Top 20 Colorado OTC Elk Hunting Units for 2017

bull elk buglingThe most common questions I get from first time, out of state DIY elk hunters is about how to choose a hunting unit.

Chances are, you can find elk on every unit on most National Forest lands, without any additional knowledge. But more information always helps.

Of course the local hunters know when and where to find elk on units with few elk, but non-residents will not, so choose a unit proven to have lots of elk.

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, I suggest you start with units where at least 50 – 100 elk were harvested and also had better than average hunting success.

2017 Colorado OTC Elk Licenses

The OTC licenses are just that, sold over the counter and the numbers of these OTC licenses are unlimited. They go on sale starting at 9 a.m. July 25 (2017).

Colorado OTC Rifle Elk Hunts

Lets start with the Over-the-counter (OTC) rifle hunts. The OTC rifle seasons are the 2nd and 3rd rifle season. In 2017, the 2nd rifle season will be Oct. 21 – 29 and the 3rd rifle season will be Nov. 4 – 12.

These are for Antlered Elk Only (Bull Elk) and are available in 90 hunt units (GMUs – Game Management Units) in Western Colorado. The latest available harvest data from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is from 2015.

The harvest data 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 Limited Tags.

There are a few units where Limited hunts for Bull Elk also take place during the 2nd or 3rd rifle seasons, but there are many Limited cow elk hunts going on at the same time. But since OTC tags can only take Bull Elk, I left out harvest data for cows and calves. So, the data in Table 1 shows bull elk taken by both Limited and OTC tag holders in the OTC units during the 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons.

Table 1 show GMUs ranked by total Bulls Harvested on the left and by Hunter Success ranked separately on the right.

Table 1. Top 24 Colorado OTC Units; 2nd & 3rd Rifle Harvest 2015

colorado 2015 elk otc rifle harvest success


For total bull elk harvest, the top 20 OTC elk units ranged from 293 to 116 elk harvested (left side Table 1). I included harvest data from 24 units instead of 20 because half (50.7%) of all Bull Elk Harvest (OTC Rifle; 2nd & 3rd seasons) came from 24 of the 90 hunt units.

For hunter success (right side of Table 1), I limited units to those where at least 20 bull elk were harvested, so some units had higher success, but only had a few elk harvested. So, highest hunter success (with at least 20 bulls harvested, ranged from 28.3% to 16.9%. Notice that total success for the OTC 2nd & 3rd Rifle seasons was 13.4%. The top 24 units ranked by hunter success accounted for 38% of all Bull Elk Harvested for the OTC Rifle seasons.

Also notice that eight units are hi-lighted on both side of the table. These eight units (11, 13, 43, 65, 70, 74, 82 and 83) ranked in the top 20 for both total harvest and hunter success.

Colorado OTC Archery Elk Hunts

Now let’s look at the OTC Archery Hunts. Table 2 shows GMUs ranked by total Bulls Harvested. There are two types of OTC Archery Elk Tags; Either Sex or Bull Elk Only.  The 2017 OTC Archery season is Aug. 26 – Sept. 24.

There are 137 Either Sex units and 58 Bull Elk only units on public land. There are also 7 additional private only units, but those data not included. There are 55 units that offer either tag (Either Sex or Bull Only). Table 2 shows the 2015 top 20 OTC Archery Elk units ranked by Total Harvest and Table 3 shows the 2015 top 20 OTC Archery Elk units ranked by Total Success. The top 20 units ranked by total elk harvest (Table 2) accounted for 56.5% of the total OTC Elk Archery harvest.The top 20 units ranked by hunter success (Table 3) accounted for 43.1% of the total OTC Elk Archery harvest.

Yes, the units with the highest harvest numbers also have lots of other hunters. But remember, most hunters don’t hunt everyday, most don’t hunt all day long and most don’t get more than ¼ mile away from a road. Also, if a unit has lots of hunters, it is a good indication that unit 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.

These tables are just to help you get started. 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.

Table 2. Top 20 Colorado OTC Units; Archery Harvest 2015

top hunt units colorado 2015 elk otc archery harvest

Table 3. Top 20 Colorado OTC Units; Archery Success 2015

top hunt units colorado 2015 elk otc archery success

For total elk harvest (bulls, cows & calves combined), the top 20 OTC elk units ranged from 239 to 81 elk harvested (Table 2). For the top 20 units by hunter success, I again limited units to those where at least 20 total elk were harvested. Some units had 100% success, but only had a few elk harvested. So, highest hunter success (with at least 20 bulls harvested, ranged from 24.5% to 14.6%, compared to Total success at 11.1%.

