Nothing epitomizes the do-it-yourself spirit quite like bowhunting public land elk. Part of it has to do with the fact elk largely occupy public land open to all (those who can secure a tag, at least). Most elk habitat is also made up of vast National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, state-administered or timber lands and is open and waiting for any bowhunter willing to invest the research and effort.
Since not everyone resides in the middle of elk country, these places normally involve traveling to distant areas, across the state, several states over or across the nation for pre-season scouting missions and season openers.
To ensure you hit the ground running, start your planning at home. Invest in "desktop" scouting through maps and other resources to narrow down prospects. Interview knowledgeable persons and local game managers to gain a better idea of what you're in for. Assemble the necessary gear and get yourself in top physical conditioning to better handle the demands of a thinner atmosphere and rough and tumble country.
But before all that, the bowhunter must pick a destination. Here are our picks for the top DIY elk hotspots across the nation (hotspots are weighted heavily on easily obtained tags).
If you're looking for the biggest bulls in the nation, most will automatically point to the Grand Canyon State. Though Arizona currently accounts for only the 5th largest take of archery record-book bulls in the nation, it produces some of the West's highest-scoring antlers. The state also manages to accomplish this with a small overall number of tags and only about 26,000 elk at its disposal. Still, the odds of drawing an Arizona elk tag are comparable to winning the lottery.
The entire enterprise depends largely on bonus points, gathering points akin to tossing extra raffle tickets into the pot. Unlike Colorado's preference-point system, you might draw a tag on your first try. These bonus points may be purchased each year, or accumulate automatically with each unsuccessful application. Twenty percent of Arizona tags are reserved for those with the highest number of bonus points. You must purchase a $232.75 hunting license to receive your bonus point. Application deadlines have traditionally been the third week in June.
There have been 241 Arizona bulls entered in P&Y records during the past 10 years, 24 of those scoring better than 350 inches, about 60 percent of those bulls scoring more than 300 inches. About 75 percent of the bulls tagged in Coconino, Navajo and Apache counties have scored more than 300 inches. Arizona is also a Boone & Crockett powerhouse with 166 typical and non-typical showing in total, 89 — or 54 percent — of those appearing in the past 10 years. In a nut shell, if the biggest bulls are your desire, Arizona is worth waiting for. And unlike many elk states, Arizona has more public lands than private (excepting Indian reservations).
It's easy to look at Colorado's numbers and get the idea trophy hunting is easier than it really is. During the past 10 years Colorado has produced some 275 archery record bulls, only nine of these scoring better than 350, but nearly 40 percent of these scoring better than 300 inches statewide. This puts Colorado in a solid number-four spot in overall archery record bulls.
Of Colorado's 71 total typical and non-typical Booner bulls to date, only 20 of them have appeared in the past 10 years — 28 percent — showing a slight slip in trophy quality in recent years. I say this because most of the state's best bulls come from limited-draw areas requiring plenty of preference points to draw (deadline typically first week in April). And because of the way Colorado's points system is designed, those without the highest number of points aren't even included in tag drawings. Some of the best Rocky Mountain State bulls show up at the edges of highly populated areas — Denver and Colorado Springs — where tags are most difficult to draw and hunting access even trickier.
Recent surveys put the Rocky Mountain State's elk numbers close to 300,000, the largest population of any single state. So, no matter what route you choose there is no shortage of elk to be had. Colorado's over the counter units are generally managed for quantity over quality, or situated in vast wilderness areas with access issues. This combination makes record bulls rarer, or requires treks deep into true alpine wilderness up in the clouds to leave the masses behind. Overall, bowhunting success for elk in Colorado runs around 15 percent.
Idaho's biggest selling point is an abundance of easily obtainable elk tags. Tags in most areas are offered on a first come, first served basis and many areas (like North Idaho) offer unclaimed tags well after season opener, making Idaho a great backup when you fail to draw tags in lottery states. Leftover tags may also be purchased for the non-resident fee, allowing you to hold two elk tags in a single season. Idaho doesn't relinquish the trophy quality of better Southwest states, but trophy bulls do exist. The state harbors an estimated 100,000 head of elk, but only a scattering of antlers scoring better than 350 inches — Boone & Crockett bulls proving historically rare.
During the past 10 years Caribou, Lemhi, Valley, Idaho and Custer counties (in that order) have given up the highest number of trophy bulls out of about 300 archery record entries. These listings have helped Idaho elevate itself to the No. 3 spot in P&Y records during the past decade. During that same period only eight 350-plus archery bulls have appeared, though nearly 42 percent of statewide bulls scored better than 300 inches.
Of the Gem State's 59 Boone & Crockett qualifying bulls (typical and non-typical combined) only 11 (19 percent) have surfaced in the past 10 years, showing a perceivable downward trend in trophy quality many attribute to overhunting and wolves.
