Colorado Bighorn Sheep Draw Recommendations 2020
2019 treated us well on the bighorn sheep front, but we’ll still top it in 2020. We harvested several of the largest rams in the units we guided, and left some great sheep up on the mountain. In many units there have been changes on the regulatory, quota, and sheep behavior fronts; more so than the last couple years, so hunters should consider adjusting which tags they put in for.
I have also posted an article on my 2020 Colorado goat unit recommendations here.
The below post covers all the sheep units that I am familiar with and/or have guided in over the past couple years. All these units are close to home for us. If you don’t see “your unit”, it’s because that unit is a terd sandwich… Ha! It’s actually because I don’t feel I have any valuable insight for that particular area. You can apply online starting March 1st through the CPW’s website. If you are interested in booking a hunt with us, visit our sheep/goat hunt page.
This unit requires serious scouting and serious hunting. In 2019, we were 16 guide days and 20-30 gallons of aviation fuel in before locating the top rams. Hunters need to be prepared for a long duration backpack hunt, if they want the best the unit can offer. The unit overlaps with the G6 goat unit where we also do a lot of guiding. Logistically, it is time consuming and physical to jump around drainages, so you need to key in on the sheep during the pre-season if possible. This is why immature rams get harvested here. Hunters get back into one of the holes and shoot the best ram within that vicinity, instead of focusing on the broader unit. It’s easy to say you won’t do the same, until you’re up in the rough stuff.
Sheep density is low in unforgiving country. The rams spend Winter and early Spring in the lower areas, in-view of Vail. However, don’t let this trick you into thinking they will be there during hunting season.
The GMU reopened in 2016. There are a couple nice rams wintering in the unit now that will be huntable in 2020. In my opinion CPW should not have increased tags to three rams this year, but they did. Three high caliber rams don’t exist in the unit, so consider this the last opportunity to take a large ram out of the unit for the next 2-4 years.
Location – North of Hwy 70, Vail. Sheep bordering Eagles Nest Wilderness. Limitation on hunting within ½ mi of Hwy 70 isn’t a big deal, as the mature rams tend to move higher into the wilderness. Scouting for sheep movement is key. Do-it-yourself hunters should be cognizant of where they are at all times and realize there is quite a bit of non-hunting outdoor recreation in the low elevation parts of the unit.
Type – Decent access via trail system. Backpack and hike-in only. Steep terrain.
Quality – Low density sheep unit, small population. Key is not to shoot the first decent ram in there. Heavy scouting to find older age class rams.
Success Rate – Short history since it reopened. Historically this unit has been hit or miss, year-to-year. We have guided the hunters who have harvested the top rams out of this unit in recent history.
Draw – This is a fair value draw for the right type of hunter, one ready physically for the Gore Range. For a hunter that won’t be in mountain shape, this isn’t the unit. Historically, a single tag makes for a non-competitive environment. In 2020, the hunt could get competitive depending on where the rams decide to hide out.
S11 takes in parts of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and hits Independence Pass on its Northern border. Stunning area with a mix of road-less hunting area and road access. This is one of the better units along the Hwy 24 corridor. 6 tags makes for a competitive hunting environment. CPW has overestimated the sheep population in here for several years.
Quality – There are older age class rams in this unit, but not like it once was. Several different pockets of sheep. The more accessible bands are pretty picked through.
Success Rate – Moderate success rate hunt, but still not easy to find a big, mature ram. Frustrated hunters tend to end up harvesting young sheep.
Draw – I view this as a good value draw. I suspect it will have draw odds similar to S2 in 2020. The hunting here is easier than S2 and higher success for your average sheep hunter. However, guided hunters will probably harvest bigger rams in S2 for 2020. S11 always has a competitive element given the number of sheep tags. Accessible mid to older age-class rams will get harvested quickly.
Across Hwy 24 from S11, S12 covers from the Arkansas River up to the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness area. Early archery season in August is a great time to hire a guide and get it done. We always have capacity to dedicate a large portion of August to helping a guided archer. This unit has one of the largest populations of sheep in Colorado, but CPW has done it’s best to hunt the living hell out of it the past few years. Quality and quantity has come off quite a bit.
Quality – There are older age class rams in this unit. Bands move to tough terrain due to intense archery hunting pressure early in August.
