Harvesting an elk is the dream of many hunters. A successful elk hunt requires research, scouting and patience as you trek through mountainous terrain and backcountry. The effort is well worth it when you finally harvest one of North America’s most majestic creatures.
Hunters flock to Colorado for its large elk population and abundance of public lands. Colorado Parks & Wildlife uses a draw system to issue highly sought-after big game licenses to hunters. Elk tags can be obtained through the limited license draw or the purchase of an over-the-counter (OTC) tag. Colorado is one of the only states that offers OTC elk tags, which are unlimited licenses for certain units, seasons and manners of take—though you’ll be able to hunt with an OTC license in most units.
There are several ways to start elk hunting in Colorado. The first is applying for the primary draw. The application deadline is often in early April. This year, the application deadline was April 5, 2022. Primary draw results will be posted online from May 31 through June 3.
If you apply for Colorado’s primary draw and aren’t issued a license, don’t give up hope! You can apply for the secondary draw or purchase an OTC elk tag. Find out what you need to know to apply for the secondary draw.
Elk Hunting in Colorado
There’s a reason people associate Colorado with elk hunting. The Centennial State has a population of over 280,000 elk, which is the largest elk population in the world.
In the early 1900s, only 40,000 elk roamed North America. The elk population in Colorado dwindled to fewer than 1,000 animals as hunting in the state remained unregulated. From 1912 to 1929, Colorado Parks & Wildlife imported 350 elk from Wyoming. The small imported population helped create the healthy herds Colorado maintains today.
In addition to its abundant elk population, Colorado is known for its public land access. The state has over 23 million acres of public lands, most of which hunters and visitors can easily access.
Colorado’s Big Game Attraction Grows
As Colorado’s population and tourism has grown, the number of people applying for hunting licenses has increased. Over 700,000 hunters applied for the big game draw in 2021, a 27% increase in applications from 2015.
One in three big game draw applicants were non-residents in 2021. With this much competition, it’s best to apply early to avoid technical difficulties and leave ample time to correct your application.
While there are many great draw opportunities, Colorado’s OTC elk licenses bring in thousands of hunters each year too. With OTC licenses, hunters don’t have to participate in the draw or buy an additional qualifying license. Most game management units (GMUs) allow hunters to use their OTC licenses. That’s why elk hunting is so popular in the state.
How Does the Secondary Draw Work in Colorado?
The secondary draw gives hunters another chance to score an elk tag in a preferred hunting unit. Big game licenses leftover from the primary draw are distributed during the secondary draw.
Hunters do not use preference points in the secondary draw, and they cannot earn them. You can apply for the secondary draw if you applied for the primary draw and did not receive a license. Hunters who did not apply for the primary draw can also enter the secondary draw.
Colorado’s new secondary draw replaced the leftover draw, which only allowed hunters who participated in the primary draw to apply. Today, participating in the primary draw is not a requirement. The secondary draw is open to anyone with a qualifying license.
Secondary Draw Youth Preference
The most important aspect of the secondary draw is its preference for youth hunters. Adults should be aware that youth hunters have 100% preference for all hunt codes in this draw. All youth application choices are processed before adult choices.
If you have children who want to elk hunt, they have a better chance of receiving an elk tag for their preferred unit during the secondary draw.
Requirements for Colorado’s Secondary Draw
Hunters applying for the secondary draw must pay the application fee and possess a qualifying license. The 2022 application fees are $7.13 for residents and $9.17 for non-residents.
Qualifying licenses include annual spring turkey, fall turkey, small game, and combination licenses. If you get the draw, you will also purchase a big game license.
When Can You Apply for the Secondary Draw in Colorado?
Applications for the secondary draw must be submitted by July 5, 2022. Colorado Parks & Wildlife will accept applications starting June 21.
Colorado secondary draw results will be posted on July 7.
Leftover Licenses & OTC Elk Licenses
Aside from the draw, there are two more ways to obtain big game licenses (and obtain them more easily). You can purchase a leftover limited license after the secondary draw or buy an OTC elk license when the season starts. Colorado is one of the only states that offers OTC elk licenses. Regardless of preference points or draw status, you can hunt elk in Colorado using one of these types of tags.
