Migration: As the summer ends and the frenzy of the rut dies down, cold weather is right behind. The older cows remember previous migrations and start leading small groups of cows and rag bulls to round up points just out of the woods. They start to form herds on south facing hillsides, not north facing because there’s not enough forage. The big bulls head off on their own or in small groups to try to rebuild their fat stores. At this time of year they’re more concerned with eating than hiding. For the rest, herding up provides protection in numbers but creates a vulnerability: Once herded up in ‘open areas’, they’re visible. This is why you, the hunter, need to be on a high vantage point with quality binoculars or a spotting scope looking for these herds in the migration routes that you found using the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Hunting Atlas Maps
Where are they going on their migrations: their winter feeding grounds of course. Again – you will find winter range on the maps at the website listed above. If there’s been a lot of snow before your particular season, they may already be there. You need to know where it is and where there is access. When you study the maps closely, you will realize that CPW has leased a lot of land in winter range for two important reasons: 1, it provides elk sure access to food, and 2, it provides hunters’ access to the animals. These areas are often “state wildlife areas”. A comprehensive list of them including size, access, etc… can be found using the Property Finder website
Feeding: Elk always need access to food so they can be found along routes that offer cover, water and grazing opportunities – away from major highways. There is one caveat to this that the late season hunter must keep in mind. When they finally decide to move on their migrations, they just go. They’re not thinking about food. They can move 10, 20, 30, or even 40 miles in one night. However, remember that areas that offer plentiful forage for herds are where they will head.
Weather: Because the rut is over and winter is coming, weather is the major driver of most everything that happens during the late seasons. Weather determines how much clothing you wear, where the animals are, when the animals move or bed down, how much food the animals can access, and many other things. It determines how mobile you can be and how long you can sit on one place.
Now a very important thing to consider is that when I say weather, I mean wind and precipitation because for the most part temperature doesn’t impact elk behavior until it gets very cold. You can safely assume that in the fall and early winter in Colorado it will be ‘kind of’ cold. If there are no clouds at night, it can get close to zero. But sometimes you will have days in the 60s in late November.
The reason I point this out is that no matter how cold you may feel, the elk are warm. Never assume that because you are freezing your butt off at -15○ the elk are cold. It takes prolonged temperatures well below -20○ to affect their behavior. When it does, they are likely to get a bit active at about the time you run for cover. Though some studies show elk pay a thermodynamic penalty for moving in the very cold, they still do it to try to stay warm. So, only when it is extremely cold (<20○F) will the elk start to move a little more . If you can stand it, that’s when extremely cold temperatures start to work to your benefit. In the longer term – when there are days or weeks of extremely cold weather, then the elk will tend to hunker down to conserve energy and prevent heat loss by convection.
The next part of weather to pay attention is snow, for several reasons:
- First: If a blizzard is moving in, you have to plan for it to stay safe. Do you have chains? How long will the blizzard last? Can you shelter stand with 16” of snow on the roof? Do you have enough food? Be ready for heavy snows and plan for them when getting your gear together.
- Second: Snow is your friend. Fresh snow gives you the opportunity to track animals. Remember that tracks in snow age quickly unless it is extremely cold. Check scat in the snow. Is it still warm? Have the tracks frozen hard at the bottom where the snow was compressed. Of course, if it snowed the previous night, you know the tracks you see are fresh. When driving through migratory corridors after snow, look along the road for where groups of elk crossed during the night. Did they walk into legal hunting areas – if so – get after them, they’re probably not too far and are bedded down in the part of the area farthest from a road. I never miss an opportunity to hunt any morning immediately after a snow. I have filled more tags this way than any other.
- Thirdly – and VERY importantly, when it is snowing moderately to heavily during the day, the elk will often feed in the middle of the day. This makes them more visible but requires you to cover more ground to find them. Carry extra gas.
According to CPW Biologist Brian Dreher, it is pretty well established that once snow depths reach the 15 to 18 inches, elk will migrate to areas with less snow for easier access to food. However, if they have to run a gauntlet of hunters they may stay a little bit longer. So if you are driving up hill in an area and the snow is getting deep, stop and rethink – just how deep is the snow? If it’s over 16” you’re probably better off turning around and looking downhill.
There may be years when there is no snow during the late season. If indeed, global warming is happening, that will become more and more likely over time. However, for the foreseeable future there will be snow in the high country if not down below. If there is little or no snow at lower altitude (<8,000 feet) remember two things:
- Resident Elk Herds. Resident elk herds are herds that stay in or close to an area all year. Last year we went to one of our favorite spots for a 2nd season buck hunt. The days were in the mid 60s and nights were just starting to freeze. My friends asked me why we didn’t get elk tags and I said “because they’re never in here until 4th rifle.” Yea right! First morning, driving up our favorite ridge we looked up and saw three cow elk milling around and my jaw dropped wide open as my buddies gave me a ton of “friendly feedback”. Driving out that afternoon we saw some other hunters with a large bull in their truck. What the heck? Resident elk that’s what. They may be there in fewer numbers, but they are there. Migrating elk are not the only elk. A couple of years earlier I was in a thrift shop in Craig buying old sheets to wrap my quarters in. When I told the gal at the store why I was there she said “boy I wish I had known you were coming, I have a herd of elk at my place all year up by Great Divide that’s always getting into our alfalfa. You could just drive up and shot them in the morning.” Right there you have intelligence gathering and resident elk herd information in one fell swoop!
- Follow the snow line. As I mentioned earlier, elk go lower when the snow gets about 15” deep. Drive to higher altitude until the snow starts to get deep. Look around. If they’re not in full migration mode yet because there’s not enough snow, hunt just below the snow line, again looking for where they have herded up on south facing slopes.