Colorado Over-The-Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting: Hope Is Not A Strategy

During my sixteen years or so of over-the-counter (OTC) unit elk hunting in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains a few telltale observations come to mind: 1.) Be prepared to see more hunters than elk; 2.) Be prepared to see no elk; 3.) Be physically and mentally prepared to hike higher and farther than most other hunters, and still see no elk.[1] Such are the long odds in Colorado’s generally over-hunted OTC units.

“It’s a zoo. You show up at the trailhead and you’re gonna count every state (license plate) in the country,” said longtime hunter Dave Carrado, of Durango (in an April 2023 Denver Post story by Conrad Swanson, “Big-Game hunting interest soars beyond Colorado’s capacity”). “‘You can show up tomorrow from Los Angeles, get a tag and hunt a bull elk,’ said Lisa Thompson, co-founder of Hunt N Divas, an organization that leads hunting trips for women. ‘That’s unlimited hunting.’”[2]

“The surge in hunting … comes with a cost,” Conrad added. “Less than a decade ago, longtime hunter Chad Hepp said he felt as though he had the forests to himself. As more and more people flocked to Colorado, he switched from hunting with a rifle to a bow to avoid the crowds. But archery seasons soon filled, too. ‘Now it seems like every trailhead or every pullout on a Forest Service road, there’s a truck parked,’ said Hepp, of Longmont.”[3]

On a more positive note, I’ve encountered and shot elk within a quarter mile of busy OTC unit trailheads and, alternatively, I’ve put elk in the freezer after “death march” hikes over miles of mountainous terrain climbing through a cumulative fourteen thousand feet of elevation gain.[4] As MeatEater contributor Tony J. Peterson explains (in “3 Things Elk Hunting Newbies Almost Always Get Wrong”), “The truth is, if you are willing to work for it, you’ll get a chance or two. Probably in the dark timber, probably when you least expect it, and probably not with a 300-ish class bull.”[5]

At the very least, to improve your odds, try to be out there from dark to dark, if at all possible/reasonable, because the only elk you’ll encounter in camp are those shot by other hunters working harder than you. However, my best advice for hunting low odds Colorado OTC units (or anywhere else) is to focus on elk hunting basics. In a September 2014 Colorado Outdoors post (“Five Tips For Beginning Elk Hunters”) I detailed some elk hunting fundamentals that may be of interest to new or even seasoned hunters, which are included (and expanded on) below.

1. Get in Shape (For Fair Chase). This can’t be emphasized enough. Come September-October, you must be fit enough to move through the mountains at a steady pace all day if necessary. As famed elk hunter Jim Zumbo wrote (in Hunt Elk), “In most elk country, the term is climbing rather than walking.”[6] Elk hunting is truly akin to mountaineering with a gun.[7]

Theodore Roosevelt was an elk hunter too, and said, “When hunting him (wapiti) ... He must be followed on foot, and the man who follows him must be sound in limb and wind.” Steven Rinella says that hunting elk requires peak physical condition. “Most hunters who fail physically on an elk hunt do so after they’ve already spotted the animals,” he explains. “They can see the prize, but they just can’t reach it.”[8]

“Hunters think they need to train for elk hunting by shooting at the four-hundred-yard range,” adds Sports Afield contributor Thomas McIntyre. “If they really wanted to train, they’d slaughter a steer on the sidewalk in front of the tallest building in Denver, dress it, skin it, quarter it, lash a quarter to a pack-frame, and take the stairs to the roof. Then climb back down, and repeat. And do it with all four quarters, and all the rest of the meat … Then lie down and weep those tears usually reserved for answered prayers.”[9]

In addition, given that fair chase is one of the three primary BHA issues/focus areas, it’s worth considering the thoughts of Field & Stream editor David Petzal on shooting long.[10] “Now we can kill from half a mile, and animals can’t deal with that … we can shoot critters from far beyond the range of their senses, but that doesn’t mean we should,” he said. “The sniper’s stock-in-trade is giving the enemy no chance, which is the opposite of fair chase. Nor is a game animal the enemy.”[11]

“From today’s hunting rifles … You can hunt with it at 600 yards—or 800 and more … But what does it have to do with hunting, for sport,” David added.[12] I’m a rifle hunter, but don’t spend hours at the range over days and weeks practicing long-range shooting. Alternatively, I plan for shots of no more than about 200 yards. My longest kill to date has been at some 75 yards, with multiple others coming in at 100 to 200 feet.[13]

