The Western United States and Canada is a land of possibility for big game hunters. Elk, deer and bear roam its forests; antelope its plains; bighorn sheep, cougar and goats its mountains; and moose and caribou its northern reaches.
It's a big chunk of territory, with many species, lots of public land and lots of different regulations, seasons and licensing procedures.
In the Ultimate Guide to Hunting the West, F&H News contributor Andrew McKean clears a trail through the regulations, points out top opportunities for major big game species, and guides you on the path toward your own big game trophy hunt.
The book covers 17 states and provinces from Arizona to the Yukon Territory, and 14 big game species from antelope, deer, bear and elk, to wild sheep.
For every state or province, the book explains 2005 license fees and application procedures, general hunting opportunities, how to work the preference point systems, where to find the best trophy hunts, and other valuable big game information.
On the following pages we've excerpted a small sample of the book. Once your appetite has been whetted, you can purchase your own copy at your local newsstand, or by calling (800) 488-2827.
You can also write us at F&H News, Attn: Hunting the West, P.O. Box 19000, Seattle, WA 98109, and include a payment of $12.99 (includes $3 for shipping and handling).
Washington residents add 8.8 percent sales tax for a total of $13.87. In Canadian dollars, the cost is $14.99 (includes $3 shipping and handling).
The first elk I ever saw in the wild was shredding a cottonwood sapling in the Missouri River Breaks. It was August and I was scouting for mule deer when I encountered the scene, and immediately wondered why a beef cow would have a tree stuck to her head. Then the bull saw my movement.
In the second before he fled, he lifted his head and revealed his immense, spreading crown, shreds of peeling velvet hanging off the beams, and I'm sure he could hear my gasp of recognition. Then the elk laid his antlers on his back and charged off through the cottonwood grove, weaving his way through the tangle without striking a single branch.
You can't encounter an elk without feeling like you've touched something exquisitely wild and grand, and it's great news for Western hunters that those encounters are occurring more and more frequently.
The restoration of elk to the West is one of the great wildlife stories of the last century, and all of us who hunt them need to acknowledge the work of hunters who realized that the disappearance of elk created a gaping hole in the texture of the West.
That Missouri Breaks bull I encountered was a descendent of elk transported from Yellowstone National Park in the early 1950s in ranchers' stock trailers. Similar transplants were made in Colorado, Arizona and Idaho.
Driven to remote enclaves by a combination of habitat alteration and unregulated hunting, elk were nearly killed off a century ago.
Most of us know the story of their salvation, then restoration, across the West.
What the story also tells us is that when they're persecuted, elk will head to the deepest, most rugged country around, a moral that modern elk hunters know too well.
It wasn't always that way. Elk are comfortable in the river bottoms and breaks of prairie streams, and in many places they're re-pioneering this historic range.
Montana, in fact, has recently opened a general elk season in its prairie of the northeastern corner of the state. Dubbed a "unicorn" hunt by some because of the unlikely prospect a hunter might encounter an elk on the treeless, shortgrass prairie, nearly 100 were harvested in the first year of the hunt.
You're much more likely to find elk in timbered mountains, and populations seem to be most stable and abundant in the rugged wilderness backcountry of the interior West.
In the summer and early fall, elk will be high and scattered in subalpine parks and will slowly herd up and filter to lower elevations as snow cloaks the high country.
There are very successful late-season hunts around most of these elk areas for animals that crowd low-elevation winter ranges.
Hunting elk early in the fall is one of the keenest challenges a hunter can accept.
An elk that knows it's being hunted will disappear into the dense, impenetrable forests on the north slopes of mountains. "Black timber," these refuges are called, and you're better off finding another animal than killing a watchful elk that has entered its keep.
But elk will obey their vestigial urge to be in the open, and smart hunters will be ready at sunrise and sunset on the edges of parks and meadows where elk emerge to feed.
These tend to be long shots in poor light, which explains why big calibers such as the .300 Win. Mag, .338 and the bigger short magnums are popular elk cartridges and why scopes with 40 and 50mm objective lenses sit atop them.
There's another tool hunters can employ. Starting in mid-September, bull elk will bugle, or whistle, to locate cows and to challenge other bulls. Hunters who can mimic this rutting song can call bulls into range.
Few states allow rifle hunting during the rut; it's generally but not always an opportunity reserved for bow hunters, and some of the highest-quality hunts are during these bugling seasons.
September rifle hunts include Montana's backcountry units, wilderness units around Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho's River of No Return Wilderness, and special-permit early hunts in many states.
