Hunting > Big Game

How to Tag a Bull Elk on Public Land

Sure, odds are best on private holdings and limited-entry units. But you can tag a bull elk on public land—here’s how.

In late September, I hiked into Utah’s Uinta Mountains with my .30-30 carbine. Though elk were rutting, big bulls stayed out of my path. On the hunt’s final morning, I beat dawn to a north slope. The dry litter whispered of elk already above me. Under these conditions, I had no chance of catching them.

Then a branch snapped nearby. I crept to an aspen. Movement behind a snowberry grew antlers. I found a shot alley just as the bull saw me. The Hornady FTX felled him 19 steps away.

I figured that Marlin was up for one more elk hunt—this in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Now, The Bob can be stingy with its elk; the first time there, I’d killed the only bull I had seen in a week. Watching John Way’s linebacker shoulders rock to the rhythm of his horse ahead, I wondered this time if the slab-sided carbine under my knee was a good choice. My gun rack at home bristled with potent scoped bolt-rifles. Fourteen miles up the Blackfoot, there’d be no switching.

Pulling saw-bucks and Deckers from the mules under an early moon, the white canvas aglow with Coleman light and horses nickering in the corral, I felt oddly at ease. Generations of hunters had plied this country with carbines just like mine.

Expectations, Tempered
These days, finding elk on public land can test your patience and endurance. Where elk once cut deep trails in meadows they mowed to lawn height, echoes of bugling bulls have faded. You’ll want to make the most of any chance at a branch-antlered bull—if, indeed, you’re licensed to fire. “Spikes only” rules have become common, with mature bulls legal by drawn permit only. In Washington, recent stipulations further restrict hunters to “true spikes”: bulls with no fork, either side. Reduced opportunity sparks grumbling among sportsmen."

“I haven’t hunted elk for six years,” whined one fellow the other day. A few probing questions told me the man needed a reality check. He’d formed his opinion of elk hunting, and his expectations, in a top elk unit during the 1980s, when the animals were plentiful, seasons generous. He’d had more iron in his legs then, too. It was no trick to slip away from the crowds to find huge bulls that seldom saw people.

He was spoiled. I’d seen such symptoms in hunters recalling two-buck limits in Colorado’s deer factories. Three decades before elk numbers peaked, riflemen in the central Rockies were tripping over bucks with rocking-chair racks. The Okanogan hills in Washington and the Snake River breaks cleaving Idaho from Oregon, with the Grey’s drainage in Wyoming and Montana’s Highline, produced huge deer. Surely, these bucks aren’t all gone. Neither are the elk, once plentiful in the tangles of Kelly Creek, the sprawling meadows of the Danaher and the Thoroughfare. These days, though, there’s more competition.

Wolves, whose numbers in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming now far exceed original targets, have established viable packs in the Pacific Northwest. Wherever they occur, they can affect elk herds and elk hunting. In my experience and that of outfitters I’ve queried, wolf predation pushes elk to steep, thick places where killing is more difficult for the canids. Because wolves have learned to listen for elk, bulls have learned to rut with less fanfare. Like rooster pheasants that sprint rather than fly, bull elk survive by keeping a low profile. A similar shift in behavior, by the way, can follow bugling by hunters in heavily pressured elk cover.

Flashlight beams danced in the dark as we saddled up that first cold morning in The Bob. Hooves sucked mud and limbs swiped my face as Darrell and I paralleled the river’s south fork. An hour later we swung stiffly from our horses. Dawn had yet to penetrate a thick ceiling; the sky leaked freezing drizzle.

At noon we nursed a fire in a sticky snow. At dark we rode back into camp. We’d seen nothing.

That night, heavy frost stiffened the grass. Before dawn we tucked into hotcakes, snugged cinches and eased onto icy saddles. In vain we rode farther, hiked higher and probed thicker places. Near dusk, we mounted again to climb a steep face. We tied the lathered geldings below ridgeline.

A reply to Darrel’s pipe quavered faintly from afar. He blew again. The bull bellowed, closer. He was coming! We struggled up through the timber, fire in our lungs, lead in our legs.

