Elk NetworkBowhunting Strategies for Public Land

Hunting | February 26, 2018

If you bowhunt, then you’re not one to back away from a challenge. And pursuing hard-hunted elk on public land might be the ultimate test.
I rarely encounter another bowhunter on public property during elk season. I have often heard archers bellyache about congested woods and too many bowhunters lurking through the trees. A few aggressive state bowhunting organizations have even pressured game departments to institute restrictive rules that limit elk tags—especially for nonresidents. But the truth is, a smart and serious bowhunter can always find bulls on public land—even where tags are unlimited and access points are clogged with human predators.
As a matter of fact, I love hunting public-land elk because other hunters tend to concentrate the animals. I use certain tactics that work best on public-land bulls.
The first is fairly obvious. You should study U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps and locate remote areas with ample water, grass and north-facing bedding timber that elk require. If you are new to a particular elk state or general hunting area, it is wise to call game department headquarters and ask advice from a big game biologist. Some general recommendations on elk herd numbers and location might save you from days or weeks of fruitless scouting.
One of the handiest research tools for elk hunters is Google Earth. I usually start my desktop scouting with maps, but nothing compares with actual satellite images of mountains, canyons and streams. Google Earth shows exactly where meadows, timbered slopes, creeks, and ponds are. It also shows major roads and trails.
One of the trickiest parts of bowhunting public-land elk can be staying away from private property. In most states it is the hunter’s responsibility to keep from trespassing without permission. A close look at maps can help, but a better bet is a GPS that tells you where you are at all times. Fence lines are often misplaced in western cattle country, and a GPS loaded with landowner data is the best way to always know where national forest, Bureau of Land Management, or state lands stop and private property begins.
A map study and GPS landowner card also can help you reach public elk hotspots that few bowhunters know exist. The West is dotted with public state trust lands and nearly landlocked chunks of other state or federal land. By carefully weaving between private properties, a dedicated archer can sometimes legally hike to public ground that never gets hunted by others.
For more information on GPS hunting maps, you can go to HuntingGPSMaps.com. In addition to SD cards for your GPS unit, hunting apps are also available for mobile devices like iPhone, iPad and Android. Public land elk research has never been so easy or precise!
Anyone who has hunted public-land elk knows that moon phase and weather alone do not shut the animals up. An average bull will associate fake bugles with slamming pickup doors and crunching Vibram boot soles. Archers who call from their vehicles to locate bulls and charge from ridge to ridge with tinny, too-frequent calls signal instant danger to hard-hunted bulls. Elk that call too much on public land are giant targets, and these critters quickly learn to rut in semi-silence.
Where legal, you can sometimes locate call-shy bulls by bugling at night or during pre-dawn hours. Even hard-hunted elk are vocal in the dark, because they know they are safe. Once you find out where they are, you can go after them during legal hunting hours.
One of the problems with shooting public elk deep in the woods is transporting meat back to a road. I solved this dilemma by lining up a professional meat packer in advance. I have backpacked more 80-pound elk hams and shoulders than I care to remember, and while it can certainly be done, I choose to plan ahead now. In warm September weather, delicious steaks, chops and roasts can spoil incredibly fast—even if you are willing to grunt out five or six loads of elk on your back.
Life member Chuck Adams has written 10 books about bowhunting—including Super Slam, detailing his adventures with all 28 species of North American big game. Have your own strategy? Let us know below.