Each fall, thousands of eager elk hunters rejoice as they head for the high country. Many seek a wide spread, back-scratching trophy head to display over the mantle, but most are simply looking to fill the freezer with delicious steaks and roasts.
From Arizona northward to Montana and Idaho, the Rocky Mountain region beckons all who live to hear the spine-tingling bugle of rutting bulls. The good news is state game officials foresee another outstanding season in 2016.
Hat rack trophy bulls abound in Arizona. The problem is drawing a license to hunt. The Arizona Game and Fish Department website has valuable hunter information, particularly in the annual compilation of big game hunting statistics. It includes draw, survey, and harvest statistics for a five-year period as well as information on distribution and elk behavior.
Amber Munig, big game management supervisor, said the 2014 elk season produced a 39 percent success rate across the board for rifle seasons and that 2015 will probably show about the same when harvest statistics are compiled. Arizona elk wintered well, and she expects another good elk season in 2016. Elk tags for nearly all game units are issued by draw. The only over the counter licenses available are for units in which elk are not wanted.
Munig said units 1, 9, 10 and 23 are managed for higher bull population. These units have a 35/100 bull to cow ratio or higher, thus some bulls live to be older resulting in a higher density of trophy bulls. Most other units maintain a 25-35/100 ratio. She recommends 1, 22, 23, 3A and 3C as units with slightly higher success rates. While drawing a tag is difficult, applying for archery, cow or later season tags will improve one's odds of success.
Colorado has the largest herd in the country. Just short of 300,000 elk are spread over millions of acres of public and private land. They are dispersed throughout the mountainous region as well as lower terrain. Though trophy bulls aren't common, low license prices, large herds and great public land access make Colorado the most highly hunted state in the Rockies.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife website has a wealth of information on elk hunting in their Hunter's Atlas, Hunting Stories, and the comprehensive Elk Hunting University. Four Regional Hunt Guides provide detailed information on each Game Management Unit.
Andy Holland, CPW big game manager, noted that the 2016 season should be just as successful as last year's estimated 44,000 elk harvest. Overall, elk herds are expected to be in excellent condition. Successful elk hunters get well back from the roads, hunt hard all day, hunt high early and expect snow-driven migration to drive elk down later.
Northwest Colorado is always a top prospect because the population there is the highest and cow/bull ratios are favorable. Holland said the southern tier from Trinidad west to the Utah border will also be good, though cow licenses will probably be reduced to maintain recently dwindling calf production numbers.
Outfitter John Nelson historically enjoys good success for his hunters in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness area near Gunnison. Units 54 and 55 are good bets for the hardy hunter willing to tackle this rugged elk habitat.
Holland said the 1st rifle season is always the most productive because all elk tags are limited, keeping hunter density low, while the 2nd and 3rd seasons are about 50 percent over the counter.
Idaho is a hunter friendly state with plentiful over the counter licenses at reasonable cost, lots of public land as well as isolated backcountry access. The Idaho Fish and Game website has an excellent hunt planning section that will answer most, if not all, questions you may have. The Gem State has a lot of private land-lease access that is covered in detail on the website as well.
Recent concerns about wolves devastating elk herds have been eliminated by hunts that are controlling wolf populations. Hunters and trappers have harvested about 1,300 wolves since 2009, leaving populations still well above the minimum required by the federal government. This has created higher elk survival rates in several areas of the state.
Idaho Fish and Game biologists have lots of reasons to be optimistic. Four consecutive mild winters have helped elk herds grow, and resident and nonresident hunters are showing renewed interest by buying more licenses and tags.
Steve Nadeau, Idaho wildlife manager, said they expect low elk mortality with plenty of moisture down low and excellent snowpack up high. Four consecutive mild winters have led to herd growth. 2015 yielded the 4th-highest elk harvest ever and also improved success rates. He expects 2016 will also become a banner year for elk hunters, as most elk zones are at or above objective levels for both cows and bulls. Nadeau said although central and eastern Idaho elk are probably doing best, elk numbers are increasing all over the state.
If you are seeking a trophy bull, Nadeau said controlled hunt areas in south central and southwest areas of the state are probably the best bet. The Owyhee Canyonlands are producing 400 class bulls regularly. Although Idaho is still having some habitat and wolf predation issues in the Lolo Zone, big bulls are also being taken there. Now is a great time to hunt Idaho.
Montana is rolling in elk. Licenses are focused on reducing elk herds throughout the state. John Vore, game management bureau chief, told me that "shoulder season" antlerless tags were used to increase the kill in 2015. He expects Montana will probably do this again in 2016. Initial data indicates that 2015 was an even better season than 2014. Over the counter licenses for residents apply to nearly all of the 165 game districts, but non-residents have to draw for a license.
