New elk hunter help

Danger_Denver

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Mar 28, 2020
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So I’ve been out for one OTC 2nd rifle season 2019, and one OTC archery elk season 2020, and no encounters with elk yet. I want to go into 2021 CO draw with a better strategy. My main question is, how do you select a GMU?
Here is my scenario for this past September. I did some weekend hunts in GMU 14, it has a low success rate but also closer to my home in Denver, so I could do more 2-3 day hunts there since it’s only about 3 hour drive. I also did a 6 day hunt in GMU 65, has decent success rates and lots of public land, but also A LOT of pressure. In both locations I couldn’t get a single return vocalization from actual elk, but called in 3 different hunters at GMU 65. I spent 15 days in the field and didn’t get any encounters other than seeing herds of elk on private land in GMU 65.
How much stock do you put in recent harvest reports for your hunt planning? I’m tempted to rove to higher success rate GMUs, but not sure if private land is inflating those stats. I talk to a lot of hunters in 65 and 14 and they frequently said thing like “I’ve hunted this are for 20, 30, 40 years ect”. They don’t seem to care about elk numbers or harvest rates and they hunt “their” GMU every year. Should I pick a spot and learn the area really well and not factor harvest reports?
Summer scouting isn’t realistic for me either. I only have so much PTO and have a baby on the way, so if I have time off I want to save it for time in the field during the season.
I’m a little bummed because I spent all year working on my calling and in GMU 14 it seems like I didn’t get and answers from low elk population and none in GMU 65 because there was so much pressure. Both spots I was going deep, average of 12-14 mile days according to my OnX, so felt like I was putting in the work to get away from pressure and roads.
I know I’m probably not the only one out there trying to find a balance to the issue, I just want to be smarter in planning a hunt with a relatively higher success rate.
Thanks for any advice on what’s worked for you.
 
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kwyeewyk

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but not sure if private land is inflating those stats.
Should I pick a spot and learn the area really well and not factor harvest reports?
I'd say yes and yes to these. Haven't studied how CO does their harvest sampling, but always take it with a grain of salt. Look at stats for GMUs that are mostly or all public and the harvest numbers are probably closer to reality than a unit with lots of private if you're limited to public. If you're in state and can scout before the season that is key, figure out where they are before it's time to hunt and it will start to come together.
 

lifesupport4u

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Picking a unit is very difficult. I agree the harvest stats are very flawed! I am no expert but I’ll send you a PM with some additional thoughts.
 

Nick_CO

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Southern Colorado
I've always thought that it's much more effective to pick a unit and learn it well as opposed to chasing success rates and starting from scratch in new areas, especially OTC areas.

So you were packing on the miles and going deep without success and still running into lots of hunters? One thing you may try is to separate yourself from other hunters via the terrain rather than trying to just outdistance yourself from others on Trail Networks. For example, the Elk I shot this year was in one of my favorite go-to spots, which is less than a mile from a major Highway believe it or not. The week prior I had helped a friend of mine get one out of the same area. Both in OTC rifle seasons where one glimpse of the Trailhead Parking Areas in the region would make you want to pack your bags and head to another GMU when you saw them packed with 30 trucks, several horse trailers and a handful of wall tents. This area I found several years ago has a super steep approach and there's a funny private land boundary that took a little extra scouting to figure a safe route around, but there's Elk there every year. Not saying you should hunt right next to Highways, but that's the kind of stuff you can learn by going back time and again to the same unit. The first time I hunted it I was unsuccessful, and had I not gone back and learned it better I would have missed out on a great area that has served me well, regardless of published success rates. Good luck!
 

Danger_Denver

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I've always thought that it's much more effective to pick a unit and learn it well as opposed to chasing success rates and starting from scratch in new areas, especially OTC areas.

So you were packing on the miles and going deep without success and still running into lots of hunters? One thing you may try is to separate yourself from other hunters via the terrain rather than trying to just outdistance yourself from others on Trail Networks. For example, the Elk I shot this year was in one of my favorite go-to spots, which is less than a mile from a major Highway believe it or not. The week prior I had helped a friend of mine get one out of the same area. Both in OTC rifle seasons where one glimpse of the Trailhead Parking Areas in the region would make you want to pack your bags and head to another GMU when you saw them packed with 30 trucks, several horse trailers and a handful of wall tents. This area I found several years ago has a super steep approach and there's a funny private land boundary that took a little extra scouting to figure a safe route around, but there's Elk there every year. Not saying you should hunt right next to Highways, but that's the kind of stuff you can learn by going back time and again to the same unit. The first time I hunted it I was unsuccessful, and had I not gone back and learned it better I would have missed out on a great area that has served me well, regardless of published success rates. Good luck!
Great advice. I was going deep, but I think one of the things I learned was needing to spike camp. Definitely going to implement that for next year. I was leaving camp every morning a couple hours before sunrise next to the camps with ATVs, wall tents, ect. A lot of base camps set up at the same “end of the road”. Talking to guys, there were some were getting into elk when they went deep, and I wasn’t encountering as many hunters by the time I got deep. Also came across some carcasses. But by then it was mid/late morning and the heat was in full swing. So going in and out deep every day was a lot of miles, but we also weren’t out *deep* during the twilight hours which I think made a difference. I think I was working harder not smarter in that sense.
I like your story about this years elk, good lesson learned I’ll keep in mind!
 

