Tactics for Hunting Late Season Elk: With and Without Snow
By Gary Moore
For those of you patient enough to wait until November or December for elk hunting, there are some great rewards awaiting you. Now like a lot of other hunters, I like to hunt in fair weather too. In fact, one of my favorite hunts is in the San Juans during muzzle loader season (mid-September). Earlier in the year, before the snow and while they’re still bugling, the bulls are mostly interested in securing a harem and reproducing. The weather is generally pretty warm and the world is still green. That kind of hunting offers some spectacular views in alpine country, fighting bulls, and warm weather. But, I have to tell you, dragging a whole bull, or even quarters, miles out of the high country at elevations between 10,000 and 13,500 feet has a way of leaving you exhausted like few other things you’ll ever do.
There is an alternative to that kind of exertion that can leave you feeling pretty satisfied with a couple hundred pounds of fantastic meat in your freezer: late season hunts. Late season hunts are almost always at lower altitude, may have fresh snow for tracking, and will, from time to time, have migrating animals walking in front of you while you sit in your pickup drinking warm coffee. Late season is after the rut, can be quite cold and snowy, and has you hunting animals that have probably experienced significant, if not extreme, hunting pressure during earlier seasons. However, in my view, the trade-offs are worth it and my success rate of 80% over the last 5 years is proof of that.
What are the major factors influencing late season elk hunts?
Migration: As the summer ends and the frenzy of the rut dies down, cold weather is right behind. The older cows remember previous migrations and start leading small groups of cows and rag bulls to round up points just out of the woods. They start to form herds on south facing hillsides, not north facing because there’s not enough forage. The big bulls head off on their own or in small groups to try to rebuild their fat stores. At this time of year they’re more concerned with eating than hiding. For the rest, herding up provides protection in numbers but creates a vulnerability: Once herded up in ‘open areas’, they’re visible. This is why you, the hunter, need to be on a high vantage point with quality binoculars or a spotting scope looking for these herds in the migration routes that you found using the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Hunting Atlas Maps.
Where are they going on their migrations: their winter feeding grounds of course. Again – you will find winter range on the maps at the website listed above. If there’s been a lot of snow before your particular season, they may already be there. You need to know where it is and where there is access. When you study the maps closely, you will realize that CPW has leased a lot of land in winter range for two important reasons: 1, it provides elk sure access to food, and 2, it provides hunters’ access to the animals. These areas are often “state wildlife areas”. A comprehensive list of them including size, access, etc… can be found using the State Wildlife Area Finder.
Feeding: Elk always need access to food so they can be found along routes that offer cover, water and grazing opportunities – away from major highways. There is one caveat to this that the late season hunter must keep in mind. When they finally decide to move on their migrations, they just go. They’re not thinking about food. They can move 10, 20, 30, or even 40 miles in one night. However, remember that areas that offer plentiful forage for herds are where they will head.
Weather: Because the rut is over and winter is coming, weather is the major driver of most everything that happens during the late seasons. Weather determines how much clothing you wear, where the animals are, when the animals move or bed down, how much food the animals can access, and many other things. It determines how mobile you can be and how long you can sit on one place.
Now a very important thing to consider is that when I say weather, I mean wind and precipitation because for the most part temperature doesn’t impact elk behavior until it gets very cold. You can safely assume that in the fall and early winter in Colorado it will be ‘kind of’ cold. If there are no clouds at night, it can get close to zero. But sometimes you will have days in the 60s in late November.
The reason I point this out is that no matter how cold you may feel, the elk are warm. Never assume that because you are freezing your butt off at -15○ the elk are cold. It takes prolonged temperatures well below -20○ to affect their behavior. When it does, they are likely to get a bit active at about the time you run for cover. Though some studies show elk pay a thermodynamic penalty for moving in the very cold, they still do it to try to stay warm. So, only when it is extremely cold (<20○F) will the elk start to move a little more . If you can stand it, that’s when extremely cold temperatures start to work to your benefit. In the longer term – when there are days or weeks of extremely cold weather, then the elk will tend to hunker down to conserve energy and prevent heat loss by convection.
