By Scott Olmsted, American Hunter
The one regret I have about our pastime is sometimes a hunt ends too soon. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind it when luck shines and somebody gets to sleep late—especially if it’s me. But after spending months dreaming about elk hunting, it seems like a fella ought to leave elk country with his fill of Western sunrises and sunsets, his nose stuffed with the scent of sage and his ears ringing from bugles by bulls in rut. If he does everything right, and if he’s lucky, he also leaves with the stench of such a bull on his knife, gloves and trousers. The sights and scents and sounds fill his dreams for another year, or maybe more, until he can again find time and money to travel west and hunt the great wapiti.
Today, after many elk hunts and a handful of bulls to show for it—including a whopper—I have but two goals whenever I head west: To “see a big-un” and to get my fill of elk country.
Accomplishing the former isn’t always possible, and I know that, so I am satisfied just to get the opportunity to hunt what I consider North America’s greatest game. Remember, not long ago elk were scarce. Today, their numbers are sufficient in the West to produce opportunities to buy tags across the counter, to hunt units managed for the greatest opportunity for hunter success or to hunt limited-entry areas for fabulous trophies (if one is lucky enough to draw a tag). Elk are even hunted in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Arkansas and other states east of the Mississippi, where they historically roamed (though opportunities in such places are limited).
Now, how one traverses elk country varies depending on your physical condition, or your guide’s methods; horses or pickups are used, but invariably shoe leather and one’s ability to pick it up and put it down comes into play. Regardless where you go, it’s a rare sight indeed to see a whopper in your scope. We all may have dreams of pack trains plodding into the Rockies, of canvas tents and campfires and giant racks with whale tails strapped to panniers on return trips, but huge elk don’t grow on trees.
The latter goal: That’s up to me. So long as the hunt lasts, I soak in the scenery of elk country. I feel gypped if I don’t get my fill.
Roughly 90,000 elk roam New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. The U.S. Forest Service manages almost 40 percent of the land there; the Bureau of Land Management runs more than 10 percent; Native American tribes own 13.8 percent; and about 30 percent is privately held. This quilt provides unique opportunity for hunters with a variety of dreams and incomes, because it’s believed that up to 56 percent of the elk in New Mexico use public land. New Mexico Game and Fish manages different game units for different goals. Some units are managed for trophy hunting; they usually have few elk but fabulous opportunities to see a whopper. But many units are managed for hunter success; they hold many elk but not necessarily giant bulls. The management philosophy ensures even do-it-yourselfers have reasonable chances at seeing bulls on national forest lands.
But no matter how you cut it, your best odds usually lie on private land. Land owners know this. In bad years when cattle merely pay the bills, elk hunting can be the difference between breaking even and making a profit. The economic impact to rural communities from private landowners selling bull tags is estimated to be $34 million in New Mexico. Public-land hunters pump even more money into local restaurants, motels, gas marts and meat processors.
Next, the ranch