Dream Hunts: Extreme Elk

Follow these tips to land a giant rack the hard way.

Field & Stream Online Editors

So, have you had it with working the same tired patch of woods where there's an orange vest in every other tree and the only game around is a single paranoid forkhorn whitetail? Why not try hunting for a change? You know: Wilderness.

Trophy animals. No civilization for 100 miles-or more. Adventure. Here are four hunts that you will never, ever forget.

The elk is not so much a mammal, or an herbivore, or a deer, but a four-legged rack upon which the spirits of hunters are broken. A mature bull is as shifty and devious as any big whitetail, but unlike the whitetail, he will not slink off and hide if you spook him-he will run 5 or 10 miles and he will not come back to give you another chance.

Your best shot at taking an elk is on a posh ranch hunt, where you'll sleep comfortably, ride around in the ranch pickup truck, and eventually shoot some semitame bull that knows the ranch cattle by name. That is not an elk hunt. What I'm proposing here is the real thing: You live in tents, start your day at 3:30 A.M. and end it (sometimes) at 9 P.M., freeze, sweat, gasp, and stand maybe a 25 percent chance of success. But if you do connect, ah, friends, I don't have the words to describe how good it feels.

Where to Go
For a true elk hunt there's no better place than the Absaroka and Beartooth mountains north of Yellowstone Park in Montana. My outfitter took us by horseback on a two-and-a-half-hour ride out of Yellowstone. Once you get into camp, you are in the wilderness. It's too remote for hikers, and that chunk of real estate is licensed to only one outfitter at a time, so you have it all to yourself.

It is mostly up- and downhill-high ridges, deep valleys, streams, small rivers, and occasional pastures where elk come to eat grass. It's also high country. We camped at around 7,000 feet, and the high meadows we rode up to each day were close to 10,000.

What It's Like
Because the camp has to be some distance from where the elk live, you are faced with a two-hour ride every morning to get to where you hunt. This means you're up by four and in the saddle at five, riding out of camp in darkness so complete you can't see your horse's head in front of you. You get to the high pastures at seven and start glassing. The guides call to encourage the elk to come and die. If the elk aren't home, you ride to another pasture and glass some more. You do this, with a break for lunch, until five in the afternoon, and ride back to camp, where you collapse. It's very simple hunting, really. You just have to persist, and be lucky.

You also have to be in shape. I will say that again: Be in shape. There is not a hell of a lot of air at nearly 10,000 feet, and you may have to run a wind sprint to get into position to get a shot. If you die in the process, it will detract from the experience. Also, and equally important, know how to ride-at least the basics. You will be spending a minimum of four hours a day in the saddle, and if you don't know how to ride, this is not the place to learn.

Choosing an Outfitter
Booking your hunt can be risky business. About all you can do is get references and check them out. If all an outfitter will promise is a lot of hard work, good equipment and horses, good food, and good guides, that's what you want.

I hunted with Scott and Sandy Sallee, who run Black Mountain Outfitters out of Emigrant, Montana (406-222-7455). I have never seen a better outfit. An eight-day hunt costs about $4,000.

For more information, contact the Montana Outfitters & Guides Association, 406-449-3578; www.moga-montana.org.