4 Steps to the Field: Planning Your Colorado Elk Hunt

For beginning hunters or those new to Colorado’s licensing process, sometimes the mountain isn’t the most daunting part of the hunt. Deciding which license to buy and navigating the application process can give some new hunters a lost, sinking feeling.
Colorado bull elk
Hunters travel from afar every year to get a chance to hunt Colorado’s massive populations of elk. Planning for your hunt is a crucial part of success in the field. Photo by © Amy Nickelson/CPW

Each fall, the Colorado landscape beckons orange-clad elk hunters with brilliant vistas, frosty mornings and shadowy hints of stout bulls lurking in the treelines. The state boasts the largest number of elk in the U.S., migrating through an expanse of wilderness that can mete out as much punishment as it can glory.

For beginning hunters or those new to Colorado’s licensing process, sometimes the mountain isn’t the most daunting part of the hunt. Deciding which license to buy and navigating the application process can give some new hunters a lost, sinking feeling.

From the various acronyms (you have a CID, you’re aware of CWD, you may want an OTC license to hunt BLM or STL properties…), to hunt code tables (Do you apply for an  EE-005-O1-M? Or an EE-006-O2-R?), the process to get the license you want may seem more difficult than the hunt.

Four-step Roadmap

Following this four-step roadmap can help new hunters learn the ropes of hunting in Colorado and allow you to plot a confident course through the licensing and hunt-planning process:

  1. Plan and pick your big-game license
  2. How to apply
  3. Need a Plan B?
  4. Get ready for the field

These tips and resources have been gathered from Elk Hunting University lessons, which feature essays written by hunters and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) staff and biologists. Elk Hunting University is a popular online program developed by CPW Hunter Outreach Coordinator Jim Bulger. More articles about hunting concepts and tactics are available on the website and worth checking out, whether you’re a seasoned hunter or new to the playing field.

Free Hunt Planning

Answers to your hunt questions: Call a Hunt Planner at (303) 291-PLAN (7526).

The CPW understands that the Colorado hunting experience begins well before the first steps into the field. CPW staff continues to improve upon its customer service in order to make Colorado big-game hunting the best in the country, from researching one of our many hunting opportunities until camp is taken down. The Hunt Planner program was created to help hunters have a more enjoyable and successful Colorado hunt. Hunters who have questions at anytime during this process are encouraged to call a hunt planner at (303) 291-PLAN (7526).

1. Plan & Pick Your License

Cow elk
Deciding whether to hunt a cow elk or a bull is among the decisions you’ll make when planning your outing, along with where, when and how you want to hunt. Photo by © Amy Nickelson/CPW

Planning is the first, and most important, step in the hunting process. Putting in the work to create an informed, well-thought-out plan before applying for a license and entering the field can be the difference between a successful hunt and coming home empty-handed and frustrated. Finding the place and season you’d like to hunt, knowing the area statistics and structuring the kind of hunt that suits your needs will help you decide which license you should purchase.

Where to hunt

For some, choosing a place to hunt is a strategic decision, based on research and reports from the previous hunting season. For others, a favorite hunting spot might be chosen based on other reasons, like sentiment or tradition, because there’s a nice town in the area or because friends hunt there.

If you divide the state into four quadrants using Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 as the dividing lines, the majority of hunters choose to hunt the northwest quadrant. This region is home to the largest elk herd in the country, which means a good number of hunters can also be found there. The other three quadrants are usually less populated by big-game hunters but can still produce successful harvests.

  • Public land in Colorado encompasses more than 23 million square miles of public land, creating a multitude of opportunities for successful hunts without the need to have established relationships with area landowners. There are also Ranching For Wildlife properties, as well as private lands, available for hunting.
  • Ranching For Wildlife (RFW) is a partnership between CPW and private landowners who improve habitats on their ranches and provide hunting access for free to Colorado residents who draw a license to hunt their land. Bull licenses usually require a few preference points here, cow tags can usually be drawn for these properties for two or fewer points.
  • Private land also boasts a variety of opportunities. Landowners grant permission to hunt private ranches that have outfitting services or allow you to hunt for a “trespass” fee. This fee usually depends on the sex of the animal you want to hunt, method of take and quality of animals in the area. Landowner contacts can be made by obtaining ownership records and plat maps through the county clerk where you plan to hunt. Remember, always ask for permission before entering private land.

