Your First Moves to Hunting Elk in Colorado

I grew up in the Midwest, so I realize what a dream it is to hunt in Colorado. To most American hunters, a Colorado elk hunt is a chance of a lifetime. I hope this blog post helps bring that dream to reality.

Hunting with two of my kids in Colorado. Noah (then 13) harvested a nice cow that year.

Hunting with two of my children in Colorado. Noah (then 13) harvested a nice cow that year.

I’m proud to say that I have scouted new hunter friends several times over the years. Of course, I’ve raised all of my children to wield a rifle, and the teaching has paid off with many freezers full of bounty for the family. I’ve also brought more than a few adult friends along — totally green behind the ears — who now know the routine of Colorado elk hunting and hit the mountains every year. My dad from Minnesota has come out a couple of times in his retirement years to enjoy the rugged mountains for elk hunting.

All this to say: I have built up the best of memories hunting big game in Colorado. You can, too, and it isn’t as hard as you might think. There are three important “first moves” to make, and the months of February and March is very important. Do these three things and, before you know it, your big week of big game elk hunting in Colorado will be here. Your dream will come true!

1. Read the entire Big Game manual

Once you’ve hunted Colorado one year, you’ll be on their mailing list forever. My house gets a handful each year — sent to each child who has gone through Firearm Safety — come mid-February. Colorado Fish & Wildlife have two links to access the manual digitally: a PDF and an Interactive Manual. You can see all the state’s hunting brochures here.

From the time the manual drops to the first Tuesday in April (this year it is April 7), we plan our hunt. For me, I pull together my hunting buddies (there are a few close friends here in Colorado that get together every year) and we gauge our commitment levels. We sometimes have a big gathering at an office or coffee shop, brainstorm ideas both new and old, all part of sizing up the opportunities we have six months later.

This is a strange way of thinking for a midwesterner like me, and it took me some time to get used to. In Minnesota, I could buy a tag the day before Opening Day and be in a tree stand in my back yard in the morning. Colorado is more complicated. A great deal of planning is necessary, and it all starts with the manual that drops mid-February.

This isn’t as massive a read as you might think. The manual is mostly tag listings, only the first dozen pages or so go through the necessary items you need to read. My hunting-age children and I sit down in our living room — each with a manual in their hands — and read through it aloud. I highly recommend this for two reasons:

  1. To know the laws of the land, and
  2. To understand the changes for the year.

Unless you want to hunt other big game species in Colorado (like deer, pronghorn, moose or bear), turn to the most popular section of the manual: Elk. There are three more pages of species-specific details to read through before moving on.

Once you’ve read the manual, you are ready to move onto to the next step…

2. Choose where you’re going to hunt

For a visual of the Colorado hunting areas, see this PDF. Choosing where to hunt will be your most daunting step, but I’m going to try to make it as simple and carefree as possible for you.

First, make March your planning and research month. I keep coming back to March, but let me remind you why: Your deadline to apply is early April (for 2015 it’s April 7), so planning is going is right now. Once you apply, put it on your calendar and get busy with the plethora of other plans you need to make. You’re going hunting.

Second, know that public land is premium hunting. When you page through the manual, you’ll see that Colorado favors private land owners, and it may seem discouraging when you don’t know one. Don’t worry. I have hunted on private land very few times in my 15 years in Colorado, and it wasn’t any better than public. Hunting in my state is a big business for land owners, and there are many guided (and expensive!) hunts available. Because of this, hunting laws allow broader choices for dates and seasons for private land owners, but state and federal land in Colorado is plentiful and gorgeous and often come with more elk than private land. There is definitely no shame in hunting public land.

