Colorado is an elk hunter’s paradise. A seemingly infinite number of draws, valleys, grassy flats, sagebrush hills, aspen-covered meadows and dark timbered forests make Colorado prime elk country. Throw in millions of acres of public land, and you have a recipe for some of the best elk hunting in the world.
This fantastic habitat, along with careful elk-population management by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, are the main factors that account for nearly 300,000 elk walking through the state.
With all those acres and all those elk, arguably hundreds of prime hunting areas lie across Colorado for taking quality elk. Many of these areas combine great habitat, good elk numbers, lots of public land, and ample opportunities to harvest an animal for the freezer or for the wall. One such region is the North Park area.
The North Park area, also known as Data Analysis Unit (DAU) E-3, is a million-acre jewel located in north central Colorado. DAU E-3 essentially creates a footprint over the entire Jackson County property boundary.
This area is made of up five game management units — 6, 16, 161, 17 and 171 — and is bounded by the mountain crests of the Park Range, Medicine Bow Range, Never Summer Range, and the Rabbit Ears Range. The heart of the region features relatively open sagebrush country and flat willow marshes, which are surrounded by aspen, fir, and pine forests that rise quickly to elevations beyond the tree line. This flat-base-and-steep-rise character of the land creates prime elk travel zones and offers excellent spot-and-stalk or ambush-hunting opportunities.
Of the million or so acres in the North Park area, only 36 percent of it is privately held. What this means is that most of the remaining land lies under the authority of the Bureau of Land Management, the national forest system, state forests, or state trust land — all of which are public lands and all of which are huntable. While pressured animals tend to seek out the private lands for safety, there are still tens of thousands of acres of opportunity available on public lands.
CDW terrestrial biologist Jeff Yost has studied the North Park elk herd for many years. According to Yost’s Elk Data Analysis Unit Plan, the 2008 post hunting seasons population estimate of elk in the North Park region is approximately 8,348 animals, although the more readily accepted estimate places the total number of elk at 10,000 animals.
Within this population, the bull-to-cow ratio currently stands at almost 20 bulls for every 100 cow elk. Trends in the yearly reports display the ratio is increasing, meaning more bull elk for the 2010 season.
Game Management Unit 6 makes up the upper and eastern boundary of the North Park pie. The Medicine Bow Mountains are the border and quickly fall into the flat country just east of the town of Walden.
With heavy snows possible across the region, the best hunting opportunities lie in the transition areas between the mountainside and Walden valley floor. Elk Mountain and Three Sisters State Trust Lands are great starting points but often receive a lot of hunting traffic. It’s worth the effort to hike into the Medicine Bow Range and hunt across the mountain range above the valley floor.
If the weather gets really bad, head to the sagebrush. The Sand Creek State Trust Land unit holds more than 5,000 acres of public land where elk winter during the cold months of November through February.
Ease of access and proximity to Walden makes seeing other hunters common. But coyotes are well fed on gut piles at Sand Creek, so you could be one of the lucky ones to get an elk there.
GMU 171 makes up the southwestern corner of the North Park area. This hunting unit starts very steep and high in the southern corner of the area and descends into sage and prairie fields to the southern border at Walden. Many good hunting areas are scattered throughout the unit. My favorite section is the national forest land in and around Owl Mountain.
Owl Mountain is just to the south of the town of Gould. In additional to holding many old logging roads, several running creeks, countless open meadows and dark timber patches, it also contains a resident elk herd numbering in the hundreds. The resident herd, along with the hundreds of migrating elk that annually trek across the mountain’s south face, create a very target-rich environment. Archery and muzzleloader seasons see very low hunting pressure; but during rifle season, you should plan on hunting skittish elk.
In the mornings, hunt the top flats of the mountain. There are many areas where cuts of timber open into lush meadows. These areas provide great ambush areas for feeding animals. In the afternoon, drop off either the north or south face, and slow-hunt the dark timber.
Additional opportunities abound in the Taylor Draw area and around Lily Lake, both of which are in the mountain’s southern section. Taylor and Lily are heavily hunted, and you’re more likely to see blaze-orange vests than tan rumps. But every year large bulls are harvested by a lucky few from these spots.
GMU 17 shares much of the same general description as GMU 171. It is very steep in the south and opens up to sage flats and fields as you move north on the map. Great hunting can be had anywhere in the southern sections along the Rabbit Ears Mountain Range. Take County Road 11 past Seymour Reservoir and you drop into the heart of dark-timber hunting grounds in the vicinity of these hotspots: Arapahoe Ridge and Green Ridge.
Arapahoe Ridge is located about three miles, as the crow flies, east fro
m Beaver Lake. While this entire area can hold elk, many animals travel to Arapahoe Ridge to locate sites where the sun hits the flats. The ridge is surrounded by steep and dark timber, making this a prime place to set up on either early morning or late-evening hunts. The forest above and below the ridge is great for slow spot-and-stalk hunting (emphasis on s-l-o-w).
