Elk Hunting For The Layman - Part I

By T. W. "Tommy" Cornelison

First, let me say that I am not a professional writer, nor do I work in the hunting industry. I am a hunter and a shooter that grew up in the sport and has had the opportunity to hunt several species of North American game from Florida where I was raised to the great Rocky Mountains, home of the American Elk. As for elk hunting, I have tried several of the methods or manners of hunting and have killed four elk to date. This by no means makes me an expert at anything, but I can tell you what has and has not worked for me. The following assumptions were made in this article:

1. Readers will have some degree of hunting experience.

2. Readers will be non-resident hunters for the most part.


What it's all about.

So you have dreamed of hunting the majestic elk. You have spent many an hour watching others hunt and kill elk on your favorite hunting shows. You have spent countless hours reading and re-reading of stories of successful hunts in the many hunting magazines available. The fever is running hot and heavy. You say to yourself, “This year I will kill an elk!” Sorry Charlie, there is a good chance it isn’t going to happen, not unless you are a resident of an elk hunting state and have a brother-in-law or a darn good friend who will take you to their special honey hole. What you have seen on television or read about are hunts that have been planned well ahead of time and promoted by a party with a vested interest in assuring that the hunt results in the killing of an elk. Remember you said this is the year you will kill an elk, not hunt for an elk or try to kill an elk. With that said let us begin.

Elk are plentiful in most western states and can be hunted on private or public land, with or without a guide service, and in pre-established drop camps or camps of your own means. Private land hunts are usually guided hunts unless you are a native to the state and area you are hunting in. Locals or people with local knowledge can gain permission to hunt elk on private land sometimes for self-guided hunts by paying a parking or day pass fee to the property owner. Hunting on public land is usually more conducive to self-guided hunts.

The rules vary from state to state on hunting in wilderness areas. Wyoming, for instance, requires that non-resident hunters be accompanied by a guide or outfitter to hunt in wilderness areas. Camping regulations also vary from state to state based on the bear activity and fire danger within the region. In many areas certified bear proof containers must be utilized for food storage and camping areas are subject to closure without notice due to bear activity.

To kill an elk takes careful planning and preparation. The rules for hunting big game in the western states vary greatly from the rules and regulations for hunting deer east of the Mississippi River or in Texas.

In most of the southeastern states hunting licenses are available over the counter, seasons run continuously for several weeks, and bag limits can be as high as a deer a day. However, regulations for hunting elk, while varying from state to state, are much more restrictive. Most states have quota hunts where you must draw for an elk tag and are limited to one or two tags a year. Applications are only accepted within a specified time period and a non-resident tag will cost somewhere between $345.00 and $1,218.00. Now that reality has started to set in, let us step back and start to look at the requirements for a successful elk hunt.

Unless you have a trusted friend or family member who has filled their elk tag regularly, it is time to get on the Internet. First, you must decide whether you want to hunt a trophy bull or just go elk hunting. If you demand a trophy bull on your first trip, get out your check book. The only way I know of that will virtually guarantee a trophy bull is to either utilize the services of one of the many reputable guides or outfitter services, or to accept a canned/high fence hunt, where you will pay based on the size and score of the bull killed. (This is not a very sporting way to claim a trophy, and if you are after meat, just go to a local ranch and buy and kill beef on the hoof.)

Even if you are not out for a trophy bull, I still highly recommend using a reputable guide or outfitter for your first elk hunt. On a guided hunt, you will have the convenience of someone else providing and preparing the hunting camp and transportation during your hunt. You can choose to either hunt from a lodge setting or a remote camp. You do not have to provide your food or prepare it. You can travel light, with only your clothing, personal hygiene, hunting gear, and maybe your sleeping bag. The area where you will be hunting will have been scouted prior to your hunt. Once you have filled your tag, you will be assisted in preparing your trophy and meat for shipment back to your home. Yes, you will pay for these services, but I guarantee it will be money very well spent.

Now that you have decided on a trophy bull hunt or just an elk hunt, you must choose the state within which you will plan your hunt. Trophy size, success rates, license fees, many other aspects of your hunt will vary from state to state. All of this information is available online. Just enter the state in question and hunting regulations in your favorite search engine and get started. As I said previously, most states require that you draw for your elk tag, and each state has a different application procedure.

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.

First aid supplies are on your needed list and should include a basic first aid kit plus a blood clot kit, a couple of feminine napkins, and an ace bandage. Visit your doctor prior to your hunt and ask him to prescribe you the strongest general antibiotic and pain pills he will give you. If you become sick you are a burden on everyone else on the hunt. If you have a serious injury, the pain medication will be very useful as you walk or ride horseback several miles back to the nearest vehicle. Getting a prescription for Valium or Xanax is not a bad idea, as it can come in very handy if you have to deal with a panicked injury victim.

