Colorado OTC Elk Hunting Options

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Colorado has many options for the elk hunter, but the Division of Wildlife’s bread and butter is the OTC bull elk tag.  What I’m going to talk about here are some of the tradeoffs you can be facing in the OTC units. A few weeks ago, in Colorado Elk Hunting: Reading the Harvest Stats, I showed which units are among the most productive and which units to avoid. I’m going to take this a little further this week by breaking down some pluses and minuses of some of the major OTC elk areas, and lumping them into different categories for different types of hunters.

Not all elk country is equal; differing types of terrain, vegetation, access, hunting styles, pressure and other factors affect the elk hunt.  For some people, the idea of a backcountry elk hunt sounds like a nightmare, for others that’s just a fantasy, and other people who would attempt  a backcountry hunt might find it to be a mixture of both.  Most hunters prefer to be able to camp near their truck and hunt a few hours from the vehicle by foot.  Some hunters like to be able to use ATVs to access places where very little foot hunters and highway vehicles can reach.  

Other groups of hunters have decided that camping is no longer for them, but they aren’t ready to pay for access to private lands and fully outfitted hunts.  These people need hunts within about an hour’s access from a town with a few motels and restaurants.

Preferred hunting styles can also dictate the areas and seasons you should consider hunting.  For those that prefer to glass and stalk elk with a rifle, certain types of terrain and vegetation are more suitable than others.  Rifle hunting success rates can be almost as bad as archery success rates in heavily timbered areas.  Spot and stalk hunters need to have good visibility and should avoid those heavily timbered areas, but guys who are patient enough to sit meadows, saddles and trails, or are good still hunters can be successful in the big timber. 

Wilderness hunting does not have to be restricted to hunting big timber and sitting meadows and trails.  Many wilderness areas provide an opportunity to get above timberline and glass open basins.  But these areas are generally early season only, and extremely physically demanding.  So once again, they aren’t for everyone.

The point of all of this is that it helps to match your preferred hunting style to the type of terrain where that best compliments that style.  I’m just going to stick with units that offer OTC bull tags during 2nd or 3rd rifle season, but most of these are also OTC for archery.   Keep in mind that these are generalizations and there are certainly areas within these places that won’t fit my descriptions.  I’m not going to be able categorize every unit either, but I will list many of the areas that come to mind under each category.

High Mountain Wilderness Areas:

Most of these areas have vast expanses of dark timber, but they also have areas above timberline that elk and deer will summer in.  These are some your best bets for a backcountry hunt during archery season.  2nd season can be hit and miss up in this country, so it pays to watch the snow levels.  The NRCS Snotel site is updated daily and is a great way to judge whether or not some areas will be accessible or continue to hold elk.  Very few of these places would likely continue to hold elk into 3rd season. 

On the plus side, you’ll likely encounter very few hunters once you are more than 2 miles from a trailhead.  These are also going to be one of the only places in Colorado where you’ve got much of a chance at finding a bull over 3.5 years old on public lands in an OTC unit.

However, one of the big negatives for all of these units is success.  Very few elk are killed in big Wilderness Areas.  While that’s great for trophy potential, it sucks when you’re the one who’s going home empty handed.  The nature of wilderness is such that it is very difficult to move camp and adapt to changing conditions or to be able to pressure enough country to force elk to move out of hiding. 

 If your goal is to kill a first elk, a wilderness hunt is probably not for you.  On the other hand, if you’re looking for a more enjoyable experience than the typical truck based hunt, there are certainly some great options in Colorado for you.

The following is a list of OTC units whose federally designated Wilderness Areas make up more than 25% of the entire unit in descending order.  In parentheses are their corresponding wilderness areas.

Units: 371(Eagles Nest Wilderness), 471 (Collegiate Peaks), 24 (Flat Tops), 47 (Hunter-Fryingpan), 751 (Weminuche), 43 (Maroon Bells-Snowmass), 45 (Holy Cross), 53 (West Elk), 54(West Elk), 14 (Mt. Zirkel), 86 (Sangre De Cristo).

Low Mountain Roadless Areas:

Not many places meet this description, but a couple of units deserve mention here.  These are areas where you will not find much alpine country above timberline.  These places tend to be heavily timbered with a few scattered meadows, some of which are very large. 

On the plus side, you can get a few miles away from other hunters without hunting above 11,000 feet or in extremely steep mountains.  A few older bulls manage to hide out in these areas, despite the OTC status.  Another good thing is that these places are not particularly weather dependent.  The elk won’t migrate out of the public lands during hunting season due to snow levels. 

On the downside, this is entirely ambush and still hunting country.  Don’t expect to do much glassing, other than while still hunting.  Spotting scopes are worthless here.  As would be expected, success rates in these units are pretty low.

Units:  15 (Sarvis Creek Wilderness) and 18.

