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So, You Want to Hunt Elk?

A flatlander's guide to chasing bulls through the mountains of the American West.

So, You Want to Hunt Elk?

Bowhunting elk in the big country of the West demands good equipment and precise skills. Pre-trip practice at longer ranges is advisable.

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I’d spent almost a month as nervous as I can ever remember being prior to a hunt. I had camp gear, camp clothes, a loaded pack, bow case, base layers, mid layers and rain gear. The truck had coolers, a tire plug kit, tools and everything I could think of. I was loaded for bear and headed for elk, but it felt like something was missing.

If you ask me to pack for a whitetail hunt, turkey hunt or fishing trip I can be ready in about 20 minutes and not worry at all that I’d be missing something. But as the time came to depart on my first elk hunt—a DIY archery hunt in north-central Colorado—my head was spinning. I was certain that I had forgotten something.

To my relief, I hadn’t. All the planning paid off, and for almost a week on the mountain, I never had that “dang it, I forgot something” moment.

Planning for your first (or any) elk hunt is critical to being successful, but even a good plan is no guarantee of success. Especially for an Easterner.

Where To Start

You can’t go on an elk hunt unless you have somewhere to go. The first things to decide are what state you want to hunt and whether you want to hire a guide or DIY it. The answers to these questions are the foundation for all decisions to be made moving forward. As with most things, your budget is going to play a big role here.

A guided hunt offers benefits, including a chance at a guaranteed tag and an increased success rate. The trade-off is the expense. A guided hunt, especially in a quality bull area, can easily get into five-figure territory.

A DIY hunt will be much cheaper. Some states, like Colorado, Utah and Idaho, still offer over-the-counter elk tags. In other states, you will need to apply for tags. In some locations you can draw in just a year; others have waits measured in decades. Generally, the higher the trophy potential, the longer the wait.

You might already know hunters who make a trip out West every few years. If you can tag along on their hunt, it will cut down on the learning curve as they can show you the ropes. Sharing a camp with guys who have done it before makes things more enjoyable, too. Ultimately, that was what got me on my first elk hunt.




No Shortcut For Fitness

For a flatlander making the jump to elk hunting, nothing is more important than getting into shape ahead of time.

When going into an elk camp, you need to understand that there is no way to be in good enough shape. You just can’t do it at sea level. The cabin I used as base camp sat just under 8,600 feet. My hunts routinely took me above the 10,000-foot mark.

Don’t get frustrated about getting tired climbing a mountain. Everyone gets tired climbing a mountain. What sets people apart is how quickly they can recover and keep moving. You can’t simulate physical exertion at elevation, but you can make sure you are in as good of cardiovascular shape as possible. I started rucking two or three times a week with my pack in June, working up to 12 to 15 miles a week. My boots were broken in, I had worked out my fitment issues with the pack, and when I got to the mountain, I was able to push myself.

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You can’t race the mountain. You will lose. But getting yourself in shape will let you focus on the hunt instead of being miserable, sucking air and wishing you were back at camp.

Know Your Range

Elk are big animals and offer a big target. You may think that will make a shot with a bow (should you get one) easier than on a whitetail. Assuming you can get close, you’re right: A bigger target is always easier, but there is no guarantee you’ll be able to get close.

I went to the mountains feeling confident at 75 yards and a little beyond. Practice farther than you intend to shoot to make those long shots easier. To add a layer of difficulty, I made it a point to shoot a single arrow after each ruck while I was winded and my heart rate was up. I had no idea what I would encounter on the mountain, but I wanted to stress myself with my practice.

Also, be sure someone in camp has a target. You will want to verify that everything is as it should be after traveling.

Getting There And Back

My preference when traveling to hunt is to drive if I can. I don’t trust airlines with my hunting gear. I’ve been burned in the past, and lost luggage seems more common than ever. Nothing can ruin a trip like being unable to hunt for part or all of it because your gear is nowhere to be found. However, if you live in the East, you are a minimum of 20 hours of drive time from elk country.

This is where being able to travel with friends can be a big help. For my hunt, I was going straight from a work conference, so I had to get there alone, but I had help coming home. It was nice being able to drive in shifts after logging 20-some miles on foot over the previous several days. Making that drive alone would have been miserable.

Keep in mind, too, that if you’re doing a DIY hunt, you’re going to have a lot of gear and food to transport. And, if you’re lucky enough to punch your tag (I was not, by the way), you’ll have hundreds of pounds of meat, antlers and a cape on the return trip, so you’ll want to bring extra coolers.

