Elk Hunting

Posted on October 6, 2011

There’s nothing easy about bowhunting elk on public ground, but it can be done effectively—if you put in the necessary time and hard work and employ the right strategy



By Dan Staton

A quiver full of unspoiled broadheads, a fine-tuned bow rig, some tread left on my boots and thousands of public ground acres to hunt. No cell phone service, no wireless Internet connection and an alarm clock that I don’t mind hearing in the morning.

This is what September is all about. This is the one month of the year when my life is free of distraction and disquiet. There is only one sound on the mountain uniquely designed by God to transform an old man into a young man, turn tired feet into hooves like a deer, and rejuvenate achy joints into leopard speed. This phenomenon is something I’ve felt firsthand each fall. Just when you think the elk rut is shut down for the day and you cozy up next to a spruce tree for a midday siesta, a bull’s bugle rings out and ignites Supermanlike strength into a once-dejected bowhunter. Sound familiar?

To me, public-ground elk hunting is my ultimate quarry, and there are a few reasons for this. The lure of these forest-dwellers for me is the fact that they’re hunted hard each and every year. Public bulls outwit wolves, bears, harsh winters and man. Bowhunters, muzzleloaders and rifle hunters all take a crack at them.

To harvest one means some serious considerations—and some timely luck, as well. Nothing can touch the feeling of tagging a public-ground bull on your own.

Here is some fresh intelligence, along with some practical steps, regarding how to tackle a chore as big as this one.

Elk Hunting

The author stalked and shot this public-land bull in Idaho last fall.

Step #1: Find Remote Hunting Spots

Public ground is accessible to everyone via miles and miles of dirt road, four-wheeler trails, single-tracks and horse trails. To have a chance, one must find tucked-away spots that are tangled, with deep canyons and lots of cover. The harder to get to, the better!

Some roads have locked gates and allow walk-in access only; this is where your scouting should start. You have to become intimately familiar with the country and, if the only time to do so is in season, your uphill battle just gained more vertical.

I start scouting as soon as the high-country snow begins to dissipate. My main transportation is my dirt bike, and my main tool the chainsaw. Each spring I start sawing down the year’s downfall and blaze my way into new country, off the designated single-track. Once I’ve found a promising area, it’s time to investigate for clues. I search for clusters of last year’s rubs, elk highways, south-facing feed, north-facing cover and, of course, water.

Elk will rut in the same general areas each year if they’re not disturbed by wolves or other hunters. This is what I’m scouting for. You need to know how to access each spot, learn the prevailing winds, note the timing of thermals and calculate how long it takes to get to the spot. Remember, you’ll be riding and or hiking in the dark to get there, so you need to know the lay of the land very well.

Before leaving town to scout, you should bring printed Google Earth (in 3D) maps to confirm all your potential hot spots and hunches. This will help your journey as you keep written notes on each spot. The goal is to have at least 10 of these “hot spots” ready to go by fall. If allowed in your area, leave a trail camera (use lithium batteries) up for the entire summer, so you can do inventory upon your return.

Now, let’s go more in depth on what we know about these public-ground animals and which states to pay more attention to.

Fitness allows you to hunt your best—and pack your trophy out efficiently.

Fitness allows you to hunt your best—and pack your trophy out efficiently.

Step #2: Know Your Quarry and Hunting Areas

Public-land bulls are extremely intelligent. You’re not going to kill one unless it makes a mistake. There was a time when these animals used to verify uncertainties with intent gazes, but with years of constant hunting pressure, they now evacuate into a different zip code with the slightest provocation.

You cannot hunt them with outdated and counterproductive tactics, like what you often see on television. After all, how many shows capture elk hunting away from a private ranch? A few do, but most hunts take place with an outfitter or on private ground—so don’t let these shows warp your mind as to how to hunt public elk.

Each state out West offers different terrain and obstacles, so make sure you take all of that into account. A savvy hunter will do his homework on each state’s public-ground opportunities. Arizona, Utah and New Mexico have continued to emerge as trophy hot spots—given your luck in the draws.

The largest antlers are usually found in arid pinion and dry juniper environments and even near the boundaries of the high desert. A Nevada elk tag virtually assures a trophy bull opportunity, but you’ll be working ground comprising cedar scrub and grimy foothills. On the other hand, states such as Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho still boast some solid high-country opportunities.

Montana has been producing recordbook bulls for years, but these book entries come from areas east of the Rockies that comprise sloping lowland and river breaks, and a lot of it is private land. The point is that no matter where you bowhunt elk, be willing to hunt where big bulls live—even if that means getting as far off the beaten path as possible.

Find the most inaccessible, downright nasty places to get to where public-ground bulls receive less education from hunters … find the dark canyon or hellish ravine that keeps most hunters at bay. These areas will surely tip the odds in your favor of scoring on a big bull.

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