Bowhunting Public Land Elk: Part 1

By Dan StatonJune 10, 20131 Comment

LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015

There are some impressive elk bowhunters out there. Many simply get it done each season and make it look easy. Some of the more recognizable bowhunters simply do not hunt public ground or with tags that can be purchased over-the-counter.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise, nor is it really the main focus of this piece; but it’s something to keep in mind.  The reality is that most of us do not strike the lottery when it comes to drawing limited entry elk tags and as a result, can only hunt the bulls that dwell on state and federal lands.  Since you probably don’t have access to a private 20,000 acre ranch in Southern Colorado, or an extra 10 Grand to spend on a land-owner tag, you’re going to be competing hard for a public ground trophy bull—-just like me. And although it may only be the start of June, there is plenty of work to be done. So, let’s put together a game plan that will give you the best chance to stock your freezer with plenty of nutritious venison and get your hands on some public land bone come September. Here we go!

Why Public Land

Hunting with a heavy backpack and making every decision on my own has proven to be the most rewarding kind of hunting for me.  Public ground elk hunting means a full quiver, a fine-tuned bow rig, and thousands of public ground acres to hunt.  No cell phone service or wireless Internet connection- that is what September is all about.  It is the only month where my life is free of distraction.  There is only one sound on the mountain uniquely designed by God to transform an old man into a young man a roaring buglOTC 1e.

There is a certain level of adventure, solitude and reward that comes with bowhunting public land elk. 

To me, public ground elk is my ultimate quarry and there’s a few reasons why.  The lure of these government land dwellers is that they’re hunted hard each and every year.  Public ground bulls outwit wolves, bears, harsh winters, and man.  Bowhunters, muzzleloaders, and rifle hunters all take a crack at them.  To harvest an old bull takes some serious considerations and some timely luck as well.  Nothing can touch the feeling of tagging a public ground bull on your own. Over the years I’ve learned a few things about “the chase”. As a result, I offer some fresh intelligence on how to tackle a chore as big as this one.

Go Where Others Won’t

Public ground is accessible by everyone.  This means miles and miles of dirt roads, trails, and backcountry.  To have a chance at success, one must find those tucked away spots that are difficult to access.  The harder to reach, the better the hunting will be!  Some roads have locked gates and allow “walk-in” access only. This is where your scouting should start. Becoming intimately familiar with the country before the season begins is a must.  Start scouting as soon as the high country snow begins to dissipate.  Search and seek new areas that leave behind important clues from previous years.  Discover clusters of last year’s rubs, elk highways, south facing feed, north facing cover, and of course water.  Elk can rut in the same general areas each year if they’re not disturbed by wolves or other hunters.  Once the correct clues are discovered, formulate logistics and strategies that will enable you to access the spot in the fall.
Note the prevailing winds, timing of thermals, and calculate exactly how long it will take you to get to your hunting spot from base camp.  Timing is everything!  Remember, you’ll be riding and or hiking in the dark to get there in September and you cannot afford to be late. 

Nothing can replace hard work and attention to detail when it comes to finding success on public land bulls. Put in the effort and the “punched” tags will come.

Before leaving town to scout, bring printed maps from Google Earth to confirm potential hot spots and hunches.  Write down notes in the field and GPS bull bedrooms and main trails. The final outcome is to have several “hot” spots ready to go by fall.  Make sure to leave behind a proven trail camera on video mode with the largest memory card you can afford, and put some fresh lithium batteries in.  This camera intelligence will come in handy when taking inventory of the area’s hierarchy of monarchs. Now that we are off and running, let’s go more in depth on the behavior of these public ground bulls and which states to pay more attention to.

Game cameras aren’t just for whitetail hunters. Elk hunters can also benefit greatly from these advanced scouting tools.

Getting To Know Your Prey
Public ground bulls are extremely intelligent beings.  You’re not going to kill one unless they make a mistake. These bulls once were inclined to verify uncertainties with intent gazes, now they evacuate into a different zip code over the slightest irritation. You cannot hunt these bulls with outdated and counterproductive tactics.  I believe these recluse animals have to be hunted a little different then what you might see on TV. 


Choosing a good location is the most important step in arrowing a trophy bull. After all, you can’t kill what isn’t there. Find trophy hot spots first, and then formulate your hunting plans. 

How many hunting shows really capture elk hunting away from a private ranch?  A few do, but most are with an outfitter or on private ground.  Each Western state offers different terrain and obstacles. A savvy hunter will do his homework on each state’s public ground opportunities. Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico have continued to emerge as trophy hotspots given your luck in their draws.  The most bone can be found in arid pinion and dry juniper environments, and even at the boundaries of the desert. A Nevada elk tag virtually assures a trophy bull opportunity, but you’ll be working ground comprised of cedar scrub and grimy foothills.


Killing a trophy bull elk with a bow and arrow is a moving experince; one the author enjoys sharing with his family and friends.

Conversely, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho still boast some solid high country opportunity.  The Big Sky state (Montana) has been producing record book bulls for years, but these book entries come from areas east of the Rockies comprised of sloping lowland and river breaks.  The point is that no matter where you bowhunt elk, be willing to hunt where big bulls live; even if that means getting as far off the beaten path as possible. 

Find the inaccessible, downright nasty places to get to where public ground bulls receive less education from hunters. Find the dark canyon or hellish ravine that keeps most bowhunters at bay.  I know sweat equity is your best bet in tipping the odds in your favor.  Now that we’ve clued in on a few specific states out West, next time we will dissect some new information for bowhunting public ground bulls. Until then….

Dan Staton
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