Success Rate – High success rate hunt, but still not a slam dunk on mature rams by any means. The river sheep are hit or miss, but as a general rule rifle hunters need to be ready to go wherever the sheep go.
Draw – This hunt is slightly overvalued in the draw for a resident, way overvalued for a nonresident. It is roughly 2-3x as difficult to draw as S11 on rifle tags, but does have the opportunity to hunt a larger population of sheep and some bigger rams. On the archery front, this hunt is valued about right vs S44, an easier-to-draw but more difficult hunt. If the archery hunt appeals to you, take a look at the two new tags in S66 also.
This herd has been dwindling over the past twenty-five years. I knew of some sneaker rams in here back in 2018, but never had a hunter draw. At least one of those rams was harvested that Fall. Still some decent opportunity for 160-170″ sheep. Hunters should have their big boy pants on for this hunt. Be open to long duration Mountain House eating and camping at high elevations, if you want to harvest a good ram. I don’t give a shit where you are from, the Bells will humble you. The non-resident tag was dropped from this unit in 2019 and then added back this year.
Location – East Maroon Bells. Boundary of unit changed in 2016.
Type – High and steep. Highly dependent on scouting to harvest a decent ram.
Quality – Slammer ram taken in 2014, nice rams taken in 2018. Not a huge sheep population or historically a consistent producer of monster rams.
Success Rate – Dependent on hunter’s physical/mental preparedness. There is one road accessible area that you have a chance of catching sheep in. Outside of that, this is a back-country backpack deal.
Draw – The closest comparison is going to be S2, low sheep population in rugged country. At roughly 2x better odds, this unit is a better draw value. Hard to compare to a S11 or S12 because the population dynamics are much different. If you are looking at a true back-country experience, this is the unit where you are competing against your own limitations, not other ram hunters.
South of S11, contrary to what CPW claims, the sheep population in S17 has declined in recent years and quality is not near as good as it once was. The accessible historical harvest areas are void of anything worth shooting, so you need to be ready to hunt the harder to access areas.
Location – Southwest of Buena Vista
Quality – Expect to work very hard to kill a representative ram.
Success Rate – Historical success rate by non-guided hunters is abysmal. Two representative rams were taken by non-guided hunters in 2018, but in the 3-4 years before that DIY hunters harvest was practically non-existent. Guided hunters harvested rams averaging around 155-160″.
Draw – This one is tricky to value. The unit is one of the easiest rifle tags to draw out of the bunch, and you still have a good chance of harvesting a decent ram if you work hard. It is roughly 4x easier to draw than S12, and 50% easier to draw than S11. It is slightly overvalued vs S11, but about right vs S12. I would suggest this hunt to a hunter in good physical shape, but who feels they need to draw their ram tag sooner rather than later due to age, future hunts, etc…
East of Basalt up the Frying Pan drainage. This is a cool unit, one of my favorites. However, the USFS district ranger office has made it a point to severely limit the public’s guide/outfitter options in this area. All the other units on this page have multiple guide/outfitter options. S44 has one. According to CPW statistics, outfitted hunters harvested one ram from 2012-2018. If you want to go guided, do not apply for this hunt. It is a decent DIY unit.
Unlike most of the other units, a lot of the sheep country here is dense, from pinyon/juniper up to thick dark timber.
I knew three of the tag holders in 2018 and kept tabs on their hunts. The Lake Christine fire on the Western edge of the unit did affect the sheep. During archery season, most archers never saw rams let alone harvested one. During rifle season, one of the rifle hunters was able to harvest a nice ram outside of the historical harvest areas.
I knew one of the archers in 2019. This hunter observed the top rams outside of the unit for the entire season.
Location – Basalt Mountain to the East past Ruedi Reservoir
Quality – Fantastic quality. Governors raffle tag harvested out of this unit in 2016. Lots of mature rams.
Success Rate – Archery success is low, mainly due to the terrain. Rifle success has been great, but I know some of the recent rifle hunters and they are not weekend warriors when it comes to sheep hunting. The sheep are spending more and more time outside of the unit during hunting season. This can make for frustrated tag holders.
