Long after most hunters have left the woods and are sitting home watching football bowl games or worrying about paying post-Christmas bills, some lucky hunters are still chasing elk. Several Western states offer late season hunts for antlerless elk that extend into mid-February.
Most people's mental image of elk hunting includes sweeping vistas, fall colors and high-pitched bugles. But for hunters who want to extend their season, a different type of elk hunting adventure awaits. These hunts usually don't involve mountaintops and dark timber. Instead of the rut, the driving forces on late hunts are typically deep snow and cold weather.
Many long-time elk hunters and even guides acknowledge that any elk is a trophy. They might not carry antlers, but elk cows are elusive and smart. Elk herds take their cues from wise old cows, not heavy-horned bulls. The reward for bagging a cow elk is a couple hundred pounds of some of the best game meat in the world.
Mitigating damage and controlling populations
Late season anterless elk hunts are not designed to be a wilderness experience. In fact, many take place close to urban areas. You can leave the wall tents at home and book a hotel room.
The late season timing means elk are usually down low, making them more accessible to hunters. They are also generally grouped into larger herds-sometimes more than a hundred animals. In a single night, that many elk can do lots of damage to a haystack or an orchard. And if they are hungry, very few fences can stand up to the force of that many large animals trying to get at something they want on the other side.
State game agencies use these late hunts as tools to control elk populations and to remove elk in areas where they cause problems. Although many late hunts are on private land, land owners often welcome hunters who are going to help rid them of nuisance animals. Of course hunters should not apply for a permit to hunt on private land unless they have already secured permission to hunt there.
Safety is a critical issue when hunting close to towns or in areas with livestock or farm equipment. Hunters also need to be aware of state and local laws governing the discharge of weapons in such circumstances.
In many cases, these are ambush hunts. In winter, elk frequently travel several miles under the cover of darkness to feed in warmer lower valleys. As daylight approaches, they begin moving back up into the surrounding hills. They often use the same travel routes repeatedly. Sometimes the elk are feeding on private ground down low, but spending daytime hours hunkered down on higher public ground. Hunters who locate these travel corridors can arrive early at a good vantage point and try to intercept the herds before they move back to steeper cover areas.
Weather is a key component
Many late antlerless elk hunts are high success or virtually no success depending on the weather. Several years ago a friend told me about an area where permits were easy to draw and he and a friend filled their tags early on the first day of the hunt. He said they saw dozens of elk. It was a small area that I had driven through but never hunted. The low pinion juniper habitat did not seem well suited for elk, but I checked the hunter success statistics for the previous two years and saw that hunters enjoyed virtually 100% success.
I put in applications for the area and my son and I both drew tags. The hunt started in late December and continued until the end of January. We were there for a day during the first week of the hunt and saw no elk. We talked to some local hunters who advised us that elk usually didn't make it into the area until pushed down by snow in higher elevations.
It was a mild winter with little snow. We waited until the last week of the season to return. There were patches of snow but still plenty of bare ground. We hunted hard for two days. We followed the only two sets of tracks we saw but another pair of hunters found the elk first and bagged a cow and a calf. Of the 75 hunters who had tags for the area that year, only a handful of elk were killed.
While snow and cold can help push elk into lower areas where they are more visible, winter weather can also present additional challenges for hunters. Snow and ice can make roads treacherous or impassible. With their long legs and big bodies, elk can move fairly easily in snow up to two feet deep. Hunters are not as fortunate. Anyone hunting late season elk must be aware of weather and road conditions and be prepared to deal with problems like slide offs or extreme cold temperatures.
Great hunts for young or older hunters
Late winter antlerless hunts can be great for young hunters or older hunters. While too much snow or extreme cold can be difficult to handle, that can often be offset by the lower elevation and more forgiving terrain.
Some state also offer discounts for young hunters. For example, in Colorado non-resident youth hunters pay just $103.75 for a cow elk tag. For resident youths the cost is only $13.75. In Wyoming, non-resident youths can hunt anterless elk for just $114 compared to the $302 fee for adults.
