Here’s how to make the most of your Colorado elk hunting.
By Tony Mandile
Jim was a whitetail hunter and had never seen an elk in the wild. He knew I had hunted elk many times in several Rocky Mountain states and had guided for three years in southwestern Colorado. He wanted my elk- hunting suggestions for the following year. That was a plus. He would have time for arrangements and also to get his Midwestern flatlander body in shape for mountain hunting.
A half hour after our discussion had begun, I made my recommendation. I suggested Jim hire an outfitter for a horseback guided hunt in Colorado, thus eliminating much of the work that a non-resident has to go through during the planning. An outfitter will help his clients get through the application process, and the horseback aspect would get Jim away from the hordes of other elk hunters. I made Jim’s choice easy by putting him in touch with Dave Guilliams of Backcountry Outfitters.
When it comes to hunting elk in the West, every state offers non-residents the chance to kill an elk if they can get a tag. But each individual will have considerations that might include their budget, expectations and timeline.
While a 400-inch bull from Arizona would look great on the wall, non-residents just getting into the system have almost no chance to draw a tag. In contrast, killing a decent bull in Colorado is quite possible. Colorado’s non-resident elk tags are some of the least expensive in the West, and a plethora of elk tags are available over-the-counter for a variety of game management units.
Of course, there’s a downside to Colorado elk hunting. The good news is the bad news.
Because Colorado has some of the least expensive, easy to obtain tags and is the nearest state to hunters from the Midwest, Texas and East Coast, non-resident elk hunters flock to Colorado like ticks to a dog. Thus cheap and easy meant lots of competition for the 1,053 elk hunts that took place in 2016.
When hunting season rolls around each fall, the cities and towns in the Centennial State take on a theme park-like atmosphere. But instead of kids sporting mouse ears, hunters decked out in camo clothes and orange hats gather. They fill hotel rooms, tables in restaurants, grocery store checkout lines, gas stations and sporting good stores, buying licenses and making last minute equipment purchases.
Yet even with the crowds, there’s plenty of elk to go around and lots of land to hunt them on.
HAVE A PLAN
Colorado resident Chad Boyd and his hunting partner Clay Tichota both tagged bulls in GMU 76 during the 2016 archery season. Boyd firmly believes hunters can punch their tags before the season opens with the right attitude and planning.
“Whether it’s time spent on the ground, poring over maps, talking to fellow hunters, perusing hunting forums, etc., these are all the tools I use to prepare myself, and I usually still feel unprepared opening day,” Boyd noted. “Clay and I made a quick scouting trip to the unit in late summer. We had a plan A, B, C and D prior to the trip. Our plan D actually turned into our plan A for the hunt,” he continued.
“When we pulled into where we wanted to camp, it was taken. Same for our plan B and plan C spots,” Boyd noted. “We were the fifth camp within a mile of where we wanted to hunt. Undeterred, we donned our backpacks and killed two elk in four days of hunting. We never saw another hunter during daylight hours because we were usually two miles from the road waiting for it to get light every morning.”
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Planning a Colorado hunt can be a nightmare for someone unfamiliar with the myriad choices when it comes to choosing a game management unit and the various hunting seasons within each GMU.
CPW’s website provides a wealth of pertinent information. In addition to the Big Game regulation booklet, CPW makes available the draw and harvest statistics for every hunt. The Elk Hunting University pages contain useful articles about elk hunting, and if that’s not enough, CPW has a staff of hunt planners available to guide hunters through the process. Just call 303-291-PLAN (7526) Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (MT).
Toprut.com is another excellent website for all the statistics for every GMU in the state. Interactive, color-coded maps provide both harvest and draw statistics. For the latter, it will even show how many preference points are needed for each hunt.
WHERE TO START
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials estimate the state’s overall population at somewhere between 275,000 and 300,000 animals, with several GMUs above objectives. And despite the heavy snows during 2016-17 winter, the majority of the herds are in good shape.
More than a hundred GMUs cover the state with millions of acres consisting of 11 national forests, several wilderness and primitive areas, and more than 8 million acres of Bureau of Land Management holdings. In 2016, 223,745 archery and rifle hunters bought elk licenses and harvested 39,306 elk for an 18 percent success rate. The total consisted of 19,997 bulls and 17,415 cows. The bull harvest was a bit down from 2015 when 221,274 hunters tagged 22,558 bulls.
