10 Tips for Public Land Elk

Here’s what the author has learned after a lifetime of hunting elk on government ground.

10 Tips for Public Land Elk

We were just barely able to see without headlamps when we left the truck Sept. 14, 2021. The climb of 1,200 vertical feet up the steep, no trails scree slope took us an hour and change, but once on top we hit the elk trail and headed east toward a timber pocket that had been untouched by other hunters so far this season. We’d been up here the prior evening, had a hot bull answer Rick’s single bugle, and were as excited as could be.

We’d been hunting hard in western Montana for 6 days, been in elk every day, had one close encounter with a really good bull that didn’t work out, had a hot spot blown up by other careless hunters, and were here seeking a pocket of elk that had not been scarified.

We reached our spot on the timbered ridge 2 hours after leaving the truck. My buddy Rick Wemple cow called one time, and a bull screamed at us right there! Holy smokes! I hunkered down on my knees in a little clump of trees just off the downwind side of trail, Rick dropped back 50 yards and called, and the bull screamed again, closer now, and in less than 5 minutes there he was, coming down the ridgeline, looking for love. He took his time, bugling, pawing the ground, steam blowing out of his nostrils. When he got to 12 steps — yes, that close — his head momentarily was obscured by the trees and I was able to draw, clear the limbs, and release. The 350-spined Victory Archery VAP tipped with a 125-grain SEVR pasted him in the ribs.

It took 30 minutes for my shaking to stop, and 15 minutes later we found the big-bodied, 4.5-year-old 5x5 piled down the slope up against some big pines.

The author’s 2021 Montana bull was taken on a DIY bowhunt with buddy Rick Wemple, who called it in to 12 steps.
The author’s 2021 Montana bull was taken on a DIY bowhunt with buddy Rick Wemple, who called it in to 12 steps.

40 Years of Public Land Elk Hunting

It was just like the good old days. I shot my first public land bull elk in September, 1978, after horsebacking 22 miles from Victor, Montana, into the Selway Wilderness Area of Idaho. Back then you could rifle hunt during the rut, and my old college roommate and I bugled a pair of bulls up in 2 days, mine a big 6x6 that scored almost 330 Boone & Crockett points. “Heck,” I remember thinking, “this is easy as pie!” Talk about naïve! But I was hooked on elk hunting, and during the ensuing 4-plus decades I have hunted elk extensively with firearms and bows in every state in the West, as well as western Canada. In 1993 I even arrowed two bulls in Mongolia — the first American to do so — where they’re called Altai-Maral stag but really look, and act, like Rocky Mountain elk. I’ve hunted private land, but mostly public land on my own, both solo and with a buddy or two. I say all this so you know that what I am about to say about successfully hunting government ground is based on a lifetime of boots-on-the-ground experience.

Here are 10 tips for upping yours odds on a DIY, public land elk hunt.


1) Pick the Right Partner

I’ve done the solo thing, and love it. Truthfully, though, archery elk hunting is a buddy game, for many reasons, three of which stand out. When calling a bull, having a hunter out front so the caller can draw the unsuspecting bull past him is a huge advantage. Packing elk meat is hard work, especially in the backcountry. And there’s the safety thing. The ideal partner is experienced and knows his stuff, is mentally and physically tough, and can take enough time to give the hunt a realistic chance. Also, your partner has to be as invested in your success and vice versa.

Rick Wemple is the perfect example. An outfitter by trade (www.mtoutfitter.com, see sidebar), he knows his area of Montana like the back of his hand, is as tough as they come, and will never, ever give up. We trust each other, and have each other’s backs. The advantages of having such a partner cannot be overstated.


2) Sweat Equity

Elk hunting in steep, rugged, high-elevation mountain terrain is really hard on a body. Simply stated, your fitness level will determine whether or not you can hunt hard all day for days on end, covering maximum ground, searching for those often-elusive pockets of unpressured elk, then pack the meat back to the truck when you’re successful. You can’t get in “elk shape” in a week, or a month, either. Make fitness part of your lifestyle.

3) Planning

With few exceptions, in most states bull elk tags are issued by drawing. You have to apply early. Even before you draw a tag, research the area from home using state game department statistical resources, internet chat rooms, smartphone hunt apps, magazine articles, and old-school telephone calls to game biologists and others you know who may have previously hunted the area. Is the area hunted hard by others? Have there been big fires recently? New roads opened, old roads closed? Where’s the water? Are there big hayfields nearby that draw elk? Have wolves become a factor? You can’t get too much information about the area.

4) Get Real

Always remember: If it’s legal, it’s a trophy. Public land elk hunting is not the same fantasy world you watch on cable TV or YouTube. There are not big 6x6 bulls everywhere, and if you screw one up, you don’t find another right away, if at all. While I’ve killed some really big public land bulls over the years, I consider the 4.5-year-old 5x5 I killed with Rick in 2021 to be one of my most prized bulls. This is especially true when hunting in areas managed for maximum hunter participation, where few bulls live past a very few years.

5) Make the Shot

Experienced public land bowhunters know that all their hard work will probably produce just one shot opportunity during a week’s hunt. Maybe. When opportunity comes knocking, you have to be able to take advantage of it. That shot will probably be through some brush or trees, and the elk might give you only a second or three to get it together and shoot him before he’s gone. If you’re a bowhunter, practice shooting from your knees with the body contorted. And never forget this: Elk are one of the toughest animals in the world. Hit them wrong — even through just one lung — and your chances of recovery are greatly diminished.

