Emmett Leable and cousin Mike Marzahl smile with joy after Mike shot a once-in-a-lifetime buck in the Roaring Fork Valley. This buck was shot on Nov. 13, 2021, and was nicknamed the "Fire Buck" because of how unique his rack was. Photo by Jacob LaVine

Applying for a hunting license can be confusing at first. Between Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) regulations and plain old hunter strategy, I’m still learning the ins and outs, 20 years in. If you’re even reading this, you’re most likely a new hunter, so we’ll stick to the basics together (and save mastery aspects, such as preference points, for the trophy hunters).

The primary draw lottery for big game licenses opened March 1. Hunters now have until 8 p.m., April 5, to apply. After April 5, lottery winner hunting tags are mailed out. Any remaining tags carry over to the secondary draw, on July 5 — a relief to many hunters who simply didn’t get it together the first time around (she says, casting her eyes sideways).

Foremost, to purchase a hunting license, you’ll need your hunter education card, which has your conservation identification number (CID) on it. Like a drivers license or social security card, it’s your number for life. You will use your CID every time you purchase stamps and licenses from CPW. I still have my original one from 2001, and I cherish it. Every hunt has left its mark on that worn out scrap of paperboard, as you must carry it in the field with you whenever you hunt.

CPW publishes an annual Big Game Brochure. Get it. This is your “operator manual.” In addition to helping you plan your hunt, it has this year’s new changes, hunting regulations, definitions, the Game Management Unit (GMU) map (more on that later) and all the possible hunt codes to apply for deer, elk, pronghorn, bear and moose. Read that baby. You are obligated to, and are accountable to everything in it if you’re going to hunt in Colorado.

Page 14 introduces the Habitat Stamp. It is automatically added to your first fishing or hunting license each year, with the proceeds funding the Colorado Wildlife Habitat Program. Further down, the brochure then lists several “qualifying” licenses, one of which we must purchase prior to buying a big game license. I buy a combo small game and fishing license each year anyway, so this relatively new qualifier doesn’t bother me. Some are a little miffed, but I’m happy to pay into conservation.

With the qualifiers taken care of, which species do you want to try for?

As a newbie, your best odds are deer and elk. The other highly sought after species have a “prerequisite” you most likely haven’t accumulated yet — those preference points we glossed over earlier.

Elk are challenging to hunt. They’re powerful, fast and have keen eyes and hearing. I’m hungry to experience a shot at meat in the freezer after a handful of unsuccessful years focused on elk, so I’m looking forward to a more relaxing, higher odds deer hunt this fall.

Species chosen; where to hunt?

Colorado lands are divided into GMUs. They are to wildlife as counties are to humans. CPW uses GMUs to manage wildlife herds — they can count herd numbers, track changes over time and use this data to limit or increase hunting licenses in that area. The GMU map is on the inside back cover of the brochure, preceded by the GMU listing of physical boundary descriptions. These are often defined by waterways, roads, ridges and valleys and county lines. For example, if someone were to hunt the west side of McClure, they would apply for GMU 521, defined on the east by Huntsman’s Ridge and the backbone of the Raggeds.

Which season to hunt? Flip to your species; find your GMU; pick your first choice, second, third and fourth, for the season dates you’re able to hunt. If you do know you want a shot at a trophy animal or unique species, make your first choice a preference point each year.

You can also strategize for more than one license in a hunting season. You can apply for another species (elk or bear), or wait for the primary draw to pass and then apply for a secondary draw tag, or purchase over-the-counter, unlimited tags. Read more about these List A, B or C tags inside the brochure.

You are ready to apply online now, at cpw.state.co.us. The application fee is non-refundable, and you pay for your license if you draw. Now go set yourself up for one of the most profound experiences a human can have!