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Elk Hunting Rocky Mountains

Colorado Elk Forecast

by Michael Peceny   |  October 4th, 2010 0

The Centennial State has more elk than any other state or province. And many bulls stayed out of harm’s way in 2008. That makes the 2009 seasons look awfully good. (August 2009)

The summer months can draw out slow like molasses for elk hunters waiting for the hunting seasons to open. During those summer drives to the park with the kids, backyard barbecues and afternoons at the lake, there is always that little glance up at the mountains.


Author Michael Peceny took this 6×5 bull with a bow while hunting GMU 019 last year. Predictions call for a productive 2009.
Photo courtesy of Michael Peceny.

With most of the licenses and planning already taken care of for the upcoming hunt, elk hunters can finally head to the woods and expect a good 2009 season.

“Based on what we seen in the statistics gather from 2008 thus far, I’d say elk hunting in Colorado will probably be better in 2009,” said Mary Lloyd, the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s big-game data analyst. “Several factors in 2008 contributed to a lot of elk carrying through to this year. Some units had lowered cow tags available, and the weather slowed the migration and limited the elk numbers in many historically good hunting grounds.”

These signs point to a larger numbers throughout the state.

WEATHER
Weather always plays an important role in the movements and behaviors of elk in the fall hunting season.

Last year, we saw a relatively weak storm phase. The mild winter gave Colorado elk a reprieve. The last rifle seasons in 2008 were more than a little frustrating for hunters and outfitters. The elk migration was late and slow, and often occurred after most hunting dates had come and gone.

The DOW released a press statement in early 2009 that said fall temperatures were well above average, and snowfall was minimal during all seasons. Herds saw no reason to leave their traditional summer ranges and head for winter range, said the state game managers.

Tim Matschee of Matschee Guide Service said the elk that he saw didn’t move from dark timber until just after shooting light.

“And in the morning, the elk would be leaving the meadows before first light,” he said.

Brady Thomas, a guide for Ponderosa Outfitters, said he saw relatively the same numbers of bulls on private land, but the overall numbers and antler mass on public-land bulls was noticeable smaller.

“The warmer weather definitely slowed down the elk migrations, and the dry conditions made for a lot of thin and light bull antler growth,” said Thomas. “We passed on a lot of 6x6s, because they were so small.”

The good news is that late migrations and mild winter months in 2008 have allowed many more elk to survive and will provide more opportunities for elk hunters for this year’s hunting seasons.

Long forgotten are the DOW sustained feeding programs during 2007, implemented to prevent mass starvation.

TROPHY UNITS
As with all other states, Colorado has several game management units that are considered trophy units. Game units like 076, 001, 002, 201 and 010 have a long history of producing large bull elk, and consequently provide a less-than-average chance for acquiring a hunting tag for those areas.

“Some areas are considered high-demand units. GMU 201, for example, carries a waiting period of around 18 years for the early-season bull elk hunts,” said Lloyd, the data analyst.

According to the DOW 2008 harvest statistics, close to 1,100 people applied for a rifle tag in GMU 002 as their first choice, and only 2 percent, 31 people, actually received the license. These are pretty low numbers and slightly depressing considering that a minimum of 16 resident preference points are required before you can even be entered into the rifle license pool for GMU 002. You archers out there have it a little better: GMU 002 only asks for 14 resident preference points!

That being said, if you have the preference points and you received the tag, then you may just be in for the hunt of a lifetime.

The hardest part of doing this hunt may not be getting the tag, but being patient in the field.

The areas around Dinosaur National Monument have a great tradition of large elk.

It’s important to note that even if a hunter acquires a trophy unit tag, there are no guarantees for the outcome of his or her hunt.

“Acquiring an elk tag, trophy unit or not, only guarantees you the privilege of hunting the unit,” said Lloyd. Most of the trophy game-manage­ment units listed above still hover just below the 50 percent hunter success rate. Some, such as GMU 076, dip down into the 30 percent category.

