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Colorado Elk Hunting is a Top Choice for All Levels of Experience

David Harrison

elk hunt silhouette

Colorado has millions of acres of public property accessible to the general public, over-the-counter elk tags available for three-fourths of the units, relatively low tag costs, fantastic guides, and a major hub airport to fly into. To me, this adds up to the perfect recipe for elk hunting adventure. On top of this, Colorado also offers a wide range of terrain and the opportunity at massive bulls. It is literally the best of all worlds!

Generally speaking the seasons are the same year to year with pre-rut, rut, and post-rut hunts. Colorado is also unique in the fact that it has large herd populations living in elevations as low as 5,000 feet and as high as 13,000 feet. With these extreme elevation changes, the rut and seasonal migrations can vary from area to area within each season.

The general archery season opens between the end (3rd or 4th week) of August and runs four weeks into September. Muzzleloader season, which, in my opinion, is probably the premium Colorado elk hunting season, runs in the middle of the archery season (September 8th to the 16th this year). Again, elevation and weather can have a major play but generally speaking the rut is happening during the muzzleloader season. Yes, hunting pressure rises with two open seasons at once, but the vast amount of land and large herds of elk can handle the traffic.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has developed a great plan that actually gives the elk a 20-day break between the archery season and the first rifle season. This break allows the animals to settle down with no pressure, fall back into normal routines, and become huntable again.

The first rifle season is elk only and runs October 13th - 17th. Due to the break, the first few days may still have intense rut action. The second rifle season offers a great mix of opportunities at different elevations, terrain types, and often has the last good weather of the season.
The third rifle season runs November 3rd to the 11th, and the weather is turning colder, snow is starting to gather on the ground, and the elk are spending more time on their feet and starting to bed in open trees rather than dense dark timber.
The fourth rifle hunt runs November 14th - 18th. This is generally a wintery hunt, but the animals will spend more time feeding on their feet and much less time in the trees. I personally love this season but it can be difficult with snow, cold, and weary animals. Travel to and from the hunting grounds can be difficult in deep snow. But, by this fourth rifle season a majority of the animals have settled into their winter range and develop very dependable daily patterns. Both cows and bulls, if scouted properly, can be easy to hunt.
To choose a hunt, I first look at options for tags. An area with limited tags means you need to be flexible with hunt dates. In a unit with limited tags you will see trends leaning towards more popular weeks of the hunting season. For example, a unit with great herd counts and big bulls might take 5 points (5 years of drawing) to acquire an archery tag but a hunter might be able to get a third rifle tag with no points.

If a hunter has very limited time to scout, then I highly suggest this hunter focus on archery or muzzleloader. I do this strictly for the fact that it is extremely easy to locate bulls in the rut when they are bugling. Experienced hunters with many days to scout animals starting in early summer can make any season and any area successful.

spotting for elk

When choosing your Colorado elk hunt you have many options. The range goes from self-supported to fully-guided with intermediate options such as a drop camp (where an outfitter drops you off at a remote location) or even paying an access fee to hunt private land. In reality, all of these are great options.
When weighing the options, I personally am a big fan of guided hunts as an educational tool. As a former elk hunting guide of 10 years, I understand the value gained by this experience. Many hunters book a guided hunt just for the ease of having lodging, meals, game care, and the overall increase in success rate, which generally is a great experience, but the true value in a Colorado guided elk hunt is to learn about elk and how to hunt them. Learning how to call, when to call, plus all of the other educated decisions a guide makes is worth its weight in gold for a first-time elk hunt.

Once a person has this education, they can start looking into do-it-yourself hunts and accomplish their goals solo. As a veteran to Colorado elk hunting, I personally love the option of freedom, the challenge of an extended search, many days in the field, and a successful tag.
Guided elk hunts in Colorado still require some considerations. The hunter to guide ratio (2-to-1 or 1-on-1) is the key detail that affects the hunt experience. A 2-to-1 hunt requires hunters to draw straws for the first shot, but also allows a student to experience two hunts (albeit with one shot) and therefore potentially learn more hunting skills.

Lodging aligns with costs and varies from large lodges to small pup tents. I personally like to hunt hard, climb, hike, and go all out on my hunt but then enjoy a well-cooked meal, hot shower, and bed at night. As a guide, I met hunters with all levels of fitness ranging and aligning this aspect with the lodge choice can make all of the difference.
I know many outfitters that make this work but when the guide is also the horse wrangler/cowboy, the cook, and the scout it puts a lot of pressure and can be rough to pull off. An outfitter that has all the duties spread between multiple staff generally provides an experience that is more pleasant and allows me to hunt harder due to the accommodations.
The other factor that I consider is my own physical ability. As a customer investing in a Colorado guided elk hunt, I want to make sure that my physical ability is going to match the terrain and/or the style of hunt I am going on. If a guest is older and or not in the physical condition to be climbing aggressive mountains, I would look for a Colorado guided elk hunt possibly in southern Colorado or an area with less aggressive terrain to allow myself to keep up and hunt hard. So instead of just strictly looking at the outfitter’s success rate, I would educate myself on what terrain and style hunts they provide.

Colorado elk hunting on public land is incredible mainly due to the fact that Colorado offers approximately 15.8 million acres of public huntable property. On many hunts, I go weeks without seeing a single other hunter, especially when I stay away from easy access areas. Thus, the key to any public land hunting is educating yourself on all the roads, trails, parking areas woodlands, and water sources. By getting off the beaten path, Colorado is large enough to lose the crowds and enjoy the feel of private land. 

When it comes time to decide whether to hunt bulls or cows, I think about cost, time of year, effort, and likelihood of success. A cow tag will be 50 percent less in price than a bull tag. A cow will be smaller so the pack out and removal of the animal from of the hunting area is easier.  Lastly, and most importantly, I choose a cow tag versus a bull tag based on the season in which I’m hunting.
If I am an archery hunter hunting in September when the rut is taking place, I choose a bull tag as it is easy to call and sneak up on a bull with love on his mind. If I have a rifle tag, I simply play the numbers and there are far more cows to bulls, so I would specifically hunt cows during the rifle season. Finally, my wife and I have harvested cows and bulls and compared the flavor of the meat. Our findings show that if the animal has been in the same area and under the same stress (from migrating, rut, and/or dehydration), the meat will taste exactly the same.
With all of these details covered it only comes down to exactly what part of the state you want to hunt and how many days you can spend before the season opens to locate, follow, and pattern the animals. Colorado makes it easy to enjoy every day in the field and every step in the elk hunting process and that is why it remains a top choice for all levels of elk adventures.

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