Find The Moving Target

Find The Moving Target

Colorado's high-country elk herds migrate between summer and winter ranges. Be in the right place at the right time to take your bull. (July 2010)

If you're the typical big-game hunter of white-tailed deer who is holding a tag for taking a Colorado high-country elk, get ready to work hard for your bounty. The high-country elk herds of the Centennial State migrate 100 or so miles every year between their summer and winter ranges. Simply put, the elk are a moving target, and you'll have to be in the right place at the right time to succeed.

Jason Willis of Colorado carries out a good set of 6x6 antlers. Willis used scent cover to help him sneak up on the bull at midday while the elk was bedded in cool spruce timber at 9,000 feet.
Photo by SL Merriam.

Imagine that -- 100 miles! It's not a steady migration in one direction, as mass migrations occur, say, with arctic caribou. Elk may travel downhill 5 miles in one day, then turn around and go back uphill 10 miles the next day. You're going to work hard to fill that tag, but once you experience a Colorado high-country elk hunt, you'll quickly realize just how lucky you are to have succeeded where many have not succeeded before.

If you could ask the elk why they wander downhill one day only to return uphill the next, sometimes doubling or tripling the previous day's distance, they could have any one of a number of reasons: a cougar, a bear, a windstorm, an unexpected snowfall, a warm spell, frost, human scent -- any one of these factors likely turned them around.

So, despite the fact that Colorado holds one of the largest elk populations in the country -- some 300,000 animals -- your success on a Colorado elk hunt will depend on where you hunt and when you arrive. If you land where the elk were last week, you're out of luck!

How do you begin your quest to find that ever-moving target?

"Step No. 1 is preseason scouting and glassing to locate elk," says hunting guide Wes Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Expeditions in Wellington.

In fact, reputable Colorado hunting guides agree pre-season scouting is key to successfully hunting high-country elk. Resident hunters carry an advantage by living close enough to the hunting areas to do their own scouting. However, non-resident hunters are often limited in their time for pre-season scouting. And unless you live among the higher elevations of Colorado, you'll need to be physically prepared for hiking and hunting in rugged, high-elevation mountains.

Many of Colorado's professional outfitters grew up in the state and hold firsthand knowledge and expertise when it comes to hunting in their backyard. They know the Colorado mountain terrain and where the best hunting locations will be at any time of the season. That alone can make your trip successful. Hiring a guide provides the scouting information a non-resident is unable to accomplish on his own, and it's well worth the price after waiting a number of years to draw a tag that required a large number of preference points.

From the beginning of the Colorado archery hunt in August to the last cow-only season in January, elk will usually be on the move. Their migration paths are also feeding paths the oldest cows have learned as reliable travel routes. Individual herds beat individual travel routes, but they'll eventually meet up with other herds on the lower-elevation winter range.

Successful elk hunters learn where the migration routes are established -- yet, these routes can change annually -- and where they intersect. Elk can easily cover 100 miles in a week and they have 16 weeks to travel from the higher elevations at 10,000 feet (above sea level) to the lower elevations in the valleys below 6,000 feet. Each animal or family herd makes their summertime home range somewhere between these two elevations.

For example, small family groups of elk in northwest Colorado's high country move to lower elevations and merge with other elk to create the Bear's Ears herd. Still, their migration is not wholly predictable, as it is determined by both available food and the weather. Last year hunters in a portion of that range enjoyed working a large elk population; this year, on the same date, a hunter standing in the same spot might not see a single elk. A number of variables control the situation.

First, when warm summer weather begins to change, elk thermo-regulate their physical condition to balance habitat temperatures with caloric requirements by moving to lower altitudes as the season progresses.

Next, an elk's summer coat of short, stiff, relatively sparse hair requires them to bed down in cool, shady forests during warm weather. They will also wade or lie in streams, rivers, ponds and lakes to seek relief from heat and biting insects when needed.

Also, the blood pumping through the veins in the velvet on a bull's antlers cools off before returning to the heart, effectively cooling the animal's core temperature. During the early archery season, the velvet is dried and begins peeling off in late August. But if warm temperatures remain into early September, elk must remain in areas where they can stay cool.

Finally, once the season's weather change takes hold and air temperatures fall accordingly, elk grow a winter coat consisting of long, waterproof guard hairs covering a dense and woolly under fur. As it gets colder during the day, elk will feed on open, sunny slopes but bed down in the trees at midday and at night to seek shelter from wind and cold temperatures.

Successful elk hunters have learned if you don't see elk in a day or two of hunting, it is time to move to a different area to locate a herd or family group. The lower the elk move, the larger and more concentrated the herd becomes.

You see now that successful elk hunters understand not only where will the elk be at any given time; they also must determine at what time of the season will the elk herds be in any given location.

Toss the variable of weather changes and the tag you carry -- a trophy-bull, any-bull or a cow-elk tag -- into the equation and the answer becomes more complicated.

And that's not the end of it.

The ever-so-difficult to obtain draw tag requires anywhere from zero to 16 points to acquire. Points are awarded each time a hunter applies for any elk tag. Eventually, those points are redeemed for the draw tag. How many points are redeemed determines where the draw tag is valid. Low- or zero-point areas are being managed for numbers of elk, while the h

ighest point areas are managed for trophy bulls. You simply might spend years waiting for your number to come up.

