June 28, 2023
I heard my first bugle a little more than a decade ago on my first elk hunt. Standing in the pitch-dark mountains, a relative who was teaching me the ropes had just sent a locator bugle into the starless unknown. Moments later, a bull replied from a distant ridge. It instantly captured my heart, and I’ve been elk hunting ever since.
In the last decade, I’ve bowhunted elk seven seasons. All were DIY hunts on public land. Until last year, when I got the chance to bowhunt on the White River Mountain Ranch in Hamilton, Colorado. To date, I’ve bow-killed three elk and rifle-killed one. I’ve hunted as many as 25 days and walked a couple of hundred miles on single hunts. I know what it’s like to struggle to find elk and I know what it’s like to be surrounded by elk.
DIY treks and guided hunts have both pros and cons. And while I can offer advice from both sides, it’s ultimately up to the hunter to decide which angle best suits them for their next elk hunt—whether it’s their first or fifteenth.
DIY: The Good and the Bad
I love the freedom that DIY hunts offer. I’m confident in my hunting skills, but I also like the element of surprise. I can pop into this canyon or climb that mountain at my discretion and on my time, then switch spots entirely the following day. I’m not leashed.
But freedom to make decisions isn’t for everyone. If you’re an inexperienced elk hunter—or new to the mountains and navigation in the wilderness—it could greatly hinder your success and jeopardize your safety. If you’re unable to learn from an experienced hunter for the first year on a DIY hunt, seriously consider going guided. The mountains are unforgiving. Finding elk can be challenging, especially if you don’t know what type of terrain and at what elevations to search. And when you do find them, learning how they use the area is another challenge. Further, you’ll do all of the calling, which is fussy business that can take years to understand.
Heck, choosing a state and location is difficult in itself. Until you pick somewhere and go, you have no idea if you’ll even see an elk. There’s a lot of fear associated with a full-on, DIY, public-land elk hunt. Ultimately, you must be able to let your adventurous side overcome fear. If you cannot, then go guided. We’re all wired differently and have different skills. Some of us are self-reliant, and others depend greatly on others. And that’s okay.
Hunting pressure on a public-land elk hunt—especially in OTC units—can be staggering. If you hear a bull bugle, don’t assume he’s all yours. The good thing is that in the expansive National Forests and on BLM lands, there is usually plenty of room to roam. When you encounter high hunting pressure in one vicinity, try to hike deeper or to think more creatively to evade the pressure. It’s tough, but it’s doable.
Further, success rates are very slim on these hunts. Of course, your odds of tagging an elk increase as you acquire experience and build a knowledge base of a specific unit/zone over multiple years. But if you’re a first-timer, don’t go expecting to kill. Instead, go to learn, and if you take an elk—and some first-time elk hunters do—consider it a big bonus.
On a DIY hunt, you’re responsible for all of your own meals and cooking. Preparing food in the backcountry with limited equipment can be difficult. You’ll also need to provide your own shelter and be able to withstand mountain temperatures that range from chilly or frigid at night to sweltering during the day.
Despite the negatives, hunting and eventually succeeding on public land is gratifying. Often, DIY success comes with great effort. In other words, few people regularly stumble into opportunities to bow-kill elk. “Elk” and “easy” don’t belong in the same sentence. And as difficult as elk hunting is, the real work begins when you kill one. Alone or even with assistance, packing out an entire elk is one of the most physically challenging tasks you’ll likely ever assume.
Guided: The Good and the Bad
My two guided elk hunts, with White River Mountain Ranch in Hamilton, Colorado, were terrific and successful. I had successfully hunted elk there with a rifle a few years ago, but before I tell the tale of my 2020 bowhunt, let’s discuss some points to consider when comparing DIY vs. guided elk hunting. Also, it’s worth noting all outfitters aren’t equal.