ShakeDown

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The Rock
Congrats on the new baby!

CO does not have mandatory harvest reporting. Take all harvest stats with a grain of salt.

Are you seeing sign before you vocalize? Hearing bugles at night? What time do you get out to your target area?

Usually when hunting new areas (especially with limited scouting time) I spend a ton of time on Google Earth e-scouting in the winter/ summer. The way we elk hunt we burn boot leather until we find fresh sign, then set up camp and create a targeted calling strategy.

We often go out at night and listen for bugles.

We wake up as many hours before sunrise as needed to allow us to hike into our area 1-2 HOURS before daylight. We set up with wind in mind on the backside of a ridge so we can listen.

One morning in CO we had 6 (!!!) hunters hike the ridge we were waiting and listening on. We had been there for an hour freezing our asses off before we saw the first headlamp. They came crashing up the ridge huffing and puffing with headlamps beaming 45-15 min before shooting. The 5 bulls bugling around us would stop making noise before we heard the hunters coming each time. After the hunters left the elk went right back to it.

To reiterate what Nick touched on, another time solo hunting I was hiking a major trail system. I had a waypoint marked a few miles off trail. As soon as I bailed about 75-100 yards off the trail to my marker I busted a small 5x bull that had been bedded watching me the whole time. The elk are there you just have to find em.
 

Danger_Denver

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Congrats on the new baby!

CO does not have mandatory harvest reporting. Take all harvest stats with a grain of salt.

Are you seeing sign before you vocalize? Hearing bugles at night? What time do you get out to your target area?

Usually when hunting new areas (especially with limited scouting time) I spend a ton of time on Google Earth e-scouting in the winter/ summer. The way we elk hunt we burn boot leather until we find fresh sign, then set up camp and create a targeted calling strategy.

We often go out at night and listen for bugles.

We wake up as many hours before sunrise as needed to allow us to hike into our area 1-2 HOURS before daylight. We set up with wind in mind on the backside of a ridge so we can listen.

One morning in CO we had 6 (!!!) hunters hike the ridge we were waiting and listening on. We had been there for an hour freezing our asses off before we saw the first headlamp. They came crashing up the ridge huffing and puffing with headlamps beaming 45-15 min before shooting. The 5 bulls bugling around us would stop making noise before we heard the hunters coming each time. After the hunters left the elk went right back to it.

To reiterate what Nick touched on, another time solo hunting I was hiking a major trail system. I had a waypoint marked a few miles off trail. As soon as I bailed about 75-100 yards off the trail to my marker I busted a small 5x bull that had been bedded watching me the whole time. The elk are there you just have to find em.
Thanks! We are stoked for the baby!

“Are you seeing sign before you vocalize?” Not always. I listen to a bunch of different podcasts with conflicting info on this. Some say a rookie mistake is not calling enough and to use a locator bugle to find them, others say “go in quiet and don’t call so much”. I tried to change it up between calling and not calling. Like I said, I only called in hunters. I also wasn’t seeing a lot of fresh sign, there were a few patches of wallows but never smelled like elk. Some occasional fresh scat, but that’s it.

“Hearing bugles at night?“ We got back to our camp after dark, made dinner, and racked out. I was so wiped out after such long days I sleep through any sound, even if they were racking on my tent I probably would have slept through it haha. But I didn’t hear a single vocalization other than hunters the whole time in the field.

“What time do you get out to your target area?”
We were heading out at least an hour before first light. The terrain was rough. 4 hours hiking we went probably 4 miles on OnX and maybe on 2 mile as the crow flies. To get deep it was probably about 9am when we got to our target areas, and then the September heat would kick in. A lesson learned was spike camping for next year. By the time we got “deep” it was after those twilight hours. Same with heading back to not get caught out there way past dark. Maybe we were trying to cover too much ground. The wind was also never consistent on the ridges we were on. The thermals were never as anticipated, and as soon as we would shift our path the wind would be at the back of our neck, shift our direction again, wind was at out back again.

I’m sure they are there like you said, just need to find them. So far I just can’t haha!
Thanks for the info!
 

ntodwild

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How much research have you done on Elk needs for specific time of year? Elk have very specific needs during specific times of year so if you are not seeking out those needs and just looking for elk then even if you had elk in one area in May doesn't mean that area will be Elk heaven in Sept. Habitat, birthing, rut activity, sanctuary, predator populations, hunt pressure are just a few things to keep in mind.
 

