Planning A Successful Elk Hunt
Education, Thought, and Some Effort
by Kim Herfurt
Hunting in Colorado is an exciting adventure that connects us with the land and our heritage. From the time of the original colonists who landed at Plymouth Rock, and through the Great Depression we were a nation of hunter-gatherers. Somewhere in the recent past, it became more convenient for us to buy food at the grocery store, rather than prepare meals from our abundant natural resources. Our diet now consists of many processed foods and hormone-aged meats, rather than the simple lean meats of our predecessors. The bounty the land provided was healthy and had flavors not found in the food from the grocery store. Wild game is available in Colorado to hunters who plan ahead. Successful hunting today requires some education, some thought, and a good deal of hard work. In previous centuries, hunting was not considered a sport, but rather a means of survival for most American families. Today, the sport of hunting requires a "game plan".
Current game management has provided the hunter with numerous species from which to select. While each of the species of big game present subtle but significant differences in technique, many of the same principles used to plan a successful elk hunt apply to other big game species in Colorado.
This article will focus on the opportunities to hunt elk in Colorado. The first and most important step to any successful elk hunt is to plan ahead. To borrow a phrase from the military: Prior planning prevents poor performance.
Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance
The application deadline for the big game license draw is usually in the first week in April. To successfully select a Game Management Unit (GMU) that's suitable for you, you should start early! Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has a Hunting Planner available that you can print for reference. Careful planning is usually the difference between a successful harvest and an empty freezer. The Hunting Planner page will acquaint you with the dates of various seasons and the method of harvest information for each season: archery, muzzle loading, and rifle. Once you have decided the method of harvest that best suits your ability, you must practice with your bow, muzzle loader, or rifle frequently prior to your hunt. (Editor's note: See the map of Colorado shooting ranges where you can sight-in your rifle.)
CPW provides hunters a wealth of information—free—on this Web site to assist in choosing a Game Management Unit (GMU) with abundant wildlife. The first step is to look over the GMU Map (11 MB).
In general, you will find that if you were to divide the state into 4 quadrants using Interstate 70 to divide the state into north and south and Interstate 25 to divide the state into east and west, the majority of hunters are found in northwest quadrant of Colorado. While the hunting opportunities are abundant in this quadrant, so are the hunters. The other three quadrants, while not ignored by hunters, are generally less populated during the big game seasons and present some wonderful opportunities for harvest. But general guidelines are just that, and in order to ensure a successful harvest, more information is necessary to put some meat on the table. At this point I would recommend you look at the statistics provided by CPW. These statistics are divided into method of harvest (archery, muzzle loading, and rifle). They are also categorized by species (pronghorn, deer, elk, etc.). Upon first glance, the statistics may seem complex. However, if you take the time to interpret their meaning, the information can be extremely valuable.
I am going to walk you through an elk hunting recap report so you can interpret it:
(More Information on how to read CPW statistics)
On the far left, under "Hunt Code", it says EE07601A . Let’s interpret this as it relates to the CPW hunt codes: the first "E" equals elk, the second "E" equals either-sex, "076" equals unit 76, "01" equals 1st season, and "A" equals archery.
Under "Quotas", "Reg" equals regular quota, resident license, "LOwn" equals landowners, "NRes" equals non-residents, and "Yth" equals youth. You'll notice that a total of 125 licenses were issued under this hunt code.
"No. Apps" equals number of applicants, the number of people who applied for this license as their 1st choice (Ch1) and 2nd choice (Ch2)—684 hunters had it as 1st choice, 148 had it as 2nd choice.
The next 2 columns show "Public" and "Land Own" statistics—that is the number of people who applied broken down by category—315 residents applied, 362 non-residents, no youth, 4 resident landowners, and 3 non-resident landowners.
Preference points are issued in several ways. You may specifically apply for preference points as your first hunt choice. You would then list your hunt codes for the GMUs you have scouted as second and third choices on your license application. You may also apply for a GMU that requires preference points, however, if you have not been awarded preference points, you may not be successful when the licenses are drawn. You will then be awarded a preference point and CPW may issue you a license for your second or third choice if there is still a quota available after all the first-choice applicants have been awarded licenses. You may also opt for a refund. Many of the premiere GMUs in Colorado require preference points, so the more points you collect the better your chances of obtaining a license in one of those premiere units.
How to Read Preference Points
The top 2 columns, 0-11+, are the number of preference points. (The columns wrap, which is confusing.) The bottom 2 columns are the numbers of hunters with those preference points that applied. So, in this example, 193 hunters applied with 0 preference points, 138 applied with 1 preference point, 3 hunters applied with 6 points (bottom row, far left column), 2 with 7 points, and no one applied with 8 or more points.
