An Introduction to Elk Hunting
by Jim Bulger, Hunter Outreach Coordinator & "Dean" of EHU
When my Colorado Big Game Brochure arrives in the mail each year, I find myself restricted to the fireplace on cold late winter mornings. I begin to daydream about the fall season and think about the opportunities to chase an elk, one of the most challenging big game animals in North America. Many new hunters do not realize the diverse weather conditions that can exist in Colorado on any given day in any given month and, therefore, affecting where and when to hunt. The dry early seasons can drive elk high in the timber and other places where hunters have not found them in the past. In some cases, the elk do not begin normal migration until after the regular rifle seasons has concluded. Hunters who have adapted hunting techniques to the dark timber are often rewarded with an opportunity for quality bulls. Heavy spring rains can make for an excellent forage base and excellent antler growth. If the spring is productive in rains and forage, the bulls are sure to be remarkable animals.
With the potential for the next elk season to provide an awesome opportunity, it is time to figure out the best places to hunt and how to apply for a license from the limited license draw system. I understand the limited license application system used in Colorado can be a bit daunting to the first time participant, but there is a great deal of help out there to assist you in finding the right unit, applying for a license, and planning for your fall elk hunting experience in Colorado. Colorado is a big state, with over 23 million square acres of public lands if you include national and state forests, State Trust Lands and State Wildlife Areas. The state has been divided into 185 Game Management Units (GMUs) to define our hunting areas in order to allow Colorado Parks and Wildlife to not only better manage the wildlife resource but also to limit hunting pressure by restricting licenses in some units. In any case, for the new elk hunter it can be a daunting task to determine where in the state to plan an elk hunt. I will address this topic in a future article in detail, but for now, take a look at the Plan Your Hunt guide as a good starting point.
If you are new to elk hunting and have not begun to accumulate preference points (an article about preference points is forthcoming) for elk, consider some ideas on making an investment in your new-found adventure while at the same time participating in an annual opportunity to gain skills and experience. There are over 80 Over-the-Counter (OTC) bull elk GMUs in the state open for the second and third rifle seasons. Archery hunters can enjoy the early fall hunt with unlimited archery licenses for either sex, valid in over half the units in the state. Note that a hunter can apply for a preference-point-only code in the limited applications draw to make an investment towards a future hunting opportunity in a limited draw area while planning to purchase an unlimited or leftover license this year for one of the unlimited units. Each hunter can develop his or her own "license plan", but the key is to get to the field and develop the skills and experience to become a successful elk hunter.
The Big Game Brochure offers a lot of quality information between the covers. Read it! If you have questions, call CPW customer service and get answers. Be sure to submit your application by the deadline. Different ways to develop a license plan will be covered in the next few articles.
Game Management Unit (GMU) Suggestions
As I wrote above, Colorado is a big place—determining a GMU to consider for the limited license application or other licensing options can be a bit overwhelming at first. I talk to a good number of hunters each year about where they go and why. In some cases, it is because they have hunted the same unit for years and are familiar with the terrain, or they like the local community or other personal factors that do not really relate to the concentration of elk, quality of habitat, or weather conditions. Other hunters are more adventuresome in looking for new places to hunt. They follow harvest statistics posted on the CPW website or seek new ways to make the most of their hunting experience by looking for some great trout fishing, upland bird hunting, or another big game species in season at the same time they chose for an elk hunt.
Be sure to check out the Maps page providing links to various maps available on our Web site. One of the links you will find there links to the Colorado Hunting Atlas, a powerful interactive, 'customizable' application that enables you to look at a variety of map layers, such as topography, GMUs, summer and winter range, and migration routes. In choosing a GMU, you should consider all of your personal interests and enjoy the whole hunting experience—not just the pursuit of the trophy.
Various field officers, biologists, and CPW volunteers recommend the following GMUs: (GMU Map)
In the northwestern part of the state, west of Steamboat Springs, these units can provide a very versatile hunting opportunity. As an OTC unit in the 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons, unlimited either-sex archery license, and a month-long limited license cow elk season in December, these units provide a number of choices for the hunter. A benefit of the month-long late season in the unit is that it allows some flexibility for the hunter with weather, work schedule, and family time—always factors in planning a hunt. This unit has a great deal of public land with good access provided by the BLM, U.S. Forest Service roads, and county roads that crisscross the area.
A relatively short drive from Denver, with the town of Kremmling to the west and Hot Sulphur Springs to the southeast, this unit provides the early season hunter with some good options. Hunting the dark timber and high meadows seem to be the key to success in the early season. You need to do some scouting and map review to determine those likely locations.
One of the least 'pressured' units in the state of Colorado, Unit 47 in Eagle and Pitkin counties offers over 250 square miles of public area, over half of which is in the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness Area. An early season unit by nature, due to the altitude and limited access by foot or horseback, this can be an awesome experience for the hunter looking to get away from public pressure in the second rifle season.
GMUs 75, 751 and 77
If you're willing to walk or ride horseback into remote and heavily-forested areas, you have a good chance of finding an elk in these units located between Durango, Pagosa Springs, and Silverton. Road access into the areas is good, but do not expect to see elk from the roads. Elk prefer higher elevations until the weather turns severe. In the early seasons, stick to spruce/fir and aspen forests. As snow accumulates, elk will move south and into lower elevations. In late seasons, ponderosa pine forest and oak brush are usually more productive. Hunters with horses do well during the first season on the portions of the units within the Weminuche Wilderness area. For good access into Unit 77, travel north of Pagosa Springs to these Forest Service roads: 634, 631, 637, 636 and 622.
