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Colorado’s Big Game Draw and The Flat Tops Unit 25

Over the past couple weeks, I have had discussions with fellow outfitters and hunters regarding Colorado’s draw system. For better or worse, the system unduly scares clients. Instead of putting in for the draw, our hunters opt for the over-the-counter (OTC) second and third season tags. Even though most of our draw season tags are nearly guaranteed, the lack of paperwork and uncertainty associated with OTC tags draws hunters in. Pun intended, :). At FT Guides, we know this is a missed opportunity for our clients.

Why bother with the draw? First rifle, fourth rifle and muzzleloader seasons are draw only in our primary Unit 25. These are great seasons to hunt.

Flat Tops Muzzleloader Elk Hunt

1. Muzzleloader Season –

Muzzy season is the hardest to draw hunt in Units 25 and 24. Depending on the year, non-resident hunters can draw this tag with 1-3 preference points. Resident Colorado hunters can draw with no preference points. The musketeers must have a hell of a lobbying group. They were able to get muzzy season during the peak of the rut here in the Flat Tops.

Muzzleloaders have a distance advantage over bows and the bulls are still giving away their position by bugling and coming to calls. Muzzleloader is the most consistent time to harvest large bulls in our area. During a 5-night trip, it is not uncommon to lose a couple nights sleep. The bulls are bugling that close to our wall tents!

Flat Tops First Season Elk Hunt

2. First Rifle –

The first rifle season is the most productive and enjoyable rifle season for most hunters. This is particularly the case if you don’t have a strong comfort level with snow. Back when first season was not a draw tag, this season was the most popular hunt. We would pack in over 35 hunters every year in this short season alone. The weather is more comfortable and less volatile. On average, hunters get more time in the field because snow storms are not keeping them in their tents or ruining travel plans.

Also, the elk have not been driven into their refuge areas. Once you get into the 2nd and 3rd seasons, the elk have been hunted and they work hard to hole up in hard-to-reach areas. Last, during the first season it is common for the rut to still be on. It is unlikely you will run into bulls fighting and gathering cows, but they are still giving away their location via bugles. In big country like ours, that is a huge advantage.

For the past couple years there has been a 100% chance of drawing a 1st season rifle tag, even for non-residents without preference points.

Flat Tops 4th season bull

3. Fourth Rifle –

Some guys love hunting elk in deep snow, and for good reason. Snow keeps otherwise nocturnal deer and elk up during the day. The associated cold and lack of feed forces the game to eat longer into the morning and come out earlier in the afternoon to graze. Tracking game in the snow is easier. Most importantly, new naive elk will move into the area after heavy snow fall. The challenge is that you have no idea what the weather will be during hunting season, when you are planning your trip in June.

2nd rifle and 3rd rifle season fall during the last week of October into the first week of November. Some years it is still dry and 60 degrees. Other years we have 4 ft of snow during this period. However, by the second week in November, during 4th rifle season, it’s a cold day in hell that we don’t have 3 ft of snow or more at our high camps. Hunting fourth season almost guarantees a snow hunt. This certainty has pushed most Flat Tops outfitters out of providing 4th season hunts. Our 4th season hunts are ran out of our base camp where we have comfortable facilities.

Historically, there has been a good chance of drawing a 4th season tag without any preference points.

Flat Tops Mule Deer Hunt

4. Deer –

Archery and Rifle Deer hunts are still a great option here in Unit 25. Archery tags are usually a guaranteed tag if you put in for the draw, even without preference points. Rifle tags for the 2nd and 3rd seasons are also relatively easy tags to draw. 4th season is a great time to trophy hunt, but it takes a couple points for a non-resident to draw.

Garfield and Eagle counties are know by mule deer hunters across the world. These counties have put more record deer in the book than any other area. Eastman’s and Huntin’ Fool have always mentioned this area as the place to hunt for high country 200+ bruisers. Development has drastically affected some of the units, notably unit 44, but the same genetics are across the units.

I always recommend that aggressive archery hunters draw a tag and hunt the 1st or 2nd week in September. We usually do several full service camps for these archers as the hunting is intense and sometimes you have to cover ground with horses to find the pockets of big deer. For late season rifle hunters, I recommend our base camp horseback hunts. Hunting high camps is usually a waste. The deer are quicker than elk to move out because of snow. You will end up hunting downhill most of the time. Guides pay off on deer hunts, more so than elk hunts. Large bucks are more localized and can be patterned. A guide can put you in the zone.