Danger_Denver

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How much research have you done on Elk needs for specific time of year? Elk have very specific needs during specific times of year so if you are not seeking out those needs and just looking for elk then even if you had elk in one area in May doesn't mean that area will be Elk heaven in Sept. Habitat, birthing, rut activity, sanctuary, predator populations, hunt pressure are just a few things to keep in mind.
Good points. I watched Randy Newbergs 4-part YouTube series on the topic, also the “cutting the distance” podcast I listened to talked about that.
There was a lot of water source availability in main hunt I did. I think there were so many water sources available that I lead to it never really concentrating them like it would if there was more water scarcity. Just speculation. Either way I think they were “there” just not where I was I guess.
 

ccc23454

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Just keep after it! Dont think its like YouTube and hunting articles make it look. A lot of these videos take days and even weeks to make a 20 minute video, you dont see all the suck involved and miles of boot leather. Pick a zone that has elk, then learn it. Go any time you can, take family on 4th july type stuff, just go! Everyday in the woods if its season or not gets you 1 day closer to your first elk. Elk are where elk are so know where they like to be so that when season roles around you can check there favorite spots. Use time at home this time of year to make few phone calls to biologist(hes not as busy right now) spend time on google earth, your going to hunt here for years order all paper maps that you think will be helpful. Elk killing is a lot of work, while there are some shortcuts usually going head-on full speed is best strategy. Good luck
 

JustinsDad

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I usually leave camp earlier and come back later than what you mention. I like to be on my spot way before sunrise. I stay later too. Last hunt I didn’t get back to base camp till midnight. I was pretty deep in and I hunted as late as I could. Super early and very late have paid off several times.
 

rustednuts

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I will put this point of view out there. You may be hiking too much and not hunting enough. Are you going to deep for the sake of going deep or is there something back there that the you are actually hiking to? Spike camps are helpful if you’re on elk but don’t spike camp for the sake of spike camping. I would find the hot sign wether that is physical sign or bugles and then concentrate on that area. Cover ground till you find the sign.
 

Danger_Denver

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I will put this point of view out there. You may be hiking too much and not hunting enough. Are you going to deep for the sake of going deep or is there something back there that the you are actually hiking to?
Tbh probably the former. There were several times I wondered if I'm moving too much. Sign was so sparse I was just trying to get to a wallow or rub or something. I think I was moving with so much drive I could have been bumping them before I ever saw them.

I did a good bit of E-scouting before I went, and all my prospects were not *deep*. Then we arrived and saw how many camps were set up I felt we had to "go deep for the sake of going deep" when we weren't getting in on elk. It's hard to know because I'm learning hunting on my own, so I have no way of comparing how different my days are than that of someone more experienced. I do think you are correct, I may be hiking too much.
 

Danger_Denver

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Elk killing is a lot of work
Oh I'm gonna keep after it alright, I've invested too much money at this point haha! I hear ya though, I'm not looking for shortcuts. I know I takes a lot of time and work to kill an elk, I just want an elk encounter in the meantime.
 

jdf

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Don't get stuck on not hearing elk. Look for fresh sign. Elk are there. If you don't see any, keep moving.
We kill plenty of elk that never make a sound. Use terrain features and wind influences to hunt places that increase your chance of elk being there.
 

WyoDoug

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My experience is you focus on harvest reports, draw odds and population counts so are a LOT of other people. I know I don't do as I preach but I have physical limitations that prevent me from climbing to the high ridges and sanctuary areas. You should focus on habitat, water, and sanctuary and go where other hunters will not or can't go. That means hiking in 2 or more miles and in very rugged terrain well away from the roads.

Then more important than getting where other hunters don't go due to terrain or lack of roads, you also have to pay attention to wind and cover. Elk have strong sense of smell and vision so be prepared for that. If the elk detect you at all they will move sometimes a couple miles or more away from you.

As others said, do not focus on lack of hearing elk. During pressure, elk often quiet way down and calls they do make are usually the cow calls and volume way down. Spend a lot of time glassing too. That is how I find them. I sometimes put hours into glassing for deer and elk both.
 
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Bowhunter999

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Somewhere else
I am strictly a bow hunter, so I do not know how much help I can be to you but I’ll throw a thing or two into the pot ! My years of elk hunting have mostly been in the Craig, Col., area, also around Rifle, and in southern Col. just north of New Mexico. Of course being a bow hunter, my time was in second and third week of Sept., when pressure was probably somewhat less than during rifle season. Elk are much different from deer in that they do not live in a small area as deer do, such as 1-2 mile area. Elk are travelers, go where the food is and where there is less human scent being spread. Human pressure will push elk out a area quickly if they are encountering scent on a regular basis, and it will certainly change their travel and daily activities. If public land is scarce in your area, it will not be long before the elk will find private property where pressure is much less and if food is there, they will stay if not pushed out. Of course bow hunting requires a much different mode of hunting, much shorter shot distances which does require to some extent greater elk activity. In my calling, I used the bugle very little, bulls become bugle shy quickly unless is the deep rut period, and even then, they will often move their cows away from competition. Use of cow chirps is a better form of talking with elk. The estuary cow elk call is deadly during the rut, and I have seen several bulls respond to it in hopes of adding a cow to their harem ! In rereading this, I am not sure I have given you much help, but wish you the best in future hunts, if you can use even one bit of my rambling.......!!
 

ElkHunter80

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Just like mentioned above, the TV/internet shows make it look too easy. Sometimes you can have all of the knowledge and insight on a certain GMU and do everything you know of to get into elk, but a lot of the time you just end up being at the right place at the right time. I've had many successful hunts go like this.
 

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