Elk hunting isn’t what it was when I tagged my first archery bull 23 years ago. The fact is that elk hunting in many cases has become better with time. Herds are expanding, populations are growing and trophy bulls are becoming commonplace. Despite these truths, elk tags are as difficult as ever to procure in better regions; a testament to just how voguish the wapiti has become.
There seems to be a notion afoot that only the well heeled who can afford to hunt select private lands or Indian reservations are privy to trophy-sized bulls. As a guide who has assisted a myriad of clients to public land trophy bulls, I know better. The reality remains: Despite flourishing numbers and expanding herds, elk are darn tough to hunt. If the terrain itself does not defeat you, the wary beast will. Still, you can tag a trophy bull and put succulent meat in the freezer, by arriving well prepared and willing to work hard.
SECURING A TAG
The days of dropping into the local hardware store for your elk tag are long gone. Some states make gaining a tag easier than others, but lottery drawings are a fact of life that hunters have come to accept in nearly every elk area. This includes untangling cryptic hunt codes, carefully filling out application forms and meeting strict deadline dates.
Many draws are conducted because an area is close to population centers, or provides easy access. Other lotteries safeguard a superior gene pool where behemoth bulls are par for the course. Average areas may provide even to fair draw odds; proven trophy areas much steeper odds.
Sort through your list of priorities before determining where you wish to hunt–from the very state you embrace, to a specific unit penned on an application. Ask yourself these questions: Do I simply want to hunt, even if it means hunting a lesser unit, with little chance of a trophy bull? Will I only be content pursuing the very biggest antlers? Are an antlerless hunt and a freezer of steaks all I require? How you answer these queries shapes the way you choose your hunting area–and how often you might hunt, every year, or every three or four years.
Careful research is in order. Some trophy areas are wholly obvious; Arizona’s trophy Meccas, Southwest New Mexico’s Gila monsters, Nevada or Utah’s newer herds. These can take time to draw, your only hope being preference-point schemes found in some, but not all, elk states. Subsequent applications become more heavily weighted with each rejected entry. Many preference point states require the purchase of a general hunting license to earn these points. Buying a point for $85 to $150 is a hard pill to swallow, but can justify a deer or upland bird hunt at other times of the year.
Other good areas require more snooping that may yield outstanding opportunities. Expansion units are one of these, places where elk herds are newer, trophy bulls forging the way into untenanted territory. This country may represent atypical ground, desert or plains not fitting the alpine habitat rendered in established hunting literature. There may be fewer elk, but limited hunting pressure may provide moderate, or even mega bulls.
Other units may harbor good populations but are eclipsed by areas garnering more press. I consider New Mexico because it is familiar. Units in the Gila National Forest seize much of the attention because they are confirmed trophy producers. Zones just north–Zuni Mountains, Mount Taylor, the Jemez–offer elk hunting nearly as good. More importantly, drawing a tag in these areas is also more likely.
State game managers maintain records of hunter success, and draw odds in each zone, information that can steer you when choosing a hunting area. Chats with game biologists may reveal why one area is easier to draw than another, or explain high hunter success. If an area appears too good to be true, it just might be.
Easy draws can indicate a high percentage of private lands, low numbers of animals, or areas where game managers wish to preclude expansion to save habitat for another species, maybe vast tracts of wilderness dictating pack animals to penetrate desolate country. Wilderness hunts are a great opportunity, only if you’re prepared for the logistics involved.
Draw odds of 50 percent are becoming difficult to find; one-in-three chances seem more likely a goal today. Areas with these odds, combined with hunter success from 20 to 25 percent, are good bets. Such success rates may sound intimidating, but you’re going to strive to beat these odds, long before the hunt begins. The units I guide in provide 23-percent hunter success. Our camps run 45 to 50 percent–every year. You can beat established odds as well.
DESK JOCKEY SCOUTING
After receiving notification of a successful draw, it’s time to invest work to ensure success. Now is the time to contact state game biologists and ask pointed questions, pour over maps and collect any information you can on your hunt area.
Study the details beforehand to insure you ask intelligent questions. Start with forest service maps, seeking a general overview of the territory, roads and likely access points that concentrate competition, water sources, trails and predominant canyons. Large blank areas should raise red flags. Elk characteristically don’t fancy company. When blank areas also contain water and feed, you’ve pinpointed a possible hotspot. Map scouting is time well spent. Maps have steered me toward many fruitful areas.
