Preparing for an Elk Hunt – Selecting a Hunting Area
Previously we discussed physical and mental readiness and the importance of quality equipment for the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) backcountry elk hunt. So lets spend some time talking about the big questions…”Where can I hunt?” “What states offer Over-the-Counter (OTC) public hunting?” “How do I find that ‘one’ spot from home without being able to scout?” The list could go on and on and there are many opinions and methods that result in successful elk hunting. I will focus on my experiences in the Colorado Rockies and share the information I use to determine my next DIY backcountry elk hunt.
First off, I am a non-resident hunter and I didn’t get drawn into a sought-after Game Management Unit (GMU) this year so “Where can I hunt that offers some public OTC elk hunting access?” There are a few options. Although limited populations of elk now inhabit many states across the nation, the vast majority of elk reside in the following nine states:
- Elk Population(estimated) by State
58,000..... New Mexico
So let’s start by looking at the available GMUs that offer OTC tags. The following picture represents the 2011 OTC Either Sex Archery GMUs for Colorado and you can find this online at; http://wildlife.state.co.us/maps
All the areas shaded in slate blue are the available OTC units for the state; however, we still need to drill down and find some public hunting. Just because a unit is shaded does not mean the entire unit is open to the public for hunting. It is not difficult to find quality hunting grounds if we look for huge National Forest within or across GMUs. How you determine your GMU can come from many resources as well, like; past hunting experience, word from another hunting partner, collaboration on online forums, hearing of someone’s success, close to a town you like, et cetera.
So you’ve picked your GMU and now what? Well the Colorado Department of Wildlife (and I am sure the other States offer this) offers an interactive GMU mapping tool that is online at; http://wildlife.state.co.us/Hunting/GMUnitMaps.htm . With this resource you can select your desired GMU and it will bring that GMU up in a topographical map for your viewing. Here you will be able to see National Forest boundaries, toggle elk distribution data, elk migration routes, aerial photos, and more. I wear this tool out this time of year as I plan my trip. It even has a tool to help you map distance if you were to plan a route. Just remember it is only calculating in straight lines and that may work in Oklahoma but in the backcountry one mile is a little different story especially when you do not know the country. I like the measuring feature so I can see how far the lazy hunter (road hunter) won’t go or put differently, how far from the roads and trailheads do I want to setup my bivy camp? This can help you fine-tune your hunting area without ever stepping foot in it. Last year I hunted a new GMU that I had never hunted and due to the resources available I knew that country very well.
Now that we have done some fine-tuning with the online maps let’s take it a step or two further, shall we? Once you’ve selected your GMU and hunting area within that GMU point your Internet browser to http://www.latitude40maps.com, which specializes in recreation topo maps (trail and road access on public lands). Let me finish. I know some of you are thinking, “Hey! This is supposed to be my secret, remote spot. I bought the backcountry methodology and now you want me to get a map that Joe Public uses?” Yes, yes I do. If you know where the public access (heavy access) areas are then you know where you don’t want to be…right? The trail definitions and topo features these maps offer are the best I have seen and they are tear and water-resistant. You can carry it with you. Better than all that is this tiny little feature that seems to never have been lost over the years of map-making…HISTORY! They represent old trails from the early 1960’s and later on the maps. Trails you won’t see on any topo or National Forest map in print today. These are trails that were lost in reproduction over the years but this company seemed to retain that history over the years. I have the most current San Juan National Forest map and my ‘secret spot’ that doesn’t have a blazed trail is nowhere shown on it; however, it (trail to my spot) is shown on the Latitude 40 map. So, if I know where ‘Joe Public’ is more than likely going to be then I can be as far away from him as I want and there might be a lost trail to get me there.
Once I have located my general hunting area on the map and I feel I have done some good research then I begin to drill-down more. I’m looking for harder access than the normal hunter will put effort forth to get to in the backcountry. This doesn’t have to miles in but just a touch longer or just a bit harder than the average hunter will want to tackle. Sometimes just a steep incline will ward off the out-of-shape hunter. Build a little travel time into your hunt. This year I will be going a day early and will use that day to tuck myself in a nice looking area before I begin my hunt. You should be familiar with the predominant wind and thermal directions when hunting out west. This will come in handy when selecting your ‘spot’ and hopefully keep you concealed from the elk. Deciding whether to camp high or low in elevation is a factor. I typically choose higher so that I might glass early and if I hear bugling below I can bail off after them. Going down is much faster than running up. Another major point to keep in mind when selecting your ‘spot’ is the time of year. I am writing this as an early season archery hunter. Colorado temperatures can hit the mid-70s during the day during September. Why do we care about this? The elk. They will be looking for the cooler places on those warm days too. The coolest places in the mountains are the north-facing slopes. I don’t suggest you park your camp here but look across from it and use that location to your advantage to glass and establish a plan of attack once you do spot elk. You will also want to be near a water source so keep that in mind when reviewing your maps. The elk will be doing the same thing. In closing, I hope that I did not bore some of you with the mapping details in the article and I hope that you learned some important pieces of information through my ramblings on how to select your next elk hunting area. Hopefully some of these shared resources will bid you success on future hunts. The following link is very helpful from the Colorado Department of Wildlife (CDOW) on planning your hunt; http://wildlife.state.co.us/Hunting/PlanYourHunt/ . Planning your hunt, mapping it out, getting in shape, and collecting your gear can be time consuming but hopefully in the end it will be very rewarding for you as you enjoy a successful DIY backcountry elk hunt.