Finding Elk

Getting out to a hunt is hard enough; getting out to scout ahead of time is almost impossible for most of us. You’re likely going to have to rely on e-scouting with one of the mapping/hunting apps. Or, if you’re going with folks familiar with the area, you can shortcut things that way.

The internet is full of tips about where to find elk at a given time of year. Put a plan together based on those. Things like north-facing slopes, edge cover, feeding thickets, wallows, water sources and burn edges are great places to start. I had these types of areas marked in onX before I arrived.

I hit the mountain the last week of September. Everyone I had talked to ahead of time told me the rut should be in full swing, but bugles proved hard to come by. I found a couple bulls one morning that were talking, but most days by 9 a.m., the mountain was quiet.

Start with conventional wisdom. Eliminate where the elk won’t be. Scout your high-percentage areas and adjust your hunt plan based on what scouting and sign tells you. I went in cold with no elk hunting experience and had bugling bulls inside 100 yards once and saw several other elk I just couldn’t put a stalk on. Even though I never drew my bow, I consider that a win.

Manage Expectations

Elk hunting is not a high-percentage endeavor. Exact figures are hard to find, but just assume your chances of filling a tag on a DIY hunt are somewhere in the high single digits to the mid-teens. You might double that number for a guided hunt. That said, lots of elk hunters, even first-timers, fill their tags every year. It’s all about putting time into planning and being ready for whatever the mountain might offer.

Draw Details

I would love to tell you that getting an elk tag is easy. But the process can be quite daunting when you consider the various application dates, preference point systems, jigsaw puzzle-like hunt units and all the other stuff that goes into it, especially for someone who has always been able to just buy a license and go hunting.

With that in mind, here’s a quick overview of the tag application landscape for four of the West’s most popular elk hunting states—Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

Deadlines: The earliest application deadline is usually Wyoming, at the end of January, followed by Montana and Colorado in early April and Idaho in early June. With decent odds and OTC tags available in each state, you could always apply in multiple states to increase your odds of drawing a tag somewhere, assuming you aren’t going with a group to a specific area.

Cost: Each state has its own license and habitat stamp requirements, so a full breakdown here isn’t practical. However, expect a non-resident elk hunting tag in the four most popular states to be in the $700 to $1,000 range.

When In Doubt: If you can’t tag along with folks who can show you the ropes, pick up the phone and call the wildlife agency in the state you want to hunt. I called Colorado Parks and Wildlife several times to make sure I understood things correctly. They are there to help.

Trent Marsh elk hunting gear
Being prepared — and familiar — with the right gear can go a long way toward making any hunt enjoyable.

Get Good Gear

Don’t cut corners on these pieces of elk hunting equipment. A lot of the gear you already have will probably work for an elk hunt. That said, there are a few items not to skimp on when it comes to prepping for the trip.

Pack: Your whitetail day pack might cut it for getting around with your gear, but good luck getting your elk off the mountain while keeping your back and shoulders in functional, working shape. The Mystery Ranch Pop-Up 40 ($425) served me well. It cinches up tight as a day pack when you don’t need much in the pack, then expands to serve as a meat-hauling machine when needed. It’s easy to adjust to attain the perfect fit and ensure comfort under load. No matter what pack you go with, get it early and ruck with it leading up to the hunt. If there are fitment issues, identify them before your hunt.

Socks: However good you’ve heard that alpaca socks are, I can tell you they are better. I went with Altera alpaca socks and I’ll never go back. My feet were comfortable in all temps and after day-long hikes. Plus, without laundry facilities, they never stunk. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. These are the best hunting socks I’ve ever tried, hands—or feet—down.

Coolers: Ideally, you’ll need good coolers to get a few hundred pounds of elk venison home. Even if not, you’re going to need to transport food and drinks for the week, and ice may be an hour or two from camp. The cooler market has exploded in the last decade, with a lot of good options available. I like the lightweight Rugged Road coolers, which are considerably lighter than other brands’ offerings of the same size, with comparable ice retention capabilities. Loaded coolers are heavy enough as it is.

Game Bags: More than likely, you aren’t going to be able to drive your truck to your elk to get it out of the field. You’re going to have to pack it out. Good game bags are worth their weight in gold. I opted for Caribou Gear bags on the advice of some seasoned elk hunters.

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