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"Preparation Equals Success: Piecing together the elk-hunting puzzle," by Rick Langley

This article was published in the January-February 2008 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. Support Arizona's award-winning wildlife magazine — order online.


I grew up in the wildlife mecca of Colorado and became a hunter in the early 1980s, despite the fact that Colorado’s deer and elk herds were, let’s say, “not at their peak” then. Many elk and deer herds had bull-to-cow and buck-to-doe ratios in the single digits, and a person was lucky to see any animal, let alone something with antlers.

My initial outdoor experiences and lack of success were not deterrents; rather, they drove me to explore different hunt opportunities, learn more about my quarry and become a better hunter. Those efforts eventually resulted in success, as I harvested two fine six-point Colorado bulls in three years on over-the-counter hunts on public land.

After moving to Arizona in 1993, I realized I had to relearn the elk-hunting puzzle, the major pieces of which are applying for the permit, getting drawn and preparing to hunt. Here are a few tips to help other hunters like me to prepare for success in the draw and afield.

Go Straight to the Source

Having grown up in Colorado, where I could purchase a tag over the counter and hunt almost anywhere, I found the thought of learning a draw system daunting. Once I figured out how and when to apply for elk permits, I still had to choose which hunts and units to apply for. Arizona’s vast public lands didn’t help narrow my focus, so I had to look at what I wanted to get out of my elk hunt: an excellent chance of killing an elk, a bull elk, a trophy bull, a cow for the freezer, a hunt with friends in a scenic area or simply a hunt that fits into a busy work schedule.

Once I determined my goals, I had to figure how to best accomplish them from the myriad hunt choices listed in the regulation booklet. Of course, I consulted friends and co-workers, but the most valuable resource I discovered (and still use religiously) is the “Hunt Arizona” book published annually by the department. This book is available in a printed version at any department office for $6, or it can be downloaded for free from the department’s Web site, www.azgfd.gov.

“Hunt Arizona” offers a wealth of information, including recent survey data for elk and all other surveyed game animals, recent permit numbers, hunt success, average antler points for harvested bulls and the odds of drawing a permit, just to name a few categories. It also explains in detail how to improve your odds for getting drawn.

I spend hours digesting the information in “Hunt Arizona.” What I find enables me to balance decisions between chancing the extremely slim odds of drawing an early-season bull tag, applying for a limited-opportunity hunt with great odds of drawing a permit (but with far less chance of harvesting an elk) or applying for a cow elk hunt having average odds that should, theoretically, allow me to draw a permit at least once every three or four years.

By comparing the data in the book, a hunter can develop reasonable expectations of what his or her drawing odds and hunt experience may be like. For example, a November elk hunt with 20 percent hunt success and bulls with an average of four antler points is not going to be the same as a September hunt during the rut when bulls are bugling regularly, hunt success is 90 percent and harvested bulls average six antler points. Of course, odds of drawing a permit for the November hunt are 18 percent, compared to the September hunt with draw odds of 1 percent or less.

Know the Objectives

Another useful thing to know when applying for that coveted elk tag is the department’s management objective for that unit. The hunt regulations and hunt draw information booklets are your best sources for this information.

The regulations and booklets list “limited opportunity” hunts separately from the other hunts. Prospective hunters should understand that these hunts typically are held in nontraditional elk habitat and that, while there are elk present in these areas, they may be very difficult to locate and harvest. These hunts are designed to give hunters the opportunity to assist the department in reducing the elk population or maintaining it at low numbers in areas where elk are not beneficial to the habitat they occupy.

Game Management Units 1, 9, 10 and 23 are managed under “alternative management” guidelines, which means the bull-to-cow ratio can be managed for up to 40 bulls per 100 cows. This means the presence of more bulls in all age classes and a higher likelihood of encountering a mature bull — and mature bulls usually mean larger antler sizes. All units have varying potential for producing high-quality bulls, but this also can be affected in both the short- and long-term by genetics, nutrition and drought.

