The most common questions I get from first time hunters and from out of state DIY elk hunters is about how to find the “best” hunting units.
I usually ask them what does “best” mean to them. I think most people mean easy. Some elk hunts can be easy, but don’t count on it.
Chances are, you should be able to find elk on every unit on National Forest lands, without any additional knowledge. But more information will always be helpful.
Of course the local hunters know when and where to find elk on units that have few elk, but non-residents will not, so choose a unit proven to have lots of elk during your hunting season.
For me, the best hunting unit has more to do with the quality of my outdoor camping, scouting and hunting experience, but I am also a numbers guy. So in this case, best will be a purely numeric analysis of Colorado’s elk harvest data for the three OTC hunts; 2nd Rifle, 3rd Rifle and Archery hunts.
You can research population estimates in the Herd Management Plans (DAU Reports – AKA Data Analysis Units) or you can see how many elk were harvested in the past and see the hunter success and the amount of hunting pressure.
If you are an out of state hunter, unless you have done lots of scouting before, I suggest you start researching units where at least 50 elk were harvested and also had better than average hunting success.
2021 Colorado OTC Elk Licenses
The OTC licenses are just that, sold over the counter and many of these OTC licenses are unlimited and will be on sale for 2020 starting in Early August (August 6 in 2020).
Colorado OTC Rifle Elk Hunts
Let’s start with the Over-the-counter (OTC) rifle hunts. The OTC rifle seasons are the 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons. In 2020, the 2nd rifle season will be Oct 24 – Nov. 1 and the 3rd rifle season will be Nov. 7 – 13.
These hunts are for Antlered Elk Only (Bull Elk) and are available in 93 hunt units (GMUs – Game Management Units) in Western Colorado. The latest available harvest data from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is from 2019 (see tables below).
Looking at past harvest data is important in choosing a hunting unit. The harvest data reported by CPW are available compiled in various ways and it is easy to see harvest numbers, hunting success and hunting pressure for each unit. But it is a little more difficult to separate results from OTC tags from other hunts that occur at the same times and places.
Limited Entry (LE) elk hunts for both antlered and antlerless elk do occur during the 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons. There is no overlap in space (units are separated; LE only in some, OTC only in others) for the bull elk hunts, but there is overlap in the units for the limited cow elk hunts.
By removing the number of hunters that participate in cow elk hunts from the total, I attempt to get more accurate estimates of OTC rifle hunters and harvest data, but have to make some assumptions because CPW does not provide separated data. Those assumptions are that all hunters (OTC Bull Elk and Limited Antlerless) hunt with the same effort (days hunted) and have the same success during the 2nd or 3rd rifle seasons. This is not perfect, but I think is better than leaving them clumped together.
In the past, I reported these numbers for each new season when harvest reports were available, but decided that a three year average would be more useful since the numbers of elk harvested jumps around. For instance, for 2nd Rifle, there are only 14 GMUs that were in the top 20 in both 2014 and 2018 and only 10 GMUs in the top 20 every year from 2014 to 2018. So there is some yearly variation and some GMUs have been trending up and some trending down.
Table 1 shows the top 24 units for the OTC 2nd Rifle Season. Data were averaged for the last three years of harvest data available (2017 – 2019). The left side of the table is ranked by total bull elk taken by OTC tag holders in OTC units during the 2nd rifle season. The right side of Table 1 is same data ranked by Hunter Success.
Table 1. Top 24 Colorado OTC Rifle Units – 2nd Rifle Season – 3 year Average 2017 – 2019
For total bull elk harvest, the top 24 OTC 2nd Rifle Season elk units ranged from an average of 61 to 184 elk harvested (left side Table 1). I included harvest data from 24 units instead of 20 because half (54%) of all Bull Elk Harvest (2nd Season OTC Rifle) came from 24 of the 92 hunt units and it also allowed me to include GMU 54 which ranked in the top 23 for Bull Elk harvest and for hunter success.
For hunter success (right side of Table 1), I limited units to those with an average of at least 25 bull elk over the three years, so some units had higher success than these units, but only had a few elk harvested. So, highest hunter success (with at least 25 bulls harvested) ranged from 31.3% to 12.6%. Total hunter success for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 in OTC 2nd rifle seasons was 13.2%, 13.4% and 14.3% respectively. The top 25 units ranked by hunter success accounted for 15% of all Bull Elk Harvested for the last three OTC 2nd rifle seasons.
Also notice that 13 GMUs are hi-lighted on both sides of the table, because these GMUs ranked in the top 24 for both total harvest and hunter success.
When compared to last year’s table (2015 – 2017 average), 23 of the GMUs are the same. GMU 14 was added and GMUs 28 and 24 dropped out (I used the Top 25 GMUs for Bull elk harvest last year.
When last year’s hunter success was compared, 18 of the GMUs are the same and 6 new GMUs were added, but I also changed the cutoff from 50 bull elk to 25 to be considered.
Five units (4, 13, 22, 85 and 421) were in the top units for both the 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons for both total Bull Elk harvest and for hunter success.
