Best Elk Hunting Ever? NUMBERS ARE UP AND SEASONS AND QUOTAS ARE LIBERAL

The sounds of September are the slurp of topwater takes, the drum of wings in a covey flush and, increasingly, the eerie, keening love songs of bugling elk.

There may never be a better time to be an elk hunter. In much of the West, elk numbers are at all-time highs, and many state agencies are liberalizing harvest quotas and seasons. In some states and in some hunt units, hunters can take a second elk, as long as it's a cow. Rifle hunters packing antlerless tags will benefit most from this abundance, but the blaze-orange crowd will have to wait another month. September is for bowhunters, whose ears are honed as sharply as their broadheads.

WET AND WILD

As the drought loosens its grip on the Rockies, archery elk hunting may get a little tougher. Last year in Utah, Arizona and parts of Colorado's West Slope, bowhunters who found rust-colored seeps and anemic springs in the high country also found elk, gathered around any moisture available. Water is still key, but this year animals will be more widely distributed, generally on public land, in National Forest timber and in sub-alpine meadows.

But in areas still parched by drought, elk will also be in low-elevation crop fields where irrigation creates islands of succulent forage. Savvy hunters are increasingly using state-sponsored access projects like Montana's Block Management and Wyoming's and Idaho's Access Yes programs to get on quality private land that can hold unpressured herds and bigger bulls.

While the success rate for bowhunters is low, more animals equals more encounters, and agencies are facilitating these relationships. Take Colorado, where the 146,000 elk licenses issued for this fall sets a record for the state. Colorado's nonresident antlerless elk tag, at $250, is a bargain.

FOR THE KIDS

Youths age 18 or younger can get a bargain of a different kind in Utah. The state's Division of Wildlife Resources is now offering a youth any-bull elk hunt from September 13 to 23. Bows, rifles and muzzleloaders all are legal, and while some restrictions apply, it's a great opportunity for a beginning hunter to stalk elk that haven't been pressured by rifle hunters. Montana, too, has abundant elk-hunting options for youngsters. More than 100 hunt units, where most of us are limited to antlered bulls, are open this fall to antlerless elk hunting for youths age 17 and younger.

No matter your age, expect better elk numbers and distribution in the Northern Rockies. Elk numbers in southwestern Montana are so high that a second elk tag could be issued in select units this fall, and populations are solid in the central mountain ranges and Missouri River breaks. Idaho's elk picture is improving in the Lemhi Zone, much of the southeastern quarter and the Boise River area, but back-country units burned in 2001 are still struggling. Wyoming's herd is booming in the Bighorn Mountains, Snowy Range and southwestern mountains, though cow licenses are being reduced in the elk-rich Jackson and Cody areas because of high harvest the last two winters. In Arizona's Pinetop Region, much of northern New Mexico and even Colorado's Front Range west of Colorado Springs and Pueblo, expect to see redistribution of elk away from areas that burned last summer.

OTHER THAN ELK...

If you're in the Cascades or Coast Range in autumn, go loaded for bear. Oregon is offering a liberal black bear season, and allows hunters an additional bear in some units. Idaho, too, is liberalizing bear harvest in the Clearwater and Lolo zones; hunters can take two bears in much of these units.

Western trout anglers wait all summer for September. The first frost is waiting in the wings, but the high-season dandies have departed and the outfitted crowds are gone. And the fish are careless.

On these long, golden evenings, high above most Western trout streams, listen as the wind slacks before sunset. You'll hear the halting start to an autumn aria, then a climbing cresendo as a lone bull makes his presence known. If you're lucky, you'll hear a distant challenge and know the morning's fishing can wait. And that's music to any archer's ears.

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