Spent, Darrell dropped beside a pine. I managed a few more steps, then bellied down. Elk-yellow winked through the aspens. Antlers snapping limbs, the bull burst into the woods upon us. I fired into his chest. He spun and vanished in second-growth.

I lay still. He’d not fallen. Movement would send him off. But silent minutes later I could stand it no longer and inched to the side. A patch of rib appeared. I triggered my Marlin. The elk boiled from the timber on shaky legs. I fired again and they gave way.

The world is full of people who’ve shot more elk than I, and who’ve had more field time with any given elk round. Still, in 40 years of hunting, I’ve used nearly three dozen cartridges on elk. Most popular now: the .30-06 and .270, the 7mm Remington and .300 Winchester magnums. The .308, too. Whatever your choice, learn to shoot well from hunting positions. Best load? No space for that chat here. You’ll find more than 80 factory loads for the ’06 alone. In .30s, stay with strong bullets of 165 to 180 grains. Get a 4X scope, or a variable no bigger than 40mm up front. Leave the variable at 4X after zeroing at 200 yards. You can kill elk at 300 yards with a high-shoulder hold.

Crowds Noted, Elk Found
You can’t count on elk to charge into your lap, or even peek shyly from close cover. On an Idaho hunt recently, I carried an iron-sighted Winchester 71 in .450 Alaskan. Optimism or hubris? I thought the Frank Church Wilderness would yield at least one bull within reach. It did not. I downed a bull with my partner’s rifle at just over 300 yards. He used the same rifle to kill a raghorn at 390. That’s long shooting, but more common these days. Partly that’s because hunters have rifles, optics and ammo with reach. It’s also because many hunters without gray hair have come to the sport without having used iron sights at all. They expect to shoot long. They don’t try to get close.

Unwittingly, these riflemen make elk more difficult to find. Death that visits meadows sends elk into timber. Bullets raining from popular perches move elk into places that can’t be riddled from on high.

Habits of other hunters should affect your own. Want to waylay elk sifting from shadows at dusk or pick off a bull in that saddle? Good strategies—but on public land, you’re planning what other hunters are thinking, or have tried. Better to go where other hunters don’t, where elk seek asylum.

Conventional wisdom has it that elk lived on the plains until shooting and agriculture shouldered them into the mountains. Makes sense. Elk are big beasts with broad muzzles. They’re designed to graze, unlike deer whose slim noses help them snip young shoots from bushes. Still, elk and deer diets overlap, especially when range is stressed. Whatever their pre-settlement distribution, elk are at home in timber, and they scale mountains with the sure-footedness of sheep. Thick hide and hair insulate them against the cold. They prefer shaded “norths” on high-elevation summer range, where snow-melt keeps grass green after lowland plants have dried up. Alpine meadows and forests offer seclusion.

But come hunting season, pack-trains wind their way into the heart of high elk range. White wall tents pop up in meadows pocked by elk beds. Meanwhile, armies of horseless hunters cruise the logging roads at mountain’s base. Savvy bulls drift into timber at mid-slope.

Mid-slope, you’ll find cruel places: lodgepole patches with deadfalls that trip and impale you, fir thickets that dump snow down your neck, rockslides that turn your legs to rubber. Elk like these environs because hunters don’t. Noisy, difficult cover and footing also warn bedded elk of intruders. While many canyon bottoms qualify as difficult, you’ll seldom find elk living there, because thermal drag during the day, when hunters are afoot, is uphill. Besides poor wind coverage, bottoms offer elk few escape routes. Climbing is hard, slow work and exposes animals to the opposite slope. Elk prefer to loaf a rifle shot off ridgeline—far enough down to hide them from hunters patrolling it but close enough to the top to reach it quickly when threatened from below. High-slope trails get lots of elk traffic.

Once, having prowled likely knobs in the foothills of Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, I descended through thickets I’d passed on my morning climb. They erupted in elk! Dozens thundered down-slope. I ran ahead, saw only rumps. Then, from the side, antlers winked through trees I’d now twice walked past. I tagged the bull with my .338. Elk that have found a place hunters ignore can hold as tight as whitetails.

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