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Prepare and you can elk hunt every year for less than $1,500

Prepare and you can hunt elk every year

Photo credit: Scott Christensen

Originally from the East Coast, for me, the notion of getting out West to hunt the majestic wapiti was always an overwhelming, complicated and expensive dream. However, I am here to tell you that heading out to the Rockies to chase bull elk can easily become an annual event if you have the drive and about $1,500 to allocate to this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Whether you live in Maine, Florida, Texas or anywhere in-between, this article will explain how doable and affordable it is to get out West. Hunting in western states starts with preparation and ends with preparation and involves choosing what state to hunt, hunting districts, spots, financial planning and selecting a good hunting partner. 

Preparation, preparation, preparation

The first step to get out West hunting every year is to pick a state. Selecting the right state involves analyzing the opportunity and financial costs for the tag. In my experience, if you are coming from out-of-state, the greatest advantage is to be able to hunt the same location year after year. To do this, you have to be able to draw the unit annually. A state like Arizona or New Mexico may be known for great trophy elk hunting; however, if your goal is to hunt more than once every three or four years, then you should look elsewhere. A state like Colorado is very nonresident friendly due to the immense amount of over-the-counter (OTC) tags and units available. This allows a hunter to learn the land and be able to compound his experience since he has the opportunity to hunt the same unit annually. Some of the greatest hunting spots are travel corridors or escape sanctuaries that get overlooked; it takes time and experience on the ground to figure this out. It takes days, if not weeks, to be able to hunt a specific area and be able to cross off spots and find elk, so keep your chin up when hunting a new area. 

The decision to hunt a specific state should involve the cost of the tags, the travel distance to the state and the frequency you can draw. Some states offer a tag that is good for multiple seasons; however, if you only have enough time off for one hunt, this may not be an advantage for you.

After you select a state, next, choose what part of the state or what hunting district you will be going into. A great way to do this is by using goHUNT to select units that are either OTC or units that can be drawn with zero points. This same information is available on the individual state's website; however, using goHUNT can save you hours of pouring through data. It also has information on the difficulty of the hunt, pictures and other users’ comments about the unit. After you evaluate all of the units that you can hunt annually, I would suggest going to state’s website and looking for their maps. Most states have elk density maps or maps that show if a unit is under or over the game commission’s objective for elk. I like to pick a unit that is not at the highest density or over objective, but is somewhere in-between. In my experience, doing this has increased my chances of finding elk while reducing the frequency of running into other sportsmen when afield.

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Once you settle on three to four OTC units with decent harvest statistics and a healthy elk population, it’s time to find out more information on each one. The most time consuming part of your research involves using Google Earth, aerial maps, Forest Service maps or any other obtainable information in order to familiarize yourself with the geography and public land. Typically, I locate and mark all trailheads, then find drainages that look like they are multiple miles from the nearest trailheads or seemingly hard to reach.

Once you have a fairly good virtual understanding of the unit, it’s a good idea to call the local Forest Service, game and fish department and game wardens to ask them what they can tell you about your unit. Be sure to write down specific questions that you may have about drainages, trailheads and road information in order to make the best use of your time on the phone. From experience, when talking with area officials, I learned that one of the things that frustrates them the most is when they talk to people who do not know anything about the unit and are looking for hunting spots to be handed out. Being confident and asking the right questions can help you cross off spots that are over hunted or that don’t hold game before you get there. This is a great way to ensure you don’t waste your legs and your precious hunting time finding out the hard way. When on the phone, be sure to use a notepad and have a map open to write important details down and follow along. Make sure to pay attention to who you talk to and, if you call back, ask for the same person or a different person depending on how the first conversation went. After you’ve done your own research and have made a few calls, you should have a good idea of if the unit seems right for you. If it doesn't, then start the process over again. However, if it sounds like a good unit, then commit and plan the next part. 

