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DIY Western Elk Hunt – Budget Man-cation

Put Together Your Own Western Elk Hunt. It’s Way Less Expensive Than You Might Think.

Photos by Kenda Lenseigne

If, like many, you’ve daydreamed about hunting in the vast, wild spaces of the American West in pursuit of her largest deer species, then you’ve probably spent an idle moment or two imagining yourself high above an expansive valley, surrounded by aspens. Maybe you’ve done a little online research and discovered firing up Google can be dispiriting, as the first few pages of search results are filled with expensive outfitters hawking their wares. Not all of us can afford seven grand to be chaperoned around for the chance to whack a trophy bull and for many, commercialization of the experience detracts from its innate challenge.

We dropped in on Myles Bush as he was about to take a client on a cow elk hunt and tagged along to glass the area. It's easy to forget that you're looking for game when faced with scenery like this.

We dropped in on Myles Bush as he was about to take a client on a cow elk hunt and tagged along to glass the area. It’s easy to forget that you’re looking for game when faced with scenery like this.

There are a lot of reasons why I hunt. There’s the opportunity to be a full and active participant in nature, rather than just a passive observer. Then there’s the chance to spend time with my tribe around a campfire after the chase, just like my forefathers did. And there’s the possibility of providing my family with the very finest free-range, organic meat. None of these require obsessing over a set of antlers.If you’re willing to look beyond the horn porn played out nightly on various cable outdoor shows, then hunting cow elk becomes your ticket to adventure. I put a trip together for way less than $1,000, and you can too. Here’s how.

Tags

To hunt bull elk as an out-of-state resident you’re usually required to apply for a lottery with limited chances of successfully drawing a tag. How limited? Think 4 percent. This is decidedly not the case for cows, with several states offering over-the-counter tags for females, usually after the main drawing has played out. Managing the cow population is vital to the health of the herd, and in many places there’s way more elk than the habitat can support in hard times. In the event of a severe winter, any excess population slowly starves to death, with individuals becoming so weak that they’re eaten alive by predators. To avoid this, conservation departments try to keep elk numbers at a level that can be supported by the environment in a worst-case scenario. This is where you come in.

A shot of bourbon and our tent feels like a five-star resort. Well, two shots.

A shot of bourbon and our tent feels like a five-star resort. Well, two shots.

In my case, Wyoming Game and Fish department was the recipient of $300, and the paperwork to harvest a cow arrived in the mail a couple of weeks after filling out the online application. While one elk is probably sufficient for most people, you’re entitled to purchase up to two tags if they’re available — fill both and you’re looking at about 400 pounds of meat, more succulent and delicious than beef that is currently retailing at $7 and up per pound. Do the math.

diy-western-elk-hunt-wild-elk

Idaho and Montana have similar programs, so a little research pays dividends. Once you’ve figured out the state in which you’re going to hunt, you’ll then need to narrow down the area to a particular game management unit. Ask around on online forums — while no one is going to give you turn-by-turn directions to their favorite honey hole, some are willing to steer you toward a general area. It’s also very worthwhile calling local game wardens and picking their brains. My hunting partner spent days researching GIS maps to figure out public land boundaries and comparing them to Google Earth images in order to come up with a starting point that contained a good elk habitat. We got lucky right out the gate, but as with most things in life, there are no guarantees. If you strike out the first year, use the opportunity to network on the ground to improve your chances for later.

Money spent on good glass and bullets fills more tags than an expensive rifle. This Howa is more than up to the task.

Money spent on good glass and bullets fills more tags than an expensive rifle. This Howa is more than up to the task.

Amateurs Talk Tactics, Professionals Talk Logistics

Just getting into the boonies can be a big-ticket item, so it pays to enlist the help of friends. Let’s say you’re looking at a 1,000-mile, one-way trip to the area you’ve selected. Assuming you’ll take a truck or SUV, then at 15 miles per gallon you’re looking at around $400 in gas to get there and back. Split amongst three friends, this starts to look like an economical option. Don’t feel like spending three days cooped up in a tin box sharing fart jokes? Start planning now and you’ve got nine months to accumulate air miles. Check which airlines are offering bonus deals on a new credit card, then use this for mundane purchases throughout the year and pay it off every month — before too long you’ll have racked up enough credits for a complimentary flight.

This is yours, America. Use it wisely, defend it to the death.

This is yours, America. Use it wisely, defend it to the death.

If you’re a regular reader of RECOIL, you probably have all the accommodation you’ll need. Your tent and sleeping bag are going to seem like a room at the Hilton, and MREs will taste like nectar of the gods after running up and down hills all day. We camped on BLM land loaded with elk sign, and had spectacular views and all the firewood we could gather. For free.

Although we all love to obsess about choosing the best rifle for the job, chances are you already have the right boomstick sitting in the safe. Let’s not forget what we’re trying to achieve here, which should be the humane harvest of a 400-pound animal. Some states have minimum caliber restrictions, but you don’t need a super magnum. Any .308 will punch a cow’s ticket at 300 yards. Keep the range under 200 and 6.8 SPC with premium bullets would do just fine — as with anything, shot placement is key. Of course, you could use the trip to justify a new rifle, just don’t count it toward the overall cost — after all, we’re trying to economize here…

If you have an unhealthy obsession with antlers or believe that no one needs an AR to go hunting, this may well be the wrong magazine for you. We got lucky after long hours of humping over rough terrain and couldn't wish for a better "trophy."

If you have an unhealthy obsession with antlers or believe that no one needs an AR to go hunting, this may well be the wrong magazine for you. We got lucky after long hours of humping over rough terrain and couldn’t wish for a better “trophy.”

