ELK FEVER

IF A BIG BULL ELK IS ON YOUR BUCKET LIST, HERE’S THE INFO YOU NEED TO FILL YOUR TAG.

Gun World - - Hunt -

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.

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