When it comes to elk hunting, the first state that comes to mind is almost always Colorado. It’s the state with the most elk, the most elk hunters, unlimited over the counter nonresident tags, and no shortage of public land. Colorado has something for everyone. It’s not the first state that comes to mind for trophy hunting, but there are a handful of trophy managed areas and crowd controlled areas.
People love Colorado because you are always guaranteed some sort of tag, and many folks don’t like dealing with the uncertainty of not drawing while they are hammering out their hunt plans. However, Colorado’s best hunting opportunities occur during the limited seasons, so by forgoing the drawing, you are needlessly putting yourself at a disadvantage.
Not all of Colorado is elk country. Eastern Colorado is composed of mostly flat plains with very little public land. There are small pockets of elk on the plains, but unless you’ve got some sort of specific private ranch access, these elk are basically off limits to the average hunter. The bulk of Colorado’s population lives on what is referred to as the Front Range, along the I-25 corridor which runs north and south, just east of the Rockies. The National Forests begin as you gain elevation, and get out of the suburban foothills. Those mountains quickly rise to the Continental Divide, and then slowly peter out into smaller mountain ranges, mesas and plateaus as you head west. On the West Slope, there is a large amount of BLM land in the canyon country, with a smattering of Forest Service lands at higher elevations. You can freely hunt the Forest Service and BLM lands, most State Wildlife Areas and some State Trust Lands.
If you’re looking for a backcountry adventure, focus on the Forest Service lands with designated Wilderness Areas. There are no motorized or wheeled vehicles allowed in the wilderness. This includes bicycles and game carts. Access is by foot or horse only. But not all wilderness areas are elk country either. You can get too high and too rocky, as timberline in most of Colorado, depending on slope and aspect tends to be around 11,500 to 11,700 feet. Elk certainly use these places in the summertime, but by the time the hunting seasons roll around, they are descending into the timber below.
For 2011, the big game draw deadline is April 5th. You must submit the full amount of the tag up front. Nonresident bull elk licenses are $551, cow elk are $351. I’ll get into application strategies and how to read the drawing summaries later, but first I’ll cover the differences between the seasons.
Because of the demand for elk hunting in Colorado, the hunting seasons help to distribute the pressure and ensure quality experiences for more people. For 2011, the archery season lasts from Aug 27th to Sept 25th. Many units in Western and Central Colorado are open for archery hunting with unlimited over the counter tags. Muzzleloader season is 9 days in the middle of archery season, from September 10th to the 18th. There are no unlimited muzzleloader tags. 1st rifle season is just 5 days from October 15th until the 19th, and tags are by drawing only, though cow tags are frequently available as leftovers. Over the counter tags are available for bulls only during 2nd and 3rd season. Rifle deer hunting opens during 2nd season as there is no deer hunting during 1st season. 2nd season is 9 days from October 22nd until the 30th. 3rd season is now also 9 days, extending from November 5th to the 13th. 4th rifle season is a 5 day hunt from November 16th-20th, with very limited opportunities for mule deer, and the elk licenses are by draw only. Some units also have early and late seasons outside of the regular seasons that I just listed.
So, when and how do you want to hunt? For me, there are two game changers when it comes to elk hunting: Bugling and snow. I’d rather hunt early or late, but midseason hunts have their place too. The elk rut takes place throughout archery and muzzleloader seasons in September. I find the peak of the bugling to occur towards the latter end of the month. When you backdate calving dates in numerous elk studies here in Colorado, you’ll find that most of the actual breeding takes place from that last week of September and into early October. Only a few trophy units have special rifle seasons that occur early enough to take advantage of any rutting activity.
Because you are limited to primitive weapons (and Colorado does not allow scopes and sabots on muzzleloaders), the rut is not the best time to actually kill an elk. September is a great time to be out, with the oaks and aspens changing, mild weather and bugling elk, but success rates are pretty low. If your goal is to kill an elk, 1st season is actually the top season for success rates on a statewide basis. The roads are very accessible, the elk are becoming more accessible and the herds are starting to break up. Combine the hunting pressure with a wide elk distribution, potential for snow, elk that haven’t been molested for two or more weeks, and centerfire rifles, and you’ve got a recipe for success. But remember, this 1st season has limited tags, very, very few leftover either sex or bull tags for good areas and no deer hunting.
Here is a link to a map  showing the over the counter archery tag units.
This map  overlays the designated wilderness areas.
The next highest success season is typically 4th season, which is also limited. However, tags tend to be easier to draw in 4th season. But now you’ve got a good potential for snow. It’s rare that there will be enough snow to force the elk to move all the way to their wintering grounds, but there can be enough snow that you may have access issues when trying to ascend roads at middle and higher elevations. Snow is obviously crucial for tracking, but the cold also tends to force elk to feed longer in order to stay warm. There are 4th season deer tags available in many areas, but the tags are usually very hard to draw, as we are now approaching the mule deer rut.
There is a large drop off in success rates from 4th season to 2nd season. Of course each unit varies, but the presence of either sex tags probably helps to boost success during 1st and 4th season. 2nd season is my least favorite season. The hunting pressure from over the counter bull hunters can be obscene, the elk have already been harassed in 1st season, you’re now adding deer hunters to the mix, and there’s little chance of snow. However, all that pressure, and the fact that most roads are still driveable creates a situation where success is surprisingly high (though we’re still talking 15-20% on elk).
This map  shows the OTC rifle bull elk units.
Typically, the lowest elk success season is 3rd season. However, this is my preferred time for a combo hunt. I can get over the counter bull tags, so I don’t need to risk drawing both deer and elk tags, and the snows are a little more reliable. In some areas you run the risk of the pressure from 1st and 2nd season pushing elk onto private lands, but if you’re smart about the areas you hunt, you can avoid that situation by finding places with a good mix of high and low elevation public lands. You’ve got to be mobile during 3rd season, as the weather could be warm and dry or cold and snowy. I wouldn’t advise planning a backcountry hunt this time of year.
In future articles I’ll cover how to determine your draw odds, how to maximize your draw choices, how the preference system works, and break down some of the trade-offs in pressure and success for low or no preference point units, then I’ll get into some of the totally limited units that require only handful of points and finally I’ll address the trophy units.