First, my guide Josh Dickens and I really hit it off and worked well together. While I certainly didn’t call all of the shots, Dickens gave me plenty of latitude to make decisions. Together, we combined our skills and were able to assemble a successful setup on the second morning in the mountains. Having a bunch of experience under my belt from previous elk hunts was a huge plus because even though a guided hunt usually has higher success odds, it’s still elk hunting. Remember my earlier statement about “elk” and “easy” not belonging in the same sentence?
Dickens spends tons of time around elk and also possesses intimate knowledge of the land he guides. Terrain is a huge factor in pulling off a successful archery elk hunt, and he knows the ranch and how elk use it. That makes success so much more reachable. And success or not, you’ll glean so many insights just by hunting with an experienced elk hunter and being around elk. And White River Mountain Ranch has tons of them.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of a guided hunt is the reduced hunting pressure as compared to a DIY public-land hunt. Reputable outfitters balance their number of clients with the acreage available in order to reduce impact. You won’t compete with other hunters for spots to hunt, and you’ll hunt more relaxed elk. Non-pressured private-land elk are quite different animals than their heavily pressured public-land counterparts.
Another plus with guided hunts is that lodging is often provided. If the outfitter has a lodge, you’ll spend your evenings in a comfortable space where you can recharge your batteries after long days afield. Or, on a backcountry hunt, the outfitter typically provides the tent and other camping supplies.
Don’t feel like bringing food and then preparing it? On a fully guided hunt, food is usually provided, as is the preparation. This alleviates the need to purchase specialized camping and cooking gear, plus the headache of transporting it to your camp.
Honestly, there are two downsides to guided hunts. The first is the fee. Guided elk hunts run from $3,000 on the low end up to and well over $10,000, depending on the state, location, accommodations, and bull quality. And while that’s expensive, going with a reputable outfitter substantially increases your odds of success. For example, you might go on three DIY elk hunts before you even get to draw your bow, while your opportunities with a great outfitter could be instantaneous. So if you amortize the cost of three unsuccessful DIY hunts, an outfitted hunt might seem cheap. Of course, it all depends on how you define success.
The other downside is that not all outfitters offer the enjoyable and quality hunting experience that White River Mountain Ranch offered me. Do your research so that you don’t end up with an outfitter who diminishes the entire elk-hunting experience. Also, if you have a DIY heart like mine, you don’t want a guide who takes all the credit if and when you succeed. Guided elk hunting is a team effort, and success should be celebrated as a team, not individually or arrogantly. Josh Dickens at White River Mountain Ranch kept those values in mind during my hunt. He even let me get my hands bloody and do a lot of the butchering.
A Success Story
On my first evening hunting with White River Mountain Ranch, Dickens; my wife, Rebecca; and I worked into more than a dozen elk and heard lots of bugling and cow talk. Some cows wandered within 15 yards. It was encouraging to encounter elk so quickly.
The following morning, we chased bugles for at least a couple of miles, and we finally caught up to a throaty bugler midmorning. We cracked sticks to sound like a revved-up bull as we set up to call, and the bull bugled back. Dickens made only one call when it was evident that the bull was coming. In seconds, I saw brush parting like the Red Sea and drew my bow. When the bull screamed at less than 20 yards and stepped out at 12, I knew immediately he was off-limits. A glance at Dickens confirmed that it was indeed a “trophy” bull. My hunt was specifically for a management bull. What an encounter, though.
That afternoon, we were on lots of bugling bulls, and we even saw a black bear. We also saw a “freak” bull that hadn’t yet rubbed off his velvet. We guessed there was something wrong with him, as he tolerated our presence as we approached other bulls. A cow eventually blew our cover, and the herd we had been trailing bolted.
The next morning, we decoyed and called in a spike bull to eight yards, and then a decent 5x5 approached to 45 yards. He was quartering toward me, but he also looked young, so I held off. We followed bugles all morning and covered some miles. At the edge of a big basin, we heard at least five different bulls bugling. I took the lead with the wind and thermals in mind and hiked uphill. I was sure the elk were heading toward a bedding area, and we had to get there first. Dickens agreed.
