Hopefully you now understand Colorado's big game drawing process. What I’m going to attempt to do this week is to show you how to apply that knowledge into some application strategies for Colorado.
For starters, if you’re planning on hunting with Over The Counter Tags, why not apply for a preference point? Yeah, you have to front the money, but if you’ve already budgeted the money for the license, you may as well start accumulating points for a future hunt in a limited season, even if it’s the same unit you normally hunt. Take unit 12 for example: rifle bull tags during 2nd and 3rd season are unlimited, but the muzzleloader hunt takes 9 nonresident preference points to draw. You can get to know the country in 2nd season with OTC bull tags, or leftover and 2nd choice cow tags in 1st or 2nd season while still accumulating preference points for a future, higher demand hunt.
As I addressed last week, you need to know which tags require you to draw with your first choice, and which tags can be drawn with 2nd, 3rd, 4th and leftovers. Don’t waste those choices. If your first choice won’t be a guaranteed draw or if the goal is a preference point and a tag, figure out what can be drawn with a 2nd choice. 1st season either sex elk tags are typically a difficult draw, but 4th season tags for the same area are also typically either sex tags, and much easier to draw with a 2nd choice or as a leftover. If your goal is to acquire a limited tag to avoid the OTC seasons, then you need to select the leftover draw if you fail to draw. What’s the point in getting a refund if you were going to hunt anyway? Very few people take advantage of the leftover draw. No preference points are used or accumulated in the leftover draw, but it beats standing in line on leftover day, trying to get a limited tag.
If you’re counting on others drawing the same tag that you are hoping to get, and the tag isn’t unlimited or guaranteed, you should consider using a group application. If you don’t mind competing for tags amongst your friends, consider hunting in areas where there will also be leftover or late choice cow tags or deer tags so other party members can hunt even if they don’t draw the primary license.
If you’re planning a deer and elk combination hunt, this requires a little more forethought. I prefer to hunt units with OTC bull tags, that way I only have to attempt to draw one tag, not both. You will really have to study the draw odds to try to draw two limited tags for the same season, or expect to have at least one more preference point than required to draw.
I almost never bother with trying to draw a 4th season deer tag, as those tags are too limited and require twice as many preference points. As a compromise, I prefer to hunt 3rd season, which has poor elk success rates, but pretty good deer success, the elk tags are available over the counter, and the deer tags are not too difficult to draw. I do this because I really enjoy deer hunting, but if your main goal is an elk, 2nd, or 4th season might make more sense for you.
Another aspect of the combo hunt dilemma is that you need to realize that elk and deer have slightly different habitat requirements. There can be quite a bit of overlap, but elk country is not deer country. So if you’re putting all of your eggs in one basket by trying to draw say, a unit 61 elk tag and deer tag for the same season in the same year, you might have a hard time killing both by hunting compromise country. There should be a primary species as your focus for a combo hunt, with a secondary species given “bonus” status, rather than equal status.
Try to keep in mind the variability of weather when planning your draw strategies. If I’m hunting during one of the earlier seasons I need to be prepared to get after the elk in the highest country if it is unseasonably warm. I’ve heard from far too many people who did not get into elk during a warm 1st or 2nd season that the elk were too high. My typical response is, “well, why didn’t you hunt higher?” Of course, the answer is always a grumble about how that’s too much work or they’re too old or not equipped or whatever. So if you’re considering applying for a unit with true alpine backcountry basins that you don’t want to have to hunt, you probably need to reconsider.
Conversely, if you’re considering hunting during one of the later seasons, you probably shouldn’t be planning a backcountry hunt. You also need to worry about whether or not there is sufficient low elevation public land for you to hunt. Most units do not have an even distribution of public land. Forest Service lands tend to start at the middle and higher elevations. BLM lands are mostly middle and low elevation lands, but they are usually the rougher “wastelands” that no one wanted to own when settling this country. The State Wildlife Areas tend to be lower elevation winter ranges and former ranches. You don’t want to be stuck trying to hunt high elevation Forest Service lands when you have two feet of snow on the ground.
Another aspect to consider is the availability of unlimited tags that overlap your limited season. For example, if you want to hunt the Book Cliffs for deer in units 21 and 30. Be aware that archery, 2nd and 3rd season tags are unlimited. While all those people will not be hunting deer, if you’re going to be upset with the pressure during your trophy hunt, consider a different season or unit. Similarly, many of the hardest to draw muzzleloader elk tags are in extremely popular OTC archery units.
We haven’t really covered the hybrid draw much here, but if you have 5 or more preference points and are holding out for a unit that requires at least 10 resident points, realize that you can now get into the hybrid pool. 20% of the tags in those areas are now going to be reserved for those with 5 or more points. So why would you bother applying for a preference point now? Just apply for the tag that you actually want. Your odds of drawing it are going to be terrible, but at least there’s a chance.
One last thing to think about is that applying early does not give you any greater chance of drawing. So why would you let the DOW hold on to your money longer than necessary? Also, the prior year’s harvest stats aren’t published until a week or two before the applications are due. The only advantage to sending money in early is that you can change your application by emailing the Division of Wildlife before it’s too late.
So stay tuned. There’s no need to rush your application in yet.