Colorado 4th Season Elk Leftovers
In my last article, I noted that there were several 4th season elk tags available as leftovers that actually had better success than the 1st season tags, which are not available as leftovers. In this article, I’ll break down these top value units a little better with respect to hunting them in 4th season if you are considering a leftover bull or either sex tag instead of an OTC license for 2nd or 3rd season. In case you missed it, those interesting tags are 15, 16, 19, 34, 44, 161, 181, 421, 561, and 861.
Units 19 and 561 are not on the OTC list, but 19 does have 2nd and 3rd season licenses available as leftovers. I should just immediately scratch 19 off the list, but if you live near Fort Collins, I can see why you’d be interested in hunting near home. Personally, I’d rather drive a couple of hours for better hunting, but I also recognize that some people would rather not hunt if they have to go that far. Yes, it borders unit 20 and Rocky Mountain National Park and yes there are few nice bulls taken every year. But when I saw a few, I mean like 5 bulls taken all year that are worth writing home about. The unit averages just 9% overall, and only 74 bulls were taken in the entire unit last year. The elk density is abysmal and there’s too much dark timber for the average rifleman to be able to hunt it effectively. And there’s enough wilderness to make getting to the elk difficult in some cases.
So what does unit 19 have going for it? Well, it’s got a lot of contiguous public land. There aren’t many refuge areas, and it’s got some beautiful high country in and around the Commanche Peak Wilderness Area and the Long Draw Reservoir country. But so what? It’s still an hour and a half to two hour drive from Fort Collins to the better elk country, so it’s not that convenient. And we’re talking about hunting during 4th season, in which case those elk will have moved out of the high country. The 5 year average success rate in 4th season is 11%. That’s awful compared to the AVERAGE of the western units that I follow most closely at 27% in 4th season. I know, I know, it’s not all about success. But when comparing unit 19 to your other available 4th season hunts, it falls dreadfully short in nearly every category.
By contrast, look at 561, which is not on the leftover list either. It is under a crowd controlled management philosophy, but because it doesn’t have the reputation for success that some of its neighboring units has, I think it gets kind of lost in the shuffle. Of the 105 tags in the quota, only 25 were taken during the drawing, leaving 80 for leftovers and the leftover draw. This area is just outside of Salida, Southeast of Monarch Pass. There’s a lot of elk in there, and it’s not all black timber. There are some pretty open or sparsely timbered areas a little further down the mountain, but still in the National Forests. This unit goes from averaging 26.8% during 1st season to 30% in 4th season. Yes, the last two years have been down in the 20% range, but prior years had success rates as high as 46%. Now how appealing is staying close to home to hunt unit 19 sound? You’re 3 times more likely to actually take an elk in 561, and there’s 2.5 times the elk density in more huntable country.
Unit 181 is a unit I’m not overly fond of for elk hunting. But, that Kremmling and Wolford Mountain Reservoir country, while not well suited for early season elk hunting, is about perfect during for 4th season. And it shows in the success rates too. The OTC bull hunts have pretty low success rates, averaging just 5% during 3rd season with a ton of pressure. In fact hunters easily outnumber the bulls by about 8 to 1 during that season. But, during 4th season, the hunter numbers are cut in half, and occasionally things line up for a really stellar hunt. In fact, last year, 45% of the hunters came home with an elk (this is an either sex license). The average is just 16.4% for the last 5 years, but during 1st season that unit averages only 12%. So while those numbers aren’t stellar, it is a 30% increase from 1st to 4th season, and therefore meets our criteria here. Also, there are over 400 licenses that made it out of the draw, so even if you fail to act on leftover day, you’ll still have a shot at one of these licenses(also good in unit 18).
Unit 16 shows a large jump in success from 1st to 4th season, and while I’m a little leery of the landownership pattern, the jump in success makes it worth looking at. Unit 16 is the southwest section of North Park, just north of Rabbit Ears Pass. What I don’t like about the area is just how high the ranches are. The transition is not very gradual from high mountain National Forest lands, to BLM foothills. There is BLM land, and it’s mostly scattered, along with some state lands. But hunters do get into elk on both those lower elevation public lands and higher elevation forest lands. After last year’s heavy snows, hunters killed elk at a 42% clip in unit 16 during 4th season. You of course can’t count on such heavy snows every year, but even if you eliminate last year from the average, it’s about on par with 1st season, plus you have the either sex option, making it worthy of some consideration.