The CDOW has also introduced a Flat Tops High Country early rifle buck hunt. This tag takes 5+ preference points, but the hunt is a unique experience to hunt the high country bucks before they have been disturbed by elk hunters and archers. We only provide this hunt as a 1 on 1 guided hunt. We consider it a lifetime trophy hunt for the tag holder.

What does the draw really entail?

You can enter the draw via snail mail and the CDOW’s paper application. The paper application is found in the big game booklets the state puts out every year and online. You can also enter the draw via their web application service. You will need a valid hunter’s safety card. You also need to make sure to keep your Colorado hunter number for future use. The number (called a CID) is used to track your preference points over the years. If you apply using different CID’s over the years, you will no be getting the proper credit for your preference points.

Unit 25 Colorado Draw

What happens if I don’t draw?

For hunts where there is a good possibility they will not draw their preferred hunt (muzzleloader, high country mule deer, 4th season mule deer and big horn sheep), we encourage hunters to apply for a second choice that is guaranteed. Don’t wait to draw that special tag to come out and enjoy Colorado’s hunting. If you get some high country experience on a easy draw or OTC hunt, you will be much better prepared for future hunts.

DORA (the CO state department regulating outfitters) requires that all outfitter client contracts address the issue of clients not drawing their tag. A related clause is to be in any contract where the client is depending on drawing a tag. It is a protection for the client. Our contract contains this clause:

Flat tops big game draw

How do I know my chances of drawing?

I will walk through an example for clarity. All the following statistics are available here.

Let’s assume we are a non-resident wanting to draw a muzzleloader bull tag in Unit 25.

First, we look through the big game hunting booklet for the hunt code:

finding big game hunt codes


One trick is to notice the simple pattern used. It doesn’t always conform, but usually the code represents SEX-UNIT-SEASON-WEAPONTYPE. Note that in this case, the tag covers several units in addition to 25. This makes the tag harder to draw, even though Unit 25 is consider to have poor public access.

Next, we pull the most recent “Draw Summary” from the statistics page and find the section for our hunt code.

GMU 25 draw stats

This summary discloses that last year there were 175 tags for this hunt. 237 Residents and 200 Non-Residents applied for the tag. 114 Residents and 61 Non-Residents ended up drawing the tag. For all the hunters that drew the tag, 100% had this tag as their first choice.

Next, we need to find out how many preference points the hunters that drew had to have. Go back to the statistics page and pull the “Preference Points Required Report” for the species. Find the hunt code.

GMU 25 preference points

This shows that the 61 Non-Residents that drew the tag each had a minimum of 3 points. It also shows that of the 114 Residents, at least some drew the tag with 0 points. The preference points columns represent the minimum of the group that drew the tag.

That is all there is to it. Keep in mind a couple pitfalls. 1. Sometimes hunt codes change. In this case you need to go back to previous hunt booklets and figure out which hunt code carries the historical statistics you are looking for. 2. Quotas change. Your odds can drastically change if the tag quotas change. In Colorado, we do not know the quotas before we put in for the draw. Past quotas are an educated guess of future quotas. Harsh winters can indicate lower quotas due to winter kill. 3. The structure of hunts can change. The most common case is when two units are combined into one tag. If one unit was historically easier to draw than the unit it is combined with, the easy tag may become much harder to draw.

What can Flat Tops Wilderness Guides do to help?

Starting for the 2015 season we will fill out the online draw application for any guest for a fee of $50 per guest. All you have to do is fill out a form we will provide once you contact us. We will do the rest and discuss the details with you on the phone. You must contact us by Feb. 15th, to qualify for this service.

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By Cliff Gray

Cliff is a registered outfitter in the State of Colorado, guiding and outfitting over 80 hunters a year for elk, bighorns and mule deer in the White River National Forest and Flat Tops Wilderness Area of the Rocky Mountains. He has years of experience hunting mule deer and elk in the Rocky Mountains via remote backpacking and horse/mule packing. He is a private pilot and a certified wilderness first responder.

  1. Tom Kosmicki
    Tom KosmickiAugust 23,14

    This is the most informative and useful site I have run across. Its 3:30 am and its keeping me from a good nights sleep.
    P.S- I have to agree, freeze dried shit pie sucks. LOL

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