When it comes to public land elk hunting and over the counter elk tags in Colorado, a few overused phrases come to mind. “There were way too many people hunting in our unit.” Or, “We saw a bunch of sign but no animals.” Public land and over-the-counter hunting can be very frustrating if you aren’t prepared. I’ve been there! For those of you unfamiliar with over-the-counter hunting tags in Colorado, these tags are given out to resident/non-resident hunters and tags are unlimited for various seasons. These tags allow you to hunt in multiple units in the majority of the state. Sounds great right?! It sure can be but it can also get very crowded. Luckily, there are several ways to cope with the pressures of public land and over-the-counter hunts here in Colorado.
How does the state with the most over-the-counter opportunities have such a marginal success rate?
Colorado is home to the largest migratory elk herd in the United States. This individual herd is located in the White River National Forest and it’s population is estimated around 40,000 elk! Colorado also has the most over-the-counter elk hunting opportunities out of any state. To top it all of, Colorado also has the most elk out of any state at 250,000 plus! Despite having the most elk, the largest elk herd, and the most over the counter hunting opportunities, Colorado has a pretty low success rate of 19% according to the 2018 Colorado Parks and Wildlife Elk Harvest statistics on all manners of take (Figure 1).
To be fair, the success rate in Colorado is several spots from being the worst. Colorado is ranked 5th for lowest success rate on filling an elk tag within the United States. Statistically speaking, these odds aren’t the best but there are a few important factors that should be considered. As mentioned before, Colorado has the most elk and the most hunters every year out of any state. These two variables play against each other when trying to determine the reason for such a low success rate. Having the most elk would seem to increase the odds of success, while having the most hunters every year would appear to decrease the chance of success. All of this definitely helps determine why the success rate is so low but it’s not the deciding factor:
“Turns out, Colorado elk hunting is extremely difficult! Colorado’s major feat of having the most elk and hunting opportunities can be misleading and often leaves the average hunter unprepared.”
Just because there are more elk and more opportunities to hunt elk in Colorado doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easier. Colorado Parks and Wildlife designed Colorado’s elk hunting program to be user friendly and efficient but people still need to put in the work. People come from all over the world to hunt in Colorado but end up road hunting the whole time then wonder why they didn’t see any elk. More than ever we live in a society where everyone wants the work done for them. More than ever, people want someone to tell them where the secret spot is and a step-by-step guide with out having to put in any work. The simple truth is if you want to fill your tag you have to put in the time and effort. Go out there and find your own secret spot! Find out where the big elk are yourself, even if it means hiking the entire mountain range.
Three Tips for a Successful Public Land or Over-the-Counter Hunt in Colorado
Now that you’re willing to put in the time and the work, let’s talk about three big tips that will help increase your chances of filling that tag.
MAJOR KEY #1- SCOUT YOUR LITTLE HEART OUT
I can’t stress enough how important it is to thoroughly scout the area you’ll be hunting and to cover as much ground as you can. I know it’s easier said than done but if you don’t spend time scouting before your hunt then you’ll have to do it during which will set you back quite a bit. Most years many of us are lucky enough to get time off work for the actual season but the more you familiarize yourself with the topo, trails, elk beds, and the elks behavior/patterns specific to your area, the better your chances are going to be.
When the hunting pressure is high it feels like everyone and their Dad decided to hunt in your unit. Having an extra tool in your pocket like the “Onx” Hunting App (compatible with iPhone/Android) is invaluable for scouting. Onx is a GPS/mapping app that allows you to download specific maps when you don’t have cell phone service. The app is still able to track your location within the map so you can record and monitor your distance and hiking. The apps most valuable feature is it’s ability to provide several different layers such as private land boundaries with owner names, GMU (Game management Unit) Boundaries, species activity, and many more helpful layers (figure 2).
Another feature of the app that makes Onx such a great scouting aid is its ability to let you draw lines, fill in area shapes, mark way points, and mark locations on your map. These features are found under “Map Tools” and it allows you to virtually document everything you learn from your time on the mountain (Figure 3).
