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Top over the counter elk hunting opportunities in the West

Bull elk antlers close up

Photo credit: Brady Miller

Jump to: Arizona Colorado Idaho Oregon Utah

The sad truth is that point creep in the West is growing to the point that there are tags that hunters will never draw in their lifetime—no matter how much they kick and scream. While this single fact can be depressing, it’s also true that there are many great units that can be drawn on minimal points or, better yet, can be hunted year after year on over-the-counter (OTC) tags. Much like we always preach, having 20 tags over 20 years is better than having one premium tag in 20 years.

For most, one of the hardest hurdles to first overcome when researching OTC hunts will be with state selection. With so many options, it can be difficult to initially narrow it down; however, with good research, it can be done. After the state selection process tools like Filtering 2.0 can make selecting prospective units even easier. In the following article, we will breakdown five states currently offering OTC elk opportunities and explore some of the best hunts they have to offer.

Price of admission

One of the biggest factors holding most people back from experiencing OTC elk hunting is the stresses that come with financial investments. Between gear needs, gasoline, tags and time away from home, it can really seem daunting. On average, an OTC elk tag will cost between $600 and $700 dollars, which can seem quite a lot up front. If you take an average of $650 and break it down over a year, though, you are only looking at $12.50 per week or $6.25 a week if you hunt out-of-state every other year!

Cost of OTC hunting state by state

State Fee breakdown Totals
Arizona Combo hunt/fish $160
Elk non-permit tag $650
$810
Colorado Habitat stamps $10
Nonresident either sex elk $661
$671
Idaho Access/depredation management fee $10
Hunting license $154.75
Elk tag $416.75
$581.50
Oregon Hunting license $167
Elk tag $571
$738
Utah Basic hunting license $65
Elk license $393
$458

Getting started

Screen shot of Colorado OTC filtering

When deciding on a state to hunt it is important to take a few key factors into consideration. Because of the wide diversity of OTC hunts available anyone should be able to find a hunt that can provide exactly what they’re after. Filtering 2.0 will be the best available tool to start with as INSIDERS will have the power to filter select units from every state based on factors like success rates, trophy potentials, public land percentages, and much more. Utilizing the information found in Filtering 2.0 will allow hunters to quickly narrow down prospective areas and make the bigger picture much more readable.

Elk population breakdown in five OTC states

State Population (est.) Elk per sq./mile
Arizona 35,000 0.31
Colorado 276,000 2.7
Idaho 125,000 1.5
Oregon 116,000 1.2
Utah 68,000 0.8

Another great source of information to carefully study will be historical Boone & Crockett (B&C) entry trends. While most trophy animals are found in limited entry units, many great bulls are taken on OTC hunts every year and knowing where the highest concentrations of trophy bulls are found can lead to hidden gem areas.

B&C entries by OTC states since 2010*

State Typical Nontypical Total
Arizona 33 19 52
Colorado 39 9 48
Idaho 13 5 18
Oregon-Roosevelt 32 NA 32
Oregon-Rocky Mountain 2 3 5
Utah 51 9 60

*Keep in mind that the majority of these B&C entries are from draw units.


Arizona

In most western states there are some incredible OTC adventures to be had and hunters can find great trophy potentials in some often overlooked areas. Unfortunately, when looking at Arizona, this is far from the case. Some OTC opportunities can be found in the Grand Canyon State though most of these are merely used for population control. The state has implemented these hunts to help control elk populations in areas where the elk are causing extensive crop damages or outcompeting other trophy species such as mule deer.

Some decent bulls do get killed on the OTC hunts every year, but the odds are, in general, dismally low and local knowledge reigns king. Couple those parameters with the fact that Arizona also has the highest priced nonresident OTC elk tag and it’s pretty plain to see why better opportunities can be found in other states.

It is important to note that many of the OTC hunt areas in Arizona do not follow traditional hunting district boundaries and are set up for specific regions that may span over several connecting hunting districts.

Breakdown of Arizona OTC elk hunt dates and areas

Date range Hunt area Legal take
Jan. 1 to March 31 Alamo Lake
Winslow-Holbrook
Verde Valley 
Bull elk only
April 1 to July 31 Winslow-Holbrook
Verde Valley
Any elk
Aug. 1 to Sept. 15 Verde Valley Any elk
Aug. 1 to Dec. 31 Alamo Lake
Winslow-Holbrook
Any elk
Nov. 23 to Dec. 31 Unit 28 (excluding Gila River Corridor) Any elk
Dec. 1 to 31 Verde Valley Any elk

Overall, the OTC elk hunts in Arizona are going to be something that most hunters are going to want to pass up and leave to the locals.