How to hunt

Elk-hunting seasons are divided by the type of firearm or bow you’ll use (called “method of take”) and also by date. Read the Elk Hunting University article “Introduction to Elk Hunting” by Jim Bulger for a good idea of where to start looking.

When to hunt

Timing is everything. Colorado’s elk-hunting seasons begin in late August with archery. Elk may be most predictable this time of year with herds typically behaving the way they have during late summer. Many archery hunters have success still-hunting elk at high elevations as the animals take consistent routes from the alpine tundra they feed on at night into the dark timber just below in elevation. A strategy similar to whitetail hunting can pay off early in September. Look for well-used game trails that go from above tree line into the timber. For those who are hunting elk herds inhabiting lower elevations, setting up on popular watering holes can be successful. Lots of fresh sign is the key.

Early season hunters need to be cognizant of temperatures and the potential for meat to spoil. Make sure meat is kept cool and removed from camp quickly.

Mid-September usually is time for hunters to start using pre-rut tactics. Muzzleloading season typically takes place this time of year. Bull elk can become very vocal and listening for bulls bugling can be a great way to locate elk. Hunters can also use calling to their advantage during these few weeks by imitating cow elk as they move through the timber.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, this may be the most spectacular season to spend in Colorado’s backcountry. The weather is typically mild, although it can be relatively cool at night and there is the potential for rain or snow at higher elevations to cause access problems. Colorado’s aspen trees typically hit their peak color and the bright yellow backdrop makes hunting in many areas of Colorado a visually stunning experience.

Archery hunters taking the field late in September will find fewer hunters in the woods. Most herd bulls have their harems established and satellite bulls are kept on the fringes of the herd. Listening for bugles is still a productive way to locate elk, but calling a herd bull away from its cows can be difficult. Calling elk too aggressively this time of year has the potential to move elk in the opposite direction. Hunters should be prepared to go deeper into the dark timber and hunt less-accessible areas late in September. Pressure from those who hunted earlier in the month has most likely moved animals farther away from easy access points.

By the time rifle hunters hit the backcountry in mid-October, the rut is beginning to wind down. Elk have also had several weeks without hunting pressure to return to their normal routine. Weather this time of year can be unpredictable. Hunters need to be prepared for just about everything from mild, dry weather to blizzard conditions.

If the weather is mild, those who focus on north-facing slopes covered in dark timber will have the best chance of seeing elk. The farther one can get from other hunters the more successful they will be. Hunters should concentrate on the fringes of open parks at dusk and dawn. Hunters should keep moving until they find sign and focus in on those areas.
Weather will be the determining factor on when elk decide to migrate out of the high country as Colorado’s four rifle seasons progress. Hunters should focus on migration routes if temperatures begin to drop and snow starts to pile up.

Winter range at lower elevations begins to become productive further into rifle seasons and into the late rifle season. Elk are more visible, but not necessarily more accessible, as they move lower. There tends to be more private land at lower elevation in many areas of the state. Hunters should focus on wide expanses of public land in traditional winter range.

Hunters who want to learn more about identifying summer range, winter range and migration routes have an excellent tool to give them a head start. The CPW Hunting Atlas identifies many of these areas that are critical to elk. This mapping program also identifies many other features that can help hunters be successful in their pursuits. Watch the video tutorials of how to use this tool to get started.


Paperless Limited License Applications – filling out your hunting application is easy online. CPW’s online store gives step-by-step directions and provides a safety net by not letting you finish the process until you have provided all necessary information. Also, avoid application issues or delays by ensuring you are aware of all ​residency requirements before you apply for the big game draw.​

Understanding Hunt Codes & Tables

Hunt code tables

NOTE: The header tells you which species and method of take the table depicts.