Once we’d gained sufficient elevation, we sidehilled toward two bugling bulls, closing to within 150 yards. I nocked an arrow and hunkered down, Dickens was about five yards to my right, and Rebecca was behind me. I broke sticks as Dickens cow called. The bugling ensued almost immediately and was nonstop. Eventually, one of the bulls started closing in, and Dickens whispered that he saw the bull. I spotted the bull, and he bugled and then glunked, a weird noise that sounds like a bugle tube tapping on an open palm. My binocular confirmed that this bull bearing a single brow tine on one side met management status.
I drew quickly and followed him until he lifted his head and paused to look for the cow elk he’d come to romance. At 12 yards and facing me, I settled my top pin where his dark-brown mane met his light-tan chest, then cut the shot loose. My arrow completely disappeared into the bull, and blood immediately expelled from the wound. The bull collapsed less than 40 yards from where he’d been standing, and high fives and big grins all around followed.
We admired the bull, shot pictures, and then butchered his beautiful red meat. Two other guides joined us for the short pack out. Just two days into my hunt, I was on dozens and dozens of elk and punched my tag. The three of us had hiked plenty of miles and certainly earned the opportunity. I’ll fondly remember the experience for the rest of my life, and I wouldn’t hesitate to hunt at White River Mountain Ranch again in the future.
DIY vs. guided is a tough call, but hopefully the points we’ve discussed will make your decision easier as you plan an elk hunt. There’s nothing like bow-killing an elk on public land, but the odds are somewhere around 10 percent or less. It involves lots of work, and it isn’t cheap. You’ll be privileged to hear and see elk, and killing one is just a bonus.
On the other hand, there’s nothing like hunting non-pressured elk that bugle constantly and respond to calls more frequently. Of course, this comes at the cost of a guided hunt, but if you can afford it, it’s a great angle that increases your odds of success tremendously. Plus, you get the added bonus of learning from an experienced elk hunter and encountering more elk. This will serve you incredibly well on future DIY hunts.
Picking the Right Outfitter
By Willie Dvorak | Jim River Guide Service
Searching for an outfitter that boasts “can’t-miss” success rates and huge trophies is a slippery slope. One that can lead you to being fooled by con artists that results in horror stories you definitely want to avoid. The bottom line is finding an outfitter who does business with honesty and integrity. So how do you pick a great outfitter? Here’s what I suggest.
An outfitter might claim 20 years of experience, but if the guide assigned to you is new or inexperienced, you may not be getting the cream of the crop. Experienced guides have tricks up their sleeves that less experienced guys haven’t figured out yet.
Talk to the Outfitter’s Clients
Don’t accept a few cherry-picked references that say the right thing at the right time. Insist on a list of all of his clients from last year. There’s only one reason he wouldn’t readily share that list—and it’s not a good one. Ask every customer: “What one thing about the hunt could have been better?”
Repeat Clients Equal a Quality Experience
Great outfitters have customers who are extremely loyal. Even for expensive hunts like Alaska brown bear, I have several clients who’ve returned multiple times because they love the thrill and the special way I do business. Find an outfitter that attracts that type of clientele and you’ll reap big rewards.
Manage Your Expectations
Ask your outfitter, “What are reasonable expectations?” Effort required, fun, discomfort, and room and board are all part of the experience. Listen for reasonable answers. Keep your ears open for over-promising. One trick outfitters use is to make big promises about what you’ll get to do after you tag out. It leads you into the mindset that tagging out is inevitable.
Some outfitters hunt only their county or drainage or out of the same cabin year after year. Rain, blizzards, heat, and animal movements all fluctuate no matter what the salesman says. What’s his plan to deal with it? Having a solid Plan B—and maybe even a Plan C—can mean you’ll get a fantastic experience with one outfitter while his competitor will only give you excuses. I call it “excuses but no mooses.”