Local Knowledge

If you want to increase your odds of putting meat in the freezer after traveling a long distance, you could always enlist the help of a local expert. Myles Bush is a fourth-generation cattle rancher who guides in the fall, once his cows have shipped to market. His operation is based out of the family homestead where guests sleep in the ranch bunkhouse, eat around the kitchen table (mom cooks), and have access to many thousands of acres of privately owned land.

Located near Ten Sleep, Wyoming, he doesn’t advertise, won’t use a broker or agency, and has no website. We didn’t use his services on this trip, but we cracked open a beer at his place, shot the breeze, and can vouch that he’s the real deal. His services will run you $1,500 for three days of chasing elk with a 100-percent success rate.

Boxelder Ranch: (307) 388- 6060

Sautéed Elk Steaks in Cherry Gravy

We asked the proprietor of one of the best guest ranches in the USA for his favorite elk recipe. According to Bob Kaplan of the Red Reflet Ranch, this is always a winner.

Sauté steaks can come from tenderloins, back straps, sirloin, or round steak cuts, as elk as a meat is more like veal than beef. Steaks should be at least ¾-inch thick, trimmed of silverskin. For four adults, use approximately 1 pound of meat — more for big appetites.

Marinade

  • Garlic salt and seasoned pepper sprinkled liberally on side of each piece of meat
  • 1 cup good soy sauce
  • 2 ounces balsamic vinegar
  • ½ cup good red wine

Turn each piece of meat to assure marinade is well distributed and covers all the meat, then after four hours dredge each steak in flour, shaking off excess.

Use olive oil liberally to cover the bottom of a sauté pan, cooking over medium high heat. Don’t crowd the pan. Sear, but don’t burn the steaks. When the top surface bleeds up red juices, turn the steaks. Do not overcook — serve rare to medium rare. Thicker pieces may need a few minutes in a 375-degree oven to bring to medium rare.

Gravy

Put the leftover marinade into a saucepan over a low heat and add a heaping tablespoon of soup base to it. Veal stock is preferred, but beef base will do. Add 4 ounces of water to dilute the soup base, stirring well so the powder or paste is dissolved in the marinade. Add two tablespoons of flour, whisk until smooth. Add one tablespoon of cherry jam and continue to stir while the mixture comes to a low boil. To serve, pour a small amount of gravy over the meat and put the rest of it into a terrine for your guests to mop up with their mashed potatoes.

Gear Essentials

diy-western-elk-hunt-nemo-equipment-astro-insulated-lite-30r-sleeping-pad

Make
Nemo Equipment
Model
Astro Insulated Lite 20R Sleeping Pad
MSRP
$130
URL
www.nemoequipment.com

A good night’s sleep is critical and the Astro Insulated Lite 20R Sleeping Pad from Nemo Equipment helps you achieve it. About the size of two beer cans laid end to end, it takes up little room in
your pack and weighs just over a pound.

diy-western-elk-hunt-ketty-ignite-40f

Make
Kelty
Model
Ignite 40F
MSRP
$250 (Ignite 20)
URL
www.kelty.com

Early season elk hunting at 8,500 feet is a pleasantly temperate affair, with the nighttime mercury in the low 50s. We used Kelty’s Ignite 40F lightweight sleeping bag as our horizontal time accelerator and sawed logs for seven hours. Unfortunately, it’s no longer in production, but the 20-degree version is available.

diy-western-elk-hunt-msr-hubba-hubba

Make
MSR
Model
Hubba Hubba
MSRP
$400
URL
www.cascadedesigns.com

We’ve been using MSR’s Hubba Hubba tent for almost a decade now, and it’s still going strong after trips to Canada’s boreal forest, numerous Adirondack canoe journeys, and horse packing in the Arizona desert. The fly on this version is starting to show signs of age, with the polyurethane coating getting stickier with every time it’s pulled out of the bag, but apart from that it’s stood up well.

diy-western-elk-hunt-jetboil-flash

Make
Jetboil
Model
Flash
MSRP
$100
URL
www.jetboil.com

Meal heating duties were taken care of courtesy of Jetboil’s super-efficient Flash cooking system. If you’re using propane to boil water and you’re not using this, you’re doing it wrong.\

western-elk-hunt-barnes-vor-tx-ttsx-ammunition

Make
Barnes
Model
VOR-TX 150-grain TTSX
MSRP
$40 (box of 20)
URL
www.barnesbullets.com

Elk are huge and our .308 carbine’s stubby 16-inch barrel didn’t develop much velocity — with terminal ballistics at a premium, it pays to use a high-quality bullet. We’re partial to Nosler Accubonds, or the Barnes VOR-TX 150-grain TTSX here, which blew through two ribs, a pair of lungs and an aorta at 164 yards and kept on truckin’ into the hillside, never to be seen again.

diy-western-elk-hunt-crkt-hunt-n-fisch

Make
CRKT
Model
Hunt’n Fisch
MSRP
$100
URL
www.crkt.com

Once the animal is down, the hard work begins. Field dressing, skinning, and quartering was performed with CRKT’s Hunt’n Fisch — its 3-inch blade made short work of our yearling elk and only once needed touching up with a diamond hone.

diy-western-elk-hunt-mystery-ranch-3-day-assault-pack

Make
Mystery Ranch
Model
3 Day Assault Pack
MSRP
$325
URL
www.mysteryranch.com

We could have gotten away with a smaller bag, but Mystery Ranch’s 3 Day Assault Pack is so comfortable that you forget you’re wearing it. It swallowed everything we needed for long days on the hill and could have humped most of our camping gear, too.

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