Hunting elk without antlers on public land: why and how

“Can we roast some meat on a stick over the fire?” I looked at my daughter, her nose red, her gloves, pants, and boots covered in snow. I smiled.

“You can bet! Light a fire right there, next to that area of ​​oak trees. The fire would help warm our hands while we skinned and butchered the moose cow she had just killed. Once the meat was safely hung on the oaks, we skewered small pieces onto long green sticks and huddled by the fire, grilling the steaming meat to perfection. A pinch of salt from my packet made it delicious. I watched Cheyenne eat, I looked at the sky full of stars and I felt satisfaction.

Several hours earlier, we’d gotten in my old Dodge and pointed the hood toward the mountains, knowing that if we could leave moose tracks in the snow, we’d have a great chance of filling out the Cheyenne antlerless tag. It had snowed all night and most of the morning, so any footprints he found would be smoky. And that’s just what happened. A sizable herd had crossed the road, cutting a path through the snow like a D9 caterpillar. There was only an hour of daylight left, so we hurried up the trail, breath rising in clouds through the frigid mountain air. The sun set over the far ridge, turning the remaining clouds a wild variety of red, pink, and orange. A small valley lay just ahead, and my instincts told me that the moose would be there, filling their bellies for the cold night ahead. As usual, my gut was right.

Huntress walking into the trees at sunset

Several elk were foraging along a copse of oak trees, 315 yards away and barely visible through a path through the aspen trees. Cheyenne sat down in the snow, propped her rifle on my vertical pack, and put up a perfect shot through a broadside cow. As we approached, our boots cutting twin furrows through the calf-deep powder snow, she asked if we could roast some meat over the fire.

Scorching meat on a stick over a fire

Why hunt moose without antlers?

Heading into the wilderness, hunting spectacular stream-cut mountains and capturing a large six-pointed moose is a dream of many, if not most, red-blooded American hunters. It’s a worthy dream, and one worth pursuing. But it’s getting harder to get good bull elk tags, guided hunts are getting more expensive, and access is getting harder to come by.

A good cow and elk tag, on the other hand, usually only takes a year or two to draw, and in some cases they are available without a prescription. These hunts often take place in the same spectacular locations as bull hunts, and believe me; it is much easier to find and harvest a good moose cow than a six-pointed bull. The meat tastes as good or even better. The only thing you don’t take home from a hunt without antlers is, well, a pair of antlers. But think about it; hunting cow moose will give you great experience and “practice” of moose hunting. When it’s time to go out in search of that big bull, you’ll feel much more prepared.

Examining the tracks of a herd of moose in the snow.

Antlerless Tactics

Cow and moose hunts usually take place at the end of the season. I like that, because it means the weather will be cool or even cold, which is great for caring for meat. It also means you have a chance of snow.

Tracking elk in the snow is a time-honored method of filling in tags, and it works especially well for hunting antlerless wapiti. They usually gather in large herds this time of year and leave behind a huge, easy-to-follow sign. Cut fresh tracks from one of these herds, and your chance to fill out a tag becomes very, very good. Don’t follow old, melted moose tracks. He’s too far behind them and will probably run out of daylight before he catches up with them. Instead, look for crisp, fresh tracks that tell you the moose aren’t far away.

Just follow the tracks and keep an eye out for moose. Try to gauge the mood of the pack by your sign; Are they traveling, leaving a straight and well-trodden path to the horizon? Better move fast so it catches up with you. Are they wandering from bush to bush, feeding and hungry? Slow down and try to place them ahead. Are they wandering aimlessly, leaving droppings and urine everywhere? Proceed very carefully; they are probably lying nearby. Obviously these are somewhat time dependent; expect the moose to lie down during midday, feed in the morning and evening, and travel any time they please.

Moose glazing on a rock pile

Once you see the pack, be very careful not to scare them off. If they’re already scared off, don’t worry too much, thanks to the snow you’ll probably catch them again. Prepare quickly when they leave; they will often stop and stare for a moment, giving you a chance to shoot.

If the pack hasn’t been disturbed, take your time. It is an amazing experience just to see moose. If you need to close the distance, approach carefully, being careful with the wind. Try to pick a dry, fat cow to shoot, and when the time is right, carefully shoot through its vitals.

A herd of moose grazes in a meadow.

My other favorite method of hunting antlerless elk is to spot and stalk. As mentioned above, herds of wintering elk can be huge – I’ve seen herds of hundreds of animals. (Of course, that’s not always the case, and I’ve also hunted small groups of cows.) Looking from a good vantage point can be a very effective way to find moose, especially during the early morning and late evening hours. Snow on the ground is great, because the dark-bodied moose stand out and are very easy to spot. And don’t ignore the footprints; if you see a wide path of distant moose tracks in the snow, you can switch modes and go tracking.

Distant herds of cow elk can often be seen from roads or highways. This is useful when hunting during very cold weather or when hunting with a youngster. Feel free to drive and glass, moving from one viewpoint to the next.

Notching a label by the fire.

Once you spot a pack, grab your gear, survey a route and memorize a few landmarks, and start stalking. Use all available coverage and keep the wind in your favor. Get close to a good shooting range, find a stable field position, and release a good cow. Now build a fire to warm your hands while you skin, quarter and hang the meat. Next, find a straight green stick. String up a small piece of meat, sprinkle it with a little salt from its packet, and cozy up by the fire. You have earned it.