6) Calling

You practice your shooting, right? Then why aren’t you also practicing with your elk calls? Day one on the mountain is not the time to be breaking in a new call, or remembering how to call. Also, heavily pressured bulls get call shy. You have to take the elk’s temperature. I’ve found that often less is more when it comes to calling public land bulls. When I hear a bull bugle, I try to get within a couple hundred yards, or less, of where I think he is before I even think about making a sound.

Longtime elk guide Rick Wemple carries a variety of different calls, and tries them all until he finds the one a particular bull will respond to.
Longtime elk guide Rick Wemple carries a variety of different calls, and tries them all until he finds the one a particular bull will respond to.

7) Pressure Cooker

Hunter pressure = scarified elk. Unless you get well away from easy access — and sometimes, even if you do — odds are, there will be other hunters around. In all likelihood, they will bump the herd, which will shut up, or maybe simply decide to move to another mountain. If the elk are bumped, where will they go? Do you have a second little herd located you can hunt if your primary herd is scarified? This is where your pre-hunt research, knowledge of the country, and fitness level can come into play. If you can hike all day and find more elk to hunt, you’ll leave 90 percent of the other hunters behind.


8) Hidden Pockets

For 3 days Rick and I were in the middle of a little herd that contained some decent-sized bulls living right off a main dirt road. We got close, but no shots. On the weekend, here came a truckload of careless hunters, who bumbled through the woods and chased the elk off the mountain. A Monday morning sweep of the pocket showed us we needed to move on, so we drove to another nearby spot, and boom! — that’s where I killed my bull. It wasn’t a case of a day-long backpack trip into the wilderness, but simply finding an isolated timber bowl that had seen zero hunter pressure. One other note on pockets: In 6 days Rick and I were in the middle of elk constantly, but actually saw only two animals, even though we were often within a hundred yards, or less, of the animals. That’s because we were hunting in the thick stuff, where elk felt most secure. Cat and mouse in thick cover is where it’s at.


9) Wind and Water

Traveling from point A to point B in the elk woods I try to be quiet, but don’t obsess over making some noise hiking (no loud talking, banging of metal, that sort of thing, though.) That’s because, compared to deer, elk are noisy creatures. However, elk use their noses to detect danger like few animals you’ll ever hunt. You have to do whatever it takes to keep the wind right, or the party is instantly over. If you are moving in on elk and feel the wind switch, run if you must to put it in your favor, or leave and come back another time. Also, during the early season, elk need lots of water to drink. Water also helps lush grasses grow that elk like to graze on. During the rut, bulls like to wallow in muddy puddles and pools. Find the water — and especially, small water sources such as springs, seeps and smaller potholes, puddles, and wallows — inside the dark timber, and chances are good you’ll also find fresh elk sign. These are great places set a treestand or erect a brush blind and wait ‘em out.


10) Take Enough Time

Elk hunting is not a weekend game, unless you live in elk country and your house is your camp. Elk are herd animals that live in relatively small pockets on a given mountain, meaning it can take days just to locate the animals. The more time you can spend, the better your chances. I personally like to give myself at least a full week on the mountain, and more if I can swing it.


Final Thoughts

Bowhunting public land elk is about as tough a challenge as any in North America. Nonresident hunting licenses and tags are expensive, with many very hard to draw. If it’s your first time, I actually recommend booking an outfitted hunt; the knowledge and experience gained will cut your learning curve rapidly, increasing future DIY hunting odds exponentially.

There’s nothing like a September sunrise on an elk mountain. Once you experience it, you’ll be hooked for life. Just like I am.


Sidebar: Rick Wemple Outfitting

Rick Wemple, now in his early 60s, is a real mountain man, tough as nails and as woods savvy as any person I have ever hunted with, anywhere. I’ve known Rick since the early 1970s, when he worked for his late father, the legendary Jack Wemple. He’s been guiding in the same area of western Montana since 1970, and also owns and operates Rick Wemple’s School of Guiding & Outfitting, training professional guides and outfitters since 1983. Back in the good old days they also horsebacked into the eastern Idaho wilderness, but today, the horses are gone, and Rick hunts elk primarily on foot, accessing the area from a 4x4 vehicle.

Rick believes in 100 percent fair chase hunting on public land, and his area in Montana’s Bitterroot and Lolo national forests are still full of game — and some very, very tough country. With decades of experience in the same area, he knows where scads of little honey-holes are that the average, everyday public land hunter does not, knowledge that is invaluable. If you can hike, are willing to work hard, have the time, and you’re looking for an affordable outfitted option, check him out at www.mtoutfitter.com.

The author used a 125-grain SEVR expandable head (above) on his 2021 elk hunt. He uses the Spot Hogg Hogg-It 7-pin bowsight (below) for most all his bowhunting these days.
The author used a 125-grain SEVR expandable head (above) on his 2021 elk hunt. He uses the Spot Hogg Hogg-It 7-pin bowsight (below) for most all his bowhunting these days.

Sidebar: Gearing Up

Bowhunting World readers are savvy hunters, and probably already have the basic gear needed for a public land elk hunt — well broken-in mountain boots, layered clothing, packable rain suit, and all that. When hiking all day in the steep mountains, remember that less is more. Carry water, some calories, game care tools, meat bags, toilet paper, smartphone, a little first aid kit, etc. A collapsible hiking pole is a huge help navigating in steep country. A way to strap your bow to your pack so both hands are free when climbing is a big deal, and the Bow Spider system is as good as it gets for this. I like a large-volume day pack for hunting, and have a frame pack at the truck for serious meat packing. Here’s some of what I used on my 2021 Montana hunt:

Photos by Bob Robb


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