Find the Best Colorado OTC Elk Hunting Units

UPDATED JULY 2016

In 2015, roughly 163,000 hunters set out to hunt elk in one of Colorado’s over-the-counter (OTC) elk hunting game management units (GMU). About 19% percent successfully filled a cow or bull tag. More than 15,000 bulls were shot.

Colorado’s OTC elk tags are a great option for hunters who did not apply or draw a tag and still want to hunt elk this fall. Sold online, by phone (1-800-244-5613), at license agents and at CPW offices and State Parks Offices around the state, OTC licenses go on sale July 26 for the 2016 hunting season. 

hunting decoy sale

While some believe that there’s a good chance to tag a trophy bull elk on any of the OTC GMUs as long as you put in the time and effort to give yourself an edge, the numbers don’t lie. Whether you go well beyond the trailhead to get away from day hunters, wind your way to the small parcels of public lands surrounded by private lands or find those heavily timbered acres void of roads where big bulls can hide year-round, some units are better than others.

We poured over past year’s figures to make our recommendations (in no particular order) for some of the best OTC Elk Hunting Units:

Unit 32

Colorado Hunting Units 32

  • Region: Piceance
  • Elk Herd (2015 Post Hunt Population Estimate): Yellow Creek (10,920)
  • Bull-to-Cow Ratio: 1:5
  • When to Hunt: Archery Season

. While the unit returned less exciting results for rifle hunters in 2015 (15% success rate on bulls), archers filled a bull tag on 25% of hunts. Hunting the BLM land along the north border should be fruitful for bowhunters.

Decoy Tactic:

Elk in Colorado

The summer elk range in the northeast portion of Unit 32 is suited for calling and decoying elk in timber. During the pre rut, elk are sticking to the coolness of the dark timber as much as possible. They’re feeding mostly at night and visiting watering holes during the day when they do move. Vocalization increases though bulls are more receptive to cow calls rather than bugles in the early season. It’s time to take advantage of the testosterone levels that are rising at a quick beat. Increase your chances of calling and decoying elk in the timber by utilizing an ultra-real, easy-to-carry cow elk decoy. 

Unit 74

Colorado Hunting Unit 74

  • Region: Durango
  • Elk Herd (2015 Post Hunt Population Estimate): Hermosa (4,890)
  • Bull-to-Cow Ratio: 1.1:5
  • When to Hunt: Second or Third Rifle Season

Unit 74 bucks a trend seen in most OTC elk hunting units: As the percent of public land increases, the overall success rate decreases. With 84% of it’s area available to the public, hunters still enjoy about a 21% chance of filling an antlered bull tag during the second or third rifle season. Breaking away from traditional spot-and-stalk hunting with a rifle to hunt the thick stuff in timbered canyons may increase your odds even more.

Decoy Tactic:

elk decoy tactics

Warning: Use only on private land where other hunters are aware of your plans.

Usually, the second rifle season is a transition time – both in terms of the rut and migration. Bulls may still be checking on a cow’s willingness to breed while sauntering at higher elevations until the snow falls and migration begins. Running into a hot cow elk rump decoy in a patch of timber will probably pique his attention.

Unit 60

Colorado Hunting Units 60

  • Region: Paradox
  • Elk Herd (2015 Post Hunt Population Estimate): DAU-30 (1,980)
  • Bull-to-Cow Ratio: 1:3.3
  • When to Hunt: Archery or Second Rifle

Located in far western Colorado along the Utah border, this small unit offers the potential of good elk hunting for the hunter that wants to get away from the crowd. Although it sits at a lower elevation, the terrain is still rugged. In the past three seasons, 233 archery hunters harvested 60 bulls. Bowhunters may want to take a closer look at Carpenter Ridge and the higher elevated land just south of John Brown Creek. Rifle hunters should monitor the weather in eastern Utah where elk will migrate into the unit from.

Archery Decoy Tactic:

decoying rutting elk

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.

Unit 65

Colorado Elk Hunting Unit 65

  • Region: Cimarron River Drainage
  • Elk Herd (2015 Post Hunt Population Estimate): Cimarron River Drainage (6,010)
  • Bull-to-Cow Ratio: 1:5
  • When to Hunt: Second or Third Rifle Season  (depending on snowfall)

According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the elk population in Unit 65 is slightly above objective and increasing. Hunting prospects are good thanks of the extent of wilderness area in these units. Elk find plenty of lush meadows for summer grazing. The elk will stay high until hunting pressure or weather forces them down. If hunting public land, be sure to have a mapping app such as OnX Hunt to keep from trespassing on the numerous private ranches that borders public land.

