Even though I'm no longer writing for Outdoor Life or hosting my TV show, I constantly get requests from people who want information about hunting elk. Most of these folks have never hunted in the west, and most live east of the Mississippi.
It's a daunting challenge to plan a hunt with no knowledge of the area you want to hunt, the terrain, animal behavior, hunt strategies, equipment required and other factors.
There are many questions you need to ask yourself when considering a first-time elk hunt, but two are of paramount importance. First, what kind of elk are you looking for, and second, how do you want to hunt your elk? Let's look at each.
Most hunters who are planning their first-ever elk hunt set their sights on a big bull. Of course. That's just natural, especially if those folks will go on only one elk hunt in their lives. But let's have a reality check. Statistics show that less than five percent of the total elk harvest in the west is made up of mature bulls that carry at least six points or more on each side. The bulk of the harvest is made up of younger two-year-old bulls, spikes, and cows and calves. A big bull is anold bull. He's survived several hunting seasons. In most public areas, bulls are harvested before they turn three years old, which is when antlers take on respectable proportions. That being said, your big bull will most likely be living on a private ranch, an Indian Reservation, in a limited entry unit requiring a tough-to-get lottery permit, or far back in the wilderness requiring horses and savvy guides.
The truth is, except for the lottery draw, you'll be digging deep into your bank account to book any of the others. Average fees on many big ranches are around $10,000 or more. Some of the well known Indian reservations will sell you a permit for $25,000 to $35,000 or more, and an outfitted hunt in the backcountry, can be $7,000 and up. And be aware that many outfitted hunts will produce no big bulls, and maybe no bulls at all. But that's another subject I'll write about later. If you can't afford any of these, and you don't strike gold in the lottery, you need to re-think your objectives. Then again, there are many hunters who are interested in only the meat, and a cow will be perfectly acceptable. In that case, your odds of getting an elk rise significantly.
Once you've determined the kind of elk you're willing to settle for, you need to plan how you'll hunt. There are three options: DIY (Do It Yourself), fully outfitted, or a drop camp. Obviously, hunting elk on your own is by far the most challenging. You may be hunting unfamiliar country, you'll need to know where elk are, as well as private land boundaries, you'll need to know elk behavior and hunting strategies, and you'll need to provide your own meals and lodging, whether it's a motel, B&B, RV, or tent. And of course, you'll need equipment as well as the ability to transport an elk out of the woods. This, in itself, is probably the biggest physical challenge you'll face on your hunt, though you'll likely be putting a lot of time, and miles, as you hike in mountain terrain and vegetation, much of which isn't friendly.
As I already indicated, a fully outfitted hunt is typically not cheap, and there's no assurance you'll get an animal. No outfitter can guarantee you an elk, unless he has a high fence operation, which is an entirely different story. Too many factors can affect your outfitted hunt, including the presence of elk or lack thereof; your physical ability to get from camp to where the elk are; guides who are not savvy, or quite frankly, are jerks; poor luck on your part, such as missing or wounding the only elk you'll see; and other reasons. Most of us think of outfitted hunts as horseback affairs, but plenty are operated out of motels or cabins, and you might be using a four-wheeler or pickup truck to transport you around on your elk hunt. You need to decide what you want. Very importantly, how do you select an outfitter? There are all the old reasons such as attending a hunter's expo or convention and meeting outfitters in person, or contacting his references to determine their evaluation of his hunt. Both of these may have pitfalls. My suggestion is simply to contact an established long-time, reputable, booking agent who will recommend only outfitters he's dealt with for years. There's no extra cost for this service. The consultant is paid a fee by the outfitters he represents.
The drop camp sounds like the perfect choice regarding an economy hunt and hunting a good spot with a reasonable number of elk. An outfitter will take you and your gear by horseback to a camp that he's established, usually a tent camp, and drop you off for a period of time. He may return during the hunt to check on you and perhaps pack meat out. You're on your own, hopefully comfortable, and in a place where elk are present. But there's a downside. Some unscrupulous outfitters establish drop camps where there are few, if any elk. There are two reasons for this. Drop camp fees are low, and the outdfitter doesn't feel justified in spending a lot of time and effort in taking you far into the backcountry. He also might not want you competing with his high-dollar clients, so he'll be sure your drop camp is far enough away from his primary operation. For these reasons, drop camps must be thoroughly researched.
This is one of several blogs I'll write on hunting elk for the folks looking for information. It's never too early to start planning and think of many considerations you may not have thought about quite yet.