Elk hunting is many different things to different people. I killed my first bull—a dandy 6x6 scoring almost 330 Boone and Crockett Club points—in the late 1970s on my first guided hunting trip after horsebacking 22 miles into Idaho's Selway Bitterroot Wilderness Area.
Since then I've made scads of elk hunts, ranging from do-it-yourself backpack torture tests to a couple of very plush, fancy lodge-based trips. One time I even traveled halfway around the world to Mongolia to shoot the Maral Stag, which is really a Rocky Mountain elk. That trip was pretty wild.
Through the years I've watched the face of elk hunting change. Today the best hunting opportunities are found on private land. Sure, there are still a wad of elk killed on public land by do-it-yourself hunters, but overall their success rates are low and the chances of shooting a mature bull with eye-popping antlers are slim. (Did you know that overall success rates on free-ranging elk hunts on public land is below 25 percent—often way below—in all Western states?) It's not unheard of for hunters to go many seasons without even seeing a good bull, much less get a crack at one.
For the hunter who has limited resources and might make only one or two elk hunts in their lifetime, rather than buck the odds I often recommend they save their money for a few years and go on one top-quality private land hunt. Here, odds are they'll have a better chance at a good bull, plus they'll see lots of elk, learn a lot about the animals' habits and even more about how to hunt them.
After getting that monkey off their back, and if they want to keep elking on their own on public land, they'll have a leg up and can take a young bull or fat cow for the freezer knowing they already have their trophy set of antlers on the wall.
While there are all kinds of excellent and highly-publicized private land trophy elk hunts out there, the ones that take place on some of the Southwest's Apache Indian reservations are often overlooked. One reason is these hunts are so good the tribes don't need to advertise to fill the available spaces. Three Apache elk hunts stand out, with something for nearly every wallet size available.
BIG MONEY, BIG REWARDS
If you have the money and want the chance to shoot a monster bull, an elk hunt on Arizona's White Mountain Apache Reservation would be the hunt of choice. The area has arguably the finest free-ranging trophy elk in North America, where a truckload of record-book bulls—several scoring more than 400 B&C points—have been taken through the years.
These hunts aren't cheap, however. Prices are $15,000, plus a $3,000 trophy fee for a bull that nets a green score in camp of either 375 B&C typical or 385 B&C non-typical. A "management bull" hunt—defined as hunting for "mature 5x5s (no scoring maximum or minimum) and palmated or deformed bulls"—costs $5,000.
But don't lick your chops just yet. Almost 90 percent of all White Mountain trophy elk hunt packages are booked by returning clients, and there's a waiting list that's presently closed to new names as the tribe continues to work through those who have been on the list for several years. More information is available at (602) 338-4385.
On Arizona's San Carlos Apache Reservation, the cost is $25,000 for top-end trophy elk hunts in the Dry Lake and Hilltop units, and $3,000 for Malay Gap archery-only elk hunts, where trophy bulls can be found, but the odds of killing one aren't great.
In 2004-05, only 6 tags were issued to non-tribal members for the Dry Lake and Hilltop hunts, and 10 tags issued to non-tribal members for the Malay Gap hunts. There are legitimate B&C bulls on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, with a couple of bulls scoring more than 400 B&C points taken in recent years. More information is available at (928) 475-2343.
BEST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK
Northern New Mexico's Jicarilla Apache Reservation offers something a bit different. Here, top-end bulls will score about 340 B&C, but the place is crawling with 5x6 and 6x6 bulls scoring between 275 and 310 B&C points—and these are dandy trophy elk in anyone's book. I saw this firsthand on a hunt in October 2004, where I killed a big 5x6 with a rifle that green-scored 323 B&C. It was the 23rd mature bull I had seen—after just 11/2 days of hunting!
In 2004 the Jicarilla offered four different early elk hunts to non-tribal members on its 850,000-acre reservation. The late-September archery hunt costs $4,750. The first any-weapon hunt tags run $6,250, the second any-weapon hunt tags $5,250 and the third any-weapon tags $4,750. You must also hire a tribal member as a guide on your hunt, with guide fees varying from $500-$1,200 for a 5-day hunt.
Compared to many high-quality guided private ranch hunts in New Mexico—where just the landowner tag alone can cost between $2,500-$4,500, plus the cost of the guided hunt—Jicarilla hunts are a great value. Success on the archery hunts usually runs about 90 percent, "but everyone who can hunt even a little bit will have a shot opportunity at a mature bull," my guide, Lionel Velarde, told me during my hunt there.
Gun hunts have virtually 100 percent success rates, with my third-season hunt typical in that all five in our hunting party shot bulls that green-scored between 310 and 323 B&C points—in just 2 days! Tags are issued through a draw, with applications due in May. More information is available at (505) 759-3255.