Top 20 Colorado OTC Elk Units to Hunt for 2021

bull elk buglingThe 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

ranked colorado otc 2nd rifle units

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

coloroado otc elk 3rd fifle units

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

ranked colorado otc elk archery units

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.


  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.

      • This year i will have 5 points and I’d like to hire a guide to take me to a unit for a chance at an elk. Which Unit should I draw for and does anyone have guide recommendations? I wanted to wait to 10 or 15 points but with the changes to the point system I decided to use them now.

        • Wray, If you read many of my posts, you will understand I am more interested in helping people that want to DIY elk hunt.
          If you have decided to hire a guide, what difference does it make which unit you hunt? Your trust should be in the guide.

          You need to locate a guide you feel comfortable with and let them tell you where to apply or which land owner tags to buy. Then you go where they tell you to go and shoot what they tell you to shoot.

          Five points is not a lot of points to give much of a chance to draw in the most coveted units. But I bet there are guides out there that know areas you may draw with only 5 points.

          I removed your phone number from your post, to make sure you want the elk hunting world to see it.

          I am not sure many elk hunting guides read my posts, but if someone want to respond to Wray, I will help you contact each other.

          Good Luck on your hunt.

  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

    • 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.


        • 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.

  8. Floyd Lehman says

    We are planning to hunt 2018 second rifle in the Eagle area. Past years we hunted first rifle in area 44-444 the problem we ran into was the excessive amount of bikers not hunters looking at maybe exploring more of the wilderness areas. Also looking at area 35 Any insight on the options would be welcome. Thanks Floyd

    • Yes, there is no end to the challenges of hunting public land. At least mountain bikers stay on trails.

      I ranked the top units so DIY non-resident hunters and residents without local knowledge have a place to start planning for a hunt.
      Definitely do your own research, but unit 35 didn’t make my cut for many reasons.

      For starters, just look at the last harvest report (last report is from 2016), only 4 elk total were harvested in unit 35 (2nd rifle) by 262 hunters that spent 1,064 hunting days in the field. Now 4 hunters were 100% successful, but I bet they were all local guys that knew exactly where to go.

      Antlerless elk hunters did even worse (zero for 72). Unit 35 is not a place to hunt with OTC tags or cow elk tags if you don’t know the area.

      Units 44 and 444 aren’t in the top 23 for elk numbers or hunter success either.

      I’m sure there is a reason you started with units 44 and 444 and are looking north of the I-70 now to unit 35. Why not look at units 42 or 421?
      They are both just west on I-70 and both units made the top 20 for both elk numbers and hunter success.
      Good luck on your hunt and let me know where you end up and how you do.

  9. Floyd Lehman says

    thanks for the input
    I will do more research on these units you mentioned

  10. What can you tell me about units 80 & 81 for a rifle hunt?

    • A man of few words. Most folks have at least one general question or just want me to tell them which unit is “best”.

      Before I begin, I should ask why these two units specifically and why Colorado in the first place?

      If you read the post (or looked at Table 1), you already know that units 80 & 81 made the top 15 list for total elk harvest for the 2nd Rifle Season with 82 and 94 bull harvested.

      Unit 80 also made the top 15 list for the 3rd Rifle Season (47 bulls), but with success rates at 10% or lower, both units were in or near the bottom third for hunter success for both general rifle seasons.

      These units get lots of hunting pressure. For the the 2nd Rifle Season, units 80 and 81 had 875 and 921 hunters, which ranked 5th and 4th highest.

      For the the 3rd Rifle Season, units 80 and 81 had 530 and 585 hunters, which ranked 16th and 11th highest.

      If we consider the total number of hunting days (effort) for these two units during both rifle seasons, units 80 & 81 rank 71st and 58th with 55.8 and 46.8 hunter days per elk harvest for the 2nd rifle season and they rank 44th and 64th with 52.2 and 77.4 hunter days per elk harvest for the 3rd rifle season.

      About 59% of GMU 80 is public land, so there is about 331,955 acres of public land to hunt. With 875 hunters during the 2nd rifle season and 530 hunters during the 3rd rifle season, that leaves between 379 and 626 public acres per hunter.

      GMU 81 is about 70% public land, so there is about 539,880 acres of public land to hunt. With 921 hunters during the 2nd rifle season and 585 hunters during the 3rd rifle season, that leaves between 586 and 923 public acres per hunter.

      These are not units I would hunt unless I had personal experience and knowledge in the area. Overall success is low, but lots of elk are harvested, so lots of hunters are 100% successful.

      If I applied these same “rules” to my own local hunting area, I would not hunt here. But I do hunt here because I do have knowledge of the area, despite high hunter density and low harvest success.

      If I had no other knowledge, I would chose a unit that ranked higher for both total harvest numbers and for hunter success.

      The best advice is to pick a place you like and spend lots of time there over the next few years. You will learn what you need to know.
      Good Luck

  11. Thanks for all the great info. I have read DIY Elk Hunting guide several times and found it very helpful as this will be my first Elk hunt. In the beginning of the article you say that OTC tags for 2018 are available now but CPW website says Aug 9. Am I missing something or did they change this since the article was written?


    • Thanks Ian.
      You are correct. I obviously saw (or thought I saw) something on the CDW site when I originally posted the article, but if they now say (and they do), OTC tags go on sale 9 a.m. (MDT) Aug. 9, then that is what we do…

      This is the hardest part of elk hunting in my opinion… We hunt, find and learn their rules if we want to play their game.

      I called CWD before and was told that OTC tags were good for only one unit. I called again and was told they were good for all listed units (They are good for all listed units).

      Good Luck on your elk hunt.

  12. My husband, son and son-in-law are planning to bow hunt in Colorado this year. Is there a better place to bow hunt, with better possibility of seeing elk, than others? I am trying to surprise them with a package. Since I am not a hunter, I have no idea what all of these charts are telling me. I would just like for someone to advise me the best place to bow hunt. Ideas???

    • Basically, if they go to any of the five Western States that have General Elk licenses and go to a National Forest and get off the roads, they will have a chance to see elk.

      I know everyone wants to know the best of everything, but I really don’t know what “best” means to most people. I could probably guess at places that are better than others, but nobody can tell you the best. Even the “worst” units have a few hunters that are 100% successful.

