It was opening morning of Colorado’s 2nd rifle elk season (Oct. 29 – Nov. 6, 2022) and I was hunting in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. During September I had the opportunity to do some scouting in the area (on Sept. 19) with my friend, local hunter-conservationist and Colorado BHA Habitat Watch Volunteer Rick Hooley. We subsequently heard one bugling bull and I saw another, posing for photos roadside, the prior evening (see “Elk Hunt Scouting” photos link below).
Colorado BHA founder (and former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) David “Elkheart” Petersen lives in the vicinity too and added (on Sept. 22): “Bowhunters are saying it’s very lively out there with lots of elk and bugling. But nobody I know has killed yet.” During recent years I’ve spent several days in the San Juans each September scouting potential elk hunting locales prior to rifle season. For better or worse, I’ve only hunted over the counter (OTC) units over the years, where unlimited licenses are sold to both resident and non-resident hunters.
OTC Units & Hope
In OTC units the odds of encountering other hunters usually exceeds your chances of seeing elk. As explained by the Huntin’ Fool (in “Colorado Elk Hunting 2022”): “It is no secret that Colorado is also known for crowded elk hunting experiences, and with other states restricting this type of hunting for non-residents, it is pushing most of them directly to Colorado to get their elk hunting fix.”
As far back as 1991 David Petersen wrote critically about this situation, stating (in Racks: A Natural History of Antlers and the Animals that Wear Them), “If we want big elk, we must allow them to become old elk. In contrast, my home state of Colorado—which has some 300,000 elk, the largest herd of any state or Canadian province—continues issuing unlimited numbers of bull elk tags … having long ago established a preference and reputation among elk hunters for quantity over quality.”
In fact, Colorado is the only state that still offers OTC tags to non-resident hunters, as far as I know. Partly as a result, during six days of elk hunting in 2021, including some 50 hours of “armed hiking” and covering over 50 miles through 14,700-plus feet of elevation gain, I didn’t hear or see a single elk and encountered very little fresh sign. Some of my elk hunting friends who live locally reported similar results.
However, during 2020 while hunting in the same region I encountered a herd of 30 or so elk (after 24 miles of armed hiking), including multiple bugling bulls, and managed to put one down, which then required 27 miles of grueling pack out hiking. A heavy dose of reality for those considering a Colorado OTC bull tag. Showing up physically fit, ready to hike for miles every day is absolutely essential.
After Rick and I finished our (Sept. 19) scouting hike, the local Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) District Wildlife Manager (DWM) pulled up. We started chatting and before long a hunter carrying a pricey-looking pair of binoculars strolled over and asked about places to glass. The DWM said there were none, and not many in this part of the San Juans in general due to the rugged, mountainous, and thickly-forested nature of the terrain.
Tagging a San Juans bull more often than not requires going beyond the “spotting and stalking” technique many elk hunters use successfully throughout the West to put meat in the freezer. It usually calls for hiking, climbing, and crawling across miles of mountainous terrain in search of elusive elk hidden in oftentimes inaccessible locales.
And after twenty-plus years of hunting, hiking, and climbing through wide swaths of the San Juan Mountains in search of elk, turkeys, and adventure, I’ve found that although hope is not a strategy for putting meat in the freezer, when combined with perseverance, skill, and some luck it can get the job done. As Jim Carey said in Dumb and Dumber, at least you have a chance. You must be a determined optimist to be an OTC unit elk hunter.
On the first day of 2nd rifle season (Oct. 29) the locale I planned to hunt was occupied by two hunters. Hence, during day two I went on a scouting trip, going further from camp and, hopefully, pushing beyond other hunters’ comfort zones. As David Petersen wrote in his book Going Trad, “Finding elk is all about avoiding other hunters.” I eventually encountered fresh elk tracks and no sign of other hunters. A good combination, as explained by American Hunter contributor Mark Kayser (in “Elk On Uneven Ground,” Sept. 2018).
“Ask Andy Holland. Part of Holland’s job as a big-game manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is to study elk. To analyze elk behavior, Andy has to find them. He’s been doing that for 17 years now. Studying terrain with an elk mindset helps him excel at his position. It also doesn’t hurt that Holland grew up in Montana’s elk country and has been hunting the leggy ungulates for more than 30 years.”
