As a non-resident elk hunter, one of easiest decisions you can make is choosing the state you want to hunt. Once you have done that, the real research begins when deciding which zone or game management unit (GMU) you will hunt in. Different states have different rules and structures regarding these divisions, but there are many commonalities among most Western states. Today we will look at my state of choice, Colorado, and how I have researched and narrowed down the GMU that I will be hunting in.
One of the primary purposes that states use GMUs is to manage the game herds by controlling and distributing hunters across the state. Different units have different rules and restrictions for the various hunting seasons throughout the year. For example, one unit may be a draw-only limited tag for the 1st rifle season, but unrestricted over-the-counter tags may be offered in that same unit for another season, or for other hunting methods. These rules and restrictions can also vary for each game species. To begin to research GMUs for your hunt, you have to determine what units are available to you for the species, season, and hunting method that you are going to pursue.
The good news is that the unit regulations for bowhunting are typically straightforward and easy to understand. And for guys like me that are looking to bowhunt with over-the-counter tags the rules are even easier. For example, Colorado lists every GMU that offers over-the-counter tags for the archery elk season – OTC Archery Elk Unit Map (PDF). As you can see, there are dozens of units available, which is a blessing and a curse!
In my experience, the hardest part of selecting a GMU has been the indecisiveness of believing that one unit is going to offer me unlimited potential, whereas another unit won’t give me a single chance at killing an elk. Some basic research will show that there are a lot of good OTC units in Colorado, the vast majority of which contain a quality elk population. (More specifically, the units west of Denver.)
It is simply foolish to think that there is some magic unit out there that will give you the single best chance at killing an elk. In all reality when dealing with a state that has a quality elk population and an abundance of units open for you to hunt (like Colorado), you simply have to begin to set some parameters on the type of unit that you want to hunt in.
Let’s take a look at a few factors that can help us narrow things down…
Crunch Some Numbers
The key statistics that I look at when considering a unit are really simple: the elk population estimate, the number of hunters in that unit, and harvest statistics such as the number of bulls killed, the number of cows killed, and the overall success rate. When researching these numbers don’t simply consider the previous hunting season, rather look at several years’ worth of historical data and try to identify trends.
There is no magic formula with this data. These numbers do nothing more than give you an idea the of the type of population that exists in the area, how much hunting pressure the unit receives, and how “huntable” the elk are in that area. Do you want to hunt in a unit with very little pressure? Are you willing to accept lower odds of success in the hopes that you will get lucky on a monster bull that has been hiding out? What pieces of data are most important to you?
The next step that I take in analyzing a unit is to look at the type of land that dominates the area. By this I don’t mean topography (we’ll get there), rather I am looking at how much of this unit is public land and how much is private. Of the public land, how much is controlled by the US Forest Service, the BLM, or state agencies? Are there any designated Wilderness Areas in the unit?
Additionally, I want to consider how hunting areas can be accessed. What are the roads like? Where are the major trailheads and do I need a 4WD vehicle to get to them? How dense is the designated trail structure within the land and are these trails used frequently? Are there other significant recreational interests in this area that will bring hikers, backpackers, fishermen, etc., into the area that I am looking to hunt?
Obviously the more accessible areas are going to be more crowded, which can make them difficult to hunt. However, you also need to be realistic with your abilities to reach, hunt, and pack an elk out of areas that are difficult to access and navigate. And don’t forget to consider your safety – especially when you, like me, are a new elk hunter heading into a new area.
Analyze the Topography
Another critical factor to consider when selecting a unit is the predominant terrain of that unit. The type of terrain is critical to understanding where elk will be during your hunt. You don’t want to head out in the early archery seasons and hunt a unit that is predominantly low-lying foothills of a larger mountain range that dominates a neighboring unit. The elk may winter in such foothills, but they will not be there during archery season. We will talk a lot more about terrain, elk habitat, and scouting in an upcoming article!
The second reason we need to consider the topography is related to our previous point of accessibility. The mountains are no joke. If you, like me, are a “flatlander”, then you need to be very realistic about your experience, abilities, and understanding of living in and hunting the mountains. How much elevation can you handle? How remote should you go? How are your navigation skills? What is your backcountry experience? Could you pack an elk out if it means climbing up and down thousands of feet of vertical over several miles? Don’t let the ever-increasing machismo of rugged, remote, backcountry hunting get into your head and make you think that you need to scale to dangerous places to hunt.
I could write several articles on this topic, but I hope that these fundamentals will help you when it comes time to selecting a GMU for your hunt. In the next couple of weeks we will drill-down even further and take an in-depth look at elk habitat, terrain, and scouting a hunting unit.