      If they are planning a bow hunt in Colorado, I assume they have already determined that Colorado is best (as apposed to Montana, Utah or Wyoming) for some reason.

      The charts you refer to simply show ranked elk harvest numbers and success rates for hunt units for the general elk hunt on public land.

      Depending upon what you mean by “package”, they may be hunting on landowner tags on private land, so my charts would not be applicable.

      If you are going to buy a hunting “package” for them, your problem is to figure out which outfitter or guide is “best” for them at a price you can afford.

      I know a few outfitters and guides in Utah, but most people come to this website to learn to do it themselves.

      It is an awesome gift you are giving them. I wish someone were trying to get a package for me… I would probably trade it for an Alaskan Fishing trip, because I know where to find elk and I prefer to do it myself anyway.

      But good luck to you and to them on their hunt.

  13. paul graham says

    I have drawn a 1st season elk tag for units 77, 78, 771. Do you know of an area in these you units I should scout.

    • Your hunt is Oct. 13-17. Above 9,000 feet it can be warm and dry or you could have a foot of snow by Mid Oct. If dry, I would look for elk up high. If it snows, some will stay be high, but some will start moving down into the P.J. (7,000 feet or lower). Lots of country in those units including wilderness.

      Forget about specific areas, but start looking for areas you can access and then hike in. It will all change depending on the snow.

      You will most likely find elk where few people have gone. That said, it is not unusual to find them as they move from high to low country or get pushed out of one area by other hunters.

      If dry, look for water. If wet, look for tracks. Scouting for elk is as much about learning the country as it is about finding elk. Like war plans, hunting plans change the second the first hunter shuts the truck door.

      Some like to sit and glass large areas. I like to push into and around thick forested areas (north and east faces) and see what I can find.

      Good Luck & let me know how it goes.

  14. Mark Richmann says

    I’m taking my daughter bow hunting for elk this fall as a reward for getting her bachelors in nursing degree. The area I rifle hunted with the guys a few years ago is closed to OTC bow. After reading the above information I decided to look at area 62. I pulled out my maps and found that I had area 62 mapped out as it was our second choice from our last trip. It looks like a large area with several good draws. Any chance of finding out from you the best areas. I’m looking at ordering topo maps soon so if you could provide names of the maps that would be great.

    Looks like from my Colorado map book most of 62 is public land other than the city areas. Is that true? I plan on driving my 4 by 4 pick up pulling a 16 foot trailer. Are the fire roads in good shape or should I try to travel with just the truck? Also having trouble finding rules for bow. We use red dot scopes and I think that might be illegal there. My bow is getting hard to pull these days due to a bad shoulder and I’m 62. If I can’t crank it down I was going to look at cross bows but that is probably illegal too. Is there a age or handicap exception for cross bows?
    Thank you for your information. Mark

    • Mark Unit 62 was the highest ranking unit for elk harvest (bow) in 2016 and also ranked highly for hunter success. But also had lots of hunters.
      As far as best areas? What does that even mean? Best for driving everywhere? Best for hiking in where nobody else will? Best elk habitat? Or as your other question; best for hunting from a camper?
      Unit 62 is 70% public land, but during bow season you will probably need to hunt higher elevations, so mostly on US Forest Service lands (17%).
      Anyone can hunt with a crossbow in Colorado during the rifle season.
      And no Red dot scope on bow (see rules page 25 in 2018 regs)
      unless you get an ACCOMMODATION PERMIT. Get APPLICATION here to see if you can use a crossbow or red-dot scope.
      Congrats to your daughter on her degree and good luck on your hunt.

  15. Taylor Ladenburger says

    Would you mind explaining what Days/Harvest can be interpreted and how it was calculated?

    • Sure Taylor:

      Another way to compare hunt units and hunt seasons is to look at the total number of Hunter-days compared to the total elk harvest. Most states do surveys to ask hunters how many days they actually hunted. The 2nd rifle season in Colorado is 5 days long, but most people don’t hunt everyday. A guy that kills an elk the first day obviously doesn’t hunt any more days (he may help a buddy, but technically he is no longer hunting).

      So I simply add up the total elk harvest and the total number of hunter-days and then divide the number of elk by the total number of days; harvest days.

      For example; in the left side of Table 1, unit 4 had 28.0 hunter days per elk harvested and unit 62 had 59.2 hunter days per elk harvested. So it will take the average hunter about 5 years to harvest an elk in unit 4 and about 10 years to harvest an elk in unit 62.

      I think this is a good comparison, because each unit should get it’s fair share of hard working hunters and lazy hunters. What I mean by this is all hunter days (according to the raw numbers) are equal. But we know they are not equal because one hunter may hike 12 miles in a day and another may drive around for 15 minutes and each can say they hunted that day.

      The reality of elk hunting in the west, most people put in very little effort. That is why 10% of the hunters harvest 90% of the elk.

      Good luck on your hunt.

  16. Ashley Coulson says

    hello hunters,
    I am trying to get a second or third rifle tag in unit 13 just 13. I am going to go out for a few weekends and Scot to see if I see any signs of elk. Can I get some advice on where to start or what are a couple this spot. I’m not ask for your honey spot. just an area to beginning. This will be my forth year going out and I have not got anything yet but I still have hope.

  17. BC,

    I am a military man trying to harvest a bull elk before leaving this beautiful state, most likely summer of 2019 so this will be my last go at it. I was planning on hunting either 2nd or 3rd season OTC. I have been out elk hunting a couple times here, but have not had any success. Some days I put 12 miles or more on my boots and I am willing to go to the hard places and do the hard work. If you were in my situation, what unit would you hunt if it were your last shot at a bull elk? No where in the state that offer an OTC tag is out of the question for me.

    • First, thank you for your service. Second, lots of people don’t harvest an elk. The highest 2nd season rifle success rate was in unit 13 with 24% and it took 17.5 hunter days for each elk harvested. The 24% implies it will take 4 years for the average person to get an elk. The 17.5 days per elk implies it will take two full seasons to harvest and elk.
      The average hunter only hunted 4.2 out of the 9 days. How many days did you hunt?
      Did you find fresh elk sign? Did you see elk?

