The licensing and/or application procedure is the major reason you will not be killing or hunting your elk this year. I strongly recommend that if you plan to hunt as a group, you apply for your licenses as a group in lieu of applying as individuals in states allowing group applications. In group license application all of the hunters will receive a license, or none of the group will obtain a license. Your buddies will hate you if you get the only license, and you really do not want to hunt by yourself. Next you must pick one of the several specific seasons when you want to hunt.
Any day you can go elk hunting is a good day. With that said there are two basic camps as to when to plan your elk hunt. One is to hunt during the rut and the other is after major snow fall that has driven the elk down from the high country. I feel this is the most important decision you have to make. If is fairly easy to determine when the rut will fall, but it is guesswork as to when the snow will drive the elk out of the high country to the lower ranch and farmland. I will take the sure bet every time, so I plan to hunt the rut or the first week of rifle season. The elk have had all summer without much pressure from outsiders in their habitat. Elk make a lot of noise during the rut, bulls bugle and cows bleat. A bugling bull can be heard for a long distance, and other bulls will be answering, making it easier to locate animals during any time of the day. Bulls are busy protecting their herd of cows or challenging other bulls rather than paying attention to the other things going on around them.
For instance, I saw a bull that was mounting a cow when it was shot with a 300 Weatherby by another member of our hunting party. The bull never slowed down or dismounted. The second shot brought him off the cow’s back, and he staggered a few steps trying to remount before falling over dead. Both shots were mortal.
Now you know where and when you want to hunt. You have applied for your license. Expect a three to four month wait for the license draw results. This is the time during which you prepare for your hunt. First and foremost, get into the best physical shape you can get into. Being fit for your hunt can not only make a difference in the successful taking of your elk, but in your general health as well. Remember that most elk hunting is done at elevations that are much higher than most hunters are accustomed to. Secondly, gather as much information regarding the area you will be hunting as possible. Topo maps are available from several sources and should be considered a must. Check the historical weather information for the area and time period you will be hunting. This information will help when you are choosing the equipment you will require. (Notice that I said require, not need. Improper equipment can result in misery or even death during a winter hunt in the Rocky Mountains).
You should prioritize the equipment and items you will be taking on your hunt into three categories: required, needed, and wanted. If you are using a guide or outfitter, they will provide you with a list of items they expect you to provide, as well as items prohibited on their hunts. Most guides or outfitters will place a weight limit on the items you can bring if you are hunting in a wilderness area. Wilderness areas do not allow mechanical means of transportation. This means everything brought in or out of the hunting camp in carried on horseback or your back.
The first item on your required list will be your rifle, with or without optics, and at least ten rounds of ammunition. The basic rule of thumb for the minimum elk cartridge is the 270 Winchester. Jack O’Conner felt that the 270 Winchester was the best all around cartridge for most North American game, and many elk are taken with this cartridge every year. Most of the people I have hunted with use one of the 30 caliber magnums as their elk cartridge of choice. I am of the Elmer Keith camp and feel the .338 and up performs best on elk.
Remember, you are shooting an animal that is as large as your average horse, weighing six to eight times the weight of your average southeastern whitetail. It has been my observation that the 30 caliber magnums produce unnecessary meat damage even with the best of the premium bullets compared to your standard velocity (2400-2700 fps) 30 caliber or .338 plus cartridges. I prefer large caliber rifles that make large holes on both sides of the animal I am hunting. I killed two of my elk with a 416 Rigby with 300 grain Barnes X bullets, and two with a 45-70 loaded with 425 grain hard cast bullets. All were between 270 and 310 yards. All were one shot “bang flop” kills with very little meat damage. No matter what, the best rifle is the one you are most comfortable with, and that utilizes a cartridge that produces at least 1500 foot pounds of energy at the limit of your shooting range.
Some hunters still utilize iron sights on hunting rifles, but most are using some type of optical sight. Any scope that will hold zero and place the first shot at the point of aim is adequate. With that being said, the best scope you can afford will usually enhance your performance in the field. But remember that with large scopes comes more weight that must be carried at elevations you are not accustomed to. Elk are large animals with a large area of vital organs. My 416 Rigby carried a 1.75 X 6 Leupold scope, and my 45-70 utilized 4 power I.O.R. scope.
Continuing with your required equipment list, you will need a good hunting knife and a means to sharpen it in the field, a sleeping bag rated to at least -20 degrees, any and all medications you are taking, a good fitting pair of boots that you are absolutely sure will not cause blisters on your feet, a tent that will withstand 60 mile an hour winds if you plan to self-guide your hunting trip, and enough water to provide you at least a gallon of water per day and/or a water purifier and water containers. Rounding out the items that are required is a means to start a fire, a map of your hunting area, and basic clothing that can be layered for weather conditions from -20 to 70 degrees, depending on the season and location you are hunting.
The things you will need for your hunting trip will include your food and a means to prepare it if you are on a self-guided hunt, and an ax to cut firewood. Food is only brought if you are using a drop camp. Ice is seldom needed during elk season in the Rocky Mountains. You will need a means to transport you meat home after your hunt. Meat or game bags will be needed to get your meat back to your vehicle. Toilet paper, soap/personal hygiene items, a towel, and a second knife are very useful, as are a compass or GPS unit and binoculars. A battery powered radio for weather updates and to monitor the Buckskin Network is also needed.
What, you do not know about the Buckskin Network? Well, before you leave home, tell your loved ones the state and area you will be hunting and when you will be leaving to return home. Many areas do not have cell phone coverage, no matter what your provider says. If there is an emergency and you need to be contacted while on your hunt, your family or loved ones can call the State Patrol where you are hunting, and they will forward the emergency information to the Buckskin Network. This consists of local radio stations that then broadcast your name, requesting that you contact the nearest State Patrol office as soon as possible. These broadcasts are made at least twice a day. Trust me, the system works. On my last hunting trip to Colorado my name was broadcast. After a two hour hard horseback ride and then forty miles by truck to get a cell phone signal, I was informed that my wife had been in an automobile accident.