Like David Petzal, I choose to embrace fair chase and restraint, which means getting in shape and getting closer vs. shooting farther.[14] In my opinion, you’ll be much better served by spending more time at the gym than the shooting range, assuming you’re a generally proficient shot with whatever combination of rifle/load/range is in your comfort zone. As Jim Posewitz wrote in Beyond Fair Chase, “The ethics of hunting deteriorate as machinery and modern technology are substituted for hunter stamina, skill, knowledge, and patience.”[15]

2. Get Good and Well-Tested Boots. Elk hunting is done on your feet, and a well-worn/tested pair of boots is the most important (in my opinion) item on your gear list. When chasing elk through thick timber on steep slopes you’re crawling over, under, up, and down. You’re stomping through creek bottoms, climbing up slopes that might require assistance from all four limbs, and your feet are taking a beating. You need good footwear.[16]

In fact, inferior footwear can ruin an elk hunt quicker than any other improper gear choice. So, choose (and test) your boots wisely.[17] Nothing is more distracting and painful than hot spots that turn into blisters that transform into raw, oozing wounds. Bottom line: if you can’t hike hard all day every day, don’t expect to see any elk unless dumb luck is on your side. Make sure your most critical piece of equipment is up to the task.

“Where you’ll kill them, is where they think you won’t go to try to kill them,” says Tony J. Peterson (in “How To Beat The Crowds In An Over-The-Counter Elk Unit”). “Forget the meadows … Think safety and security, and then lace up your boots because you’re going to have to cover serious ground.”[18]

3. Get Your “Boots on the Ground” and Scout (i.e., learn the local terrain/habitat). One of the turning points for my elk hunting sojourns was finding an area that seemed to hold elk throughout the fall, and then committing to learning the terrain and habitat idiosyncrasies of that locale. Initially, for several years, I changed hunting locations often and never really learned the habitat and habits of local or transient elk.

As renowned Colorado trad bow elk hunter David Petersen wrote in his book A Man Made of Elk, you’re looking for water holes and wallows, open south-facing slopes/ridges (where elk often feed in the evening/nighttime/morning) and dark-timbered north-facing slopes/ridges (where they generally sleep during the day). Benches of mixed aspen and conifer, well-watered and interspersed with secluded grassy parks, will also attract elk.[19]

There may be terrain features that will funnel elk as they move through the mountains: benches, saddles, meadows, and drainages. You can learn an awful lot from maps, onX, and other resources, but if you don’t get your “boots on the ground” and scout the area far and wide you’ll never know for sure what’s there. As Jim Zumbo said in Hunt Elk, “You can’t kill an elk unless you’re out where the elk live.”[20]

4. Get Away From Roads. As Jim alludes to, no one can expect to kill an elk if all they want to do is step out of a warm truck and walk 300 yards from the road. Yes, it happens occasionally, but the vast majority of those hunters won’t put meat in the freezer. Dozens of studies over the past 30 years have reached the same conclusion: the more roads and trails the fewer big game animals will be found.[21]

“Access to hunting grounds has changed … with many great elk areas now either overrun by weekend warriors jockeying off-highway vehicles, or locked up by jealous landowners,” says American Hunter contributor Aram von Benedikt. “It has become harder and harder to find solitude in the elk woods. And to find good elk hunting, you must find solitude.”[22]

For Colorado’s elk hunters the importance of roadless land is obvious—of the 15 most-hunted game management units in the state, 14 contain at least 66,000 acres of or roadless acres, and 12 have more than 100,000 acres, but you need to put in some effort to hunt there.[23] As explained by David Petersen (in Traditional Bowhunter): “Road camping is easier and more comfortable, while backpacking will get you into bigger, wilder, quieter backcountry. I say, backpack if you can and while you can. There’ll be plenty of time for comfort in our graves.”[24]

“Over-the-counter and easy-draw units are always crowded at the access points, but the mountains are big, and there are always spots where hunters won’t go,” adds Tony J. Peterson. “Your job is to find those. Instead of focusing on the meadows and waterholes that are visible on onX, you’ll need to get into the timber and look for sign.”[25]

