Just before dawn, I crested the top of a ridge in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest and knelt down beneath the branches of a fir tree to glass for elk.
It was still too dark to see much with the naked eye, but through my Trijicon binocular, I could make out the dark figure of two cow elk feeding on an open patch of hillside a half-mile away. That was a positive sign, because the rut was in full swing, and the hills were already echoing with bugles.
As the first crimson light of day warmed the face of the slope, the cows lifted their heads in unison and turned their attention toward a stand of dark timber a few hundred yards away: A big bull stood framed between two arrow-straight pine trees. He tipped his head back, let out a scream and then trotted out into the open, his huge antlers rocking back and forth on the crest of his head as he made his way down toward the females.
I quickly gathered my pack, slung my rifle over my shoulder and set out on a long, circuitous route I hoped would bring me in range of the elk. If I misjudged their path, I would miss the elk entirely, but if I were right in my belief that the small herd would continue across the face of the slope, I just might be able to intercept them. With the cold mountain air burning my nose and throat, I moved at a quick pace toward the next vantage point—a pile of fallen timbers 400 yards ahead of me.
In my mind, there’s nothing quite as stirring in the realm of hunting than closing the gap on a bugling bull elk. For many people, a trophy bull elk is the greatest of all North American trophies, and simply being in elk country is a special experience.
If you dream of hunting these animals, you’re not alone. However, any elk hunt requires planning and preparation that begins long before the season opener. Here’s what you need to know to help make that dream a reality.
WHERE THE ELK ARE
Elk once roamed throughout most of the continental United States, but overhunting in the 19th and 20th centuries reduced their numbers and range. Efforts to reintroduce elk east of the Mississippi have been very successful (thanks, in large part, to hunter-generated funding and the work of groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation), but elk hunting is still primarily a western adventure.
Many Rocky Mountain states have large elk populations, and a few areas hold very exceptional bulls, so the first step toward booking an elk hunt is deciding where you want to concentrate your efforts. Colorado is the state with the largest elk herd, and that’s where most hunters tag a bull; but Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Arizona also have great elk.
Private land hunts are a viable option; and, in many cases, you’ll find the biggest bulls there. Even so, there are also plenty of parcels of public land, such as Colorado’s Flat Tops, Idaho’s Selway Bitterroot Mountains and Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, that hold good bulls … if you’re willing to work to find them.
If you can’t spend a lot of time scouting in public land areas, your best bet for success is a guided or outfitted elk hunt. They cost more, but you’ll have a professional to help put you in the best areas, set up camp and get you and (hopefully) your elk out after the hunt.
If you live in the eastern United States and are planning a once-in-a-lifetime elk hunt, your best option is hiring a competent guide. Most good guides do the homework for you, and they will lead you into the best areas—the key to success on a short hunt. In some areas, you can buy over-the-counter (OTC) tags, but in many areas, you’ll have to draw a tag to hunt there. This process could take a few years or even decades in states for which you have to accumulate preference points to draw, so you need to start applying now. In some states, landowner and outfitter tags are available without a draw, but that type of assurance comes at a price.
CHOOSING AN ELK RIFLE
There are a number of rifle calibers that work well for elk— everything from the 6.5s to the .300, .338 and .375 magnums. At the bottom end of this power curve, you have the mild 6.5s such as the 6.5 Creedmoor (which elk guides tell me will do the job with proper bullet selection and shot placement), but the most popular elk calibers are .270 Winchester, 7mm Remington Magnum, .308, .30-06 and .300 Win Mag. I’d add the .280 Ackley to the short list of best elk cartridges, along with the .270, 7mm and .300 WSMs. If you can handle the recoil, the flat-shooting Weatherby Magnums; the .26, .28, .30 and .33 Noslers; and the .300 Remington Ultra Magnum are also great choices.
The keys are to choose a rifle you shoot well, practice frequently, and select a bullet that works well on elk. My
personal favorite elk bullets are Hornady’s new ELD-X and GMX; Nosler’s AccuBond Long Range and Partition; Federal’s Edge TLR and Trophy Bonded Tip; Browning’s BXC; and Barnes’ TTSX. However, others will work. Bullets should be able to retain high levels of energy and expand reliably, and most elk guides prefer heavy-for-caliber bullets. Ranges vary with terrain, but in many areas, you’ll need to be able to shoot across a canyon—300, 400 or even 500 yards—to stand the best odds of success.
One solid piece of elk hunting advice I received is to outfit your rifle with a high-quality scope. You might be shooting in poor light, and if you plan to dial, you want to be certain your scope tracks properly when you need it to do so.
Don’t skimp on your elk scope, because a bad optic can cost you a shot at a good bull. Leupold’s VX-3 and VX-5 scopes, Trijicon’s AccuPower and Accupoint scopes, and Swarovski optics have all proven to me that they are perfectly suited for this type of hunting. Nevertheless, there are other brands that work well, too.
Lastly, lighter rifles are less burdensome in the high country. If you’re glassing and moving to intercept elk, you’ll need to find a rifle that doesn’t bog you down. That’s the reason I prefer very light rifles—usually something under 7 pounds, if possible. Kimber’s Montana and Mountain Ascent, Weatherby’s Vanguard Back Country and Browning’s Hell’s Canyon Speed X-Bolt rifles are solid options.
I hear more horror stories about cheap, ill-fitting boots ruining mountain elk hunts than any other single item. For many hunters, footwear is almost an afterthought, but if you’re planning an elk hunt, you need to find the right boots—boots that are warm, comfortable, waterproof, light and durable. I had a pair of boots desole in the mountains once; as you can imagine, that type of footwear catastrophe can pretty much halt the progress of a hunt.
I won’t let that happen again. You need to buy your elk hunting boots well ahead of time and break them in. Walk over rough and uneven ground to be certain they support the foot and ankle and are tough enough for serious climbing chores.
My go-to elk hunting boots are Danner’s Gilas ($200) and Browning’s Buck Shadow ($150). I’ve hunted hard in both of these boots and have never had any issues.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.