Though exceptions exist, selecting a general season elk unit is an exercise in compromise. The units with the lowest pressure, easiest access, most huntable country, best visibility and highest trophy potential will almost always be limited draw units. However, when hunting a general unit, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a few of the above features, so figuring out where you’d most like to compromise is an important aspect of unit selection.
One of the biggies for me is hunter pressure. There are a couple ways to minimize it, without even delving into the stats. For instance, pressure will almost always be highest in units closest to cities. That seems like it should be a no brainer, but people choose to ignore or just accept it for the sake of convenience. Here in Colorado, the first OTC units you hit when heading west on the Front Range are units 38, 28, 18, and 37. All of these are extremely heavily pressured units, and it’s amazing to me how frequently even nonresident hunters choose to hunt these units. Its not uncommon for hunters to significantly outnumber the bull elk in these units during the most popular seasons. It’s a real pain in the butt for a resident hunter to drive more than two hours for a weekend hunt, so I get it, but I’d rather drive further if it meant better hunting. Personally, it’s rare for me to hunt somewhere that has less than a five hour drive.
Another compromise to reduce pressure is to hunt in an area with poor road access. I don’t necessarily mean an area with poor public land access, but wilderness areas and other roadless areas do a lot to diminish interest by the casual hunter. However, if you aren’t committed to backcountry hunting, these can be an exercise in futility for you. If a wilderness area makes up a significant portion of the unit, it can serve to crowd the non wilderness portions with day hunters. Also, if you are a day hunter, hiking in on foot from a trailhead each day, you likely will have a tough time penetrating the less pressured portions of the wilderness. All of the above, plus the fact that you’re likely to be hunting heavily timbered country is part of the reason wilderness heavy units tend to produce low success rates.
ATV access is another biggie. I personally do not own one, and therefore I shy away from units where ATVs are allowed on non wilderness trails. I see them as a nuisance, and research has proven that elk avoid them too. However, if I owned one, I’d probably use it and some areas are better suited to ATV usage than others. When researching a unit, it helps to buy a Forest Service and/or BLM map of the area. Forest Service maps will specify which trails are open to foot and ATV traffic, but not highway vehicles. If you’re a foot hunter, avoid these areas. But if you have an ATV, these are some of the few places where you can actually put it to good use. Sure, ATVs can be a nice way to save some wear and tear on your vehicle on poor Forest Service roads, but I don’t find that a good enough use to justify owning one yet. The Grand Mesa National Forest is an example of a place where nearly all of the trails are open to ATV usage, and therefore a bad place for the horse or foot hunter, but a good place to put your ATV to work.
So, if you’re not a wilderness hunter and you don’t own an ATV, what should you be looking for? For starters, I’d look for road access to the high country and a good road density. I’d like to find an area elk couldn’t get much more than about 3 or 4 miles from a road, without significant elevation gains. 1,000 to 1,200 feet is about as much as you’re going to want to handle for elevation gains on foot. And doing that day after day, can be extremely tiresome, so it’s best to look for areas where you could buy most of that gain with a vehicle.
Now, there are other compromises to be had beyond looking at terrain and road access. Do you consider vegetation type, and how well that suits you and your preferred hunting methods? In most of the Central and Southern Rockies your basic options will be dominated by heavy coniferous timber, large aspen stands, scrub oaks or pinyon-juniper. Heavy timber will hold more elk in close proximity to pressure and tends to occur at higher elevations. Aspens are great from a visibility and forage standpoint, but it’s pretty easy to run the elk out of them. Scrub oaks can be nice for those who like to glass from afar(for elk, harder for deer), but these tend to occur at lower elevations than elk want to be at early in the seasons and are a royal pain to close distance in. I find pinyon-juniper habitats to be decent from a glassing perspective, but they hold few animals and tend to have very little forage that elk or deer want to use until the winter. I wouldn’t specifically look for that habitat type unless I was late season elk hunting or it made up the only significant cover in the area (usually a very arid area). Google Earth, and photos of the local area are your friend when trying to determine habitat type remotely. Other things to look for when perusing aerial photos include vantage points to glass from. Try to determine how well the timber sets up for your style of still hunting. Are there any nice convenient saddles or meadows or water holes out of sight and within a walking distance of a road?
