Elk Hunting in Colorado: What you need to know

A bull elk in Colorado

The state of Colorado is named after the Spanish word for “colorful”, and hunting in this state is precisely that. The list of Colorado big-game animals includes white-tailed deer and mule deer, moose, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mountain lions, and black bears. Upland birds and waterfowl are also popular draws for hunters. But the monarch of Colorado is elk. 

The elk population in Colorado, at an estimated 286,000 head, is greater than in any other state, and hunters harvest over 40,000 elk each year. Hunting tourism plays an important role in the life and the economy of Colorado rural communities, a fact that is stressed by some of the copy of Colorado’s awesome “Hug a Hunter” advertising campaign. With good road access, large public access areas, options to have a guided, semi-guided, or DIY hunt, and opportunities to buy elk tags over-the-counter, no wonder that there’s hardly an elk hunter in America who never hunted or considered hunting elk in Colorado. This post answers the most common questions that prospective hunters may have. 

Can I buy OTC elk tags in Colorado? 

Yes, you can. There are actually a number of options for buying elk tags in Colorado without entering in the limited draw. 

Colorado has a number of elk hunting seasons, which may vary in different Game Management Units (GMU), and may include: 

  • Archery
  • Muzzleloader
  • 1st rifle
  • 2nd rifle
  • 3rd rifle 
  • 4th rifle
  • Late archery

OTC tags for bull elk are available for the 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons. During these seasons you can hunt both deer and elk. These tags are valid statewide, but not for all units. GMU in Colorado are divided into “limited”, where you get only draw tags, and OTC units. OTC tags are valid only in OTC units. In addition, they are good only for the season for which they are issued, i.e. you can’t hunt the 2nd rifle season with a tag issued for the 3rd rifle season. Either-sex and antlerless tags are available for the archery season. 

Colorado also offers special unlimited over-the-counter permits for some of the GMU located in the plains. These units, for example GMU 682 and 791, are identified as special “zero objective” management zones where Colorado Parks and Wildlife believes the number of elk should be reduced to absolute possible minimum to prevent potential conflict with agriculturalists. The bull season in this area runs from May 15 to July 31, and cow season August 15 through February. Licenses are available through landowners via special vouchers. 

The first day for the sale of Colorado OTC permits is July 25. The amount of OTC tags is usually limited, and tags are sold on first-come-first-served basis, so to be on the safe side, those who want to buy one should better act quick. Application deadline for limited draw units is usually April 1. The usual disclaimer is that you should never trust information on the Internet, but always verify with the relevant authorities – in this case, Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

A mountain valley in Colorado

How about landowner’s tags?

Certain landowners who meet the minimum requirements for property size, etc. may be eligible for a landowner voucher. These vouchers are valid for GMU’s which are fully limited draw for rifle. Up to 10% in the west of the state and up to 15% of the quota in the east can be allocated as landowner tags. 

These tags may be available to out-of-state hunters, but only directly from the landowners. The state law does allow for transfer the tag to third parties, but requires the transfer to be direct, without any brokers or intermediaries. The landowner applies for the voucher, transfers it to the hunter, and the hunter must hunt and kill the animal, and that’s it – after the landowner gives you the license, you can’t pass it further on.

Some Colorado outfitters are, or work in close cooperation with landowners, and operate on landowner tag quotas; they may have some of the best deals in the state. When the landowner’s tag is transferred to a hunter, it must be accompanied by a written permission to hunt the property in question. 

Bear in mind that landowners’ tags are not valid for hunting on public land. It is the hunter’s responsibility to know what land is private and what is not, and in Colorado the landowners are not obliged to post or fence their land. It is easy to inadvertently cross the border between public and private land, which may get you in trouble for trespassing, or, if you hunt with a landowner’s tag and get on public land, for illegal hunting. Maps of the territory are available; procure them and memorize the landmarks and boundaries. 

What units are better for elk hunting in Colorado? 

This is a question that doesn’t have a set-in-stone answer. According to Colorado Parks & Wildlife, most 300+ point elk trophies come from GMU 2, 10, and 201. GMU 12, 23 and 24 are also in high esteem. Units 76, 79 and 791 may have the highest overall numbers, with success rates for GMU 76 topping 50% (but this is a limited draw unit). Hunting prospects are good for units 64 and 65. On the other hand, the number of elk licenses in WMU 54, 55 and 511 was reduced, following a decline in elk population. 

