My face after getting my first response from a bull elk.
I can remember the first time I ever heard a bugle. I was just a teenager out on a camping trip with some friends in northern Arizona. Just as the sun started to make its way below the horizon, I heard a horrifying screaming sound coming from the forest that surrounded our camp. Truthfully, I was a bit shaken up by it. After mustering up the nerve, I asked my friend if she heard it too, and, like it was nothing, she said, "Oh, yeah! That's the elk! They make that sound during their breeding season." It was rather difficult that night sleeping with the forest singing all night long. Fast forward 10 years and that "horrifying screaming sound" is still haunting me...in a good way.
Fortunately, and unfortunately, I live in a state that has some of the best opportunity in world class elk hunting that anyone can ask for. Arizona is an amazing place to be in the month of September and, if you've never experienced it, you need to. The unfortunate part about all of this is that it is like pulling teeth to draw an early archery tag. That is the price we pay for having the elk that we do though. This year was no different for me with the elk draw and I found myself without a tag, yet another year. In lieu of all of this, I decided that even if I can't draw a tag here in Arizona, it doesn't mean that I can't go elk hunting. There are plenty of out-of-state elk opportunities to be had and I was ready to have one of them.
This year, I am planning not only my first out-of-state hunt, but my very first archery elk hunt. On top of that, it is going to be a DIY backpack hunt. Can you say, "Excited?!" Preparing for a hunt like this has almost been a daunting task, though, just for the sheer fact that I have never done it. For that reason, I wanted to go over how I have been preparing for this and maybe give you some insight onto how you can do the same thing.
My research for this hunt started last year after going yet another elk season without a tag. After much deliberation, I decided that I wanted this hunt to take place in Colorado. I picked Colorado because it has the biggest elk herd in the U.S. What better place for my first elk hunt? But determining where I was hunting in Colorado took some effort. First, I scoured the internet looking for any information that I could about over-the-counter (OTC) elk hunting in the southwestern part of the state, which only happens to be a seven hour drive from home. This article on OTC hunting in Colorado and hunting forums were very helpful in pointing me in the right direction and I ended up getting in touch with a few folks that were more than willing to help out, as long as I kept quiet about what was told to me. I wouldn't want someone blabbing about my hunting spot so I fully understood their concern.
Next, I contacted the forest service and chatted with them a bit about my situation. I have found that forest service officials are way more willing to talk to you in detail if they can tell that you have been doing your homework. For instance, you wouldn't want to call up and say, "Hey there. I want to kill an elk in Colorado. Where can I do that?"
Be more specific. "Hi! I am planning an elk hunt in no name wilderness during early September. From my topo map, it seems like no name basin might be a promising area to look as well as the no name drainage. I was thinking of camping in the area of no name creek and hiking in on no name trail. If you could give me any insight into this, it'd be greatly appreciated."
Saying something like this shows that you have been doing your research and will give them more incentive to help you out. If it doesn't sound like you care about your hunt, then why should they? This article provides additional questions to ask a biologist. A few resources that I would recommend looking into are goHUNT’s INSIDER, state game and fish agencies and the U.S. Forest Service. Utilizing these resources will take a lot of guesswork out of the whole process and set you down the right path.
Having the proper gear for the situation at hand is paramount and will help keep you in the field longer. As we know, the longer we are able to stay out there, the better our chances of notching our tags. Because I am planning a backpack hunt—and this is the longest one I will have done at this point—the thing that I have been focusing on is condensing my overall pack weight and making sure I have the proper gear for the different climate and terrain. This is to help not only with the hike in, but also, hopefully, for the heavy load that I will be carrying out of the Colorado backcountry in the form of lean, organic, free range elk meat. I found this to be a very valuable article on building a lighter version of my backcountry hunting gear list.
Something that really helped in condensing my pack weight was itemizing and reviewing the clutter that had built up in my pack over the years. These were things that I didn't even know were in my pack. Obviously, I had no use for them because I was completely unaware of their presence. I like the idea of having a simple set up and I think that will definitely be a plus in the long run. Did I purchase a few things that packed down better and weighed less? Absolutely, but it doesn't justify carrying clutter in my pack when I don't even need it there.
Another thing that caused me to re-evaluate my gear was the fact that I am traveling to a different climate. In my research, people have told me that it could either snow or be 90 degrees and dry in Colorado. While that bit of information is pretty broad, it will ensure that I keep some extra clothing in my truck at the trailhead should an early snowstorm arise. Knowing that I have the necessary gear to handle different weather gives me peace of mind that my hunt shouldn't get ruined because of it. I have also heard that Colorado is a lot more prone to moisture than my home state of Arizona. In light of that, I made sure that I purchased a new quality set of rain gear to keep me dry during those afternoon showers. I want to be able to hunt as much as I physically can and get the most out of my experience. Huddling in the tent when I could be out hunting is not something that I want to do.