In 2018, I filled my 3rd Rifle Over-the-counter Public Land tag and the OnX app was a big part of that harvest. I downloaded several maps in the area when I was trying to stake a claim the year before. Every time I noticed elk in the area I marked it on the map and before I knew it I had a pattern that lined up with the species data. We picked a general area to hike and after 3 days of tracking the herd, one glorious early morning put us within range and it all came together. Being later in the season, and hunting in a public land/over-the-counter unit, the biggest bull in the herd was a 4×4 Raghorn. Barely legal but meat in the freezer.
MAJOR KEY #2- GET IN THE BEST SHAPE OF YOUR LIFE
Hunting can be just as physically taxing as any professional sport out there. You’re constantly pushing your body to its limits. Once I filled my tag this year, my Dad and I packed out my bull in 36 hours and 48 hiking miles later. No horses and no help. Just our Eberlestock Team Elk Packs and the thought of a juicy double bacon cheeseburger as our first meal off the mountain to motivate. Oh, what a glorious burger it was when we finally got back to town. The point is, had we not trained our bodies for months prior to that day, there’s no way we would have been able to pack that elk out the way we did and we probably would have injured ourselves.
There are a million different ways to help get yourself ready for the big hunt. That being said, there are a few core ideas you should include in your training regime. Number one, when trying to improve your cardiovascular threshold you need to do exercises that make sense. Running or walking on the treadmill isn’t going to help you much when you start gaining elevation or you have to hike over the ridge with little to no calories or water in your system. To get in high elevation hunting shape adding resistance to your cardio training can go a long way. You can do this by carrying more weight or adding weight to your backpack on hikes. My son is about 50 pounds so, this year I just used him! I would carry him on a hike a couple times a week and before I knew it, it just kept getting easier and easier.
It doesn’t hurt to get your body into shape along with your cardio. I recommend doing some form of High-Intensity Interval Training to help strengthen your muscles and kill two birds with one stone by working on your cardio at the same time. I used P90x3 to get in shape for hunting this year and I highly recommend it! The year before I used the original P90x and that was just as good but if it’s hard for you to find time to work out, P90x3 gives you a fully competent workout in 30 minutes.
MAJOR KEY #3- GET AWAY FROM THE CROWD AND GO BEAST MODE
For years I road hunted or stayed relatively close to the road. I’d set up camp down low and hike in every morning and night. Once I started hiking in with my camp I realized how much time I’d been wasting and never looked back. When you have food, water, shelter, and everything else you need with you, the possibilities are endless. You’re able to cover more ground, you don’t have to go back to the main camp for supplies, and you can stay in the Beast Mode mentality without limitations. Not everyone is physically capable of going off the grid and it requires a lot of training. Hiking dozens of miles a day with a 45-60 pound backpack, living off freeze dried meals, and drinking filtered stream water for 4-5 days at a time might sound miserable to some but for those of us that share the same passion for this type of hunting know the feeling of true freedom and accomplishment.
During Archery Season and First Rifle it’s especially important to get far away from the roads and hunt above 10,000 feet here in Colorado. You can still find elk in other places but when there isn’t snow or temperature limitations, mature elk are more likely to be in high, hard to reach, distant areas. There’s a reason that mature bulls have made it this far in their lives and it’s primarily due to their ability to stay hidden. Their sense of smell and taste is far superior to a humans so chances are if you aren’t in stealth mode or you’re around a lot of people, they probably heard or smelled you before you ever had a chance.
Plain and simple; elk hunting is hard. Sure there are people that go out and get lucky all the time but if you want real and consistent results you have to be willing to put in the time and effort. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it and we’d be seeing a lot more harvests. So get out there and put some miles on those boots! Try your hardest to get some scouting in before the hunt and above all else, try to get in shape so you’ll be able to put in that extra mile and packing your elk out won’t seem so impossible.