Colorado

When OTC elk opportunities are brought into a conversation it’s extremely rare that Colorado isn’t immediately mentioned—and for good reason! Out of all of the western states, Colorado has the highest elk population and highest elk density found anywhere, making it an obvious destination for anyone. Couple this with the state’s close reciprocity to hunters coming from the eastern half of the US and it’s obvious to see why so many hunters flock to the Centennial State. Licenses go on sale starting Aug. 9.

Colorado offers an enormous amount of OTC units for rifle (any weapon) season: 148 to be exact. With careful research, some amazing hunts can be found. Trophy qualities are generally lower in Colorado though some great bulls are taken in general units every year. Competition can be very high in some units and finding solitude can be tough, but certainly not impossible.

With so many options on the landscape, narrowing down a unit to focus on can be a real challenge, particularly when targeting larger more mature bulls. Studying B&C entry trends for any given state and focusing on prime counties can be an excellent step to take to further hone down your choices.

Top B&C producing counties since 2010 for typical elk in Colorado

County Number of entries OTC units found in county
Moffat 6 3, 11, 13, 211, 301
Mesa 4 30, 31, 41, 42, 60, 62, 411, 421
Park 4 581
Grand 3 14, 15, 16, 18, 27, 28, 37, 361
Jefferson 3 38

 

Top B&C producing counties since 2010 for nontypical elk in Colorado

County Number of entries OTC units found in county
Las Animas 5 83, 133, 134, 136, 137, 140, 141, 142, 143, 147851
Fremont 3 581, 59, 591, 691
Moffat 1 3, 11, 13, 211, 301

 

While most of any given county’s trophy bulls are found on limited entry units, there are times where these large mature bulls will cross into OTC areas, which is where studying the B&C tables comes into play. Hunting one of these top producing counties doesn’t necessarily guarantee a shot at a trophy, but it does tell us that certain gene pools are present.

Breakdown of the top OTC units to consider for 310" or better bulls and 60% or greater public land distribution

Unit Trophy
potential
Bull:cow
ratio
Public
land %
Bulls
killed
Total elk
killed
Hunters Hunter
success
Seasons
available
591* 330"+ 20:100 99.5% 4 4 90 4.4% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle
30 320"+ 23:100 74.8% 19 23 179 12.9% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle
60 320"+ 38:100 81.8% 0 0 47 0.0% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle
62 320"+ 16:100 69.5% 166 212 1,509 14.0% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle
511 320"+ 22:100 62.0% 24 40 573 6.9% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle
18 310"+ 37:100 88.7% 15 54 1,204 4.5% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle
28 310"+ 42:100 69.5% 94 122 1,306 9.3% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle
35 310"+ 27:100 71.3% 8 20 310 6.5% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle
36 310"+ 27:100 83.8% 32 44 531 8.3% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle
44 310"+ 22:100 81.5% 12 20 422 4.7% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle
181 310"+ 37:100 62.3% 23 28 225 12.4% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle
444 310"+ 22:100 65.6% 24 32 441 7.3% 2nd rifle
3rd rifle

*Unit 591 is on the Fort Carson Military Reservation and requires that any prospective hunters obtain correct passes, register any firearms, and attend orientation meetings prior to hunting.

The above merely scratches the surface when it comes to great hunts in Colorado and hunters of all levels can find good options. One factor of consideration for most will be to go with a second season or third season rifle tag. Generally speaking, the second season tag can see slightly less competition; whereas, the third season can see more competition, but a higher probability of weather that can move elk into lower elevations. Regardless, with careful planning and research while using tools such as Filtering 2.0 anyone can find a memorable hunt in Colorado.

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Idaho

Giving Colorado a serious run for its money in terms of opportunity is the next state on our list: Idaho. Idaho has an incredible number of OTC options, great season dates, and the opportunity to hunt both the archery and rifle season on the same tag. Along with all of the great perks for hunting, Idaho hunters will also be happy to hear that tag costs are some of lowest in the West. Idaho is split into several zones; each of which is comprised of several units.

OTC tags are sold on limited quotas by zone on a first come, first served basis. Some zones will see leftover tags each year but the general rule of thumb is to buy as soon as possible. Tags go on sale beginning Dec. 1. Note: Keep in mind that OTC elk tags are currently sold out for the 2018 season.

Trophy potentials in Idaho are generally considered lower than some surrounding states, but some awesome bulls are taken every year and nearly every unit can provide opportunities at mature bulls above 270” B&C.

Top B&C producing counties since 2010 for typical elk in Idaho

County Number of entries OTC units found in county
Lemhi 2 21, 21A, 28
Valley 2 19A, 24, 32, 32A, 33, 34
Twin Falls 2 NA
Adams 1 22, 23, 32, 32A
Blaine 1 36

 

Top B&C producing counties since 2010 for nontypical elk in Idaho

County Number of entries OTC units found in county
Bannock 1 NA
Blaine 1 36
Jefferson 1 NA
Power 1 NA
Twin Falls 1 NA

While Idaho finds itself near the bottom of the list in terms of B&C entries, since 2010, it’s important to keep in mind that the sheer amount of opportunity found in the Gem State can easily offset lower trophy odds.