Hunters who participate in these shirtsleeve seasons should bring a bugle and try to call a bull into spitting range.
Later in the season, into October and November when most states hold their general rifle hunts for bulls, elk hunting is a game of stealth and woodsmanship, not long-distance marksmanship.
A good friend of mine hunts Montana elk with an old .45-70 and has never shot a bull at more than 100 yards.
He's notched his tag most years. He accomplishes this feat by using his eyes, his nose and a patient, almost painfully slow gait through the woods, looking ahead for a patch of elk hair or the musty smell of a bull or fresh tracks, and he moves silently.
Elk don't flare from him, and even though he sometimes has to find a shooting lane between tree trunks and branches, he shoots elk in their beds or on their feet, but never when they're moving.
My friend is in good shape, which helps his ability to hunt distant ridges and spend an entire day moving in on a bedded herd. His condition also helps after he's pulled the trigger, a moment of truth most elk hunters face sooner or later.
Packing out as much as 500 pounds of meat and hide will test your gear and your will, and may make you invest in pack stock, a good frame pack or better friends for your next elk hunt.
Biologists identify four species of elk, though there's some disagreement about which are separate species and which are subspecies.
The Rocky Mountain (or Nelson) elk inhabits most of our Rocky Mountain regions and has been translocated to the east where the now-extinct American elk once roamed.
The Manitoban elk occupies northern prairies and woodlands of Canada.
Roosevelt elk live in the Cascade and coastal ranges of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. And the scarce tule elk is making a comeback in California's interior valleys and Sierra foothills.
Trophy elk units
The Rocky Mountain elk, with nearly 700,000 head around the West, is the most abundant and harvested of the species.
It also has the smallest headgear, on average, though it takes a strong-willed hunter to say a mature elk's antlers aren't big enough. In fact, it's these racks that give elk the most passionate advocates in the modern conservation movement.
Game wardens frequently are astonished at the lengths hunters will go to bag legally or otherwise a trophy bull elk. But trophies, a bull over about 320 inches, are a product of limited hunting pressure and rough landscape.
In general-hunt areas, like much of Colorado, it's hard to find a mature bull, and harder to find a trophy.
That's why special-permit areas, where hunting pressure is limited to boost the age structure of bulls, are so popular.
The West's best elk areas generally require a special permit to hunt, and while you might spend half your life applying unsuccessfully, if you draw one of these tags you can be rewarded with the bull of a lifetime.
Here are the best trophy elk units in the West:
White Mountains, Arizona: If you have the money and the motivation, you can forget about luck and hunting ability and simply buy your way into the record books by hunting the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, where bull tags go for upwards of $12,000. But if you want a shot at a blue-collar whopper, apply for one of 500 bull permits in Arizona's Unit 3C and hunt the Apache-Sitreaves National Forest north of the reservation.
The fires of 2002 redistributed some of the herd, but for both early-season bow hunters and later-season rifle hunters the chance at a 400-inch bull is possible once you draw the tag.
Elkhorn Mountains, Montana: The only National Forest district in America where the primary management consideration goes to wildlife, the Elkhorns are located south of Helena. They routinely produce bulls in the 350-class and whoppers pushing 400 inches are possible.
In Hunting District 380 this year, 110 either-sex permits are proposed; more than 5,000 hunters will apply.
Hells Canyon, Idaho: Only 71 permits will be issued in 2005 for Unit 11, a rough piece of country that includes the rim and walls of aptly named Hells Canyon.
Those folks who pull this tag will first cheer their luck, then wonder how they'll hunt elk in this tortured country. But realistic shots at 360-class bulls will somehow motivate them.
Monroe Mountain, Utah: You stand a better chance of winning a Senate seat than drawing one of the 33 rifle permits that were issued in 2005 for this central Utah unit.
The elk herd in this premium, limited-entry unit stands at about 1,400 head, and over the last eight years the average age of a harvested bull has been almost 7 years old.
Gardiner Late Hunt, Montana: This January and February hunt is a shadow of its former glory, but it's still a good shot to shoot a monster bull.
The hunt's intent is to thin numbers of elk from Yellowstone Park's northern herd as they head to winter range just outside the park boundary.
Wolves and bears are doing the job previously given to hunters; this year about 75 either-sex permits will be issued, and if hunters can handle bitter cold and deep snow, they're bound to tag a great bull.
