Resources for Planning Your Hunt
By Mark Richman
Once you’ve decided that you want to go elk hunting in Colorado, the most daunting prospect for many new elk hunters seems to be deciding where and when you want to hunt. Colorado is blessed with a huge elk herd and large amounts of public land. Narrowing down your options can be one of the most time-consuming aspects of the application and planning process.
I know many hunters think they do not want to spend the time and effort to do a great amount of research on hunting areas during the off season. The research is time consuming and takes some expertise, but in the long run, it can pay off if you are trying to locate a new area to hunt or if you are trying to determine why your current unit may have stopped producing the number of elk you have seen in the past. Which resources do you have at your disposal to help you make those decisions? That’s what this article, and really all of Elk Hunting University, is about.
The Big Game Brochure
Before we even get into the statistics and other resources, everyone should have a copy of the current Big Game Brochure. The big game brochure is a useful source of information on basic draw odds, List A versus List B tags, over the counter (OTC) units, and season dates. The over the counter maps have made it much easier to determine which units are available to hunt with an OTC either sex archery license, OTC antlerless elk, or OTC rifle bull license. The antlerless archery map includes all of the List B units (the units where you can have an additional elk license).
Other useful features in the big game brochure are the asterisk and plus signs alongside the sex of certain hunt codes. The asterisks indicate hunt codes that went to leftovers last year; the plus signs indicate hunt codes that require 5 or more resident preference points to draw. These two little codes will help you quickly identify the highest demand areas that you likely won’t be able to draw if you are just getting started, the leftover tags which can be drawn 4th choice or may be available when the left over list is published.
Once you have an idea of what is available, you need to narrow down the units, seasons and sex for your elk hunt. And how do you do that? Big game statistics provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife can play a big role in guiding the decisions of many hunters. You can take several different angles when perusing the statistics results. It helps to set a few personal parameters to guide your search. For some people, searching the harvest surveys for the highest success OTC unit during 2nd or 3rd rifle season is the tactic to take. Others might want to look for units with the fewest numbers of hunters where success is over 30% in 1st or 4th season. Some hunters might want to know where the most elk are taken.
Another tool for the diligent hunter doing some detailed research is the big game population objective report published annually. Few people ever find these stats, but they are posted in the minutes of the May workshops on the Parks and Wildlife Commission page. You not only get the population information, but by looking at the % above or below the long term objective you can get an idea of whether it is a thriving herd; way over objective or an unproductive herd that is struggling to fill the available habitat.
Another statistic I like to look at is how hunter numbers vary by season: In many units, 2nd season is twice as popular as 3rd season. However, in units with good low elevation access, 3rd season can be more popular. For example, the graph at the right shows the variance of hunters per season in 2010. You can get a feel for the number of hunters in the field during the mid-seasons and understand the pressure on the elk during that time frame each year.
When you consider the unit you plan to hunt you ask some similar questions. Look at how the limited 1st and 4th seasons may vary. Are there more licenses available for purchase in 1st or 4th season? If it’s equal, that may indicate that weather is not an issue affecting the harvest. If you think you’ll be in deer habitat, look at the number of deer hunters. You won’t know what the other hunters in the area are hunting, but they will add pressure to the elk, even if they are hunting deer. If you’re an archer, don’t forget to look at the muzzleloader hunter numbers if you plan to hunt during the middle of September.
For more advanced statistical research, do not just take a one-year look at the unit. Because lightly hunted units tend to have small sample sizes in the harvest survey, they are likely to show great variability so you may not get an accurate look with just one year’s worth of data. The statistics are a projection of the harvest based on a limited sample. I prefer to take a five-year look at any unit that draws my attention. To illustrate the danger of a one-year look at a lightly hunted unit, check out unit 861, which had a 69% success rate during 1st season in 2009, then dropped to just 8% in 2010. Weather is a variable that may affect harvest statistics. In some areas, snows may help to force the elk down into areas that are accessible by hunters, in others; snows might make the elk unreachable by the hunter. I’ve tried to correlate weather events with hunter success in the past, but it’s difficult and incredibly tedious. If you don’t want to be reliant on weather, good or bad, keep an eye out for areas whose success rates are fairly consistent.
Keep in mind that private land hunting can inflate success rates so another important tool to use in conjunction with your statistical research is an atlas that shows the public and private lands in Colorado. The Roads of Colorado atlas shows the private in-holdings within Forest Service administrative boundaries. If an area is predominately private land, but you plan to hunt on the small parcels of public lands, don’t expect to see the 40+% success rates apply to your group. Another important aspect of land ownership is the mix of elevations that are available on the public hunting lands. If the only public lands are down low in the winter range, you probably don’t want to hunt that area during the early seasons. Conversely, you don’t want to hunt in the late seasons in an area which only has high elevation public land.