“That’s just how elk hunting works in most places,” said Thomas. “You can apply for a lifetime and not see your elk when you get your tag. Or you can bag a trophy your first year out in an over-the-counter area. Elk hunting is funny that way.”

PUBLIC UNITS
So, if you’re not applying for a trophy unit, where is the best place to go for elk in Colorado? This question has a different answer for each hunter. But overall, there are lots of opportunities in the Centennial State.

Colorado has more elk than any other state. If you’re looking to hunt for elk, there is arguably no better place on the planet to be than Colorado. Scattered throughout the state’s millions of public acres of rolling sage hillsides, aspen-covered foothills and thick ponderosa forests, there are hundreds of thousands of elk. The numbers vary from year to year, but post-hunting season estimates go like this:

  •  2005: 258,370
  •  2006: 271,840
  •  2007: 291,960

“Combined with the weather, the elk and hunter distribution, and moderate harvest last year, we can expect good elk populations,” said Lloyd.

As of press time, all signs were pointing to population estimates of more than 300,000 for 2009.

Now let’s get specific: Where can you go to maximize your efforts and tag out an elk?

It seems like elk can be found nearly everywhere in the state west of the foothills. Some areas, however, offer better-than-average odds at great public-land elk.

“Gener
ally speaking, most public land in Colorado with good elk habitat has good elk populations,” said Lloyd. “There are some areas in the northwest, White River, and Craig regions that offer better-than-average opportunities.”

Here are a few of those areas to consider.

Lower Yampa Area, GMU 003 and 301
The great thing about having trophy units is that they are often surrounded by game management units that don’t require years of building preference points. And the great thing about elk is they don’t stop walking when they hit a GMU boundary. GMUs 003 and 301 are two of the main units in the Lower Yampa Area. Both of these areas offer great migration elk opportunities and both have over-the-counter bull licenses. Both are also close neighbors to the trophy 002 and 201 units.

According to the DOW’s Big Game Hunting Guide, the Lower Yampa’s “latter seasons are usually better, especially on public land.”

Brady Thomas confirmed it from the field: “There is lots of migration activity at the end of the year in these units.”

Thomas recommended paying a landowner a trespass fee for “the best chance at a good bull here.”

North Park Area, GMU 171
The North Park region reaches from Wyoming to Rocky Mountain National Park. Game Unit 171 is an average-sized slice in the North Park pie, but the Routt National Forest in its southwestern boundary is a hotspot for public-land elk.

Small groups of resident-herd elk are scattered throughout this region: from Owl Mountain to Mount Mahler to Willow Creek Pass. This area also includes the famed Taylor draw, which has high hunting pressure but high numbers of downed elk yearly.

White River Area, GMU 12
The famed White River elk herd roams this area northeast of Meeker. Across all manner of take (archery to fourth-season rifle), the success ratio in 2007 was around 34 percent, about 10 percent higher than the state average.

Locals in the area say that the hills and peaks west of Yellow Jacket Pass leading to Big Beaver Basin can be crowded with elk.

Grand Mesa Area, GMU 521
“There are spots at the Mesa where I’ve seen elk everyday except two in the past few years of hunting and guiding,” said Thomas.

This game unit sits just west of the town of Marble. The Grand Mesa National Forest is a mecca for elk because it’s remote and has difficult terrain.

“In Mesa, you need one of three things,” stated Thomas. “A good guide, a horse, or a trained set of legs and lungs.”

The Hubbard and Alder Creek drainages provide a lot of excellent habitat and many opportunities for hunters willing to hike or ride in.

San Juan Basin, GMU 075 and 751
San Juan’s total elk population is around 19,000. The good bulls here are harder to find, and the bull cow ratio is 15 to 100. But the area has abundant public land that is hard to access. That makes it a public-hunt gold mine.

Higher elevations offer the best hunting, but you should have a backup hunt camp because the San Juan Basin is known for fast arriving snows that can bury hunters.

