In a state where the wapiti-hunting glass is nearly always full, hunters are anticipating another outstanding elk season in Colorado's high country. (August 2006)
Photo by R. E. Fly
It's that time of year again -- the best time, in fact!
For those of us nimrods who thrill to the alpine chase of bugling wapiti, the arrival of this autumn's elk hunting season brings the same enthusiasm, hope and optimism that sleepy-eyed children have every Christmas morning when they bound out of bed to see the presents that St. Nicholas left under the tree.
For Colorado's camo-clad set this fall, the difference is that our antlered gifts must be earned. Of course, there's no other way we'd rather have it. If past seasons are any indication, the Centennial State's 2006 elk seasons hold promise that hunters trekking through the Creator's stunning high-alpine canvas should enjoy another outstanding campaign.
Thanks to the state's burgeoning elk herd -- just under a quarter of a million wapiti, at last count -- there is rarely, if ever, a bad elk season in Colorado, although some can admittedly be better than others. So what will this autumn bring?
"Overall, I'd say an 'A' (forecast grade) for the state," said Bruce Watkins, the Montrose-based big-game coordinator for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Such a thumbs-up prognostication comes despite the fact that Colorado's elk herd continues to be trimmed toward management's long-term objective of 188,580 elk statewide. Post-hunt population estimates for the past three years show this trend: Following the 2003 seasons, the elk population was 278,660; in 2004, there were 274,570; and in 2005, their number was 247,090.
This comes despite the fact that the dreaded word "drought" is on the radar again after very dry conditions greeted much of southern Colorado during last fall and winter.
This fall, all of that notwithstanding, elk hunters here still have plenty of reasons to smile.
"We're still the No. 1 elk state by far in North America," Watkins said. "We have good populations of elk in much of the state, even though we're reducing the population in some cases to get to our objectives. There are not quite as many elk out there (as a few years ago), but hunting prospects for elk are still very good in Colorado."
Despite the progress that some of the state's data analysis units (DAUs) are making in bringing elk herd numbers down to CDOW management objectives, hunter success rates remain high, as 2005's harvest tally of 56,463 elk attests.
For the record, that 2005 figure includes the harvest of 23,817 bulls; 29,487 cows; and 3,159 calves killed by hunters.
Such figures also indicate what Colorado's elk hunters -- 246,521 strong, a year ago -- can look forward to this fall, since Watkins anticipates yet another good wapiti harvest.
Add in the state's ample hunting opportunity, the ability to purchase elk tags over the counter in some areas, and the sizable number of cow licenses available, and it's easy see why this may be the golden era of Colorado elk hunting.
In fact, about the only downside to this picture is that opportunities to kill a bona fide trophy bull in Colorado are somewhat limited, as compared to other Western states. As most hunters know, opportunities to kill a 5- or 6-year-old bull with a set of mega-antlers are restricted to a few units in the state -- which take years of accumulating preference points to draw.
"We don't have the same type of quality for our elk hunting on a statewide basis as we do for our mule deer hunting. But the quality of our elk hunting is a lot better than it used to be," Watkins said. "Since we went to the 4-point antler restriction, we see a lot more branched-antler bulls today that are 2 years old or better than we did in, say, 1984."
What Colorado may lack in terms of statewide antler quality, it more than makes up for in hunting opportunity, particularly in the northwestern part of the state where the elk hunting on the Western Slope is second to none. "Virtually the entire Western Slope is good," Watkins agreed.
Citing the biggest regional wapiti numbers in the state, the CDOW big-game coordinator is bullish on hunting prospects here.
"Almost half of the elk in the state are there," Watkins said. "So basically, west of the Continental Divide and from Grand Mesa north, we've got good numbers of elk in most of our units on the West Slope; and the hunting should be very good again.
"We have been somewhat successful in reducing some of our elk population numbers there to get them to DAU objectives approved by the Wildlife Commission. But while we've been successful, there are still lots of elk. Hunting prospects should be excellent. I'd certainly put it (the forecast grade) at an 'A' because the outlook is still very good."
HUNTING HOTSPOTS FOR 2006
With hallowed trophy units 2, 201, and 10 in the region, Watkins says that hunters lucky enough to have a bull tag for these rugged treasure troves can expect good chances to find a top-end animal this fall.
But even if you don't have enough preference points to enjoy such a mega-bull hunt, ample hunting opportunity -- and ample elk -- await here, particularly in places such as the famed 235,035-acre Flat Tops Wilderness Area where GMUs 12, 24, 25, 26, 33 and 34 are found.
Even so, however, these critters aren't always easy to find. If you find yourself scratching your head to locate elk here, Watkins advises that you avoid the temptation to hopscotch around. "Being familiar with an area is a big advantage in elk hunting," Watkins said. "By moving around a lot, you lose that advantage."
Most successful elk hunters fill their tags each year because of good old-fashioned hard work, not to mention pre-season research aimed at putting themselves in an area with fair elk numbers and good habitat.
Once there, they simply put in the time, effort and energy necessary to locate the animals and to successfully stalk into range for a lethal shot.
"Elk are pretty intelligent animals, and you usually don't stumble into them," Watkins said. "If you see evidence that elk should be there, but you can't find them, it might be worth staying there until you find them."
Finding elk shouldn't be much of a problem in the so
uthwestern corner of Colorado, a place where Old Man Winter virtually forgot to show up a year ago.
"There should be lots of elk here with a lot of bulls," said Scott Wait, the Durango-based CDOW senior biologist for the region.
In fact, Wait gives an "A" forecast grade for a season that he predicts could be very, very good.
"That's not just propaganda either. That really is the truth," Wait said. "Most of southwest Colorado had really poor weather for hunting last fall, resulting in a pretty low bull harvest. And most of southwest Colorado had a mild winter, so we had high survival. I really do expect that we could have a really good hunting season this fall."