ATV Units:

These units cater somewhat to the ATV hunter.  The Forest Service lands have trails that ATVs can use, but highway vehicles cannot.  If you’ve got one, or are looking for an excuse to own an ATV, these units are a little better suited to you.  Conversely, if you don’t like ATVs, avoid these units.  Additional places have a few trails where ATVs can be used legally to access country that trucks can’t reach, but these units tend to not have any trails where ATVs cannot be used.

Units:  42, 421, 41, 52, 521, 361, 80.

Town Based Units: 

These units are fairly easily hunted from a motel on day hunts.  You will rarely have to drive more than an hour from the nearest town, and all of these have nearby towns that are large enough to have motels.  Hunting this way of course adds two hours each day to your hunt (one hour in the morning, one hour in the evening), but you will probably sleep and eat better than in a camp. 

While comfort and convenience can be a big upside here, the downside is that you will have to compete with all of the other day hunters who won’t be hunting more than a mile or two from the roads and trailheads.  You also have to compete with local hunters in a way that you don’t see where the public lands are well over an hour from a town of more than 1,000 people.   If you know how to take advantage of the hordes of hunters moving in and out of the woods every day, you can still be pretty productive in these kinds of units.

Units: 6, 22, 23, 33, 35, 36, 441, 214, 65, 74, 70.

Remember, I was just covering units that offer special circumstances outside of the traditional truck based hunt.  Many of the areas that I did not cover have some combination of all of the above.  I’ve hunted wilderness areas while being based in a truck camp, I’ve hunted areas on foot from ATV and motorcyclist trails, I’ve hunted with horses in areas where they offered little beyond what a truck based foot hunter could access, I’ve hunted from a camp in units where hunters from town could access the same country in less than a half hour and I’ve hunted from towns when I had a two hour drive each way each day.  And I was successful in many of those instances, but I wasn’t necessarily hunting the most efficient way I possibly could.  My point is: if you know how you want to hunt and where you want to be based, select an appropriate hunting unit.


groovy mike's picture

Colorado is tempting as a hunting destination

There is no arguing that the state of Colorado is tempting as a hunting destination with it’s  over the counter bull elk tags.  I have never even been in Colorado but through your blog entries I am starting to get a feel for the variety of hunting options that are available for varying hunting styles, and hunters’ preferences for factors such as budget and terrain as well as the physical ability to reach some areas.

Your are spot on target that matching your preferred hunting style to the type of terrain that best compliments that style is a key factor in not only the hunt success but also to the enjoyment of the hunt whether game is collected or not. 

I would be one of the hunters who did not want to go home empty handed.  I would much,  much rather fill a cow tag than go home with no elk at all.  So trophy potential is no where near as important to me than a higher chance at success.  But I can see where a hunter might have just the opposite view and be looking for a trophy bull above all else.   The information in this article is just the sort of thing that an out of state hunter would need to know when planning that dream hunt months in advance. 

Once again - thanks for sharing your knowledge in this report.


Ca_Vermonster's picture

Very nice write-up, as

Very nice write-up, as usual.

I will be using some of the info and following advice for these areas.  I have chanced my plan to applying for a deer tag, and then getting an OTC tag for elk.

I guess that's the easier way to do it.

Thanks again for the good article!

WishIWasHunting's picture

I love these articles!  I am

I love these articles!  I am a Colorado Resident, and I find this information extremely useful.  I have only been elk hunting 3 times, and I have tried 3 different units.  I am trying to settle on a unit/area and learn it thoroughly.  Articles from Mark are extremely useful in my process, even if he does not specifically mention the unit(s) I am considering. 

hunter25's picture

This is a very good article

This is a very good article with a lot of useful information. After living here for so long I've kinda gotten stuck in a rut with where I hunt and need to learn to expand to some of these places.

I always hunted small parcels of BLM but the hunting pressure is getting to extreme. Using information like this is great to plan the land to your hunting style.

jaybe's picture

Wow - this is a really great

Wow - this is a really great article for the person who is thinking of going after elk in Colorado for the first time. It cuts through a whole lot of considerations that a person needs to think about, but might NOT think about until that first morning.

I was just imagining the situation as being somewhat similar to what I sometimes encounter on opening day of deer season in Michigan. You drive the 45 minutes from your lodging place to the spot where you have hunted for many years only to find the place where you normally park already holding two trucks. So you drive past that spot to another parking spot you know about and encounter trucks parked there as well. Rounding the next curve, you see a whole string of tail lights that stretch for a hundred yards. Guess what? Word got out about last year's success rate in this area!

If a person is going to travel to Colorado from another state, the information in this article would be especially important. But even for the resident, it's good stuff to think about. I especially appreciated the emphasis placed on different styles of hunting and what is involved in each. As a body gets older, his hunting style, by necessity, also changes.

Thanks for this report.