Third, find a successful area to hunt. The information out there can be overwhelming, but most everything you really need can be found on the Colorado Fish & Wildlife site. Even then, you can get lost in the details, so it helps to understand the hierarchy of their site. As of 2015 specifically for elk, what you need to know is buried under this breadcrumb trail:

“Big Game Hunting” is where the pertinent elk data lies, the information that will help you find your hunting area. Under “Application Resources,” I have found these two documents the most important in narrowing down the best hunting areas:

  • Hunting Statistics. This will list the success rates of each area in the state. The success rates typically reflect how thick the elk herds are. An area that has a 20-40% harvest every year is very good.
  • Draw Results. This is the report that explains how easy it will or will not be when you apply for your draw. Though Colorado is technically a “lottery,” you can be fairly certain whether or not you’ll get what you apply for if you study the Draw Results document from the year before.

The remaining documents in the Big Game Hunting area are helpful, too, but Hunting Statistics and Draw Results are the ones that will help make your hunt most successful.

Finally, plan your scouting trip. Nearly every year I run into hunters in the mountains who are from out of state. The most typical story is something like this: “This is the first time hunting in Colorado, and we’re very disappointed.” They watched videos of big Colorado hunts and expected to see elk everywhere, but they’ve walked for days with nothing.

“Did you scout the land last summer?” I ask.

The inevitable answer: “No. This is the first time out here. We haven’t seen nuthin.

If you take anything from this blog post, heed this advice: make a summer scouting trip a necessity in your Colorado hunting plans. I am such a believer in this that I refuse to take anyone hunting with me unless they’ve scouted the land first. Nothing is more frustrating than showing up in the middle of a vast wilderness without knowing the land other than what is on your GPS. You’ll be hunting on luck and ambition, and I prefer to hunt with knowledge and certainty.

Like I said, step 2 is your most daunting step. There is a ton you will learn as you carve out your hunting plans. My third step is just as crucial, but it is a no-brainer that you just need to do…

3. At least apply for your preference point

As you already know, Colorado navigates its best hunting areas with the lottery system. This means the Colorado Fish & Wildlife allows only so many tags per hunting area. There are some over-the-counter licenses that can be bought, but the best areas — the hunting utopias with countless heads of elk to harvest — require one or more preference points.

Here’s the deal: you are allowed only one preference point per year. There is no borrowing, transferring or buying preference points. The years that go by that you don’t apply are significant steps away from the best hunting areas when you finally get around to planning your hunt. So it’s a no-brainer: apply for your preference point at least. 

There are two ways to do it:

  1. Apply directly. This is done by entering a specific code as your first choice (see page 32 in the 2015 manual). You will pay $464 at first, but you will be refunded $454 in June when the lottery is drawn. The Colorado Fish & Wildlife keeps track of your points so that next year (2016) you will have one preference point to get into some more choice areas than if you had zero.
  2. Fail to gain your first choice. Let’s say you try to get into a hunting zone as your first choice, but are denied. You can choose to receive a refund (minus $10) just as if you applied for a preference point, but you automatically get your point for that year. In other words, you only spend your point(s) when you get your first choice.

A common strategy to consider if you want to hunt this year but still gain a preference point is to apply for the preference point as your first choice, your second choice being the area you want to hunt. This won’t get you into the choice areas (like I said, the more points required typically reflect better hunting areas), but you can still go hunting and chalk up a point for a better choice the next year.

Even if you don’t plan to hunt this year, get your point. I’ve got a friend in Virginia and a couple of relatives in Minnesota who are interesting in elk hunting in 2016. The zone I plan to take them on requires at least one preference point. If they don’t apply now, they’ll miss their opportunity in 2016. I know it’s hard to think that hunting takes this much forethought, but that’s the way it is in Colorado. Even if our plans fall apart and the hunt can’t come together in 2016, they’ll still have their preference points to punt into later years. The points don’t go away until you use them for an elk tag.

While you’re at it, you may as well apply for other species you may hunt “some day.” I have applied for deer and pronghorn nearly every year since I’ve lived here. Though I haven’t found the time yet to explore a nice area to hunt these species, I’ll be in a prime position when I do. You can do the same.

I hope this article helps bring the dream of Colorado elk hunting into reality. It can be done! The rest of the year is planning, dreaming, and executing your chance of a lifetime. I hope you successfully harvest a Colorado elk, and keep in touch.

Some other articles on hunting I wrote: