Strategies for Late-Season Elk

News & Tips: Strategies for Late-Season Elk

StrategiesForLateSeasonElk3Raging winds swept across the Gallatin Range as we stepped out of spike camp high atop North Mountain. We had fortified ourselves with pancakes, eggs, bacon and coffee and now, thanks to our camp location at the peak of the ridge, we faced a downhill hike. But even though it was downhill, the trek would be grueling.

We had arisen at 3:30 a.m. to make this 2 1/2-hour journey through 2-3 foot snow to reach a series of secluded meadows right at first light. There, if we were lucky, we hoped to find a lone trophy bull elk that had survived months of bow and gun hunting pressure. 

Forging out, we marched slowly, to avoid sweating too much and getting chilled. The temperature read 6 degrees, but the wind chill was well below zero.

The meadows we were headed for were remote, isolated spots where resident bulls as well as animals migrating from Yellowstone Park might be found. They were harsh, lonely spots where only a few old elk would hole up, fighting as long as possible the need to migrate lower out of the deep snows and head for gentler terrain in Montana's Paradise Valley below.

Some of the bulls, inevitably, would linger too long, dying on the harsh mountain. Others would relent and head down at the last moment. A few special elk, though, would never give up their high mountain sanctuaries, but somehow live to see another spring. They would remain holed up in secluded pockets on the peaks, nibbling on a few sprigs of grass that the harsh winds keep exposed through the snow. Stubbornly, they would stay, yet survive.

These were the elk we were seeking — big, reclusive bulls, wary and ghost-like in their ability to hide in the snow-covered mountains.

Hunting them is both mentally and physically hard, as we were finding out. One hunter in the group had to drop back and watch a less productive spot closer to spike camp because he couldn't complete the 2 1/2 hour hike.

Somehow, mustering reserves of inner strength, my guide and I forged on.

At the first blush of orange light, we reached our destination: a meadow where elk often congregate in winter. But today it was bare and lifeless, covered with deep wind-swept snow. We glassed the aspens below and the spruce higher up, but no elk could be found.

Moving further along the mountainside we continued to glass and search for our quarry. Two hours later, I spotted antler tips moving above a rock outcropping 300 yards below us. My guide and I studied the bull carefully when it stepped out from behind the ledge. There was no question this was the trophy we had been searching for.

The rack was broken on one side with two tips missing, but it was still an outstanding bull. The mass was exceptional, and seven long points graced the unbroken side. 

Easing up against a large rock, I settled the sights behind the bull's shoulder. The Ultra-Light .30-06 broke the mountain silence. I fired again and the bull slouched onto the snow-covered ground.

When we slid and scrambled down the mountain to the elk, we found it was an even more amazing animal than we had thought. The elk's rack measured 4 feet across and had 17-inch long fourth points. The mass measured over 10 inches at the base, indicating a very old bull. Without the broken tips, the elk would have scored about 340 B&C.

Not all of the winter elk hunts I've taken have been as successful as that one in southern Montana. But all of them have yielded crucial insights into what makes a successful late season elk hunt.

The hunting is so different from early-season bugling in shortsleeve weather for rutting elk that it's almost like going after a different species. Over 30 years of chasing late season bulls in Oregon, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, I've learned that nine strategies will help lead you to success.

Follow them, and with luck maybe you'll find a bull like the one I came upon on that remote ridge in the Gallatin Mountains.

The Strategies

One. Find an area with a strong, dynamic elk population. More than with whitetails, elk numbers can vary from region to region, county to county and state to state from year to year. Wolf depredation, human encroachment, winter kills, wild fires and diseases can knock numbers down quickly. Similarly, areas that avoid these and other problems can see elk numbers burgeon.

Research thoroughly. Work both online and through calls and letters to game departments, wildlife biologists, wardens, outfitters and landowners in elk country to find out what the elk population is like in areas you're considering hunting. Search several possibilities to narrow down your best choice and keep the others in mind for future hunts. Also try to find areas with good populations of older bulls and reasonable *** ratios.

Two. Narrow the location down even further and plan your approach. Once you've settled on a prime state, narrow it down to a region and then a county, and finally a particular part of that county.

Glassing the Gallatin Mountain Range in Montana for elk.

Now plan on how you will get into the most remote part of that area possible. You can backpack, use horses, ride an ATV or Argo, be dropped off at a spike camp or book a fully-guided trip. Whatever method you use, get in away from road access.

The best locations near roads have been hunted hard by the late season and the bulls have either fled to more isolated areas, been shot or become nocturnal. Overcome this by getting far back in from the nearest vehicle access. 