  • UNIT: This is where you will look first to find the GMU you want to hunt. If there are other unit numbers listed next to this in the “Valid Units” column, that means you can use this license in any of the units listed. Some licenses are valid in only one GMU, some are valid in multiple GMUs. This column also contains notes about any restrictions that come with the license, such as “private land only” or restrictions about locations where hunting is allowed.
  • DATES: Dates when the license is valid and you can hunt. One unit may have multiple dates when the area can be hunted.
  • SEX: what sex of animal can be hunted with the license – a bull, cow or “either,” which means either sex can be harvested with that one license.
  • HUNT CODE: This is the code you write on your application in the boxes for first-, second-, third- and fourth-choice licenses. There can be many hunt codes associated with one unit, please read the codes carefully and make sure you apply with the correct one for your desired hunt.

Hunt codes

Hunt codes are listed in tables in the Colorado Big Game brochure. They contain four pieces of information, from left to right: The species, sex, the game management unit (GMU) the hunt is in, the season and the method of take a hunter can use to harvest an elk with this license.

Example: E-M-002-O1-R

  • E – Big Game Species: E (Elk), A (Antelope/Pronghorn), B (Bear), D (Deer)
  • M – The sex of the animal is marked as: E (either sex), F (female), M (male).
  • 002 – The GMU of the hunt is the first set of numbers. I.e., “002” or “181”, these tell what unit the hunt is in. If more than one unit is huntable, only the lowest numbered unit will be listed here.
  • O1 – The next letter and number identify the season and dates for the hunt. I.e., O1 is first rifle season, O2 is second rifle season, etc. P1-P5 indicate private land only seasons. W designates a Ranching for Wildlife property, E1 is early season, L1 is late season and S indicates a split unit.
  • R – The last letter indicates what type of weapon you can use. “A” means archery, “M” is for muzzleloader and “R” is for rifle and associated methods of take.

The draw

Many of Colorado’s big-game hunting licenses are distributed through a draw process. The limited licenses (listed in the brochure tables) are awarded to hunters based on a preference-point system, where hunters who have accumulated more points get a license before hunters who have fewer points.

Hunters may apply for preference points each year in order to save up to hunt a specific unit. For a few select units in Colorado, hunters must accumulate more than 15 points. During such a wait, over-the-counter and leftover licenses for quality units are still available. You don’t have to miss out on the action while you’re saving points. There are also ways to apply so that you get a preference point AND a license for the same year. Call a CPW hunt planner to discuss the options that will fit your personal needs: (303) 291-PLAN (7526).

The previous year’s preference points requirements for specific hunt codes are listed in the “Preference Point” issue of Colorado Outdoors and on the “Statistics” page of the CPW website.

License Types

Colorado offers many different types of licenses and different ways to purchase them. To get a limited license hunters must apply through the draw, a process that awards licenses to hunters for specific units and dates.

Those who are unsuccessful in the draw still have many options for buying a license and hunting in quality GMUs throughout the state. See the 2011 Big Game Brochure (Page 2) for details and dates when each type of license is available.

  • Limited — Limited in number for specific units and hunt dates; they are distributed through an application and drawing process, called “the draw.”
  • Private land only — Available through the application and drawing process for specific units on private land and any State Trust Lands not leased by the CPW. It is recommended to contact the landowner and get permission to hunt before applying for these licenses.
  • Ranching for Wildlife — Available only to Colorado residents; these allow hunting on ranches that have a special contract with the CPW. Hunters must apply for these through the drawing process, naming specific seasons and ranches to hunt.
  • Leftover Draw option — Anyone who enters the draw for a limited license can check the box on the application for “leftover draw.” This means that if you aren’t successful in the draw, you will have first choice of the limited licenses that are still available after the initial draw process. Any licenses that are not sold during the leftover draw are sold in person in August. See the brochure for sale dates and times.
  • Leftover limited — These “leftovers” are the limited licenses that didn’t get awarded during the draw process. Both residents and nonresidents can purchase these during the leftover draw. See the brochure for sale dates and times.
  • Over-the-counter unlimited — Residents and nonresidents can purchase these licenses starting in mid-July. “Unlimited” means these licenses won’t run out before you purchase one. Archery over-the-counter licenses can be purchased from any license agent at any time before or during the archery season. Over-the-counter rifle licenses can be purchased at any license agent before the season, but must be purchased at a CPW office once the season has started, which allows for flexibility. It is not necessary to go through the draw to purchase these, they are available at CPW license agents, Wildlife Service Centers, online and by phone.
  • Over-the-counter with caps — A pre-set number of licenses (hence the name “with caps”) are available on a first-come, first-served basis for both resident and nonresident hunters.
  • Landowner vouchers — These can be acquired by dealing directly with a private landowner. The landowner applies through the draw for the vouchers. Hunters do not need to go through the draw for these but must pay the landowner directly. This is a common way for hunters to get tags to hunt private ranches.


