There are few activities a hunter can partake in that are as rewarding as a self guided elk hunt. Witnessing months of preparation come to fruition while you’re surrounded by golden aspens, the distant echoes of bugling, and brisk mountain air is a special feeling. If you’re lucky enough to harvest an elk, we can almost guarantee you’ll be itching to return to the high country each year.
It’s no secret a DIY elk hunt can be mentally and physically taxing, but the hunt itself may be the easiest part of the adventure. Between the millions of acres of public land to choose from and prepping for a week in the high country, planning can be a logistical headache. That’s why guiding services have exploded in recent years, to make the whole process easier. But therein lies the beauty of a self guided elk hunt: the challenge. After planning, hard work and preparation, it becomes more than a hunt. Rather, it’s a memorable expedition you’ll cherish for years to come. Here’s a few tips to take into consideration while planning this summer.
Where to Hunt
You may have heard a lot about the point system that most states employ for elk tags. Hunters have to accumulate points until they can draw a tag in elk units that are typically low pressure and full of trophy bulls. However, accumulating enough points can take years. It’s much easier for a non-resident to grab an over-the-counter (OTC) elk tag, which can be for a bull or cow, almost guaranteeing the chance to hunt them each year.
The elk population in Colorado is the largest in the country, with almost 300,000 roaming the mountains. It’s one of the easiest states to secure an OTC tag in one of the 93 game management units. Trophy elk are hard to come by, but the opportunity to harvest an animal is high. For the 2017 season, OTC tags go on sale July 25. While the archery season begins in late August, muzzleloader and rifle season commences at the beginning of September. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife department created a page dedicated to educating hunters on hunting elk in the state. The page provides information on management units and the application process.
Colorado boasts the largest elk population in the U.S. That makes the state a prime place for a self guided elk hunt.
In Oregon, you can hunt Rocky Mountain elk and Roosevelt elk, the latter of which is the largest of the North American species. The state’s coastal rainforests and mountains, large amount of public land and easily obtained OTC tags make it a desirable destination for elk hunters. The Siuslaw and Alsea units in the Siuslaw National Forest are prime locations to start your search. Deadlines to purchase rifle tags vary from October to November.
Idaho has a smaller population of about 100,000 elk, but hunter pressure is typically lower than Colorado. Over 60 percent of the state is public land, which means you have plenty of opportunity to find backcountry access. While wolf predation has been an issue in the past, thanks to conservation efforts, the population is growing. Tags for 2017 go on sale August 25. The OTC season in Utah takes place for two weeks in early October. The state is home to plenty of trophy bulls, especially in the northern part of the state and Wasatch Mountains.
While Arizona offers OTC elk tags, they’re available in limited numbers to specific locations where the state game department wants to control herd numbers. In some units, elk populations are as low as a dozen. Montana offers a limited number of tags through a secondary drawing in certain management units with a deadline of June 1. Wyoming, Washington and New Mexico don’t sell OTC tags to non-residents and those hunters must purchase limited entry tags using the point system.
What to Shoot
In the wide-open country of the western U.S., most shots will likely be between 100-400 yards, with some considerably longer ones depending on the terrain. Look no further than the .300 Win Mag to knock down an elk at these distances. The 7MM Rem. is another powerful, flat-shooting round, and it will have less recoil than the .300 Win Mag. Also, you can’t go wrong with the ‘ole reliable .270 Win, though this caliber won’t have as much knock down power at longer ranges when compared to larger magnums.
Most shots will be at long ranges, making a quality scope with a powerful zoom a must.
The TEKOA 4-16x44 riflescope offers superior performance at long distances. It’s glass-etched Impact BDC reticle, high-end SCHOTT HT glass and TRACT’s HD technology delivers maximum performance in any weather conditions the mountains can throw your way. It features a 4x zoom, fully multicoated lenses, 3.5 inches of constant eye relief and a BDC reticle. This scope allows you to acquire your target in virtually any low light situation.
There’s a quote by Mark Twain: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes and it’ll change.” While he was referring to New England, truer words have never been spoken about the Rockies. Weather can be unpredictable at any time of year, at any time of day. During elk season, a hunter might encounter rain, hail, sleet, snow and lightning, sunshine and freezing temperatures - all in the same day. That being said, it’s best to pack the right gear, starting with your clothes. Opt for a merino wool base layer to wick away sweat, a wool mid-layer jacket and pants (or fleece), and then a waterproof, breathable outer shell. Wear comfortable, waterproof boots with ankle support, coupled with wool socks. Stay away from cotton, which retains moisture for long periods - a risk for hypothermia.
Remember, a backcountry hunt is a backpacking trip. You’ll need to carry everything to survive for several days without resupply. Get a comfortable pack to carry all of your gear, which will include a tent, 0-degree sleeping bag, camp stove, water filter, first aid kit, tools for field dressing, and many more. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation offers an online gear checklist to aid in packing exactly what you’ll need.
When you’re glassing every fold and ridge in the mountains, you’ll want to ensure you have a quality binocular. The TORIC 10x or TEKOA 10x (ten times your normal vision) binocular fits the bill for any western hunting to scan far distances. The TORIC has a field of view of 341 feet at 1,000 yards, while the TEKOA sports a 314-foot field of view. Both models are lightweight and made with a rubber body armor for durability, yet textured and designed for a comfortable grip.
You will likely cover several miles on your search for elk, climbing up and descending steep ridges multiple times. This alone can be tough, but add in the high altitudes (most hunts will be above 8,000 feet above sea level) and a pack on your back, and that can be a recipe for exhaustion and altitude sickness. That makes it important to condition yourself months before your trip. Start by running a few times a week, then progress to walking and running up and and down hills. Take hikes with a backpack, then slowly introduce weight until you can carry the full load you estimate you’ll have when hunting. Toss in some core strengthening like sit ups and planks, as well as weight lifting to build leg muscles.
The last thing you’d want is to miss a shot opportunity due to gear malfunctions, poor fitness or subpar planning. Being properly prepared will make for an all around pleasant experience and provide you with a better chance of harvesting an elk. You’ll be thankful you took the care to plan thoroughly.