So, you're considering going elk hunting out west as a new adventure?
We asked Jeff Swan, Volunteer State Chair of the Iowa Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Chapters, to share some knowledge on the considerations hunters need to factor in when planning their first elk hunt.
Allen says, "Hunting elk in the Rocky Mountain west is not your typical weekend outing to the woods to hang in a stand waiting on a whitetail."
He says there are many factors to consider, however early planning is #1, starting in winter.
Do Your Homework
"The first factor to consider is where. Most western states, with elk hunting opportunities, distribute permits to non-resident hunters through a drawing system. When planning a western hunt, you must think well ahead of time in order to get your application in on time. For example, in Wyoming, applications for the elk drawing are due by the end of January. If you fail to draw, most states have some form of preference point system so that in subsequent years you have better odds of drawing if you continue to apply and accrue points every year. You don't necessarily have to rely on drawing a tag in the states that use a lottery-like drawing system for the permits. There are still some over-the-counter states, such as areas of Colorado and Idaho.
"Once you have your tag in hand, the planning really begins. Most states issue permits for certain areas of the state, rather than the state as a whole; after obtaining the permit, it's time to begin your research. When going into uncharted water, the Internet is a valuable resource. There you can access aerial photos and topographical maps through websites such as Google Maps or the various state wildlife agency hunt planning website. Various hunting websites such as Bowhuntingnet.com can be used to find others who have hunted the same area and are willing to help out. Wildlife biologists in the area you intend to hunt are a good source of information about elk numbers, locations, etc.
With basic information obtained through these resources, you can access Google Maps or other such sites to take advantage of the aerial photos and topo maps. With these maps you can look for timbered north facing bedding slopes, open meadows you might find elk feeding in, and other likely looking areas in which to find elk."
Prepare Yourself for the Hunt
Next, Allen says, after you've prepared the location of the hunt, and where the elk might be in that area, it's now time to prepare yourself.
"Elk country is tough, non-forgiving country. Not only are you at a higher elevation with lower oxygen concentration, but the terrain itself is difficult to negotiate. If you are to be an effective elk hunter you must prepare yourself physically and mentally.
Physical preparation can't begin a few weeks before your hunt, it must begin months prior. Elk country is big country and there are not elk behind every tree. It may take several miles and several days of up and down hiking to find the elk in order to begin hunting them. It is also important to give yourself plenty of time on an elk hunt. On a do-it-yourself type hunt, I try for a minimum of 7-8 days because you want to give yourself ample time to locate and then hunt the elk."
Allan says you also want to obtain the highest quality gear you can for hunting in the mountains.
"First, quality optics, in the form of a good pair of binoculars, is important. You'll spend a lot of time behind the glasses looking over lots of country to find the elk, and the better your binoculars the more success you'll have. You get what you pay for with high quality optics; it's in your best interest to spend as much as you can afford to get the best optics you can. They'll last a lifetime and you'll be able to spend more time glassing with them, without giving yourself a headache and eye fatigue.
You also want to obtain high quality clothing for your hunt. In addition to the physical demands elk country provides, the weather can be a game changer for the unprepared. Weather in the mountains can range from sunny and 80 to snowing and below freezing in less than 24 hours. Obviously, the later in the season you choose to hunt, the greater the chance of running into severe cold and snow, so prepare accordingly. Despite that, I have hunted in blizzard conditions in mid-September. You must be prepared for anything the weather can throw at you while in the mountains. Don't skimp on quality clothing or rain gear - it can make or break your hunt."
Prepare for Wide Open Spaces - Get a Rangefinder
Allen reminds East Coast and Midwestern hunters that another thing they need to prepare for is a different hunting style for a different terrain. He says for those used to hunting and shooting in the East or Midwest in small wood lots or large expanses of timber, going out west with the wide open spaces can provide a challenge, especially for bowhunters.
"First, the wide open spaces where you might find elk can make it difficult to judge distances. Add to that the overall size of an elk in comparison to a deer, and range estimation errors are common. A laser range finder with angle compensation can be a lifesaver when hunting out west. Knowing the exact distance to your target will give you added confidence when the moment of truth rolls around."
Do-it-Yourself or Hire Out?
There are lots of advantages to using a quality outfitter, with the only drawback being the price tag. Outfitters generally have the gear and means of access to your hunt area. They know the game and their travel patterns, they often have leased up quality private grounds for your hunt, and they are in the area year round to scout. It's difficult to scout your hunt area in person from a thousand miles away. But, you want to be careful in choosing an outfitter. You want to make sure you choose a reputable outfitter who will do his or her best to put you on your quarry.
"Remember, it's still a fair chase hunt and there are no such things as guarantees. Be wary of outfitters who offer you a guaranteed hunt opportunity. Again, do your research. Most outfitters will provide you with a list of previous clients. Call them! Not just the successful ones, but those who failed to score as well. Call the local wildlife biologist or game warden and ask them questions. They will know about the outfitter and the land/wildlife in that area. Utilize the Internet and sites such as outfitterrating.com to gather information about an outfitter. Make an educated decision based upon information from all these resources - it's your money you're spending."
Regardless of whether you hunt DIY or with an outfitter, Allen restates that the better prepared you are ahead of time, the more enjoyable and successful your trip will be.
Do your homework and research your hunt area
Prepare yourself physically and mentally
Obtain high quality optics, clothing, and a good laser rangefinder for your hunt.
For more information, you may also visit Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's web site at www.rmef.org/TheHunt.aspx.