Women lie, men lie, numbers don’t lie…except when it comes to harvest statistics and unit data.
While researching, most hunters look at hunter density, success rates, 6pts.+ bulls, and possibly bow or rifle harvest. They narrow down their options using data then comb topographical maps and satellite images to eventually focus on one or two units.
Though good statistics can not guarantee a full freezer, they can get you started off on the right foot. Let’s take it one step at a time.
Hunter density sounds straightforward, simply divide unit size by the total number of hunters. However, percentage of public land needs factored in as well.
For example, Unit 1 has 50% public land with 100 hunters on 100 square miles, and Unit 2 has 25% public land with 100 hunters on 100 square miles. The first unit should have half the hunter density of the second (assuming no private land access). Scouting websites will often fail to account for the difference and calculate each unit as one hunter per square mile.
To better estimate hunter density divide by the percent public land in the unit.
Unit 1 = 100 hunters / 100 sq. mi / .5 public = 2 hunters per sq. mi
Unit 2 = 100 hunters / 100 sq. mi / .25 public = 4 hunters per sq. mi
Remember, statistics are only a starting point. Biologists emphasize that crowding tends to occur most often near cities. Units closer to population centers like Denver, Boise, Missoula and Phoenix will have more hunters than their remote counterparts. Especially on weekends, these areas will feel like a Toyota Tacoma convention.
If you see a unit in the top quarter of the state for hunter density, avoid it. Many of these units have a spider web of roads and offer easily accessible terrain. Beyond that, a few hunters here or there will have little impact on your hunt.
Success rates are the popular hot chick of hunting statistics. Don’t stay up too late thinking about her. A few percentage points won’t significantly impact your hunt. When comparing units with similar success rates, other factors, like road access and terrain, will matter more than any number.
More importantly, study which hunters filled tags. If you’re an archery guy but rifle hunters kill 90% of the bulls, the unit may not have a ton of rutting activity. It may consist mostly of open country or winter range. The numbers may tell part of the story but not all of it.
For specific statistics like 6 point bulls, percentages and averages matter. One unit may have a higher number of trophy bulls than another but a lower percentage of trophy bulls overall. The unit could have twice the land, and four times as many hunters, rather than larger bulls. Tread carefully.
After calculating the percentage of mature bulls, average the statistic over the previous three or four years. By averaging you’ll get a better idea on a year in year out basis. Look for outliers as well. There may have been a fire that caused a sudden rise or collapse.
In draw units the percent of 6pts. + bulls will sometimes jump 20% over general units. If you’re going to shoot a bull, it’s going to be a big one. Once again, investigate which hunters shoot the trophies. For instance, some draws allow far more archery than rifle tags.
This spring I was impressed by a unit with good 6pts.+ bull numbers, but when I looked at archery kills the success rate was abysmal and crowding was an issue. For the most part, statistics play a cautionary role. They provide a little insight and prevent hunters from committing to the wrong unit. But numbers won’t clearly determine which unit to hunt.
Similar to 6pts.+ numbers, calculate bow kill as a percentage of the whole. Though higher numbers aren’t necessarily a good thing. A high percentage bow kill might mean bugling bulls in every drainage or that the unit will see hoards of hunters in September. A higher percentage of bow kills can also result from elk migrating out of the unit into lower country during rifle season.
Not every state offers complete harvest reports. Idaho and Colorado have separate tags for each season, which allows for better data. Wyoming and Montana allow hunters to use one tag during multiple seasons, so it’s hard to tell how many rifle hunters failed during archery season and how many never left the cabin at all. Search for solid numbers year in and year out. If nobody has ever killed an elk with a bow in the unit, don’t plan to be the first.
Selecting a unit from a state-wide map will overwhelm even the most traveled hunter. Statistics help make the process more manageable.
In closing, unit data can provide much-needed red flags. But the final decision on a unit comes down to personal preferences on terrain features and location. Even if the unit has the highest 6pts.+ ratio in the state, you may not want a hunt with 1000 other meatheads around.
Hunters can drive themselves crazy attempting to find the “best” unit. Remember that the perfect unit doesn’t exist. While some look better on paper, you’ll shoot elk in the woods. The outcome of the hunt will come down to skills and strategies not a few percentage points in a spreadsheet.