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Elk Hunting Rocky Mountains

Colorado’s Prolific San Juan Elk

by Brian K. Strickland   |  October 4th, 2010 0

Good elk numbers? Plenty of public access? Over-the-counter tags? Colorado’s San Juan elk herd has it all! (October 2007)


Elk in the San Juan herd might be on the smaller side, but last year hunters found some that topped 350 inches.
Photo by Brian K. Strickland.

The cadence of horses’ shoed hooves slapping the ground filtered through the damp air as we eased up the pack-trail. With each step, my well-used saddle creaked as it shifted from side to side. As we went from thick fir to the sparse alpine treeline, the lead wrangler pointed to a distant ridge and indicated my camp would be in the small cluster of firs.

I eagerly studied the emerald-green carpeted ridges around me, and it wasn’t long until brown specks of feeding elk appeared. As if on cue, a lone bugle rang out, and I knew I had found my elk-hunting nirvana.

Five days after my drop-camp began in this vast expanse of public wilderness, I stood slack-jawed over my 6×6 San Juan prize.

No question about it, the Centennial State is an elk mecca. With some 250,000 elk to be found out across 12 national forests and countless parcels of Bureau of Land Management tracts, you can understand why this state easily claims the title of “Elk Capital of the World.” Add to this more than 90 game management units that offer over-the-counter tags, and you can see why orange-clad hunters descend here in droves each year.

However, with so many over-the-counter areas to choose from — and the mighty wapiti roaming virtually every hidden basin and steep ridge — it can be a daunting task to choose the region in which to fulfill your elk-hunting dream. But if you want to hunt in massive amounts of public land, with solid numbers of elk, and a chance at a quality bull, then you might want to consider the impressive San Juan Elk Herd.

This Southwestern Colorado gem, stretching across game management units 75, 77, 78, 751 and 771, offers everything from leg-burning wilderness hunting, to simply jumping out of your 4WD and hitting the woods. On top of that, second and third rifle- season tags are just a quick trip to the local sporting goods store, and this region is definitely worth a look.

Who knows? If you work hard and do a little homework, you just might hang your tag on one of the residents.

Ted Dooley of Circle Divide Outfitters (www.rcguestranch.com) has been packing hunters into this prime elk region since 1974. Over the years, he’s no doubt seen the good, the bad and the ugly the area has to offer. His conclusion is that it’s about as good as it has ever been, as far as quality elk are concerned.

“Not only are there a lot of elk, but there are some really nice bulls in there right now in both the over-the-counter and the draw areas,” said Dooley. “Hunters just have to get in there and get after them.”

Last fall, Dooley reported, his hunters did really well with a couple of them tagging 300-inch bulls and one smoke-pole hunter dropping a 360-plus-inch monster. Although bulls of this caliber are an anomaly, there are numerous 280- to 300-inch bulls roaming the hills there. And every year, some fall to modern ballistics.

Need a second opinion? Consider Pagosa Springs-based Dick Ray of Lobo Outfitters (at www.lobooutfitters.com). “There are a good number of elk throughout the region,” said this 35-year veteran outfitter. “And at any given time, you will find them at about any elevation,”

The region offers every kind of habitat, from alpine meadows, stands of fir and aspen, to thick and nasty piñon-juniper — everything elk need to survive and thrive in.

Ray is not only an area outfitter, but also a member of the Colorado Wildlife Commission and has a good grasp of the current condition of the region’s elk herd. According to him, the additional cow tags the DOW has been offering for the past few years have steadily decreased elk numbers throughout the area.

That’s starting to put the area in line with population objectives.

Though some hunters look at this as a negative, Ray reports that his clients are seeing and harvesting more 300-inch bulls than ever before. And more hunters are leaving the woods with toothy grins and a truckbed full of rack.

According to Andy Holland, a DOW terrestrial biologist, this region is a good place to hunt, especially when Mother Nature behaves herself and produces a good dose of the white stuff. In this region, said the Durango-based biologist, weather is a key ingredient to hunter success — and that’s exactly what happened last fall.

“We had a good 2-foot snow early that really pushed the elk down, making them very accessible during the first and second rifle seasons,” said Holland. “And hunters took advantage of it.”

