Growing up in the Midwest, I dared not even dream of being an elk hunter. It seemed too far from a reality. However, I moved west thirty years ago, and I now chase elk four to six times per year. I have learned that any hunter, no matter their budget or distance from elk grounds, can hunt elk every year.
The goal of this article is simple – I want to help you realize that you can hunt elk every year. And if your permission slips from work and home allows for it, maybe even hunt elk a couple times each year!
My approach is pretty simple. First, I look at states I can count on as my “Safety Net” in the event I don’t draw a limited entry tag. I call these states my “Safety Nets” because I cannot imagine a year without an elk hunt and these states insure I can do just that. Secondly, I look to states that allow me to apply for one of those highly coveted “glory tags”.
My “Safety Net” options are Colorado, Idaho, and Montana. All three of those states have allowed for “over-the-counter” purchases of a bull elk tag in past years. For Colorado, the OTC option has been around for a long time. This option encompasses 90+ units, covers much of the west slope, and is available for the second and third rifle seasons that run for nine days in late October and early November, respectively.
For many years, Idaho and Montana have not sold out on their quotas for non-resident elk tags. The net result is that any non-resident can pick up one of those elk tags after the limited entry draws are complete in other states. The good news is that Idaho and Montana give you options that include both archery and rifle in many units, whereas in Colorado you must choose one or the other. With archery season being mostly a September affair, it puts the elk in the high country during that season and makes them accessible to the public land hunter. Once bad weather and the pressure of rifles season hits, many of those elk move to lower country where private land can make elk inaccessible to many.
The distance you must travel to hunt those three states is something I cannot help you plan for. That is simply a function of where life and work have taken you.
Budgets are another aspect of hunting elk that will guide your decision. I’ve written often of how you can hunt these states for not much more than $100 per month. The tag cost will be your largest outlay. Other costs can be trimmed by sharing travel, camping, packing meals from home, and other exercises in frugality.
A Colorado tag will hit your wallet for $619. Idaho requires $417 for an elk tag, in addition to a $155 non-refundable non-resident hunting license. In Montana, you will have to budget a bit better, with the cost of an elk tag being $846. If you are a resident of those states, your fee will be less than a latte each week. With those prices and that many tags available, not hunting elk each year is really more a function of personal choice than finances or tag availability.
An elk tag without a place to hunt though, is hardly a tag at all. Thankfully, all of these states have millions of acres of public land – lands that are rich with elk. Colorado has 23 million acres of Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands to hunt, shown as green and yellow, respectively, if looking at a surface ownership map. Strangely, Colorado State Trust Lands are not open to hunting unless the hunting access is leased by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Those State Trust Lands will show up as blue on your map and only a small percentage is leased by CPW.
Idaho has 53 million acres of public hunting lands when you count Federal and State lands. Idaho also has a private land access program called ‘Access YES!’ that opens another 300,000 acres of private lands to big game hunters. The immensity of public lands in Idaho is more than any elk hunter could ever hope to explore, especially since Idaho allows open hunting on their State Trust Lands.
Montana has 31 million acres of public lands – Federal and State – to hunt. Part of your license fees include an access fee that allows you to hunt all State Trust Lands in Montana. In addition to the Federal and State Lands, Montana has a program called ‘Block Management’, whereby the Fish Wildlife and Park agency pays private landowners to open their lands to public hunting. Though elk ground is harder to find in the Block Management Program, you can find 7 million additional acres of open hunting ground in that program.
I often laugh when people try to convince me that these “every year” states are just opportunity states. I suspect these folks don’t spend as much time chasing elk in these states as me and my close elk hunting friends. If so, they would realize how many great elk come from these states and how many of them are coming from units you can hunt with general and OTC tags.
If there is one allure to elk hunting, it is that commitment and physical investment can be an equalizer. Terrain and distance often allow elk to get old. This is merely a function of my first rule of elk hunting: “If hunters like to go there, elk don’t.” If you are the energetic type who accepts a five-mile mountain hike as part of public land elk hunting, you’ve set your expectations properly and the older class bulls will more likely wear your tag than the person who prefers a short walk from the trailhead.
With your “Safety Net” in place, you can count on elk hunting this year and every year. If your budget allows for it, you can also look at some of the other options I call “Great” or “Glory” tags. See my chart to the left. You will notice that Colorado, Idaho, and Montana are included in the harder to draw options because they have some great limited entry options, in addition to providing great OTC options.
In future articles, I will cover the “Every 5 Years” and the “Once in a Generation” options. In large part, those two categories are a function of budgets. With western states relying heavily on non-resident funding, the cost to apply in those other states can ramp up the cash demands, with nothing to show for your investment other than maybe a sack full of bonus or preference points. Given how much I like to hunt elk, I have adjusted my budgets to accommodate those stats that are hard to draw. For the sake of this article, I have not covered those options, as first and foremost, I want you to hunt elk every year.
An elk tag has your name on it. Go buy it! Go fill it!