In the following table, we are going to break down some of the top OTC units found in Idaho based on some of the more vital points of consideration.

Breakdown of the top OTC units to consider for 300" or better bulls and 75% or greater public land distribution

Unit Trophy
potential
Bull:cow
ratio
Public
land %
Bulls
killed
Total elk
killed
Hunters Hunter
success
66 330"+ 26:100 91.8% 144 277 1,763 15.7%
9 310"+ NA 87.9% 28 28 113 25.1%
10 310"+ 44:100 99.7% 76 76 420 17.8%
12 310"+ 44:100 94.5% 37 37 171 21.5%
36B 310"+ 11:100 93.1% 123 155 710 21.9%
39 310"+ 18:100 77.1% 533 533 3,507 15.2%
7 300"+ NA 87.9% 72 72 428 16.7%
19 300"+ 28:100 98.5% 78 78 371 21.1%
21 300"+ 11:100 99.1% 107 108 440 24.7%
33 300"+ 14:100 93.4% 136 136 524 25.9%
34 300"+ 14:100 99.9% 40 40 218 18.5%
36 300"+ 14:100 96.3% 112 112 521 21.4%

After reviewing the information in the above table, it's plainly obvious that Idaho is loaded with opportunity and has the harvest success rates to back it up. It’s also intriguing to note that nearly every unit on our list has close to 90% public land or better! The bottom line: Idaho offers some incredible opportunities at a fraction of the cost compared to other western states and is a state that should be on the radar of every hunter.



Oregon

Of all of the states on our list, Oregon is the only one that offers opportunities for both Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk. Generally speaking, Interstate 5 that runs north and south in western Oregon is considered the dividing line for the two species though the gene traits can obviously become muddy in the transition area. Oregon offers a bunch of opportunity on its general OTC tag, which is good for both species, though options for Rocky Mountain elk are fewer with a rifle as opposed to archery hunts. The OTC tags go on sale beginning Dec. 1.

While Oregon is not known for producing trophy Rocky Mountain elk, there are some great bulls that are taken every year. Roosevelt elk on the western side of the state can provide good opportunities for mature bulls though locating the animals in the thick rainforest-like conditions can be tough, but this is just part of the territory. Studying B&C entry trends can lead to discovering hidden pockets where trophy genes may be present in general OTC units.

Top B&C producing counties since 2010 for typical elk in Oregon

County Number of entries OTC units found in county
Union 2 49, 52, 53, 63

 

Top B&C producing counties since 2010 for nontypical elk in Oregon

County Number of entries OTC units found in county
Clackamas 1 42
Umatilla 1 44, 48, 49
Wallowa 1 53, 62

 

Top B&C producing counties since 2010 for Roosevelt elk in Oregon

County Number of entries OTC units found in county
Douglas 9 20, 21, 22, 23, 29
Coos 6 24, 25, 26
Tillamook 5 12, 14
Columbia 3 11
Yamhill 3 14, 15
Clatsop 2 12

Analyzing the above table can certainly lead us to a few thoughts. Most the of state’s largest Rocky Mountain elk come from the northeastern corner of the state. Granted, some of the heavy hitting controlled hunt units like 54, 55, 56, and 57 are found in the same area, but elk don’t have to follow unit boundaries as hunters do. When analyzing the Roosevelt B&C entries, nearly every unit is represented; however, most of the trophies are killed in the Umpqua and Rogue River Siskiyou National Forests.

In the following table, we will breakdown the best OTC units for both Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt elk in Oregon.

Breakdown of the top OTC units to consider for 300" or better bulls

Unit Trophy
potential
Bull:cow
ratio
Public
land %
Bulls
killed
Total elk
killed
Hunters Hunter
success
44 320"+ 38:100 6% 87 150 350 43
48 320"+ 9:100 36% 111 116 1,529 8
52 320"+ 8:100 64% 60 64 821 8
49 310"+ 17:100 36% 106 109 1,432 8
50 310"+ 7:100 86% 33 34 603 6
51 310"+ 19:100 46% 29 29 379 8
61 310"+ 10:100 75% 51 66 499 13
53 300"+ 16:100 25% 26 32 242 13
62 300"+ 7:100 76% 21 29 281 10
63 300"+ 7:100 57% 27 43 270 16

When looking at the above table, it is important to keep in mind that elk account for nearly 90% of the total bulls harvested in nearly every unit with the exception of Unit 44 Columbia Basin. Overall, most hunters will find little appeal in the any weapon seasons found in Oregon and would be better off spending their time and money in safer bet states like Idaho or Colorado.

