August 31, 2015
Maybe you're like me. When it comes to the ongoing dream of bowhunting elk, that is. As in an elk bowhunt is just not in the cards this year, a dream that isn't going to happen in 2015. Truth be known, you struck out and didn't draw a tag this past spring. And you're a flatlander living hundreds - or even thousands - of miles away from the mountains. Not to mention the fact that there's just simply too much on the proverbial plate right now. So like me, you're just going to swallow those wapiti hunting dreams and wait it out until next autumn. But then August arrives on the calendar and you start seeing all of your hunting buddies on social media as they scout, pack and prepare for the annual elk rutting madness of September.
And you start watching all of the late summer hunting television shows on Outdoor Channel and it seems like just about each and every one of them is showing an elk hunt.
You know, the kind that are filled with good bulls chasing cows, screaming bugles bouncing off the hillsides and the sight of quaking aspens showing off that unbelievable gold color straight from the Creator's palette.
In the end, it's all too much and you just can't stand it anymore.
Leading to the mad dash thought of whether or not it's too late, too late to pull off a “Plan B” elk hunt at this late date on the calendar.
And the answer is ... maybe not.
So says Raised Hunting host - and former Montana resident and elk hunting nut - David Holder.
He knows your pain. And your love of elk backstrap sizzling on the backyard grill. Not to mention going to sleep at night and hearing the music of bugling bulls filling your dreams.
"We are running low on elk steaks, but the good news is elk season opens in two weeks," Holder said recently on the Raised Hunting Facebook page.
If that's the predicament that you find yourself in, Holder points out that there are still a few limited elk hunting options that could be available.
Some might be found in a forgotten unit in a Western state where there's still a leftover tag for any bull, a raghorn spike bull or even a cow.
Other options might be found in units where tags are still available and there is a last second cancellation hunt or a drop-camp opportunity with an outfitter.
And for those who have the ability, willpower and physical stamina to do so, some last minute elk hunting opportunity can still be found in high-density, do-it-yourself kind of over-the-counter tag units in some western states like Colorado and Idaho.
But the truth of the matter is that to even entertain the idea of a last second “Plan B” elk hunt, Holder points out that there are three very important “I”s to be dotted and “T”s to be crossed.
First, a would be “Plan B” elk hunter needs to have their bow shooting skills honed and razor sharp.
Simply put, if you haven't been shooting your bow all summer and can't put a stout broadhead and arrow combination into a basketball sized kill zone every single time, ethical hunting and prudence demands that you wait until next year.
Second, any chance of success for a “Plan B” elk hunter depends on being in good physical shape at this very moment. If you haven't been running and working out this summer, the high altitude and huge country that elk live in dictates that you wait until next year.
And finally, you must have all of the necessary gear in your garage and it must be ready to go.
Because with only days to spare, there simply isn't any chance for last minute shopping sprees to your local hunting store in hopes of getting new, untested gear that is a must-have necessity in the mountains.
But if you meet those three criteria and you're still hankering for an elk steak, then welcome to the “Plan B” game.
To be successful, keep in mind that one key to any form of victory in this type of hunting endeavor is to go where there are plenty of elk to begin with.
"You want to look for areas where the elk densities are high," said Holder. "And that means that you're probably going to be going into areas where there's a chance to take an elk but maybe not the trophy bull that everybody dreams about."
Leading to a second key for success - keeping your expectations somewhat in check as you head west at the last minute.
The first reason for that thought is because the kind of units that still have tags available are generally going to provide an opportunity to hunt elk, but probably not an opportunity to take the trophy bull of a lifetime.
"We all know that a 350-inch bull is huge," said Holder. "But the truth is, the average guy is going to shoot the first 250-inch bull that comes in because for most of us, that's 10 times larger than any whitetail we've ever seen."
And the second reason for keeping expectations realistic is the simple truth that a last minute, “Plan B” effort is akin to the idea of simply scratching the elk hunting itch for another year.
Not to mention filling the freezer with elk steaks rather than placing an excited call to your favorite taxidermist.
A third and final key for last minute, Plan B success this year is to use hunting pressure to your advantage.
"That you go when everyone else isn't going or where everyone else doesn't want to go," laughed Holder.
Meaning that the first few days of the season when conditions are hot, dry and the elk aren't bugling is a prime time to consider.
Ditto for the last few days of the season when few hunters remain in the field and the frenzied bugling of the mid-September rut is becoming a fading memory.
Holder knows full well that this tactic works, thanks to a series of years when he bowhunted an elk-rich region of the Western U.S.
"The only problem was that for three years, I couldn't kill an elk in there," said Holder.
Mind you, Holder has hunted elk for more than two decades and has killed 25 or more elk with his bow during that time span spent hunting in various Western states.
Not to mention helping a number of friends, family and co-workers in their successful efforts to tag another few elk for the wall and the freezer.
Finally, it dawned on Holder that he wasn't killing an elk in the region he was hunting because of the time that he was actually there on the ground chasing bulls around.
And that was the time that all of the magazine cover stories said to be there, the bugling filled days of the mid-September rut.
"I'm not disrespecting anyone, but we're habitual beings, creatures of habit," said Holder. "People say this is where the big bulls are, this is when the peak of the rut is, this is when to be there and this is how to kill one. And we all follow along."
All the while wondering why we're cooking up another heaping portion of tag soup.
Holder finally realized that he either needed to be there on the first day of the season. Or better yet, he needed to be there closer to the final day of the season.
In both instances, he was ultimately successful even if he didn't follow the “Plan A” script.
"I killed one of my first really big bulls, a little over 300 inches, by going in and bugling him in on opening day," said Holder. "That was something that everyone else was telling me that I couldn't do, that it was simply too early to call a bull in."
Likewise, he also found success by going bowhunting for elk after everyone else was long gone.
"A lot of nonresidents and residents hunt places in the West during the last couple of weeks of September," said Holder.
Because that's when we're supposed to go.
But sometimes, “Plan A” doesn't work out while “Plan B” does.
"One year, the season was still open and I hadn't filled my tag yet, so I went into my unit and found that the parking lot at the trailhead was empty," laughed Holder. "A couple of weeks earlier, there wasn't a place to park.
"But this time, there was not one single vehicle there that morning - I was the only one around."
By day's end, Holder had punched his elk tag in the final moments of the season.
"I saw a good 5-point bull, which was a legal bull, and I called to him. He responded, he eventually came my way and I made a good shot on him," said the Outdoor Channel television show host.
The amazing thing was that all of this happened on a heavily pressured public land unit, the kind of land that Holder has specialized in hunting over his years that he has spent chasing wapiti across the West.
"There are plenty of places that it can be done," said Holder. "Out of all of the elk I have tagged, a good 15 or so of those elk were on public land in different states."
The kind of places that are still open to a last minute, last ditch effort.
For an enterprising bowhunter who is still dreaming of sizzling elk steaks.
And the musical sound of bulls bugling their song on breezes wafting across a golden mountainside lying deep in the heart of rugged elk country.
Where “Plan B” hunting dreams are still alive and well.