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Assessment: Big game hunting in Colorado’s GMU 29 and GMU 371

Red Mountain, a 13'er, which hovers above South Willow Creek in Colorado's Gore Range, GMU 371

Red Mountain, a 13’er, which hovers above South Willow Creek in Colorado’s Gore Range, GMU 371

The application deadline for Colorado’s big game hunting lottery is on Tuesday. For certain game management units, seasons, species, and sexes, the draw is your only chance. Otherwise, less coveted over-the-counter tags can be purchased starting July 26.

For 2016 I’ve decided that I’m going to to hunt a new area for elk and deer, instead of GMU 29 or GMU 371, as I have for the past three seasons. GMU 29 encompasses most of Boulder County, from the plains to the Continental Divide; GMU 371 includes the east side of the jagged Gore Range, north of Frisco. Refer to the Colorado Hunting Atlas for more location info.

I was drawn to these units for three reasons:

1. Convenient access

From Boulder, drive-time to GMU 29 trailheads is about an hour. It’s about 2 hours to GMU 371 trailheads. Access is via paved or good gravel roads, which was a major plus without a AWD or 4WD vehicle. The proximity allowed us to easily scout the areas, even after work, which was really helpful as a new hunter — you can’t shoot them if you don’t know where they are.

2. Wilderness

Hunting is a good excuse to extend my backpacking season, which typically wraps up in September. A meat-filled freezer is great, but I also enjoy hunting in beautiful mountain terrain. GMU 29 and 371 provide this experience in spades. Consider that they are among my local go-to destinations for summertime backpacking trips, too.

3. Good harvest rates

For GMU 29, the 5-year average harvest rate for elk is about 30 percent. That is, out of every ten hunters in the unit, three animals are packed out. The state-wide average is about 20 percent, so GMU 29 is relatively more productive. The 5-year average for GMU 371 for the first rifle season is also about 30 percent. I always entered the draw for this unit, since there seem to be fewer game or more hunters (or both) for later seasons.

Unknown to me, these units have at least one more important perk: very few hunters. Last year in GMU 29 we did not see any other hunters in the Indian Peaks, although we did see some at Gross Reservoir later in the season. The story was similar in GMU 371 — there was ample real estate for us and for a few other hunters in the area.

They're around, as evidence by the dropping and tree rubs, but they're difficult to hunt in such thick timber.

They’re around, as evidence by the dropping and tree rubs, but they’re difficult to hunt in such thick timber.

Over three seasons I became more familiar with the pros and cons of these units. Ultimately, I’m choosing to go elsewhere for 2016, and maybe beyond. Why:

1. Small populations

While the harvest rates are good, the elk populations in these units are relatively small. Of Colorado’s 124 units, the 2015 net harvest in GMU 371 was ranked 95th; GMU 29 was ranked 114th, with a total harvest of just 25 elk for all rifle seasons. In comparison, last year 1,100+ elk were harvested in the top-ranked GMU 12.

With small herds, I feel like I need more “right place, right time” luck. In areas with bigger herds, the harvest rates are about the same but I think that hard work is more reliably rewarded — if I’m willing to put in the days and miles, our respective orbits are more likely to collide.

2. Thick timber

Good visibility is hugely advantageous. Get high, scope, locate, and finally hunt. While the Front Range and Gore Range have considerable alpine and sub-alpine terrain, most of the acreage is heavily forested. And it seems nearly impossible to successfully hunt elk in the timber — you can only hunt 50-75 yards at a time, and it’s difficult to move without making noise, especially with crunch snow on the ground.

3. Private land

The lower elevations of GMU 371 and (especially) GMU 29 are largely private land. Last October we were fortunate in that winter arrived late, so the elk were still grazing the alpine. But if winter arrives early and pushes down the game — onto private land — these units become very difficult to hunt.

So where to?

I have not yet decided exactly where to hunt this year. By not entering the lottery, I’ll be limited to OTC and leftover limited tags. But that should be okay — I’ll have my choice of many units (e.g. 55, 43, 12, 23, 24) with bigger herds, more open terrain and equally good aesthetics.

2 Responses to Assessment: Big game hunting in Colorado’s GMU 29 and GMU 371

  1. Jeff O. May 4, 2016 at 2:48 pm #

    Hopefully you know all about preference points. Hunt OTC for a few years, then draw a nice tag in a prime location.

    I’ve also discovered that if you’re willing to hunt foot/horse only areas in OTC GMUs, the hunting pressure drops off significantly about 2 miles from the trailhead.

    – Colorado Springs just-light-enough backpacker and frustrated elk hunter

  2. Steve July 13, 2016 at 2:10 pm #

    Andrew-
    Just read through your hunting posts – I backpack but also do UL backpack hunting in CO (archery’s my flavor.)
    Good stuff – thanks for sharing, and for being a rational voice about the issue…sort of the opposite of the cringe-worthy ted nugent.
    Would be interested in any post-trip thoughts on your gear choices outlined in your 2014 hunting gear-list post.
    Cheers,
    Steve

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