If you’re feeling a little too cheerful about hunting, and you’re interested in inducing a bout of depression, do a quick search on over-the-counter elk hunting odds. They aren’t great, but what’s worse, is that most info you’ll find that is focused on easy-to-get tags, is far worse.
The bitching is unbelievable, and if you take random Internet folks at their word, the elk are not going to be there when you are. They’ll bail off the mountain into private ranches where the hay is tall and the pressure is light. Those that don’t participate in the mass exodus, will go underground in the dark timber. They also, won’t bugle, cow call, sneeze, or even sigh too loudly.
The general consensus seems to be that buying an over-the-counter elk tag, at least where you can find one these days, is a lost cause. Pressured elk are an insurmountable obstacle, so the best bet is to stay home in September, and stick to the doves and the deer.
Don’t. Instead, head to the mountains and hunt the way others won’t.
There’s a saying that parents often use with kids that goes, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” This applies to eating your vegetables and dealing with 75 other rigs at the trailhead.
Over-the-counter and easy-draw units are always crowded at the access points, but the mountains are big, and there are always spots where hunters won’t go. Your job is to find those. Instead of focusing on the meadows and waterholes that are visible on onX, you’ll need to get into the timber and look for sign.
Call if you have to scratch the itch. Post up for a few hours on a wallow if you need a break. Do what you want, but remember that sign is king. Elk leave a lot of it, and to have a good hunt on a busy mountain, you need to be where the animals are.
This means more scouting than hunting, mostly. When you find a concentration, and you will if you look hard enough, you’ll have a real chance of filling a tag when most others simply won’t.
Elk are like big woods whitetails. They exist in little pockets of animals, that are far from static. They move, and relocate, and tend to favor safety over the easy availability of food and water. Keep this in mind. Finding food and water is great, but elk are big and can cover a lot of ground when they set their minds to it. Where you’ll kill them, is where they think you won’t go to try to kill them.
I’ve been lucky enough to end up in a few concentrations of elk during my time wandering the Colorado mountains, and have killed them close to access, and far, far away from access. They end up where people aren’t, so get off the trails. Forget the meadows. Forget hunting elk like you’re on a high-dollar, private land hunt. Think safety and security, and then lace up your boots because you’re going to have to cover serious ground.
Calling pressured elk is like calling any pressured game animal, it’s all about proximity and confidence. You can bugle private land bulls into bow range from three drainages away, but that’s not going to happen where any random hunter can get a tag.
This is why a strategy of looking until you’re sure you’re in an area with fresh sign is important. Once you’re there, soft cow calls and the right challenge bugle can get you into bulls. The problem is, on a 10-day hunt this might happen once or twice. The days in between will be long, and frustrating.
This is the time that separates the wannabes from folks who have a legitimate shot. The first bull I ever killed, ended up being in a spot that was stupid easy to get to. But the day before, my hunting partner and I put on 13 miles, and didn’t see or hear an elk in the same general location. We, like most of the hunters in that unit, walked right around a patch of dark timber to get to better-looking stuff. Guess where the elk were holed up at?
You have to expect to find a concentration at some point, and then work them properly. When you’re on fresh sign, think through each calling setup. Pay strict attention to the wind. Understand how easy they’ll be to call if you do things right, and how quickly it can go south if you don’t.
Is it worth going elk hunting when you know the pressure will be intense? Absolutely. Will you get a dreamy elk hunt with a parade of bugling six-by-six bulls marching across meadows? Not likely. But if you give yourself the time and you have the motivation to go find them, you can have an incredible hunt in a place where a lot of hunters just don’t believe it’s possible.
Don’t be like them, and you’ll be just fine.