These tips and locations can help you find late-season elk success in Arizona and New Mexico.
By Tony Martins
Late-season elk hunters in Arizona and New Mexico face a number of challenges. By the time late seasons open in November and December, there has been nearly continuous hunting pressure for two months or more in most elk areas.
More gun hunters will be in the woods during late season — in some high density areas, ten times more! Bowhunters will find less competition late. But, with less vocalization at this time, elk are more difficult to locate and rarely come to a call.
Late-season bulls often have broken antlers from battling for breeding rights, and there is always the possibility of severe weather at elevation in elk country that can dampen the best hunting plans.
But, if you are lucky enough to be holding one of these coveted tags, there’s a very good chance you could hang it on the biggest elk of your life, despite the late-season disadvantages.
Arizona is the best state to find a big, trophy-caliber bull elk. More Boone & Crockett entries have come from the Grand Canyon State than any other, despite the fact that Arizona’s elk population of 30-35,000 animals ranks as second smallest among states in the Intermountain Region.
Only Nevada holds fewer elk, and all other states in the region boast from two to at least five times the number resident in Arizona.
The outstanding quality here can be attributed to several factors, including exceptional genetics, excellent habitat with good quality forage, comparatively mild winters most years, and elk management programs that have been carefully developed and administered by both state and tribal wildlife agencies.
Given these factors and the chance to mature, Arizona bulls often grow truly bragging-sized headgear, with a handful of 400-inch monsters taken every year.
That’s all good news. The bad news is that bull elk tags in Arizona are not easy to obtain. Virtually all elk hunting permits on state managed lands are issued through a lottery-type drawing, with application deadline in early February each year.
Drawing odds for early season “rut” hunts are meager, and despite a “bonus” point system that awards one point for each unsuccessful application, it can take years to draw one of these hunts in a blue-ribbon unit.
But there’s more good news. Arizona has some of the best late season opportunity to be found anywhere. These tags are easier to draw, with odds from 10 to 30 times greater than early season hunts in the same unit. 95 percent of the 7,700-plus bull tags allotted for gun hunts (rifle & muzzleloader) are in December this year, and more than 25 percent of the 4,600-plus bull tags available to bowhunters are for hunts in mid or late November. Including antlerless permits, more than 55 percent of all elk hunting in Arizona occurs in late season.
According to Rick Langley, AZGFD Region 1 game specialist in Pinetop, elk herds are healthy. And 2017 should be an “above average” year in terms of antler growth, he noted.
“We had a mild, wet winter, so antlers got a good start,” he explained. Despite unusually dry late spring and extremely warm early summer conditions that may hurt late stage antler growth in the west, he noted, “There has been enough moisture on the eastern side of the state for antlers to finish well.”
With adequate moisture to grow forage rich in nutrients, mild winters, and elk occupied areas that have dodged the wildfire bullet for a few years, Arizona’s elk are comparatively stress-free. Like many big game experts, Langley believes that low stress promotes greater antler growth.
When calories are burned through stress there is less of that energy available for growing antlers. Arizona manages for a bull-to-cow ratio of 25:75 in most areas, and 30:70 in select areas. I mentioned that my observations seem to indicate a higher percentage of bulls over the past few years.
Langley countered that due to the ruggedness of Arizona’s elk habitat, “aerial surveys can easily miss a large bachelor (bull) group and skew the numbers slightly.”
NEW MEXICO OUTLOOK
Over the past several years, the state of New Mexico has grown in popularity with elk hunters seeking big bulls. Elk numbers remain at the optimum carrying capacity of the land in most COER (Core Occupied Elk Range) areas, and elk are moving into other areas outside of the COER. Biologists estimate the current elk population at 80-90,000.
New Mexico Department of Game & Fish elk program manager James Pitman identified a number of herds and game management units (GMUs) with high bull-to-cow and calf-to-cow ratios. These include the Greater Gila (GMU-15, GMUs 16A-E), San Mateo/Magdalena (GMU-17), Sacramento (GMU-34), Ruidoso (GMU-36), Jemez (GMUs 6A-C), and North Central (GMUs 4, 5B, 50, 51, 52).
This means there are plenty of older age class bulls with proven genetics capable of producing trophy-sized racks, given the right conditions. Like eastern Arizona, much of the New Mexico COER area has received sufficient moisture, so antler growth prospects are rated “average or slightly above average” for 2017.
The Land of Enchantment issues 35,000-plus elk licenses annually, through both a lottery drawing system with mid-March application deadline and private landowner authorizations.
Unlike other states, there is no preference or bonus point system. So theoretically, all applicants have an equal chance in the draw each year. Well … almost. New Mexico uses a quota system for draw hunts whereby 84 percent of the licenses are awarded to residents, 6 percent to non-residents and 10 percent to hunters filing an application through a state registered outfitter (resident or non-resident).
When draw results are released near the end of April there is typically a rush by unsuccessful applicants to contact landowners and outfitters. A list of properties enrolled in the Elk Private Land Use System (E-PLUS) allotted license authorizations can be found on the NMG&F website. These can be pricey for top producing ranches in blue-ribbon elk units, fetching $10,000 or more for fully guided bull hunts.
While most New Mexico elk hunting takes place in September and October, there are a few late-season draw hunts for bulls. These include rifle hunts in GMUs 5B and 48, and muzzleloader hunts in GMUs 13, 15 and 17, with an either sex hunt in GMU-51.