“‘Elk discover terrain that helps them avoid people by trial and error,’ states Holland. ‘Once they find an area where they stop getting bumped, they’ll stay longer. And you have to remember, some of these cow elk have been playing this game for 20 years. They have 20 years of history that includes our hunting season structure and hunter behavior. They know more than we give them credit for, and they remember where to go when they want to avoid people’ …”
On the morning of day three a bull appeared silently/seemingly out of nowhere. A mere 200 feet (or so) away, partially obscured by trees and brush, I impatiently waited a second or two (that seemed an eternity) for him to move into a better position, then three shots rang out in quick succession. The first two hit him without a noticeable reaction (lung shots), although he was living on borrowed time. Next, he ran towards me, providing a broadside shot opportunity at about 50 feet.
“Elk are infamous for absorbing lead like a sponge and offering no visible reaction in return,” explained the editors of Sporting Classic Daily. “In this 21st Century age of one-shot kills and long-range shooting, many hunting guides are frustrated by their clients’ refusal to anchor elk with follow-up shots. The first shot hits … and the shooter takes a victory lap, leaving the guide to watch as the bull races off to parts unknown.”
“A lung shot sometimes looks like a miss because the bullet doesn’t knock them over but passes right through and doesn’t spend all its energy on the elk,” according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Elk Hunting Q&A. “A lung-shot elk can run any direction. If there are other elk, they sometimes go with the herd until they slow down for lack of oxygen. Then they usually just lie down or stand … until they lose consciousness and fall.”
Although this bull made a mad dash exiting the area, within a minute or two he took what sounded like his final, labored breaths. After twenty minutes I started tracking and five minutes later found him, deceased. Approaching a downed bull is always (for me) an emotional, if not overwhelming, experience. The sheer size/bulk and wild beauty of an adult elk makes it abundantly clear that you have taken the life of an amazing animal and the hardest part of your hunt is about to begin.
Low Odds Aren’t Zero Odds
Before planning an elk hunt on your own, do yourself a big favor and think seriously about the consequences if you’re successful. Know what to do once an elk is on the ground. This is not a white-tailed deer. It is a huge animal that takes careful planning long before you pull the trigger or release the arrow.
“A bull elk weighs 700 pounds and doesn’t easily surrender its spirit,” adds American Hunter field editor Jeff Johnston. “Mud-caked hide, massive bones, second-to-none cardiovascular efficiency and mountainous terrain make these beasts extremely tough …” Two days of back- and knee-crushing meat packing followed, which I refer to as the “elk hunting weight loss plan.” Second only to the “Mount Everest weight loss plan” of my mountaineering days.
Elk hunting on Colorado’s public lands in an OTC unit, where anyone from anywhere can buy a tag, takes a healthy combination of hope and perseverance, not to mention some skill and luck. These may be the most pressured elk in the country and, hence, they’re adept at evading hunters, especially after experiencing a month of bow hunters (Sept.), a week muzzleloader hunters (also during September), followed by four separate rifle seasons (Oct. – Nov.). As a result, shooting an OTC elk can be the rough equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. Only occasionally have I managed to beat the odds.
My friend Stuart Osthoff (Boundary Waters Journal publisher), who spends each September hunting elk and guiding hunters in the wilderness north of Rocky Mountain National Park, is just as skilled at wilderness (i.e., Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) angling (aka, “hydraulic hunting”). And some of his fishing advice is also applicable to OTC elk hunting. “But you know, fishing is a strange game,” he wrote. “You can play all the percentages just right, exploiting the probable over and over. But there is still no predicting the possible. Lows odds are not zero odds. If you keep throwing that lure out there, you have a chance at something big.”
Pivoting to elk hunting, Stu said: “When all is said and done it is not about the tangible results of the hunt; it is about a very deep engagement with the wild and a spiritual fulfillment that is as good as it gets.” And to quote David Petersen (in A Man Made of Elk), “Every hour I spend out there among the elk makes me that much stronger, that much saner, that much more alive and glad of it.” Me too.