Hunting the burn areas northwest of Durango and the numerous drainages north of Vallecito Reservoir will offer elk to those who can venture away from roads and trails.

BEFORE YOU HUNT
After speaking to several outfitters, from Durango to Walden, the consensus is universal. After knowing and being well practiced with your weapon, doing research and scouting before you hit the woods is the most important factor in the success of the elk hunt.

Studying the DOW’s elk range, habitat and harvest statistics data and getting detailed topography maps are all important and will add to your wildlife knowledge and raise your odds.

Once you have done your homework, it’s time to put some miles in. Scouting is critically important to successful elk hunting.

“Scout it before you hunt,” said Scott Brennise of Superior Guide Service. Doing an overnighter or several overnight trips in your hunting area prior to season start is the best way to test gear, maps and legs.

“That’s what most guides for most outfits are doing during the summer: scouting the elk,” said Brennise.

Put the time in to get to know the land. Pattern the elk, or at least find good wallows, transition points between dark timber and meadows and water sources.

“Good guides know the area they are hunting, and can get in and out with minimal impact on the elk, except to maybe pull the herd bull out on a frame pack,” said Brady Thomas.

TIPS FOR 2009
It seems that nearly every hunter, outfitter and hunting column author has his favorite list of tips for harvesting an elk. While many can vary depending upon the situation, weather, animal behavior and hunting pressure, there are a few that seem to provide a consistent advantage to the mindful hunter.

Two tips in 2009 for landing more elk involve knowing how to call to elk and learning to hunt the hard path.

Elk Talk
“Every year, I get into the woods, and I can pick out all the hunters on the mountain, by listening to them wail away with their elk calls,” said Thomas of Ponderosa Outfitters.

External reed bugles have become very real sounding and readily available to every hunter. The problem is that this also means that they havebecome over-used in the field.

“Often, hunters buy and practice with a bugle, then hit the woods and call out the loudest, longest, most raspy bugle they can manage,” said Thomas. “Then they complain about never seeing an elk. Most new hunters don’t know how to effectively call to a bull over cows.”

There are situations where bull elk are fired up and will come running in to an aggressive bull call, but generally elk live by the rules of least resistance. If a herd bull can move his cows out of an area rather than fight a monstrously large sounding competitor, he will do so. Rather than trying to make a bull want to defend his herd with a bugle, offer him the seductive sounds of a cow elk call.

With their chirps and bleeps, cows are much less aggressive than a bugle, much easier to master on the diaphragm or hand-held, and can be used to generate a lot of interest in a bull elk. Most herd bulls will want to drive out easy competition as quickly as possible and round up cows that may have slipped out of his harem.

“Make the bull feel like you’ve stolen something from him, and he’ll come at you,” said Thomas.

Either of these approaches will serve you better in most
situations, rather than aggressive bugling.

Hard-Path Hunting
The equation is simple: Fewer people equal more elk. So, if you move away from roads, the hunting should be better. Inevitably, many hunters will harvest good bulls or cash in a cow tag close to their roadside camps. Some may even be able to drive up to their downed animals. But the most successful hunters are those who travel where few others do.

Elk will move through high-traffic areas, but more will seek the solace of hidden valleys, dark timber forests and other hard-to-reach and non-encroached areas. These are the areas where you need to be.

“Hunt the top of the mountain,” said Thomas. “Hunt the north side, nasty dark timber. Regardless of if it snows or not, stay high and tough it out.”

Often, this may mean leaving from, and returning to camp in the dark of night. It may require a spike camp away from home-camp luxuries like a change of socks and your minus-40 sleeping bag. Making the effort to get to these areas can make all the difference at the end of the season.

Remember, the average statewide harvest percentage is right around 23 percent over the past several years. Many successful hunters go the extra mile to get their elk. Don’t get discouraged, 23 percent still means that tens of thousands of elk are taken home to fill freezers or decorate walls each season.

I wish you all to be tested, and I hope you all will be ready. Good luck and good hunting.

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