Dream Hunt for Elk

Southern Region

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.

Packlist
Clothes: Bring clothes for 50 degrees and sunny down to zero degrees and snowing with a high wind. Lose a glove and you're in trouble; include an extra pair. You need two pairs of boots: pacs for bad weather and leather foor nice weather. Make sure both pairs have a real heel or you'll spend much of the hunt on your ass from slipping on downhill grades.

Arms & Optics: You need a serious rifle--.30/06 or bigger--and 30 rounds of ammunition. Also bring an extra scope and a pair of good 8X or 10X binoculars. A spotting scope is not mandatory, but it can be a huge help.

Extras: Carry a canteen that holds a full quart of water—bigger is better; and a moderate-size daypack that you can hang over the pommel when it's not on your back. Do not head out on the trail without a sheepskin saddle pad. I had two offers to buy mine while on the hunt.

FIELD GUIDE: ELK
The elk's original range covered nearly all of the United States and southern Canada. They flourished everywhere except in a narrow band along the east coast, the Gulf Coast region, and the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah.

Elk antlers can weigh 50 pounds and reach lengths of 5 FEET

The oldest recorded wild elk was shot in Arizona in 1937. in its ear was a tag put there 24 years earlier when the animal was 1 year old.

Among North American antlered animals, the elk is second in size only to the moose. A bull Roosevelt elk, heaviest of the subspecies, can weigh more than 1/2 TON

Rutting elk can be ornery. According to Mark Biel of Yellowstone National Park, a bull elk charged and savaged between 12 and 15 vehicles during the fall of 2000.

John Plute's elk world record stood from 1962 to 1998. What's nearly as remarkable is that it was shot in 1899 and collected dust first in a shed and then on the wall of a saloon for more than 60 years before it was officially measured.