Utah Elk Hunting: The General Units
The Utah General Elk license is kind of a misnomer. In many states, a general license means it is available unlimited, over the counter. That’s not exactly the case in Utah. Essentially, a limited number of general elk licenses are available in Utah beginning in mid-June first come first served. With that license, you are legal to hunt in roughly one-third of Utah, the General Any Bull Units; Box Elder/Hansel Mountain, Ogden, Morgan-South Rich, East Canyon, Chalk Creek, Kamas, North Slope/Summit/West Dagget, South Slope/Yellowstone/Vernal/Bonanza, Nine Mile/Range Creek North, San Rafael North, Filmore/Oak Creek North, West Desert East Units, Pine Valley, Zion, San Juan/Montezuma and Henry Mountains.
Utah also offers a general spike bull tag. That license is good in nearly all of the limited draw units not covered by the General Any Bull license. While it may seem weird to issue a spike bull license to kill the bulls you are trying to grow to old age in your limited draw units, Utah, and several other states feel that they can still raise enough bulls to maturity. It’s probably an enforcement nightmare and a frustrating hunt for those with the spike only license, so I’m not going to delve into it very much here. For me, I want to at least believe there’s a chance of shooting a mature bull. With a spike-only license,you are guaranteed to not be able to harvest an older animal. For some people that’s ok, but why would I travel out of state to kill a spike? Personally, I’d rather hunt cow elk. But if you live in the state of Utah, I can see arguments for buying that tag to get to know the trophy units.
There’s one other quirk we have to deal with before we can start talking about units: The Northern Region Buck/Bull Combo. At $651, plus the $65 hunting license, it’s no real bargain, but it is your only option in the state of Utah to do a combo hunt. This tag is good for the northern general elk units, but it is draw only. On the plus side, it’s basically guaranteed for a nonresident, but only 27% of resident applicants drew in 2010. The Box Elder/Hansel Mountain, Kamas, Ogden, Morgan/South Rich, Chalk Creek, North Slope and East Canyon Units are all legal with this tag. Those are also some of the closest general elk units to most of Utah’s population.
Utah does not have a tremendous elk population, and the average elk density across the state is just barely over 1 per square mile. Of course, that includes a ton of country that is nearly devoid of elk.
So let’s start off with places to avoid and work our way up to some of your better options with the general elk tag. While Zion may be a familiar name to many folks, forget about it as an elk destination. There are hardly any elk there and nearly 70% of the bulls are harvested yearly, leaving a sex ratio of just 10 bulls per 100 cows. Oh, and it’s overcrowded and success rates average around 11%.
The Kamas unit is another one to avoid. You can hunt it with the Northern Region Buck/Bull Combo, so apparently everyone does. There’s a few elk there at about 1.5 per square mile, but the hunter density is insanely high, the few bulls that are out there are hammered yearly and success rates average less than 10%. Pass.
Another famous area that might catch your eye is the Henry Mountains. It’s famous for deer hunting, not elk. There’s less than one-tenth of an elk per square mile and nearly 40% of the bulls are harvested yearly.
The hunting pressure in the Ogden area is mind boggling. You’re looking at over 14 hunters per square mile of public land. The elk density is better than average, and there’s a decent chance for older bulls. But the real downside is the lack of public land and the pressure on it.
The hunting pressure in the Chalk Creek area is even worse than Ogden, as there’s even less public land and nearly as many hunters. The elk density at nearly 2.5 per square mile is certainly better than most of Utah, and enough bulls survive each year to make dreaming for mature bull less of a pipe-dream. But where are you going to hunt? Near the Weber River country and Moffit Pass? Great. That’s where everyone and there brother wants to go. Don’t be fooled by the success rates, they are likely inflated by private land hunting.
East Canyon has more public land, but is nearly as overrun as Ogden. There is some decent elk hunting to be had out there if you can stand the pressure.
The North Slope is somewhat similar to the South Slope (we’re talking about the Uintas here). There is plenty of public land, but still too many hunters (4,000ish). Success rates are poor, and the bulls are harvested at a heavy rate. But, the elk population is decent at around 2 per square mile.
The South Slope has a tremendous amount of public land, a good elk population (for Utah), some mature bulls and a fair sex ratio. Success rates are in the high teens, which isn’t very good. While the hunter density doesn’t look horrible at 3 hunters per square mile, there are roughly 7,000 hunters to deal with! When you extrapolate the elk population to just the public land, you’ve got less than one elk per hunter, and a bull for every 5 hunters. Still, with that much public land and a pretty large elk population, you can find some ground to hunt for yourself. Expect pressure at the trailheads and competition for camp sites, but if you’re willing and able to work harder than your competitors, you can have a good time here.
The High Uinta Wilderness Area straddles the North and South Slopes. At 450,000 acres, it is not just Utah’s largest wilderness area, but the only wilderness area over 50,000 acres in the state. If you want a true backcountry, alpine style hunt, this is it. There will be hunters all over the roads and the beginnings of each trailhead, but the rugged country here will quickly leave the weekend warriors behind.
Last but not least of the general units that I’m going to cover are two polar opposites: Nine Mile and Morgan/South Rich. Morgan/South Rich has nearly twice the elk density of any other unit in Utah, but it doesn’t have enough public land. Hunter densities exceed 13 per square mile! It has great success rates, some huntable country and great trophy potential if you can stand the pumpkin patch.
On the other hand, there’s Nine Mile, which is blessed with public land. Yeah, there are plenty of hunters, but there’s room to spread out here. This is really the only general unit with a significant elk population to have less than one hunter per square mile of public land. BUT, there are less than 1.5 elk per square. The bulls do not get harvested too heavily, and the success rates are good. But, this is canyon country, not mountain country, and not exactly what you might picture for an elk hunt.
So there you have it, most of your options with a general bull tag in Utah. It’s tough to get excited about any of them, as they all have some sort of significant downside. But if you’re willing to compromise on hunter pressure, trophy potential, elk density, access, or success, you can still have a good time.