Other items you may want to take on your hunting trip may include:
Range finder, meat saw, gloves for butchering, day pack, folding chair, playing cards, books or magazines, beverages of choice, camera & film, spare rifle with ammunition.
Now we will get back to the question of whether to utilize a guide or outfitter, or to hunt as a self-guided hunter. Guides and outfitters usually offer three levels of services, and some will also be able to provide licenses and tags. A fully guided one-on-one hunt providing the services mentioned above is the first choice if available and affordable. The guide will be at your side at every moment. They will help you choose your animal, offer advice on shot placement, and tell you when they feel that the shot is not advisable.

Guided hunts that are two to one are usually a little lower in cost to the individual hunter, and can be very rewarding for family members or friends that are hunting together. The downside here is that both hunters must decide who will be the first shooter prior to going into the field, and then live with that decision.

Third type of guided or outfitter hunt is hunting from a drop camp. This is a camp that has been previously set up and maintained by the guide and outfitter. You will be transported to the camp and left for a predetermined amount of time to hunt on your own. You will also be responsible for preparing your own meals and providing your own food. Someone will usually check on you every couple of days. You will be at the mercy of this schedule if you are in a region without cell phone service. Once you have taken your elk, the guide or outfitter will usually provide help in processing the animal in the field and transporting it back to the lodge or base camp for you.

To me this is a very good fit for experienced hunters who wish to utilize their hunting skills without the hassle of having to set up a camp. The down side to this type of hunting is that a drop camp will usually facilitate six to eight hunters. If you and/or your party is not large enough or you do not opt to buy out the total camp for your hunting period, you will find yourself camping and hunting with strangers. Let’s face it, most hunters are the best people on earth, but there is always the chance you could share the camp with Jeffrey Dahmer’s twin brother.

Now we will get to the self-guided hunts. If you are not a resident of the state you will be hunting in, this is the most challenging type of elk hunt. It can also be the most expensive if things are not very well planned. Successful or not, a self-guided hunt can be the adventure of a lifetime. I do not recommend self-guided hunts for a non-resident hunter who will be hunting alone. Besides, it is more enjoyable sharing your experience with family or good friends. A party of three to six well experienced hunters and woodsmen is about perfect in size to provide enough people to share the duties of setting up and maintaining the camp, while still keeping the size to only two tents, one for cooking and one for sleeping.

Remember the items on your required, needed, and want list. All of these items are going to be transported to your campsite. You may camp in a designated camping site (you may be required to in some areas), or you can camp in a remote area closer to where you plan to hunt. You didn’t think you were going to kill your elk stomping around with the other thousand hunters that never get further than a quarter of a mile from the road, did you? Remember, you are here to kill an elk, not just go camping.

Plan to get at least two miles from the nearest place a motorized vehicle can get and you just might have a chance of killing an elk on public land. If you are not hunting in a wilderness area you can transport your camping items directly to your camping area with your truck, jeep, or RTV. If you are hunting in a wilderness area you have three choices. You can haul your pack animals from your home state, you can rent pack animals in the state you are hunting, or if you are Superman you can pack your camp on your back.

If you plan to haul your own animals, remember to have current health certificates before you leave home, and your brand registrations if you live in a state that requires them. Any and all feed taken into public lands must be certified weed free. I usually use alfalfa pellets in 50 pound sacks. They meet the weed free requirement and easily pack two to a side for a 200 pound pack load per horse. There are several ranchers or outfitters in every state that will rent you horses or other animals for riding and/or packing. Most will deliver and pick up their animals at the trailhead where you are parking your vehicles. The cost for this service is $350.00 - $500.00 per animal per week. You will still have to provide feed during your hunt. Sombrero Ranch outside of Meeker, Colorado is one such provider.

If you plan to pack light and carry everything on your backs get the best pack frames and packs you can afford. Forget those two wheeled ladder looking things as a means of transporting your camping items. I have followed several groups into the wilderness that were using these contraptions and all ended up looking like the German Army leaving Russia with more items left on the trail than reaching camp.

In all of my successful hunts I hunted in a self-guided camp of 8 to 12 hunters on each occasion. This, in my opinion, is too many people. We hunted in a remote area of California Park west of Steamboat Spring, Colorado and about ten miles south of the Wyoming state line. We utilized horses to pack in and out of our camp. Each and every hunting trip is an adventure in its own right, a detailed account of one such hunt will follow in Part Two of this article.

I hope you have found this information both helpful and entertaining. If you have any questions I can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected].

Tommy Cornelison was raised on a working ranch in South Florida where his time was spent hunting and working with cattle and horses. He is a General Contractor/ Construction Manager by profession which has allowed him to travel the country, working and hunting. Tommy is an avid hunter, shooter, and reloader and can proudly say he has taken all of his game with his own ammunition for the past forty years. Tommy is now building a custom 6.5 X 47 Lapua with plans for a 338 Norma Magnum to soon follow.