For additional/related information see the links below:
Elk Scouting/Hunting Photos
- Colorado-San Juan Mountains Elk Hunt (Oct. 29 – Nov. 2).
- Colorado-San Juan Mountains Hiking/Elk Hunt Scouting (Sept. 19-20, 2022).
Elk Hunting Information/Stories
- “Southwest Colorado (‘Armed Hiking’) Elk Hunt.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/15/21.
- “Why Hunt Rocky Mountain Elk? (Part II).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/25/21.
- “Why Hunt Rocky Mountain Elk? (Part I).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/15/21.
- “Colorado Elk Hunting: Right Place, Right Time.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 9/23/21.
- “Colorado Elk Hunting: Backcountry Bull.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/12/20.
- “Colorado Elk Hunting: Showing Up (Physically Fit) Is Half The Battle (& The Easy Half).” Colorado Outdoors: 8/7/20.
Elk Herd Trends/Tag Allocation/Trails
- Liz Rose. “Improving Management Where Big Game and Recreation Overlap on Public Land.” Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership: 10/27/22.
- Alayna Alverez. “Colorado’s outdoor recreation boom endangers elk herds.” Axios Denver: 10/6/22.
- Brien Webster/Kriss Hess. “CO BHA Publishes Memo on Illegal Trails.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/24/22.
- “Colorado BHA Tag Allocation Observations & Information.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 7/20/22.
- “Hunting Educated Mountain Merriam’s And Elk Herd/Hunting Trends (& Cinco de Mayo).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/5/22.
- “Reward For Illegal Trail Construction Offered By Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/31/22.
- “Trails vs. Elk: ‘They’re Just Dying Off.’” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/3/21.
- “E-Bikes & Elk: A Bad Combination.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/21/20.
- Jonathan Romeo. “What to do about Southwest Colorado’s ailing elk herds?” The Durango Herald: 1/31/20.
- Jonathan Romeo. “Where have all the elk gone? In Southwest Colorado, herds show distressing signs.” The Durango Herald: 11/15/18.
- “Colorado BHA Report: Impacts of Off-Road Recreation on Public Lands Habitat.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/21/18.
- 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. https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/scifi219.pdf
Colorado Elk Seasons (2022) Overview:
Archery Sept 2-30
Muzzleloaders Sept 11-19
Rifle Oct 16-20, Oct 30-Nov 7, Nov 13-19 and Nov 24-28
David “Elkheart” Petersen (a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) started the first Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) state chapter in Colorado. David is also one of North America’s most renowned hunting ethicists and trad bow hunters and his writings (in part) inspired Mike Beagle (a former U.S. Army officer) to start BHA. A documentary film, “On the Wild Edge: Hunting for A Natural Life,” about his life and love of hunting and all things wild is now available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/-IE58L4bqEA. Also see: https://davidpetersenbooks.com/
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.” During 2019 he was the recipient of BHA’s Mike Beagle-Chairman’s Award “for outstanding effort on behalf of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.”
 David Petersen. Racks: A Natural History of Antlers and the Animals that Wear Them. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press, 2010, 1991, p. 119.
 David Petersen. Going Trad. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press: 2013, p. 28.
 Mark Kayser. “Elk On Uneven Ground.” American Hunter: September 2018, p. 48.
 Mark Kayser. “Elk On Uneven Ground.” American Hunter: September 2018, p. 50.
 Editors. “TR’s Rules to Hunt By.” Sporting Classic Daily: 9/11/15.
 Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). Elk Hunting Q&A. Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2007, p. 147.
 Jim Zumbo. Hunt Elk. Clinton, NJ: New Win Publishing, Inc., 1985, p. 183.
 Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). Elk Hunting Q&A. Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2007, p. 46.
 Jeff Johnston, Field Editor. “Shooting the Bull.” American Hunter: September 2016, p. 36.
 Stuart Osthoff. “Grand Slam Spring/Summer 2022.” The Boundary Waters Journal: Fall 2022, p. 56.
 Stuart Osthoff. “Living On The Edge: Fall 2015.” The Boundary Waters Journal: Winter 2015, p. 35.
 David Petersen. A Man Made of Elk. Eagle, Idaho: TBM, Inc., 2007, p.13