Colorado Hunting Maps & Hunting Accessories
Table 2 (left side) shows the top 25 units ranked by total bull elk taken by OTC tag holders in the OTC units during the 3rd rifle season. The right side of Table 2 is ranked by Hunter Success.
Table 2. Top 25 Colorado OTC Rifle Units – 3rd Rifle Season – 3 year Average 2017 – 2019
For total bull elk harvest, the top 25 OTC 3rd Rifle Season elk units ranged from 163 to 55 bull elk (average harvest – left side Table 2). The top 25 units accounted for over half (54%) of all Bull Elk Harvest during the 3rd OTC Rifle Season(2017 – 2019), I included 25GMUs because the last two had 51 bull elk harvested and it would also include two additional units (units 5 & 551) that ranked for both total elk harvest and for hunter success.
For hunter success (right side of Table 1), GMUs had at least 29 bull elk harvest (3 year average). Remember, some units had higher success, but I only considered units that had at least 25 bull elk harvested. Hunter success (with at least 29 bull elk) ranged from 32.3% to 13.3%. Average hunter success for the 2017 – 2019 OTC 3rd rifle season was 14.9%. The top 25 units ranked by hunter success accounted for 49.5% of all Bull Elk Harvested for the OTC 3rd rifle season.
Notice the 18 hi-lighted units on both side of Table 2. These 18 units ranked in the top 25 for both total harvest and hunter success.
Colorado OTC Archery Elk Hunts
Now let’s look at the OTC Archery Hunts (Combined Either-sex and Antlered hunts). Table 3 shows GMUs ranked by total Elk Harvested (left side) and by Hunter Success (right side). There are two types of OTC Archery Elk Tags; Either Sex or Bull Elk Only. The 2021 OTC Archery season will be Sept. 2 – 30.
There are OTC Archery tags available for 122 Either Sex GMUs and 51 Antlerless Elk GMUs on public land. There is much overlap, but there are 124 total OTC Archery Elk GMUs on public land. There are also 7 additional private only units, but those data are not included. There are 49 units that offer either tag (Either Sex or Antlerless Only).
Table 3. Top 25 Colorado OTC Archery Units – 3 year Average 2017 – 2019
The top 25 units ranked by total elk harvest accounted for 70% of the total OTC Elk Archery harvest. The top 25 units ranked by hunter success (Table 3) accounted for 58.5% of the total OTC Elk Archery harvest.
I included a few extra GMUs in the table, because adding a few more allowed me to include 5 more GMUs that were in the top 25 for both total harvest and hunter success.
For total elk harvest (bulls, cows & calves combined), the top 25 OTC elk units ranged from 227 to 50 elk harvested.
For the top 25 units by hunter success, I limited units to those where at least 20 total elk were harvested. Some units had higher success, but only had a few elk harvested. So, highest hunter success (with at least 20 elk, ranged from 28.3% to 10.3%, compared to the overall average OTC Archery Success (2017 – 2019) of 10.1%.
Again, notice that after the latest update, 14 units are now hi-lighted on both sides of Table 3. These 14 GMUs ranked in the top 25 for both total harvest and hunter success.
For total elk harvested, the table changed over the last two years as Bull elk only tags have transitioned to Either Sex tags. In 2019 the Either sex tags were new and Bull Elk only still existed. Last year, the Bull Elk only tags were dropped.
High Hunter Density is not all Bad
Many days, I see other hunters at parking areas, and I hear them driving around on the roads, but I rarely see or hear hunters in the woods. I usually coordinate with other people I do see to make sure we don’t end up at the same place.
Also, if a unit has lots of hunters, that is usually a good indication that area has lots of access points to disperse the traffic. Of course, some areas can get very crowded, but with a few days to scout, you should be able to find less crowded areas.
Also, some hunters will go deep to find elk and they almost always bump elk (I know I bump elk that other people may get to see), those elk have to go somewhere and they might just run over you.
These tables are just to help you get started with the selection process. These are the units in Colorado where the most elk are harvested and those that have the highest hunter success. Spend a little time researching the combination of these factors and also consider the size of the units, the number of access points and the amount of hunting pressure they get.
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There is also an OTC Plains Rifle season in eastern Colorado. These units obviously don’t have as many elk or public land as the western units, but they do offer long hunting seasons and the opportunity to hunt either sex elk with an OTC tag. The total harvest in the plains units is relatively low and most elk are harvested by local hunters that know the country and know when elk can be found there.
If you are considering a hunt in the plains units, make sure you know where the public land is and that elk should be using those areas at the time you want to hunt. Many of these units do not have any elk harvested during the season.
I no longer rank the Plains Rifle units because CPW makes it impossible to find or to separate the data.
For More info on Hunting Elk with OTC tags in Colorado and to see units maps, read my post here or download the newest Colorado Big Game Brochure here.
So now when guys ask we what is the best hunt unit in Colorado for an OTC tag, I’m going to start by sending them to this page. Good luck on your hunt.