Mark Seacat likens hunting on public lands to a game of chess—not one you play with the wapiti so much as with other hunters.
“Elk pattern off pressure,” the Montana hunter and former elk guide explains. “You have to know where the elk will go Sunday after being pressured on Saturday. By Tuesday they’ll start to settle down. I want to make a move to be in position to hunt them then.”
Seacat shot his first elk when he was 12. Several years ago, he set a goal to take a mature bull off each of the half dozen mountain ranges visible from his hometown in western Montana. His game plan began by unfolding a map. “I would draw a circle around the public land in the mountain range. Then I’d start by checking out the middle of that circle in the middle of the week.”
This “mountaineering approach to elk hunting,” as Seacat terms it, often has the 30-year-old hunter crossing the spine of a range to work down to elk that have taken refuge on the more inaccessible side. In bow season, he’ll locate herds by running the ridgelines, glassing the basins, and listening for bulls bugling. Once he finds a herd, he’ll follow it, often for days while living out of his backpack. Because public-land bulls become call-shy compared with elk on lightly hunted private lands, he patterns the bull’s movements and ambushes or stalks it to get close enough for a shot.
When it’s time to trade broadheads for bullets, Seacat seeks out the toughest country he can find.
“Some pretty crazy bulls hang out in some pretty crazy places. They have to or they don’t get old,” he says.
For Seacat, the strategy of hunting areas where elk escape pressure has paid off with bulls from all but one of the ranges visible from town. Last season’s 6-point, which he arrowed after spotting 30 or more public-land bulls, is in the 370-class. He is already studying maps, hiking trails, and talking to taxidermists and hunting friends as he sets his sights on the public ranges just over the horizon.
My own approach is a variation of the same game, just one that is played on a smaller chessboard and with considerably older legs. I’ll map out the public trailheads on one front of a range, then link the access points with straight lines. The midpoints along these lines, between any two accesses, may not be too far back into the range, but the country will be tough to reach. What I am looking for are forested ridges that finger sharply down onto private ranches in the valleys. Hunting pressure from the ranches often creates a daily migration pattern, with the elk feeding on the ranchlands at night, then climbing back into thick timber on the public lands to bed during the day.
The downside of our hunting strategies? The first word out of our mouths after the elk goes down is uh-oh. Meat trips can require miles of up-and-down hiking under heavily loaded packs. The big 5-point my nephew shot last year took three of us two trips each to pack out, with round trips beginning at dawn and ending in moonlight.
“Fortunately and unfortunately, that’s the case,” Seacat agrees. “Most hunters limit themselves. They want an easy fix. But wild public lands give hunters who are willing to put their foot to the trail and work hard a great opportunity.”
Best public lands: National forests, wilderness areas.
Best opportunities: Limited-draw archery or rifle hunts that require years of applying to accumulate bonus points before a tag arrives in the mail. These hunts take place in areas that receive relatively light hunting pressure and have a deeper pool of mature bulls.
Look for: Security cover. Ranges that contain hard-to-reach, unroaded tracts of black timber will reward you with a better chance at larger bulls than heavily logged, easily accessible terrain, where opening-day harvest is high and elk don’t have much chance to grow up. Hunting is also likely to stay good longer into the season where there’s security cover.
Watch out for: Elk sanctuaries. On some ranges, elk have become so fine-tuned to hunting pressure that they migrate miles to (relatively) safe havens on private lands before the rifle season starts. Contact game managers to see if this is a concern and invest in a computer mapping program, so that you can preprogram your GPS with waypoints marking property boundaries.
10 Best Public Lands For Elk
[1 Oregon] Siuslaw National Forest: Roosevelt elk are overlooked by most hunters, but there are plenty of over-the-counter tags available for two seasons in western Oregon. The Siuslaw and Alsea units in the Siuslaw National Forest present good chances for hunters who are willing to do a little legwork and put up with a lot of rain. www.fs.fed.us
[2 Montana] Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest: Fifty percent of the elk harvest comes from Region 3 in the southwest part of the state. The forest outside Dillon, which encompasses several mountain ranges, affords elk security cover while also providing numerous hunter-access points. www.fs.fed.us
[3 Colorado] White River National Forest: It’s heavily hunted, but there’s good access and a healthy elk population. Some bigger bulls live in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area of this tract, but it’s all thin air and you can get snow up to your knickers very quickly here. www.fs.fed.us
[4 New Mexico] Cibola National Forest, Santa Fe National Forest: Low-percentage, limited-draw hunts are the rule in New Mexico, but big bulls are the prize. Tags for the Zuni Mountains and Mount Taylor areas in Cibola and in the Jemez area in Santa Fe are a bit easier to draw than the coveted tags in the Gila National Forest to the south. www.fs.fed.us
[5 Idaho] St. Joe National Forest: Historically, this forest in the southern Panhandle region is among the best places in any state to score with a bow, with the adjoining Clearwater National Forest just as good. You’ll need either a GPS or a lot of iron in your brain to keep from getting lost in these deep woods, but you won’t have to worry about trespassing. www.fs.fed.us
[6 Wyoming] Bridger-Teton National Forest: Near Jackson, the forest allows access to some of the prettiest alpine basin country in the world. And there are elk here, too, lots of them. Good lungs and bear spray are prerequisites. www.fs.fed.us
[7 Wyoming] Shoshone National Forest: Also in the Cowboy State, the Beartooth Mountains offer classic wilderness elk hunting. There are good populations of bulls in big country all along the North Fork of the Shoshone River and Sunlight Basin. www.fs.fed.us
[8 Arizona] Coconino National Forest: All motor traffic is prohibited in the forest’s Pine Grove and Rattlesnake Quiet Areas in 6A, dissuading some hunters from going after what are among the biggest bulls on the planet. www.fs.fed.us
[9 Washington] Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness: After lean years due to unlimited tags, forest fires, and mountain lion predation, bull elk ratios are finally on the upswing in the famous Blue Mountains hunting grounds of southeast Washington. Over-the-counter tags restrict hunters to spikes, but if you draw a coveted any-bull tag, you’ll have a chance for a trophy in the roadless areas in this section of the Umatilla National Forest. www.fs.fed.us
[10 Utah] Ashley National Forest: The new world-record elk was taken last season on public land in Utah. The state vies with Arizona for the best public-land elk hunting, and residents sometimes find a plentiful supply of undrawn tags, including spike-bull permits. The two Uinta Mountains units in this forest are good choices among any bull areas, but no Utah tag is less than superb. www.fs.fed.us