It's time to blaze up.

The first wave of Colorado's orange-clad army of rifle hunters hits the woods Saturday for one of four elk seasons scheduled through Nov. 18. Following a three-week hiatus since archery season and nearly a month since the muzzleloader hunt, the first rifle season opens half an hour before sunrise Saturday and runs through Oct. 17. Other rifle seasons are Oct. 20-28, Nov. 3-11 and Nov. 14-18.

Just what to expect beyond the fluorescent tide surging up the mountainsides of the nation's most popular elk hunting destination will vary considerably from one game management unit to the next.

Weather is always a key component in Colorado's big game hunting forecast, and perhaps this year more than most. While a mild winter gave elk and deer herds a long-awaited break, the dry spring and severe summer drought leveled the stress scales on herds. Factor in a few major forest fires, and many animals were left struggling in their search for water and forage.

But a couple of keys factor in the hunters' favor. Among them, a slightly reduced number of elk licenses should alleviate at least a little hunting pressure. More significant, state wildlife officials say, is the potential for concentration of animals due to lingering dryness.

"In some instances, it could actually improve hunting because the animals may be more concentrated and they'll be easier to find," said Andy Holland, big game manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The crisp forest will still have hunters on their toes in an attempt to stalk prey, although higher elevations have seen recent snowfalls and the forecast is calling for more precipitation over the weekend. With a statewide elk population estimated at 265,000 animals, the elk are out there. But hunters will need to consider all the elements to figure out where.

"It's pretty much the standard stuff for elk: Hope for snow but not too much," Holland said. " 'Be flexible' is the one thing I would convey to elk hunters. The animals may be distributed a little differently this year."

Scott Willoughby: 303-954-1993, swilloughby@denverpost.com