It is possible to have more than one elk license each year in Colorado. All licenses are classified as List A, B or C type. A hunter is allowed to have one license that is A or B, or two licenses if at least one is a B. A hunter can also have any amount of List-C licenses in addition to A and B, but these are usually reserved for special hunts, game damage or population control. To determine whether a license is a list A, B or C refer to the hunt tables in the Big Game Brochure.

Unsuccessful in the draw? 
If you didn’t draw the unit you wanted to hunt in the draw process, there’s still ample opportunity for good hunts in other areas of the state. There’s no reason not to hunt, even if you don’t draw.

The Elk Hunting University article, “Plan B” Licenses: Unlimited and Leftover” delves into the details of how to get different licenses after the draw.


Scouting comes in two forms ­— by map and by foot. Starting off with a map is the easiest. The CPW website, Hunt Data, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey all provide good quality maps that depict public hunting land in Colorado.

Hunting Prep

However, there’s no better way to learn the lay of the land and do some in-depth preparation for your hunt than by walking the same terrain you will be hunting in the coming months. These trips to look at the land can be planned in conjunction with fishing, hiking and camping trips.

Scouting trips should focus on areas where the elk will be when your hunting season arrives. If you’re hunting early seasons, finding major game trails and feeding areas will be a start to a good hunt. When hunting in a late season, finding migration routes in basins and valleys can lead you to success.

Before you head to the field, it’s important to know the effective range of your firearm or bow and your limitations. This will help you get familiar with the distances where you have the best ability to make an ethical kill once you are presented with the opportunity.

There are many archery and shooting ranges around the state that offer bow and rifle sight-in for hunters. The CPW maintains an interactive list of these online on the “Shooting Ranges” page, along with hours of operation and contact information.

Colorado bull elk bugling
Bull (antlered elk) — A male animal with antlers at least 5 inches long. An antler point is considered to be a projection of antler at least one inch long. (It must be longer than the width of its base.) A good number of GMUs in Colorado require that a bull have four or more antler points on one antler or at least a five-inch brow tine to be harvested. So it’s important to examine your target before you shoot and know whether or not the unit you’re hunting has this requirement. Photo by © Amy Nickelson/CPW

While you hunt

All elk hunters using a firearm in Colorado must wear daylight fluorescent orange while hunting. (Fluorescent orange that has a camo pattern in it is not legal.) Regulations state you must have 500 inches of hunter orange visible above the waist, including a hat. Wearing an orange vest and hat is sufficient. It’s also a good idea to take an extra orange vest along to wrap around your backpack, so the orange on your back shows.

It’s also a good idea to carry phone numbers to CPW offices in the area, as well as State Patrol, in case of emergencies. There’s also a “Hunter Information” form PDF available for download on the CPW website. Print this before your trip, fill it out and leave it with someone at home so they can access information quickly in case of an emergency.

Field dressing and packing out

When you harvest an elk, the most important thing to remember is to field dress it as soon as possible to prevent meat from spoiling. There are videos and information on the CPW website that deal with care of a harvested animal. Many tactics can be employed for removing such a large animal from the woods. These are explained in some free short videos on the CPW website, Elk Hunting University articles and feature-length DVDs that are available for purchase through the online store.

Be sure to watch the short video about field dressing, a CPW officer shows step-by-step how to field dress an elk. Take notes as you’re watching and take them to the field for reference.

Amy Nickelson is the regulation brochure editor for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Tyler Baskfield is manager of the Public Affairs section of CPW.

One Response

  1. Thanks for your posting. My experience, Get out and walk. Farther from roads is usually better. But then again the only bull elk I bumped into this archery season was on a shelf 200 yards off a trail and I could hear 4 wheelers we were so close to a road when I bumped him and it happened to be his bedroom with rubs and beds all over. So they are unpredictable with where you will find them.

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