Three Ways to Hunt Elk: Do It Yourself, With a Guide, or Get Dropped at Camp

Elk hunting is special. Once you've had a taste of chasing bulls in the vast Rocky Mountain wilderness, you'll wonder why you bother to hunt anything else. Okay. That's just my opinion. After 30 years of hunting and guiding for elk, I think nothing can compare. But it takes planning, hard work, and some money to pull off an elk hunt, and for most sportsmen it's a rare opportunity. Here's how to make any type of trip a success.

THE GUIDED HUNT

The cost of a top-notch fully guided trip? Not cheap. The value of the greatest hunt you'll ever have? Priceless.

When you spring for a guided hunt, you're not buying an elk. You're paying for the things that make a week in elk camp an unforgettable experience--pack strings and wall tents and wilderness. Above all, you're getting the leadership of men whose devotion to hunting elk and living in the mountains often costs them things like wives and 401(k) accounts.

If you can swing the price, a fully guided hunt is the way to go. You're taking the hunt you've dreamed about for years, and it's worth it to be established in a comfortable camp, in great elk country, and accompanied by knowledgeable guides. Here are three top-notch fully guided hunts:

  1. 1 YELLOWSTONE ADVENTURE This hunt takes place in Wyoming on public land adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. It's wild country and full of elk. You'll spend six days hunting out of a wilderness camp reached by horseback. Outfitter Ron Dube prides himself on getting every client a chance at a branch-antlered bull. Two hunters share one guide during the hunt. The cost is $4,250 per person. You'll also need to draw a license by state lottery (with 80 percent odds for the $892 special elk tag; the outfitter will apply). Ron Dube's Wilderness Adventures, 307-527-7815; www.huntinfo.com/dube

  2. 2 BULLS AND BUCKS Chad Schearer of Central Montana Outfitters runs elk hunts on more than 100,000 acres of private land. You'll hunt mainly on foot out of a four-wheel-drive-accessible tent camp. It's two clients per guide, and $4,200 for six days' hunting. A combination deer and elk license is guaranteed through the outfitter and costs $975. Deer and elk are available at the same time. Central Montana Outfitters, 406-799-7984; www.centralmontanaoutfitters.com

  3. 3 120,000 ACRES--ALL YOURS Colorado's Elkhorn Outfitters, run by Dick and Cheryl Dodds, offers hunting on 120,000 acres of private land. The elevation varies from 5,500 to 9,500 feet, incorporating both fall and winter range. You'll hunt on both foot and horseback out of a four-wheel-drive-accessible tent camp. The cost is $4,500 for five days' hunting, with two clients per guide. Either-sex elk tags cost $493 and are available through the outfitter. Elkhorn Outfitters, 970-824-7392; www.elkhornoutfitters.com

THE DROP CAMP

For self-sufficient hunters who want an easy, affordable way into the mountains, this is the perfect trip.

If you're an experienced elk hunter looking to save some money, consider a drop camp. This approach puts you in the middle of elk country, where you hunt on your own and do your own chores. Drop camps work if you're looking mainly for transportation to a place from which to hunt elk. Be aware, however, that it denies you some important benefits of a full-service camp.

The key element lacking is a guide. If you don't know the country, you'll spend valuable time looking for elk. And don't expect them to stampede between the tents. Most outfitters who offer drop camps also sell full-service hunts. If you were an outfitter, where would you put your guided, and higher paying, hunters? Say "where the most elk are" and you get a gold star. Drop camps are second-tier. It's not criminal or even devious--it's good business.

Quality drop camps may be harder to find, but they're out there for hunters willing to do a little work. Here are three excellent outfitters who specialize in serving resourceful hunters on limited budgets:

  1. 1 TOUGH--BUT WORTH IT Montana outfitter Ray Rugg has been in the business since 1956 and offers drop camps near his Superior, Montana, digs. He'll pack people in or out for $75 per horse per trip, or he can provide the transport and a complete camp for four at $1,500 a person. That's for up to 10 days of hunting. The cost per hunter drops if you have six or more in a party. In either case, Rugg checks on his clients every other day in order to get meat out in a timely fashion. Expect a rigorous hunt on the Lolo National Forest, between 5,000 and 6,500 feet. You'll need a general elk license. Rugg's Outfitting, 406-822-4240; www.ruggsoutfitting.com