      I hunted 21 days last season (ML Buck, General Spike Elk Rifle and ML cow elk). In my state, I could have taken a cow elk any of those days because I hunted within that cow unit. I saw elk 9 times in 7 different areas and still didn’t harvest and elk.

      Obviously, putting in 12 miles per day is not the complete answer. Every one of the OTC units have elk, so elk are out there. The more time you spend where elk are the more likely you will run into them.

      So where are the elk going to be between October 20 – 28 (this year’s 2nd Rifle season in Colorado). That depends on many factors; like rain, snowfall, dry weather and human activity. During that time of year, elk could be between 5,000 feet up to 11,000 feet or higher. But unless it snows they will not be spending much time on South facing slopes or areas where humans spend much time or areas without water.

      No need to drive all over the state to find elk. Why drive past elk to find elk? Hunt close to home where you should have the best knowledge of the land. If you don’t have knowledge of the land, then spend time now before the hunt learning the area.

      Giver yourself the best chance possible. Hunt every day possible and hunt all day everyday. If several days in one place turn up nothing (as in no fresh sign), try another place. If you find fresh sign, take you time and find the elk. When you find them, do not run them off. Be very careful, always pay attention to the wind.

      For the most part, most of the rut will be over. So bull elk will be recovering from the breeding season and trying to put on fat to survive the winter. They will be in places where most people don’t want to go. They may be alone or with buddies. A few will still be chasing cows still in heat.

      You probably need to just keep doing what you were doing. Put in the time and the miles. Get off the roads and trails with traffic and find areas that have water and thick cover.

      Good Luck on your hunt and let me know how it goes.

  18. Matthew Haywood says

    As southern college students looking to hunt elk for the first time, your articles have been extremely helpful in determining if that was even a possibility, so thank you. So in your personal opinion, where would you hunt OTC archery this coming season if you were young and not afraid of getting well off the beaten path. Our group has plenty of hunting experience(just not with elk) and most of us are avid backpackers so mobility and terrain shouldn’t be a limiting factor. Any additional advice (gear, tactics, etc.) would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks in advance!

    • Mathew: First, if you are talking about the 2018 season, the OTC and general season bow hunts are over for most states. If you are talking about the 2019 season, all the things you are asking about is in my I wrote the book for guys like you, just like having a conversation with all my Southern friends and relatives that ask “what do I need to do and know to come out there and elk hunt”.
      Good luck and let me know where you decide to hunt and how it went.

  19. Carl Giardino says

    Dear Sir,
    Great work here on all your research. My brothers and I did 2 Archery OTC hunts over the past 3 years in unit 43. One brother harvested a nice bull the first year, mainly cause he can hit a quarter at 50 yds 90% !!

    I’m wondering what you are hearing about using electric bikes on public land where “motorized” vehicles are not allowed ?

    THank you.

  20. I have hunted area 33 since 01. I’ve been Archery,Rifle and muzzle seasons. My earlier experience was always a success due to getting to the back and being near them. I’ve taking my children for several yrs and now the BLM has made it difficult to travel and enjoy the backcountry by blocking access I don’t mind walking but to have my children and grandchildren experience this they loose interest after 4 days. So we now just sit high and scope to see the elk and then pursue

    • Yes, closed roads hurt access, but help elk spread out. I often think it would help my local hunt unit if certain roads were closed to travel and to camping. It would concentrate the campers, but free up thousands of acres for elk to spread out. Instead of all the elk moving to the farthest, most difficult areas to hunt, many would be in easier terrain to access. Yes, you have a longer hike, but you could start hiking (or ride bike) on a closed road instead of starting up or down nasty terrain.

      No doubt most kids will lose interest after a few days. This is their reality now. I am surprised they are still interested for 4 days. Hunting isn’t for everyone, now matter how much we want it for them. I’ll bet you have one grandkid that will stick it out with you to the end. Plus, isn’t everyday you get to spend in the field a blessing? Not just the days you find elk.

  21. Richard Field says

    What a great read. Been there did that, l am a 85 year old retired Elk hunter. It was not easy to hang it up after 45 years (75 percent success rate) in multi states.

    I can no longer hunt by foot, the only way to hunt! So it’s time for the grand and great kids to take over.

    Thank for telling them how to do it. Walk en down.

    • Thanks Richard. 75% success is dang good. I’ll bet you have plenty of stories to tell. Time gets us all eventually. I just hope my knees will hold out until I am 85.
      I hope you are still able to go to elk camp to teach and encourage the next generations.

  22. Caegan Epperson says

    I am looking to go on a Rifle DIY elk hunt in the next year or so and have been reading and researching the best units and hunting tactics since this will be my first ever. I’m just curious as to which rifle season would be best for a first time elk hunter also what type of weather do I need to expect for that time of year. I would also love to know a list of essentials and gear I would need I will more than likely be camping. Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Caegan. Like all folks new to elk hunting and spending time in the backcountry of the Inter-mountain West, everyone wants to know the “best” state to hunt, the “best” units, the “best” seasons, the “best” rifle etc. etc. etc. It is good to ask questions but what does best mean to you? The easiest? The most rewarding? Or numbers about hunter days in the field and elk harvested (hard data)?

      Read more of my posts. Many of the answers you seek are here. I can’t take the time and re-write everything for you here.

      Much of what you are looking for is also in my DIY Elk Hunting Guide. I wrote the book after all the conversations I’ve had with friends and family and others about how to get started hunting elk in the West. I believe I have answers to questions you don’t know to ask yet (including what type of weather to expect).

      As example, I talked to a young man from the Mid-West that was planning to go to Colorado in June to start scouting. He was surprised to learn that most of the forest service roads (and some country roads) above 9,000 feet will not be open until early – mid July because of snow.

      Will you be hunting in Aug? Sept? Oct? Nov? Dec? At high elevation, you could expect anything between 70°F and snow blowing sideways in August or Sept. October could be warm and dry or you could be in 2 feet of snow.