For Unit 75, major access points are from the Missionary Ridge Road, which is Forest Service road 682, and La Plata County Road 243 above Lemon Reservoir. For Unit 751, use Forest Service Road 602 and 724 to gain access to the high country and wilderness above Vallecito Reservoir.
These areas are in the rugged and steep San Juan Mountains. Hunters should be in good physical condition and prepared for backcountry travel.
Located in far western Colorado along the Utah border, this unit offers the potential for good elk hunting. The area around Buckeye Reservoir can be a good spot to start. The unit is at a lower elevation, generally below 9,000 feet, and vegetation is typical of that altitude—ponderosa pine, pinon pine, and expanses of juniper and oak brush.
Just north of Buckeye Reservoir is Carpenter Ridge. It runs east all the way down to the Dolores River and forms the eastern boundary of the unit. Carpenter Ridge holds elk throughout the year. South of Buckeye Reservoir, at a little lower elevation, is Lion Creek and which can be a good spot later in the year as elk move out of the LaSal Mountains of Utah and into Colorado.
The best elk hunting in this area of south-central Colorado is located west of U.S. Highway 285 to the Continental Divide. Hunters looking for a back-country experience should consider the South San Juan Wilderness (vehicles are prohibited). The terrain in this 164,000-acre wilderness area is high plateau with open parks dispersed throughout the aspen, spruce, and fir forests. There are also many major drainages.
Elk use the high country for summer feeding into the fall until winter conditions push them down to lower elevations. Once hunting pressure starts, the elk disperse and tend to hide in the steep drainages and dark timber. Hunters can get into game by taking horses deep into the backcountry or by merely hiking a mile or two from the road and working the wilderness boundary. Hunters should be in good physical condition and be prepared for any weather condition.
A few suggested areas for starting a hunt are Elk Creek, the South Fork of the Conejos, the headwaters of the Rio del Los Pinos, and Blue Lake.
GMU 12, 23 and 24
These units comprise most of the Flattops and hold great promise on lots of public land and with good elk populations. The White River units all provide good public access and access to wilderness areas for less crowded hunting opportunities.
GMU 12: Approximately 50 percent of the unit is public land with several State Wildlife Areas (SWA) and State Trust Lands (STL) in the unit (Jensen SWA, Indian Run SWA, Illes Grove STL, Morapos STL, and Monument Butte STL). The unit is affected by winter weather patterns and hunting pressure. During archery and the first two rifle seasons, elk can be found throughout all public lands in good densities. As hunting pressure and weather increase, the elk usually migrate to the lower edges of the national forest and on to the SWAs/STLs and private lands. Early hunters should scout Sleepy Cat Peak, Milk Creek, James Creek, and Little Creek drainages. In the later seasons, look at Morapos and Milk Creek.
GMU 23: Approximately 40 percent of the unit is public land and holds a small portion of Jensen SWA, all of Oak Ridge SWA, with scattered parcels of BLM and White River National Forest in the unit. Hunters can look at areas near the Hay Flats and Big Mountain locales of the White River National Forest; for those who prefer hunting our State Wildlife Areas, take a look at the Oak Ridge SWA.
As the snow depths increase, elk and deer typically move off the Flat Tops to the lower elevations along the White River Valley in a westerly migration pattern. Be prepared to see a lot of hunters in this area as it is a popular destination with a lot of leftover licenses available. But for those hunters willing to get away from the major roads and ATV traffic and hunt the steep rugged pockets of the units, this can be a very rewarding hunt.GMU 24: Approximately 90 percent of this unit is public land, primarily the White River National Forest and the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. The farther a hunter hikes from the main trails and camps, the less pressure they will find. Hike into the Trappers Lake drainage for less pressure, but there are hunters and outfitters who use this area during the season as well. Unit 24 is an excellent elk unit for those wishing to get away from the main roads and trails. Early season (archery and muzzleloader) deer hunters can be successful, but the deer tend to migrate off the Flat Tops by the time the rifle seasons arrive.
Much of the unit (95 percent) is public land and offers good elk hunting in various parts of the unit. The unit is summer range and limited winter range for elk, a combination of mountain scrub and conifer habitats. Hunters may find good potential by scouting Gunn Creek, Upper Soda Creek, Mad Creek, and Big Creek drainages. The south side of Farwell Mountain holds promise for the earlier hunting seasons. Located generally north of Steamboat Springs, this unit has good access and holds the most promise for the hunter who is willing to do some scouting and leave the main roads.
Refer to the Big Game Hunting Guides for more unit suggestions. (Also available at CPW offices.)
Steep/Rugged. Snow by end of October
Early season trout fishing
Less than 9000 feet. Snow does not usually prevent access
Premier unit in Colorado. Will take a long term investment to draw.
Note: This chart is to be used as an example of a matrix only. Please refer to the regulations brochure for current information.
Use a method that works for you but narrow your choices to several units that make sense to you and your idea of an enjoyable hunt. Pursue resources that will help you make your decisions. One such is the CPW Hunting Planner, an excellent source of information.
Learn all you can about elk and why they do what they do. Consider their patterns, habits, and habitat they use. Read every article you can about the animals and use the hunting articles to gain insight into various techniques and strategies.
Make contact with the people who can help you the most: Area biologists, District Wildlife Managers, Forest Service biologists/managers, the local coffee shop or diner where you would like to hunt.
Find the food, find the elk!
Bring the best optics you can afford and let your eyes do much of the walking.
Understand what elk do in response to hunting pressure and use that knowledge to your advantage when planning your hunt. Go where others are not willing to go—that's where the elk are!