Elk exemplify the soul of the American West like no other big game animal, the very essence of what it is to hunt the Rocky Mountains. Mule deer, pronghorn and mountain lion are decidedly “western” and coveted bowhunting quarry, but it’s elk that capture archers’ imaginations. No wonder. There’s the obvious aspect of size, elk wearing potentially the largest, “wow-factor” antlers of all. But there’s more to elk than size. They inhabit arguably the most stunning country, are often garrulous during traditional archery seasons and engage the archery hunter on a range of wood’s lore levels. As large as they are, as talkative as they sometimes prove, they still represent bowhunting’s ultimate challenge; an animal who sees as well as he hears, hears as well as he smells and is unpedictable in a land that is both vast and rugged.
The West in general, and elk more specifically provoke a decided intimidation dynamic for those well removed from the scene. Still, elk are highly available across endless expanses of wide-open public lands to archery hunters with ambition enough to jump right in. Now, “highly available” shouldn’t be mistaken with “easy,” but you can make your elk dream a reality this season.
Where To, How To
Elk hunting’s diversity is as varied as the country they live in. In its most basic terms modern elk hunting sifts down to quality verses quantity. Almost without exception, where trophy potential is proven and exceptional elk tags prove difficult to obtain, the biggest elk reside. In still other areas trophy potential isn’t as heralded, but average (even Pope & Young) bulls are superfluous.
Quality areas typically entail lottery drawings complete with application deadlines and long odds. This shouldn’t discourage participation in the process. Someone’s got to draw those tags, and there are normally incentives for diligence in the form of “bonus” or “preference” points for each unsuccessful drawing attempt.
The best trophy hunts are well known; Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, select Montana units, New Mexico, eastern Oregon, in that order (Nevada a state to be included first but for extremely limited non-resident tags). Unlimited, or at least easily obtainable tags are had in Colorado, Idaho, eastern Montana, a few New Mexico late-season, antler-restricted areas, western Oregon and Washington (the latter normally for Roosevelt elk).
If a quality hunting experience and succulent meat are primary ambitions, don’t discount easily obtainable cow-only tags.
Space doesn’t allow a full discussion of particulars. Visit on-line websites of any elk states you might have in mind and delve into details well before your intended foray. While there, seek draw odds for particular areas and hunter success rates for each. Not all limited-entry elk tags include steep odds, or high success rates. This helps you make some informed decisions; and better understand each state’s application process.
Discovering an elk hunt matching your expectations and abilities is most important to getting started. For instance; a specific unit may show great draw odds but low hunter success. This low success might hinge on rough terrain requiring Superman physical abilities or low animal density. Another unit may harbor scads of elk but few trophy bulls. Determine what you expect from a hunt and proceed accordingly. If only trophy bulls will do, well, you’ll sit out more seasons than you hunt. If you’ll be thrilled by any bull, even an eating-fat cow, more options surface.
Conservation department biologists can be treasure troves of information, making phone calls to such folks a wise investment. They should be helpful in pointing out general areas with the type of hunting you’re interested in, as well as habitat types preferred by animals.
It’s also smart to keep detailed maps handy while chatting with these sources, giving you a better picture of what you’re in for. Forest Service maps (www.fs.us) are a good beginning, showing major roads, trailheads, water sources and mountain ranges. More detailed U.S. Geological Survey (www.usgs.gov) topographical maps give you a virtual aerial view via accurate contour lines. These contours reveal the shape of ridges, saddles, benches, meadows and other places important to discovering likely habitat.
Once you’ve secured a tag, invested in long hours of research, exercised to steel your cardiovascular system and legs, shot your bow until you’re dead confident at 40-plus yards and packed the truck for the journey out west, your plan quickly comes together or crumbles. It can all seem so tractable and manageable from the comfort of home, yet all too intimidating once on the ground. Don’t be daunted.
My best advice is to arrive as far ahead of season as you can manage, or afford. Give your body time to acclimate to the thin air and altitude (extremely important when arriving from sea-level environs), to gain a better grasp of your surroundings and talk to as many locals as possible. Don’t be shy. Chat up range cowboys, Forest Service employees and those manning backcountry sporting good stores and gas stations. Hike into likely watering holes and meadows to look for fresh sign. Study the lay of the land to better anticipate how hunters will approach or impact a hotspot.
All the while keep the basics in mind. Elk are big animals requiring plenty of nutrition to thrive. Concentrate scouting efforts near water sources and food and elk won’t be far behind. And remain persistent. Elk are highly mobile, requiring the same of you. Locating elk in a particular canyon today doesn’t mean they’ll be there tomorrow. Don’t waste time forcing the issue if sign reveals elk have moved on–find where they’ve gone.
Success in today’s elk woods means remaining flexible, staying abreast of dynamic developments, sometimes tossing aside long-held assumptions. Become a student of elk, reading everything you can in way of elk-hunting knowledge and behavior; even if the approaches or ideas presented don’t appeal to your bowhunting aesthetics. It’s knowledge stored away against future use, information that just might make your dream of a trophy elk soon come true.
Editor’s note: Look for Bowhunting Modern Elk, a new book by Pat Meitin, available from Petersen’s Bowhunting Press soon.