Traveling farther east from Arapahoe, you run into Green Ridge. Green Ridge sits on Rock Creek, just southwest of the town of Rand. The Rand area is a wintering hotspot for elk, as it is all flat and mostly private. Setting up on Green Ridge and hunting down to the private land can yield trophy animals. Access this area by taking County Road 106, just off Highway 125.
MULTIPLE ELK TAGS
The North Park elk herd currently numbers above the CDOW’s elk population objectives. In fact, the herd numbers almost double the population the CDOW desires. Historically, that’s been very good news for hunters, because it typically means left-over elk tags. If you plan ahead, and are lucky, you can hunt most of the GMUs in North Park with two elk tags. But how do you do this?
Hunters can purchase one license via the draw (either antlered or antlerless), and then purchase another tag in the left-over draw. This would give you a Class A license (your applied-for license) and a Class B license (your left-over license). If you applied for and received a bull tag, you can still purchase a left-over cow tag (if they are available). Conversely, if you applied for and received a cow license, you can pick up an over-the-counter bull tag (if they are available, and offered in your season), or another left-over cow tag (again, if available). Sorry, trophy hunters. In no case can any hunter hold two antlered-elk licenses for any given year.
If you plan ahead and play your cards right, you can walk into the North Park area forests and ridges on opening-day morning with two elk tags in your pocket, thinking, “If it’s brown, knock it down” on your first shot.
TO CALL OR NOT TO CALL
North Park elk are generally pressured elk. Unless you’re hunting the roadless regions of the Rawah or the “steeps” below the Never Summer Mountains, you will find elk that have seen plenty of blaze-orange vests, have heard plenty of gunshots, and have listened to plenty of inexperienced hunters over-using elk bugles.
For this reason, I recommend you leave your bugles at home and try either cow calling only or not calling at all. External reed bugles have become very real-sounding and readily available to every hunter. The problem is, this also means they have become readily over-used in the field. Rather than trying to make a bull want to defend his heard with a loud, nasty bugle, you can often do best offering him the seductive sounds of a cow elk call.
Cow calls — with their “chirps” and “bleets” — are much less aggressive than a bugle, much easier to master on the diaphragm or hand-held calls, and can be used to generate a lot of interest in a bull elk. Think about it. Are you more interested in getting into a fight or getting a little frisky? The bulls feel the same way. The caveat is to not over do it. I recommend only pulling out the elk call if you have been busted or if the elk you are stalking are talkative.
As with most other big-game hunting, it’s often better to not be heard at all if you can help it. If you have an aggressive elk, bugling and destroying the forest with his antlers, you have the opportunity to sneak up on him without making a sound. Elk are very picky about what they hear, and what they have previously heard. An elk call can put an animal in an interested, disinterested, aggressive, wary or frighten mood.
Regardless of the elk’s reaction, their senses will be tuned into your location. If you have vocal elk, the best calling strategy is to move in as close as you can without calling. I’ve taken a few noisy elk who only heard one sound come from me — the crack of my rifle.
GEAR, TIPS & TECHNIQUES
The right equipment and skills are the true reasons for a hunter’s success. Ten percent of hunters kill 90 percent of the elk harvest because they fall into the “prepared” category. Having great optics, a tested and true firearm or bow, and a fit physique are all keys to a successful hunt — especially, when your quarry is the Rocky Mountain elk.
Here are some other tips specific to the North Park area:
• Wear waterproof shoes. North Park gets snow. Usually it’s very wet, it comes very quickly, and often it’s very unpredictable. Have waterproof and insulated footwear, and you’ll go the extra mile (no pun intended) in getting your elk.
• Carry game bags. Most of the elk I have taken in North Park have been a solid hour away from any road. Many times, the weather, even during late rifle seasons, has been warm. Having a few game bags in your pack and getting a jump start in field-dressing your elk will prevent loss of meat and spoilage of your trophy’s cape.
• Maintain a Positive Attitude. Elk hunting is hard work. And even with hard work, you can wait years to get an animal. According to CDOW hunting statistics, just more than 8,000 hunters hunted the North Park area and took 1,143 elk in 2009. That means 14 percent of those who hunted with bow, powder or bullets went home with elk steaks. Admittedly, 14 percent seems like a low number, but think about it: 1,000 elk! Every rifle shot I hear in the woods makes me think, “Man, I wish that was me.” The guys who keep after it for the entire season, dawn to dusk, carry the highest odds of getting an elk.
My friend, Mike “Bird Dog” Long, waited 10 years before he finally harvested a cow elk.
Trust me. You won’t taste a finer piece of meat than one that took significant time and effort to obtain.
As we hunters prepare for our 2010 hunts, many questions fill our minds in the days leading up to opening day. Will I have all the equipment I need? Will I find a trophy elk during my hunt? Will my weapon and I be ready when that animal walks into range?
Colorado is the quintessential elk-hunting country, and the lands inside the North Park area are places where you can search for — and find — the answers to those questions … and one more: If I hunt for elk in North Park, will I come home with memories for a lifetime? The answer? A resounding “Yes!”