Find the Best Colorado OTC Elk Hunting Units
Colorado has the largest elk herd in the country. With an estimated population of around 280,000, the elk are spread out over millions of acres of private and public land. Low license prices, large herds and great land make Colorado the most highly hunted state in the Rockies.
Each year, hunters set out to chase elk in one of Colorado’s over-the-counter (OTC) elk hunting game management units. The OTC tags are a great option for hunters who did not apply or draw a tag and still want to hunt this fall. You can purchase a tag online, by phone (1-800-244-5613) or through a licensed agent at Colorado Parks and Wildlife offices around the state. The OTC licenses go on sale on August 9th for the 2018 season.
There’s a good chance to tag a trophy bull elk on any of the game management units. As long as you put in the time and effort, the hunt will go well. We’ve looked over last year’s numbers and have put together a list of some of the best OTC elk hunting units (in no particular order).
- Location: Moffat and Routt Counties
- Size: 467 sq miles
- When to hunt: 2nd Rifle
Elk are plentiful throughout the Upper Yampa area. Licenses are readily available. Large elk numbers occur on the Routt National Forest. The basic movement is from the higher to lower elevations in response to hunting pressure and elevation. With 48 percent of the land available to the public, hunters see about a 26 percent chance of success. Domestic sheep will graze in the months of August and September throughout parts of the Routt National Forest. While elk will stay away from the areas where the sheep are eating, they will likely be nearby and hunters can use this information to their advantage.
During the pre rut, many of the bachelor groups of bulls have broken up and are vying for territory and the attention of any cow he can conceivably add to his harem. Get to a vantage point to glass the valley below. Once you spot a bull, ease back from the lip of the hill to any cover you can find. Have your buddy belly crawl to the edge of the vantage point and raise the RMEF Cow Elk or Eichler Elk Decoy so that it appears to be standing, looking down at the bull. When he gives you the signal, bugle a couple of times to get the bull’s attention. The bull will not only see the cow, a candidate for his harem, but will also think that an inferior bull is trying to invade his territory. Once he commits, your buddy should hustle back to cover and set up the decoy past your shooting lanes, giving you ample room for a shot.
- Location: Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose and Ouray Counties
- Size: 672 sq miles
- When to hunt: Second or third rifle season
- Bull to cow ratio: 1:5
Unit 65 is currently seeing an increasing elk population. The success rate is around 22 percent. The land is vast and will require walking a minimum of two hours before getting to where the elk are. It’s best to get to the area before dawn and wait for the elk to go feeding. Nearly 70 percent of the land is available to the public. The elk will stay in the higher elevations until weather or hunting pressure forces them down.
Be set up before daylight and prepare to stay all day. Luckily, temperatures are cooler this time of year, driving herds to feed earlier in the day than they normally would. Intercept them on the route they’ve been taking to and from their bedding area where a Miss September and Cow Elk I Decoy would be sufficient. Remember, feeding elk are relaxed elk. Call very, very sparingly. Do not use scent. Just let nature take its course and believe that the herd bull will approach Miss September, curious to know if she’s been bred yet. Conscious of the many sets of eyes that might approach at any time, allow yourself at least 100 yards, which will leave you with a clean rifle shot.
- Location: Moffat and Routt counties
- Size: 362 sq miles
- When to hunt: Archery or third rifle season
- Bull to cow ratio: 1:4
This unit is located in the Upper Yampa close to the Wyoming border. The overall success rate averages around 41 percent and the land mostly private. Hunting pressure in this unit is heavy and hunters will have better success in remote areas in the southern half of the unit. Be sure to stay away from the roads as elk will be further away from them. Archery hunters will have more luck focusing on the gulches.
You are hunting higher elevations and have religiously scouted the area. You know exactly where the elk are feeding and where they are bedding during the day.
Play the thermals. While the air is blowing down the mountain at dawn, flank the feeding areas and trek above them. When the thermals switch, move laterally and find a well-used travel corridor between food sources and bedding areas. Set up an Eichler Elk decoy on a tree using the clip system and wait for a bull to come to your decoy.
- Location: Rio Blanco and Garfield counties
- Size: 989 sq miles
- When to hunt: Archery season
- Bull to cow ratio: 1:4
Good cow hunting exists in the higher elevations of this unit. The land is 70 percent public and has a success rate of 25 percent. Elk tend to concentrate on the north side of the Douglas Pass during archery season. It’s important to note that this area is also a habitat to bears. When hunting, be sure to keep all scents to a minimum to prevent any bear attacks.
Get to a food source early and set up two feeding cow elk decoys. Position two Miss September feeding elk decoys downwind of where you think the elk will enter the open meadow. Make sure they are visible but also in shooting range. Spray some elk scent in the air, then position yourself in cover 20-40 yards farther downwind of the decoys. Wait for a bull elk to come join the party.
- Location: Rio Blanco and Moffat counties
- Size: 611 sq miles
- When to hunt: First and second rifle season
- Bull to cow ratio: 1:4
This unit is located in the Lower Yampa area. The land is 65 percent available to the public and the success rate is 23 percent. Snowfall causes elk to migrate from neighboring units to the southern areas. The later seasons are usually better in this unit. The Axial Basin is a hotspot for cow hunting, but should be noted that crowding is significant.
Hopefully some rutting activity will spill into the second rifle season. If this is the case, bulls seem to be a little more vocal and bugling to find that last cow in heat. This time of year, you can really pull them away from another cow. Glass open areas to locate bulls trying to move in on cows. Once you see a bull that is worked up, but keeps getting rejected, hike in close and set up your decoy 30 yards behind you and some cover. Start cow calling. Be patient. It is only a matter of time before he comes to check out what the decoy has to offer.
These are only a few of the best units for elk hunting that Colorado has to offer. Some factors to also consider when planning your hunting trip are variety of terrain, bull to cow ratios and success rates for that unit. Here is an interactive Colorado hunting atlas that would be helpful when planning your hunt.
*Unit information was obtained from the Colorado State Parks and Wildlife Office