Frequently Asked Questions About Hunting Burns

Frequently Asked Questions About Hunting Burns

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Author Ryan McSparran

It has been a devastating fire season here in Colorado and throughout the west. A big thanks goes to the firefighters out there battling these blazes and we continue to think of the communities, families and individuals affected by this year’s fire season.

As hunters, fire brings a mixture of good and bad news. Here in our home state of Colorado, a number of hunting units are almost entirely closed due to active fires. Many hunters have had to completely change their plans. But on the other side of these events, fire provides healthy regeneration for our forests. In many cases, it improves wildlife habitat. 

Wildfires have certainly been a large part of the story this year. We’ve heard a lot of hunters ask questions about hunting burn areas. Here’s some of what we’ve experienced when it comes to hunting burns:

How Soon Can You Hunt a Burn? 

With recent fires, hunters often wonder how long it takes before animals will move back into that area. Can you hunt a one-year-old burn? Or does it take longer?

The regenerative growth after a fire will vary from one fire to the next. Some fires burn extremely hot. After an intense fire, it may take years or even decades for the forest to recover. However, some fires may only burn the understory, leaving standing trees intact.

A few years ago, I was hunting elk in New Mexico near the end of September. A part of the unit had burned in June, only three months before our arrival. To our surprise, there were already green shoots growing throughout the burn – and the elk were taking advantage of it!

Hunting a Burn Area

Here in Colorado, one of my favorite spots to hunt is a much older burn. I don’t even know when this area burned, but I’m guessing it may have been 20 years ago. Now, the area is covered in tall grass and littered with old deadfall. The downed trees make travel through the burn difficult and the elk love it.

No matter when the burn occurred, don’t count it out. The best way to find out if the hunting will be productive, is to do some scouting. If grass, aspen shoots or young oak brush have begun to spring up, you’re in business.

How Should I Hunt A Burn?

In areas with large burns or where the burn was very intense, there may be a lack of cover for wildlife. In these giant open areas, your best bet might be to hunt the perimeters. If this is the case, focus your efforts on those edges where open grassy terrain meets the protection of standing timber. Elk may be found feeding in the burn in the mornings or evenings, while retreating to the timber during the day.

In these large and expansive burns, glassing can be a very effective way to locate animals. Look for vantage points that allow you to see long stretches of the burn’s edge. If you see animals feeding out into the burn, you’ll know where you ought to set up for the next morning or evening hunt. Just make sure that you’re downwind from where those animals appeared.

In areas where you find small burns, or where the fire only burned the understory, don’t hesitate to use the entire burn area to your advantage. In these areas, there’s no need to stick to the perimeters.

Just recently, I was elk hunting an area that had burned three years prior. However, the fire had left the ponderosas standing and had only cleared the thick oak brush below. With new grass and young oaks coming up, the interior of this burn was loaded with elk.

Again, the best way to find out what’s going on in any particular burn area is to do some scouting. If the aerial imagery is recent enough, you can get your information from Google Earth. However, if the burn is more recent you may need to visit the area in person before you decide how to hunt it. 

Scout it and Make a Plan

If there are burns in your hunt area, use all the tools at your disposal to scout the area and make an effective plan. We highly recommend OnX Hunt for scouting and planning. The fire layer will show burns in your area and when the fire occurred. 

In many cases, old burn areas won’t show up on the map layer. Likewise, very small spot fires may not register. With that in mind, be sure and use the satellite view in your OnX map to find these unmarked burns. Likewise, Google Earth is a great tool for finding old burns or small spot fires.

Just this September, we hunted an area with a small spot fire. Perhaps caused by lightning, this little burn was only 200 yards across. Thanks to satellite imagery and e-scouting efforts, we knew this little burn was up on the ridge – and we found elk there on the first day of our archery hunt!

By Ryan McSparran

Ryan is an outdoor writer based in Colorado, and is proud to be a part of the team at Hunting Gear Outfitters.

1 comment

  • Good afternoon and thank you for the article on hunting burns. We are looking at a rifle hunt in gmu 82 that has an older burn it. Medano fire in part of the sangre de Cristo mountains in 2010. Since you are from Colorado you may know some about it. We are wondering if it would still be good for elk hunting or if it’s been too long since it burned. We are from Kentucky so scouting is something we can only do on maps until we get there for the hunt.

    Thank you

    - Steve

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