5 Places to Find Elk in Pressured Easy-to-Access Areas

Do You Hunt These Spots?

By
The Blind Spots

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1 | The Blind Spots

Moving away from familiar ground posed the daunting task of learning new territory from scratch. Though I often felt I was wandering blindly, I was also getting into elk regularly. But as often as not, my efforts were being ruined by assorted grouse hunters, wood cutters and weekend warriors stalking or calling the same elk. Initially, I unsurprisingly viewed all those roads negatively. Soon, I came to see them as a net positive, as they actually help me isolate undisturbed elk.

This is pretty straightforward. I found elk by seeking spots on maps free of roads. In country replete with roads, it was almost too easy. Though wandering blindly, I was seeing bulls regularly in country I’d never set foot in. All those roads were actually concentrating elk and making them easier to find.

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The Non-Logging Areas

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2 | The Non-Logging Areas

In logging country, it’s common to arrive at one of these spots the following year to discover stump fields. So, I then began correlating general land-status/road maps to detailed topographical plats and seeking spots less attractive to timber harvest. When topography, or sheer trucking expenses become extreme, you can generally count on those areas remaining untouched.

Find these locations in super remote locations that are well away from lumber yards and other timber-hungry outlets. Focus on the spots so far out that loggers dare not harvest.

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The Roadless Spots

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3 | The Roadless Spots

One of my most reliable elk hotspots — a place where I tagged my biggest Idaho bull to date — is formed by the confluence of major creeks. I call it The Abyss, as total elevation loss from the truck — 3 miles to the rim and into the bottom — nears 3,000 vertical feet. The first 1,500 feet are uninviting cliff, rockslides and sun-parched hillsides. As you descend, you come upon loamy benches and long finger ridges hanging above the creeks. I’ve never seen even a sign of another hunter in that country after a decade of hunting. It’s a road-free oasis in a desert of new and defunct logging roads. Access is daunting. Climbing out is a nightmare.

I’ve also encountered such conditions in better elk ground of the Southwest. Despite less abundant access, rolling or relatively open mesa country makes hiking easy. There’s no leg-burning altitude to conquer or difficult terrain to traverse. Elk gravitate to this habitat — until the hunting starts — because grass is abundant. But there are places in easy country where mesas drop into broken badlands, deep canyons separate adjoining mesas or high ridges discourage access to prime canyon heads. Even in well-roaded areas, such places exist because there is nothing there to justify the expense of building roads, or terrain is simply too rugged.

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The Overlooked Spots

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4 | The Overlooked Spots

After living in Idaho awhile, I also discovered there are easily accessible areas others simply overlook. Elk hunters, in particular, commonly suffer from end-of-the-road syndrome. This ailment means to even consider a piece of elk habitat worthy they must drive until a road completely plays out. This also means they whisk right past productive ground.

I live well out of town where farmland and big-woods forest meet, but near paved highways. During elk season, the main gravel artery splitting the unit becomes a hive of hurried traffic. In this setting, I regularly find elk by walking out my backdoor, hunting farmland edges in relatively civilized landscape.

In another instance, I found abundant elk in and around a popular state park (hunting is legal) attracting tourists who visit a gorgeous set of waterfalls. The area includes pea-gravel trails, point-of-interest signs, observation decks and benches. No one bothers elk there. The only negative aspect is dealing with nature-lovers’ scorn while packing elk quarters out on the convenient trail system.

It’s as often habitat itself that turns other hunters away. Fringe habitat, like farmland, rocky foothills or cactus desert doesn’t fit the classic elk-habitat stereotype, populations are generally more thinly distributed, but you’ll typically have these places to yourself. I’ve witnessed some of my biggest bulls in such places.

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The Thronged Spots

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5 | The Thronged Spots

When escaping the masses proves impossible, a reality on much of the Idaho ground I regularly bowhunt, elk use thick vegetation to stay out of sight. Clear-cuts attract hunters, because we want to see, but hard-hunted elk learn to view them as killing fields.