Indeed they did. Last fall, some 9,616 rifle hunters hit the woods across these five GMUs and boasted a success rate of nearly 31 percent. That’s well above the 27 percent statewide average. Of the elk harvested, 1,299 were bulls, and 1,579 were cows and calves.

If you break that down further and look at just the second and third rifle seasons (the only seasons offering over-the-counter tags), you’ll find that hunters exceeded the statewide average then too. Second-season hunters boasted a success rate of nearly 29 percent and third-season elk junkies had a 20 percent success rate.

Don’t think, however, that just because last year’s elk harvest was high that there’s any shortage of elk. Post-hunt population surveys show more than 17,000 wapiti still roaming the hills there. And if you add this year’s calf crop, well over 21,000 will be taking up residence across these five GMUs. “With our cow-calf ratio right at 40:100, and the pretty mild winter we had, our numbers will be good going into the fall,” said Holland.

Bull-cow ratios aren’t too shabby either, with an average of about 17 bulls to every 100 cows. “During our winter flights, we saw good numbers of bulls, especially lots of young spikes,” said Holland.

“Those spikes will be legal 4x4s this year, so hunters will still have pretty good opportunities at a bull — that is, if the right weather comes.”

It wasn’t always this way. Before the DOW introduced 4-point restrictions to the region in the early 1990s, bull-cow ratios hovered around 6:100. Those restrictions have let 1 1/2-year-old spikes get an ext
ra year of growth — and inevitably, some of those 2 1/2-year-old 4-pointers slipped through the cracks and grew.

Today, that ratio floats around 15 to 18 bulls per 100 cows. Not only have overall bull numbers increased, but their quality skyrocketed as well.

However, because last year’s harvest was so good, there will be fewer older-class bulls to chase this fall. Holland indicated there would be about four adult bulls (3 1/2 years and older) to every 100 cows. But because of their reclusive nature, adult bulls are harder to find during aerial surveys. Therefore, that estimate might be a little conservative.

Don’t let that discourage you, though. There are still some old guys hanging out there.

In fact, despite this region’s over-the-counter status, it has produced some noteworthy bulls over the years:

• Val Koeberlein’s 1989 Archuleta County stud scored 345 0/8 Pope and Young Club inches.
• M. R. James nailed a 342 4/8 Archuleta County brute.
• Lester Hawkins got a 336 1/8 Mineral County bull.
• Kenneth Ryan got a 342 0/8 head-turner.

Though your chances of seeing bulls of this caliber on every ridge are slim, a handful do roam the rugged hills here. So don’t get too shaken if one steps in front of your scope.

Now that I’ve got you dreaming of some tender, seasoned and bacon-wrapped elk backstrap sizzling over hot coals, and a possible rack for the wall, let’s take a closer look at each game management unit to see which one might be best for you.

GMU 75
Unit 75 is located just east of the town of Durango and stretches across the whole western side of this prime elk region. This unit of extremes offers rugged, hard-to-reach wilderness areas to the north, to drive-up access to the south.

Drayton Harrison, district wildlife manager, has spent many years getting to know this unit. He has mixed emotions about its elk hunting potential as far as quality goes.

He said there are good numbers of elk living there, and if hunters do a little legwork, they will get into them. But quality is low. Last year, numerous 325-inch bulls did come from the unit, although Harrison stresses that is not the norm.

One of the more popular areas is Missionary Ridge, located just northeast of Durango. In 2002, it was ravished by a massive 70,000-acre wildfire. As it regenerated, elk took up residence there. However, Harrison feels the hunting pressure that the burn has received over the past few years is starting to push out the elk. He suggests hunters might want to check out other areas in the unit.

If snow hasn’t begun to pile up in the upper reaches, the areas around the Needle, West Needle and Grenadier Mountain ranges to the north hold elk. Because of their remoteness, roads are few, so expect to work hard. Once the snow flies, however, elk tend to head south towards the Missionary Ridge area and beyond.

GMU 77
Unit 77 sits in the heart of the San Juan region. Like most areas west of the divide, it is mostly all public. It offers everything from rugged wilderness hunting in the Weminuche Wilderness in the north, to great vehicle access to the south. According to District Wildlife Manager Mike Reid, the elk hunting isn’t too bad either. You might want to listen to this 25-year wildlife veteran, too. Not only is this his office, but in his free time, he likes to chase elk in there with his longbow.

