Know your GMU

By Dave Buchanan

Late last fall, as I walked out of the woods on the final evening of my elk hunt, I had but one consolation: I knew my hunting unit better than I had on Day One.

After eight years of hunting a unit in the Gunnison Basin, I I shifted last year a few miles west to the edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau.

I was hunting in a unit that was new to me, and in spite of all my pre-season Google Earth searches and digital/physical topo map purchases, the best education came from getting out on foot and actually feeling the ground beneath my boots.

I didn’t find any elk (there was a bull moose that gave me quick once-over as it sprinted past) but, gee, the country sure looked “elky.”

In fact, the unit seemed so perfect for elk I figured it was me, not the elk, and that I needed a few lessons in where those animals hang out.

My goal for this year was to know even more about the unit, which meant more time spent pre-scouting the unit. And I first turned to the resources Colorado Parks and Wildlife offers in its Elk Hunting University.

This resource- and information-rich website is at

Longtime CPW biologist Gene Byrne had a secret that’s something we all know. Namely, “make sure you do your homework before heading out.

“There are several ways to do this,” Byrne wrote.

Among the short list: Talk with locals (especially the successful hunters); ask the local District Wildlife Manager; and be prepared with good questions when you have the chance.

Good questions to ask include “Is there good access to the area I want?” and “Where do the elk go when pressured during hunting season?”

A bad question to ask is “Under which tree is my elk standing?”

A key to knowing any game management unit (GMU for short) is being familiar with the GMU boundaries. It’s not uncommon to lose track of where you are when you start walking up and down and across this meadow and through that stream and the penalty for hunting in the wrong GMU is steep (loss of any meat and a hefty fine).

Mark the GMU boundaries on a topo map, phone or GPS you can carry in the field. An entire GMU is huge, so focus your efforts on a couple areas of five or so square miles each, which still is a lot of land to cover in a five-day hunt.

And since elk are most active at dawn and dusk, pick an area you can reach during the pre-dawn hours and from which you can get back to camp after dark.

Use those maps and aerial photos to spot what Byrne called “elk magnets”. These are anything offering the four keys to an elk’s survival: food, water, cover and space.

Once you’re actually in the field, you can use the maps, GPS and other tools to locate not only the best hunting but also your camp in case it gets late or the weather turns inclement.

As a final tip, Byrne reminded hunters that high-tech is good only as long as your batteries hold out.

“I cannot emphasize enough … that you have a backup system,” Byrne writes on the CPW site. “Failure to find your camp in a late season or wilderness hunt could be fatal.”

More information at