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Everything There is to Figure Out About Colorado Elk Hunting

Colorado Elk Hunt
Travis Smola

Here's what you need to know about Colorado elk hunting.

Colorado is considered the destination point for elk hunting in North America. The state has a substantial elk herd. It's easy for non-residents to get a hunting license and success rates are generally high.

But there is a lot to digest before you book your Colorado elk hunting adventure. Where do you find a hunting guide? Do you use rifle or bow? And how do you get a license?

We'll answer all your burning Colorado elk questions in this complete guide.

Season Dates

Because blocking out the time of your hunt is important in planning, we'll give you all the hunting season dates right off the bat in order to make it easier. These dates are for 2019 and come straight from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Archery Season: (Runs parallel to archery deer season) - August 31-September 29 west of I-25 and Unit 140.

Muzzleloader Season: (Runs parallel to deer and moose. Draw only.) September 14-22.

Rifle (Separated into three seasons.)

  • First rifle season: October 12-16.
  • Second Rifle Season: October 19-27.
  • Third Rifle Season: November 2-10.
  • Fourth Rifle Season: (Combined deer/elk season. Limited) November 13-17.

That's it as far as elk hunting season dates go. Archery hunters have more time to work with, but rifle hunts will obviously have an advantage in the Rocky Mountain terrain. Getting long distance shots on a big bull elk provides a good advantage.

Hunting licenses/tags

One of the more confusing parts for potential elk hunters is Colorado's system of getting tags and licenses. We'll attempt to eliminate that confusion as best we can.

First, we'll go over the license fees. For a cow you're looking at $54.75 for residents and $496.75 for non-residents. The resident fee stays the same if you buy a bull or either sex tag. But if you're a non-resident, you're going to be shelling out $661.75 for your license to shoot a bull. Youth tags are more reasonable: a resident elk tag is just $15.50, while the non-resident is $101.50.

As a little bit of added value to buying a non-resident tag, they also act as a combination license for fishing. So, bring a pole with you if you're camping to get a little extra out of your trip.

Draws

Things get a little more complicated when we start talking about draw system elk tags. We should point out that as I'm writing this (June 2019), the deadlines for the draws are now long past. But we will briefly go over them in case you're planning a trip for 2020 or beyond. These draws are generally for only the most popular areas where some of the biggest bulls can be found.

One thing we need to mention right off the bat is that Colorado has done away with paper applications for big game draws. You need to do it online or over the phone now. Before you can apply for any elk draws, you must first buy what CPW calls a "qualifying license." Note that this applies only for if you're applying for a draw. If you plan to buy over-the-counter, you can skip that step.

CPW buries the info on qualifying licenses in their big game brochure and website, so we're going to list them here for your convenience:

  • Spring turkey
  • Annual small game
  • Annual resident combination small game/fishing
  • Veteran's lifetime resident combination
  • Small game/fishing

If you're using CPW's website, you won't be able to access the draw section of the website until you purchase one of these listed licenses.

Things get even more complicated once you get to the next section of the application process. CPW wants to know if you're hunting alone or in a group, and if you're in a group you'll have to enter additional information about your group members. They will only award tags to everyone or no one. There's no in-between, meaning there won't be a situation where only some members of your party get to hunt while others do not.

One thing that seems unnecessarily complicated by CPW is their hunt code system. For that reason, we're attaching a screenshot of that part of their guide that hopefully explains it well enough.

Colorado Elk Hunting
Colorado Parks and Wildlife

So, as an example, if you wanted an either-sex elk tag in game management unit (GMU) 50 with a rifle in first season, your code would be "E-E-050-01-R." If you're on private land, there is also a letter "P" to designate that.

Note this example is just one I made up for this article. In short, you must figure out the limited-draw GMU you'll be hunting and the exact dates and weapon you'll be using in order to apply.

Also note that you're given an opportunity to fill in a "second choice" for a hunt area if the first one isn't available. It never hurts to have a back-up hunt plan in mind.

Another confusing part of Colorado elk hunting has been the preference point system. You earn points that better your odds of getting a tag each year you are unsuccessful at drawing one. The more points you accumulate, the better the odds. It is worth noting that for elk you can only get one point per year.

It can be perceived as a bit of a headache, but it will be worth it when you hear that first bull bugling on a frosty fall morning in Colorado!

Over-the-counter

If you want to avoid all that headache of the draw system, there is an alternative. There are plenty of over-the-counter elk permits available. If you plan to hunt Colorado this season, there's good news: the OTC licenses don't go on sale until August 8 at 9 a.m. Mountain Time. So, you have some time to plan.

Refer to the CPW's hunting guide to see the full maps of where these licenses are available.

The bad news is, some of these OTC licenses can sell out quickly depending on the area. GMUs with high hunting pressure and low success rates will often have licenses available longer than the more popular ones.

The only licenses that must be purchased directly from a brick-and-mortar location are OTC archery and plains elk OTC licenses. The rest can be bought online, in person or by phone.

