Northwestern Colorado has earned a reputation as one of the best places in the country to hunt for elk.
But experienced hunters know that across the prime country, there are certain areas where chances for success are better than average. Drawing a license in one of those areas can be the difference between landing a trophy and coming up empty.
"There is no question that some hunting units are more successful than others, but it all depends on what you are looking for," said Randy Hampton, public information specialist with the Colorado Department of Wildlife.
Hampton said Northwest Colorado has been divided into units to help control the elk and deer populations. The unit system is used to determine how many hunting licenses for each game animal will be issued each year.
There are larger units, calï¿½--led data analysis units, that allow for herd migration and movement. There also are smaller game management units, which help the DOW control the hunter-to-animal ratio in a specific area.
Biologists use the larger data analysis united to monitor the health of large herds and may or may not be based on geographic features.
The game management units typically are based on geographic points, which allow hunters to find them easily.
"It's a lot easier for hunters to find a river, stream or ridge line than coordinates on a map," Hampton said. "This way, we can send hunters to a specific area and know that they will impact a specific herd."
Some of the game management units post higher success rates than others, and at times, biologist can predict which units should produce prime hunting conditions.
This season, biologists predict that unit 14 north of Steamboat, unit 214 northwest of Steamboat, unit 13 between Hayden and Craig, unit 131 southwest of Steamboat and unit 15 south of Steamboat should be good.
But Hampton warns hunters not to assume that a game management unit's high success rate last year will translate into an elk this season.
Weather, hunting pressure and the knowledge about the area all affect the hunter success rate in a specific area. Also, a high success rate doesn't automatically mean a huge harvest in a particular area.
Hampton points to two hunting units in Colorado that both posted a 73 percent success rate in 2004. Hunters only harvested eight elk in unit 10 last season, yet the area posted a success rate of 73 percent. The reason for the high number is that only 11 hunters were allowed to hunt in the unit.
Meanwhile, 281 hunters culled nearly 206 elk in unit 21 for a similar 73 percent success rate.
Although both units could be considered hot, their success rates don't reflect the number of elk taken from each area.
Trophy units, where hunters only are allowed to kill elk of a certain point size, tend to give up fewer elk. However, the chance to get one of these larger animals is typically worth the gamble.
Other units that are not restricted will allow hunters to harvest more animals, but those animals may not be the kind hunters want to take home and mount on the wall.
Regardless of what unit the hunter draws, Hampton said it is important for hunters to do their homework if they want to leave this area with an elk.
"A lot of hunters think all you have to do is show up when they draw a hot unit," Hampton said. "But the hunters who put forth a little effort on the front end normally do a lot better."
Hampton said the DOW's Big Game Hunting guide is a great place for hunters to start, but they shouldn't stop there.
There is plenty of information about last year's harvest and which game management units were the most successful. But there are many outside factors that can twist the figures, he said. Hunters who rely on those statistics without doing any research might be disappointed even if they happen to draw a projected hot spot.
Hampton suggested a pre-season visit to the area, talking with local ranchers and other hunters to find out information that will be important for the hunt.
Maps and numbers will give hunters a feel for how successful they might be, but their eyes and ears will provide information about private property, terrain and how the animals get from one place to another.
Still, some of the information in the Big Game Hunting Guide can help hunters determine the best starting points.
"We don't want all of the hunters in our state to show up at the same place," Hampton said. "The game management units help us disperse the hunters across the region."
Although the information is gathered to help the DOW better control the herds, it is also important for hunters trying to find big game.
Hunters can apply for a license or draw for a particular area. They also can buy an over-the-counter license that allows them to hunt in all nonrestricted areas. Unit restrictions for over-the-counter licenses are listed in the Big Game Hunting Guide.
Hampton said hunters could use the information gathered from the hunting units in different ways.
"Hunters need to look at their unit, but they also need to look at the units around them. If there is a hot unit to the south of them, then they will probably be more successful in the southern corner of their own unit."
Hampton said it's also important to know the geography of a particular unit and how many licenses were issued for that unit last season when considering how successful the harvest was.