A great deal of elk hunting here in Wyoming, and other states, is done not only on public land, but is also on lands where the hunter can simply buy a tag over the counter and head off into the mountains. Consequently these areas typically have a tremendous amount of hunting pressure and require different tactics if the hunter is to score consistently.
My first efforts at hunting these high-pressure areas were, to say the least, frustrating. Now, many years later, 22 elk in the freezer (and more than a score of others harvested by hunting companions) have taught me a few realities and strategies that have proven very helpful. For those willing to work a little harder and go a little further, a rewarding and successful elk hunt is very possible without having to pay large trespass fees, get lucky and draw a tag in a high density area, or hire a guide to pack you way back into the wilderness. The following is a systematic approach to elk hunting high pressure areas. It involves 4 phases.
Phase 1: Pre-hunting
#1 - Tune your body up.
Start getting in shape by walking several miles a day. Hike up and down hills and carry a backpack with 25 or so pounds in it. You do not need to be an Olympic caliber athlete to hunt elk, but make no mistake - hunting elk is very physically demanding. If you think you can just 'tough it out', you are mistaken, you will probably fail, and your dream elk hunt will turn into a simple camping trip while you lay around and recover from what feels like a near death experience. The average person might make it through one or two days, maybe, but then their body tends to break down and the mind and attitude follow. I have seen this way to many times.
Start walking or exercising in some way now. Wear the boots you will hunt in so they get well broken in, and your feet toughen up. If you need to loose a few pounds start working on it. You will be very glad you did all this when you are half way up a mountain at 10,000 feet, gasping in ragged breaths.
#2 - Make a goal, choose your state and area, and apply for tags early.
While elk hunting is more or less the same no matter where it is done, the way each state manages its herds is different. Do your research a year or more before you plan to go. Write down the questions you have, and call the game agency of each state you are interested in. Depending on what you want, the answers you get will most likely help drive the decision of when and where to hunt. Since this article is aimed at those hunting on their own, let me point out that any elk is a trophy. All elk are beautiful, wild, remarkable creatures that deserve our respect, care, and appreciation. Everyone wants the big bull with wide heavy antlers. Consequently demand for tags in areas that have concentrations of good bulls is tremendously high. Most public land hunts with good access and an easy draw do not offer high numbers of trophy class animals, unless the hunter can pack way back into wilderness areas. That is not the focus of this article. A much better option for the average hunter is to put in for a cow tag. Most states offer cow elk hunts at reduced prices and with longer seasons. I have a cow elk mounted and hanging in my den and I count it as one the prettiest trophies I have ever seen - people comment on it all the time. The fact is that even if a hunter does everything right, works hard, and puts in the time; he still will most likely not kill an elk of any kind. Most state success rates run in the 20% range. If you remove from this statistic those hunters who only go out a couple times, or never get out of their truck, or slept in, and so on, that rate of success could go way up. The main point here is talk to experts, do some research, and make a realistic decision on your hunting area and what your chances for success are.
#3 - Get enough time off from work to do it right.
If all you can devote is a couple days attached to a weekend, fine, but know that your chances of success are limited. Five days off between two weekends is pretty good. This gives you 2 days for travel to the area and set up, five or six days of hunting, and a couple days to get you and your animal off the mountain and safely home. The more time, obviously, the better your chances.
#4 - Practice shooting your rifle under field conditions weekly (or more).
A big part of why so many people fail to fill their tags has to do with their field marksmanship. Shooting from the bench once or twice before the season opens is not practice. Try to go at least once a week - if practical - and use the actual rifle you will hunt with. However, shooting a center fire rifle gets expensive and painful, so break out a .22 rimfire and have fun with it as well. Do not practice from the bench, which is strictly for sighting in your rifle. Practice instead with a field rest, shooting sticks, various body positions, and your sling. Practice B.R.A.S.S. - breath, relax, aim, sight, and squeeze - the military method taught to soldiers that turns average citizens into riflemen. A good goal is to be able to put 5 out of 5 rounds into a paper plate at 300 yards with a field rest - like a stump, shooting sticks, or tree branch, 5 out of 5 rounds into a paper plate from prone, sitting, and kneeling positions at 200 yards, and 5 out of 5 rounds into a paper plate from a standing position at 100 yards. If you cannot do this, keep practicing. Do not assume you can until you try it, because this level of proficiency is harder than most people think. Elk deserve better than being tortured to death by poor marksmanship.
Phase 2: Scouting
#1 - Get a map of the area and study it.
You can get maps from any BLM office or buy them online from the USGS at http://www.usgs.gov/ . I like to begin by tracing the boundary of my hunt area on the map with a dark marker. Then, I look for the major access points, like roads and trails I mark with a highlighter. I look for the steep country that elk might escape to, remembering that north and east-facing slopes tend to have thick timber while south and west facing slopes are more open. I like to keep in mind where other hunters will likely access the area and that most hunters will not travel more than a mile or two from roads or major trails. Try to become familiar with the names of places on the map so that when you talk to other people you have an idea of the places they reference.