  2. 2 CANYON COUNTRY BULLS Shawn Steen and his wife, Shelly, are based in Joseph, Oregon, in the state's extreme northeast corner. His father, Jim Steen, built the business, which also provides horseback trips and rafting in the rugged Snake River Canyon. The odds for drawing a bull elk tag in the Snake River Unit are challenging, but the hunting and scenery are superb. Steen can bring hunters in either by river or by horseback. Camp prices range from $850 to $2,000, depending on your needs and the number in your group. You'll appreciate the pack animals when you get a bull down in Hells Canyon. Steen's Wilderness Adventures, 541-432-6545; www.steens-packtrips.com

  3. 3 EXCLUSIVE RANCH ACCESS Colorado has been a do-it-yourselfer's elk hunting mecca for decades, but hunting leases and heavy pressure on public land are changing the picture. To offer budget-minded hunters good sport away from the crowds, Larry Bishop formed Rocky Mountain Ranches 11 years ago. For $1,450, he meets with you and gives you a map to one of several ranches that he's leased near Craig. You have five days to find a bull. What are your odds for success? Nearly 50 percent--much higher than on public land. Camp is not included because all the ranches are vehicle-accessible. Colorado's first and fourth bull seasons are for drawn permittees only; tags for the second and third hunts are available across the counter ($483). Bishop and his crew will help you submit your application for limited bull permits by April. Rocky Mountain Ranches, 303-286-8656; www.rockymountainhunting.com

ON YOUR OWN

If you really want to earn your bull, forget guides and out-fitters and go it alone. Success will never taste so sweet.

The most economical--not to mention exciting and rewarding--way to hunt elk is on your own. It's not as difficult as most hunters think. But preparation is crucial. Not only do you have to find the elk; you must first locate a good campsite or a hunting area accessible enough for day trips.

You can plan hunts without an outfitter anywhere, but I do so only in states with big blocks of lightly roaded national forest and relatively light pressure. Wilderness gives you a better chance of finding undisturbed elk. Here are three areas perfect for the do-it-yourself hunter:

  1. 1 FOR RUGGED HUNTERS ONLY Most of my first elk hunts took place in Oregon's remote Eagle Cap Wilderness. The forests range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet. You need to be in shape to cope with the altitude and rugged terrain. An east-side elk license is still available over the counter, but the best units are now designated for limited-quota hunting only. Buy your non-resident license ($58) early and enter the draws by May 15. The elk tag sets you back another $306. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, 800-720-6339; www.dfw.state.or.us

  2. 2 HOME OF THE WHOPPER BULLS Washington has many elk in its southeast corner in the Blue Mountains and Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. It's a mix of rugged canyons and timbered ridges. You'll need an east-side elk license ($394), which also allows you to hunt other units east of the Cascade crest. Many areas limit you to a spike bull only unless you draw a permit for a branch-antlered bull. The draw is competitive, but spikes-only hunting has put whopper bulls back in the herds. Muzzleloader and archery hunters get better odds in the lotteries. The application period for elk is May 15 to June 22. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 360-902-2464; wdfw.wa.gov

  3. 3 ENDLESS ELK COUNTRY Western Montana has vast stretches of national forest that are ideal for a determined individual elk hunter. From Darby on the Bitterroot River north through Missoula to Kalispell, there are mountains with the timber to hold elk and discourage hunters. National forests like the Bitterroot, Beaverhead, Flathead, and Granite are all good choices. A combination deer and elk license costs about $640, and about half the nonresidents who apply draw successfully. A bonus point system was recently implemented; if unsuccessful, you can buy a bonus point and be almost assured of a tag the following year. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 406-444-2535; fwp.state.mt.us

INSIDER ADVICE

Don't be afraid to ask your guide to change hunting strategies. Twice I've had to talk to a guide about giving me more rein or trying a new tactic. Both times I killed a bull. The same goes for hunting on horseback; if you'd rather walk more, say so.

INSIDER ADVICE

Be ready to accept some problems. Once friends and I rode 27 miles in sleet to a drop camp, only to find that a bear had raided it: The tent was down, poles were scattered, ropes broken. It was one of those headaches no outfitter can prevent.

INSIDER ADVICE

Take the first decent elk you see. Big bulls are rare, and any elk is hard to find. Last October, hunting on my own, I watched 18 average bulls in a herd of 120 elk on opening morning. I declined the shots and never saw them again.