As your head spins, remember tthe Colorado elk herd numbers close to 300,000 animals. Ninety-nine percent of them are located from the front-range at the center of Colorado westward to the Utah border -- the high country!

So, let's reinforce the weather factor in elk migrations. The last few winters have dumped heavy snow in much of Colorado's high country, driving some particularly hard storms on the herds in the Durango area, as well as the northwest corner of the state. If your elk hunt takes place in these areas, you'll have to make a special effort to understand how this year's winter weather shares its influence with the winters of recent years passed.

Shhh '¦ quiet. Don't tell the rifle guys. Colorado's early season hunters -- those with muzzleloaders and archery gear in hand -- get to enjoy the best elk hunting of the year!

They call it the "rut" -- the period when elk are most vocal. Bulls bugle all day and night, it seems, to attract cows and advertise their dominance over other bulls. Bull elk also spend time making a deep grunting noise to keep their cows from straying from the harem.

When you bugle to a bull you are trying to get him mad enough to challenge your dominance. The big, smart bulls let the smaller guys round up a group of cows then, when a cow comes into heat, he steps in and drives the smaller bull away. This translates to your calling strategy; if you sound too dominant, the bull will back off and walk away. If he has cows, he'll drive them into the wind to avoid losing them to a bigger bull. When you sound just right he will bugle at you looking for a fight and will often destroy small trees as he works his way closer to your location.

As he gets closer -- and madder -- he will bugle and often urinate, making you swear he is standing in the next public restroom stall! These close encounters will bring nightmares of delight for many years to come but can also freeze a hunter when the size, noise and aroma of a trophy bull gets way too close.

Once you outsmart a bull he will be angry and looking to pit his 900 pounds against your scant 200 pounds of fighting weight! During these moments, you may find yourself looking at your bow, thinking, "I hope to see this story in a magazine, rather than my name in the obituary column!" Any elk hunter who has had a bull come to within 10 yards of him, while the animal was looking to fight, will tell you it is the greatest thrill in the world!

Early season population densities and past harvest data is important for your elk hunt this season, but crunching these numbers is not the end-all for your potential elk-hunting success. Areas with high elk densities may be a checkerboard of inaccessible private land or even blocked by physical boundaries and, in the case of a few archery and muzzleloader areas, the draw tag required to hunt these areas may take a high number of preference points.

All these problems can be managed with good mapping skills, building preference points or obtaining a landowner voucher.

Colorado is known for having large numbers of elk rather than high quality bulls, but there are a number of quality hunting areas created by allowing a limited harvest. This increases the average age of the bulls in those areas, which means bigger antlers in your photos. The game management units (GMUs) managed as "trophy areas" for older bulls are units 001, 002, 010, 061, 076 and 201.

But realize, too, that Colorado has one of the highest percentages of public land in the lower 48 states. Still, because early season elk habitat lies mostly on national forest land, this fact will not do you any good if you don't know how to get there or what lies on the land where your tag is valid.

Much of Colorado's highest mountainland stretches from Steamboat Springs south to Durango. You'll find excellent elk hunting here, but most of the animals will be in the high country during the early season. Fortunately, most of Colorado's high country lies in national forestlands -- the White River National Forest, the San Juan National Forest and the Bear's Ear portion of the Routt National Forest -- or lands controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Unless otherwise posted in the state hunting regulations, all these lands are open to public hunting by permit.

When planning your trip, you'll do well to spend five or 10 bucks on a good topographic map. It will show you where the national forest boundaries are located, the easiest access points and the roads that lead to them, and any physical barriers that might keep you away from the area's elk.

You topo maps also show landmarks and waterways, which are very important during an early season hunt. When there is no snow cover elk must go to a water source at least once a day. Many times this may be a spring set back in heavy cover that is the headwater or tributary to a bigger stream, river or lake. Having the map that directs you to these spots will save untold hours of scouting.

Also, consider carrying a global positioning satellite (GPS) unit of some type. A GPS is a great asset when hunting the dark timber that elk use as their cool summer habitat, and dark timber is an easy place for a hunter to get turned around.

Where to get maps:Bureau of Land Management 2850 Youngfield, Lakewood, CO 80215 Phone: (303) 239-3600

U.S. Geological Survey, PO Box 25286, Denver, CO 80225 Phone: (888) 275-8747 or (303) 202-4700

US Forest Service, PO Box 25127, Lakewood, CO 80225Phone: (303) 275-5350Web:

The 2010 elk-hunting season in Colorado kicks off with the archery season, August 28 through September 26. Muzzleloader hunters fire up their smokepoles from September 11-19. The first rifle season runs October 16 through November 14, and some special-season dates fall outside those dates.

When it comes to buying your elk tags, Colorado offers various tags at various times, some that impose application deadlines and a limited number of tags. Others are sold over the counter at license vendors statewide. For more information about elk tags, contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife, 6060 Broadway, Denver, CO 80216, phone: (303) 297-1192 or visit:

However the cost of elk tags doesn't get any easier than this, folks:Resident -- $46 for any tag.Non-resident -- $546 for a bull tag, and $351 for a cow tag.

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