Road hunting generally carries a negative connotation in the West. But it can be an effective method when seeking winter elk. On one such hunt I had a tag in a huge area with lots of open ground interspersed with a few parcels of trees and ravines.
Though the area held elk, they were widely scattered and tended to stay in the protective cover of the trees where they were not easily visible. The easiest way to locate them was to drive the roads looking for tracks that indicated a bunch of elk crossed recently. Once fresh tracks were found, we would scan in the direction of the tracks for nearby areas of cover that could hide a group of elk. Then we would move in as quietly as possible and see if the elk were there.
We found a small herd on the second stop. We took two cows. Getting them back to the truck was easy over the mostly open ground. A couple of weeks later I went back to the area with another friend who had a permit and we used the same method to fill his tag less than an hour after daylight.
How to get in on the game
If you want to try later season anterless elk hunts, check with game agencies for almost any of the western states. Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana all usually have permits for winter cow hunts. But any state that has elk is worth checking because these hunts can vary quite a bit from year to year as managers schedule hunts to trim elk in overpopulated areas or to reduce human-elk problems.
Some states reserve a portion of these permits for non-residents, but the hunts are often undersubscribed. While local hunters have an advantage in knowing about the area and the habits of the animals, non-residents who have done their homework can find areas with great drawing odds. Permits for non-residents that are not taken in the draw are usually offered back to resident hunters in leftover drawings.
Wyoming and Arizona have both already completed their elk drawings for 2010. There will still be opportunities for leftover tags, but these will generally be in areas of predominantly private land, so make sure and secure permission before applying.
In Utah the application period for limited entry bull elk tags is already past. But the application period for antlerless hunts isn't until June. Utah has great opportunities for antlerless elk hunting on public land. Permit numbers are not set yet because game managers are still assessing winter mortality rates. But you can check proclamations from previous years online and get a good idea of what permit numbers should be like. Colorado has by far the most elk of any state and cow elk tags are easy to obtain. Some of the late hunts are on private lands, so secure access before applying. The application deadline is April 6.
The general elk application deadline in Montana is March 15. But the deadline for limited antlerless elk permit applications is June 1. And over-the-counter antlerless elk licenses go on sale Aug. 9.
Elk herds in some areas of Idaho are way down because of wolf predation. But there are still antlerless hunting opportunities, particularly in the southern portion of the state. The application deadline is May 1.
While these are the dominant elk states, other antlerless permits are available in any state where elk reside. So if you want to chase elk in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, or even Kentucky, check with the appropriate game agency to see what opportunities are available.
In addition, several of these states have landowner and/or depredation tags for cow elk. Some states regulate the cost, dates and availability and others allow the landowners most of the control. I have seen classified ads offering landowner cow elk tags and have even seen handwritten ads posted on community bulleting boards. Some Indian reservations also offer antlerless elk hunting opportunities. Permit costs will generally vary from $200 for do-everything-yourself hunts up to about $1,500 for guided hunts on private ranches. Suffice it to say, if you really want to hunt antlerless elk you can probably find an opportunity even if you have procrastinated and missed the traditional application periods.
The rules and regulations for these tags vary greatly and it would be difficult to list even a portion of them in an article like this. If you have a question about these kinds of opportunities for a specific area, one of the best ways to find out how to get additional information is to request assistance from fellow hunters on the forum pages of this web site.
Because of the later application dates, these antlerless elk hunts can also be a great option for hunters who fail to draw the premium tag they hoped to get. In 2009 when I learned that I would not be chasing big bucks or bulls, the knowledge that I could still pursue anterless elk in January was certainly a nice consolation.
Flint Stephens pays his mortgage by writing about investment markets, but his real passions are fishing and hunting. Stephens grew up pursuing fish and wildlife in Ohio, but while attending college in Utah, he fell in love with the mountains, deserts and a girl from Moab. After several years as a journalist in Illinois, the draw of mountain adventures brought them back to central Utah in 1986. Stephens enjoys horses, freelance writing and photography. He spends his spare time making certain his children and grandchildren are completely addicted to outdoor pursuits.