To see how many preference points it took to actually get the license—look at numbers under "Quotas" in the previous table; 125 total licenses were issued. Then count backwards in the preference points table (bottom row, far right side first, last non-zero number listed) until you reach 125. You count starting with the number of hunters who applied with the most points (in this case, 2 hunters applied who had 7 preference points) to see how many points you needed to get the license that year. Thus, you would add 2 + 3 + 6 + 19 + 134 for a total of 164. So, hunters with 7,6,5,4, and some who had 3 preference points all drew a license. The hunters with 2, 1, and 0 points did not draw a license. These are only tallied for the 1st choice (this will always be the case since 2nd, 3rd, and 4th choices do not use points).
Why is the number of tags issued, under "Quotas", shown just in the 1st season on some?
Looking at the 1999 Elk Recap, under EM04801R: Below "Quotas", it has 150 listed, which is the total number of licenses (tags) that were available for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd seasons. (In other words, this is a quota that is shared among all three seasons.) In this case, they are only listed under the 1st season—they are not broken down by a certain number for each season. The number (150) is available to float into the other seasons (2nd and 3rd) as needed.
Hunters can still determine the preference points it took to draw for each unit. Looking at Unit 48, total number of licenses issued equal 150. So, look at the preference points and count backwards until you reach 150. 1 person with 5 points drew (1st season), 2 people drew with 4 points (3rd season), 10 people drew with 3 points (6 - 1st, 2 - 2nd, 2 - 3rd season), 53 people drew with 2 points (34 - 1st season, 12 - 2nd, 7 - 3rd). In the 1 preference point category (goes over 150 total) 84 people drew out of 115 who tried (83 – 1st, 50 – 2nd, 22 – 3rd), but it was a random draw throughout all the seasons—some drew, some didn't. People with 0 points had no chance at all, and none drew. In this case, no one applied with 6 or more preference points. If they had, there would be 2 rows of numbers under that hunt code.
This information helps determine how many hunters you might expect in a particular GMU during a particular season and how many preference points are necessary to be successful in the draw in future years. Each time a hunter enters the draw and is unsuccessful in drawing their first choice, CPW issues them a preference point. You may also submit for preference points as your first choice.
Harvest Survey Statistics
Next, we should look at the harvest survey statistics. While I believe the number of hunters you are apt to encounter in a given GMU is important, what you are really after is a successful hunt. The harvest survey statistics inform you of the success ratio for each manner of take, each season, in each GMU. The harvest statistics are much easier to read nd much more self explanatory.
Be aware of a couple of things here as you look through these statistics. First, just because you determine the percentage of successful hunters in a given unit during a given time, such as 2008, it does not mean that you will be successful. Second, there are many factors that contribute to success including weather, animal migration, and hunting pressure. If you look at statistics several years back (2007, 2006, 2005), you can get an idea of the overall success in a certain GMU. These success ratios may vary considerably in the same GMU over several years. These statistics should point out to you five to ten GMUs as possible hunting sites. Don’t pin your success just on statistics and success ratios. These statistics should only be an indicator of areas you would like to explore further. Exploring those GMUs you have identified is probably the single most important item in a successful hunt!
Natural Diversity Information Source (NDIS)
Even if you are hundreds or thousands of miles away from your selected GMU, there are tools you can use to investigate it. CPW has details of herd movement throughout Colorado and you can view these herd movements on customizable, interactive maps generated by the Colorado Hunting Atlas.
The Colorado Hunting Atlas (an improved version of the popular MapIt! interactive mapping tool) allows users to view summer and winter ranges, migration patterns, and concentration areas, all by specific big game species. Current big game species available include elk, mule deer, pronghorn and white-tailed deer. The species details are placed directly on Bing™ street maps, USGS topographic maps or high resolution color aerial photography.
Hunter Reference details can also be added that allow hunters to view places of interest, boundaries, campgrounds, Colorado Parks and Wildlife license agents and more.
These general observations should give you some ideas about the locations of elk during hunting seasons. Pay particular attention to the migration corridors. These are the areas of opportunity and should help you further refine your plan and eliminate some of the units you previously identified. I say this because from the opening archery season, when elk herds are rutting, until the close of the last hunting season, the elk herds experience a great deal of movement in anticipation of winter weather in Colorado. They are also influenced by the pressure of predators (as in hunters). Ask yourself, “Are my selected GMUs close to winter grounds or to migration routes?” if they are, you are headed in the right direction. If they are not, you may want to rethink the criteria you used to determine your GMUs in the first place.
Once you have identified three or four viable hunting areas, you need to home-in on the terrain. Get topographical maps of the areas you have selected. There are many sources of topo maps, however the USGS maps provided by government surveys seem to be the basis for all other maps.
Where to obtain maps:
- U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps provide altitudes of prominent landmarks and the saddles between these landmarks that are possible migrations corridors.
- Bureau of Land Management provides BLM maps.
- Mapcard is a private company that charges for their maps. They are based upon the aforementioned USGS topo maps but are customizable.
- National Geographic Maps are developed by a very reputable source. I have purchased many of their maps to use in conjunction with my hunts.