Breakdown of the top OTC units to consider for 280" or better Roosevelt bulls

Unit Trophy
potential
Bull:cow
ratio
Public
land %
Bulls
killed
Total elk
killed
Hunters Hunter
success
11 300"+ 11:100 10% 212 212 1,428 15%
16 300"+ 17:100 63% 67 72 1,612 4%
12 290"+ 15:100 66% 203 205 2,331 9%
14 290"+ 13:100 43% 387 392 3,826 10%
19 290"+ 22:100 60% 60 66 1,001 7%
17 280"+ 7:100 15% 79 81 755 11%
18 280"+ 8:100 43% 238 240 2,473 10%
21 280"+ 19:100 68% 50 50 1,029 5%
22 280"+ 26:100 76% 38 38 704 5%
30 280"+ 30:100 58% 54 60 1,561 4%
31 280"+ 12:100 41% 29 29 673 4%

Overall, most of the Roosevelt hunts will provide about the same type of hunt with similar success rates. There are a few standout units in 11, 14, 17, and 18; however, these units do see higher hunter numbers with the exception of Unit 17.



Utah

While Utah is commonly known for producing some of the largest bulls in the West the fact that OTC hunts are available in the Beehive State is seldom discussed. The lack of discussion isn’t totally unfounded; however, since the OTC hunts are a polar opposite of the limited entry tags and successfully punching a tag can be extremely difficult. OTC tags are limited by quota and sold on a first come, first served basis. Tags can be purchased beginning July 17.

Utah OTC hunts can be broken down into two categories: spike only and any bull. Spike only hunts are generally conducted in units that feature limited entry hunts for branched antlered bulls. Conversely, any bull units allow hunters to take any legal bull they find; however, these areas typically see lower elk densities and populations along with high hunting pressure. A general spike only tag is good for any spike only units while a general any bull tag is good in all of the any bull units.

Since 2010, there have not been any bulls from Utah that have been entered into the B&C record books from an OTC unit, but, every year, bulls in the 300” to 320” range are taken.

In the following section, we breakdown the best OTC hunts to focus on for Utah any bull units.

Breakdown of the top OTC units to consider for any bull general units

Unit Trophy
potential
Bull:cow
ratio
Public
land %
Bulls
killed
Hunters Hunter
success
Chalk Creek 300"+ 28:100 10% 91 412 22%
Zion 300"+ 13:100 66% 133 606 22%
Cache, East Rich 300"+ 13:100 54% 8 193 4%
Nine Mile,
Range Creek
300"+ 49:100 72% 79 391 20%
East Canyon Raghorn 31:100 26% 145 400 37%
Kamas Raghorn 9:100 63% 95 1,026 9%
Ogden Raghorn 15:100 26% 162 669 25%
Beaver, West Raghorn NA 74% 33 139 24%
Fillmore,
Oak Creek
Raghorn NA 99% 58 299 20%
Morgan-South Rich Raghorn 44:100 15% 112 488 23%
North Slope,
Summit/West Daggett
Raghorn 14:100 90% 472 2,751 17%
South Slope,
Bonanza/Vernal/Yellowstone
Raghorn 16:100 61% 812 4,703 17%

In the above table, it is important to note that elk harvest data for the 2017 season has not yet been released so the above table is based on numbers from the 2016 season.

When studying the data, it’s pretty obvious that success rates among Utah units are actually fairly competitive compared to other states where hunts usually hover around 10%, give or take. Success can be found year after in year in several units, but a successfully punched tag is usually being held by those with private access or those with intimate knowledge of an area and how the elk use it. Most hunters will find easier success in some of the northern units, particularly those lying east of the Salt Lake City area.

Hidden gem with Utah’s spike only hunts

Dave Barnett 2018 Utah spike elk

Opening day spike elk I took during the 2018 season.

While the spike only hunts certainly aren’t a huge destination for most out-of-state hunters, they do have a hidden value to high point holders. As we talked about before, the spike only hunts are generally conducted on units that feature limited entry hunts for trophy bulls. With this fact in mind, if an applicant had high odds of drawing his or her preferred tag in the next few years, it could be a great idea to pick up a spike only tag for the area a year or two prior to hunt and scout simultaneously.

Closing thoughts

With enough research, nearly every state on our list can provide a fun and enjoyable hunt. Obviously, Arizona is going to be generally avoided by most, but some decent bulls are killed there every year. Colorado and Idaho are undeniably providing the most options for OTC hunters and should be at the top of the list for anyone looking to experience elk hunting year after year. Following closely, Oregon has some decent opportunity for Rocky Mountain elk along with great opportunities for Roosevelts. Lastly, Utah can be a tougher hunt with an OTC tag, but at its extremely low tag cost it isn’t a bad place to look at; familiarity with units can lead to great success rates.

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