There’s a massive ridge system I hunt frequently, not because it’s difficult to access or overlooked, but because the place is always filthy with elk. The mini mountain range was logged extensively in the 1960s, so some sort of road, from tight ATV trails (defunct logging skids) to improved gravel (accessing new cuts) appears every 300 yards up and down every square mile of those hills and ridges. Those who hunt there invariably sit wallows (low odds in an area this well watered) or traipse up and down the roads blowing bugles. I once approached the area like that, until one too many ATVs arrived to scatter bulls responding to calls.

One morning I arrived at 3 a.m. to beat the crowds, following a talkative herd well before daylight, hanging back but keeping them well within hearing distance. Shortly after daylight, another pair of hunters arrived; playing cow calls and bugles incessantly, and badly. The herd quickly drifted into nasty-thick cover. Feeling I had a lot invested, I wasn’t going to give up easily. I crawled into the clutching, noisy cover and continued ghosting the herd, eventually mingling while offering soft calf mews and squeally spike bugles. I passed shots at several cows and spikes before hearing snapping brush moving my way. I nocked an arrow, seeing antlers coming my, shooting that heavy-bodied bull at 7 yards.

Of course, this type of cover causes more frustrations than triumphs — like the time I had a 330 bull at 9 yards for 20 minutes but couldn’t find a hole to thread the needle through. I needed one more step and when he took it and I attempted to hit anchor but the situation blew up instantly. Luck is important in these scenarios. I would be hard pressed to recount the times I’ve bugled bulls into 20-25 yards without receiving a shot. Savvy bulls might feel safe in that thick stuff, yet they will generally meet you only halfway. Before that 330 bull arrived at 9 yards, for instance, I’d had him at 25 yards for 45 minutes. He closed the gap only because his cow grew frantic to escape his clutches and led the way. And still it didn’t happen. That’s elk hunting. But this is the habitat they live in. And you have to hunt in it.

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Photo Credit: Patrick Meitin

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For most of my adult life, I lived in New Mexico’s fabled Gila region, where I also spent 23 years outfitting and guiding elk hunters. I bowhunted those Gila units myself well before they attracted the attention of globe-trotting trophy seekers, way back when archery tags were unlimited though an application required. Predictably, with the Gila’s soaring popularity came license quotas, and soon enough, steep draw odds. I’m hugely grateful to have witnessed the Gila’s best days, to have arrowed a handful of truly monstrous bulls. But after 15 years without drawing an archery tag, seeing the region’s units turned into a rich-man’s game via suspect landowner-tag and outfitter-quota systems, and most of all, witnessing a conspicuous slip in trophy quality, I pulled up stakes and moved to Idaho.

Here I found a place where I’m able to bowhunt elk every season. Elk licenses are offered over the counter on a quota, archery tags nearly always left over in many units. I’ve had to adjust trophy quality perspectives considerably, but hunting average bulls is much more fun than not hunting at all.

But such guarantees come with harsh realities. Idaho Fish & Game biologists are put in the unenviable position of attempting to balance carrying capacity somewhere between ideal (to satisfy hunters) and total annihilation (to placate ranching/farming interests), with the environmentalists’ wolves tossed in just for fun. Compounding the difficulties is an economy fueled largely by timber extraction. This isn’t the actual problem (elk can’t eat mature trees) but clear-cuts create access that never really goes away. Northern Idaho forests, in particular, are essentially tree farms and once roads are constructed that investment is naturally left in place until the next harvest 60 years in the future. Clear-cut country, even after regrowth, is a maze of interconnected roads welcoming the curse of ATV traffic. In the Gila, access was always the challenge. In northern Idaho too much access is your nemesis.

This isn’t meant as a whine-fest, but an illustration of how Idaho elk — and many regions with similar conditions — are hunted relentlessly.

Hunting areas where elk tags are super abundant and hunting pressure is intense can prove somewhat frustrating. You will have opportunities blown by competing hunters, be forced to work twice as hard as the next guy for success — or maybe just smarter — and bulls are likely to wear much smaller antlers. But highly challenging hunting every year, to my mind, is superior to world-class public-lands hunting every decade. It’s still elk hunting after all, with all the spine-tingling bugling, awe-inspiring landscape and thrilling sights of North America’s most majestic game animal. Seek the path less traveled or dive right in for success on easy-access bulls.