With about 425 archery record bulls taken during the past 10 years, Montana ranks No. 1 in archery record entries. Fourty-four of these bulls have scored better than 350, and around 50 percent scored more than 300 inches. Unlike many states, Montana's trophy bulls don't come from a single isolated region. Boone & Crockett shows Big Sky's top-end trophy quality has slipped slightly in recent years, attributed mostly to wolf predation in recent years. Of 129 total bulls scoring better than the 360 taken since record keeping began, only 37 (29 percent) have appeared in the past 10 years (29 typical, eight non-typical).
Montana's elk opportunities are a proverbial mixed bag. From alpine to prairie habitat, the state harbors an estimated 140,000 elk. Tags are issued (according to area) as unlimited, limited draw or Outfitter Sponsored (application deadline normally mid March). Montana bowhunters post only eight percent success rates. Besides eastern private lands, super Montana trophy-bull bets include areas in southwestern Montana, west of Anaconda, and northwest Montana north of Missoula and west of Kalispell. The largest bulls of these options traditionally appear from northwest units, with abundant public lands making access easy.
Tags are relatively easy to secure, but do include early application deadlines, typically around early March.
Nevada has emerged as one of the surest bets for arrowing a trophy bull in the entire West, with 60 percent archery-season success rates and several 400-inch-plus bulls taken in recent years. The bad news? Drawing a tag can prove nearly impossible, in addition to the [imo-slideshow gallery=80],200 price tag for those tags. Someone has to draw those tags, right? Or, you can buy a private landowner tag if you have a spare $10,000 to $15,000 sitting around.
Non-residents have only three options in Nevada, though herds are expanding quickly. You're looking at White Pine County (two non-resident tags), Nye and Lincoln counties (one non-resident tag each). Nevada issues bonus points, purchased outright each year until you're ready to start playing ball, or issued automatically after each unsuccessful application, and they're squared each year to reward persistent applicants. It is possible to draw a tag on the first try. Of course, in order to win your preference point you'll have to buy a $142 hunting license. Nevada's application deadline normally arrives about late June.
Why bother, you might ask? Of the 53 total Boone & Crockett bulls taken in the Silver State, 45 have appeared in the past decade — pretty impressive for a state allotting so few tags. The takeaway: Draw a Nevada elk tag, hunt hard and kill a bull of a lifetime. One can dream.
8. New Mexico
New Mexico is another good-news/bad-news state. The Land of Enchantment has produced about 375 archery record-book entries during the past 10 years, 39 of those scoring better than 350, and about 42 percent scoring better than 300 inches. But drawing tags in better units is never easy. These numbers make New Mexico the second best archery record-book producer in the West, though the state's Gila region has accounted for the brunt of these. Of course, those tags are the hardest won. Boone & Crockett numbers solidify these findings: Of 73 total typical and non-typical book heads, roughly half, or 35, have appeared in the past 10 years.
New Mexico game managers have long attempted to placate politically connected ranching interests, resulting in heavy cow-elk harvest, aggressive depredation programs and liberal landowner tags. Reintroduced Mexican gray wolves also pose a threat to elk herds. New Mexico elk hunting is still some of the best in the Southwest, and in the past couple of years managers have backed off on tag numbers somewhat. New Mexico game managers estimate 80,000 head in the state and while tags are hard won, it's still nothing approaching the odds found in Arizona, Nevada or Utah. Also, while Gila regions receive the most attention, units found in northern New Mexico offer better draw odds and plenty of quality bulls. Northern units provide large elk populations, and decent bulls, just not the eye-popping genetics traditionally found in Gila-region units. Statewide archery-elk success rates run around 20 percent.
New Mexico has no point system and only 10 percent of elk tags are reserved for non-resident hunts (another 12 percent for outfitted non-residents). Applications are normally due in early February, but the non-resident isn't required to purchase a hunting license as part of the deal.
Like Washington, Oregon offers bowhunters both Roosevelt and Yellowstone elk opportunities, and both over the counter and limited-draw bowhunts. For either species the draw tags are definitely worth vying for, though the hunter is required to first purchase a $150-plus hunting license before applying — though unlimited tags are available if you fail to draw the more coveted tags.
Oregon Roosevelt hunting is the best in the nation, with the highest success rates and highest incidence of trophy bulls within their respective range. Of the 153 B&C Roosevelt bulls taken in Oregon, 44 have appeared in the past 10 years. Archery hunters have taken upwards of 75 record-book Roosevelt bulls in the past 10 years, 29 scoring better than 275 and taken from 12 different counties, making Oregon the undisputed champion for those looking to put an arrow through a trophy Roosevelt. Top spots include Clatsop and Tillamook counties.