However, relying on the reputation of a unit alone is not the best idea. Things change, and hunting success depends on too many factors. You may hunt the unit that is No 1 in every rating and never put your sights on an animal. On the other hand, in the unit which overall has the lowest population of elk you might hit on a pocket with a high concentration on animals and have the hunt of your lifetime. Bear in mind also that the more popular the GMU, the higher is the hunter pressure. As hunters bump into each other, success rates plummet, so things sort of level out. The red gods favor those hunters who can find pockets of rough terrain that are difficult to access from roads. 

Two bull elk with antlers in velvet in Colorado

Don’t ask your outfitter whether they hunt in a “trophy unit.” Ask for evidence of past success and details on how it was achieved. For example, if the outfitter hunts the afore-mentioned wintering ground pocket, and gets 9 of 10 of the bulls during the late rifle season, an early season archery hunt with them may have much lower chances of success. Good outfitters willingly share such details.  

When in doubt, contact Colorado Parks & Wildlife. They annually publish brochures with harvest statistics and other information for each unit, and on the website there are contact details for CPW specialists who can provide further information.  

When is the best time to hunt elk in Colorado? 

Every elk hunter is first and foremost focused on the bugle. In Colorado, the bugle begins mid-September and typically covers the archery and the first rifle season. That is to say, if you want not just to harvest an elk, but to see the mountain monarch in his full glory, voicing his challenge to rivals, blowing clouds of smoke into the crisp mountain air, and all other elk hunting poetry, you will have to pack a bow or get lucky with the draw or look for landowner or outfitter who can provide you with a special private land tag. 

Bugle aside, the best time for hunting depends on both the territory, and the hunting methods. In most parts of Colorado archery hunts, early and the first rifle seasons are the best time. In other regions, however, it’s the late season hunts that prove more successful. The rule of thumb is, hunt early in the season on higher elevations, and hunt later in the season in the valleys where the elk migrate when the snow pushes them down.

Should I choose an outfitted, DYI, semi-guided hunt, or  a drop-in camps?

As already mentioned, elk hunting opportunities in Colorado are varied, and the choices are wide, ranging between the classic fully outfitted and catered hunt with a comfortable lodge and everything to a DIY hunt on public land living in a camp, and everything in between. Many hunts include only the guiding, with accommodation and catering in local motels, inns, and restaurants. Some outfitters offer semi-guided hunts, where the guide shows you the best places, but does not take you to the bull by the hand. Others provide everything that is necessary for taking you into the wilderness, from tent to pack horses or mules – an arrangement known as drop-in service. 

A tent camp in ColoradoColorado is not Alaska, and a non-resident hunter does not have to be accompanied by a local guide. However, Colorado outfitters and guides must be licensed. Information about licensed outfitters is available from the Colorado Outfitters Association: http://coloradooutfitters.orgWhich hunt you choose – public land or private, limited draw or OTC, DIY or guided – is totally your choice. Before making this choice, however, consider the following. 

The price of the non-resident elk hunting license in Colorado may cost you over $600; add the travel expenses and lodging, and you’re looking at four figures end price. The average success rate for an OTC tag hunt in Colorado is about 10%; for limited draw hunts – about 20%. Hiring a guide doubles your probability of success. In addition, the best guides either work on private land or know paths less travelled by, so you’ll likely be hunting in areas with less hunting pressure, which universally provides for better hunting experience. All in all, unless you have considerable experience elk hunting in Colorado, hiring a reputable outfitter will likely be a good investment. 

What else do I need to know? 

    • A legal bull must have antlers with at least four points on one side or brow tunes that are 5 inches or longer. 
    • To buy a hunting license in Colorado, you’ll be required to show your hunter’s safety card. 
    • Colorado hunters are required to wear 500 square inches of blaze orange, including headgear visible from all directions. The blaze orange or pink that is incorporated in camouflage patterns does not count.
    • Elk hunting in Colorado usually takes place in steep and broken terrain, ravines, dense woods, etc. In short, expect it to be a short-range close encounter rather than mountain game-like spot-and-stalk.
    • Many elk hunts in Colorado take place on high altitude. Hunters from the plains may experience mountain sickness. It is a life-threatening condition; please take it seriously!
    • Colorado is out of grizzly habitat range, but other predators, such as mountain lions and black bears, may take an interest in your outdoor activities. Caution is advised.
    • If you’re planning a camping trip, bear in mind that camping may be restricted. Contact CPW for details on camping on the unit you intend to hunt.
    • Guided hunts based on limited draw tags are usually more affordable than those based on guaranteed (OTC or landowner’s) tags, but insist on fully refundable deposit in the case of not drawing a tag.

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