The next part of weather to pay attention is snow, for several reasons:
First: If a blizzard is moving in, you have to plan for it to stay safe. Do you have chains? How long will the blizzard last? Can you shelter stand with 16” of snow on the roof? Do you have enough food? Be ready for heavy snows and plan for them when getting your gear together.
Second: Snow is your friend. Fresh snow gives you the opportunity to track animals. Remember that tracks in snow age quickly unless it is extremely cold. Check scat in the snow. Is it still warm? Have the tracks frozen hard at the bottom where the snow was compressed. Of course, if it snowed the previous night, you know the tracks you see are fresh. When driving through migratory corridors after snow, look along the road for where groups of elk crossed during the night. Did they walk into legal hunting areas – if so – get after them, they’re probably not too far and are bedded down in the part of the area farthest from a road. I never miss an opportunity to hunt any morning immediately after a snow. I have filled more tags this way than any other.
Thirdly – and VERY importantly, when it is snowing moderately to heavily during the day, the elk will often feed in the middle of the day. This makes them more visible but requires you to cover more ground to find them. Carry extra gas.
According to CPW Biologist Brian Dreher, it is pretty well established that once snow depths reach the 15 to 18 inches, elk will migrate to areas with less snow for easier access to food. However, if they have to run a gauntlet of hunters they may stay a little bit longer. So if you are driving up hill in an area and the snow is getting deep, stop and rethink – just how deep is the snow? If it’s over 16” you’re probably better off turning around and looking downhill.
There may be years when there is no snow during the late season. If indeed, global warming is happening, that will become more and more likely over time. However, for the foreseeable future there will be snow in the high country if not down below. If there is little or no snow at lower altitude (<8,000 feet) remember two things:
Resident Elk Herds. Resident elk herds are herds that stay in or close to an area all year. Last year we went to one of our favorite spots for a 2nd season buck hunt. The days were in the mid 60s and nights were just starting to freeze. My friends asked me why we didn’t get elk tags and I said “because they’re never in here until 4th rifle.” Yea right! First morning, driving up our favorite ridge we looked up and saw three cow elk milling around and my jaw dropped wide open as my buddies gave me a ton of “friendly feedback”. Driving out that afternoon we saw some other hunters with a large bull in their truck. What the heck? Resident elk that’s what. They may be there in fewer numbers, but they are there. Migrating elk are not the only elk. A couple of years earlier I was in a thrift shop in Craig buying old sheets to wrap my quarters in. When I told the gal at the store why I was there she said “boy I wish I had known you were coming, I have a herd of elk at my place all year up by Great Divide that’s always getting into our alfalfa. You could just drive up and shot them in the morning.” Right there you have intelligence gathering and resident elk herd information in one fell swoop!
Follow the snow line. As I mentioned earlier, elk go lower when the snow gets about 15” deep. Drive to higher altitude until the snow starts to get deep. Look around. If they’re not in full migration mode yet because there’s not enough snow, hunt just below the snow line, again looking for where they have herded up on south facing slopes.
How to plan for the late season elk hunt?
I have hunted in the same late season areas for many years. Recently I found that I could not buy the over-the-counter license that I normally bought so I was forced to buy in an area unfamiliar to me. This posed a serious problem. I didn’t know the area and didn’t know where to hunt it so I approached it the following way which I obviously recommend:
First: Call CPW's hunt planners at (303)291-7526. These guys are here to help you. They can suggest areas to hunt. Another way to find an area is to look at the Game Management Unit (GMU) map and study the statistics for license applications, and success rates over time. Third part of this process is to look at it from a “Herd” point of view. CPW has the state broken up into herd management areas called DAUs and you can find the plans and statistics for each area on the statistics page. When talking to the hunt planners ask them about the ‘Ranching for Wildlife’ program. Elk often herd up or private land where they cause damage to ranchers fencing, land etc… so those ranchers cooperate with CPW and provide access to land for only the cost of the license.