Once your hunting unit is selected, you need to plan out your hunting days. Typically, for a seven day hunting scenario, I plan on 15 to 20 possible day hunts in different areas all over the unit. This should account for changing plans based upon an excess of other hunters in your spot, you boogering up an area, road closures, weather issues or any other unforeseen circumstances. I use Google Earth or OnX to pin my camps, plan my trailheads and pick glassing or hiking destinations for all of these hunts. If you plan to bivy hunt, then planning routes in and around and out should definitely be on your radar. The goal is to be over-prepared and always have a backup plan for every day in order to get the most out of your hunt. I always expect for my plans to not work out as projected and have a backup plan in hand ready for when it is needed. That way I am always over-prepared.

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Financial planning

Elk camp

Photo credit: Jake Horton

After finding your perfect spot it is time to talk finances. No matter your budget, I believe that elk hunting can be done annually for less than $1,500, especially with a hunting partner or two. For example, let’s say you are a resident in Maine who wants to go hunting out West; a Colorado nonresident license will cost about $700. A trip from Portland, Maine to Denver, Colorado is approximately 2,000 miles each way. If your hunting rig gets approximately 15 miles per gallon and the average price of gas is $2.50, then it will cost about $333 each way. If you were going solo that only leaves you about $150 for food, which could be doable; however, if you add a hunting buddy or two, then your costs go way down. As a part of your financial preparation, decide how many hunting buddies you would need to make your budget work. Each person that you get to hunt with you will be responsible for splitting gas and food costs during the entire trip. Before leaving, or at the last available grocery store, plan on shopping together and splitting the costs for food. In order to be cost effective, you need to plan and bring good coolers for your food. The goal should be to buy food that everyone likes, but that will last, such as canned chili, hotdogs, Manwich, etc. I know that eating this food might not be ideal, but you are there to hunt, not eat five course meals. 

Tip: Don’t plan on buying your food or going out to eat once you are hunting because typically these smaller hunting towns have inflated prices, which will hurt your budget. I would also not suggest hunting with more than four or five people in a camp. More people affects your hunt and, unless you are a super tight-knit group, after seven to ten days you will most likely get sick of people, which is why selecting the correct hunting partners is so crucial. 

Selecting hunting partners

Jake's 2019 elk hunt

Though selecting your hunting partner may sound like an easy task, it should not be taken lightly. I like to consider selecting a hunting partner very much like a friendly interview. You are about to share expenses and seven to 10 days in a camping situation with these individuals. Small things that bother you on day one will drive you crazy by the end of your hunting trip. I select my hunting partners by asking or knowing their commitment level, financial situation and hunting style and drive. You want someone who is just as excited or more excited than you to get out West.

After you see that your prospective partners can commit in advance, then make sure they will be financially able to go. Tell them the projected costs upfront and make sure they are able to swing it. It’s best to get this out of the way months before the trip so there are no last-minute changes and they can prepare financially. Finally, find someone in similar physical shape as you that plans on hunting in a style that meshes with yours. If you plan on bivy hunting, then they need to decide if they are going to bivy or if you are going by yourself and they will hunt from the truck. If you plan on hunting as partners, then make sure that they are on the same page.

Tip: Typically, I plan our camping spots, but let my partners select their hunts with some guidance. The last thing you want is to feel as though someone is freeloading off of you when it’s your first year in the area, too. Picking hunts and glassing points, etc., is part of the adventure, too, and is very rewarding for each hunter.

When thinking of who you would like to go with, it’s important to remember that almost every person who hunts has dreams of elk hunting out West; however, not everyone is going to be the right person for your hunt. If something seems off or your possible partner seems uncommitted, then find a new partner. A week is a long time to spend with the wrong hunting partner and can really ruin your trip. The wrong hunting partner can make a once-in-a-lifetime experience the last time you ever want that experience.

In conculsion

Elk harvest

After you have located a state that works for you, identified multiple spots to hunt within a hunting district, talked to local outdoors officials, planned your finances and selected your hunting partners, you are ready to head out West. If you commit to this process and follow through with it, you will have a successful hunt whether you harvest an elk the first year in an area or not. Every year you can hunt a spot that makes you that much more of an expert in that area and increases your chances of success in that area. Make the commitment today to start preparing for your 2020 elk hunt! If you start the preparation during this winter season, by September, you should be ready for a great chance at elk hunting. Just remember: once you go chasing those majestic wapiti, it will become an addiction to hunt them year after year.

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