It's that time of year — time for planning your fall elk hunt, and no better elk hunts can be found than those across the eight Rocky Mountain states. No doubt. America's best.
And there are two paths toward filling your elk tags: 1) Hunting outfitters offer a high success rate, and the cost may be prohibitive for some, but the planning is left to guides who know every detail in an elk hunt for success; or 2) You can spend several months making careful plans to maximize your chances on a self-guided hunt. From Arizona to Montana, self-planning resources — from procuring licenses and drawing for preferred units, to maps, game distribution statistics, previous hunt success stats and more — are abundant and easily found online or with a phone call to state wildlife offices and visitors’ bureaus.
License/tag draws vary significantly from state to state and getting selected for a prime hunt/unit requires some time to succeed. When you’re not awarded that tag for the hunt you prefer, most of the Rocky Mountain states offer an over-the-counter option for salvaging your hunting season. Once you have one in hand, start researching the resources to develop a strategy for improving the odds for drawing your preferred hunt next year.
Arizona is one of the hallowed states for trophy elk. Many bulls will measure in the 350- to 400-inch range. Some 35,000 elk are distributednorth to south along a line across hunting units 1-10, generally located along the Mogollon Rim. Units 1, 9, 10, and 23 are managed to develop older mature bulls, although monster bulls are well distributed throughout most elk management units.
If you should draw a coveted tag for Unit 10, you might consider looking at getting a Big Boquillas Ranch access permit (online at HuntBigBoRanch.com). The ranch occupies nearly half of Unit 10, and the fee is reasonable. Expect to find your trophy at high altitudes until winter storms drive them down into the lowlands. Tags are not easy to draw, and the hunts are tough, with just one out of four being successful each year.
Among Colorado’s elk hunts, the first rifle season is the best hunt for many because fewer hunters are in the field than during the over-the-counter hunts in the second and third seasons. The fourth elk-hunting season focuses on hunting cow elk, and, in any case, it takes high preference points to open a chance to draw one of Colorado’s trophy units — 1, 2, 10, 40 and 201.
Big-game coordinator Andy Holland of Colorado Parks and Wildlife says hunters will find some 280,000 elk combined across all hunting zones. The 2017 elk harvest was below expectation because mild weather failed to drive elk down from the high-country, and the mild winter of 2018 continued that trend.Bulls are well distributed, except in extreme southwest Colorado, where state wildlife officials say herd numbers are somewhat below objective. Hardy hunters willing to exert a little effort there may be rewarded, as there are fewer hunters competing afield.
Senior state wildlife biologist Brad Petch says elk hunting should be good almost anywhere west of Interstate 25, all the way from the low-elevation pinon/juniper breaks to alpine heights. Bear’s Ear and White River herds in northwest Colorado are the largest, ranging from Interstate 70 to the Wyoming border. Grand Mesa and Middle Park elk are plentiful, as well.
State wildlife biologist Daryl Meintz, says bow hunters in Idaho are likely to discover the Gem State is an elk-hunting Mecca. An abundance of non-resident bowhunting tags are made available annually, even in prime hunting areas. Meintz also urges archery and rifle hunters — especially, non-resident hunters — to purchase over-the-counter elk tags, which, he says, open up the best opportunities for taking elk. Resident and non-resident general tags are available on a first-come-first-served basis. Non-resident tag numbers are limited, and some units sell out early. Controlled hunt tags are limited by draw but tend to have a higher success rate
A very healthy elk herd exists statewide. In some of the southern units, an over-abundance of elk has led to plenty of antlerless elk tags, which aim to reduce crop damage on private land. For hunters who want to experience good hunting in a more isolated back country adventure, the wilderness areas and fringe lands of north and central Idaho are the answer.
Other good elk areas are Units 40 and 46 in semi-arid southwest Idaho. Access is plentiful and local hunters traditionally score high success rates on big bulls. The Idaho Hunt Planner on the website — idfg.idaho.gov — of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is an interactive search and mapping engine for Idaho Hunting Regulations and holds myriad hunting data, such as tag draw details, maps, statistics, game information and more.
According to Montana's big-game management bureau chief, John Vore, Montana elk numbers are over management objectives in most hunting units. Some elk losses are likely in the northwestern region where calf recruitment is expected to be impacted. Minimal or no losses are anticipated elsewhere.
Vore says how winter 2017-18 finishes will impact the success of this fall’s elk hunts and overall harvest. Over the years, elk hunts in Montana’s administrative Region 3 (southwest) has reigned supreme. The Tendoy, Pioneer, Gravelly and Tobacco Root mountains usually produce well. Regions 2, 4, and 5 also hold an abundance of elk. Recently, a near world-record bull was harvested in Region 5 (south-central). In Region 4 (north-central), says state wildlife manager Graham Taylor, “… elk are bursting at the seams,” but winter drives them onto private land and away from most hunters. In the past, hunters in Region 1 (northwest) have enjoyed seeing good bowhunting success rates, but it remains to be seen how winter will affect those herds in what can be Montana’s most brutal winter-weather zone. Finally, the Missouri River Breaks, which transit the border of regions 4 and 6 (northeast), hold an abundance of big bulls and is especially good for archers who hold great odds for drawing a tag.
