Photo by Brian K. Strickland.
It was a perfect September day. The cloudless blue sky seemed electrifying above the Creator’s autumn canvas. The faint whistle of a bugling bull elk only added to the surreal moment.
Kevin LaRose and his 16-year-old son Tim had seen an impressive bull and his harem of cows bed down the previous evening. Now they were hot on his trail.
“There was no doubt it was a really nice bull,” said Kevin, who had spotted the bull from a few miles away the night before. “He was definitely out of the ordinary.”
Attempting to locate the herd, Kevin let out a single bugle and got an immediate hair-
aising response. After the hunter cut loose with a couple more bugles, the bull came in at a run, fiery-eyed to find the intruder.
Before they knew it, he was a mere 50 yards away heading through an avalanche chute. At 30 yards Kevin let out some seductive cow talk and the bull stopped.
Finding the sweet spot, Tim released his arrow and the echoing Whack! told the rest of the story.
A short time later, they stood slack-jawed over this Western monarch.
Tim’s 2006 bull was a monster to say the least. It grossed some 380 inches and will rank as one of Colorado’s top archery bulls. This icon didn’t fall on some well-managed ranch where hunts start at $7,000. No, the LaRose bull came from some prime public timberline real estate that had an over-the-counter tag, priced at a mere $49.
No question, these are the good old days for Colorado elk hunters — and I’m sure the LaRose family would agree. Over the past few years, they have collected four public-land bulls, each of which stretched the tape to more than 300 inches.
States like Arizona, New Mexico and Utah consistently produce numerous gagger-sized bulls each fall, but none can hold a candle to the sheer numbers of elk living in Colorado, and its access to vast amounts of public land or the more than 90 game management units (GMUs) that offer visiting hunters the opportunity to head to the local Wally-World and buy a license over the counter.
In these units, your chances of lowering the crosshairs on a 350-inch bull are unlikely. But there are plenty of bulls to choose from, making the Centennial State a must-see for elk enthusiasts when fall rolls around.
In fact, Bruce Watkins — Colorado Division of Wildlife terrestrial analyst and big-game guru — said that his state is most definitely “the elk capital of the world.”
Annually, some 250,000 elk hunters visit each fall.
lthough last year’s final harvest numbers have not yet been tallied, by all accounts hunters appear to have done pretty good.
“If everything I’ve heard from the field is correct,” said Watkins, “hunters were pretty close to our 57,000 harvest objective.”
Although this is not 2004’s record harvest of 63,336, it’s still worth talking about, considering that about 25 percent of all hunters left the woods with a truckbed full of succulent elk steaks.
And don’t think for a minute that a quarter-million camo-clad hunters make for tight spaces. With 12 national forests and countless Bureau of Land Management parcels, Colorado hunters have access to nearly 25 million acres of public land. And it’s on these public stretches of aspen, fir and pine that most of the elk roam.
Colorado hosts more hunters than any other Western state, and there are more elk living there as well. CDOW’s latest post-hunt survey estimates that more than 250,000 elk populate the rolling hills and deep canyons scattered across the state.
According to Watkins, the ideal target population is around 210,000, and those numbers can fluctuate depending on the conditions of the different Data Analysis Units.
“In most of the DAUs, elk numbers are above objective,” said Watkins. “And the problem with some of them is getting hunters to those more remote areas, which is where a lot of the elk tend to be.”
For hunters, this burgeoning elk population is a windfall. More elk equals more harvest opportunity. And because of this surplus of lean protein, the CDOW has decided once again to offer additional cow tags for nearly 100 units.
You can purchase these additional licenses over the counter, by drawing or in the leftover license pool. “These additional cow licenses,” said Watkins, “have really had an impact in lowering the overall population, which was what we were after.”
To make these additional cow tags more appealing to out-of-state visitors, the cost of the tags is $251. That beats the price of a side of beef.
For those who make their living packing hunters in — and their fallen trophies out of –the woods, these higher population numbers are a bounty.
“Elk hunting in Colorado is as good as it has ever been,” said outfitter John Nelson of Gunnison Country Guide Service. “There are lots of 4- and 5-point bulls out there. Many of those 5x5s are in the 270- to 280-inch range.”
That’s saying a lot, because Nelson guides hunters in a couple of over-the-counter units.
So what can hunters expect this fall? Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Watkins seems to think hunters could really make a dent into the herd. “There are still lots of elk and lots of public land. If the right weather comes, preferably snow, hunters could do extremely well.”
With all this optimism, hunters have good reason to be giddy when they take to the field this upcoming elk season.
Here’s what you can expect to find in your corner of elk paradise.
Finding elk shouldn’t be hard in this elk-rich region of Colorado. Each year, in fact, more than 30 percent of the state’s overall elk harvest comes from this vast stretch of elk-hunting nirvana. You can see why when you consider this region is home to the famed White River and Bears Ear herd
s. Combined, these herds number more than 55,000.
Add this to the vast amount of National Forest and BLM land, and you can see why this region is a treasure trove for visiting elk hunters.
Not only is there a ton of elk here, but it’s also home to some of Colorado’s most coveted units: 1, 2, 10 and 201. In these units live bulls with antlers of back-scratching proportions But in order to get an invitation, you have to burn anywhere from 10 to 18 preference points, depending on your choice of weapons. Don’t let that scare you off because the rest of the units are unlimited for modern ballistics, which is where the bulk of the elk live anyway.
According to Meeker-based biologist Darby Finley, it appears that overall, hunters did well last year, especially during the earlier seasons when Mother Nature blanketed the region with a fresh coat of powder.
“The early snow really got the elk moving around,” reported Finley, “and the hunters seemed to take advantage of it.”