      This year I hunted in rain and snow in Sept & Oct early, then crunchy snow in Nov., then it was warm and dry in Dec. Wet snow or rain is great for sneaking around. Dry leaves and crusted snow are impossible to sneak around. Places you choose to hunt change and/or tactics change based on conditions. Plus deep snow will restrict daily access to many trail heads. So if you are not already camped there, you can’t get there. Then that brings up some logistic issues of being in a backcountry camp and get dumped on with snow.

      You mention that you will hunt with rifle, but will you be alone or with friends? That changes tactics, logistics and safety considerations.

      Hunting tactics? You either spent lots of time walking or spend lots of time glassing (or split time with both)… Personally, I get bored glassing and I enjoy hunting on the move, so I put in the miles. I find lots of elk, but that tactic also spooks lots of elk. (Best for me may be different than best for you).

      Lots of miles can also mean a long pack out if/when you harvest an elk. This year, I was alone and over a half mile from the truck at Sunset with an elk down. I know what I need to do and was prepared. I had everything in the truck by midnight, but I was one tired puppy (but not bad for an old man).

      Some get lucky and find and harvest an elk the first day. Some get lucky and seal the deal the last minutes of the last day. This year, it took me 22 days (11 days into 3rd season). This Summer’s wildfires burned some of my favorite areas and had elk herded into very large groups instead of many small bands. I finally got my elk this year in an area I had never scouted or hunted before. I started from scratch 3 days earlier. I found a herd that had at least 80 elk in it. I decided to many eyes, ears and noses to sneak in on them, so I guessed at where they would go at Sundown and I guessed right.

      Hunting tactics are also different depending on the type of hunt. It is very different hunting bull elk during the rut or cow elk in late winter.

      Anyway, lots to learn. But there is no substitute for actually hunting. In fact, you will not learn much until you hunt and fail. Then you are primed for learning.
      I hope my book helps you and good luck on your hunt.

  23. JOHN MULLINS says

    Hello I’m 64 yrs. old, coming in fall of 2019 to hunt elk in unit 70, This is my first time out west to hunt,can you tell me anything about this unit.I think we hunt the 3rd rifle season.Do I start my hunt high or low,any tips would be very helpful. Thank so much. John Mullins

    • Exciting times. First elk hunt in new country. Since you already know which Unit you are hunting, you need to learn the access points and locate terrain you want to hunt. Hunting high or low is a day to day decision that will depend on snow levels and hunting pressure after your hunt starts. You may be hunting high on USFS lands or low on BLM lands.

      The best advice I can give is get into the best shape possible. Don’t know where you are from, but if you aren’t living at over 5,000 feet, hunting at elevations above 9,000 feet may be tough. If you get headaches above 8,000 feet, drink more water. If that doesn’t help go lower but always drink more water. Every single person that has not spent time above 8,000 feet needs to be careful at first. Most of us can adapt, some can not, even young healthy folks.

      Are you hunting with other people? You should probably work in pairs until you are more experienced with the country.
      Make sure you have a good GPS and a PLB.

      Also don’t know what kind of big game hunting you are used to. Hunt from blind? or spot and stalk?

      Move as long as you have energy, rest and glass when you are tired, but don’t run out of gas until you get back to camp. When moving, always be ready to shoot. It gets tiring, but unless I am walking across open country, I never sling my rifle anymore.

      Don’t rest until you’ve ranged all the shooting lanes first. If an elk shows up while you have a sandwich in your mouth, you already know the range. I speak from experience.

      Obviously, young guys should be able to cover more country and find more elk, but if you are out there, you always have a chance. Don’t get into the habit of hanging around camp in the middle of the day. No elk there. You can rest and play pocket pool and poke the fire when you get back home. It’s OK for old guys like us to take a rest and go fishing, but you have to admit you are an old guy.

      Finding elk is a function of luck and effort. In some ways, it is like the old battleship game. But instead of calling numbers, you have to actually walk to each “square”. The more squares you check out, the more likely you are to find elk. Knowing which squares to look comes from elk hunting experience and from knowing the country.

      There is much to learn about elk and elk habitats as well as safety in remote areas. I wrote the DIY Elk Hunting Guide to help answer questions that new elk hunters don’t know to ask.

      Good luck on your hunt and let me know how it goes.

  24. Hey! I just finished reading your DIY Elk Hunting Guide, thanks!!!!
    My buddy and I are from Maryland and are taking out first trip out west to Colorado for a 7 day OTC archery Elk hunt this September (thinking second week and working out of the woods the day before Muzzleloader starts … or maybe day of and wondering if one gets pushed in deep to us).

    I see your chart with the top 25 units with a 3 year average for archery is public and I figure a lot of people will select from that list … would you mind sharing what your 26th and 27th pick would be? Hoping for less pressure

    Thanks again for this amazing resource!

    • Thanks Shane. Yes, we all want lots of elk and have the whole place to ourselves. Why not pick the last place unit? Somebody killed elk there. I know of several units in different states that had one elk harvested, so somebody was 100% successful.

      High elk harvest and high numbers of hunters goes together (they are very highly correlated). I am working on incorporating the amount of public land in each unit into the comparisons… In general, units with lower elk harvest (less than 30) are best left for the locals that know the area.

      As for your question, the 26th and 27 units (ranked by harvest) was units 131 and 161. Ranked by hunter success, it was units 53 & 73.

      I also ranked all the hunt units by the number of hunters and by total recreation days…
      Units 741, 851, 411, 140 and 471 had lowest number of hunter recreation days with at least 17 elk harvested…

      Crunching numbers is a fun thing to do in the off season, but in reality, elk can be found in every unit in Western Colorado. Being from Maryland, you will have to rely on scouting with Google Earth. Spend more time learning how to access your unit and getting into shape than crunching numbers. 7 days is too short to get acclimated to the altitude. You have to show up with good cardio…

      Learn what you can about elk behavior. Think about areas you can access if elk are high (good bet during archery), but I also know areas where elk can be found in the PJ (you know what that is if you read my book) during the archery hunt. Find watering areas to hunt over since it is usually dry in the fall. Look for small permanent streams and for small stock ponds that have been created for wildlife and cattle. Look for heavy timbered areas on the north slopes.

      I helped a group of vets get set up to hunt elk last year. I suggest hunt units and showed them areas to camp and hunt, but they did everything on their own. No elk last year, but they had close encounters and stories to tell. One of their guys killed a 4×4 elk this year during archery season, so it is not impossible.