Another consideration for those planning an elk hunt is the compromise between trophy potential and success. For most, the desire to just kill an elk will drive you towards higher success units. However, for those that have had their fill of 2 and 3 year old raghorns, you need to know that it’s certainly possible to find better trophy potential, even in a general unit. However, these tend to be in areas with low success rates, as that’s the only way for there to be significant numbers of 4, 5 or 6 year old bulls. If an area had easy road and public access, fairly open terrain, with no real wilderness or private refuge areas, it’s unlikely that bulls would live long enough to get some age on them.
Scheduling the timing of your hunt is another compromise to consider. Archery hunters typically have the most flexibility in their timing, and it amazes me how many of them hunt towards the beginning of the season, instead of the end. I don’t know if they just can’t contain themselves, and get burned out too early, but it’s pretty obvious that you’ll have better hunting towards the end of the season. Rifle hunters have options too in most states. Some states have some sort of a split rifle season, others have one long season. If you’re coming from out of state, it makes sense to choose the season that best suits you and your hunting style.
Here in Colorado, our first season typically has the highest success rate, and I’d expect that to hold true this year as some of the delayed rutting activity will likely carry over into mid October. But, first season is a limited draw season, and the most popular season in the state, so getting tags can be difficult sometimes. Since it is an early season, it’s not at all uncommon to have elk utilizing the highest country, where some hunters are unwilling or unable to get after them. Due to the elevations that they could still be at, you’re likely to have to deal with heavier timber. Like I said, it’s a compromise… If you’d rather have more snow and hunt elk in more open country, a mid November hunt is probably more up your alley.
In a state like Montana, with a month-long rifle season, this is easy to schedule. In Colorado, tags are limited in 4th season, but they are very easy to draw. In Wyoming, it pays to pay attention to which units have seasons that run later in the year, as each one is a little different.
The most popular season, in the most popular state for elk hunting is Colorado’s 2nd season. I have a hard time getting excited about it. If I wanted to hunt early, I’d hunt 1st rifle, archery or muzzleloader. If I wanted to hunt late, I’d go for 4th rifle, unless I needed an OTC tag, in which case I’d go 3rd season. If I wanted a deer/elk combo, I’d go 3rd season also. However, all that pressure in 2nd season adds up to reasonable success rates, as hunters keep the elk moving. Weather can also be milder and more tolerable than 3rd or 4th season, and this is the first chance you’ll get at a rifle deer tag. For me, I prefer to compromise on the lower success rates, but in good access areas for 3rd season, while enjoying the lower pressure and higher chance of snow.
Though I prefer not to do combination hunts, as they too are a compromise, I’ll be helping my girlfriend in 2nd season and doing my own in 3rd season. Both of those will be buck and bull combos, and if I get back soon enough, I’ll be taking another newby out on a cow and doe combo on the 2nd weekend of 3rd season. All three units are different, but have many similarities in that most of the public land we are focusing on is mid elevation, easy access, non wilderness type country with a mix of scrub oaks and light timber (Aspens in two units, Ponderosas in the 3rd) with very little true high country for the elk to hang up in out of my reach on a day hunt, no high or mid elevation private ranches and plenty of low elevation public land if the conditions dictate it.
Katie’s other elk tag is for 4th season in a unit that has lots of low elevation public land in pinyon-juniper country. Once again, that was a compromise as I’d prefer to have a late season elk tag for a meat hunt, but Katie wasn’t sure if she wanted to deal with the temperatures we’d be hunting in during December. I like the December hunts as the elk are often in the most visible, easiest to access country and you can road hunt them a little bit like antelope. I don’t need a physical challenge that late in the year, as I get pretty burned out.
While there are plenty of additional factors you could weigh when trying to plan your elk hunt, try to tailor your hunt not just to your ideal image of an elk hunt, but also to your strengths and values. Realize that the classic high elevation, big timber, big meadow, backcountry wilderness elk hunt, though mentally pleasing, is a low success proposition and not the only way to enjoy an elk hunt. Canyon and plateau country with scrub oaks or pinyon-juniper may not fulfill all of your romantic ideas of what an elk hunt should be, but a spot and stalk hunt may be more of what you’re looking for than big timber still hunting or meadow sitting. And while large aspen stands can be a great place to hunt, they tend to occur in more accessible mid elevation areas where you will likely have more hunting pressure. So choose wisely.