Second: Now that you have studied the areas and their respective probabilities and statistics you have a pretty good area of where to get your license. The next step is to go to CPW's Hunting Atlas maps area and study the maps. Pay particular attention to the five following things: Public land, Private Land, summer habitat, Winter Habitat, and migration corridors.
Third: At this point you have identified an area, have a good idea of how many elk are there and success rates, you know where they are in the summer, winter and their migration paths so you are well on your way. Now you have to get down and dirty. Go back to the DAU plans. At the top of each one you will find the following information: the district wildlife manager’s name and office number. You will also find the name of the elk biologists and staff that helped prepare the plan. Try to get in touch with those people and start asking questions. They may not say something like go 2.7 miles up county road 32, walk 2.2 miles due east and wait there at 6:54 in the morning, but they will give you ideas.
Forth: Go on the internet and look for chat rooms where people talk about hunting and find the areas they discuss on your maps. You are well on your way. As another part of this intelligence gathering process, I have found that local Chambers of Commerce are staffed by friendly helpful people. Their objective in life is to promote commerce in their area and some of that commerce includes local hotels, restaurants, hunting guides, and outfitters. By having a friendly conversation you may also get hints about people having elk problems on their ranches who would love to have you come and harvest elk on their land. Be outgoing and friendly – you never know where it might take you.
Fifth: IF you can, go early. Try to get to your hunting area 2-3 days before the season starts and get the lay of the land. Try to employ the analytical techniques listed earlier – how cold is it? Is there snow on the ground? What is the weather forecast, etc…?
Finally, I want to mention a few loose ends for the late seasons:
Other hunters: Often CPW will sell thousands of licenses in areas for the late seasons. This is because they are trying to reach ‘objective’ populations that they think are best matched to an areas ability to sustain them. If numbers are too high, the animals will overgraze an area, cause damage to private land, and have a higher probability to disease transmission among overcrowded animals. Because they sell so many licenses, you will see a lot of hunters in an area. Don’t be discouraged – use them to your advantage.
As you work your way around the hunting area, notice what the other hunters are doing. Why are they all looking east from that one ridge? They’re looking east because they know that’s where to expect the elk to come from after many years experience hunting there. Other times, if you hear gun shots in the distance, get up high and look that way, the elk may be running right at you for cover.
Calls: Because the rut is over you won’t hear much bugling during late season – not much – but some. However, you don’t want to use a bugle to call elk after the rut. I recommend a cow call. They’re lightweight and easy to use and they work. They will be more effective when you’re calling resident elk because herded up elk know where their friends are – all around them. Stay hidden when using a call and focus up wind. The animals downwind will smell you before they see you and won’t come to your call.
Gear: Much of your gear will the same as other seasons but there will be a few specific adaptations you will need to make. Bring gators. If you have to walk in deep snow, wear gators. Bring extra warm boots. You don’t want to hunt in 8’ of snow with summer light hiking boots. Thinsulate® is a wonderful material.
Weapon: For late season rifle seasons I recommend a long distance gun with a good scope. When you see animals at 250 yards, you don’t want to be shooting at them with a 30-30 with iron sights! I recommend a 300 win mag, 30.06 or 7 mag. Set your scope to 4-5X for easier target acquisition in the field and practice shooting at 200 yards. Have your sights zeroed in at 200 yards and practice with the exact same ammunition that you plan to use when hunting. Have shooting sticks – bipods – NOT monopods.
I’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. We’ve gone from weather to other hunters to hunt planning to specifics about where the elk can be found and even gun selection. The late season rifle hunts in Colorado offer some fantastic elk harvest opportunities. There are thought to be some 280,000 elk in Colorado most of which are concentrated on the Western slope in the Northwest and Southwest corners of the state. By planning your hunt paying attention to detail and using CPW’s free resources, you can accomplish a tremendous amount if intelligence gathering from the comfort of your own home. Once you have work through that process, get on the phone and talk to people, biologists, locals, and other hunters.
Finally, be prepared from cold and snow and get out there and have a great time. By following the steps in this article and others on the Elk Hunting University you have dramatically increased your probability of success. Now get out there and have a fun and safe hunt.