One thing that doesn't change from the draw system is you will have to do some research ahead of time to figure out your hunting area, and you'll have to secure permission ahead of time if your hunt is going to take you onto private land.

But overall, this is a much easier option for securing an elk hunt in Colorado. Just note that more elk tags are available in archery than rifle seasons.

Finding a guide

Colorado Elk Hunting
Travis Smola

One way to avoid a lot of frustration in the licensing process is to go hunting with a guide. Not only will an outfitter know exactly what tags you need, but they'll also up your odds of success greatly over a DIY-style hunt, especially if you've never hunted for elk before.

They'll also be a huge help in the butchering process, which you may take for granted until you're having to field dress a 600-pound animal!

Most elk guide services are in the western part of the state where the elk population is thickest. This portion of the state is also extremely rugged, making for a physically demanding, but often breathtaking hunt.

Most outfitters offer hunts between four and seven days in length. The hunts can be on either private or public land. You'll see terms like 2 to 1 and 1 to 1 on their websites. That just refers to "two hunters, one guide" or "one hunter, one guide."

There are also options called "drop camps" which can be a good choice for multiple hunters. In that scenario, an outfitter will help pack your gear in and out. They'll also take you to where the elk are and can probably help give some solid advice on how to fill your tag.

This isn't a bad idea if you're concerned about going into the wilderness by yourself. These guys know the woods and will check in on you to make sure things are going smoothly throughout the hunt. You're usually looking at around $1,500-1,800 a hunter for one of these camps.

There are some outfitting services that offer up semi-guided hunts in which the guides will point you in the right direction for elk, but they won't necessarily hold your hand throughout the whole hunt. These are usually slightly more expensive than the drop camps in the $2-3,000 range.

The most expensive hunt you can get is a fully guided hunt. Prices vary per outfitter, but expect to pay in the $4-9,000 range for one of these hunts.

The nice thing about a fully guided hunt is they'll often pick you up at the airport, they'll prepare all your meals and you'll have an expert to help put you on the elk. Some guides offer processing for the meat you'll be taking home and a few even offer taxidermy services!

Some outfits even offer up combination elk/mule deer hunts. If you're already dropping a ton of money for the big game hunting adventure of a lifetime, why not bag a second species while you're at it? We highly recommend checking out online reviews for guides ahead of time, and do the homework that's necessary before committing to something like a guided Colorado elk hunt.

What to bring and how to prepare

As far as gear goes, what you bring is probably going to be dependent on where you'll be staying for the duration of the trip. If you're going to be at a swanky hunting lodge, you won't need much camping gear. If you're doing a backcountry trip during the peak of the rut, standard backpacking gear and a good backpack will apply. Something with a frame is almost a necessity for bringing out all the meat a big elk will provide.

Here is a short list of items you'll probably want to consider:

  • Quality hiking boots
  • Rain gear
  • Binoculars or spotting scope (Most guides will have a spotting scope)
  • Extra ammo or arrows
  • License and proof of hunter education
  • Quality flashlight or headlamp (preferably both)
  • Backcountry backpack
  • Canteen, bottle or bladder system for water
  • Extra pants, shirts, socks, and spare shoes
  • Thermal wear
  • GPS Unit/Spot locater (In case you get lost)
  • Camera
  • Blaze orange or pink, if hunting firearms season. Note: Colorado does NOT count orange or pink camo patterns as meeting legal requirements for safety colors.
  • Knife
  • Packable saw
  • Gloves
  • Warm hat
  • Game bags

When it comes to gearing up for your Colorado elk hunting adventure, you can't forget that you need to be physically prepared. Note I said "quality" hiking boots in that list. You really want to make sure the boots you wear on this hunt are comfortable because most Colorado elk hunting is more physical than any type of hunting you may have done before. And break them in before you go!

Most areas where the elk live are high country. And when we say high country, we mean it! We're talking elevations anywhere from 5,000-10,000 feet here. If you've never been at an elevation that high, you're in for a rude surprise when you find yourself gasping in the thin air. It takes a little bit to acclimatize to it.

We highly recommend packing a heavy pack with a good amount of weight and practicing hiking with it for long distances over the highest terrain you can find. That'll help prepare for a physically demanding hunt. If you're packing a few extra pounds around the midsection (let's be honest, who among us isn't?), you'll likely want to work on dropping a little weight before you go.

Trust us, you'll thank us when the guide says you must descend and then ascend a few thousand feet across a gorge to where the elk are!

An elk hunting trip to Colorado is the hunt of a lifetime for many people. Don't forget to stop and appreciate the scenery while you are hunting in such a beautiful place. And good luck to all the hunters in 2019!

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis Youtube channels

NEXT: 10 WAYS TO EXPERIENCE THE BEST OF AMERICA'S BIG GAME HUNTING

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Everything There is to Figure Out About Colorado Elk Hunting