As with any backcountry hunt, being physically fit is going to be a huge plus and make your hunt that much more enjoyable. You don't have to be a bodybuilder or marathon runner in order to have a successful backpack hunt, but physical strength and solid endurance is a must. I try to workout year round, but usually only lift weights and hit the treadmill for a bit. What I have focused on in preparation for this hunt is intensifying my workouts and incorporating endurance training into my strength training by doing more of an interval training style of a workout. I have been doing everything from burpees to bench-pressing and doing it fast with little to no breaks in between. By the time I am done, I'm usually dripping with sweat and downright tired. Hiking with a heavy pack on in the mountains is tough and I think this type of intense interval training is perfect for it. It gets my heart going on top of pushing my muscles to the core.
With this being my first elk hunt, I am expecting to get my butt kicked physically. That is why I am really trying to get my fitness on point for this. As hard as I have worked to prepare and put this hunt together, I don't want to be limited by my fitness and not be able to capitalize on an opportunity. Taking it a step further, if I do capitalize and am able to arrow a bull, I have to get that animal out of there and back to my cooler in my truck. It is my responsibility to make sure that meat doesn't go bad and that it ends up in my freezer. To not take that seriously is doing the animal a disservice, if you ask me.
Scouting for an out-of-state hunt can be rather difficult, because well, it's out-of-state. We all have jobs, lives, and obligations back home. Lucky for us, technology is an amazing tool to do quite a bit of scouting from home. You can check out this great article on unlocking hidden Google Earth techniques here. Google Earth enables me to really get a feel for an area before I even step foot there. I love looking at topo maps and do it regularly. After I am familiar with the map though, I turn to Google Earth. I like looking at the actual maps first, because the trails and roads seem more defined to me, which makes it easier for me to find them on the computer. With the features that Google Earth offers, I am able to see the terrain, vegetation, game trails, water, likely bedding areas, and more. It is an incredibly valuable tool that I think every hunter should take advantage of. It'll give you a game plan before the game has even started. Another great resource was a three part elk scouting series by Dave Barnett. You can find those articles here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Nothing beats actual boots on the ground scouting and, fortunately, I was able to pull that off. My scouting trip landed in early June. My wife and I made the eight hour trek from Arizona and backpacked our way into the area that I have been eyeing, both on maps and the computer. The purpose of this trip was to find camp, find water, find cows, and find old rutting sign. In the short time that we were there, I was able to do all of those things. In the early stages of scouting for elk, I really wanted to focus on finding the cows. Where the cows are, the bulls will be once the rut gets going. When people asked me if I saw any good bulls, I told them that I was glad I didn't see any bulls and happy that I found cows. Knowing where the bulls are in June doesn't do you any good come September when they make their move to rutting grounds.
Remember that I said this is my first archery elk hunt? Aside from spending a great deal of time in elk country here in Arizona, I am as green as the grass on a golf course when it comes to chasing bulls in September. As expected, I've been trying to take in as much elk hunting knowledge as I possibly can. The first and only other elk hunt I have been on was a late season rifle bull hunt here in Arizona. Because I didn't put the time in and learn about elk for that hunt, I was severely unprepared in the realm of where elk would be and how to hunt them that time of year. Ever since then, I have tried to do as much as I can to prepare for my hunts—no matter the game. This doesn't always mean I will fill my tag, but I usually come away from a hunt with a great experience.
Over the past year, I have been practicing calls at home and in the field. I am sure my wife and dogs are growing tired of my pesky noises, but this has really helped me familiarize myself with how calls work. Last September, I even got a chance to go out and call for elk just for fun. I didn't successfully call any bulls into me, but after talking back and forth all morning with various bulls, I was hooked. Books have been a huge help, too. I would recommend reading Bugling for Elk by Dwight Schuh and Backcountry Bowhunting by Cameron Hanes. Dwight's book really focuses on elk hunting as a whole while Cameron's book focuses more on general backcountry hunting knowledge.
Another phenomenal resource was Corey Jacobsen’s University of Elk Hunting. If you are new to the elk hunting world, I highly recommend that you check this out. Corey has 30 years of elk hunting knowledge within this course just laying out there for the taking. Everything you want to know from the start to the finish of an elk hunt, Corey covers in great detail. After going through the course, I feel way more confident than I did beforehand. I know that the only real way to learn how to do something is to get out and do it, but if someone can lay down a map for you on how it's done, you are going to be way more prepared for what's in front of you. Corey is an eight-time world champion elk caller with a resume of bulls that would impress anyone. Listen to this guy.
If I have learned anything in my journey of preparing for this hunt, it's that a lot of work goes into it and it's probably not for the weak of heart. Everything I have mentioned above, I believe are essential parts in planning for a hunt like this. The more ready I am physically and mentally, the more focused I will be able to stay during the hunt. Sitting there worrying if my gear is going to perform right, if the area I am going to even has elk in it, or not being confident in my shooting abilities are not things that I want to contend with. Shoot your bow, test your gear, and do the work.
Elk season is a hop, skip, and a jump away and I am so excited, I can barely handle it. I have dreamed about doing a backcountry archery elk hunt for quite some time and now it is finally upon me. Knowing that in a few days, I will be up at 10,000’, chasing bull elk with my bow, brings a chaotic calmness to me. I can't stop thinking about it, but it soothes me to know that it is coming. If you have been having those same dreams, I hope what I have told you in this article will inspire you to get out and get you started on your path. Like I said earlier. There are plenty of OTC elk opportunities to be had out there. Now, go have them.