Do You Hunt These Spots?
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.