Owens Valley, California: This hunt is one of the few opportunities in the West to harvest a tule elk, one of the remaining subspecies of wapiti.
This valley squeezed between the east slopes of the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley has plenty of public land and over the last 10 years tule elk permit numbers and the average size of the bulls here have been growing.
Harvest nears 100 percent in the various hunting areas, but odds of pulling a permit hover at less than one half of one percent.
Valles Caldera, New Mexico: The former Baca Ranch, this huge chunk of classic pine-forest elk habitat is now in public hands.
It's known as the Valles Caldera National Preserve (Unit 68 for application purposes) and hunting is by special lottery.
There is some concern energy development will fracture habitat and reduce trophy potential, but there is so much land here and so little hunting that Booner bulls will continue to come out of this north-central region.
White Pine County, Nevada: Elk numbers in this eastern Nevada habitat will never be huge, but there is enough country and relatively few hunters so big bulls survive here.
Unit 111 contains primarily public land and, along with Unit 222 just to the south, a reputation for quality bulls.
Early hunting is in high, scattered timber, but for easier hunting for better bulls, wait for the late hunt that runs into mid December.
Murderers Creek, Oregon: Another classic elk unit, this unit includes a huge chunk of the Malheur National Forest. It can be what you want either a casual road hunt or a grueling backcountry trek.
The better bulls require some real work and hunting prowess, and the best heads tend to come out of the west unit.
Wildlife agency: Environment Yukon Fish and Wildlife Branch (867-667-5715) in Whitehorse, YK.
Big game application deadline: June.
General hunting opportunities: Abundant. Most of the province's
non-resident hunting is by general tag, generally available through outfitters or before leaving for hunt areas.
There are some permit hunts for moose, bear, caribou and sheep, but they're reserved for residents.
Permits for grizzlies are allotted to individual outfitters to then sell to their nonresident clients.
2005 hunting license fees: The cost of a basic hunting license is $10 for Yukon residents, $75 for nonresident Canadians and $150 for nonresident aliens (which includes American hunters).
You need to obtain "seals" for each animal you plan to hunt. Costs are $5 for black bear, moose and caribou; $10 for mountain sheep and mountain goats; $25 for grizzly bears; and $50 for bison.
Preference/bonus points: None
Guides and outfitters: All nonresident hunters must be outfitted by a licensed outfitter and accompanied by a licensed guide.
Contact the Yukon Outfitters Association, B4-302 Steele St., Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A2C5; 867-668-4118 for information and a directory of licensed outfitters.
You need to know: Yukon's First Nations have hunting regulations and provisions for members that differ from the provincial regulations. Contact the various nations if you'll be hunting on or near their treaty land.
Trophy units: One of the most important big game resources in the province doesn't occupy a single management unit.
It's the Porcupine caribou herd, comprised of some 130,000 head that roams across the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska.
The Yukon's thinhorn sheep (Stone and Dall's) are among the most renowned in the West for trophy potential. Good spots are the southwestern part of the province, especially east of the St.
Elias and coastal mountain ranges. And moose hunting is very good in the lower elevations in the central and southern portions of the province.
New in '05: No changes
Between immense Alaska-Yukon moose (called Yukon-Alaskan moose up here), trophy thinhorn sheep and some prodigious caribou specimens, the Yukon can offer an Alaska-quality big game trip without the competition.
In fact, many Yukon outfitters cater to serious American hunters who know the trophy potential of the province and are willing to pay for the opportunity to hunt a record-book head.
Other outfitters specialize in more budget trips for hunters of more modest means. You can spend anywhere from $15,000 on a trophy sheep hunt to $7,000 for a week long mountain caribou hunt.
Despite its reputation to the south as a cold, barren province, the Yukon has vast amounts of remote, intact, high-quality big game habitat.
For instance, game managers estimate that about 30 percent of Canada's and about 11 percent of North America's grizzly bear population lives in the Yukon.
The population is estimated at between 6,000 and 7,000 bears.
The Yukon's sheep population is estimated at about 22,000 head, including some 18,000 Dall's sheep, another 1,500 dark-phase Stone sheep and about 2,500 that exhibit colorations of both subspecies.
These intermediate sheep are called Fannin sheep.
The province's caribou herd is split between woodland subspecies, of which an estimated 35,000 live in the province, and another 300,000 barren-ground caribou that summer in the Yukon and migrate elsewhere for the winter.
Material from Fishing & Hunting News
published 24 times a year.
Visit them at www.fishingandhuntingnews.com.