Colorado Elk and Mule Deer Combo Hunts

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Most folks have a finite amount of time that they can dedicate to hunting and want to maximize their opportunities when out in the woods.  While deer and elk habitats have a fair amount of overlap, I prefer to focus on just one species, as putting yourself in deer and elk country is often a bit of a compromise.  However, combination hunts make sense to many folks who can only dedicate an extended weekend or are coming from out of state and can only budget one big trip in a year. The prospect of going home empty handed is tough, so the concept of having tags for two species is very appealing. But you have to be careful about the areas you select if you want a legitimate shot at both species.

Here in Colorado, you can combine elk and deer hunts in archery, muzzleloader, 2nd season, 3rd season and 4th season, and a special early rifle season in a couple of units. There is no first rifle season for deer nor late season opportunities outside of the plains.  Colorado has unlimited over the counter bull elk tags available in about 2/3 of the western units (the ones with huntable elk populations) during archery, 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons.  All deer licenses are by draw only, but some licenses go to leftovers.  I’ll get into some potential leftover options later.  The drawing deadline is April 5th, 2011 this year, so if you’re still mulling some ideas, it’s time to get cracking.

One of the reasons that I consider doing a combo hunt to be a compromise, is that you have to decide where and when you are going to hunt.  Deer begin migrating out of the high country by the end of October, but it takes much longer to force elk out of the mountains without serious hunting pressure.  Elk also tend to be grazers, preferring grasses, sedges and forbs, while deer are primarily browsers, focusing on shrubs.  In most of Colorado, the mountain shrub communities tend to be at lower elevations than the typical big timber and meadow country that the elk inhabit.  The aspen zones, which tend to stretch from the mid 8,000 foot range to the 10,000ish foot range are a fair compromise area, as they are rarely dense enough to shade out an understory.

I’m not trying to give a botany lesson here, just trying to point out why it is difficult to hunt both elk and deer at the same time in the same area, at the same elevations.  If thinking about trees and shrubs makes your head hurt, then just think foothills for deer and mountains for elk during the rifle seasons. 

But not all of western Colorado is classic, high mountain country.  Much of it is mesa, plateau and canyon type country of the Colorado Plateau as opposed to the Rocky Mountains.  Elevations are generally not nearly as high, so you have a better opportunity to get both elk and deer during the rifle seasons.  If you prefer archery or muzzleloader, then I believe these areas are a little tougher to hunt in September.  While elk should be bugling, the scrub oaks, mountain mahogany and serviceberry will still have their leaves, making spotting deer difficult.  Instead, I’d focus on getting above timberline (11,500-11,700 feet in most of Colorado) to glass for elk feeding in the high basins and deer feeding or bedding in the krummholz (little stunted trees at timberline, it means twisted wood in German).

There are just a few unique opportunities that will allow you to hunt deer and elk in September in the high country.  One is in unit 45, where there is an early rifle deer hunt in the Holy Cross Wilderness.  While there are several other places offering early rifle deer hunts, this is one of just three units where the there is also an early rifle cow elk season.  The other two units are units 25 and 26 in the Flat Tops Wilderness. 

I would not recommend doing a deer/elk combination hunt in any of the severe mountainous regions of the state during 2nd season.  While 2nd season is nice because the deer tags are easy to draw, there are OTC bull elk tags, and in the limited elk areas, the tags come pretty easily too, it’s really difficult to get at the bucks while they are heading down out of the high country through the timber.  Instead, check out some of the plateau units in the Western Slope.  Now, many of those are trophy units for either elk or deer, you can draw several of those units with just one preference point for deer.

3rd season tends to be a much better time to do a combo hunt in the more rugged country, as the bucks are coming down from the mountains and there’s usually some severe weather to help hasten their descent.  The bucks are also started to check the does for estrus, therefore tending to be a little more active, and a little less secretive. The elk may also be moving down below the heavy timber at this point.  Also, most of the grasses will be dessicated, forcing them to find shrubs or irrigated crops to feed on.  But now is when things can get tricky with landownership patterns.  If the unit you are looking at does not have sufficient public land to hunt below 9,000 feet, you could get yourself in a bit of a bind when trying to find deer.  I particularly like areas with low elevation BLM lands that back right up to irrigated private lands.  It can be tricky getting around them, and may require some serious hiking, but those can be deer and elk hotspots.  Elk can be much harder to pinpoint this time of year, as they could be anywhere from all the way down in the valleys to way up in the mountains, depending on snow levels.  A decent compromise when trying to get into both is to focus on where scrub oaks begin to give way to aspens, somewhere in the 8-9,000 foot elevation range.  One other problem with 3rd season, is that the deer tags can be a little harder to draw than in 2nd season.

4th rifle season can be very difficult to draw for deer, the elk tags are limited too, but are very easy to draw.  If you have a few deer points, but no elk points, this is a great option.  The elk and deer will often be at the same elevations, the bucks will be extremely active and visible and success rates are very good for both species.  But, you’ve got to draw both tags now.  Other than muzzleloader season, this is probably the most difficult time to try to plan on acquiring both an elk and a deer tag.

