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Digital Scouting Colorado Big Game
Photo By: Jordan Ongstad (2015 - Using bikes down a closed road can save you time when scouting new country)

Digital Scouting Colorado Big Game

Posted In: Scouting

Posted By: Jordan Ongstad (May 18, 2016)

When it comes to hunting public lands, especially over-the-counter (OTC), it’s important to find that edge that makes the difference whether you harvest or not this fall.  After your find out which tag you have drawn, it’s time to start scouting. I’ll break down the process and a few things to keep in mind using the information found at DIYHuntingMaps.com with ‘The Digital Hunting Guide’ and Stats Pages to start narrowing down a portion of the unit that you’ll want to start scouting on the ground.

Choosing a Unit

Often, after the draw, your unit is set.  But if your tag allows access to multiple units, or you’re hunting with an OTC license, it’s important you start by choosing a unit.  Whether you’re basing it on harvest, number of hunters, or changes in herd population, step one is to zero in on the best unit for you. Hunt Selector is a great free tool to let you find a unit easily.

Choose your Type of Hunt

When narrowing down potential places within a unit, start by limiting the type of hunt you want.  Close your eyes and imagine the camp you’re in, the scenery, and the hunting situations you want to find yourself in. Across the state and within a unit the vegetation and elevation vary tremendously. To the North you’ll find heavy timber with lodgepole pine. To the south you’ll find more shrub-country giving way to sage brush as you drop in lower elevation. Here are a few photos to show you the difference.

Northern Colorado Timber

Northern Colorado Dark Timber for Big Game HuntingWaiting for the Elk to Start Bugling Northern Colorado.

Central Colorado Brush Country

Southern Colorado VegetationPhoto By: Tanner Vernon

South-West Colorado High Country

South-Western Colorado VegetationPhoto By: Tanner Vernon

Aspen stands are found throughout the state, but density and size vary greatly depending on latitude and elevation.  As a bow hunter and a backpack hunter, I prefer elk hunting the thick timbers at high elevation (above 10,000). Both elevation range and vegetation type can be found on unit pages at DIYHuntingMaps.com (An example from Colorado Elk Unit 47 is Below).  For premium users, the vegetation is broken down further and has a special layer on the unit overview, but you can do a decent job of discerning fauna from the satellite imagery tab.

Unit Statistics found at DIY Hunting Maps dot ComUnit Statistics found on a page like Elk Unit 47 - Click to see a unit page.

Vegetation Analysis for Big Game Scouting ColoradoScreenshot of the Vegetation maps on DIY Premium.

Understand Pressure

On the unit profiles, you can look up hunters per square mile (See Above Image).  In easier to draw tags, the hunter density can be quite high, so it’s important to understand pressure in the unit.  The best hunters aren’t the ‘Sitka Warriors’ going in 8, 9 or even 10 miles to find animals.  They’re the hunters who can pick apart a unit and find the holes that the onslaught of fall hunters push the elk into.  These areas aren’t a certain distance from a road, at a certain elevation, or distance to water.  They’re the areas that get over-looked by the majority of people who hunt the area. Access and how people move throughout the forest is key.

Movement is done by road, trails, and access points:

The Roads

DIY maps, whether GPS, Paper or Digital, break down road types.  Using this to your advantage will give you an idea of vehicle traffic within a unit. The better the road, the more traffic you’ll find.  Areas accessible by Improved Paved or Improved Gravel are going to be the lifelines of access for the unit. The Improved Native and the Unimproved Roads will have incrementally less traffic since travel is more arduous and restrictive to vehicle type.

The Trails

Trails throughout the state are restrictive in the type of vehicles they allow. It goes without saying that trails that allow 4WD vehicles and ATV/Motorcycles are going to be used heavily. However, big game animals aren’t likely to be found where access is easy.  Although trails like this can serve as great access points, there are a lot of hunters with ATVs and these trails get hit hard in the fall. They’re definitely a great tool, but you can’t 4-wheel directly to an elk.  Begin by looking for places around these trails that are unlikely for hunter, and terrain that protects draws and ridges from the noise and people on these trails.

Access Points

Trailheads and campgrounds are by far the most common places hunters start. I’ve shown up to our trailhead and been alone, and other times had 20 camps with 4 wall tents set up. As a good rule you should expect people at the trailhead and camps set up often within the first 4 miles down adjacent trails.  When hunting from a trailhead, keep things flexible, utilizing various campsites you’ve researched before the hunt at distances anywhere from 2-7 miles from the Trailhead.  Hunt the pressure and rarely go further in than the pressure is likely to push the animals.

Closed Roads

An over-looked aspect of the National Forest system are the Closed and Decommissioned Roads –roads that were once in service or used for logging operations. These roads are either gated or bermed off to keep motorized traffic out.  Although motorized traffic isn’t allowed, use these roads as access points that others may not think of.  If you have access to a bike, some of these roads are in great shape and you can travel quickly, quietly and efficiently greater distances in than walking allows.

Digital Scouting Big Game in ColoradoScreenshot Showing how DIY Hunting Maps makes understanding access and pressure easier than ever.

Putting it all Together

Once you start to get a feel for the access, you should have a few places narrowed down. In a state like Colorado elk are everywhere, so understanding pressure is more important than finding great elk habitat. An area could hold hundreds of elk all summer, but if that place gets hit hard on opening day, it’s unlikely to hold elk consistently the rest of the season.  Once you’ve located the areas unlikely to see a lot of pressure, then start picking apart the area for habitat. All big animals are the same and you need to look for areas that have protection, escape routes, water and food.  Further detail will be offered in a later article, but the simplest advice is to get out there before the season starts and scout on the ground. If you’re finding sign before the hunting season, as long as the animals don’t get pushed out, they should be there for your hunt in the fall.

Some Resources

Mapping Products
Stats Resources (Click below, and then click on a unit in the map to view more stats on that unit)

If you have any tips for other hunters, please comment below!

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