Again, notice that nine units are hi-lighted on both tables. These nine units (16, 22, 42, 71, 78, 81, 214, 421 and 521) ranked in the top 20 for both total harvest and hunter success.

Colorado OTC Rifle Plains Elk Hunts

The last type of OTC Elk hunt are the Plains Rifle. In 2017, the Elk OTC Plains Rifle Season dates are Sept. 1 2017 – Jan. 31, 2018.

The Plains Hunts include 53 units (Either Sex) in Eastern Colorado. In 2015, hunts were reported on 33 units and elk were killed on 22 units. Table 4 shows all 22 OTC Plains Elk units where elk were harvested ranked by total harvest and Table 3 shows the same 22 OTC Plains Elk units ranked by hunter success.

Table 4. Top 22 Colorado OTC Units; Plains Rifle Harvest 2015

top hunt units olorado-2015 elk otc plains rifle harvest

Table 5. Top 22 Colorado OTC Units; Plains Rifle Success 2015

to hunt units colorado 2015 elk otc plains rifle success
The plains units obviously don’t have as many elk as the western units, but they do offer long seasons and the opportunity to hunt either sex elk with an OTC tag. The total harvest in the plains units ranged from 55 to 3 elk (no elk were harvested in 11 units).  Two of the plains units had 100% success, but only had 3 or 5 total elk harvested. The lowest success was 11.3%, but total hunter success was a respectable 25.8%.

If you are considering a hunt in the plains units, notice there are six units hi-lighted in both tables 4 and 5. These units (87, 105, 110, 123, 137 and 143) rank highest for total harvest and above average, for hunter success.

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.

Comments

  1. Based on the information you provided and what I have seen on maps, I am looking at Unit 28 & 37. Which of these units would you recommend for a DIY OTC resident elk hunt? Thanks

    • Paul: I pointed you to this post in our previous conversation, so I posted your comment here.
      As for raw hunting data, Unit 28 ranks 19th of all units for total Bull Elk Harvest (Table 1) but ranked 64th for hunter success. Unit 37 ranked 45th (out of 90) with 57 Bull Elk harvested and only 8.7% of hunters were successful (ranked 72nd for success). Average hunter success in Colorado in 2015 was 13.4%.

      As for the number of total hunters, unit 28 ranked 10th with 1,221 hunters and unit 37 ranked 30th with 653 hunters. For reference, the “Average” unit in Colorado had 572 hunters and the median number of hunters is about 490 per unit.

      As I’ve said many times before, most hunters are unsuccessful in the best units and some hunters are 100% successful in the worst units.

      What is most important is that you and your son learn the country. Learn where and how to access areas, learn where to find the habitats and the terrain you want to hunt. I say you should hunt the unit you can spend the most time scouting.

      Why drive past elk to find elk? And always apply for cow tags so you have a better chance to put meat in the freezer.

      Good luck and let me know how the hunt goes.

  2. I have been reading through your DIY Elk Hunting Guide and also information provided at the State websites and at your site trying to determine which GMUs I should focus on. Based on what I have read so far I am leaning towards 74, 75, 751 and 77.

    Do you have any insight into these areas that I should consider as I focus my search for my September Archery Hunt?

    As these areas are so large my questions start with where to look for access, so that I can limit my hike in to less that 3 miles.

    Any insight/guidance would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance for any information.

    • Matt: I’m going to start by pointing you to this post where I ranked the top GMUs in Colorado for both total elk harvested and hunter success. Since you are interested in an Archery Hunt, look at Tables 2 and 3.

      Unit 74 made it into the top 20 units (14th) for total harvest in 2015, the other units were 21st, 26th and 46th place. For hunter success, neither unit made the top 20, but two of those unites were above the state wide average (GMU 74; 24th place at 12.8% success & unit 77, 27th place at 12.3%). Unit 75 was just below the state wide average at 11.0% and unit 751 was ranked in 41st place and with success of 8.9%, was well below the state average.

      I assume you have downloaded the Hermosa and the San Juan Basin Management plans (on the Colorado page I supply in the book; under Elk Plans (DAU Reports). If not, check those out as they supply information about herd management and about how much of the units are on public, private and native lands and also info about the of habitats. The Hermosa Units (74 & 741) are in the Colorado Plateau and the San Juan Basin Units (75,751, 77, 771 & 78) are in the Southern Rockies

      If you are not familiar with the area, it is a beautiful area with high rugged mountains. During Archery season, the elk will be everywhere between the high elevation alpine, the Spruce-Fir and Aspen and all the way down into in the Ponderosa pine and oak brush habitats.