The department manages the remainder of elk units in Arizona under “standard management” guidelines where the desired bull-to-cow ratio is 15 to 25 bulls per 100 cows. This translates to fewer mature bulls. These ratios are liberal compared to those used by most other Western states, but they provide Arizona hunters with incredible hunt success on both bull and cow elk and opportunities at bulls with tremendous antlers. Many standard management units, and even the limited opportunity hunts, can and do produce exceptional animals.

Cow elk permit numbers are driven primarily by habitat conditions, which are evaluated annually to help wildlife managers determine whether elk herd sizes need to be reduced, stabilized at current levels or allowed to increase. In units where elk numbers need to be reduced, hunters will find higher numbers of permits or more hunts throughout the fall. In units with stabilized or increasing populations, hunters may see permit numbers cut back from year to year, but the end result is more elk and more elk-hunting opportunity down the road.

Cast a Wide Net

Additional, valuable information on a unit can be found on the department’s Web site under “Where to Hunt” in the “Hunting and Fishing” link. These descriptions list habitat types, elk ranges, precipitation and average temperature by month, towns and other resources in the unit. Local wildlife managers update descriptions annually. They are designed to give hunters general guidance on where to start looking for elk, but they don’t give hunters specific elk locations from year to year.

Many hunting-related Web sites offer chat rooms where hunters can converse with other hunters and possibly find someone with experience in their chosen unit who will give tips and advice on areas, tactics and conditions.

Wildlife conservation organizations such as the Arizona Elk Society and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation sponsor annual elk-hunter clinics in the late summer and early fall with informative speakers and seminars to help improve knowledge and skills. Department representatives from regional offices attend these seminars and can give information or get the hunter in touch with a local wildlife manager.

Most hunting magazines advise hunters to call the local biologist or wildlife manager to get detailed hunt unit information. Game and Fish Department employees sometimes are overwhelmed with phone calls after draw results come out. All try to respond quickly to requests for information on recent survey results and current conditions or elk concentrations, but they can’t be expected to know “exact locations of record-book bulls,” or that “secret spot” that hasn’t been found by anybody else. When calling these folks, please be reasonable in your expectations.

Use Scouting, Hunting and Guiding Services

Here’s maybe the most valuable tip I can give anyone preparing for an elk hunt. While a couple of phone calls can get a hunter started in the right direction, they cannot replace the on-the-ground experience of scouting. This means learning your hunt unit and the habits of the elk that live in it by exploring, observing and applying what you learn as often as you can.

Given the demands on your time and how difficult it can be to spend time off in the field scouting, there are other ways to help you prepare. One method is map-scouting with either computer mapping programs or paper topographical maps. You can identify roads that access particular areas; look for springs, water tanks and saddles on ridges that may funnel elk movements; identify roadless areas where elk may seek refuge after the opening-day deluge of activity; and note north- or south-facing ridges where elk may bed based on temperature or wind.

Also, hunting services have recently cropped up that do the scouting for the hunter and report back with maps and observations of elk, but the service comes for a fee. The next step, of course, is to hire a guide. Arizona has numerous guide services and many are successful at putting clients in front of an elk. It is good practice to check references to ensure that any guide you consider is properly licensed, permitted and insured.

Get Ready to Handle Success

I am not an elk expert, but in approximately 25 years of elk hunting, 15-plus years of wildlife management work in three different states and several years of game processing, I have learned the importance of preparing for the possibility that you will kill an elk.

Before going hunting, every elk hunter must know how to turn a carcass into some of the best meat one can eat. This means being prepared to handle an animal that may weigh as much as 800 pounds, remove it from the field and properly care for it given the temperature extremes we encounter in Arizona.

One of the most important skills a hunter can learn is how to quarter an animal without a saw. Numerous videos and articles have come out recently on the “gutless quartering” method and I would encourage all big game hunters to learn this technique.

To care for meat properly, one must have good knives (yes, more than one), a way to sharpen them in the field and high-quality game bags to protect your meat from insects and dirt. The more effort you make in the care of your meat, the better the meat will taste. If you bring a dirty carcass to a game processor, you may get dirty steaks; they can’t work miracles. With a little preparation and some learned skills, caring for an elk from the field to the freezer does not have to be an overwhelming and exhausting process.

This article was published in the January-February 2008 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. To subscribe or give a gift, order online.

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