Flashback Friday – Elk On Your Own


HuntforeverCoverDJ04Editor’s note: On Friday we comb through the archives and reprint an article from one of our past issues. This week we return to the print magazine predecessor to our Hunt Forever blog, to cover some of the basics involved in a do-it-yourself elk hunt.
Elk country is vast and wild and elk use every acre of it to hide from hunters. Still, would-be elk hunters need not shell out big money to an outfitter as their only hope of hunting elk. By doing some research, talking to other hunters and game department people and preparing to camp and hunt you are well on your way to hunting elk on your own.
For example, you’re in Ohio and the elk are hidden a thousand miles away in Colorado. Where and how do you start your search for a place to hunt elk? The Internet will close most of that distance. A wealth of information is right at the fingertip resting on your computer mouse by logging on to the Colorado Division of Wildlife at wildlife.state.co.us, or huntinfo.org for links to game departments in all 50 states. The Colorado web site contains information on season dates, game harvests by area, license numbers available in each area and how many hunters applied for them the previous year, rules and regulations and how to apply for a license. The site even contains links to where to buy maps and a list of shooting ranges to check the zero of your rifle after your long trip from Ohio.
A similar strategy can be used for any kind of search for out-of-state hunting opportunities.
Finding a place to hunt elk takes time. But it’s time well spent. Eric Smith moved to the Seattle area 14 years ago with little idea where bull-elk112712to find a place to hunt elk. In the ensuing years, though, he studied maps, talked to other hunters and accumulated the necessary hunting and camping gear to hunt elk. Even though he has to travel a long way from the big city when hunting season arrives, he’s been successful hunting elk on his own.
One nice thing about elk is they live on public land all across the West that is open to everyone. With a general season elk license, you can hunt just about any where in the state, unlike with an outfitter, where you are restricted to one area. A few years ago I hunted with an outfitter in Colorado. Some elk were around opening morning of the season, but they ran over a mountain into a canyon. We couldn’t follow the elk because they had run off the outfitter’s Forest Service lease. If I had been hunting on my own, I could have followed right after the elk.
Smith started his hunt for elk by studying U.S. Forest Service maps and topographical maps. He began by  circling wilderness areas on the maps. Next he studied the maps for places around those wilderness areas with at least a five-mile buffer zone between land with roads open to vehicles. “Those buffer zones are where the elk go during hunting season to hide out,” Smith says. “The pressure from hunters near the roads moves them in there, plus the horse-back hunters and outfitters push the elk out of the wilderness areas and into these buffer zones.”
With a few places to hunt in mind, Smith talked to people familiar with the areas about where elk had been killed in the past, feeding areas, water and migration paths. “I checked off those places on the maps,” he says, “and then I looked for patterns that pointed to saddles on ridges the elk used as crossings. “Smith also called game Elkonyourownstalkdepartments in areas he was interested in hunting. Among other questions, he asked what the bull-to-cow ratio was in the mountain ranges, if the elk were migratory and the number of hunters in the country.  “You can find a place that’s real good hunting but if the regulations change (to allow more hunters) you can go back the next year and find there’s been a drastic increase in the number of hunters. “One way to avoid a crowd is to apply for a limited entry hunt. These areas with a limited number of licenses provide two things: those lucky enough to draw a license are assured of uncrowded country and a good chance at a bull that has lived long enough to grow a full set of antlers. However, drawing one of these licenses may take years of applying.
Smith figures the first couple seasons’ hunting new country will be spent mostly scouting.’You’ll find out where the hunting pressure is coming from, tracks that reveal the trails and saddles elk use to travel the country, bedding areas and if all of those thing you checked on your maps are right or not,” he says. For instance, Smith scouted one mountain range and found steep country and outcroppings of volcanic rock. “That really restricted the elks’ movements and narrowed it down to a few places where the elk stayed,” he says.
Hordes of hunters flock to the country where Smith hunts. They arrive in motor homes, trucks pulling trailers and carrying campers ElkOnYourOwntentinsnowat the backs of pickups filled with camping gear. RVs, trailers and some campers are unable to handle rough roads and deep snow and must park right off the edge of the pavement. Smith and his hunting partners prefer camping in wall tents. “We can pack a wall tent and all our camping gear in a pickup and drive 25 miles back in the mountains to the edge of the wilderness and set up camp.” He admits, however, “there is a risk of getting snowed in.”
Smith likes camping in a wall tent because of the room. A 12 x 15 foot tent with five-foot walls has plenty of elbow room for four hunters, their cots, a table and a wood stove. Smith’s crew may include up to nine hunters on opening day. They erect a 16×20 foot tent with a 14×16 foot tent attached at each end. They converted a 55-gallon steel barrel into a wood stove and attached two tanks for the hot water. They cook on a propane stove. “We don’t suffer,” he says. “In fact it’s almost as comfortable as home.”
Smith figures eight out of ten elk hunters never venture farther than a half-mile from the door of their vehicle. “I hate to tell them, but the elk are not close to roads open to vehicles,” he says. “The only time I’ve seen that type of hunter successful is when they happen to catch some spooked elk running across a road.”
The older hunters in Smith’s group walked along closed roads and watch over clear cuts. The younger hunters, hike two to seven miles into the woods from the end of the road. “It’s not easy, but that’s where you have to go to find elk,” he says.
A hunter on his own must be prepared. “You hunt up at ten thousand feet and get in a snow storm and get turned around – you’re in elkonyourownrifletrouble,” Smith says. He carries a day pack that includes enough extra clothes, food and survival gear to comfortably spend three nights in the woods. “But the best thing you can carry with you is common sense” Smith adds.
In the nine years Smith has been leaving the big city to hunt the wilderness, he has take five elk on his own. Just as important as killing an elk is getting away from the city, seeing the country and having a good time, and that’s something that anyone can do on his own.

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