Despite having 45 elk herds roaming the Centennial State, it's easy to zero in on the Gunnison region, where elk are plentiful and hard hunting is often rewarded with a Western-sized hat rack.
Photo by Brian K. Strickland
The Gunnison Basin has a rich elk-hunting tradition. Every fall camo-clad hunters migrate to this central mountain region searching for the 14,000-plus elk that roam here.
"What's great about this area is it's mostly all public land, and there are lots of elk," says outfitter John Nelson of Gunnison Country Guide Service (970-641-2830). He should know. He's been successfully guiding hunters in this region for over 25 years. According to Nelson, the area offers hunters a variety of settings, which include locations with good vehicle access, as well as the opportunity to hunt seven different wilderness areas for those sometimes-elusive larger bulls.
Now that I've whet your wapiti appetite, here's a glimpse at the four game management units in the Gunnison Basin in which elk numbers are solid and, with a little effort, hunters could come away with a rack for the wall.
South of the town of Gunnison is GMU 67. "This is a great area to hunt," says CDOW district wildlife manager Matt Thorpe. "This unit isn't as rugged as other units in the area, so hunters have a good chance to fill their tags."
Hunters in 2004 enjoyed a 37 percent success rate (all methods of take), well above the 25 percent statewide average. "Hunters should have good success this fall," says Thorpe. "Numbers are stable, and there are some good bulls in there." Latest post-hunt population estimates showed the Lake Fork herd pushing 4,500, with a bull-to-cow ratio of 28-to-100.
Don't jump in your truck and head to Wal-Mart to buy your tag just yet. You'll have to plan for this hunt because it's a limited-draw unit. But there's hope for next year! According to the CDOW, last year residents successfully drew a rifle tag in the first and second seasons with no preference points, and only one preference point was needed to draw for the third and fourth seasons. Non-residents were successful with only one preference point, and according to Thorpe, it's typical for the DOW to have leftover cow tags for this area.
There are several places hunters should mark on their maps if they drew a tag this fall, or are planning a future trip. If you want a bull in the above-average category and don't mind solitude, Thorpe suggests hunting the La Garita Wilderness Area, which is at the southern tip of the unit. "There are good numbers of elk there, and many of them go undisturbed during the season," says Thorpe.
For hunters wanting good vehicle access, Thorpe suggests going east of the Cebolla Creek drainage, Sawtooth Mountain, Cochetopa Pass and the Beaver Creek areas. When snow gets heavy in the higher elevations, Thorpe says to hunt the area's open parks, which the elk use for food.
Sharing the Lake Fork herd with GMU 67 is GMU 66, which is southwest of Gunnison. This is the other limited license unit in the basin. "Because it's a draw unit, there are lots of elk, and some good 5- and 6-point bulls," said outfitter John Martin of Mineral Mountain Outfitters (970-641-2673). "This area offers hunters a true solitary Western experience."
Luke Martin, the CDOW district wildlife manager, agrees. "This area provides a quality elk hunting experience because fewer hunters are allowed to hunt here, which allows bulls to get older," Martin said. Numbers from 2004 prove his point: Last fall 39 percent of tag holders (all methods of take) filled their tags.
Don't let the word "limited" scare you from applying to hunt in GMU 66. Residents with no preference points drew tags for the first, second and third seasons, and non-residents needed just one point to draw. "What's nice about this unit," exclaimed Martin, "is you can draw an either-sex tag just about every other year and have a quality hunting experience."
According to Martin, elk are well dispersed throughout this unit, so he suggests hunters concentrate their efforts in the higher dark timber and the cooler north-facing slopes during the earlier seasons. As the seasons progress and the snow flies, Martin suggests hunters start looking toward the lower elevations.
Also, Unit 66 is home to the 61,000-acre Powderhorn Wilderness, and parts of the Uncompahgre and La Garita wilderness areas. So for hunters looking for less disturbed elk and a little more solitude, these areas should be considered.
"The elk herd in 55 is doing quite well," says Chris Parmeter, CDOW district wildlife manager. "Currently, there are about 3,500 elk in there, which is slightly above our objective." The bull-to-cow ratio is also high, with about 30 bulls to every 100 cows, and according to Parmeter, that's good news for hunters this fall. "There are lots of bulls in this unit, and if hunters are willing to hunt the remote areas, they'll get into them."
This unit is one of the over-the-counter units in the region, and according to Parmeter it's an average to above average unit in which to hunt elk. He says the main reason for this are the different types of country from which a hunter can choose.
For hunters seeking solitude and above-average bulls, there's the Fossil Ridge Wilderness. "It sits directly between the elk's summer and winter ranges, so there's always good numbers of elk there," says Parmeter. He suggests hunting around the Crystal Creek drainage.
Unit 55 also encompasses part of two other wilderness areas, the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness. The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness sits on the Continental Divide and older-class bulls often cross the divide into Unit 55 from limited Units 48 and 481. The Maroon Bells Wilderness sits on the northern tip of the unit, and although it is not known for huge bulls, there are lots of 4- and 5-point bulls there.
If wilderness areas aren't your forte then Parmeter suggests areas with slightly better access. These areas are not as rugged as the wilderness areas but offer hunters a chance to get away from most hunters, if they're willing to hike in a couple of miles. The areas that come to mind are the Boston Peak and Horse Basin areas. I have personally hunted elk in these areas and have come away with a truck full of protein-rich meat on more then one occasion.
Parmeter says hunters should keep in mind that, "After the first shot elk start moving into the thick, dark timber on the cooler north slopes. If hunters want to be successful, they should find those areas away from the roads."
The last in t
his foursome is GMU 54, which is northwest of Gunnison. This unit encompasses most of the West Elk Wilderness, which is 176,172 acres and has elevations ranging from 7,500 to more than 13,000 feet. "For hunters wanting a wilderness experience it's a good unit to hunt elk in," says CDOW district wildlife manager Jeff Oulton.
The Sapinero herd calls Unit 54 home, and Oulton reports it's about 5,500 strong, with a bull-to-cow ratio of 23-to-100. These population levels are slightly above objective, and should give the willing hunter excellent opportunities to fill their freezer with some succulent elk steaks.
Last fall 3,952 hunters killed 421 bulls and 284 cows/calves for a success rate of only 18 percent (all methods of take). This can be blamed on the ruggedness of the unit and less then ideal elk hunting weather. But for the hunters willing to push themselves a little harder, this can be a blessing in disguise. A lower than expected harvest means more elk to chase this fall as well as older class bulls. Oulton concurs, saying, "Our spring surveys showed good numbers of elk and mature bulls."
Oulton says the elk herd is well dispersed throughout the unit so just about any area that has good habitat should be good. He stresses the key to being successful in this rugged unit is to get back into the wilderness and be patient. "Too many hunters hike in and out of the wilderness during prime hunting hours, morning and evening." He suggests camping in the wilderness.
Brandon Diamond, terrestrial biologist out of the Gunnison office, suggests hunting around Rainbow Lakes, and the Red Creek, Castle Creek and Mill Creek drainages. "During early seasons hunt the high, dark timber on the north/northeast-facing slopes," Diamond suggests. "It's these cool hidey-holes elk like to be in then." When the snow starts to fall, work down the same drainages toward lower elevations.