SCOUTING REPORT: There is No Off-Season
by Mark Kayser
No elk this year? Maybe it’s time to start making amends.
Winter. It’s a time to unwind in front of the fireplace, reflect on past hunts and watch gridiron play-offs on the tele. Screech … Hold on! Winter may be a time to relax after a strenuous and possibly trying hunting season, but it’s no time to turn your back on the hunt. Quite the contrary.
For a successful season next fall and to help banish the winter doldrums, begin preparing for elk season now as the frost griddles the windowpanes. Want to keep yourself on track to next fall and your next bull? Give these tips a try:
Get In Shape
We can’t emphasize it enough. Elk country is unforgiving, and in most cases elk retire to the nastiest parcels of their zip code on opening day. Unless you’re paying thousands to access unharrassed, private-land herds, expect to burn massive calories to reach these elk. I lost
15 pounds this past fall in less than two weeks chasing elk with my bow.
You’ll up your odds by staying in shape, and that means year-round conditioning (after a doctor’s recommendation). If you think you’re in shape, consider this statistic. More than one-third of Americans are obese. That’s one in three of you reading this. Do you need a test to determine your status? Find a tall building and start walking up the steps. It takes 100 stories of building to climb approximately 1,000 feet. And oftentimes it takes 2,000 feet or more of vertical climbing to reach good elk country. Keep climbing!
Scout, Research Winter Range
Do you have a backup plan in case of snow? From late September on, weather can affect elk movement, mostly via a downward trek. Research and scout traditional winter areas, and you’ll have a game plan in place when weather puts elk on the move.
Agency biologists monitor winter herds and know the location of annual winter elk hangouts. Give them a call. Locals can provide insight on where
they watch herds of bulls and cows gathering through a visit at any hometown diner or sporting goods store.
If you live in elk country, seek out the areas where elk winter, and study the surrounding terrain and all possible migration routes elk might use to access this hotspot. Combine it with a skiing vacation if you don’t live near the hunting location. Your effort will help you better understand where the elk will travel and where you can arrange a meeting.
Vet an Outfitter
Choosing a reputable outfitter requires legwork, and winter’s diminished daylight hours offer the perfect opportunity. Begin with a phone call, and if you end the call with a good feeling continue the query at a later time with more extensive questioning. Pertinent questions to ask include the following: Are you a registered outfitter? How long have you been in business? Do you live nearby? What is the elk density and what do you expect for sightings? What’s your average success? How many hunters do you guide annually and have in camp weekly? What are the accommodations, and do I need to bring any extra gear? How physically demanding is the hunt? What’s not included in the price such as caping and taxidermy preparation? What are my odds of landing a permit?
Don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as needed to achieve your comfort zone. Remember, they are selling you
Lastly, ask for a list of clients from the previous year and don’t settle for one or two. You should call six to 10 clients as references and tailor the above questions for additional information from references before booking a hunt.
Do you need new gear?
Shop now. You can oftentimes find great deals throughout the winter. Holiday sales kick off the shopping season, and stores overstocked with last year’s gear push sales to clear inventory, especially after the first of the year.
Don’t overlook local outlets either. Small sporting goods stores and pawn shops may provide you the perfect rifle, bow, optics or other gear to fit your needs and budget. Once you land a new product, get out and test it. The more time you spend breaking in and/or practicing with new gear now, the less you’ll need to think about it next fall when you have bigger things on your mind.
Have you looked at your truck lately? Take an afternoon to clean it out. Fast food wrappers, mud-caked floor mats and that nasty coffee stain on your dash may not hurt your future hunt, but they don’t help the resale value of your vehicle. Now think back the past few seasons and recount what was missing from your truck that affected your hunt.
Do your slippers have more tread than your tires? Do you have tire chains and bungees to secure them tightly? Do you have a tow strap, clevis and jumper cables? Is there a collection of tools behind your seat in case of needed repairs? Have you thought about a winch investment or even a cable winch puller? Do you have a first aid kit and survival gear in your truck? Catalog and update your truck needs. Finally, check out the maintenance log of your vehicle. If it needs a mechanic’s care, make an appointment well before hunting season.
Don’t Miss a Deadline
Yes, it may already be time to apply for an elk license. My home state of Wyoming requires nonresidents to apply by January 31. Research state application deadlines. Be sure you understand the sometimes maddeningly complicated ins and outs of application procedures and put critical dates on your calendar. If you can’t stand to sift through the regs, look into the use of an application service. Businesses like Cabela’s Trophy Application and Guide Service prepare applications, meet deadlines and even front money to get the job done.
Even if you don’t have time to hunt elk this coming season you still may want to purchase preference or bonus points to boost your odds for a future hunt. In short, don’t miss a season by missing a deadline.
Set up Your Weapon
Cool winter temperatures provide ideal conditions to prepare a rifle or bow for the coming season. Why? Rifle barrels cool quickly to mimic the first shot out of a cold barrel, and all shooting ranges experience less traffic in winter. It’s never too early to properly swap out a new riflescope or tune new arrows.
Hastily locking down a new scope without lapping rings or using a torque wrench can lead to headaches later. The same can be said of adding a new bow sight or testing a variety of broadheads. If you leave those chores to the last minute you may run out of time trying to find the answer to errant shots and questionable groups. Take a few winter afternoons and keep acquainted with your weapon of choice. Your accuracy will be maintained leading to higher success in coming years.
Brush up on State Law
Is it too blustery to be outside? Cozy up to the fireplace with a good book, and by that I mean state laws, regulations and licensing options in the hunting location of choice. It never hurts to brush up on laws affecting your pursuits. Archery requirements can change from state to state along with minimum caliber and bullet stipulations. Other things to note include hunter orange laws. In Wyoming I only need to wear a blaze orange hat, but in Montana I have to don 400 square inches of fluorescent orange, likely in the form of a vest.
If you want a set of trophy antlers above your fireplace you can also look up the odds for drawing that license. Plus, it never hurts to look deeper for freezer fodder. Some states have areas where you can easily secure a cow tag for backup success if antlers evade you.
Advertise Your Intentions
The Internet offers you an advertising world at your fingertips and local newspapers still provide a similar service via the classifieds. Advertisements, forums, listings, swap sites and the like offer areas to post your search for hunting land. Some elk areas are characterized by a scarcity of public land, but that doesn’t mean it’s off limits. You can advertise in location-specific regions the willingness to pay a trespass fee for hunting access if you can’t land it for free.
If you don’t want to pay hard cash, consider posting a listing to swap whitetail, turkey, upland game or waterfowl hunts or fishing trips in trade for elk access. I have a friend who trades pheasant hunting opportunities in South Dakota for elk hunting assistance in Arizona. Never
Coordinate Your Camp
Remember how you hastily dropped camp and tossed it in the back of your hunting rig during that snowstorm? Now is the time to get that tent out and dry it in your basement before it molds.
It’s also the time to wash those bacon-stained pans, the crusted coffee pot and restock your supplies for next season. Think back and recall anything missing from your camp collection. Do you have extra mantles for your lantern? Is the scrub pad worn out from dishwashing? Did your buddy destroy one of your camp chairs?
A comfortable camp
provides you refuge and an environment to re-energize for the next day’s hunt. Don’t overlook any creature comforts due to lack of preparation.
After hunting season, I enjoy a day on the couch as much as anyone. But those times will be all the more relaxing if you use a few of those winter days to prime for next season elk success.
Mark Kayser lives in Sheridan, Wyoming, with his wife, two kids, some saddle horses, a border collie and a few cats. He is a frequent contributor to Bugle.