Wherever you choose to obtain your maps, there are some important items you need to be able to obtain from them. First, they should identify topography of the land, with elevations at prominent land marks with contour lines that indicate the steepness of terrain. If you select the best GMU in Colorado, but it is inaccessible, all your research is in vain.
Topographical maps help you understand the terrain you will be hunting. It is a good idea to know the terrain well before you hunt. The areas you should attempt to identify are the "saddles". Saddles are lower areas between two higher areas that are a passage from one drainage to another. Mark these with a pencil. These are likely routes animals take during their migration. Elk generally are creatures of habit, unless they are scared, so they use the same routes time and time again. These routes are what we call game trails and the saddles are where they pass in lower routes between two prominent land masses. The saddles usually provide elk some protection in their passage and are a wonderful place to set up an observation and ambush point.
Other items you might look for on the maps are water sources and vegetation. Elk eat a great deal of forbs during and immediately following the rut and during hunting season. The bull elk have just finished chasing cow elk all over the countryside, rounding up a harem, and then fending off other bulls to dominate the cows for breeding. This takes a great deal of energy. Winter is approaching fast; all this mating activity causes the bull to lose lots of weight and he must eat a considerable amount to regain the weight lost before cold weather sets in. Food and water at this stage are critical to their surviving the coming winter.
If you find high protein forbs and water away from where the majority of hunters hunt, you are probably going to locate elk. As temperatures drop, the quality of the protein in the forbs diminishes. With that in mind, if the weather is warm the elk remain in the higher altitudes. If the weather is cold, they come down lower to where the forbs are higher in protein. A good measure of high protein forbs is to determine the frost line (through the National Weather Service) in your GMU.
You absolutely should take these topo maps with you in the field, every time you venture out. They are an invaluable source of information for survival should you become disoriented and lost. I always make notes about the areas I am hunting directly on the maps. I note locations of scat, tree rubs, game trails, and any other information, including harvest locations, sex, and dates. I also make notes about what rifle I used and at what range and the time I harvested the animal.
If you have chosen two or three potential areas from your search of the game management units, have outlined some of the saddles and identified the topographical maps of these areas, you have accomplished about 75% of your homework. Let’s move on to the next step.
I would now suggest you download Google Earth (or another application like it) on your computer; it's a tremendous resource for obtaining terrain information. Use the topographical maps you have purchased and marked up to actually view the areas through Google Earth that you have identified as possible hunting locations. You can use latitude and longitude or UTM coordinates to zoom in on these areas. Google Earth will help you confirm that what you read on the maps is in fact what you thought you were seeing!
In Colorado you will be hunting at high altitude, generally above 7,000 feet. Those of you who do not regularly exercise at those altitudes will find that every movement requires serious extra effort. Consider doing some physical conditioning beforehand. One of the reasons I mentioned that planning a year in advance is a good idea, is that your physical conditioning should start early and continue until you arrive in Colorado. In the winter I work above 10,000 feet, and my job often takes me to 13,000 feet. Every movement at these elevations requires extra effort because there is a lot less oxygen available. Start your physical conditioning effort a year ahead and try to press your exercise regime ahead as quickly as you can. When you pull that trigger or release that arrow, the work just begins. Gutting, skinning, and quartering a 600- or 700-pound bull at 11,000 feet will take every ounce of effort you can muster, even if you are in great physical condition. Then you have to carry that meat back to camp through some of the most rugged terrain you will ever experience. That second round of exertion will take every ounce of energy left. Good physical conditioning is not just another option, it is mandatory for your success and good health on a hunt.
Another tip for successful hunting is to arrive in Colorado three or four days before you plan to start your hunt. Allow your body to gradually acclimate to the higher altitude. I recommend spending a night in Denver at 5,280 feet, then a night somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 feet. Then, move to your base camp at 9,000 to 10,000 feet; scout a day or two very slowly and carefully before the hunt season begins. Drink plenty of fluids, such as water, or energy drinks to replenish body electrolytes. Approximately one to two quarts per day should do it. Body moisture is lost rapidly through evaporation and can quickly cause dehydration, inducing the early onset of altitude sickness. Remember, alcohol acts to dehydrate your body too, especially at altitude. Acclimation in this way allows you several days to become accustomed to higher elevations and lower oxygen levels. It will be a much better hunt if you are prepared, than if you arrive the day before and are rushed into preparing and come down with altitude sickness.
Scouting the Area
There is no other way to verify that all this homework you have done is actually going to produce results until you scout the terrain and get to know the lay of the land. Scouting is best accomplished by taking a week or two fishing trip to Colorado (how terrible!) to look over your potential hunting sites and look for recent animal movement and sign. Don’t forget to bring your topo maps so that you can make notes about the elk signs you observe and their specific locations.
Huge Tip: Do not plan to set up camp in the same meadow or near a migration route that you intend to hunt! Elk are smart and stay away from predators. You are that predator. Their sense of smell is much keener than yours. They will detect your bodily waste, your cooking odors, and your body odor long before you are able to spot them.
Good hunting and fishing. Don’t forget to smell the wildflowers along the way!