I generally won’t apply for an area until I’ve looked at something better than an atlas. I enjoy map research and am fortunate that the USGS map center is located in Lakewood, Colo. Nearly every map produced by the government is available for sale there. When looking over those maps, I can get a better idea of road access to public lands, where the private in-holdings are that may create undesirable refuge situations, and where campgrounds or other features are located. The Forest Service maps will also show you where ATVs are allowed on trails and where highway vehicles are prohibited.
The Colorado Hunting Atlas is a free interactive mapping system. The Hunting Atlas allows users to view big game concentrations and game management units on top of street maps, USGS topographic maps or high-resolution color aerial photography.
Another free resource that can be useful when acquiring private land tags, or when researching a ranch or outfitter, is a digital plat map. Many counties now have maps available for free online, or you can visit the county courthouse and use their reference library to find the information about the land and landowner. You can search where a certain landowner’s properties are located, or you can determine who owns a specific parcel of land.
Google Earth is another great tool. You can get aerial photos of the area of interest for free, plus you can tilt the viewing angles to create a 3-D effect. With enough study, you’ll easily recognize some of the major land features when you finally set foot in your hunting unit. I also like to look at the embedded photos left by hikers, hunters and photographers to get an idea of what the landscapes look like from the ground and also to verify the major types of habitat.
The Colorado State University library has a wealth of elk hunting information from past studies. Want to know how elk movements are affected by ATV traffic versus human traffic? There’s a study on that. Did you wonder how those elk concentration maps were made? There are numerous studies looking at big game distributions with place names and maps and other detailed location information. Would you like to know what forage species to focus on in November in your hunting area? There have been studies done on that too. Some of these studies are also available through Inter-Library Loan, so even if you don’t live in Colorado, you can often get your hands on these materials.
There’s nothing better than first-hand information or having someone available to respond to a specific question. CPW has hunt planners (303-291-PLAN) who can help answer your questions, in addition to field staff such as biologists and District Wildlife Managers. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management offices also have biologists, law enforcement personnel and recreation specialists who may be able to offer you some advice or answer a question. These people are great sources of information, but they should not be your sole resource. Look for other local resources such as the FEDEX driver, local County Sheriff, U.S. Postal Carrier or waste management driver. Stop at the local diner for a cup of coffee and piece of pie to meet some of the local people. Many rural Colorado towns rely on hunter dollars as a boost to the local economy and in many cases are willing to help you find successful hunting in their area.
A new source of free information is online hunting forums. On the larger sites, there’s a good chance that someone has hunted the unit you are interested in and is willing to share advice and pictures of the area. Once again, if they are giving you information in a public forum, they are also giving that information out to the whole world. Search engines will often pick up older forum topics, and you can find people whose brains you can pick via private messages if you’d rather keep your area of interest a secret.
Will it snow in the high country? Is it going to rain? How hot has it been? Is the area in a drought? Weather is one of the most fretted about aspects of a hunt, and there are information sources to answer most of your questions. The National Weather Service (NWS) is useful for looking at forecasts and recent histories. NWS also gives a point forecast so you can see adjust the forecast to the mountains outside of the town you are interested in.
Other useful tools are the National Interagency Fire Center and the Natural Resources Conservation Service Snotelsites. NRCS Snotel is especially useful for timing a late season hunt.
Many units have month-long late cow seasons due to the variability of the weather. If there isn’t enough snow to drive the elk down into accessible hunting areas, you may be wasting your time. Since we know it takes 16 inches of snow to force elk into their wintering grounds (from past elk research), you can use the NRCS Snotel information from the mountain nearest where you plan to hunt to see if there is sufficient snow to force elk down lower. You can also use it to help determine the elevations you should be hunting at before you arrive. The National Interagency Fire Center is a site I watch throughout the summer.
Fire perimeter maps are downloadable in Google Earth format. They can help you figure out why there are no elk in your old spot and can help you pinpoint areas with fresh new grass growth. Using weather research to keep an eye on drought information can help determine whether you need to be hunting closer to permanent water, or whether all the intermittent streams in your area will be running.
This is often referred to as the Information Age, and there is certainly no lack of information available to a prospective Colorado elk hunter. The amount of information can be daunting if you don’t know how to put it work for you. By having a plan, setting your search parameters, and knowing how to interpret the information available at your fingertips, the modern elk hunter can use technology to assist in their planning. There are many more resources available than I have covered but I hope I have given you a glimpse into many of the possibilities that exist and how to apply some of these tools to assist you in the coming season. Good luck and go get some graph paper.
Note: Colorado Parks and Wildlife does not specifically endorse any of the vendors, outfitters or websites mentioned in this article. They are provided as examples of the resource information available to the public.