      Good luck on your hunt and let me hear the stories later.

  25. JOHN MULLINS says

    Thank you for your tips, very helpful. I’m from Lebanon Junction Ky. Think we’re going to hunt in San Juan National Forest. There are 4 of us going. What do you think of pack in camp hunts? This is the only time I can hunt out west; been saving money a long time for this hunt. Just trying to get all the help I can get. Again thanks for your time and help. John

    • There is good and bad in every strategy. Lots of effort goes into packing a long way into an area. It could be what takes you close to elk and it usually gets you away from most other people.
      But as example for another strategy, I never set up elk camp this year. I intended to set up camp after the 1st weekend crowd left. But I could not find elk in any of my normal honey holes.
      We had some big fires last Summer that moved elk around, but it also seemed to put them into very large groups. So instead of lots of small bands of elk in groups of 8 or 10, the elk were in big herds more like you normally see in Winter.
      Anyway I hunted different places each day. If I found fresh sign, I might go back again the next day. I normally don’t like to drive past elk to find elk, but this year I moved around a lot; as far as 30 – 40 miles from one day to the next. I usually went back home at the end of every day and went over my maps and old notes and looked at google earth to decide where to go next day.

      I’m not saying that was the only way to find elk, but that is what I did this year after I was convinced I was wasting my time in some of my favorite places.

      We also had an early snow, then a long dry spell, so I hunted high when the snow was soft and quiet and I hunted low when the snow was frozen and crunchy. I moved back up in elevation as the snow melted. I finally found a big herd with at least 80 elk and guessed correctly where they would come out of the trees before dark.

      If you commit a lot of time and energy into a deep camp, you could get bogged down in snow and you have given up the option to move around or change from high elevation to low and back.

      Anyway, good luck. I know you will have a great time.

  26. Hello! My father and grandfather have hunted Colorado Elk for the past 20+ years and they always hunt at unit 74. Unfortunately the past 7 years they haven’t brought any elk home. I’m looking to help change his mind and try a new unit? I’m going to be hunting 2019 first rifle reason due to myself being in school. At the time what unit is most successful? What tips do you have for going on such a short hunt? I’ve been looking at units that are more Northern Colorado. Would love to hear your feedback!

    • Hi Hannah: The management of Unit 74 has changed over the past 20 years. Elk populations have decreased from about 7,000 to about 5,000 because of elk conflicts with ranching interests. Unit 74 also has lots of hunters and many of those are non-residents because it is the closest unit to many states in Colorado (statement in DAU E-30).

      In 2017, 213 bulls and 70 antlerless elk were harvested by 2,183 hunters who hunted a total of 12,277 days (all hunts; all weapons).

      For all rifle seasons, 140 bulls and 43 antlerless elk were harvested by 1,236 hunters who hunted a total of 5,934 days, which ranks 36th out of 102 units with at least 10 elk harvested.

      Since you sent the comment to me and not your father or grandfather, I have to assume they have their reasons to continue to hunt unit 74 despite no elk harvest the past 7 years.

      I applaud your desire to find new country to hunt, but one of the most valuable things for a hunt unit is your (or your father and grandfather’s) personal knowledge of the area. After 20 years of hunting the area, that will be hard to replace.

      Perhaps they are more satisfied with their hunts despite no harvest than you are.

      I have a question for you. You mention planning to hunt the 1st rifle season due to school (assume school schedule). But 1st rifle seasons are Limited Licenses that have to be drawn. Do you have a Limited License? Or do you mean the first OTC rifle season, which is really the 2nd Rifle season?

      You also mention wanting to hunt Northern Colorado and you have seen the rankings I posted for the OTC rifle hunts for both raw numbers and hunter success. Units 4, 5, 12, 13 and 22 are Northern units that rank high for both elk harvest and for hunter success for the 2nd OTC rifle season.

      But so much of elk hunting is about logistics. I always ask why drive past areas I know have elk, just to find more elk. So I usually hunt close to home where I know the country. It makes sense if you are going to school in Northern Colorado.

      Yes, these short hunts are challenging, which means you have to do all your scouting before the hunt starts. I do not do much pre-season scouting anymore because I know my local units well. I also do less scouting so there is less chance of disturbing animals in my honey holes before the hunt starts. I am also busy taking people fishing in the Fall.

      Plus if I draw a cow tag, can relax and enjoy hunting and scouting and I really don’t want to harvest an animal the first few days.

      Perhaps you can change your Father & Grandfather’s minds about hunting in a new area if you learn the area and show them the possibilities.

      Keep in mind as Thoreau said “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after”…

      Maybe they know what they are after and it is not only about an elk in the back of the truck.

      Good luck on your hunt and let me know how it goes.

  27. Hello,
    We have been hunting 2nd rifle in the same area for 12 years or so. Pretty good success rate for elk, cows and bulls, nearing 50% or better some years. 2018 was our toughest year, 0%, and we attributed this to a very dry summer and fall, ranchers mentioned hauling water up the mountain for their cows. Plus a bright full moon for several days did not help too much either. We saw one bull along the road on a trailer, and heard of 4 elk killed by a local hunting party we know well, very deep in a canyon, which pretty much needed the support of horses to get the meat out.
    We will be back again in 2019, but hope for better success.

    • Yes, local conditions like snow depth, drought and/or fire can have a big effect on your hunt and also have effects into the future.
      We had some big fires this Summer in our areas. It ruined a trout stream, but elk will benefit in the long term, but may suffer in the short term.
      What I noticed was instead of many small bands of elk during the rifle and ML seasons, elk were in very large groups usually only seen in Winter.
      When I finally got my cow elk, it was in a herd of at least 80 animals in an area of my unit I had never hunted before.

      Good luck to you in 2019.

  28. I’ve been going to Colorado for 4 years, all Rifle 2, all GMU 77 & 78 (all north of Pagosa Springs).

    While I’ve seen a couple of elk, I’ve seen no bulls except for 1 spike (my second year). Of course, I have see quite a few muleys, but don’t have a tag for them 🙂

    Since this unit is ‘easily’ accessible from the south, it is full of Texans (of which I am one too). I feel this creates an oversaturation of hunters. Because I’ve had no luck and the woods seem to be full of everything except elk, I’m wondering if it would serve me to move north another 50-100 miles or if I should just scout better where I’ve been going?