Montana offers licenses for “shoulder season”’ — firearms seasons that occur outside the five-week general firearms and archery seasons — that take aim on harvesting antlerless elk largely on private property.
Nevada elk hunters tag a lot of 6-point and bigger trophy bulls each year, probably because management objectives of the Nevada Department of Wildlife focus on maintaining more older age-class bulls while sustaining high elk numbers. Still, the 2017 elk harvest, in both numbers and size, was below the latest trends. This could mean many additional big bulls in Nevada hunters’ gun sights this season.
Eastern Elko County has produced many 6-point or larger animals, and more than half of Nevada’s small, but well-managed, elk herd inhabits the eastern and northeastern part of the state. The best chances for success, McKee says, lie in units 111-115 in the Shell Creek and Snake mountain ranges, where some of Nevada’s largest bulls live. Chances to draw a tag are better in units 78, 105, 107 and 109. Unit 91 along the Utah/Nevada border usually has a higher success rate on large beamed elk.
Licenses have changed some for 2018. Non-residents can apply only for combination hunt-and-fish licenses, which are less expensive than in the past, but more expensive than the hunting license only.
New Mexico is home to some of the largest bulls in the Rockies, and slightly fewer than 40,000 elk hunters explore New Mexico each year in hopes of tagging one.
James Pitman, elk manager for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, says he expects a good hunt this fall, depending on local spring precipitation patterns that followed the mild 2017-18 winter. Uncommonly dry weather can lead to fires that destroy elk food resources and availability. Fires can also cause herd migration from traditional habitat to new areas.
Pitman says many of the best bulls will be found in the Greater Gila herd in GMUs 15 and 16A through 16E; GMU 6B, the Valles Caldera; and GMU 55, Valle Vidal. The Greater Gila herd roams wilderness areas of rugged terrain and heavy timber and burns. Valle Caldera and Valle Vidal are generally open-valley areas surrounded by heavily timbered slopes and ridges with large burn areas.
Overall, the statewide elk population is optimal, with good bull-to-cow ratios, Pittman adds. One exception is the Mount Taylor herd (GMU 9), where, he says, new management strategies hope to resolve issues.
For those seeking areas with lots of elk, Pitman points to the Sacramento and Ruidoso herds in units 34 and 36, where bull-to-cow ratios are high, as well.
Draw odds for elk tags are explained online at Wildlife.State.NM.us to help prospective hunters plan their hunt. As is common across the West, a large percentage — 84 percent— of draw licenses are reserved for resident hunters.
If trophy bulls are your goal, a Utah elk hunt might be just for you. Virtually every hunting unit in the Beehive State holds wallhangers, and each year some 350- to 380-class bulls are harvested. The world-record 478+ bull was taken in 2008 in Utah.
Utah’s big-game coordinator, Covy Jones, says Utah elk herds are in great shape, standing at or near management objectives. The state’s current elk population is about 81,000 animals. Some of the best units for trophy bulls include the San Juan Unit, where 400+ bulls are not rare. The large Monroe Unit, where the world-record bull was taken, also turns out many big animals each year. The Boulder Unit is a relatively large unit holding many nice bulls. Fewer trophy bulls exist in the Wasatch and Manti units, but there are a lot of animals there.
While it is too late to enter the draw for coveted limited-entry permits this year, general licenses go on sale July 17 on a first-come-first-served basis. Applications for limited-entry bull permits will likely go on sale early in 2019.
Wyoming has long stood as a preferred elk hunting destination. Jeff Obrecht of Wildlife Wyoming magazine, told me the mild winter of 2017-18 should have no adverse impact on the state’s elk herds. As a result, the best hunting areas could lie in the rugged wilderness areas, where outfitters can give some promise to general license hunters.
Al Langston of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department pinpoints the rugged Bridger-Teton and Shoshone National Forests as prime trophy elk destinations. In fact, the world-record crossbow bull was harvested in 2014 in the Shoshone National Forest near Dubois; but the Beartooth Mountains hold, perhaps, Wyoming’s biggest bulls. Another notable area is Medicine Bow National Forest near the Colorado border in southeast Wyoming.
General licenses for a bull can often be obtained with a single preference point, but many years collecting preference points are usually required for success in the draw for a tag in a coveted limited-quota area where success rates can approach 90 percent. The limited-quota and limited-quota private-land hunts also provide added promise for successful hunts.
Of the 56,000 hunters who hit the elk woods last season in Wyoming, a little more than 11,000 were non-residents. Just 16 percent of the license quotas are allocated to non-residents, and non-residents are required to hunt with a guide if they want to hunt in designated wilderness areas. At a premium price, one can purchase a commissioner’s license and hunt immediately in a prime area.
Elk hunting in the Rockies is not a year-by-year event for successful hunters. Prime area access demands annual application for a tag to accrue sufficient preference points for draw success. Meanwhile, many hunters purchase over-the-counter tags for good hunts, especially when well planned and the weather cooperates.