Bill Rooney and I climbed high into the Wyoming mountains. Each step took us farther from my pickup truck, parked at the trailhead. Four hours and several miles later, I finally spotted our quarry — a herd of two dozen elk. Bill had a cow elk tag and was hoping to bring back some meat to Virginia.
“How bad do you want an elk?” I asked, as I glassed the animals down in a nasty hole a half-mile away.
“Not that bad,” Bill answered when he saw where the elk were. “Let’s look for an easier one closer to the road.” We were on foot, so the elk would have to be packed out on our backs in treacherous mountain country, plus we had only the rest of the day in which to get the job done.
Therein lie the two major drawbacks that contribute to elk-hunting’s backbreaking reputation: getting to where the elk live and transporting harvested animals out of the woods.
For the past few years, I’ve given a seminar at outdoor shows titled “How to Get an Easy Elk.” That’s also the title of a new book I wrote. Predictably, plenty of elk hunters tell me there is no such thing as an easy elk.
I maintain there is, but it’s important to point out that there are easy elk and easier elk. The easy elk is the one you hunt with an outfitter, perhaps via a four-wheel-drive on private land. You do the hunting while the outfitter takes care of dressing, quartering and hauling your animal to a processor. The scenario also holds true for an outfitted horseback trip, though a little (or a lot) of hiking may be involved, depending on the circumstances. Of course, luck can also provide an easy elk, as when an animal ventures so close to a road that after you drop it you can simply drive up and load it in.
But let’s say you can’t afford an outfitter, typically have rotten luck and want to hunt on your own. Is there an opportunity for an easy elk? The good news is that you’ll have millions of acres of public land to hunt on, regardless of which western state you choose. The bad news is that you might have a lot of company, especially on public land easily accessible by vehicles.
There is a solution to avoid competition, and it’s so simple it amazes me more hunters don’t try it. That solution is the “limited-entry tag.”
**TWO TYPES OF TAGS **
Most of the top elk states offer two types of elk hunts. One occurs during the general seasons, when every Tom, Dick and Harry can hunt. In other words, no drawing for a particular unit is necessary — a general license allows you to hunt any unit in the state open to general hunting. The other type is the limited-entry hunt, which requires you to submit an application that is processed via a lottery system. Each limited-entry unit has a specific quota of tags, so hunter pressure is strictly regulated according to the management objectives of each unit. The advantages are obvious: Fewer hunters means quality hunting. Better yet, many limited-entry units are in lower elevations where vehicle access is possible.
The disadvantage is the competition for tags. No surprise there. A good hunting spot will attract lots of hunters, so your chances of drawing a tag might be slim. But there are ways to improve your odds. Nowadays many states offer bonus and preference points that increase your chances of eventually being drawn. These are thoroughly explained in the regulations for each state. Write for them or check them out on the Internet. Every state has a home page (accessible via outdoorlife.com/links/states). You might also hire a licensing service, such as United States Outfitters (800-845-9929), to apply for you.
**HUNT SMARTER **
To make it easier on yourself if you’re not in great physical condition, carefully analyze the unit you’re hunting for ways to make the terrain work for you. Elk are notorious for putting big chunks of miserable landscape between themselves and their pursuers, but yoou don’t always have to climb the highest mountain to find them. Look for places where a road crosses a pass or high ridge, and where another road runs below it in the valley. Have your pals drop you off early in the morning up high and slowly work your way down to where you can be picked up at dark along the bottom road. Bring plenty of flagging so you can find your prize when you return with your buddies.
If the road system in your area does not allow this technique and there are plenty of hunters about, walk as far as you can into the densest forest and plunk yourself down, preferably near well-used trails that lead into escape cover such as blowdowns and tight thickets. The strategy here is to allow other hunters to move elk to you. You don’t need to walk miles into the woods to find a stand area, either. The idea is to get to a place where elk are apt to travel — which could be a few hundred yards from a road — and stay there all day.
**GET THE MEAT OUT **
There is no getting away from it — elk are big animals. Having a plan once your animal is down is of paramount importance. It’s likely that the animal will need to be cut into pieces that you and your companions can backpack out. Quarters may weigh 100 pounds or more, and can be lashed to pack frames. Meat can be boned out into smaller pieces that can be transported in a rucksack or large backpack.
The very best way to move meat, however, is to roll it on a wheeled cart. Hunters who are handy can make their own out of a sturdy bicycle tire and metal tubing. Don’t make the mistake of building a cart with two wheels attached to an axle, however. It won’t negotiate uneven ground, brush or other forest obstacles. If you can, equip it with a brake. Commercial models are also available. The one I use is manufactured by Pac’Orse (800-PAC-ORSE).
If you’re like me and the mountains seem to be getting a little steeper each year, it’s time for you to hunt smarter. An easier elk is the answer.