In reality, except for a very few GMUs, throwing a dart at a map on the wall will stick in a unit that has one or more seasons that are open to anyone with a permit that can be bought over the counter.
Most of the OTC permits are for bulls only during the second and third rifle season. They usually go on sale the last week in July and are sold online, by phone or at CPW locations and license agents. Two variations are available. One has preset caps and is available to both residents and non-residents on a first-come, first-served basis. The second type offers an unlimited number of permits to both residents and non-residents. They still can be bought at any CPW office after the seasons begin.
The White River National Forest and the Routt National Forest in northwest Colorado are home to more elk than anywhere else in the country. The bull-to-cow-ratio for most units is normally above 25 to 100, which means harvesting a branch-antlered bull under Colorado’s point restriction rules is quite achievable.
The GMUs 1, 2, and 10 in the extreme northwestern corner of the state in Moffat County, along with GMU 61 in the Uncompahgre and GMU 76 in the Route National Forest, are considered top picks. In 2016, 130 hunters out of 145 total hunters tagged bulls during the high-country season in these GMUs.
Elk hunting doesn’t get much better than that 90 percent kill rate. Sadly, unless you began applying more than 20 years ago, the chances of ever drawing one of these cherished permits are slim to none. To use the theme park analogy again, if you want to go on the best rides, you have to stand in line a long time.
There is one exception, however. CPW makes several prime hunts available to residents and non-residents through what they call the “hybrid draw.” The main requirement is having at least five preference points in hand to apply.
The San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado along the western slope of the Continental Divide is another prime area. It encompasses more than 2 million acres.
This area has produced special memories for me. In 1965, four friends and I rented horses and did a do-it-yourself combination deer and elk hunt in GMU 75. We spent a week among the gorgeous setting afforded by Colorado’s high-country splendor and managed to kill two decent bulls and four bucks.
GMU 75 gets a lot of pressure from the east side where Lemon Lake provides ample space to camp. To be successful, getting away from the orange hats is a must.
After several years of taking family vacations to the Vallecito Lake area, we bought a resort and moved there in 1975. Thus, I spent plenty time hunting, both on my own and with friends, and eventually went to work as a guide for the late Chuck Hester, who owned Timberline Outfitters.
Hester’s assigned area was GMU 70 in the Hermosa Creek drainage near the Purgatory ski area. We rarely had a bad hunt. For the most part, the success rate didn’t get above 25 percent, but that was mostly due to our hunters who couldn’t shoot rather than the elk. Last year the area produced a decent 23 percent overall harvest with 4,349 hunters tagging 449 bulls and 475 cows.
The Weminuche Wilderness within GMU 751 can be a real test of physical endurance, even if you ride into camp on a horse. Most of the valleys are narrow and bordered by steep terrain. Access from the south is limited to two trailheads, the Vallecito and the Pine River. To the east and south, it’s possible to hunt the Weminuche from GMU 77, where Guilliams has been guiding hunters since 1967.
I hunted with Dave twice, which is why I recommended him to Jim. My friend saw elk and could have tagged a cow but chose not to. He later told me he had the experience of a lifetime.
I recently spoke to Dave, and he said the elk population in his unit is in good shape. And he’s been seeing more older bulls coming into his unit during the later seasons.
“Over the last few years, the point restriction rule definitely has increased both the number and size of the bulls in my area,” the guide reported.
Guilliams’ clients generally enjoy a 45 to 50 percent kill rate over the course of all the seasons, and it could be higher if his clients with either-sex licenses killed cows. The overall success rate for GMU 77 in 2016 was only 15 percent. The difference is hunting pressure. Forest service roads allow access to a lot of elk hunters who rarely venture far. Most of the hunters stack up near the end of the roads and wind up tripping over one another in the woods.
Last year, during the first rifle season, Chuck Amyx from Plymouth, Mich., killed an outstanding bull elk for this area and for Colorado in general with an either-sex license he drew with one preference point. The bull had a 52-inch spread and rough scored 348 6/8 points.
Planning played a part in that kill. Guilliams knew that the permit Amyx drew required only one preference point. So he had Amyx book a year early and apply for a preference point that he used the next year.