    • Hi Kevin, you could try moving, but what makes you think that another unit will have fewer hunters or that will result in success?

      Units 77 and 78 are in the top 20 for the numbers of elk harvested… But not in the top 20 for hunter success. There are lots of hunters in these units (see Table in post for 2nd Rifle), but much less than other units.

      But first, what does hunting and scouting mean to you? How far off the road are you still seeing “woods seem to be full of everything except elk”?
      Also, one of the most valuable assets for elk hunting is personal knowledge of an area. How long will it take you to learn what you already know about units 77 & 78 in a new area?

      Do more research if you wish and look at the data. Raw numbers of hunters and elk populations and elk harvested give us a snap shot, but if we also took into account the available habitat it would be more meaningful…

      I have been working on better ways to compare units and have some data collected on the size of the units and the amount of public land in each unit.

      For example, your units (77 & 78) rank fairly high for the amount of public acres (304,898 – GMU 78 & 293,656 acres GMU 77), but fairly low for acres per elk hunter (428 & 369), but keep in mind every hunter doesn’t hunt every day, so most days the amount of acres per hunter will be double or even triple these amounts. (Plus, you know most people are concentrated within a ¼ mile of a motorized road – and most elk are not concentrated within ¼ mile of a road during hunting season).

      Since your units are ranked fairly high for the number of elk harvested, I compared them to several other high units that also were ranked high for hunter success (4, 12 & 70).

      The results were 570, 114 & 103 acres per elk hunter in GMUs 70, 12 & 4 respectively. So there is a little more room to roam in unit 70, but units 4 & 12 had hunter densities 3 times as high as your units.

      Let’s look at it this way. You have been hunting for 4 years. Would you say you are an average elk hunter based on knowledge and effort? If so, you aren’t expected to harvest an elk yet.

      Harvest success in your units averages about 12 – 13%. In other words, the average hunter will get an elk every 7.7 to 8.3 years. But I’ll bet there are hunters in your units that harvest an elk about every other year or even two out of every three years.

      Why? Because they know more about elk than you do. They know more about the landscape and habitat than you do and they work harder than you do. Not picking on you, just stating the most likely probabilities for an average elk hunter…

      So go ahead and drive past elk to go find more elk in a new place… or learn more and work harder in an area you already know well.
      If you just want to see and learn new country great, but don’t move because you think it will be easier.

      Good luck on your next hunt.

      • Kevin Timm says

        You’re right, lots of elk harvested but not a high percentage – and, it’s tough to get a muley tag. I’m pretty sure I don’t work hard enough and that’s my first problem. I don’t expect it to get easier if I move somewhere else, I actually expect it will be harder because I’m hunting new land.

        But, the lure of a mule deer tag, the lure of an elk cow tag and a higher % of success is quite a siren song 🙂

        I will continue to think about whether I want to move, thanks for the help.

  29. I am planning my first ever OTC DIY elk hunt for second rifle in Colorado. I have basically narrowed my units down to 4, 16, and 42. Unit 4 I have some intel from somebody that has taken several bulls from there but unit 42 and 16 looks better as far as having sanctuaries in them where a good bull would be hiding out. I was hoping you could shed some light into these units and maybe some good tips. Anything helps!

    • Hi Caegan. I won’t ask you why you decided to hunt Colorado because you said you have intel about GMU 4. That is good enough reason. I assume by sanctuaries, you have identified some hard to get to areas in GMUs 42 and 16?

      Every unit should have sanctuary areas and they are not always 10 miles off the road, just places where people don’t go. Look for flat benches in steep terrain. Heaviest tree cover in the Southern Rockies will be on North facing slopes. They will hide in thick cover, but can’t always find the food they need in that cover, so also look for thick cover adjacent to openings.

      Two of the units you are interested in ranked highly (both in top 5 units for Colorado) for elk harvest during 2nd OTC rifle season, but unit 16 ranks low; 47th, with an average of 93 bull elk harvested by 677 hunters over the last 3 years (2015 – 2017).

      Both GMUs 4 and 42 also rank in the top 20 for hunter success and GMU 16 ranks 47th for success (not a typo, pure coincidence that it ranks 47th for both harvest and success).. so I looked at one more variable and GMU 16 ranks 55th for effort (total hunter recreation days per harvested elk) while GMU 4 ranked 67th and GMU 42 ranked 70th.

      All three units are about 50% public land and range between 205,000 – 388,000 acres; GMU 42 is largest and GMU 16 is smallest. Max elevation in GMU 16 is about 11,600, GMU 4 is about 10,600 and max elevation in GMU 42 is about 10,800. That makes me think the smallest unit has even less elk habitat. Not that you won’t find elk at high elevation and maybe that is the type of sanctuary you are looking for, but in my experience, much of the habitat above 11,000 feet at 40° N latitude is probably better suited for mountain goats than elk.

      As of now, you know more about GMU 4 because of your personal intel. Personal knowledge of a unit is the most important thing. Lots of country between GMU 4, 16 and 42… I understand your interest in GMU 4, but curious as to why 16 and 42, and not 14 or 421?

      Good luck on your hunt. You should learn a lot and have a blast in amazing country.

  30. Jeremy Myers says

    Im looking for any advice possible. Ive hunted quite a few years without a lot of success. Its ALWAYS me, my wife, and 4 kids. My wife and one of my children are SEVERE asthmatics. So getting far from roads and trails is difficult for us. Looking for any thoughts and recommendations you may have. My main goal anymore is the hunting experience with family and the obvious…. getting my wife and kids their elk. Thanks in advance for any help you can provide for me and my family.

    • Hi Jeremy. Two people can not be as sneaky as one, 3 people can not be as sneaky as two and until they learn how, kids can not be a sneaky as hunting veterans. But two or more people can work together and 2 or more pairs of eyes and ears can see and hear more than a solo hunter.

