You and your buddies have talked about it for years. Well, no more excuses. Pack up your rig, point it west and hunt elk. Here’s how.
STORY BY PJ DelHomme
At 0430 last September, I poked my head into my eight-year-old daughter’s room to wake her up. In an hour, we’d be hiking in the dark to find a herd of elk near our home in Montana. As I closed the door to leave, I heard her tell herself—just as she always says before a gymnastics tournament, test, or swim meet “You got this.”
On our hunt, we heard a few bulls bugle, and my daughter thought that was pretty cool. I didn’t have the heart to tell her we likely heard other hunters bugling, not actual elk. After all, we were on public land, not terribly far from an open road, and it was Saturday. But do-it-yourself (DIY) elk hunting on public land in the West is never a slam dunk. In fact, only around 20 percent of Montana elk hunters fill their tag in any given year.
While the odds aren’t great, don’t let that dissuade you from heading west to hunt elk; there are plenty of things you can do to tip the scales more to your favor. For that, I turned to Randy Newberg. Once a mild-mannered CPA living in Bozeman, Montana, Newberg has since given up counting beans to become a hunting “celebrity” and public lands advocate. His niche isn’t whacking and stacking giant bulls on some game farm. His style is as far from that as it gets. He’s dedicated his podcasts (Hunt Talk Radio), TV Show (Fresh Tracks), and YouTube channel (Randy Newberg, Hunter) to the DIY, public land hunter. And he’s killing elk every year at the spry age of 56.
Newberg grew up in the Midwest fishing for walleye and hunting cagey whitetails. He’s honed his tips for elk hunters through his own trial and error, and he never pulls any punches when it comes to teaching others.. “I am so thankful that I was a whitetail hunter when I moved west because it caused me to fail,” he says. “I view every hunt, whether I kill an elk or not, as a success as long as I learn something.” And that, as you will find, is exactly the attitude you need to succeed at elk hunting.
Where It All Begins
If you’ve read this far, chances are you’ve considered the idea of hunting elk. Great, now convince some buddies they want to hunt elk, too, but be discerning. “Picking the right people is huge,” Newberg says. “Make sure everyone is compatible. Go on a camping trip first. A hunt isn’t the place to sort out who you want in a foxhole with you.”
Once you’ve got one or two good friends on board, it’s time for a heart-to-heart about what the definition of a “successful” public land elk hunt looks like. “Elk hunting is not typically a one and done thing,” he says. “If that’s your definition, then go to a ranch. If you want to become an elk hunter, then you have to keep at it.” Put another way, manage your expectations. If your one goal is to come home with a big bull to hang on the wall, then a DIY, public land elk hunt isn’t for you. If your goal is to try something new, be physically and mentally challenged, and make memories to last a lifetime, then you’re on the right track. For perspective, it took Newberg seven years to kill his first elk—and he lives a stone’s throw from some of the best elk hunting in the county.
Now, decide on the state where you want to hunt. If you want to go right now, or maybe next year, many first-time elk hunters look to a state like Colorado that offers ample over-the-counter (OTC) tags. Plus, Colorado has around 250,000 elk, by far the most of any state. Most of those elk are going to be cows, you know, the ones without antlers. If you’re on a tight budget and this is your first time hunting elk, consider hunting a cow. No, they don’t sport antlers, but they are absolutely delicious and way more abundant than a 300-inch herd bull.
Navigating the hunting regulations for a new state can be harder to understand than your truck’s wiring diagram, but you don’t have to go it alone. There are a number of websites and services out there dedicated to help you find your tag and take your money. For instance, if you choose to hunt Montana, the state offers a Hunt Planner complete with maps, tags, and hunting districts. Don’t be afraid to call your chosen state’s fish and game department, either. After all, your license money helps fund the department.
Now that you’ve picked a state, convinced a couple of buddies to go, and hashed out expectations, it’s time to talk gear. Fair warning: you need to buy less stuff than you think. “Gadgets and gizmos are not going to kill you an elk,” Newberg says. “If you think that’s all there is to it, then just give me the money. Educate yourself and get in the woods. Feed your brain–that’s the best tool you got.”
