August 31, 2022
I shot my first public-land bull elk in September 1978 after riding on horseback 22 miles from Victor, Mont., into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness area of Idaho. Back then, you could hunt with a rifle during the rut, and my old college roommate and I bugled up a pair of bulls in two days, mine a big 6x6 that scored almost 330 Boone and Crockett points. I was young and dumb and thought killing a big bull on public turf was easy. How wrong I was.
I arrowed my most recent public-land bull in September 2021 in an area of western Montana where tags are virtually guaranteed in the draw and elk hunting pressure is stiff from both locals and nonresidents.
Fortunately, Rick Wemple, a good friend and a local outfitter from Victor (mtoutfitter.com), with whom I last hunted 25 years ago and who has been guiding elk hunters for more than 40 years, came along as my hunting buddy. It took six arduous days, but despite having to regularly dodge other hunters, we were in elk every day.
When Rick cow-called the 4 1/2-year-old 5x5 bull to 12 steps, the shot was almost too easy. Packing the meat two miles and 1,100 vertical feet back to the truck was not.
In between those hunts, I have hunted elk extensively with firearms and bows in every state in the West, as well as western Canada. In 1993, I even arrowed two bulls in Mongolia, where they're called Altai Maral stag, but look and act like Rocky Mountain elk. I've hunted private land, but mostly hunted public land on my own, both solo and with a buddy or two. I report all of this so you know that what I am about to share about successfully hunting government land is based on a lifetime of boots-on-the-ground experience.
PLAN AND RESEARCH
With few exceptions (like some Colorado and Idaho over-the-counter tags), bull elk tags are issued by draw in most states, and you have to apply early. After you draw a tag, research the area from home using state game department statistical resources, internet chat rooms, hunting apps, magazine articles and old-school telephone calls to game biologists and others you know who might have previously hunted the area. You can't get too much information. Have there been big fires recently? New roads opened? Old roads closed? Where's the water? Are there big hayfields nearby that draw elk? Have wolves become a factor? If you can do some actual on-the-ground scouting prior to your hunt, even better.
GET IN SHAPE
Backcountry elk hunting in steep, rugged, high-elevation mountain terrain is hard. Very hard. The better your physical condition, the better able you'll be to hunt hard all day for days on end, covering maximum ground as you search for pockets of elk. You don't have to be an Olympian, but you need to be able to go. Hard.
SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT
Archery or firearm, it doesn't matter. Assume that all your hard work will produce just one shot opportunity during your hunt. You must be prepared to take advantage of it. That shot will probably be between some brush or trees, and the elk might only give you a second or three to get it together and shoot him before he’s gone. If you’re a bowhunter, practice shooting from your knees with your body contorted.
"One of the biggest reasons I've seen hunters not punch their tag is the fact that they cannot make the shot quickly," Wemple says.
HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Public-land elk hunting is not the same as the hunting you see on most cable TV hunting shows or YouTube videos. There are not big 6x6 bulls everywhere, and if you mess up with one bull, you won’t often find another quickly, if at all. My rule of thumb on this type of hunting is simple: If it’s legal, it's a trophy. That fact becomes a stark reality when you realize that in all states, the success rate on any elk is less than 20 percent—and often, much less. While I've killed some big public-land bulls over the years, I consider the 4 1/2-year-old 5x5 I killed with Rick in 2021 to be one of my most prized elk. This is especially true when hunting in areas managed for maximum hunter participation, where few bulls live past a very few years.
Calling in a bull during the rut can be effective and exhilarating, but you have to take the elk’s temperature. Is he call shy? Does he respond best to bugling or cow calls? I've found in many cases less is more when it comes to calling public-land bulls. Also, be sure to practice your calling before the hunt. The last thing you need to do is squeak like an out-of-tune violin when working a hot bull.
EXPECT HUNTER PRESSURE
Elk are extremely sensitive to human encroachment. Unless you get well away from easy access—and sometimes, even if you do—odds are there will be other hunters around. In all likelihood they will bump the herd, which just might decide to leave the mountain. That's why you need to have a Plan B and even a Plan C. If the elk are bumped, where will they go? Have you located a second little herd you can hunt if your primary herd is spooked? This is where your pre-hunt research and fitness level can come into play. If you can hike all day and find more elk to hunt, you'll leave 90 percent of the other hunters behind.
FIND HIDDEN POCKETS
For three days on my 2021 hunt, Rick and I were in the middle of a little herd that contained some really nice bulls living right off a main dirt road. We got close but never had a shot. Then the weekend came, and so did a truckload of hunters who bumbled through the woods and chased the elk off the mountain. By Monday morning it was clear we needed to move on, so we drove to another nearby spot, climbed 1,100 feet straight up, hiked a mile along a ridge and, late in the day, threw out a call. Bam. A hot bull answered. We retreated and regrouped, came back at dawn the next morning and that's when I killed my bull. This little herd was in an isolated timber bowl that had seen zero hunter pressure. It was also a bugger to pack that bull to the truck, requiring two trips.
WATCH THE WIND
Compared to deer, elk are noisy creatures. When traveling from point A to point B in the elk woods, I try to be quiet (no loud talking, banging of metal, etc.), but don't obsess over making some noise while walking. However, elk use their noses to detect danger like few animals you'll ever hunt. You have to do whatever it takes to keep the wind right or the party is instantly over. That means paying attention to thermal currents and breezes that can bounce off side hills, walls of trees and the like. If you are moving in on elk and feel the wind switch, run if you must to put it in your favor. Or leave and come back another time.
SEEK OUT WATER
Elk need lots of water, especially during the early seasons. Water also grows lush grasses that elk like to graze on. During the rut, bulls like to wallow in muddy puddles and pools. Find the water—especially small water sources like springs, seeps and puddles—inside the dark timber, and chances are good you'll also find fresh elk sign. These are great places to set a tree stand or erect a brush blind and wait 'em out.
SPOT THE RUT ZONES
I've learned over the years that elk like to rub their antlers and rut in generally the same places on a mountain year after year. These zones are marked with both fresh rubs and old rubs on trees of all sizes. When I find such areas as I roam through the countryside, I mark them on my maps and use them as a reference for future hunts.
TAKE ENOUGH TIME
Unless you live close to where you hunt, elk hunting is not a weekend game. Elk are herd animals that live in relatively small pockets on a given mountain, meaning it can take days just to locate the animals. The more time you can spend, the better your chances. I personally like to give myself at least a full week on the mountain, and more if I can swing it.
GLASS, GLASS, GLASS
Optics play a crucial role in elk hunting. When seeking elk to hunt, get to a vantage point where you can see maximum territory and glass it carefully. A binocular mounted on a tripod is great for this. And while dawn and dusk are prime times for glassing, more than once I’ve found elk by glassing stands of dark timber on north- and west-facing slopes, where elk tend to bed, during midday hours when they like to loaf and rest.
I've learned a lot about hunting elk on public land over the last 40 years. The challenges are many and the odds—in most cases—are long, but success is possible, especially for hunters who start thinking about their hunts long before their boots hit the ground. Preseason preparations, knowing what signs to look for in elk country and having plans to work around any possible obstacles you might encounter all are key elements that can increase your chances of crossing paths with a public-land bull.