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Go Close for Public Land Elk Hunting

Why walk past good elk dirt to access ground you “hope” will be just a little bit better?

Go Close for Public Land Elk Hunting

The "Go Deep for Public Land Elk" drum has been beaten too hard. Elk hunters should understand there are great benefits to hunting closer places. (Photo courtesy of Jace Bauserman) 

I’m as much to blame as anyone. For years I beat the “go deeper for elk” drum. Stupid! I was walking by solid elk ground to access areas I hoped would sound like a Primos video. I stumbled into very few of those locales over the years. More often than not, I found myself miles from the truck with no elk to hunt.

I’m not sure if it was age or just the want to spend less time hiking and more time hunting elk, but three years ago, I changed my archery elk approach. My buddies and I were planning our yearly trip to a heavily pressured over-the-counter Colorado unit, and we opted to try something new. I wasn’t the brains of this operation. In fact, I fought it tooth and nail, but my elk hunting partners — both seasoned elk goers — talked me into it. I’m glad they did. The plan allowed us to kill three bulls in 72 hours on public land. The following season — using the same tactics — I harvested another awesome bull on open-to-anyone dirt. Here’s how you can do the same.


It All Starts At Home

I’m a map guy. I love paper maps and digital mapping apps, and you’ll need both. Here’s what you’re going to do. Find the elkiest looking ground in your hunt area that doesn’t require a walk over two miles one way. What are you looking for, exactly? Deep drainages with heavy timber and creeks snaking through them are some of my favorites. When hunting pressured public land, the steeper and thicker, the better. Benches between drainages are also money. A bench is simply a semi-flat area on the mountainside or a grip of dirt that levels out between drainages. Benches often have good feed and solid bedding. Both drainages and benches are very easy to identify on a topographical map.

Go Close for Public Land Elk Hunting
Go back to the basics and look for good water sources, no matter how close they may be to the tail head. (Photo courtesy of Jace Bauserman)

Water sources, especially those found in the timber, are must-mark locations. Elk need to drink regularly, and bulls will wallow in standing water. In addition to water, I like to note grassy meadows surrounded by thick, dense timber. The smaller the meadow, the better, and these meadows shouldn’t be viewed as areas where elk will be out grazing like we see on outdoor television. Public land bulls are different, and after 20 years of elk hunting, I can count the number of bulls I’ve caught lollygagging in open meadows on one hand. However, these meadows are often hot zones during the night, and the timber surrounding them makes great cover for elusive bulls to hide in during daylight hours.

I’ve read a lot about north-facing timber, and I get the theory. Sure, you can mark up a few north-facing slopes, and chances are good elk, especially when temps get hot, elk could be found there. During the rut, however, elk are where you find them. Don’t overlook an elky spot simply because it’s on a south-facing slope.

As you’re looking your hunt area over on a digital app with a good topo spread out on the living room table, start marking the closest trailheads and main access roads to these locations. Your goal is to find no less than 10 — more is better — access points that require a short jaunt into good-looking elk ground. No, I’m not crazy, and yes, this is a good idea. Stay with me. Keep in mind when looking for close-to-trail/road areas, those that require an immediate vertical climb or gnarly descent will detour other hunters.

Time to Hunt

With multiple easy-to-access areas marked, you’ve become a mobile elk hunting unit. You can play the wind and thermals and bounce in and out of places quickly. If you find elk or smoking fresh sign, hunt. If not, bomb back to the truck and head to the next location. As you’re doing this, don’t get laser-focused on your pre-marked map spots. Chances are good you'll see a great-looking elk haunt while driving. Stop the truck and give it a look. When you are mobile and not walking past good elk ground to go deeper in, you’ll be surprised at what you find.

Go Close for Public Land Elk Hunting
Keep your mind open to the possibility that finding elk may be easier than expected. (Photo courtesy of Jace Bauserman)

This was the approach my buddies talked me into three years back. We heard the bull, my buddy, Royle Scrogham, would eventually kill from our camp. We were camped 90 feet off the main road, and Roy killed the bull the following evening less than a mile from camp. We ran into another hunter, but he was lazy and refused to close the distance on the bull. Why? A 1,000-foot vertical climb separated bull and hunter. We climbed and then called the bull up and out of a wallow. Roy shot him at 20 yards.

The following morning, after driving to a marked location off another access road, we made a quick descent, got on a long, flath bench, and got three bulls firing. I could look back down the mountainside and see the truck. I shot my bull in dark, north-facing timber less than a half-mile from the vehicle.

Due to my son’s high school football schedule this past season, I had to hunt a low-odds unit close to home. I marked 11 areas within 40 minutes of my front door. One area had a fresh burn that was very attractive. Elk love burns. Keep that in mind. Every week, I would check a few of my pre-marked spots. On the morning of September 17, 2020, three bulls lit up the morning as I made my way across an open sage patch toward the mouth of a rugged canyon. Two hours later, I was standing over a solid public-land bull.

Go Close for Public Land Elk Hunting
With numerous quick-access spots tucked away in your back pocket, you can hit the elk woods and hunt even when time is limited. (Photo courtesy of Jace Basuerman)

Just Try It

It isn’t rocket science, and it almost sounds too good to be true, but it’s not. So many hunters overlook “close” areas because they can’t wrap their minds around the fact that elk could be there. I was one of those hunters, and it took me a grip of time to see the light. Don’t be me. You and your companions may strike out on the first five areas you go into, but the sixth and seventh may be chock-full of elk. Being mobile means, you can explore more places in your hunt area without going in deep and being pot-committed to a single location for most of your hunt.


Go Close for Public Land Elk Hunting
Give the idea of hunting close another thought before packing in for days in the backcountry, you may be pleasantly surprised. (Photo courtesy of Jace Bauserman) 
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