Hunters can and do get wrapped up in buying gear because it’s an easy way to prepare. Keep it simple. Don’t let gear consume you and your hunt. “Whatever you’ve got for your deer rifle (and if you shoot it well) just bring it,” he says. “Always beware the man who owns only one rifle.” The most popular elk calibers are .270, .30-06, and 7mm Remington Magnum. While ammo can be hard to find right now, you do need to practice and know your effective range. If you consistently shoot baseball-sized groups at 200 yards, you should be ready for the elk woods.
If you are looking to invest in one thing, buy a quality pair of binoculars. You’ll spend a fair amount of time simply looking for elk at dawn and dusk, and good glass really does help ease the strain on your eyes. If you plan on camping, make a list of items you think you’ll need and then see what you and your buddies lack. Buying a wall tent is much more reasonable when the cost is split three ways. Or you can stay at a local hotel where hot showers are always welcome after a long day of hunting.
Before you start the drive, you’ll want to have at least five spots picked out within the unit of the state for which you have a tag. This is critical. “But I’ve never been there. How am I supposed to know what to look for?” you say. I hear you. If you can’t scout with boots on the ground, then the next best thing is to scout from space. Use GoogleEarth or apps like onX and GoHunt to give you a bird’s eye view of the terrain.
Keep in mind that elk need three things: food, water, and security. Look for areas away from open roads and easy hunter access. Open, south-facing hillsides or alfalfa fields entice elk to feed at dawn and dusk, while north-facing timber provides refuge and a place to hide. If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty (and you should), Newberg can help. He’s broken elk hunting down into five calendar seasons: early season, pre-rut, peak rut, post rut, and late season. To learn more about this strategy, tune into his YouTube channel where he goes into each season in-depth. Also, check out his elk hunting e-guide, which you can download as PDF and read as you drive across the country to elk camp.
In the Woods
Once you get to the mountains, you’ll soon realize why success rates are low. “You’re going to be completely intimidated by the landscape, its steepness, the vastness of the terrain, and the low animal densities,” he says. Whatever you do, keep a positive attitude and take it easy. You’re supposed to be having fun, right?
Chances are, you’ll be sharing the landscape with other hunters, which is why you picked five spots before leaving home. Find the spot where there are the fewest hunters. Once there, spend the first three days just scouting and poking around. “You have to find elk first—that’s your biggest time commitment. The reason most people don’t kill an elk is because they can’t find an elk,” Newberg says.
You find elk by getting up in the dark, hiking to a high ridge or peak, sitting on your butt, and looking through a spotting scope or binoculars at far off hills. Elk move most at dawn and dusk, so you need to be in position and looking at those times of day. And please, pack a headlamp. “Most of my friends who come from the Midwest are scared to leave the truck before daylight,” Newberg says with a laugh. “There are tons of grown men who do not like being in the woods after dark. So, ask yourself what you’re afraid of and learn more about it. If you’re afraid of grizzly bears, then learn where they’re going to be and don’t be there.”
Sip your coffee and glass the hills, focusing on what’s closest to you first, and then look to distant ridges. Check the immediate area for signs, too. Are there rubs, scat, and beds? No? Then maybe you’re not in the right spot.
Just like whitetails, elk have a keen sense of smell. Let the wind dictate your movement. As a general rule, air (thermals) will descend down the mountain in the morning. By afternoon, those thermals will creep back upslope. If you’re hiking uphill in the morning, you’re off to a good start.
Let’s say you get lucky, make a great shot and have an elk down. Congratulations. Now, veteran elk hunters will tell you, the real work begins. Elk are big, like 500 pounds big. If you’re more than a few hundred yards from the truck, and most times you will be, you need to get that elk into manageable chunks. Don’t even try to drag it. Instead, quarter it. And guess what? Newberg can teach you how to do that, too, without even gutting it. It’s called the gutless method. If you Google “gutless method,” you will find plenty of videos online to walk you through the process. It’s a little daunting at first, but 80-pound quarters are a much more reasonable haul than trying to pack out an entire pony.
Hunting elk on your own isn’t impossible, but it’s not easy, either. “It’s going to be work, but it’s fun work,” Newberg says. Be honest with yourself, do your homework, make a plan, and put in the work. Remember, you got this.