Leftover Limited Licenses
Leftover limited licenses are any elk, deer, pronghorn, or bear licenses that remain after the primary and secondary draws are over. Big game limited licenses are available after the draws for a few reasons:
- Still available
- Drawn but not paid for by the deadline
- Returned for refund or preferences points
“Leftover day” is when these remaining big game licenses go on sale. In 2022, leftover and OTC licenses will be available for purchase on August 2 at 9 a.m. MT. Purchasing one of these licenses does not use preference points.
OTC Elk Licenses
The ability to hunt most GMUs with an OTC tag is one reason why Colorado is synonymous with elk hunting. Over-the-counter (OTC) licenses are available without the purchase of a qualifying license or draw participation. You can buy these tags before and during the season without using preference points.
OTC licenses don’t require an application. They are unlimited, so you don’t have to worry about not obtaining one. If you want to elk hunt in Colorado, you will be able to!
You can hunt elk with OTC tags during archery and rifle seasons. OTC tags let hunters explore units and scout land for future hunts. Use Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s 2022 Big Game Hunting Brochure to view the units where you can use OTC tags. The brochure’s included maps also highlight public and private land.
Colorado Elk Hunting Seasons
Colorado gives hunters the chance to use their favorite method. You have the opportunity to hunt elk during archery, muzzleloader and rifle seasons. The 2022 season dates for elk are as follows:
- Archery: September 2-30
- Muzzleloader: September 10-18
- First Rifle: October 15-19
- Second Rifle: October 29 – November 6
- Third Rifle: November 12-18
- Fourth Rifle: November 23-27
In early September, elk are in pre-rut. At the beginning of the month, bulls travel alone in higher elevations. Hunters will hear less bugling during early archery and muzzleloader seasons. Mature bulls will likely be on steep hillsides and ridges until they begin gathering cows.
Rut begins in mid-September. As elk herds gather, they move to mid-level elevations with thicker timber. You will hear more bugling as elk harems form.
During the first rifle season, elk are often at middle elevations. Most bulls will be in rut and can be found with cows, often feeding in large meadows. The weather at this time will be mild, though hunters should still be prepared for pop-up storms.
Hunters who drew for the second rifle season will likely find mature bulls alone. After rut, bulls leave the cows. A few raghorns and spikes may still be with their herds, but most bulls will be alone or in bachelor groups. Elk will be looking for places to winter, so hunters should explore areas near water or smaller meadows surrounded by thick forests.
During the third rifle season, hunters should plan to cover a lot of ground before spotting any elk. Bulls will be in middle to lower elevations. The fourth rifle season takes place in late November, when elk are more likely to be at lower elevations because of hunting pressure from previous seasons. Due to changes in sunrise and sunset times, elk feed later in the morning and earlier in the afternoon.
Best Colorado Elk Hunting Units
Some of the best Colorado elk hunting units are found in the state’s North and far West regions. These hunting units are known to produce large bulls. While harvesting a trophy bull is amazing, hunting is about the experience. No matter where you end up hunting, you are sure to make memories that will last a lifetime.
- Unit 1. Game Management Unit 1 borders Utah and is approximately 127 acres. Much of this unit is rugged and rocky terrain. Diamond Mountain is the unit’s most prominent feature. In 2021, there were seven reported elk harvests for all manners of take from the total of 81 hunters reported within the unit.
- Unit 2. The trophy potential in Northwestern units is high, and it’s no different for Unit 2. Hunters have the chance to find bulls at an average size of over 300. Last year, hunters had a 53% success rate in this area. Of the 240 total hunters, there were 127 elk harvests in this unit. While the success rate is high, hunters must be ready to journey across rugged land.
- Unit 40. Elk are widely distributed throughout Unit 40, and hunters may be able to find bulls from 320 to 370 in size. You will have road access to the mesas when hunting here, but the canyons and remote areas are only accessible on foot. Last year, hunters in this unit reported a 48% success rate.
- Unit 201. Bordered by Wyoming and Utah, Unit 201 is about 90% public land and one of the hardest units to get a tag in. With large forested areas and rocky upper reaches, the elk in this unit often stay here as the seasons change. The size of an average bull is about 305. During all 2021 elk seasons, hunters in this unit had a combined 45% success rate.
Take in the wild beauty of the Colorado mountainside, and experience the thrill of spotting an elk through your binoculars. Let HUUNT help you plan your next Colorado elk hunt, whether you want a fully guided, semi-guided or self-guided trip. Sign up to become a member today, or reach out with questions about how to make your elk hunt one to remember.