Building a strategy to keep your elk hunting skills sharp while you wait out that coveted elk tag.
My first bull was a spike by two taken at the hand of my PSE bow…bloody damn luck at the rightful age of 14. It was the first week of September high atop Munger Mountain in Jackson, and we somehow managed to find our way into a rut fest, more bloody damn luck. The satellite bulls were going crazy and two of them happened to walk past me at 18-yards. I drew back and forgot to even aim, luckily, I had practiced with my recurve a lot that summer. The aluminum XX75 hit the bull perfectly creasing his heart ending his travel plans only 30-yards away, even more bloody damn luck. It would cost me the better part of a decade to kill another bull, proof that luck just isn’t enough when it comes to killing a big bull elk, skill is a much better plan.
There’s no doubt about it, elk hunting is a skill sport. Most new elk hunters can hunt for the better part of a decade to kill their first six-point bull with a bow. While at the peak of his elk hunting career, the same hunter will kill a mature bull or two each and every year thereafter, once the skill is finally fully mastered.
Keeping a sharp elk hunting skill takes practice and repetition. This is not always the easiest of concepts in reality, particularly if you live back East or in a state that does not afford an elk opportunity like California or Texas. There are still options available throughout the West however that will get you out into the elk woods each and every fall, you just have to put together a plan and be calculated with your options. Getting to know an area well can also produce some very solid results over long periods of time. You might be very surprised to know how many big bulls are actually taken each and every fall in general and OTC (over-the-counter) units.
The key to a solid back-up elk plan is to first learn your options, weight them out, and then formulate a plan that puts you into the elk woods each and every fall possible in an effort to not only broaden your elk horizons, but you master your craft or cut your teeth under some of the toughest circumstances the elk hills have to offer. It’s like New York, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
Some of the options available are outlined below. These hunts, are a mix of out of the box type hunts, over-the-counter options and general opportunities with relatively easy draw odds. The hills are usually steep here, the trailheads are often crowded, and the elk are pressured, but if you can begin to crack the code on these kinds of bulls under these kinds of circumstances, then that limited draw dream tag will truly live up to exactly that, a dream!
Colorado OTC- Colorado has been a go to elk mecca for generations. Although many of the Centennial State’s elk herds are in rough shape right now, there is still some very solid opportunity in the elk woods in Colorado. The central mountains of Colorado contain the bulk of Colorado’s OTC elk opportunities. These hunts are not easy and the seasons structure is pretty tough for elk hunting success rates, but these are some very good hillsides to hone your skills on.
With Colorado’s OTC structure for elk, this state represents one of the best back-up plans out there with no draw required.
Idaho OTC- Much like Colorado, Idaho still has some OTC elk options even this day and age. With a wide range of areas and regions to choose from Idaho is a great place to stake your claim to some public elk hunting country. The areas in the North have been hammered by the wolves, but the areas on and near the Montana border to the south have healthy herds of elk and some surprisingly decent public land bulls up for grabs. The seasons in Idaho are more favorable than most of the seasons in Colorado but the access can be a bit more difficult with vast wildernesses and very rough roadless country to hide the prize in.
When choosing an OTC area, I like to look at the hunter success statistics and the season dates. Trying to find an OTC elk hunt with success rates in the 25%-30% range can be a difficult ask, but not entirely impossible. Access and terrain type can also be factors to choosing an area to call your new back-up elk home.
Wyoming General- With a relatively easy draw, about every other year in some cases, a general elk tag in Wyoming is much better than draw tags in many of the neighboring states. With plenty of areas to choose from, fifty in total, and some very favorable seasons the general tag is certainly nothing to be afraid of when it comes to Wyoming elk. The average success in the general areas varies drastically from a high of 47% which rivals most limited areas in the West to an overall average of about 17%. More than once have I heard from hunters that they have spent too much of their life fretting over the preference points game, while they should have just hunted general season units all along in Wyoming. Once you get to know one of these areas well, not only can you become consistently successful, but you can also have a chance at a good 320-360 bull if you hunt hard and do your homework. Some of these areas actually open for rifle on the 10th of September, and 400” bulls have been killed in general units in Wyoming! Not many other states can say that. Keep in mind, the general elk tag in Wyoming is a draw tag and does need to be applied for by the end of January each year.
Montana General- As a step down from Wyoming, the Montana general elk tag does hold some merit when it comes to general, public land hunting opportunity on an easy draw. The general elk tag in Montana can be drawn every year but needs to be applied for by the 15th of March each year. A vast majority of the general elk areas in Montana are on the public land rich side of the Western portion of the state. Many of the better areas can be found around Missoula, Bozeman and even Libby Montana in the Northwest corner of the state. Although the elk hunting is certainly not what it once was here, there still exists some good opportunities to hone those elk skills on some later season bulls. The Montana general rifle seasons open in late October and last through Thanksgiving each year giving a hunter a change at a late season bull and plenty of time to do it. If you are a bowhunter Montana offer some great rut action on bulls with a very lengthy six-week archery season available.
Additional “Outside-the-Box” Options-
Oregon Archery- Oregon does have some OTC archery elk options in the very rough and rugged wilderness areas and canyon country of the far Western reaches of the state on the Idaho border. These hunts are not for the weary however and you should know what you are getting into before you attempt one of these hunts. But this option is worth mentioning for the most eager of the elk hunting ilk.
New Mexico Land Owner Option- If all else fails, a land-owner elk tag in New Mexico can often be had in a good area for a very reasonable price if you search hard and do your homework. A good elk tag here can sometimes be picked up for as little as $2,500. With a very robust season structure, a bowhunt or muzzleloader hunt for elk in New Mexico can often be just what the doctor ordered for the elk weary tag-less masses.
Wyoming Antlerless- As another backup of the backups, an antlerless elk tag in Wyoming can serve you up very well. Not only will this tag put meat in your freezer, but it will also get you into the words in some very high-profile elk areas, if nothing else, to give you somewhat of a trial run at an elk hunt without the 15-point price tag. If you choose this option most of these tags will need to be applied for as a second-choice option to save your points, and I would always recommend you hunt during the regular season as to get a true taste of the area.
The new Eastmans’ TAGHub digital MRS resource can make the decision of which OTC or general unit to hunt a breeze. This modern digital application and research tool allows the hunter to search and sort the data from any western state including the general and OTC units.
By blending two or three of these options together an elk hunter can secure a way to hunt elk each and every fall if he so desires. This strategy is a very good way to keep your skills sharp and get you out into the hills chasing Wapiti while many are still sitting home only watching elk hunting on the Outdoor Channel just hoping for one more chance at that coveted, nearly impossible to draw, Arizona elk tag.