Draw – For archers at the very top of their game, this is the value tag of the bunch. Archer success rate has been historically low, but this unit has many quality rams. The terrain is just unforgiving to guys that are not meticulous about how they hunt here with a bow. The one downside is having to deal with 5 archery tags in a relatively small area of sheep concentration. For rifle hunters, again this is one of the best overall values of the bunch. It doesn’t feel like a great rifle sheep area because the terrain is so tight, but access to big rams is there. Sheep movement in/out of unit boundaries makes it a wildcard.
Unit S47 is very comparable to S11 and S17 on the density and quality front, but is more forgiving in terms of a hunter’s physical requirements.
Location – North of Salida
Quality – Representative quality. 140-155″ expectation.
Success Rate – Success rate varies as the sheep do move around the unit. If rams end up closer to the Arkansas River, success rate ticks up.
Draw – For a hunter that is concerned about physical limitations but also wants to have a decent chance at drawing a tag sometime soon, this is a great value in the draw. Draw odds are going to fall somewhere in between S17 and S11.
In 2019 and 2018, we guided successful hunters in this unit. Our staff and I spend more time here than anyone. The sheep are low density, but there are a couple mature rams to be hunted. We killed one of the bigger rams in the unit in 2018 and in 2019 harvested one of the top 1-2 rams in the unit. The terrain is not intense, but you do need to be open to a back-country style hunt. The better quality is in the road-less wilderness. Unlike a lot of the other sheep units, this topography is good horse country. If you want to kill the biggest ram in the unit, give us a call.
Location – Flat Tops Wilderness Area
Type – Unsuccessful hunters in the past have underestimated the remoteness of this area. This hunt is a tough backpack hunt. Horses are typically a valuable asset. Glassing spots are few and far between. The sheep vanish in this unit if you don’t know where to look. More than any other unit, historical harvest sites are of little value.
Quality – Decent sized rams are attainable, there no slammers in the unit right now. Expectation should be a representative mature ram. 160″ to iffy 170″ class rams.
Success Rate – Guided hunters should not have an issue harvesting a sheep, but you need to be open to a true wilderness hunt. Unfortunately, some hunters have taken young sheep over the last few years.
Draw- This tag should be fairly valued for resident hunters in 2020. This unit typically draws with odds similar to a unit like S11. S11 has more sheep but also 3x the pressure from other ram hunters.
West of Leadville, this is a big mountain unit but it does have decent access to most of the sheep areas. In 2016, hunters did really well and pulled a lot of quality out of the unit. This last 2019 season hunters did well also. However, there are still some nice rams remaining here.
The wildcard in this unit is the two new archery tags. The pressure on the rams throughout August is going to make this a more difficult rifle hunt.
Location – North of Independence Pass and West of Leadville
Success Rate – This unit has decent success rate, but it varies year-to-year. These sheep move around some, so scouting pays off. Can be a day hike-in hunt or a moderate terrain backpack hunt. It just depends on where the rams go.
Draw- I view this hunt as comparable to the S11 hunt in terms of quality, access, sheep numbers, etc…
This is a great hunt, but you pay for it in the draw. I keep tabs on these rams as they are near my home. A group of sheep, including a couple decent rams, were killed by a semi-truck in 2018. Even given that incident, the area holds a lot of quality for one annual tag holder. There is 180″ class rams living here.
Location – Glenwood Canyon
Type – Located next to our primary outfitting area. Some of the sheep are highly visible from I-70, part of the year. Nasty, nasty terrain in the areas more prone to having shooting opportunities. DIY hunters should make a concerted effort to know where they are at all times, and recognize there is a lot of other human activity in the area.
Quality – There are big rams in this unit, 170”+ ram should be the goal.
Success Rate – High success rate hunt. Scouting mandatory to figure out bigger sheep and how the sheep move.
Draw – Over-valued, but what are you going to say? Big sheep, right off the road.
Email me directly at cliff@FTGuides.com with any questions.
By Cliff Gray
Cliff is a registered outfitter in the State of Colorado, guiding and outfitting over 100 hunters a year for elk, bighorns, goats, bears and mule deer across wilderness areas in Colorado and British Columbia. He has years of experience hunting big game via remote backpacking and horse/mule packing.
Cliff is a private pilot, certified wilderness first responder, and an official measurer for both Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young records programs.