5. Get ready to skin/quarter/haul meat. Before planning an elk hunt, do yourself a big favor and think seriously about the consequences of a kill and know what to do once an elk is down. This is a huge animal that takes careful planning long before you pull the trigger or release an arrow. In the words of former BHA North American board co-chair Ben Long, “Gutting an elk is a bent-over, head down, muscle-straining job that demands attention.”[26]

 Colorado BHA Roaring Fork Valley Assistant Regional Director Genevieve Villamizar adds: “Killing and slaughtering a 700-pound animal is a big effing deal.”[27] For the task my kill kit essentials include (in part): two knives, mesh meat bags, a small saw (to make quick work of leg and other bones), several pairs of medical gloves, and an external frame pack.

 Traditional Bowhunter contributor Karl Van Calcar summed up what happens after an elk is down (in “A Hard Day’s Elk”), saying: “As I stood over him, I really started to wonder what I had done. He was enormous and there I was by myself on a fairly steep hillside with darkness falling. At that point, I was reminded of a hunting buddy approaching an elk he had shot. He sniffed the air and said, ‘It smells like work!’”[28]

Failure Is An Option

In addition to the previously mentioned tips, the best tool in any elk (or other) hunter’s arsenal is simple persistence. You have to keep at it, day after day. You also need to be flexible enough to change things up when Plan A isn’t working. Randy Newberg (host of On Your Own Adventures and Fresh Tracks) hunted his first six years without firing his gun at an elk.[29] Similarly, I went five years before putting meat the freezer.[30]

Regardless, the only failed hunts likely involve spending more time in camp than in the woods or sticking to a plan that isn’t working. “Failure is one life’s most valuable events,” Randy Newberg said. “I did not realize this but growing up as a hunter prepared me for business life.”[31] Below are some more nuggets of elk hunting wisdom, from American Hunter Field Editor Mark Kayser.

-“Most often when I locate elk while hunting from trailheads, I have put nearly 2 miles behind me along with 1,000 or more feet of elevation …”[32]

-“My hunting experience in finding elk not escaping to private refuge is that the trail to them will either be steep or long, or both. Accessing those areas requires being fit, properly equipped, and focused mentally.”[33]

-“You can find elk within easy walking distance of trails in some controlled, limited units. And of course there is the inevitable and more common hunt that includes a death march into remote elk realms.”[34]

You can always hope for “easy walking distance,” but prepare for “death march.” In Colorado’s OTC units hope is not a strategy, but it is a motivator.[35] Hope demands active and proactive work. “In hunting, you go out with the understanding that you will fail 9 out or 10 times, yet you go after it with the same missionary zeal every time you leave the trailhead,” Randy Newberg explains. “I use failure as a teaching tool.”[36]

Fair chase OTC unit elk hunting is a low odds pursuit for most of us. That said, while serving in the military I learned to “fail forward.”[37] Useful failures are merely steppingstones to later success. Said another way, the very problems you must overcome in life (and elk hunting) also support and make you strong in overcoming them.[38] A rough translation of the Latin phrase “amat victoria curam” is “victory loves the possibility of failure.”[39] So does elk hunting.


Related information/resources:

Elk Hunting

-Randy Newberg. “The Best Workout For Elk Hunting!” Fresh Tracks: 8/9/23.

-“Peak Elk Hunting.” Bugle: September/October 2013, p. 64.

-MeatEater Podcast Ep. 30: Colorado Elk Calling Tactics With Champion Elk Caller Jermaine Hodge (1/26/23).

-“Colorado | Elk | DIY | Jermaine Hodge.” Colorado High Altitude Hunters: 5/30/23.

-BHA Fort Carson Armed Forces Initiative (AFI) “Colorado Hunting 101” seminar (photos) at Archery School of the Rockies in Colorado Springs (8/12/23).

-Tony J. Peterson. “3 Things Elk Hunting Newbies Almost Always Get Wrong.” MeatEater: 8/15/23.

-Tony J. Peterson. “How To Beat The Crowds In An Over-The-Counter Elk Unit.” MeatEater: 8/4/23.

-“Five Tips For Beginning Elk Hunters.” Colorado Outdoors: 9/19/14.

-“Hunting With A Man Made of Elk.” Colorado Outdoors: 1/23/14.

