After downing the last drop of hot java, I slipped on my pack, grabbed my bow and headed out in the early-morning darkness.
Photo by Brian K. Strickland.
During a scouting trip the previous week, I found an out-of-the-way basin that was littered with sticky-fresh droppings, rubbed-up saplings and the musty smell of rutting elk. On that cool Colorado morning in late August, I had high hopes that this hotspot would yield an opportunity.
The first hint of light was peeking up from the east as I crested the last hill of my three-mile hike. I hustled to my predetermined hideout and waited for the elk parade to begin.
Shortly after, the sound of a tumbling rock made me tighten my grip on my Mathews bow. Tilting my head in the direction of the sound, I strained to hear some confirmation, but instead caught a glint of tan hide moving through the trees.
Time seemed to stand still as I waited for my first visitor of the morning to appear. And suddenly, he was in full view — a heavy 5×4 bull.
As he eased into the opening to feed, three more young bulls came bobbing out behind him.
Though none in this bachelor foursome had back-scratching racks, I wouldn’t have hesitated to send one of my arrows through any of them.
Needless to say, this was shaping up to be the perfect opening morning — four bulls a stone’s throw away, feeding in my direction in one of Colorado’s over-the-counter units. It couldn’t get much better than this.
Last season’s lower harvest numbers will mean only good things for the some 250,000 hunters who are poised to head to the hills this fall.
For the opportunistic elk hunter, not a single state can hold a candle to what the hills of the Centennial State have to offer. We have an abundance of elk, stretched across some 24 million acres of public land, all for the price of an over-the-counter license.
The latest post-hunt survey shows around 270,000 elk spread across the rolling hills, rocky ridges and deep canyons of Colorado. In fact, that number is about 50,000 more than big-game managers would like.
According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists, between 210,000 and 220,000 elk is the optimal number for sustaining the long-term health of the herd. Despite these high numbers, there is no real concern right now. Colorado’s elk herd is in great shape overall.
Hunting is the main tool that the CDOW uses in its elk management plan, but last year’s harvest didn’t help to reduce the numbers. In the later seasons, unseasonably warm temperatures kept the elk spread out and tough to access.
However, last season’s bad luck, coupled with abundant elk, can mean only good things for the some 250,000 hunters who are poised to head to the hills this fall.
Another indication pointing to a possible banner elk-hunting season across the state is the ample supply of moisture that Colorado received last winter. As the snowpack climbed 100 percent above average in many areas of the state, rumors began to spread of high winter mortality. But they were just rumors.
Although mortality will be slightly elevated in some localized areas, elk did really well for the most part. In fact, the herd benefited greatly from the excellent forage that the added moisture produced in the spring and summer months.
Tom Mikesell, president of the Colorado Outfitters Association, said elk hunting in Colorado is better now than it was 10 years ago.
Photo courtesy of Bryan Bellows
“We have lots of elk,” he said. “But what’s really been impressive the past few years is the quality of the bulls we’re seeing.”
Hunters are being more selective, Mikesell said, and the CDOW has a pretty good management plan. With the strong numbers of elk and the increase of quality bulls, hunters have good reason to be optimistic.
Let’s take a look at what each area has to offer this season.
If you’re looking for over-the-counter destinations and plenty of public ground to hunt, the Four Corners region should rank high on your list. Three herds dominate the landscape in this region. According to the latest post-hunt survey, more than 40,000 elk are living here.
Though that number is impressive, even more impressive is the bull-to-cow ratio. Units west of Durango offer a ratio of 25-to-100. To the east, those numbers are slightly lower, at 20-to-100. When you consider that this area holds mainly OTC units, that’s pretty encouraging.
“We don’t have a shortage of elk,” said District Wildlife Manager Zach Holder. “And with last year’s harvest being lower than usual, hunters willing to work a little harder should get into bulls.”
Over the past few years, Holder has seen an overall improvement in bull quality. And because harvest was low, there should be more adult-class bulls around this fall.
Farther to the east, elk roaming the south central mountains of the Rio Grande and San Juan national forests are in great shape, said Terrestrial Biologist Brad Weinmeister.
Elk numbers are really strong across the region. According to the latest survey, bull-to-cow ratios hover around 20-to-100.
Weinmeister said that hunters did pretty well during the early seasons. But when the third and fourth rifle seasons rolled around, dry weather pushed the harvest numbers down.
Without question, the best place to kill a whopper bull is in and around GMU 76, which encompasses most of the Weminuche Wildernes
s. If you were willing to burn your coveted preference points and have a tag in your pocket, you’re sure to have an opportunity at an impressive 6-point bull. However, if an OTC tag is all you came up with, not to worry. There are still bulls worthy of a grip-and-grin photo.
Weinmeister suggests that early-season hunters concentrate their efforts in units 68, 80, 81, 82 and 681. During the later seasons, check out Unit 79 and the southern end of 81 because the elk tend migrate in that direction.
MONTROSE, GRAND JUNCTION
“Our elk herds are doing very well,” said Terrestrial Biologist Brad Banulis. “Numbers are above objective, and there should be plenty of opportunities this fall.”
The latest survey shows population numbers in the 16,000 range in Montrose, and more than 20,000 in the Grand Junction area a little farther to the north. Really notable is the bull-to-cow ratio in the 25-to-100 range.
Traditionally, early-season hunters around Montrose do well in units 65 and 62. But when the snow flies, most of the elk push south into units 60 and 70. Banulis said if you have a tag from trophy Unit 61, you’re sure to do well. A 6-point bull scoring more than 300 inches is a real possibility.
Because there’s a wide range of elevations across the Grand Junction area, elk are dispersed during the early seasons.