Unless snows are too deep, horses are particularly helpful. The furthest horseback ride I've ever taken for elk was 26 miles, hunting outside the southern border of Yellowstone Park in Wyoming. Basically, it took a day to get into camp. But it put us into remote country where the bulls were not heavily pressured, and that was the key to success on that hunt. 

Three. Apply for limited draw areas. Step number two might not be as crucial if you apply and eventually are drawn for a limited-hunt area. The pressure is lighter on bulls in these areas, and success rates are often many times better than on open hunting areas with large numbers of licenses available.

It may take several years of applying and getting preference points, but it's worth the effort if you get drawn for a special tag. Success rates in some of those areas run 50 percent and higher on mature bulls.

Four. Look for neglected pockets of habitat in unlikely places. Getting back far from roads or drawing a limited-entry tag are both valuable steps. But once you get to the area, concentrate your hunting efforts on small, overlooked pockets of security cover with a bit of food available.

Every elk hunter, it seems, wants to hunt the large, grassy meadows and parks on the edge of timber. While these are certainly good spots to find a trophy bull in bow season or even during early gun hunts, big bulls learn to avoid them by the late season.

Instead of these big inviting areas, seek out small isolated meadows far from roads, horse trails and easy back-packing areas. Search for pockets that the topographic maps don't show with some browse, grasses or forbs available. Search for a secluded bog, a thick tangle of blow-downs, a fold tucked away in the steep terrain where few hunters would venture, a remote pocket or coulee far from roads and horse trails.

Elk have two needs now in the late season: food, but even more important, security. No matter how hungry they are, mature bulls won't venture out into a big meadow for food if it puts their lives at risk.

Five. Be in best physical shape possible. I've heard some people say late elk hunting is easy. Just get on a migration route, pick out the bull you want and squeeze the trigger. Well maybe in a few rare cases it's like that, but I've never seen it in 3 1/2 decades of pursuing wapiti.

Late season elk hunting can be very taxing for the body with not only deep snow to walk through in many cases, but bitter energy-sapping cold to contend with. As far ahead of your hunt as possible, get on a vigorous exercise program. You don't just need your legs in shape. You also need your heart and lungs toned up and at peak ability as well.

Six. Purchase the best gear possible. Everything from your gun and ammo to your clothing, pack and boots should be the best you can afford. Optics are particularly important for both finding and evaluating late season bulls.

If you already have your gear and it's up to the task, make sure it's ready to go and doesn't need repair or cleaning. Put fresh batteries in flashlights, GPS units, two-way radios and other equipment and bring spares. Pre-sharpen knives and axes. Go over all your camping and cooking gear, horse tack, ATVs and every item to make sure they are up to the rigors of potentially sub-zero weather and deep snows.    

Seven. Research elk migration patterns in your hunting location. Find out where the migrations are strongest and hit them at the right time and place and you'll up your odds for success on a late season hunt tremendously. But keep in mind that these can vary in timing from year to year depending on the weather .

The author with his late-season bull, which had a 10-inch base and seven points on one side with the tip broken off the other.

In some locations, on the other hand, elk may not migrate significant distances. There it's simply a matter of finding remote, neglected areas where the pressure hasn't been too strong. Of course limited draw areas are one of the best ways to find such low-pressure setups, but even in open hunting areas there are spots that get neglected. Pour over maps ahead of time, talk with regional game biologists and wardens, or book with an outfitter who has the time and resources to do this for you.

Eight. Use enough gun. All of my rifle elk have been taken with two calibers-the .30-06 and .338. These are both excellent choices.

The .270 should probably be the very lightest caliber you use. My preference is a .30/06 for most situations, but I didn't feel over-gunned when I used the .338, either. The main thing is that you use a good quality bullet, know your firearm well, feel comfortable with it and do lots of practice before the hunt.

Nine. Be determined. No matter how hard the hunting, how many days you go without spotting a legal bull, don't give up until the final seconds of your hunt expire. I've been on many late elk hunts where I never got a bull or even glimpsed one in a week's worth of dawn to dark effort. Don't let it get you down.

On your next hunt, odds of success will be that much closer. Keep up your determination from hunt to hunt and also hour to hour on each individual trip.

You may luck out and find your bull on the first day. On the other hand, it may come down to the final hour of a week's hunt when, just at dark, with your chances about to vanish in the winter air, a bull steps out on the edge of a tiny meadow high atop a snowy ridge. 

Take a steady rest, breathe deeply and calm your nerves. Squeeze the trigger slowly. After days, maybe years of effort, your late season bull is down.