Yellowstone elk hunting is a tad better here than Washington, from a standpoint of trophy quality most especially, but doesn't stand up to better elk destinations such as New Mexico or Arizona, just as examples. The Beaver State has produced 175 Yellowstone archery record bulls during the past 10 years, three of these scoring more than 360, and about 33 percent scoring more than 300. Only three B&C Yellowstones have appeared in the past 10 years, out of 23 total historically. The big attraction is readily available tags in select areas, allowing you to plan a hunt well ahead of season without the worry of coming up tagless. Over the counter hotspots with high success rates include the northeastern portions of the state and the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains, with the best draw hunts (with accompanying stiff draw odds and bonus point system, the deadline is typically mid-May) occurring in Starkey, Wenaha and Walla Walla units.
Beehive State elk hunting follows the typical narrative of other top-tier trophy regions — lots of big bulls, but few non-resident tags — though unlike other trophy states Utah does offer unlimited tags in some areas. Utah still excludes archers from many of its best units and often institutes bowhunting dates situated well before the rut in better units, though. I say this because while rifle hunters kill a large percentage of the West's B&C bulls each season, bowhunting numbers aren't nearly as impressive as one would expect. That situation is slowly changing, so things should improve in coming years. Utah has about 63,000 elk inside its borders, and normally gives up 13 percent bowhunting success rates.
But Utah does offer unlimited general archery elk permits in many regions, largely in their most rugged or remote areas where hard work and lots of hiking are the rule. Some of these include options along the Utah/Wyoming border northeast of Salt Lake City, and Morgan-South Rich, Chalk Creek, North Slope, Summit-West Daggett and East Canyon hunt areas. For the best limited-entry bull hunts, look to the San Juan, Plateau Boulder, Mt. Duffon, Fillmore and Oak Creek South areas where 85 percent of bulls entered in archery records score better than 300 inches. Unlimited tags are also issued through the Cooperative Wildlife Management Units, though the price of admission for these 'landowner ' tags normally hits $3,000 to $5,000.
Limited hunts include bonus points, 50 percent of licenses reserved for those with these points, first-time applicants having a chance of winning a tag. Deadlines are typically held in mid-February and you don't have to purchase a hunting license to apply or gain bonus points, though winning a tag will set you back $795 (opposed to $388 for an unlimited tag).
Bowhunters have a couple of elk hunting options in Washington, either Roosevelt or American/Yellowstone elk species with nearly all archery elk tags available over the counter (with a few Yellowstone-unit exceptions). Over the counter Roosevelt tags allow hunting both cows and trophy bulls. The kicker is these Roosevelt live in jungle-like coastal rainforests that make hunting extremely challenging, though trophy quality can be excellent relative to the species. Roosevelt hotspots include the Olympic Mountains west of Seattle and in the southwestern portion of the state across the Columbia River from Oregon. Seventy-eight B&C Roosevelt bulls have been taken in Washington through time, with only 16 of these taken in the past decade, though bowhunters have taken 37 archery record-book bulls in the past 10 years, 24 of these scoring better than 275 inches.
East of the Cascades, Yellowstone elk can be bowhunted over the counter, but various rules apply. The most common theme is legal game limited to bagging only spikes and cows, with trophy bull permits issued only through lottery drawings. Some of these bull tags are easier to draw than others, though Washington is normally not the place to look for top-end genetics, the region traditionally producing few 350-plus bulls. The highest success on Yellowstone bulls occurs around the Mt. Rainier region of the Cascade Mountains. Only 44 archery record bulls have appeared in Washington in the past 10 years, 45 percent of those scoring better than 300 inches and three scoring better than 350. Only seven B&C bulls have appeared in the past 10 years.
Wyoming is home to an estimated 94,000 elk. The Cowboy State also produces some of the best elk hunting in the West in regards to the ease of obtaining licenses in direct relation to trophy quality. Once your application is submitted, odds are good you'll be hunting this fall. Several areas in Wyoming offer top-notch hunting success and trophy potential.
Units 38 through 41, the Bighorn Mountains, have plentiful elk and occasionally account for bulls scoring in the 400-inch class. Access is good in these areas and non-residents have an even chance of winning tags. The Laramie Range is another top archery elk area. Access can prove more limited, but extra effort is normally rewarded. Keep in mind that while many wilderness areas have leftover tags following annual lottery drawings, non-residents must secure the services of a licensed outfitter to hunt designated wilderness areas in the state.
In the past 10 years, around 225 archery record bulls have come out of Wyoming, 27 of these bettering the 350 mark and 65 percent of them scoring better than 300 inches. Numbers like that place Wyoming just behind Arizona (6th place) as a archery record producer. Boone & Crockett records reveal trophy production remains even in the Cowboy State. Of 110 total B&C bulls taken since 1883, 39 of these — typical and non-typical — have appeared in this decade.