      If the elk are bugling, they will not be hard to find, but it can be hard to get close. If it has been dry (and it usually is), elk will have to come to water.

      Do as much research as you can about finding water and the distance from roads you are looking for. There seem to be a fair amount of access to those units when I look at Google Earth, but also room to get away from the crowds.

      If this is your first hunt there, get in as much scouting as you can so you can learn the area. I’ll bet within a few days you will find what your are looking for and with a little luck, you will find elk too.
      Good luck and let me know how it goes.

  3. My first otc archery hunt, thanks for the great information to start with.

  4. My son was drawn for an either sex elk tag in Colorado zone 28 for the 4th rifle hunt. I am currently in Colorado and will be doing some scouting to get a feel for the area. Do you have any suggestions on areas I should scout? Thanks. (Moved to this post by Backcountrychronicles.com)

    • Paul: Sorry for the slow response, but I’ve been visiting relatives back in NC and VA and fishing. I know your hunt is not an OTC hunt, but I moved your post here so other’s can read it and my response. I don’t personally know anything about Colorado GMU 28.
      I am curious how you chose this unit?
      But after a little research, I can tell you that 59 total elk (11 bulls) were harvested in that unit during the 4th rifle season in 2016 by 460 hunters (hunted a total of 1,618 days) for a 12.8% success rate.
      This would be one of those units that I would hunt only if I had first hand knowledge of the area and how elk responded to weather and hunting pressure.
      That said, you (or you son) will be hunting there, so you need to start scouting.
      The 4th rifle season is Nov. 15 – 19 this year (2017), so the best time to scout will be during the 3rd rifle season and just before the hunt begins.
      Elk will have been shot at and chased around quite a bit by then, so you will probably have to get far from the roads to find them.
      Last year during that time a snotel station in the unit shows there was between 4 – 9 inches of snow at 11,000 feet during the hunt, so snow may be an issue, but you will probably be hunting much lower.
      Read the DAU report for unit 28 (DAU 13) here.
      The objective is over 4,700 elk for units 28, 37 and 371 combined.
      You will probably be hunting on the 250,258 of Forest Service lands (59% of the total area of 420,908 acres). There is also 27,330 acres of BLM lands in the unit east of Granby along the Fraser River and also west of Granby which are used by elk for winter range. Just don’t know how fast they will move down and how much human development is changing how elk use that land.
      I would suggest looking at areas on USFS lands that are close to wintering areas as elk will start moving from the forest about that time. Also look or public areas near private lands where elk could be seeking refuge.
      There will be lots of other hunters, so go where most will not go and you should have a good hunt (defined by me as not running into other hunters and seeing elk).
      Good Luck.

      • Your article and stat table have been very helpful. I’ve hunted unit 22 and 32 since I was a little boy with my dad up until age 20. The oil and gas closed things off and we stopped hunting it. I’ve only hunted those units during rifle season but this year, we are actually leaving Sept. 8th for a 10 day OTC archery elk hunt and am super excited about it.

        I see unit 22 and 32 have high success rate and the oil and gas def not going to stop me from going in there and finding elk during archery season. Seems to me these are still strong units to hunt during archery? Would love your feedback. Thank you

        • Sorry for the slow response Phil… I’ve been away from internet connection for a few days doing my own scouting. By now, you should be on your way to your hunt units in Colorado.
          I do not know those units specifically, but I have stopped hunting some of my favorite areas that have lots of oil and gas development. Not because the elk are no longer there, but because I don’t want to hear jack pumps while I’m hunting.

          You are correct though. If success rates are still high, the development will not hurt your chances of finding elk. They will get used to the traffic since most of it never leaves the roads.

          Let me know how your hunt went.
          Good Luck

          • Thanks for the response. I just got back from my hunt and we were on elk every day. Didn’t get a shot, but had a nice one at 70 yards the first evening at dark, was full draw but didn’t shoot. We got into the elk by hiking away from all the road hunters.

  5. I will be able to do some scouting the week before the hunt. I guess it will depend on the snow amount. I was really hoping we would be able to backpack hunt somewhere in the Arapaho National Forest, but we can be flexible depending on the weather. I plan on driving to Frazier and Granby this week to check out some county roads that look promising as access points. Thanks for your input. I’ll let you know how we make out.

