Blowing past elk-rich dirt in hopes of finding a pot of elk gold deep in the wilderness may be a mistake. Here’s why.
My pack was heavy, and the walk was long, but I didn’t care. My bowhunting companions and I were deep in the Colorado wilderness. It was mid-September. Golden aspens swayed and the air had a bite to it. This is what we wanted — what we’d trained and worked all year for. We were in elk country.
The foot trail was no longer detectable. We kept going — bushwhacking through brush and dense fox pine — then we passed a spike camp. Then we strolled by another. Frustrated, we pushed on. Under tired legs and aching backs, we went another mile. The meadow had a basecamp with a white canvas tent and a number of horses and mules were hobbled. We’d walked into an elk convention.
I’m not trying to discourage your go-deep dreams. It’s a great way to bowhunt elk, but that drum has been beaten hard over the years, and more and more elk goers and going deep. Here’s what I suggest, what has worked for my elk amigos and me over the past several years: hunt close.
Mark It Up
It’s likely you have both paper and digital maps of your planned-to-hunt area. If you don’t, get them. I like to start with paper first. My goal is access. I’m looking for roads in my hunt area that allow 4x4 travel. Yes, you read that correctly. I’m actually looking for roads. I mark each access road with a pen and then record the road number in my hunt log book. Next, I pull up my digital map on my computer. A phone or tablet will work, but I like a big screen to look over. Now, using my paper map in concert with my digital map, I drop pins on all access roads.
With access roads marked, I start looking at the topography. First, I’m looking for spots I can dive in or climb up off an access road. The more vert our decent out of the gate the better. Why? Most hunters drive right by these spots. After all, you can’t kill a public-land elk by pulling off the main road, bombing up an 800-foot slope, and accessing a gnarly drainage, right? Wrong. Read on.
In addition to noting off-the-road access that requires an immediate up or downhill trek, look at the country beyond. I really like long, steep drainages. Elk love dark drainages, and most are full of forage and have a small stream trickling through. Benches are another favorite of mine. Simply put, a bench is an area of flat to semi-flat ground. Often, drainages have a number of small benches. Long benches are common between drainages as well. Small meadows surrounded by dense timber should also be noted. Elk, especially elk that have received some hunt pressure, love to slip out of a dark drainage, access a small bench that leads to an isolated meadow and feed. The more time you put into your map work, the better.
Also consider, while looking for dive-in or climb-up points, access beyond those points. For instance, if I find what appears to be good access, but a mile above that access is a four-wheel-drive road that cuts across the mountain, that access is checked off as a no-go. If you can leave a forest road and disappear miles into the wilderness with no roads insight, you’re onto something.
My goal is to leave for my hunt with no less than 13 possible off-the-road hunt areas marked on my maps. Upon arrival, I start prospecting. Some will be a bust, but some will put you right into the elk. Also, don’t think for a second you have to get a couple of miles off an access road to find elk. Slow down and pay attention. Too many hunters bomb right through great elk habitat because their mind is whispering ‘they can’t be this close to a road’ to them as they walk.
Last season, after tagging out in Colorado in a public-land over-the-counter unit using the methods above, I followed my friend and elk guru J.C. Navarro to the Cowboy State. On the first night of our hunt, J.C. fired up a bull by bugling into a deep canyon off a dead-end access road. Five bulls responded, and he would have arrowed a bull less than a half-mile from the truck if the western horizon didn’t fully swallow the sun before the bull came into range. He killed a nice 5x5 the following day.
Another benefit of this style of elk hunting is that you can stay very mobile. If you pack miles into a wilderness area on foot, you’re often pot-committed for the duration of your hunt. If you run into hunt pressure or don’t find elk, you will lose at least a full day walking out and relocating. Not to mention the wasted energy and the mental blow a bomb-out and bomb-back-in excursion takes on the mind.
Last year, myself, along with two of my elk hunting compadres killed three bulls over a period of 72 hours. All were killed many miles apart — one in a different state — but most of those miles were covered while riding in a truck.
Solid sleep is another benefit to this style of elk hunting. Sure, you might find an off-the-road access point and spike out for a day, but most of the time, we return to a base camp each night. That means good sleep in a camper or a tent with a comfy cot. We eat better and stay more mentally focused throughout the hunt.
Just food for thought. If you’re dead-set on a go-deep sojourn, get after it. If not, the advice above may just lead you to elk nirvana. Have a great fall!