161 is just north of 16, and extends to the Wyoming border. While the Encampment River provides most of the low elevation Forest Service access (black timber, but lots of logged openings), it’s Independence Mountain that provides the real action during 4th season. Now as of this writing there are just 13 tags left, so they may not get out of the leftover draw. If they do, and you want one of these tags, you had better be one of the first people in line on Leftover Day. So why would you want this tag? Well besides having good transitional public land habitat to hunt, this is part of a fast growing elk herd that takes in additional elk from Wyoming every time we have a significant snowfall. Though at 21% in 4th season, it’s not much better than the 20.8% average in 1st season, with a good snow year like last year 161 had a lot more elk in it and hunters killed them at a 29% clip.
As with many of these units, unit 15 benefitted from the heavy snows last year too, but the jump was not quite as pronounced as 181 or 16. Either way you look at it, during 1st season the last 5 years unit 15 averaged 23%, and during 4th season it has averaged 26%. Not a huge increase, but this is a good unit, that has no real difficult to access alpine country and not much for significant private refuges. There are good roads providing access to most of the elk country. In fact, you can probably do better here without much snow. Though there is a lot of dark timber in and around Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area, there are plenty of natural openings to hunt, and enough good vantage points for the spot and stalk hunter unwilling to try tracking down an elk in the snow.
34 is a tough unit to hunt most seasons. The easy, flat country with all the roads on top of the Flat Tops is mostly devoid of elk during hunting season. The incredibly steep canyons along Grizzly, Canyon, No Name and Deep Creek are great places for elk and deer to hide, and few hunters are willing to mess with them there. And that’s the great thing about that 4th season tag here. 34 is a unit whose success rate is typically in the low teens, but the deeper snows push the elk lower in the canyons and closer to the winter range near Coffee Pot road and success jumps up to 24% on average during 4th season. It’s still not a super high success proposition, but being able to get your hands on an either sex leftover elk tag that actually increases in success rate during 4th season, with basically no private land issues for a portion of the famed Flat Tops elk herd is really a valuable thing.
Unit 44 is a popular unit, and while I wouldn’t say it’s ideally suited for a 4th season hunt, as it is just barely better than 1st season, it is a good unit during any season, so having an either sex tag in your pocket for a good unit can’t be bad. And since it’s a leftover, you don’t have to blow your preference points on the first season tag. The 23% success rate in 4th season isn’t stellar, but is fairly consistent. Don’t pray for too much snow, as the ranches at lower elevations near Eagle will suck up a lot of elk from the higher country on Red Table Mountain, Holy Cross Wilderness Area and Hardscrabble Mountain.
Unit 861 is a highly variable unit. Some years it’ll post a success rate in the high 60s, in others it will post a single digit success rate. I suspect it’s probably due to the surveys only catching a small sample size, which is a problem with a lot of small, lightly hunted units. Like unit 44, 861 isn’t a whole better in 4th season than 1st season, but it is slightly better, and is still an interesting unit with a very high success rate. Most of the public land is at higher elevation on the southeast end of the Sangre De Cristos. No matter how you look at it, this unit 86 and 861 tag posts a nearly 40% average success rate in 4th season over the last five years, and not many places can match that, leftover tag or not.
Unit 421 is essentially the middle of the Grand Mesa country. It contains both the south end of The Battlements and the north end of Grand Mesa proper. This is big time winter range, scrub oak and agriculture country. Success goes up from 29% in 1st season to 32% in 4th season, and posted a 50% success rate in 4th season last year. The elk population is on the rise, though still mostly a raghorn unit. I don’t think I’d want a lot of snow in order to hunt this unit as there aren’t a lot of great low elevation options. There are plenty of Forest Service access points in the 8-9,000 foot range, so a bit of snow shouldn’t be a major problem. Still, in terms of consistently good success, it’s tough to beat unit 421. Also that tag is good for bulls in all six of the Grand Mesa units, but it’s 421 that seems to do the best in the later seasons as elk funnel into the valley around Collbran from Grand Mesa and The Battlements.
There you have it, in no particular order some solid possibilities for a 4th season leftover if you got skunked in the draw, or were unsure of whether or not to buy an OTC license. If I wasn’t trying to help my girlfriend during 4th season this year, I’d probably be most interested in the 561 or 41/42/52/411/421/521 license. If I had to have an either sex license, I’d probably go for either the unit 44 or 15 license under the assumption that we won’t have nearly as much snow as last year, though the unit 34 license is interesting too. See what I mean? Lots of options! This is a good problem to have. And while we’re on the topic of good problems, there’s still plenty of time this summer to get out and scout before leftover day.