So, how about a few picks? 

If you wanted to do an archery and OTC elk hunt in a unit that requires no preference points in a backcountry wilderness setting, take a look at unit 36.  The Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area makes up much of the unit, OTC archery pressure by Front Range hunters really dies off this far away from Denver, and there is a stellar deer population.  No, it’s not the best area for either elk or deer, but a good compromise if you want to get up high and glass.

I already mentioned units 444 and 33 in earlier articles, and both of those are great options for deer and elk combinations during 2nd or 3rd rifle season.  Unit 33 buck tags tend to go to leftovers during 2nd rifle season, unit 444 will have leftover doe deer tags, and both units are OTC bull elk and will have leftover cow tags.  But if you wanted another suggestion, for another productive area, outside of the usual places, take a good look at Grand Mesa.  The north end tends to have excellent deer hunting, the south end tends to have a little better elk hunting.  So, you’ve got another compromise to make here, but the nice thing is that the bull tags are OTC, allowing you to hunt any unit you want in 2nd or 3rd season.  You will have to apply for either units 41, 42, and 421 for deer on the north side of the Mesa, or 52, 411 and 521 on the south side.

Your options are severely limited in 4th season if you are without preference points.  I’m going to give you a real oddball unit that is very hard to hunt and is often overlooked.  Unit 34.  Yes, the deer population is way down, but by 4th season the deer are very accessible, with success rates averaging in the 40% range over the past 5 years, almost twice as high as 3rd season, while either sex elk success is a solid 24%.   Just as importantly, unit 34 has enough low to mid elevation public land that you can actually hunt those animals.  Unless you like gnarly canyons, and sheep country (which can be pretty exciting, but they kick your butt) stay out of this unit the rest of the year. 

With application season coming to a close here, keep these pointers in mind if you’re trying to plan a combo hunt.  Also, it’s not too late to email the DOW and alter your application in case something I wrote just gave you an idea.


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groovy mike's picture

I am in complete agreement that combination hunts make sense.

Western Hunter:

It certainly is true that my hunts are limited as much by the finite amount of time that I can dedicate to hunting than by any other factor.  So I am in complete agreement that  combination hunts make sense.  I hate the idea of going home empty handed after investing the time away from my family and work and the cost of travel. 

I did not know that the state of Colorado had unlimited over the counter bull elk tags available.  Thanks for sharing the information.   I’ll file that away for future years since I missed this year’s deadline. Thanks one again for sharing your insights and knowledge.  I think I might be in trouble though.  If you with insider knowledge can only recommend areas with success rates averaging in the 40% range for deer and either sex elk success at  24% I don’t know if I want to jump into those hunts.  I’m looking for success rates over 80% when I put in moose tags.  4 in 10 odds mean that the majority of hunters come home empty handed.  I don’t know as I want a part of that.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate the information but investing a couple of weeks' worth of take home pay for tags and airfare just doesn’t seem like a smart use of my money when the odds are that long.  If I were close enough to drive it might be a different story, but that’s the way I see it from the perspective of an east coast resident. 


GooseHunter Jr's picture

I always like the fact that I

I always like the fact that I can cahse deer and elk at the same time...just increases my odds of taking some great tasting meat home!

numbnutz's picture

This is great info as I'm in

This is great info as I'm in the way to early planning stage for a hunt i want to do in either 2014 or 2015 in CO. I want to do a combo hunt and hopefully fill a deer tag and elk tag. This is a great  starting point for me but I'm sure things might change a bit when I'm ready for the hunt, Thanks for the info you put out there for all of us to use.

Ca_Vermonster's picture

Excellent information, as

Excellent information, as usual.  My plan, assuming I don't get to go to Illinois for whitetail next year, is to do a combo hunt in the Unit 62 area.

I just put in for the first time for a deer point, and I am being told I should be able to draw with 1 point for second season.  Then, maybe apply for a cow elk tag, or just get an OTC Bull tag.


jaybe's picture

Wow - a combination hunt.

Wow - a combination hunt. That's something that I have never done. In fact, I will be coming west for my first mule deer hunt this fall, but that's all that the guys I'm coming with hunt. Right off hand, I don't know if any of the other seasons overlap or not, but coming from Michigan, we are somewhat limited as to how much time we can spend out there.

The fact that we are pulling our 5th wheel trailers also is a factor, since my buddy tells me that the boned meat from one mule deer prettty much fills up his small refrigerator. I don't know what we would do if we also had an elk to contend with.

I asked him about antelope, but he said there weren't many of them where we will be hunting, so we didn't apply for antelope either.

This first time, at least, I'm just following his lead and will be happy to tag my first mule deer.

This sounds like a great article for those wanting to hunt combination hunts in Colorado, though. Lots of good information and things to take into account. I'm sure that many people will be able to use this information.