Access Your Elk Country
by Randy Newberg
As hunting pressure ratchets up on readily accessible public land, it pays to think outside the topo map. Get creative, do your homework and you can have great elk hunting for nothing more than time, sweat and boot leather. Here’s how.
Sometimes public land is not easily accessible. There may only be a long walk on a thin strip of public land leading through miles of private property. In other cases, the public land may not be accessible at all, being bordered by private property on all sides. I ran into such an obstacle once, and to get around it. I rented a helicopter to access prime BLM land that was completely surrounded by private land. The owner did not grant me access through his place, and I wasn’t going to let a very good limited-entry bull tag go to waste. I shot a great bull the third evening, just in time for the ride home the next morning.
I know that this kind of transportation is not feasible for everyone. I went to these great lengths to prove a point—namely that public land is our land, accessible to us all. By being creative and diligent in accessing that land, I pull more tags, which means more opportunities at bigger animals.
Most access, though, doesn’t require a helicopter. Most public land access is easy, cheap and there for the taking. All it takes is some time for research, a few tricks I learned over the years, and sometimes a bit of hard work—all of which are within the means and talent of every elk hunter.
Taking the time to read a map and understanding what the map says is important. Since event paid professionals can skip the basics sometimes, a quick review of the map will provide the foundation you need to build on.
Tough Access, Easy Tags
Knowing where you are is essential to getting into lesser-known public hidey holes. You cannot cross private land for purposes of accessing public lands, unless you have permission from the landowner. Each state has different trespassing laws, and in many states private landowners are not required to post their land. It is always the responsibility of hunters to know their location.
With that in mind, consider how land ownership affects our choices even before we put a boot in elk country. Look at the drawing odds of any limited-entry unit in the West and you find two factors that reduce your drawing odds: quality of game and abundance of public land. One equation that is constant in the world of limited-entry elk units is abundant public land equals lower draw odds. I scour the draw odds published by each state searching for the best odds, knowing a scarcity of easily accessed hunting land means improved tag chances. My strategy pays off as I draw more tags, hunt more often and get chances at nice old bulls, thanks to less hunting pressure.
The allure of units with easy access to public lands and a high-concentration of animals is appealing, but waiting twenty years to get that isn’t. For those that want to hunt often, being creative and industrious often produces opportunity where others see trouble. Units that present higher challenges are applied for less, often rewarding the ambitious hunter with a tag. Take Wyoming for example. Wyoming Game and Fish identifies units with difficult access by highlighting the unit along with an asterisk. That is where I apply. I find the parcels of public land, mixed among or next to private land. Many times, it requires a pretty long hike up some nasty slopes, or being relegated to some of the less attractive areas. But, I get tags every two or three years, and I am hunting units with great quality.
Tenderizing Tough Access
Once you do pull a tag with “tough” access, here are some tools for navigating the mosaic of public and private land in these areas.
State access programs such as Montana’s Block Management, Idaho’s Access Yes!, and others will allow public hunting on enrolled private lands. I hunt some of these properties every year with great results. I find the biggest walk-in areas I can. Then, walk to the far back of those areas where they adjoin private lands. Expect to see little competition and quality game. Bring your backpack. Odds are you will see game, and a pack will be necessary for hauling your load many miles to your truck.
When searching for private walk-in areas, look for the same thing you hope for on public land—big areas with no motorized travel. The best elk sign you can find is the one that says, “No Motorized Travel Beyond This Point.” Fewer motors and tougher access mean more and bigger elk. It may not rival Newton’s Law of Physics, but on public land Newberg’s Law of Elk is every bit as true—and pretty important for some of us. The best hunting starts where the roads end.
Why Walk When You Can Float?
A canoe, raft, drift boat, or any craft that can navigate rivers is invaluable for some of the West’s best elk hunting. My home state of Montana has the cherished Missouri River Breaks. Life jackets and gunwales are standard fare for many elk hunters there looking to get away from crowds, seeking those public lands where elk have been pushed from the high benches and pressure above. Other less well-known honey holes are out there. Amphibious access is not unique to Montana. Elk and mule deer of Hells Canyon in Oregon, the Flaming Gorge of Wyoming and Utah, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, and the like can be yours via a boat.
Technology’s Gift: GPS Maps
If there is one modern technological miracle, it would have to be GPS land-ownership maps—nothing more than tiny cards that fit into your GPS with preloaded maps of the area you will be hunting. Here’s how it works. A BLM surface map is loaded on the chip you put in your GPS unit. It displays the land ownership of the entire state. Your GPS pointer overlays on top of the surface map data. So long as the surface map data is correct, you know where you are. I don’t leave my truck anymore without my maps and my GPS map chips. Seldom do I promote a specific product or solution, but in this case, I will make an exception. For $99, I get electronic maps that display on my GPS screen, clearly showing land ownership and boundaries, from HuntingGPSmaps.com.
You can go to some internet sources, build your own maps, then download them to your GPS. Call me lazy, but that is time consuming and frustrating for a low-tech guy like me. And half the time I struggle to get the map and my GPS unit to be compatible.
One word of caution with GPS map chips. The map data provided is not accurate to the degree of survey equipment. I have found corner pins that were off by almost 100-feet from the GPS map chip. To get that precision of accuracy, you need to invest a lot more time and money. Give yourself some leeway against private-property lines.
A little secret many people do not take the time to investigate is the access easements held by the public land agencies. They are rarely well advertised. Landowners, especially years ago, would exchange reciprocal access easements with the Forest Service. Some clauses restrict access to foot or horseback travel. And most often, they are not that well indicated on the maps. Call the headquarters of the particular forest you plan to hunt and ask for someone who works with landowners on easements. They should know what you’re talking about. Remember, you will often cross private land, so respect and obey all postings.
I would be remiss not to mention the traditional time-tested method of simply asking private landowners for permission. In today’s world, where leasing and trespass fees have grown in acceptance, handshake access is growing scarce. Asking never hurts. Though rejection may sting, just remember a few things. Landowners are inundated during hunting season. Approach them at decent times of the day. Be polite. Appearances count. If you are denied access, accept it and move on. You never know what they might say next time. Offer to shoot antlerless game. Often, that is the first step to getting invited to shoot bulls and bucks. Consider asking only for access across private property to the adjoining public property, rather than permission to hunt the deeded ground.
People often question how I draw so many tags. Well, that is an easy answer. I apply where others won’t. Navigating those areas and finding access is easier than you think. But don’t expect big neon signs to point the way. For the enterprising hunter who takes pursuit of elk seriously, the options are endless and opportunity awaits.
Randy Newberg is the host of On Your Own Adventures, a TV show about self-guided hunting on public lands, airing on Sportsman Channel. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, and chases elk whenever and wherever the opportunity provides.