You Get What You Pay For Elk Hunt

You Get What You’ve Paid For On A Self-Guided Elk Hunt


By Ron Gayer



Do you have what it takes?


When economic times get tough, hunters want to save a dollar or two on their already expensive habit. A top quality guided elk hunt can run $7000 give or take a few thousand. So the question is: do you have what it takes to plan and execute your own do-it-yourself elk hunt? Will you save thousands of dollars? Or is it folly to attempt an out-of-state elk hunt on your own?


After watching “Elk Chronicles” on TheOutdoor Channel, you and a few hunting buddies decide you want to tackle your on-your-own, first time Colorado elk hunt.


Your hunting background and the kinds of hunts you have participated in should give you a hint as to your chances of filling an elk tag. For example, have any of the hunters participating in this odyssey ever actually seen a live elk in the field? Do you know what good elk habitat looks like? Do any of your hunters know what the elk habits are in the area you plan to hunt? Where do the elk water and feed? What do you know about field dressing and packing out an animal the size on an elk?


You may have 20 years of white tail hunting experience, but elk camp can be just a little more demanding and daunting.


Since you are trying to save money, let’s assume you are going to set up a camp and not hunt out of a motel. But remember that a motel is a warm and dry place to sleep, and a hot shower at the end of the day can be rejuvenating.

Let’s also assume you’re not going to spend money on a gas hog motor home or tow a 5th wheeler. Sure, you’ll have your own self-contained palace on wheels, with a microwave oven, color T.V. and all the comforts of home. Sounds good. Plus setting up camp in the mountains closer to the elk will mean less travel than staying in town at a motel.


But be aware, the second or third season can see mucho snow. In some areas, early snowstorms can dump enough snow to close exit roads. That motor home or trailer might be in the backcountry until spring. Explaining to the motor home rental agency that you think you can get the vehicle back sometime in April, is not a conversation you want to have. You could pay some rancher with a dozer to clear a road and pull you out. That should be cheap!


If your gang is the real do-it-yourself type, you might want to set up a tent camp.


Ah, the classic hunt camp. You will need a good sleeping tent. I would also recommend a cook tent, so you can eat your meals out of the rain and snow. Having as storage tent is also a plus. Keeping your sleeping tent uncluttered and you spare gear dry, makes for a better hunt camp experience.


With the exception of the early archery season, you should think about having a wood-burning stove to heat the tent. This will provide a sanctuary to warm your bones at night and help dry your socks and boots. Once you get cold and damp without a stove, you will stay cold and damp!


One of my favorite parts of the hunt camp experience is the food. That evening meal is when you suck down as much protein and carbohydrates as you can. You replenish all those thousands of calories you burned up pursuing elk in the high country. I recommend each of the hunters in camp agree to take an evening meal and work his or her culinary magic.


For your evening meal, you grill thick steaks and fry up some rosemary potatoes. You sauté some mushrooms with onions in a wine sauce. You cook some homemade biscuits. The camp is amazed and very satisfied.


The next night one of the camp’s less gifted culinary wizards provides his or her offering: beans and wieners, straight out of the can, heated just right. And let’s not forget the delightful fruit cup, also out of the can.


Some hunters just don’t watch the Food Channel.


Let’s assume you have four hunters in your camp. You have five days to hunt and you are very excited. After all you have waited all year, or maybe several years, for the chance to bag your bull elk.


On opening day, one of your buddies takes a nice 4x4. Like a good hunting partner, you team up and help him pack out the bull. That takes two trips in and out with full backpacks. What is it, two miles uphill in both directions? I’ll bet you thought it was by the time you were done.


The next day, after a very short night, another of your hunting buddies harvests a good bull. This one is in the bottom of a dark canyon. It’s the morning of the third day before you are finished retrieving the beast.


Now, after retrieving two elk, neither of them yours, your legs are fried! You couldn’t climb up to the ridge top now even if the new world record elk was standing posing for photos.


On the fourth and fifth day, you consider your sore feet and hunt close to camp. It’s flat, and the walking is easy. However, at that elevation there are no elk to be found. Maybe next year it will be your turn.


How does the do-it-yourself hunt sound so far?


Using an outfitter on an elk hunt will cost you some money. But I do have to admit, I am a big fan of the old adage: “You get what you pay for.”


Many of the services an outfitter provides for you can be duplicated on your own. You can, after all, buy a few wall tents. They run around $500 to $900 per tent. And don’t forget the heater stoves, ground cloths and frames. Those will cost you a “just a little” extra.


Don’t forget to outfit the kitchen. Pans, coffee pot, and food; you get the idea.


You will need to cut a supply of firewood and make sure you also have a water source near by.


One of the most important outfitter options, in my opinion, is the string of saddle and packhorses they provide. An elk hunt without a horse is “like a day without a sunrise.” Now it is true I have suffered through several elk hunts without the benefit of a good horse. Today I am older and wiser.


I have always said: “Elk hunting is an energy management problem. As a hunter, at the start of the hunt, you have a finite amount of walking energy in your body and legs. You can burn it up in two days or make it last longer, but when it’s gone your hunt is effectively over.” A horse can save your legs and your hunt.


As do-it-yourself hunters, you can even have horses delivered to your campsite, complete with all the gear and feed required for the hunt. The Forest Service can provide a list of permitted outfitters who can deliver horses for rent. Your cost should run around $40 to $50 per horse per day. The more horses you rent, the better deal you can make.


However, even with all of the outfitter services a do-it-yourself crew can duplicate “the tents and camp gear, food and drinks, and the livestock and tack”, they can never substitute for the outfitter’s knowledge and experience.


Knowing the lay of the land and its water sources, including the habits of the wildlife in the area, is what makes an outfitted hunt more successful than a do-it-yourself hunt. Guide skills and the intimate knowledge of the thousands of acres you may be hunting, is something you cannot duplicate. As coaches have told me for years: “There is no substitute for experience.”


So, how do you measure success? If you are new to the sport of elk hunting, gaining hunting knowledge each elk season may be more important than filling a tag. Time in the field with your crew, enjoying the outdoors, might be just what you want.


Participating in a guided hunt will:


  • Teach you more about the ways to hunt this big game monarch than you might learn in five years of do-it-yourself hunts
  • Improve your chances of filling your first elk tag
  • Expose you to life in elk camp and tales around the campfire 
  • If you are lucky, you will learn how to field dress and pack out your trophy, by watching an expert do the job


The bottom line is this. You can spend less on a do-it-yourself elk hunt. You can find a good outfitter and go on a fully guided hunt. You just need to define what you will call success. Then hope you will get what you paid for.

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