      It changes my hunt when my wife goes with me, but the last four or five years I have killed more elk with here than without her even though I hunted many more days alone. In fact, until this year she had been teasing me about needing me to go along to get an elk. We mostly hunt together, but sometimes I might climb a hill to get in position and then have her push around from the bottom to see if we can push an elk out.

      Outdoor safety should be a primary concern for all hunters, but you obviously have spacial concerns and I am sure you are managing that as best you can.
      It is obvious that hunting as a family and spending time together in the outdoors is more important than putting an elk in the freezer, but those two or three goals are not mutually exclusive.s

      Not all elk are killed a mile from the road. I have found elk many times within 100 yards of a road. So, do what you can do. Hunt as many hours as you can. Hunt from before light to dark. But the main thing is to always be ready. I have several stories about being caught with a sandwich in my mouth and my gun on the ground.

      Success at elk hunting is a combination of skill, luck and effort. We can all learn more. We can always put in more effort (time and distance) and many talk about working smarter, but I am still trying to decide what that means.

      I think smarter is just another term for experience. I may be thinking that I would not do “that” again because it wasted my time. That doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing to do or that it wouldn’t work this time. Most decisions in the field are dependent on wind, habitat and terrain, which set up infinite possibilities.

      Goal 1 should be a fun, safe day outside, goal 2 should be finding elk or fresh sign. Goal 3 should be getting an opportunity to take a shot and finally, you will eventually find an elk that wants to get in the back of your truck.

      Good luck and let me know how it goes this year.

  31. Brandon T Grogg says

    Do you have the acres per hunter like you do for Idaho?

    • Yes, now I do have that data, but it took a fair amount of effort to find.

      But to be most valuable, we need to omit public land that is not elk habitat. Much of BLM land and some of the National Forest lands are not elk habitat.

      What we really want to know is how many acres of elk habitat during our particular hunting season are available per hunter.

      Colorado publishes the amount and percentages of public land for each Herd Management Plan (DAU), but do not separate the percentage by individual hunt units.

      I have published acres per elk hunter on statewide levels in my DIY Elk Hunting Guide and total hunting acres for each state here.

      Colorado has 23,397,000 acres open to public hunting and 35,702,000 acres of elk habitat with about 21,748,000 acres of elk habitat on public land.

      Obviously all of that land is not open to the OTC archery or 2nd or 3rd rifle seasons.
      The OTC units for both the 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons have a total of 29,804,500 acres with 16,637,150 public acres.

      The OTC archery units have a total of 17,109,000 public acres.

      In 2017, there were 52,344 total elk hunters (251,535 total recreation days) during the 2nd rifle season (OTC) and 46,091 hunters (221,101 total recreation days) during the 3rd rifle season (OTC) and 47,727 elk hunters (1,431,810 recreation days) during all archery seasons.

      Recreation days are more important than the number of total hunters because most hunters do not hunt every day. In fact if we take the total number of hunters (2017) for the nine day hunt season for both the 2nd and 3rd rifle season, we find that if every hunter was in the field each of the 9 days, that would add up to 471,096 and 425,448 rec. days for the 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons respectively.

      Compare those numbers with the total recreation days reported for the 2017 hunt season and the reported numbers are only 53.4% and 52.0% of the full potential hunting days. So except for opening day, the average hunt day only has half of the hunters in the field.

      I wish I had good data about the maximum number of hunters on opening day, but I doubt it is 75% of all hunters. Obviously as hunters fill their tags, they stop hunting and they also take elk home with them.

      Back to the question of how many acres per hunter. So worse case scenario (every hunter is in the field) for Colorado’s OTC 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons is 318 and 352 acres per hunter.

      If at most, 75% of the hunters are in the field, that would translate into 424 and 469 acres per hunter, but on an average day, 595 and 677 acres are available per OTC rifle hunter.

      For the elk archery seasons, Colorado reports all archery seasons together, but they can be separated because only one unit allows both OTC and Limited Entry (851; OTC outside SWA & LE inside SWA).

      So, for OTC Archery there were 40,503 hunters with 275,820 rec. days. The OTC elk archery units total 16,164,000 acres of public land, so worst case scenario is 399 acres per hunter, 75% show up is 532 acres per hunter and average hunting day is 1,758 acres per hunter.

      Good luck on your hunt

  32. Hello, I’m going to be hunting in Meeker Co. this October. Anyone familiar with the area?

    • I’ve hunted units 12 23 24 north of white river and unit 22. Mark

      • I am awaiting the draw results for 2019 muzzleloader season in 12 23 24. Will be my first time to these units. I have hunted a couple seasons NW of Fort Collins but want to move to area with higher number of elk. Planning on hiking in to avoid crowds, trying to learn the the topography of where to start. Any advice would be appreciated.

  33. Myself and two friends have been hunting Elk during the second and 3rd seasons on public land in Area 12,23, and 23 for the past several years. Have had considerable success. 6 Elk in the last 10 years with 5 of them coming in the last 4 years. We know these areas well. However, this year have been thinking about a move due to the CWD rates in these areas. These are the only units we have hunted. By the way, we travel nearly 1300 miles to hunt in CO. In your opinion, would you advise such a move because of the CWD and considering our recent success?

    • Tough call Sam… You obviously have found an area you like and have done well. Amazing what knowledge of elk and knowledge of an area can do…
      CWD is starting to become an issue in some of those areas. You obviously can have the meat tested, but to find out after all the effort of a hunt and pack out would not be fun.
      Obviously, you would not shoot an animal that was thin, drooling or acting strange, like loss of awareness. Unfortunately, the incubation period of CWD is 18-24 months between infection and showing signs. It would not be a bad idea to learn new areas. Also, at some point, it may become illegal to transport game across state lines that come from certain hunt units. Heads for taxidermy mounts may already be illegal. So far, packaged meat, clean quarters and boneless meat is OK, but but skulls have to be completely cleaned of all meat and tissue…
      So, you could go to Southern Colorado, Wyoming or Montana with about the same drive distance as you have now. General tags are not so easy for non-residents in Wyoming or Montana, but you can get them. Plus depending upon where you hunt, you have to consider Grizzly bears. Utah is an option… just add another 8 hours to your drive. Good luck.