In fact, about the only concern that elk hunters should have is whether full-scale drought grips the region over this summer. Even if such dry conditions persist, Wait says that drought may affect hunters more the than it does the elk, at least in the short term.
"I personally have not seen as much of an impact of drought on elk as I have on nearly all other species of wildlife," Wait said. "That could be my own limited vision. But over the last six years, I have learned a lot about how wildlife is impacted by drought. After a hot, dry summer, the effect on elk is more on distribution rather than numbers or antler quality or anything like that."
Wait says hunters may have to adjust their tactics and hunting locations this fall, particularly early on, if 2006 weather conditions remain parched.
"With drought and higher temperatures, elk head more and more onto the north-facing slopes for shade and cooler temperatures," Wait said. "They're predictably going to be in the thickest forest that they can find, and that means really ugly stuff for us to hunt in."
How do you hunt such nasty dark timber?
"Find an observation spot, stay put, glass, and if you haven't told them that you're there, then you can find them," Wait said. "Now, getting to them -- that's another matter."
Once you do get to them, however, given the light harvest tally last year in this part of Colorado -- not to mention the rugged nature of some of the region's units -- don't be surprised to find a few quality bulls roaming around.
While Wait indicates that many units in his part of the state manage for 4-point bulls, almost every year he hears of a 300-inch or better wapiti coming out of some of these units.
Where do you find such a bull in southwest Colorado? In addition to the better-known quality management units 61 and 76, Wait says to scout and locate thick, nasty and unpressured big-bull haunts in units 74, 751, 54, 55, 551, 64 and 65.
"To grow a bull like that, you've got to have them on the ground for six or seven years. So somewhere in that unit, there has to be a place for them to escape the annual hunting season and to live long enough to do that." Wait noted that such an area could be a vast, rugged wilderness area or just a single gnarly canyon. "It really doesn't have to be a really big area, just secure."
One area of the state where elk hunting prospects aren't quite as rosy and secure is in the southeastern portion of Colorado, south of I-70 and east of the Continental Divide.
That's where CDOW senior biologist Bob Davies is concerned about dry weather conditions experienced in recent years in and around the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the San Luis Valley. "The whole southeastern corner has been dry," Davies said.
Such conditions may have long-term implications on the valley's already low calf-to-cow ratio. But the dry weather here could also impact short-term antler development for this fall.
"We could see some lack of antler development, depending on where they move to," Davies said. "That's the big deal -- where they move to. If they find moisture and nutrition there, it could be no big deal."
Where can such moisture and nutrition be found in this drought-plagued portion of the state?
"They'll look for moisture either in streams that still have water in them or in meadows that have subterranean moisture and still have some good forage," Davies said. "They're pretty good at making a living; they just need to find it."
Keep in mind that elk in these parts often live in some of the state's most treacherous terrain.
"It depends on how hard you want to work," Davies said. "In the Sangre de Cristo, there are good numbers of elk in there. But it's tough country to get into and tough to hunt. We have sheep hunters who are reluctant to go up in there, to units like 82, 86 and 861."
Other issues hunters have to deal with here are the lack of public access in some units and the fact that many units are draw-only. But for those who have a southeast Colorado elk tag, gain the proper access, scout hard and work even harder, the chance for elk hunting success this year is still reasonably high.
"It is going to be a good season, at least a 'B,' because the elk are there," Davies said.
Which brings us to Colorado's northeastern elk country, a place where senior wildlife biologist Janet George is as optimistic about hunting prospects as her CDOW colleagues are in other regions. "It should be a great year, but I don't know if I can even guess at a forecast grade," George said. "There are good numbers of elk, but the hunting is so weather-dependent, I just don't have a crystal ball."
Unit 20 ranks highly for trophy-caliber mature bulls, but hunters who do their homework might be surprised at the quality of bulls that are occasionally found in other GMUs.
"Nearly all of our units up here are limited, so we have a fairly good bull-to-cow ratio," George said. She noted that Unit 38 still offers some over-the-counter hunting opportunity. While northeast Colorado elk densities are lower than on the West Slope, the limited nature of elk hunting here has helped produce a "fairly older age structure in the bull population," as she put it.
"We're not managing for real trophy-quality elk, but there are some good ones up there," George said.
Note her words: up there. With only a few exceptions, much of the elk country here is high and rugged, demanding that hunters be in top physical shape.
But rugged doesn't always mean far away from civilization. George says that quality hunting in dark timber can be found in Front Range units that feature dense forested growth not far from the outskirts of urban development and suburban sprawl.
This part of the state is less impacted by parched weather than other parts of Colorado. George points to loc
ations in the region with perennial springs that run even in the worst drought conditions. And yet none of that means elk movement goes uninfluenced by dry weather. The key is to find green patches that offer moisture and food like grasses, sedges, various forbs and mountain shrubs, and even tender young aspen shoots.
"Looking for green forage in the fall will certainly help you find elk," George said. "Not every place that has green will have elk, but it's a good place to start looking."
Later in the season, expect snows and frost to help the "green line" descend, pushing elk into lower elevations, including some of the region's agricultural fields.
One thing to keep in mind is the effect of hunting pressure on the elk herds located in this part of the state.
"Elk are more sensitive to pressure than deer are," George said. "Wherever the hunting pressure is, that probably has as much to do with their distribution as the forage, even during the archery season and the muzzleloader season."
So what's the bottom line for the 2006 wapiti hunting campaign in Colorado? Simple -- more of the same, as the golden years of Centennial State elk hunting continue on.
"We often talk about that," Watkins said. "These could very well be the good old days of elk hunting."