After initial familiarization, find specific topographic maps of plausible areas. Topographic maps dispense detail not afforded by forest service maps and disclose terrain details, a literal aerial view, of mountains, canyons, meadows, benches and ridgelines. You may discover blank areas you have earmarked are too rugged and rocky to attract elk, for instance. Try to visualize the land, seeking flat meadows where elk graze, benches in sheltered country where elk bed, long, sinuous ridges elk travel.
Don’t disregard areas others may pass off as too obvious. Hunters tend to own an end-of-the-road rational. I was able to arrow my best elk–a 380-inch non-typical brute–within earshot of a major highway. If the habitat is right, and others are leaving it alone for whatever reason, bulls are apt to remain. Don’t neglect the obvious or the less obvious.
Elk hunters have many preconceived perceptions about elk. They believe elk only live in high, picturesque alpine habitat where the air is thin and the vistas are long. Elk also flourish in lower-altitude areas of unbroken sage, snaking river breaks, even grassy plains. Most hunters disregard such places, leaving these elk unmolested. There may be fewer animals in marginal habitat, but hunting conditions are often easier (less screening vegetation and lung-busting altitude), and you’ll have them to yourself.
Your suspicions can now be confirmed, strengthened, or denied by biologists familiar with the area. Seek officials who fly an area during game surveys, or have spent time patrolling d
uring open seasons. Always seek a second opinion.
It’s highly valuable to visit your hunt area before the season, if for no other reason than to see what you’re up against. Don’t be apprehensive about knocking on doors in the remote West, asking questions about elk in the area. Many cowboys and ranchers live secluded and lonely lives and are customarily glad to chat with visitors. They can be a deep well of information. Talk to country-store clerks, the man operating a road grader. They may be able to relate information about where elk are observed, or a neighbor complaining of elk breaking fences. Keep your ears open and it’s amazing what you might glean.
Many of us have some difficulty in dodging obligations, in stealing time away for preseason scouting. Vacation days are limited and precious. Even so, include scouting time just before the opener while planning vacations, even if limited time means carving into actual hunting days taken from vacation quotas. Preseason groundwork is just as important as days spent actually hunting. Without an understanding of where elk are living at the moment, your best hunting efforts are hit and miss at best.
Make the most of your scouting time by concentrating on food and water. Look in open meadows where elk graze, around water where sign is condensed. Elk droppings are easily observed and also tell you how recent the activity. Gain a vantage during low light hours and put your glass to work, discovering elk and the patterns they trace.
By opening morning you should have formulated a solid strategy, knowing precisely where you’ll be and why. You should also have determined a fallback position, that place elk are likely to retreat to when pressure runs them out of easily accessible places. Before a season opener elk have enjoyed a summer of leisure, lounging in plain sight. It doesn’t take them long to learn they are being hunted. Take advantage of the easy days of a season’s beginning, but be prepared to go the distance later.
Opening morning is a good time to let crowds work for you. From your research and scouting you should have identified where elk are centered. You should also hold a fair picture of the terrain, an understanding of the inherent funnels elk use to seek security. This might be a deep saddle, a concealing canyon bottom or a certain ridge point or fence break. Install yourself in one of these places to get a jump and be in place when elk begin to appear. A vantage or mobile approach allows you to keep track of more ground, planning ambushes and careful stalks as elk approach.
Water is also a good bet for an easy elk, especially in the drier lands. Many big bulls are tagged by patient bowhunters guarding sign-trampled water where they drink and wallow.
In the end, today’s elk demand more old-fashioned spot-and-stalk than fancy calling, or lucky ambushes. Don’t be afraid to get out there and chase bugling bulls. You can also use your binoculars to start a patient stalk. Gain the high ground, using eight- to 10-power binoculars to canvas in minutes what might demand days afoot. The efficient glassing hunter covers 10 times the ground a roaming nimrod does. Travel from place to place, but put your glass to work on conspicuous spots elk might bed, travel or feed.
Ultimately, be willing to go that extra mile, trek farther from roads than the next fellow, start out earlier and return later. It could be easily said that the best elk hunters are those who are not afraid of the dark. You must be where the elk are during low light hours; this often means walking in the dark to make it happen. It’s more effort than you will invest in any other bowhunting endeavor, but tilting those fantastic antlers in wonder, wrestling that monstrous animal for field dressing, you will come to comprehend that the effort is ultimately fitting of the prize.
So is the art of public-land elk bowhunting.