-“Colorado Elk Hunting: Right Place, Right Time.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 9/23/21.

-“Why Hunt Rocky Mountain Elk? (Part I).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/15/21.

-“Why Hunt Rocky Mountain Elk? (Part II).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/25/21.

-“Colorado BHA Tag Allocation Observations & Information.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 7/20/22.

-“Colorado Over The Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/14/22.

-“Colorado Over-The-Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting: Problems & Possibilities.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/14/22.

-“The Ghost Bulls of Colorado.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/18/23.


Roads & Trails vs. Elk

-“Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Increase Reward For Illegal Trail Construction (Help Stop Trail Building ‘Free-For-All’).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/10/23.

-“Proposed Jackson Mountain (CO) Mountain Bike Trail System Withdrawn.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 6/12/23.

-“Trails vs. Elk: ‘They’re Just Dying Off.’” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/3/21.

-Brien Webster/Kriss Hess. “CO BHA Publishes Memo on Illegal Trails.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/24/22.

-“Reward For Illegal Trail Construction Offered By Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/31/22.

-Brittany Parker. “Trails Based Recreation And Its Impacts On Wildlife.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/31/22.

-Sylvia Kantor. “Seeking Ground Less Traveled: Elk Responses to Recreation.” Science Findings #219 (U.S. Department of Agriculture-Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station): September 2019.

-A set of related studies compiled by Keep Routt Wild.

-The importance of roadless areas to Colorado’s fish, wildlife, hunting and angling is detailed in this Trout Unlimited report (authored by David Petersen and Keith Curley): “Where The Wild Lands Are: Colorado.”

-“Elk Hunting in Southwest Colorado: Mountaineering with a Gun.” Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP)-Backcountry Bounty: Colorado: October 2008, p. 8.

BHA Issues Triad (PAF)[40]

  1. Public Lands & Waters (Public Lands = Freedom). Our public lands make each of us land-rich. Protecting and perpetuating public lands and waters is paramount. “Public lands personify this idea we call America—which is freedom. The human animal—the human spirit—is not intended to be confined to a cage.”[41] We are, “The voice for our wild public lands, waters and wildlife.”
  2. Access & Opportunity. We are intent on keeping public lands in public hands.[42] Access has emerged as a priority issue for North American hunters and anglers, and lack of access is cited by sportsmen and women as the No. 1 reason why we stop pursuing our passions. Access to the more than 600 million acres of public land is part of being American. However, opportunity is diminished when “access becomes excess.”[43]
  3. Fair Chase & Restraint. “We must ensure that the ethical pursuit of fish and game is upheld as dearly as our own obligation to morality and citizenship,” BHA explains in its fair chase statement.[44] As Jim Posewitz wrote in Beyond Fair Chase, “The ethics of hunting deteriorate as machinery and modern technology are substituted for hunter stamina, skill, knowledge, and patience.”[45] As America’s first conservationists, hunters have a century-old tradition of policing our own ranks.[46]

David Lien is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of six books including “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation.”[47] During 2019 he was the recipient of BHA’s Mike Beagle-Chairman’s Award “for outstanding effort on behalf of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.”[48]


[1] “Colorado BHA Tag Allocation Observations & Information.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 7/20/22.

[2] Conrad Swanson. “Big-game hunting interest soars beyond Colorado’s capacity: Change in Colorado’s fee structure and COVID-19 pandemic fuel surge in hunting-license applications.” The Denver Post: 4/16/23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David A. Lien. “Colorado Elk Hunting: Right Place, Right Time.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 9/23/21.

[5] Tony J. Peterson. “3 Things Elk Hunting Newbies Almost Always Get Wrong.” MeatEater: 8/15/23.

[6] Jim Zumbo. Hunt Elk. Clinton, New Jersey: New Win Publishing, Inc., 1985, p. 177.

[7] David A. Lien. “Wapiti Ambush (Part One: Mountaineering With A Gun).” Colorado Outdoors: 7/28/14; David A. Lien. “Peak Elk Hunting.” Bugle: September/October 2013, p. 64.

[8] Steven Rinella. “Steven Rinella’s Top Elk Hunting Techniques.” MeatEater: 10/17/23.

[9] Thomas McIntyre. “EZ Elk.” Sports Afield: March/April 2011, p. 96.