#2 - Talk to local experts.
Start making some phone calls. Circle areas hunters, biologists, wardens, and anyone else tell you about. Get as many opinions as possible. Ask where the animals go once the shooting starts. Ask where animals have been harvested in the past. Ask where most of the hunting pressure will likely be. Take everything you learn with a grain of salt as things often change from year to year. Talk to as many people as possible and then talk to some of them again.
#3 - Scout the areas you intend to hunt.
Take a few days off and go on a camping trip in your hunting area. This is critical to success. If you only get a couple weeks off each year, use one week for scouting and one week for hunting. Using your map as a guide, physically go to the area. Travel all the main roads and as many of the smaller side roads as is practical. Find trailheads and hike back in along them and go to the areas circled on your map. Mark interesting places, landmarks, game sign/sightings/trails, glassing locations, water/wallow holes, rubs, and anything else relevant on your map and/or a GPS unit. Hike to the top of ridges, saddles and points that will give you a good view of the area and help you understand the lay of the land. Search out areas that might be good glassing locations. Wander off the trails and bushwhack to places you are curious about (be careful to use that map and/or GPS effectively so you don't get lost).
One last tip, and one that is often forgotten, write down how long it takes you to hike to these areas from where you will camp. You don't want to arrive late into legal shooting time and miss a herd as it ghosts back into the timber during the first few moments of dawn.
#4 - Make a plan.
By now you should be able to answer the following questions: When do you need to take vacation time? How many days can you devote to the undertaking? Where will you camp? Where are the elk likely to be and where will they likely go when pressured? Where will I set up to glass on opening morning? How long will it take me to get there? Where will I go on successive days of hunting if nothing shows? Avoid picking areas with trails and roads near them, as elk will learn to avoid these places in the first few hours (or less) of the season. I like to set up a mile or two away from any main human travel route. Find a good glassing location near a saddle or bench elk might be on or might cross once shooting starts. Make sure you can see a lot of country and plan to be there well before light on opening day. Have other such locations (at least 3 or 4) in mind in case your first choice does not work out. One last consideration, you must think seriously about how you will get your animal out. I'll talk more about this later in the article.
Phase 3: Hunting
So you have done the research, made you choices, gotten in shape, practiced with your rifle, and made a solid plan for success. Finally it is time go hunting. The following tips will help you fill your tag and have a rewarding experience.
#1 - Make a comfortable camp.
Since you are not packing in to the backcountry, I will assume the amount of camping gear you bring is limited only by what you can jam into your vehicle. You will hunt longer and more effectively if you have a dry, comfortable place to relax, eat, and sleep so don't skimp or do without. Hunting camp is a magical place where great memories are created and friendships forged. Enjoy it.
#2 - Follow the basic rules of hunting.
Elk are like most deer species in that they have remarkable senses. Obviously an elk hunter needs to keep the wind in his face, his movements calculated, unnatural sounds kept to the barest minimum, a watchful eye for game and game sign, and safe gun handling at the core of every action.
#3 - The morning hunt.
Be in a glassing/ambush location well before light on opening morning. This should be a spot high on a ridge or point that over looks lots of country, has an open feeding or watering area near it, and a saddle or bench that pushed animals might cross when other hunters start up from their camps below you. Hopefully you picked this area, and others like it, during the scouting phase. This spot should be at least a mile from any roads or major trails. Softly cow call on your way in to help cover your noise. Sit down so you are not sky lined, relax, try to stay warm, and start glassing as soon as you have light. Enjoy the sunrise. Watch the openings and timber edges first, scanning very slowly, then after perhaps 45 minutes start peering into the timbers small openings and sighting alleys. Look for parts of the animal rather than the whole thing. If you see elk and have time to plan and execute a stalk, do so. If the animals will be deep in the trees before you can get to them, keep looking, but remember the exact spot where they went into the cover. If animals suddenly present themselves in the travel/feeding/watering area near you, count your blessings and harvest one! If you hear shooting in the area, be ready in case they happen to flee in your direction. If animals bolt through the saddle or bench you're near, try blowing a sharp cow call, sometimes it will stop them and give you a shot. Opening morning of the season is often chaotic, with animals running in every direction. Sometimes it pays to stay in a good ambush spot and glass all day.
#4 - The midday hunt.
This is a neglected time to harvest an elk. At this time you need to make a decision. If you have seen nothing and heard very little shooting, you may want to hike to a new location for the evening hunt. You might want to stay put if your faith in the area is still high. Or you may choose to try and ghost through some dark timber and get close to elk there, but understand this is very difficult to pull off. Around noon many hunters return to camp for lunch, or just get bored and wander around aimlessly looking for game. These folks will often bump elk out of hiding places, and you can spot these animals in the distance crossing openings or moving through the trees. You may even get lucky and have animals run past your position. Again, if you can plan and execute a stalk, do so. Otherwise, remember every thing you have seen so a plan can be formed for the evening hunt.
#5 - The evening hunt.
