limited by the scope of the land, the ruggedness of the terrain and the season structures put in place. If elk hunting was easy, elk would be over-harvested by the amount of pressure we as hunters put on them. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife website is an incredible tool for hunters wishing to plan an elk hunting trip to Colorado. From basic instructions on scouting and hunting to research tools and even interactive mapping program the Elk Hunting University really covers the bases. Prospective elk hunters would be well advised to start their hunt research on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website. When this article is published Elk Hunter Magazine website will have interactive links to the Elk Hunting University articles including a top ten list of what I feel are the most useful articles and links for your Colorado over-the-counter elk hunt planning process.