IF A BIG BULL ELK IS ON YOUR BUCKET LIST, HERE’S THE INFO YOU NEED TO FILL YOUR TAG.
Just before dawn, I crested the top of a ridge in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest and knelt down beneath the branches of a fir tree to glass for elk.
It was still too dark to see much with the naked eye, but through my Trijicon binocular, I could make out the dark figure of two cow elk feeding on an open patch of hillside a half-mile away. That was a positive sign, because the rut was in full swing, and the hills were already echoing with bugles.
As the first crimson light of day warmed the face of the slope, the cows lifted their heads in unison and turned their attention toward a stand of dark timber a few hundred yards away: A big bull stood framed between two arrow-straight pine trees. He tipped his head back, let out a scream and then trotted out into the open, his huge antlers rocking back and forth on the crest of his head as he made his way down toward the females.
I quickly gathered my pack, slung my rifle over my shoulder and set out on a long, circuitous route I hoped would bring me in range of the elk. If I misjudged their path, I would miss the elk entirely, but if I were right in my belief that the small herd would continue across the face of the slope, I just might be able to intercept them. With the cold mountain air burning my nose and throat, I moved at a quick pace toward the next vantage point—a pile of fallen timbers 400 yards ahead of me.
In my mind, there’s nothing quite as stirring in the realm of hunting than closing the gap on a bugling bull elk. For many people, a trophy bull elk is the greatest of all North American trophies, and simply being in elk country is a special experience.
If you dream of hunting these animals, you’re not alone. However, any elk hunt requires planning and preparation that begins long before the season opener. Here’s what you need to know to help make that dream a reality.
WHERE THE ELK ARE
Elk once roamed throughout most of the continental United States, but overhunting in the 19th and 20th centuries reduced their numbers and range. Efforts to reintroduce elk east of the Mississippi have been very successful (thanks, in large part, to hunter-generated funding and the work of groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation), but elk hunting is still primarily a western adventure.
Many Rocky Mountain states have large elk populations, and a few areas hold very exceptional bulls, so the first step toward booking an elk hunt is deciding where you want to concentrate your efforts. Colorado is the state with the largest elk herd, and that’s where most hunters tag a bull; but Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Arizona also have great elk.
Private land hunts are a viable option; and, in many cases, you’ll find the biggest bulls there. Even so, there are also plenty of parcels of public land, such as Colorado’s Flat Tops, Idaho’s Selway Bitterroot Mountains and Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, that hold good bulls ... if you’re willing to work to find them.
If you can’t spend a lot of time scouting in public land areas, your best bet for success is a guided or outfitted elk hunt. They cost more, but you’ll have a professional to help put you in the best areas, set up camp and get you and (hopefully) your elk out after the hunt.
If you live in the eastern United States and are planning a once-in-a-lifetime elk hunt, your best option is hiring a competent guide. Most good guides do the homework for you, and they will lead you into the best areas—the key to success on a short hunt. In some areas, you can buy over-the-counter (OTC) tags, but in many areas, you’ll have to draw a tag to hunt there. This process could take a few years or even decades in states for which you have to accumulate preference points to draw, so you need to start applying now. In some states, landowner and outfitter tags are available without a draw, but that type of assurance comes at a price.
... THERE’S NOTHING QUITE AS STIRRING IN THE REALM OF HUNTING THAN CLOSING THE GAP ON A BUGLING BULL ELK.
Besides a thorough knowledge of elk country, you need the proper gear. Sleeping Indian wool clothes, a Trijicon scope and binocular, and a Remington Model 700 Ultimate Muzzle Loader comprised a perfect combination for the author on this hunt.
I Don’t expect the weather to cooperate. Knowing the habits of elk helped the author and his guide find this bull in a snowstorm that made glassing impossible.
The end of a successful elk hunt. Elk hunting is a real challenge, and not all areas will produce giants such as this New Mexico bull. But if you do your homework, your odds of success increase dramatically.
Good elk (and good elk hunting) can be found in many western states. Regardless of where you hunt, good optics—binoculars and riflescopes—are critical to finding animals and making a clean shot.