How to Hunt Elk in Colorado

bull elk
Many elk hunters head into the field imagining that perfect shot at a broadside cow or bull in a meadow. While these opportunities occasionally present themselves, you’re far more likely to find success hunting in the challenging terrain that elk seek as soon as they sense the hunting pressure.

Popular hunting magazines often display scenic photographs of a huge bull elk standing in an open meadow presenting the perfect target. The reality of hunting elk in the mountains of Colorado, however, is often far different. Stalking elk is both physically and mentally challenging and most hunters won’t get easy shots. At home in the mountains, elk are far more likely to spend time on steep hillsides, in dark ravines, or in thick timber where they use their long legs to travel over fallen trees and through thick brush, obstacles that will stop you in your tracks.

Beat the Odds

An estimated 283,000 elk roam the landscape in Colorado, the most of any state. Although approximately 220,000 hunters went after elk during the 2019 hunting seasons, only 37,000 elk were harvested in total. This means that the hunter success rate for all manners of take is around 17 percent. Elk hunting is not easy. And even with such a large number of elk in the state, just catching a glimpse of an animal can be a real challenge for new hunters.

Understand the Impacts of Weather

Elk harvested in the snow
Weather changes quickly in Colorado, so make sure that your hunting plan includes both cold and warm weather strategies.

If weather is warm, elk stay spread out over vast areas at high elevations – at and above timberline. Hunters, therefore, need to work extra hard to reach elk at high elevations. This means you’ll spend extra time and energy to get where you need to be. And while reaching the elk will be difficult, packing an elk out will be even harder. Make sure you are packing plenty of water for hydration and the necessary nutrition, such as snack bars.

When snow falls, elk will usually start to move, bunch up, and look for food sources at lower elevations or on slopes where vegetation is exposed. However, the snow fall must be significant; usually more than a foot of snow must be on the ground to get elk moving.

Hunt Slowly

bull elk in trees
Take time to pause and scan for elk when moving between hunting locations.

Hunters must hunt slowly and quietly and far from any roads. Occasionally, hunters get lucky and find elk close to where they’ve parked, but hunting close to a road is potentially dangerous and usually a recipe for not finding elk. Elk are smart – when pressured, they often retreat to the most rugged terrain available.

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Elk have a highly developed sense of smell, so remember to pay attention to the wind direction and use it to help conceal your scent. The last thing you want is to have your scent reach the elk before you do. Move as quietly as possible for short distances, pausing to scan the woods and meadows for 10 minutes or more before moving again. This will also help to keep you cooler and to keep body odor down.

Elk are large animals, but they have an amazing ability to freeze their movement for long periods and to blend into the background. Even when walking in dense forest, it’s a good idea to scan the area with binoculars so that you can discern subtle movement or unusual colors in the trees. Compounding the challenge for hunters is the fact that elk typically gather in groups of 10 or more. If one is spooked, they will all move and it’s most likely a missed opportunity. With their ability to effortlessly run for a mile or more, elk can disappear quickly on the slopes and in the ravines of their native habitat.

Plan to Hunt All Day

hunter walking through woods
Don’t forget to pause and scan – it’s easy to walk right past elk in darker sections of forest. Is there an elk in this photo? Not sure, but look how long it takes to scan just this limited view.

Elk are most active during the night and are likely to be grazing in transition areas where different types of vegetation meet just above or below ridgelines – such as meadows next to heavy timber. The morning hunt needs to be one that takes you to a good glassing point well before daylight. Hunters should use binoculars to scan these areas at first light. If you’re going to catch an elk out in the open, this is your best chance. And if you find the areas where animals were grazing at night, it’s likely that you’ll find them in adjacent areas of thicker cover during the day.

During the day, hunters need to move into the dark timber, preferably on cool north-facing slopes, and must not be hesitant to hunt in challenging terrain. If it looks like a place you really don’t want to go, there’s a good chance that’s where you’ll find the elk. Just know your limitations and don’t head into terrain that you’re not willing to pack an elk out of.

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Bring your lunch so that you are prepared to spend a full day in the field. Midday is a great time to hunt but the tactics change a bit. Around 11:00 a.m., many some hunters are feeling bored, tired, and ready to head back to camp for a break or they decide to go find another place to hunt and head out aimlessly looking for new scenery. This additional movement can bump some elk your way or reveal elk moving into timber in search of a new place to bed down. Additionally, staying on the mountain all day will allow you to save some important energy you will need for packing out if you successfully harvest an elk.

Patience on the mountain during the morning and midday will help you better understand the environment and aid you in developing a plan for the evening hunt.

Practice and Make the Perfect Shot Placement

vital area How to Hunt Elk in Colorado
Successful shot placement requires a proper view of an elk’s vital area (pictured in red).

Hunting is not a once-a-year activity. It is an outdoor passion that takes a lifetime of practice to hone and keep sharp all of the necessary skills. Among those skills, marksmanship is an especially important skill for the ethical hunter. Good marksmanship makes the difference between a ‘clean, one-shot kill’ and an animal unnecessarily suffering for an extended period of time.

Taking a shot in the field is not the same as taking a shot at the range, but this is where your hours of practice before heading into the field pays off. You will know your limitations and you will have developed a comfort level with your bow or rifle that lets you quickly acquire a target in your sites. Just remember that you must take the necessary time to evaluate the safety of your shot. It is the hunter’s responsibility to determine if a clean, ethical kill can be made given the presentation of the animal. Your shot must be delivered in the critical area of the lungs and heart just behind and below the front quarter (review image above). If the proper shot does not immediately present itself, you must wait and be willing to pass up on the opportunity. And never try for a head shot as this can result in only seriously wounding the animal. You owe it to the animal to make an ethical shot.

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Understanding Field Dressing

For new hunters, field dressing is often the most intimidating part of a successful hunt. If you’ve searched online for advice, you’ve probably seen videos on everything from the gutless method to more traditional quartering methods. No matter what method you choose, just remember that Colorado hunting regulations require that all big game animals be prepared for human consumption as soon as possible after being killed. Make sure that you have reviewed the process enough times that you feel confident enough to complete the necessary steps in the field. The following video covers an effective way to make sure that you remove all of the required edible portions from the field.

Continue Learning

If you’re looking for more information on elk hunting, check out “Elk Hunting University” on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website. Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s (CPW) Hunter Outreach Program worked with Colorado’s wildlife officers, experienced Huntmasters and partners from across the state to create an on-line educational resource designed to provide “how to” information on everything from fitness plans to food preparation. The articles and videos are filled with tips that will send you into the woods with the confidence you’ll need.

Here’s some additional Information from Elk Hunting University:

  • ​​​​​​Marksmanship – ​An Essential Skill
  • Hunting Post Rut Bulls: Tactics and Techniques
  • Hunting For The Dinner Table
  • ​​​​​​High Altitude Hunting
  • Food and Cold Weather Gear

Whether you harvest an elk or not, you’ll have an unforgettable experience in the mountains of Colorado. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first trip or your fiftieth trip, when you put in a good effort you’ll learn something new every hunt – something about elk, something about the mountain, and always something about yourself. And even when you’re lucky enough to harvest, the meat will be long gone before the memories of your hunt fade away, so remember to enjoy the adventure.

Have a safe and enjoyable hunting season!

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>