Because the Weminuche Wilderness bleeds into this unit to the north — and limited-entry Unit 76 is also nestled next to the unit — many older bulls migrate into Unit 77 during those later seasons. Every year, hunters get into these mature bulls, and some even come away with one for the wall.

During winter flights this past year, Reid saw some dandy bulls. Although he feels that not all of them live in Unit 77 year ’round, he did say it’s a good bet some of them do. To find them, Reid suggests hunters spend some time in the wilderness and the Piedra River areas to the north.

He says all of the major drainages in the region hold elk, so if you find an area you like, spend some time there. “If you see fresh sign, stay in that area, if not move to the next drainage,” said Reid.

Some of your better access points are First Fork (FR 622), Piedra Road (FR 631) and Turkey Springs Road (FR 629). All can be found west of Pagosa Springs off of Hwy 160.

GMU 78
This unit stretches across the entire eastern side of the region and is flanked by the spectacular Continental Divide. It has everything any would-be elk hunter might want: the physical challenge of wilderness hunting, or roads that reach all the way to the lofty peaks of the Divide. Pick your poison.

District Wildlife Manager Doug Purcell spends lots of time in this unit, too. He said there are a lot of bulls in there, well distributed throughout the area. However, he insists if you are looking to wrap your hands around some hefty headbone, you might want to spend time in the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas, which skirt the north and east sides of the unit.

“No question about it, elk in general tend to hang out in these tougher-to-reach areas,” said Purcell. “And it’s in these areas that the older-class bulls are usually found.”

Purcell reports that elk usually start heading out of the higher reaches during the third and fourth rifle seasons, but snow dictates the timing of their exodus. Elk tend to head west down the major drainages. When they get about a mile from Highway 84, they start heading south towards New Mexico. So when the elk are moving, it’s a good idea to hang out in these migration corridors.

Some of the better access points are Navajo River Road (FR 382), Blance Basin Road (FR 326), Buckles Lake Access (FR 663) and Mill Creek Road (FR 302). All are located off of Highway 84, which runs south out of Pagosa Springs.

GMU 751
District Wildlife Manager Cary Carron said they have a lot of elk in this unit. But because a big chuck of the area is wilderness, it is a physically demanding place to hunt.

Despite this difficult access, hunters really hammered the bulls last year. “There were lots of bulls, and some really nice ones, killed last fall,” said Carron. “There was not too much snow to keep the hunters out, but just enough snow to get the elk moving.”

Because of this banner harvest, he feels it might take a year or two before you start seeing the usual number of mature bulls again.

“We still have good numbers of elk, just not as many older bulls,” he said. “In order to get into them, hunters just need to get back into those tougher-to-reach areas.”

Carron says elk are well distributed throughout the unit. But one of the areas where hunters seem to
do well in is the Missionary Ridge area, which spreads from Unit 75 into Unit 751. Good numbers of elk have been living and migrating into this area.

“A lot of the elk tend to summer in the wilderness to the north and then migrate south towards the Missionary Ridge area when the snow accumulates up high,” he said.

Some of the better access points are Lemon Reservoir (FR 240), Middle Mountain Road (FR 603) and Vallecito Road (FR 501). They are all accessed off of highways 160 or 550.

GMU 771
Out of all the units, this one has the most limited access. Compared to the other units, in fact, this one offers very little public ground. Located south of Hwy 160, between Pagosa Springs and Bayfield, with the Southern Ute Indian Reservation encompassing most of the unit’s southern half, this unit provides a lot of wintering ground for elk

Usually by third and fourth rifle seasons, they start piling in from the north. District Wildlife Manager James Romero said that the key to hunting elk here is finding the larger chunks of public land and being there when the elk move through.

Some hunters have figured this out over the years and have taken some nice bulls, says Romero.

Although these public areas are few and far between, here are a couple you can try: Fosset Gulch off of Highway 160, and Burns Canyon off of Trujillo Road.

Before hunting here, however, make sure you have a set of Forest Service maps and know where you are at all times. A trespassing ticket would sure make for a lousy hunt.

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