However, area biologist Steph Duckett indicated that Unit 421 could be good. She said that elk tend to hang in the north and south ends of the unit where the elevation is higher, and then migrate towards the middle during the later seasons.
GUNNISON, GLENWOOD SPRINGS
The Gunnison Basin and the areas to the north have two things going for them: More than 80 percent is public, and they’re chock full of elk.
More than 30,000 elk roam the hills there. The bull-to-cow ratio is upwards of 30-to-100 in the OTC units, and more than 50-to-100 in the limited ones. These high numbers make this area one of the most heavily hunted regions in the state.
Gunnison-based biologist Brandon Diamond said that the average bull in the OTC units is a 2 1/2-year-old 4×4. But many older bulls are there too, he said. Hunters just have to be willing to get to them. Sometimes that means hitting one of several wilderness areas in the region.
As far as bull numbers go, it’s hard to beat Unit 54. But the drawback is its ruggedness. You’ll need a tough mindset and a strong back. Unit 43 is also a must-see and encompasses most of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. These areas harbor bulls with back-scratching racks.
For an easier go of it, don’t overlook units 55 and 551. Numbers are strong here, too, and the access is good. For those who drew a limited tag from units 66 or 67, get ready for a quality hunt. Elk are well dispersed throughout these units.
This fall, hunters heading to this northwest region have a lot to smile about. It boasts the largest herds in the state, and the bull-to-cow ratio is excellent, considering that most of the region offers OTC units. Surveys show more than 60,000 elk roam the hills there, with an average bull-to-cow ratio at a solid 30-to-100.
Out of all the regions in western Colorado, the elk here were hit hardest by the deep snow. Though the mortality was higher than usual, it was localized. And biologist Darby Finley said that when you consider the lower-than-normal harvest last fall, hunters will see little negative impact from this past winter. In fact, Finley said elk hunting has the potential to be really good this fall.
Because of area’s huge elk numbers, it’s a great place for the opportunistic hunter looking to get a good bull — and maybe even an additional cow. Though mature bulls do live in this region, Finley said hunters shouldn’t hold out for a 320-inch bull. On average, bulls are in the 4-point range. Typically, Finley said, early-season hunters find their best luck in the units east of Highway 13. When it snows, elk tend to head west of the highway.
“Elk will be in really good shape this fall,” said Terrestrial Biologist Jeff Yost. “It was an average winter as far as temperatures go. Although snow was deeper than usual, it had little negative effect on the elk.”
This Steamboat-based biologist said overall elk numbers are above objective, and the bull-to-cow ratio hovers around 25-to-100. Because numbers are so strong, the CDOW will once again be offering additional cow tags this fall.
Yost said this region is managed more for hunter opportunity, so don’t expect to see bulls in the 300-inch range. Much as in the Meeker area, bulls average in the 4- to 5-point range. But that isn’t so bad if you consider that you’ll have a chance at a nice 4- or 5-point bull for the price of an OTC tag.
Yost said that early-season hunters typically find success in the Elkhead Mountains and the Routt National Forest. Elk can be thick in these units; hunters just have to get off the roads and find them. As the season progresses, elk tend to migrate west onto the vast amounts of the BLM land.
HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS
Hunters heading to this north-central region have a lot to look forward to. Elk numbers are strong, and the bull-to-cow ratio is increasing.
Biologist Justin Martin said because of last fall’s poor weather patterns, hunter success was less than expected. More bulls survived the hunting season, and that means more bulls to chase this year. During his winter flights, Martin reported seeing not only good numbers of bulls, but more mature bulls as well.
Population estimates are above objective, and the bull-to-cow ratio is in the 23-to-100 range. The adult bull ratio is about 6-to-100, which is up from previous years.
Martin said the abundance of moisture actually had a positive impact on the range conditions. Couple this with the pine beetles that have opened up massive amounts of the once thick pine canopy, and there’s a lot of quality elk forage.
With all the elk and the better visibility created by the beetle kill, it shouldn’t be hard to find elk. Martin said early-season hunters usually find good numbers of elk on the west side of Grand County in units 28 and 37.
Look for bulls to be hanging around pine stands that have been denuded by the beetle kill. As the season progresses, elk start moving from east to west towards the lower BLM land.
EASTERN SLOPE, FRONT RANGE
It’s true that most of Colorado’s 270,000 elk live west of the Continental Divide. But you can also find good elk hunting along the Eastern Slope and Front Range. Because elk density is lower in this region, most of the GMUs located here offer limited tags, but it takes only a few years to draw one. For those who have been patient and have a tag for this season, the elk are in great shape — and their numbers seem t
o be increasing.
Biologist Jack Vayhinger, of the CDOW’s Salida office, said that hunters who have a tag for the units around the Arkansas Drainage should enjoy a good hunt this fall.
During winter survey flights, he saw lots of bulls, many of which were carrying some hefty headbone. Vayhinger reports that on average, the bull-to-cow ratio is 35-to-100.
Farther south, Pueblo-based biologist Allen Vit also reports elk herd numbers are steady to increasing. With the prime range conditions that added moisture produced this year, he expects that trend to continue.
Bull-to-cow ratios are also doing well, with the latest survey averaging 25-to-100 across the region. He feels that hunters who work the hardest are the ones who find the bulls.
He suggests for best public access and success, hunters look to the Wet and Sangre de Cristo mountains. The Trinidad area is also prime, but it’s mainly private ground.
Farther north, Front Range hunters who hold a tag for units 20 and 39 should also fairly well. Elk numbers are good in these units, and the bull-to-cow ratio is upwards of 35-to-100.
Needless to say, with numbers like that, hunters willing to play the waiting game for the chance to hunt elk in these units just might be rewarded with a rack for the wall.