By Ryan Johnson, Bowtech Pro Staff
Chances are, if you’re a bowhunter, you fall in to one of two categories: an elk hunting junky or someone who’s always dreamed about elk hunting. If you find yourself in the first category, please let me know if you want to start a support group, we can drown our withdrawals in some over-priced coffee until fall hits. If, however, you identify more with the second group, this article is for you.
For many, elk hunting is a dream that stirs the soul but seems about as realistic as tossing a touchdown pass to Gronk, or playing 18 with Rory. That, I feel, is one of the biggest misconceptions for the have-yet-to elk hunter. You can elk hunt this year, I promise you, if you’re willing to do a bit of leg work right now.
The first and most important step is having realistic expectations. We all see magazine articles; oh excuse me, nowadays Facebook and Instagram posts, of giant bulls walking through lush green meadows with 23 cows and screaming their brains out. This is where the newbie gets led astray. These types of hunts can happen to any elk hunter, on any hunt, in any western state (and now a couple back east as well) but the reality is, most of these types of hunts either take a small fortune, a guide and an awesome chunk of private ground, OR many years of playing the tag draw game. However, if you just want to get out west and pursue the majestic wapiti, it can realistically be done for a grand or two each year. As archery hunters, we have the bonus of season dates falling where the opportunity to call in a satellite bull slinking through the dark timber to hair raising close distances is very much a reality for those willing to wear out a little boot leather.
So, here’s the skinny on hunting elk out west this fall, or as much as I can cram in just a few paragraphs. I will add that there is an endless amount of resources available to anyone tech savvy enough to find it. Honestly, it’s not that hard and I list a few of my favorites at the bottom.
Okay, we’ve decided that just getting out west and looking for an elk this fall is a must. But where do we go? Idaho? Colorado? Utah or New Mexico? The answer is yes! For those that don’t already know, every state in the West offers elk tags via a draw process. Each state’s process varies to some degree and some states offer over-the-counter or easy-to-draw tags. Most states award some sort of “point” for each year you apply but do not draw, except for Idaho and New Mexico. The number of accumulated points increases your odds of drawing a tag in that state. As a rule of thumb, the harder the tag is to draw the better the hunting will be. It’s best to approach the elk draws with a strategy and I would suggest this one; Identify a state or area that offers the over-the-counter tag or easy to draw type tag AND you have a connection to. A long-lost high school buddy, a cousin, that good friend that’s always said “come on out” but you’ve never taking him or her up on it.
Use this hunt to get your elk hunting feet wet. Find a way to stash a hundred bucks each month and make yourself just go hunt elk every year or every other year. Plan to work hard for the 10 days you’re there and look at it as building your elk hunting knowledge bank. If you happen to score, awesome! If you don’t, you’ll have the time of your life. Colorado and Montana offer good options for the over-the-counter guy or gal, and Wyoming has good hunting on their general elk tag which has to be drawn but has very good odds of drawing every other year or so. Use your connection to identify roads and access points, and maybe a place to grab a warm shower every few days or at least have an emergency contact close by.
At the same time, start building points in as many states as makes sense for your budget. Colorado and Wyoming offer decent hunts that can reasonably be expected to draw within a decade. New Mexico and Idaho both have true lottery systems with no points, meaning you have as good of chance of drawing in year one as you do in year 20. Utah, Arizona, and Nevada offer some of the best elk hunts in the west in states with a point system but be prepared to wait 10-20 years for that coveted tag. Some states require you to front the entire tag fee and return most of it if you do not draw, while others do not require you to front fees, but will likely get you with a larger application fee and/or even a small game license.
What this plan will accomplish is allowing you to gain some elk hunting mojo by getting out and hunting. Even the best elk tags still require work; elk don’t just stand on the side of the road. They like deep dark hidey holes and trust their nose with their lives, literally. Spend some time learning a area that you can hunt regularly to find some of those hidey holes and learn how elk behave. Then, when the magic hits and you score that dream tag, you have the tools you’ve been able to put in your tool box that will allow you to make the most of your “dream hunt.”
Here’s a few tips to help you along the way:
- Use OnX maps to help find units with good amounts of public land to hunt. There’s nothing worse than finding out your unit is riddled with private property after you’ve picked up your tag; (No I’m not sponsored, there’s just not anything else that even comes close on the market right now when it comes to public/private land sorting apart from amassing a library of paper maps).
- Most state game agencies will publish draw odds on their websites along with harvest statistics allowing you to find areas in which you can realistically draw tags and have a decent chance of at least finding elk. Keep in mind anything north of 15-20% harvest success is darn good.
- The states that offer a point system use one of two types: Preference Points or Bonus Points. A Preference Point System is a true winner take all system. Those with the most points get the tags for that unit or hunt code. This gives a hunter the ability to somewhat predict when they will draw a tag. Bonus Point systems usually have a split, where a portion of the tags are given to the top point holders and a portion is drawn randomly amongst all applicants, giving all who apply at least a chance of drawing, all though the odds are often very low.
- Apply for tags online. Often the online process will not allow you to make a mistake. If applying on paper and you miss enter a hunt code or forget to add a $5 conservation fee or whatever the case, your application will be rejected.
- Hunt as often as you can!! Every single year people draw tags they’ve been waiting multiple decades for only to learn they know nothing about elk hunting and waste their tag.
- Don’t overlook late season rifle hunts. It can be cold, many of them are just cow hunts, but it can certainly open the door to elk hunting in a successful way.
- If you’re after a bull hunt, plan your vacation days for as late in September as you can. As a rule of thumb, September 15 – early October will be prime rut dates.
- Application periods are early! End of January through May for most states. Even though it’s snowy and cold outside, you need to start planning your elk hunt now!
This in no way is a complete list, not by a long shot. But I hope it at least encourages you to start thinking about making your dream a reality. Use the resources below to expand your knowledge and good luck!