Decoy Tactic:

decoying post rut elk

Warning: Use only on private land where other hunters are aware of your plans.

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 it’s 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 some distance, at least 100 yards, that will leave you with a clean rifle shot.

Unit 42

Hunting Unit Colorado 42

  • Region: North Grand Mesa
  • Elk Herd (2015 Post Hunt Population Estimate): North Grand Mesa (13,310)
  • Bull-to-Cow Ratio: 1.1:5
  • When to Hunt: Archery  

The key to hunting Unit 42 is to get away from the roads (hint: look to the southwest). Here you’ll find higher elevations covered in the classic thick timber and oakbrush elk country is known for. However, don’t hesitate to check the lower juniper brush country if hunting pressure scatters the elk.

Archery Decoy Tactic:

decoying elk in treestand

Scout often before the season and find the routes they use between feeding areas and the dark timber where they’re likely to bed. Set up on these travel corridors. Don’t be afraid to use a treestand or blind and prepare to sit from daylight to dark. Feeding elk are relaxed, so put out one or two Miss September Decoys to alleviate any concerns a bull might have about walking through the area. Hunt a wind that is blowing your scent away from the feeding and bedding areas.

Unit 13

Hunting Unit in Colorado 13

  • Region: Upper Yampa
  • Elk Herd (2015 Post Hunt Population Estimate): White River (41,350)
  • Bull-to-Cow Ratio: 1:4
  • When to Hunt: Archery or Third Rifle Season

For the public land rifle hunter, it’s recommended to find slivers of (BLM) public land that abuts private agricultural lands in Unit 13. Focus on areas where access from the road is very limited due to private land, but where there are small roads that take you from private frontage to a strip of public land. Archery hunters should focus their efforts on the gulches in the southern portion of the unit.

Archery Decoy Tactic:

using an elk decoy

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.

Unit 22

  • Region: Piceance
  • Elk Herd (2015 Post Hunt Population Estimate): Yellow Creek (10,920)
  • Bull-to-Cow Ratio: 1:5
  • When to Hunt: Archery Season

Some have said the oil/gas industry has had a negative effect on the elk hunting, but one out of every four bowhunters tagged out in Unit 22 during the past two seasons.  The trick seems to be to get to remote areas, mostly at high elevations, where the elk tend to hold up in pockets of green timber and aspen. If you hunt this unit, be sure you have current maps as the land ownership has changed hands greatly over the years.

Archery Decoy Tactic:

feeding elk decoy tactics

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 further downwind of the decoys. Wait for a bull elk to come join the party.

Unit 11

Colorado Hunting Unit Map 11

  • Region: Lower Yampa
  • Elk Herd (2015 Post Hunt Population Estimate): White River (41,350)
  • Bull-to-Cow Ratio: 1:4
  • When to Hunt: First or Second Rifle Season (depending on snowfall)

The bulk of the elk harvest comes during the first and second rifle seasons when elk are pushed to lower elevations from adjacent units due to snowfall. This mass migration spills onto public lands where hunters are waiting. The pressure is high because access is easy, but being the densest elk area in the state, still leads to a high success rate. The five-year average success rate for first rifle season is around 30% and 31% of hunters targeting bulls in 2015 were able to fill there tag. Archers can still find success during bow season though. In 2015, 239 bowhunters tagged 50 bulls and seven cows and found similar success in the aforementioned hunting unit of 211 and 22.

Decoy Tactic:

late season elk decoy tactic

Warning: Use only on private land where other hunters are aware of your plans.

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 Colorado elk hunting areas for DIY hunters. In the end, your research in seeking an elk hunting honey hole will determine the quality of hunt you plan. Here are some factors to consider when searching for the best OTC elk hunting units in Colorado:

Elk Herd Population and Bull-to-Cow Ratios

Amount of public land verses private land

Variety of terrain

Success rates of the season you’ll be hunting and weapon you’ll be using

Look for areas void of roads and trails (or roads and trails which are closed during hunting season)

Here are some resources to help you search for the best DIY OTC elk hunting trip in Colorado:

OnX Maps

Maps Identifying What Units Offer OTC Elk Hunting Licenses:

Interactive Colorado Hunting Atlas

2015 Colorado Elk Hunting Season Statistics

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