Colorado Elk and Mule Deer Combo Hunts
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.