Based on what you saw in the morning and midday, you should have several ideas for the evening's efforts. If you spotted elk entering a timber, and those elk have not been disturbed, you may choose to set up near that area and wait for them to come out just before dark. This will often happen, but not always, so watch the entire opening for elk, and remember to keep track of the wind as it changes with the falling temperature. If you have not seen any elk at all that day, you may want to try a different glassing location. This would be a spot picked during your before season scouting. Even if you do not get a shot in this new location, you may well spot animals that could be pursued the following morning. Regardless of where you end up, stay put and glass constantly until it is dark. Enjoy the sunset. Then hike out with a headlamp, compass, and GPS unit to lead the way. Have a good hot meal in camp, change to some fresh, comfortable clothes, visit with friends around the fire and make a plan for the next morning. Then go to bed early as another big day waits.
#6 - Stay mentally tough.
This is a critical aspect to elk hunting success. You may go several days without seeing animals and begin to feel discouraged, your body will be sore and craving sleep, the mornings may seem colder and earlier. Knock it off! Remember, the mountain may bless you with good fortune at any moment. Enjoy the other aspects of your hunt - pretty views, wildlife, your companions, the smell of pine and sage. Killing an elk is why you're there, but not the only reason, so keep at it. Remember you are hunting, not shooting or shopping. Months from now when you are snug in your warm house you will at least be able to feel pride in your efforts - successful or not.
#8 - If all that fails, scout a new area and hunt it.
Sometimes, despite the best-laid plans and thoughtful efforts, things just don't work out and you see no elk, hear no shooting, and find no fresh sign in the area. If after a few days prospects look dim, I will often start hiking. This is where elk hunting gets really tough, but I have to admit I sort of like it. It is best to plan a route on your map that circles you back toward camp so you are not stuck in unfamiliar country after dark. I hike hard and fast, still glassing in the mornings, but covering 6-12 miles the rest of the day, looking for fresh sign and glassing/ambush locations. If I strike fresh sign, particularly wet, soft droppings, or smell the barnyard-like odor of elk, I slow down to a crawl and still hunt the thickest covers in the immediate area. That or I might plan to be some place near by in the evening or the next morning to spot and, hopefully, stalk.
Elk can cover great distances very quickly and if hunting pressure is heavy, or some other factor has moved them out, you must be willing to go find them. Keep in mind that elk tend to go further and further away from roads and trails as the season progresses, but also sometimes hide in strange out of the way and over looked areas as well. I have killed elk in high sage desert areas miles from their home mountain and in patches of trees the size of a small house on the outskirts of town. These are extremes, but the point is if all else fails, don't give up, go for a walk.
Phase 4: Post-Hunt
Lets be very clear on something. You will not be able to drag your elk very far. Dragging an animal the size of a pony downhill is very hard, and uphill is more or less impossible. Planning on "just figuring it out later" is a foolish approach and has forced more than a few hunters to abandon their hard earned venison where it fell. Clearly a plan must be made for how to get your elk out once it is down.
The ideal situation is to have horses and someone who can handle them to help. But that is not likely for the average hunter, as the cost in renting pack animals adds substantially to the hunt. Instead, most hunters are forced to pack out their animal on their back. To do this you will need knowledge of how to quarter or bone out an animal. I ran across a video series created for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department by Grunko Films, inc. that shows this process very nicely. It is titled "Care of Game Animals: Field to Freezer" and I have been showing it to my students in hunter education classes for years. I prefer boning out an elk if it is more than a mile or two from camp. A boned out elk weighs less, but increases the risk of getting the meat dirty, so be sure to put it in game bags. I use cheap cotton bed sheets sewn into bags and tied shut with parachute cord. To carry out the bags of meat or quarters I use a simple pack frame. With this frame I can carry an entire quarter, or about 1/3 of the boned out meat. Without help it therefore takes 3-4 trips to the kill site and back to get an elk out. Usually after shooting, tagging, and gutting an elk, I will leave it for the night and head back to camp, returning with help the next day. If time permits I may quarter my elk and hang the sections in trees 100 or more yards from the kill site. Any predators that visit in the night will usually feed on the gut pile rather than the quarters. In bear country be sure to have a rifle and pepper spray ready in the unlikely event such a critter is about. This does not actually happen in most elk country very often, but it is possible and considerations should be made.
Once back at camp, feeling tired but deeply grateful, my personal tradition is to cook the elk tenderloins as sort of a celebratory feast. I cut the loins into 1-inch thick medallions; sauté them in butter with garlic, onions, and mushrooms. Then, I remove the meat from the pan, add a big shot of red wine to the juice and allow the liquid to reduce by half. Pour the sauce over the meat and serve it with baked potatoes and the beverage of your choice. It is my single favorite meal of the year.
Elk hunting is wonderfully challenging. Elk are tough animals that live in some of the most splendid environments found any where in the world. For those dedicated enough to become properly prepared and hunt hard, the rewards can be profound, even life affirming. I bid all my fellow elk hunters joy as they are blessed by the gifts of the mountain.