Jeff Yost, terrestrial biologist out of Steamboat Springs, agreed and credited Mother Nature for much of the success throughout the seasons. “We had snow on the ground throughout most of the rifle seasons, which really got the elk down and made them much more accessible to hunters.”
Even though hunters did well, elk numbers are still above objective for much of the region. So if you’re looking to fill your freezer, a second cow tag will come in handy.
Because of the abundance of elk, a good harvest is expected this fall as well. Both of these seasoned biologists reported having seen lots of bulls this winter. And since the winter was relatively mild, the mortality rate will be extremely low.
Further to the east, hunter and biologist Justin Martin reported elk were scattered throughout the Grand and Summit county areas. This winter, Sulphur Springs-based biologist reported seeing excellent numbers of bulls. He feels hunters could do really well. But keep in mind that, as Martin stressed, this region is managed for quantity, not quality. So don’t expect to see many 300-inch bulls running around.
This region should also rank high on your list if you’re looking for some prime public real estate to hunt this year. It sure was for many hunters last fall.
For much of the Four Corners region, it was a “banner year” for hunter success, according to Andy Holland.
“We had good snow right before the first rifle season, and that really got the elk moving down out of those more rugged areas,” said the Durango-based terrestrial biologist.
This region seems to be an area of extremes when it comes to weather, as well as hunter success, he explained. “If we get the right weather, elk hunting can be a boom. But if it’s hot and dry, elk hunting can be a bust. It was boom last year.”
Don’t let his statement “lot of bulls harvested last year” keep you away either. According to Holland, there are still plenty of elk to chase around this fall. During his winter overflights, he still saw good numbers of bulls and some big ones as well. “Hunters could do well again this year — that is, if the right weather comes,” said Holland.
Farther east, Monte Vista biologist Brad Weinmeister reported last year’s harvest was average to even slightly below. He blames this on the snow that pushed the elk down early. Then it warmed up in the later seasons, and that really scattering them around. In fact, bulls were still seen in the upper reaches during the later seasons.
If you want a real chance at some oversized head-bone, then you might consider units 61 and 76. I have personally hunted both of these areas and can attest to the quality and numbers of bulls there.
As with anything else, you have to pay your dues — in the form of preference points, that is — before you can expect a reward from these units. It can take a fistful just to get access.
But much of the rest of the region has unlimited licenses, and there are always some holdover bulls that have a few years on the ground. The key to finding them is to get off the roads and hike into some remote areas. When hunting pressure builds, those older bulls hide in these hold-up places. If it’s hot and dry, hunt high and in the cooler dark timber on the north-facing slopes.
It’s definitely a tougher way to hunt, but packing out a 6×6 hatrack might be worth the extra effort.
The Gunnison Basin and areas to the north encompass most of this region, and it’s one of the most-heavily hunted regions in the state.
There are good reasons for this. It’s nearly all public and is overflowing with elk. Approximately 30,000-plus elk live here, and the bull to cow ratio averages over 30:100. With numbers like this you can see why hunters make tracks here each year.
According to CDOW biologist Brandon Diamond, overall harvest looked to be above average last fall: “Like in many areas of the state, the early snowfall really got the elk moving. And from what I’ve heard, second-season hunters really did well.”
Outfitter John Nelson agreed. “Our early-season hunters did really well. And overall, we had an exceptional season.
The LaRose bull came from some prime public timberline real estate that had an over-the-counter tag, priced at a mere $49.
“Our West Elk Camp went 18 for 18, and the Fossil Ridge camp had about a 75 percent success rate.”
He expects good things again this year, but adds that the key to finding these elk is to get away from the other hunters.
Diamond also indicated this fall was shaping up to be good. Winter surveys showed good numbers of bulls across the basin. And with the lack of deep snow this winter, mortality rate would be low. Add that to the region’s surplus of elk, and he expects a good harvest again this year.
Because of the remoteness of many of the units here, quality bulls can be found in any one of them. If you have a couple of preference points to burn, units 66 and 67 offer good odds for tagging a bull and offer both wilderness and easier-access areas.
Units 54 and 43, mostly wilderness areas, are some of the most rugged areas of the state. But with that limited access comes aged bulls. Get back in there a few miles, and you might just come away with a hard-earned prize. For an easier go of it, units 55 and 551 offer more roads, as well as an ample supply of elk.
No question, most of Colorado’s elk live west of the Continental Divide. But good elk hunting can be found east of the Divide as well.
Because of the lower elk d
ensity throughout most of this region, almost every GMU located here offers limited licenses. But if you’re willing to wait a couple of years, you’re sure to get your hands on a tag and have a really good hunt. Limited licenses spell less competition in the woods and aged bulls.
Jim Aragon, Salida wildlife manager, says that overall, elk seem to be doing really well in this region. Numbers are right at objective in most areas, and this year’s above-average snow should make for really good range conditions come spring.
He expects the hunters who work hard and glass a lot of country will get into the elk. Those who go the extra mile will do as good as, maybe even better than hunters did last year.
Hunters wanting to punch their tag on an older-class bull need to spend some time in units 49, 48 and 56. In these rugged areas, elk thrive and grow large.
Wildlife biologist Janet George is also confident about the upcoming seasons to the north. Because almost all of these units offer only limited licenses, there are excellent numbers of elk, and the bull-to-cow ratio is high as well. Latest CDOW surveys show nearly 40,000 elk populating the hills here and a ratio that averages 40:100. With a ratio that high, you can bet that older class bulls do roam this rugged range.
No matter which area you decide to pull the trigger in, you’re sure to see elk when you visit this fall.
Success, however, depends on your willingness to work hard and hunt deep. Good luck!