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. The low cost of licenses, large herds, and a really incredible make Colorado the state where more elk hunters flock each year than anywhere else in the Rocky Mountains.
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 early August.
There’s a good opportunity to tag a trophy bull elk on any of the game management units as long as you put in the time and effort. If you can swing it, make a preseason trip to the area where you want to hunt and scout.
We’ve looked over the numbers and have put together a list in no particular order of some of the best Colorado OTC elk hunting units.
Location: Moffat and Routt Counties
- Size: 467 square miles
- When to hunt: 2nd Rifle
Elk are plentiful throughout the Upper Yampa area and licenses are readily available. Look to the Routt National Forest where you’ll find large elk numbers. 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, over the past few years, have reported about an 18% success rate. Domestic sheep will graze in the months of August and September throughout parts of the Routt National Forest. And while elk stay away from these areas, they will likely be in the general vicinity. Use this information to your 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 behind you to draw the bull past your shooting lanes. Always give yourself ample room for a shot.
Location: Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose and Ouray Counties
- Size: 672 square miles
- When to hunt: Second or third rifle season
- Bull to cow ratio: 1:5
Unit 65 doesn’t have the numbers you’ll find in Unit 4 though the population is steadily increasing and success rates are roughly the same. This area is vast, which gives the determined hunter who doesn’t mind hiking away from the beaten path a distinct advantage. If you’ve had a chance to scout, great. If not, using Google Maps or another topographical software or app, locate three choice camping spots that are fairly close together. That way, if you hike all the way back in there and spot #1 is taken, you already have a backup plan. Prepare yourself for a lot of up and down as herds tend to remain at high elevations until driven down by weather or hunting pressure.
Try and get set up before daylight, knowing you may stay out 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 an Eichler Elk and Miss September can drastically tip the odds in your favor.
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 your decoy, 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 square 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 average success rate has remained well above 30 percent for the last several years. Hunting pressure in Unit 13 can get heavy, so concentrate on the remote areas in the southern part of the unit.
Archery hunters should focus on the gulches as ambush points. And like most other units, the further you can get away from the roads the more elk you’ll get close to.
If you can, scout, scout, and scout some more. Learn where the elk are bedding and where they are feeding and catch them en route. 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 home to a lot of bears. Be sure to keep your food and trash properly stowed at night and during the day when you’re out hunting.
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 square 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 though it should be noted that hunting pressure is significant.
Hopefully some rut activity will spill into the second rifle season. If this is the case, bulls seem to be a little more vocal, 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 the variety of terrains in each unit, bull-to-cow ratios, and success rates. Here is an interactive Colorado hunting atlas that would be helpful when planning your hunt.