The Art of Stalking Elk on Public Land

The rewards and thrill of chasing elk on public land are unmatchable.

elk hunting on public land,
Trophy Trek: Successful public-land hunters begin a long hike out.Steven Brutger

The public lands of the West have blown open my mind and allowed inside a wild profusion of electrifying beauty, somber beauty, fecund beauty. The open spaces of the West—our prairies and badlands, and best of all, to my thinking, our mountain ranges and wilderness areas—have filled me with the most intense fragrances: mint, lupine, marsh sedges, and wild roses. And delicious tastes: venison, grouse, trout, ­morels, ducks, and the thing we pursue above all others, the animal that is bigger than a dream, elk.

Hunting them can be as imprecise as it is intense. There are basic laws of physics—pay attention to the wind, always, and the weather—but other than that, the hunt is wildly variable. Often, it is a matter of inches, and seconds. When hunters are chasing them, elk can vanish as if into another medium, steadily moving out ahead of you, and always playing the wind—either moving into it, and looking back over their shoulder, or with seeming paradox, hurrying on with the wind always at their back; this so they can always smell you behind them and calculate how fast to go, over the course of the autumn-short day, to stay just ahead of you.

Their tracks so fresh in the snow that individual pieces of hoofprint still glisten, struck by the cold sun where the huge animals passed. Their splashes still wet upon the stones in the stream crossing. Their scent molecules ripe upon the foliage. You’re on them, but they are balancing space and time, weaving their lives out of these two things, having arisen as if from nothing more than the firmament and a hunter’s desire that there be such a thing as elk in this incredible landscape.

Space. I love following animals that are not bounded by fences. I love being able to walk for days on end, and not be bounded myself. It is in the West's wild public lands—open to anyone who wishes to go in on foot and do things the hard way, the old way—that we experience one of the great underrated strengths of our country's character: not just the presence of wildness but, as Wallace Stegner famously said, the idea of it—the knowledge that it is there. This creates in us an obligation and commitment to keep it big and wild.

Space. I love to be able to follow elk to the horizon. They lead me into the most amazing places. Places I might not go on my own—to the bottoms of forested canyons and over high passes, breath-heaving, quad-burning, so you come to see that your legacy, the land that is yours, exists for as far as you can see; that wherever the wind blows or the sun falls, is your land.

Time. You have to cherry-pick. Time is on the elk's side, not yours. Your season comes, then goes. The elk remain. For as long as there are mountains and wilderness for them to move into, leaving our puny selves behind, the elk remain.