A new study by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks confirms what many elk hunters have suspected for years: Wapiti distribution is changing. For the past decade or so, you have been more likely to see elk on low-elevation private land than on the huge blocks of public forest land where most of us hunt.
This research, done in the elk-rich Madison Range and upper Gallatin River just outside Yellowstone National Park, tracked distribution of wapiti over the past 40 years and found that most elk continue to spend their summers on national forest land. But as hunting pressure intensifies in early autumn, nearly all of these public-land elk drift to large valley-floor ranches that are mainly closed to hunting. In addition to refuge, elk find better groceries on the ag land, in the form of irrigated alfalfa and grassy pastures.
You can use this knowledge to your benefit. Here are three typical types of modern elk hunting, and methods to find the animals in each scenario.
There are still plenty of elk on public land in most places around the West. But as the Montana study indicates, early in the season is the best time to find them in places you can access. There’s no special trick to locating them—it’s work. Get started early and hike as far away as possible from accessible roads and trailheads.
You should plan to hunt as close as you can to the boundary between public and private land, because the strategy of these borderland elk is to feed on private agricultural land but return to bed in the timber on national forest land.
This was precisely the case last year when I hunted eastern Oregon, on the boundary of the Umatilla National Forest. The weather was hot and dry, and elk were feeding at night in irrigated hay fields, but they filtered back onto the public land at dawn to bed in the shade of thin pine stands. I started hiking a couple of hours before sunup and worked down a ridge where I could spot elk moving uphill.
Intercepting them was largely a matter of anticipating which drainage they would use, getting the wind right, and then waiting. I shot a raghorn bull at 47 yards with my .300 Wby. Mag. He was the only legal bull I had a clear shot at in a herd of more than 80 elk.
Later in the season, shift your attention to the evening. Often elk will bed down in dense timber near the public-private property line and then move toward feed in the late afternoon. If you can find one of these transition zones between the bedroom and the kitchen, you can cut off elk moving downhill.
Half of your work will be anticipating where elk will want to spend the day. On unseasonably warm November afternoons, they will almost always bed on shady, north-facing slopes. But on those brisk days, look for elk to conserve their heat by lying on sunny, south-facing slopes in close proximity to timber.
The other variable to consider is access. Scout for drainages that are difficult to reach by vehicle or foot, but that flow down to agricultural
By later in the season, the best elk hunting in the West is on large ranches that limit hunting. But even if you have access to such property, connecting with an elk requires a strategy.
I discovered this on Barry O’Neill’s Call of the Wild Outfitting’s 8,600-acre ranch in southern Colorado a couple of years ago. The ranch is mainly managed for wildlife, but it’s carved up by natural-gas wellheads, pipelines, and compressor stations. Despite those intrusions, it maintains a healthy elk herd. But the energy infrastructure is tended by an army of roughnecks, gauge readers, and line riders, so elk tend to stay away from the busiest areas of activity.
As I hunted the ranch, I noticed patterns that had little to do with habitat preferences or terrain. Instead, the elk reacted to the ebb and flow of the hourly workers. They avoided roads from 9 to 5 on weekdays and stayed away entirely from the loud, noxious compressors. This is not unlike the patterns that elk exhibit on working ranches across the West—they stay away from homesteads and ranch headquarters, and tune in to the daily rhythms of livestock husbandry and human activity.
An interesting element of O’Neill’s ranch is that the gas pipelines and road cuts are planted to clover, which holds the erosive soil and creates what amount to linear food plots for elk. By walking roads at first light of morning, I found plenty of undisturbed elk—mainly cows and calves—that would have vanished had I approached in a vehicle, but which were caught off guard when I rounded a bend on foot.
Because I hunted following the rut, mature bulls tended to be by themselves in remote corners of the ranch, away from the hubbub of the energy activity. My strategy for finding these solitary bachelors was to glass small pockets of oak brush at first and last light, spot feeding bulls, and then drive or hike for a closer look.
That’s how I found and finally killed one of my best bulls, a 6×7 veteran that I shot in the last light of day as he rose from his bed in the oak brush. —A.M.
If you can hunt mid-elevation terrain that elk use to transition from the mountains to winter range, your chances of tagging a bull increase. Last November, I hunted migrating elk in the Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah with Justin Richins of R&K Hunting Company. The state’s rifle season closes in mid-October, but outfitters are granted an extension on their leases that are enrolled in the state’s Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit program.
Late-season success requires enough snow in the higher elevations to force bachelor herds of bulls to lower country.
Once they’re on the move, you must identify their feeding and bedding areas, which can change almost daily, in order to intercept them as they move between the two locations.
And you must be willing and able to make a long shot. By this time of year, bulls are more wary than ever from having been hunted nonstop for the past two months, and they will put a ridge or two between themselves and you if they sense pressure. Quiet clothing, shooting sticks, and good glass are essential, along with a hard-hitting, long-range load like the 180-grain Federal Trophy Bonded Tip in .300 Win. Mag. I used on my hunt. You must be as mobile as the elk. This means a four-wheel-drive vehicle, a quad, or stock.
For the first three and a half days of my hunt, a number of opportunities slipped away. A particularly grueling example was when we clawed up a steep draw in an effort to get a shot at one of two 330-class bulls that had bedded down in brush on a gentle slope that cliffed out into a canyon. Upon reaching the top, we found that they had moved off the ranch onto property that was closed to hunting.
On the fourth day, we positioned ourselves on a high point where Justin glassed a couple of bulls working across a hillside about a mile away.
An hour and a 325-yard shot later, I had my first elk, a 5×6 bull that had probably been on the move, eluding hunters, since snow covered the Uinta high country above me. —J.T.