It is the time of year when special draw elk permit results are coming out, and applicants have low chances at a tag. Nevertheless, every year I find myself thinking that I will defy the odds. However, with most of the draws now behind us, if you’ve come up empty, it’s time to start considering Plan B.
A good jumping off point is to compare units by accessibility. Which ones have the most public land? Is the public land reachable?
From there, take a look at past hunter success rates to identify the places where people have the best luck at killing elk. Take the top five overall units based on these categories and turn them into your preliminary hit list.
With these units in mind, call the state’s Fish and Game office and ask for the biologist that covers those areas. Biologists are especially helpful to a hunter that has done his homework beforehand. This time of year, biologists will have just been finalizing the results from their post-winter aerial surveys, so their knowledge is as up-to-date as it gets. Ask the biologist about elk population trends and herd locations throughout the year. After all, it does you little good to hunt a promising looking area if elk numbers are meager or if the elk migrate out a month before the season starts.
After gaining the biologist’s insights, dig into your scouting. Although it would be ideal to make an actual scouting trip during the summer, I realize that this is not possible for everyone. Fortunately, we have electronic mapping tools like Google Earth and onXmaps that allow for virtual scouting trips.
I like to start by looking at all the roads in an area and identify drainages that have at least a mile buffer from the nearest road. Since some roads are subject to seasonal closures—the best way to determine which are open during hunting season is to contact the Forest Service for a motor vehicle use map. onXmaps has a handy layer that will do this work for you—and I’ve found it to be reliable. To narrow down the territory that holds elk, look for the three features elk require—food, water, and cover. If an area offers all three of those and is at least a mile from the road, circle it as a potential place to hunt.
By the time you arrive, try to have identified at least ten areas you think should hold elk. It’s important to have plenty of backup spots in case other guys are already hunting an area you identified or if the situation on the ground doesn’t match what it looks like online. If you can use these digital tools in combination with the information you glean from biologists, you will be way ahead of the game.
Arrive in the area a couple of days early to get familiar with the territory and to confirm that the spots you identified through electronic scouting actually hold elk. Once opening morning arrives, you will be light years ahead of the guys who only showed up the night before the season.
Three of the best states offering OTC elk hunting opportunities are Colorado, Idaho, and Montana. Each state has unique pluses and minuses. Depending on your preferences, one will probably suit you better than another.
The failure to beat the odds in the draw means it’s time to start working on beating another set of tough odds, killing a bull in an over-the-counter hunt area – a bull that “anyone” can hunt if only they buy a tag.