There are lots of elk on public land, but many also reside on private land. Vore said elk over-populate many units making them available to hunters who will hunt hard, get access to private land, or use guides on public land. Trophy bulls are found throughout the state. The southwest seems to yield the biggest harvest each year. Andrea Jones, Region 3 information and education manager, said last winter elk in Region 3 did well, with some exceptions. Early winter snows in Pioneer, Tendoy, Tobacco Root and Gravelly units have caused excess winter mortality, which has actually brought them down to management levels.
Nevada's elk herd is relatively small, but it has great trophy potential. Most of the elk inhabit the east or east- central area. The Nevada Department of Wildlife website provides all the information one needs to hunt elk. Typically, bull elk tags are very popular, thus more difficult to draw. However, Brian Wakeling, NDOW game management chief, told me that the elk population is growing and expanding westward. The last few years, and so far this year, plenty of water has improved both elk habitat and antler size. He also said that bull tag hunt success runs about 55 percent, and some 70 percent of those successful hunts bag a 6-point or better bull. Spike and antlerless elk tags are much easier to draw. Nonresident draw success is pretty low, except for spike or antlerless tags, which run about 10 to 15 percent successful.
Areas 6 and 7 in the northeast have good hunter success rates. Wakeling said White Pine County produces the most trophies and has 28 bulls in the Boone & Crockett record book. He advised the area around the Ruby Mountains may not be a prime elk area, as NDOW is trying to keep elk population down in that location.
This is another state loaded with trophy bulls. James Pitman, elk program coordinator, told me that 2015 saw several large record book bulls taken. Units 15, 16A-E and 6B all yielded record bulls in 2015. The Once-In-A-Lifetime Draw unit 55A is also loaded with big bulls. There are two major herds here — Chama/San Antonio in the north and Greater Gila herd in the southwest and several smaller herds scattered across the state.
Pitman said recent surveys show elk wintering well and in great condition, boding well for 2016. And 2015 was a remarkable season for elk hunters because moisture levels were high, creating good antler growth and plentiful forage. Right now, bull/cow ratios and high calf recruitment levels are optimum. He said currently the only downside to the 2016 season would be a serious fire season. Heavy monsoon rains could also create dispersed herds for hunters in the early season.
Utah elk number near 89,000 and are prospering throughout the state. Like Arizona, Utah is a land of giant elk. A 350 bull isn't unusual, and 400-plus is possible. On their Wildlife Resources website, Utah publishes a great deal of useful information on elk hunting. Utah offers a variety of hunts, but the real key to elk success is drawing a coveted limited entry elk tag, where the 2015 success rate for archers approached 35 percent and any weapon was well above that. While drawing for these tags closes in early March, general season permits are drawn in July. Utah has two different general elk hunts — any bull elk and spike bull only.
Mark Hadley, with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said a few licenses are usually still available up until October. Hadley said general season success rates are lower, including archery (12 percent), spike only (13 percent), muzzleloader (20 percent) and rifle (19 percent). While big bulls are sometimes taken on any bull units, the largest bulls are usually taken on Utah's limited-entry units. The website includes more information regarding these units, and you can also find detailed 2015 hunter success by unit and weapon as well as elk numbers in each unit.
From sagebrush flats to nearly 14,000-foot elevations, elk can be found in a variety of ecosystems. Jeff Obrecht from Wyoming Game and Fish said 2016 should be another banner season, barring hot and dry conditions. Thus far, the winter has been mild and mortality inconsequential. Early snows always increase hunter success. He said trophy bulls are out there and that hunters will be more successful if they're prepared to go deep into the wilderness areas, seek hard to reach spots or hunt private land limited quota areas. Non-resident hunters are required to use a guide to hunt big game.
Al Langston, recently retired from Wyoming Game and Fish, told me the elk success rate during the past few years has set records at about 45 percent. In the limited quota areas, the rate may be as high 90 percent. Herd numbers have increased after several mild winters and good climatic conditions. He recommends non-resident hunters take advantage of the preference point system (open July-September), which significantly improves chances of drawing a license in January.
Prime areas will always include the Bridger-Teton National Forest in west and northwest Wyoming, where wilderness areas offer isolation. In the southeast, the Medicine Bow National Forest also provides very good elk hunting. More than 1 million acres, including several wilderness areas, also provide isolation to hunters who want to get away. The historically significant, rugged, and wild Shoshone National Forest in northwestern Wyoming's Beartooth Mountains may be the best overall and probably conceals some of the state's largest bulls.
Elk are on the upswing, and trophy elk are becoming more available throughout the Rocky Mountain states each year. State fish and game websites offer invaluable information on elk hunting. Charts display hunter success studies by areas, tag success statistics and herd distribution. Some have hunt planning guides with even more useful details. Study each state's website hunting section to find your optimal hunt — then purchase your tag.