[11] David E. Petzal. “Have We Gone Too Far with the Long-Range Shooting Craze? Today's riflemen can routinely hit their mark at 500 yards, 600 yards, or even a half-mile or more. That's fine on the practice range or in competition, but is it okay in the field?” Field & Stream: 9/24/19.

[12] Ibid.

[13] David A. Lien. “6x6 Karma.” Colorado Outdoors: 9/12/14.

[14] David A. Lien. “Hunting Ethically Is Good, Hard Work.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/1/23.

[15] Jim Posewitz. Beyond Fair Chase. Helena, Montana: Falcon Publishing, Inc., 1994, p. 40.

[16] Mark Huelsing. “8 Items You Need For a Successful Elk Hunt.” 9/2/15.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Tony J. Peterson. “How To Beat The Crowds In An Over-The-Counter Elk Unit.” MeatEater: 8/4/23.

[19] David Petersen. A Man Made of Elk. Eagle, Idaho: TBM, Inc., 2007, p. 119.

[20] Jim Zumbo. Hunt Elk.  Clinton, New Jersey: New Win Publishing, Inc., 1985, p. 170.

[21] David A. Lien. “Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Increase Reward For Illegal Trail Construction (Help Stop Trail Building ‘Free-For-All’).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/10/23.

[22] Aram von Benedikt. “14 Miles From The Trailhead.” American Hunter: September 2023, p. 52.

[23] Chris Hunt and Brian O’Donnell. “Report shows importance of roadless areas to Colorado’s hunting and fishing heritage.” Trout Unlimited: 1/4/06.

[24] David Petersen. “Planning a Do-It-Yourself Western Hunt.” Traditional Bowhunter: December/January 2012, p. 90.

[25] Tony J. Peterson. “How To Beat The Crowds In An Over-The-Counter Elk Unit.” MeatEater: 8/4/23.

[26] Ben Long. Great Montana Bear Stories. Helena, Montana: Riverbend Publishing, 2002, p. 164.

[27] Genevieve Villamizar. “From Field to Convert: Created advocates at the butcher’s table.” Backcountry Journal: Summer 2023, p. 36.

[28] Karl Van Calcar. “A Hard Day’s Elk.” Traditional Bowhunter: August/September 2008, p. 35.

[29] Rob Drieslein. “A quick chat with Randy Newberg.” Outdoor News: 8/2/19, p. 7.

[30] David A. Lien. “Hunting With A Man Made of Elk.” Colorado Outdoors: 1/23/14.

[31] Kevin Paulson. “Randy Newberg Public Land Hunter Interview.” 12/19/16.

[32] Mark Kayser, Field Editor. “How to Unlock Overlooked Elk Country.” American Hunter: September 2022, p. 55.

[33] Mark Kayser, Field Editor. “Keep Your Elk Options Open For High Or Low Hunting.” American Hunter: September 2022, p. 33.

[34] Mark Kayser, Field Editor. “How to Unlock Overlooked Elk Country.” American Hunter: September 2022, p. 55.

[35] David A. Lien. Where Hope Lives: A Brief BHA History.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/30/20.

[36] Kevin Paulson. “Randy Newberg Public Land Hunter Interview.” 12/19/16.

[37] David A. Lien. “Last Alert.” Association of Air Force Missileers (AAFM) Newsletter: December 2005, p. 3.

[38] Amanda Ferenczy. “Boys in the Boat: 10 Lessons on Strategy Execution, Teamwork.”

[39] Stephen J. Cribart. “Getting Out Into The Fall Line.” The Climbing Art: Volume No. 31, p. 73.


[41] Ron Spomer is a hunting writer, conservationist, and photographer.

[42] David A. Lien. “Fighting to keep public lands in public hands.” Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel: 1/26/23.

[43] David A. Lien. “Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Increase Reward For Illegal Trail Construction (Help Stop Trail Building ‘Free-For-All’).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/10/23.


[45] Jim Posewitz. Beyond Fair Chase. Helena, Montana: Falcon Publishing, Inc., 1994, p. 40.

[46] Colorado BHA Co-Chair David A. Lien quoted in/by: Dennis Anderson. “Opinions vary on using drones for hunting.” Minneapolis-St. Paul (Minn.) StarTribune: 3/17/14.



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