  6. Hi I was just looking for some clarity about hunter access. There is a “DIY hunting” web site (which I won’t name but I am sure many are aware of) that helps narrow units appropriate to your entered criteria. One determinate is “poor access.” I am non resident, archery either sex tag hunter. I am fit and able to travel a ways but I did not want to commit to a unit if its hardly accessible. Is it a function of public access? or Physical access? I purchased your guide and it is EXTREMELY helpful ! Thanks for any tips on this matter

    • Hi JP. Most of the states also provide information about access. They warn about units that are primarily private land with limited access.

      In some cases, there are no public roads passing through private land. And in the “checkerboard” areas, there is lots of public land, but it is illegal to cross from corner to corner, so there is no access.

      I’m leery about sites claiming to show you the “best unit”. What criteria are they using?

      That is why I named this post Top Units and not “best units”. I simply ranked units by the numbers of elk harvested and the percentage of hunters that were successful. I leave it to you to decide if the combination of numbers of elk harvested, numbers of hunters, percentage of successful hunters etc. interests you.

      If you’ve read many of the questions I get and the answers I give, you will notice that I deflect/redirect questions about “what is the best unit?”. Whatever that is…

      Let’s assume good access/easy access/lots of access is your primary reason for choosing a hunt unit. At the same time, many hunters are looking for areas with limited access, because they know other hunters aren’t willing to go as far as they are.

      I wish some of the areas I hunt had worse access. Elk could benefit from the strategic closure of a few roads.

      Many hunters complain that there is not enough access on public lands. That they have to walk too far (or can’t drive their 4-wheeler) to get to places elk hang out. But that is exactly why elk hang out there. But some will never be happy until they can drive to every spot on public land.

      If you aren’t capable of hiking miles off the road in rough country, I completely understand. I will probably be limited to where I can hunt before another 10 seasons pass.

      But looking for easy access will probably guarantee you will be crowded with others looking for the same.

      One reason I recommend the first time a hunter goes to a new areas they should choose a unit where lots of elk were harvested. That also usually means lots of hunters, but it also means lots of elk and elk habitat is some balance of reasonable access without too much access.

      In most cases, if you are willing to get off the roads, you will find good places to hunt without too much competition.

      Instead of looking for the best access, I personally prefer to hunt certain elevation bands and habitats depending upon the time of season.

      I also prefer to hunt areas with long ridges or rolling hills over areas that are straight up and down, but where is that information available?

      You have to find those areas, either on topos, Google Earth or on the ground. You will earn them.

      If you are looking at maps with areas on public lands (National Forests, BLM lands or state lands, and you see roads; that is access. It may take time for a DIY hunter to find the spots they want to hunt, but isn’t that half the fun?

      I still say you can throw a dart at the map of National Forest lands in the state you want to hunt and simply go to that spot and start hunting.

      If you don’t find elk or fresh sign in areas with cover and water, go to higher or lower elevations depending on the time of year. If you spend your time hunting and not riding the roads or lounging in camp, most of the time, you will find elk.

      After all, most DIY Elk hunters come out west for the opportunity to hunt and the experience. To actually kill an elk would be a bonus.

      Good luck on your hunt.

  7. Charley Morgan says:

    I am currently planning for a 4th rifle season cow hunt in Colorado unit 70. This will be my first midwest hunt. I have been using OnX data along with other state available data but was wondering if you had any experience with this unit and if you had any recommended areas to start with. I know there may be snow on the ground and that could limit access to some of the areas.

    • Lots of cow elk taken off that unit last year. I assume you are hunting public land. I am more familiar with the Utah side of that area, but yes, there will be snow up high by mid November (going to snow above 7,000 feet here tonight (Sept 21). The questions will be is there enough snow to push animals down? Or will you have to climb to find them?

      Your hunt is only a 5 day hunt, so you don’t have time to mess around. I would start hunting on mid – lower elevation (7 – 8,000 ft) areas on National Forest lands. You will either find elk or the elk signs will tell you if you need to go up or down. If elk have moved down, start on the boundaries of USFS lands and state or BLM lands until you find them.
      Good luck

      • Charley Morgan says:

        We are hunting public land primarily BLM land. We are focusing our attention on the areas that are listed as Winter Concentration and have around 5 different areas to consider. We will have 3 full days to scout before season starts. Our primary focus will be some areas of BLM we found that is surrounded by private ranches. The glassing areas are on BLM with about a half mile on either side before you get to private. I know the weather will be a determining factor as to what elevation we hunt.

        Thanks again for your response.

        Charley

        • In that case, you are hoping for lots of snow up high to push them down. Some years the snow will already be several feet deep (up high) and other years there will only be a dusting. I’ll bet most elk will still be on USFS lands by then. December would be a different story.

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