Private land hunts are either “unit-wide” or “ranch-only,” with the former restricted to hunt dates for the designated GMU, while dates for the latter are more flexible. Landowners provide the ranch number, hunt code(s), season dates and fee type with each authorization.
LATE SEASON STRATEGY
Understanding elk behavior and the behavioral adaptations commonly made by Southwestern elk will increase the likelihood of filling that late-season tag with a bruiser bull. Elk hunters often grumble that the biggest herd bulls disappear shortly after the primary rut and don’t reappear until late spring the following year. By mid-October herd bulls have been battling for rights to pass on their genes for nearly two months.
Exhausted, and often wounded, these bulls retreat to recover and heal in places that hunters rarely go. They typically hole up in the thickest cover at the highest elevation where there is also access to water. Quality forage is not as important at this time as it was during pre-rut, and will be after recovery.
Contrary to popular belief, elk in Arizona and New Mexico do not migrate. Cows, calves and young bulls will transition from high-elevation forests of spruce-fir and aspen (10,000-plus feet) as well as mixed conifer (7,000 feet) to lower elevation pinion-juniper woodlands (5,500-6,500 feet) when winter snows force them to move. Across much of the southwestern elk range, this move requires only a few miles of travel.
The canopy provides shelter, warmth and forage, particularly around grassland borders. Wise old herd bulls often remain in the solitude of their high-elevation haunts all winter. They descend lower only when deep snow makes it difficult for them to move and feed. This means elk will often be found around the same areas in late season they were during early season.
Young bulls, including some 3- to 5-year-olds with impressive headgear over 300 inches, can be found hanging around familial groups of 10 to 20 cows and calves, looking for receptive cows not bred during the primary rut. These bulls may visit several groups of cows daily, typically foraging on the best food source in the area.
Last year I was lucky, drawing an early bull archery tag in a blue-ribbon unit, near my home in Arizona’s White Mountains. Despite little rutting activity, I took a 300-inch Pope & Young herd bull in September, near the top of a steep, 9,200-foot cinder cone. After telling a buddy with a late-season tag in the same unit about the bedding area I located, he took a bigger bull — 40 inches bigger — on the same small mountain two months later.
WHERE TO HUNT IN ARIZONA
Arizona’s traditional blue-ribbon elk units include: 1 (from Vernon to Alpine), 3A/3C (along Hwy 260 from Show Low to Forest Lakes), 27 (south of Alpine in the White Mountains), 9 and 10 (Kaibab National Forest and Coconino Plateau northwest of Flagstaff), 22 North (around Payson), and 23 North (between Highway 260 and Young). Units 1, 3C and 23 border the legendary Fort Apache Reservation and unit 27 borders the San Carlos Apache Reservation. This is the heart of some of the best elk country in the world.
Drawing odds for late season hunts in 2016, and average success rates on bull elk follow.
Rifle: Unit 1 (6 percent / 52 percent), units 3A/3C (15 percent / 26 percent), unit 27 (13 percent / 59 percent), unit 9 (23 percent / 28 percent), unit 10 (21 percent / 23 percent), unit 22 North (28 percent / 32 percent) and unit 23 (7 percent / 63 percent).
Archery: Unit 1 (15 percent / 18 percent), units 3A/3C (60 percent / 20 percent), unit 27 (52 percent / 44 percent), unit 9 (40 percent / 35 percent), unit 10 (50 percent / 9 percent), unit 22 North (100 percent / 15 percent), and unit 23 (55 percent / 19 percent).
Unit 10 is trending down a bit, with 100 fewer late rifle tags in 2017 than 2016, and lately fewer monster bulls have come from Unit 27. Nevertheless, both units remain among the best.
Unit 7W (northwest of Flagstaff) is a sleeper unit to consider next year for either late rifle or bow. There’s lots of private land, and although some terrain is moderate, the San Francisco Peaks area is very rugged. Drawing odds and average success for rifle (20 percent / 34 percent) and archery (53 percent / 29 percent) are comparatively good. In fact, the September 2016 archery hunt had 11 percent draw odds, with comparable success rate of 34 percent. Unit 19A (between Prescott and Camp Verde) gets overlooked with only 35 late rifle tags and 54 percent public land. But, with 22 percent drawing odds and 67 percent success rate in 2015, it’s worth considering.
WHERE TO HUNT IN NEW MEXICO
Traditional blue-ribbon GMUs that are still going strong include: 6B (Valles Caldera northwest of Los Alamos), 12 (Fence Lake), 15 (between Reserve and Quemado), 16A-E (Gila National Forest), 17 (south of Magdalena), 34 & 36 (which bookend the Mescalero Apache Reservation), and 55 (Valle Vidal). Non-resident drawing odds for all of these GMUs are less than 5 percent for all early hunts.
GMU-6B boasts remarkable 3-year average success rates on branch-antlered bulls of 86 percent (rifle), 83 percent (muzzleloader) and 70 percent (archery). No data is available for late-season ranch-only hunts in these GMUs, but early season success rates top 50 percent for most hunts, and could be much lower for late hunts.
James Pitman noted: “New Mexico does have a special online late-season archery sale in GMUs 12, 34 and 37, dependent on regular season harvest rates. Hunt periods vary from late November to late December,” he advised, noting that harvest is restricted to bulls with 6 or more points of any length on at least one antler.
Applications are available to residents only for the first 24 hours, and then non-residents may apply.