  34. I hunted unit 78 between 1999-2006. I harvested 2 nice elk. A lot of hunters, but most of the hunting was done walking the forest in the area of Navajo Peak. I did like the fact that 4-wheelers were not allowed in the trails/forest, only on gravel roads. A lot of lakes and running water in the Navajo river area. Has anyone hunted there lately? Herds were fairly good back then.

  35. Hi, first off thank for putting together the guide, it and this info are very helpful. I just had a general question about Table 3- how are there statistics for number of hunters in a unit for general OTC archery? Colorado allows OTC archery hunters to hunt in numerous units with the same license.

    • Sorry for slow reply, been working on putting meat in my freezer.
      Yes, hunters can hunt more than one unit, so if you added up all the hunters from all units, it would be too many. So a hunter that hunts a particular unit for 1 day and another that hunts every day are treated the same. But the “Days per harvest” column takes into account the actual total number of hunter days (hunt effort) per elk harvested.

      From that perspective, GMU 211 looks very good; where 80 elk were harvested by 319 hunters with only 27.5 hunter days per harvest.

  36. Anyone hunted the flat top wilderness?? Any elk in the location? Will be new for me.

  37. Marshall Trexler says

    I am planning on going to 86 for 3rd rifle and I see the terrain is rough but i am looking forward to it. Do you think the Elk will be higher on the mountains still at that time?

    This is going to be my first elk hunt.

    • Elk will move around based on pressure, amount of snow and need to find food. In years past, I have found elk at low elevations early and high elevation in snow late. This year I got my cow elk at less than 8500 feet in late September (no snow). Rugged sounds good as it will keep many other hunters away. Also describes the type of habitat bull elk need to recover after the rut. You should expect snow by 3rd rifle season. Learn as much as you can about the area. Good Luck on your hunt.

  38. AUSTIN O'NEAL says

    Have you written / do you know of articles of this type for the other OTC states?


  39. Thank you for the information. I have compiled similar results from the CO harvest. When looking into units (Such as 13 and 131), how do you find if there are any cabins or small, non-resort, places to stay? I am not apposed to camping but for the demographic of my 4 person hunting party, having a shelter would help some of them.

    When you look at these besides OnX, how do you decipher the public versus private only? I am a Midwestern person and this is all new to me.

    • Looking for cabins? try Air B&B or VRBO or others… I don’t need OnX Maps because I know my hunt area, but it would be very valuable when hunting areas you are not familiar.

      Lots of people camp during the hunt, but as you say, better shelter makes life easier… the problem is the long drive to the hunt site every day.
      Good luck on your hunt.

  40. Patrick Gallagher says

    Myself and my hunting partner will be heading out for our first OTC archery hunt in a week (9/11-9/21). We are going to unit 53 based on research found on success rates prior to stumbling on this page. My question for you, if you do not mind answering, would you recommend east side or west side of unit 53? Based on OnX maps a lot of the migration patterns show more movement on the west end, however I would think that end would have a bit more of a crowd due to that. Just trying to gain some different perspective. We are coming from Alabama so this is going to be a great experience either way, but to increase our odds a little more would be great. Thanks !!

  41. I drew gmu 11 for 1st rifle, it’s really hard for me to understand how the success rate is so high when All I see are shrubs and almost desert like. All under 7500 ft. My experience is in your typical forested areas pines and aspens around 9000 Ft or above. I know that gmu has other gmu attached to it but would be nice to figure How to hunt that area. Any advice.

    • Elk can be high and low in the same day…
      Where do they go to hide, feed and get water?
      Sometimes they can get all in one place, sometimes not.
      But human activity and weather can also change what they do ad when they do it.
      No substitute for knowing an area and having some experience with animal movement (or lack thereof)…
      Lately, I get more questions from people that have been hunting too high in my opinion…
      Yes, they are walking miles and miles in the high elevation conifer habitat. Good to get off the trails, good cover, but in reality, not much food for elk. Both guys had success after moving down into mixed aspen conifer areas.
      Shrubs are good for elk, but they can’t stand the heat. They are probably hiding in thickest timber (or Pinyon-juniper) on North faces until almost dark.
      Good luck on your hunt.

  42. Game chaser says

    So is my assumption correct.. unit 81 and 80 are not good areas?

    • Not necessarily, those units had nearly 100 bulls harvested in each, so rank high for elk harvest for 2nd rifle, don’t rank at all for 3rd rifle and rank higher for archery.
      For 2nd rifle, there are many hunters so success is low. Average hunter success is about 20%… These units are about 11% (12% for archery)…

      Why highest success for Archery and then so low for 2nd Rifle and even lower for 3rd rifle?

      I don’t personally know these units, but this is the kind of things you need to consider when hunting there.

      Why does numbers and success decrease from archery to late season rifle.

      Does it take more effort to get to areas where elk hide? Maybe with increased snow cover…
      Area chosen by high percentage of new, inexperienced hunters? Probably not.

      Close to private land so elk run to safety as soon as shooting starts? Maybe. Since archery hunters have more success, it would suggest that either access or the places elk spend time or elk behavior changes from Aug to November.

  43. Tyron Schmidt says

    Just a simple question. Do OTC units in Colorado change from year to year? Thanks

    • Do you mean changes to the actual units on the ground or changes to types of OTC hunts? Several years ago, Bull Elk only hunts were changed to Either Elk, so there obviously have been changes over time, but not every year. To my knowledge the GMUs themselves have not changed for a while. It is obvious that in the past some units were carved out of others.. For example, GMU 301 was split off of GMU 3 and GMU 771 was split from GMU 77

  44. I am trying to pick out an area for a DIY archery elk hunt and I am reading lots of reports of blowdowns and beetle damage. Any idea which OTC Colorado GMU’s are least affected by the recent blowdowns and beetle damage?

  45. I plan on going next year (2024) to unit 44 and I’m having a hard time finding out any info on the unit. I have a friend going to scout for the group but have no idea what roads and access is like in the unit during 2nd rifle. Any thoughts on this unit in particular?

    • Yep… that is how the state wildlife websites operate. Info is hard to find. Start digging. At least you already have a unit number… Most states start by asking where you want to hunt. In my state I have to know the unit name before I can proceed with the application process.

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