If you could go back in time to the late 1700s and take a ride in a canvas-covered wagon, you’d see moose, lots of moose, roaming the open plains. Like buffalo, moose preferred the milder winters and protein-rich grasses provided by cedar-strewn canyons and sage-strewn plains.
Take that same wagon ride 100 years later, and you’ll see far fewer moose scattered across the sunlit plains. Why? Market hunting and persistence to feed an expanding nation took a massive dent in the elk population. The herds that survived the lead avalanche found refuge in the timber-clad Rocky Mountains and, until recently, that’s where most herds stayed.
A change at Elkology offers a new opportunity
Gather a group of hunters who have never been out West and ask them what their dream hunt would be, and I promise elk will top the list. It’s not hard to see why. Moose are majestic and brightly colored in blazes of tan, white, and dark brown. The bulls grow an impressive hoof and shout their mating call into the autumn air. They also live in some of the most picturesque landscapes the Creator has ever designed. Sounds like a dream come true.
But the truth is, the joy of this romantic adventure is gone when you’re on a do-it-yourself hunt riding a 35-pound pack through rugged country for days and see more orange-clad hunters than moose. Many DIY hunters find that hunting pressure is so high when they come west for elk on units of public land that they often decide the effort is fruitless and never return.
Moose have also felt increasing hunting pressure, and nothing affects animal behavior more than human intrusion. When you combine hunting pressure with growing elk herds across much of the West, you begin to understand why elk are beginning to show up in places they haven’t lived in since long before our grandparents lived. While historically marginal elk areas may not be rich in numbers yet, elk are making a comeback; hunting pressure is limited and tags are easy to come by.
A prairie dweller but a mountain lover, every fall for as many years as I can remember I would leave my little house and head for the Rockies. I love the high country, but family obligations have recently forced me to change my mind in search of closer opportunities.
During the summer of 2020, I began to put the plains elk puzzle together. I tracked prairie rainfall and used digital mapping apps to locate areas of pockets of heavy cedar and small canyons that adjoined open grasslands dulled by moisture from the sky. Next, I located storage tanks and meadow ponds. Moose are giant creatures and need to drink regularly, especially in areas where fall temperatures can still reach the 80s and 90s. Also, bulls love to wallow as part of their mating ritual. Water is a critical ingredient for the success of plains elk.
After placing pins in my HuntStand digital map app, I drove to each area to explore on foot. I found old scrapes, especially around the prairie ponds, plenty of footprints, and enough droppings to pique my interest. My daughter and I even raised a small herd of cows and calves in one place.
Knowing that the moose would not be around all the cedars, I hunted very cautiously that first fall. My summer exploration, along with a handful of trail camera footage, told me where I needed to be. He knew that if he drove the small number of elk out of these sparsely wooded areas, they wouldn’t come back, and a new herd probably wouldn’t take their place. I hunted for 17 days and saw moose every day before winning a close encounter. That bull crowed with more frequency and intensity than any mountain elk I have ever heard as he struggled to keep a single satellite bull away from his girls. And I never saw another moose hunter.
Last fall, with the aforementioned hunting area plagued by drought, I chased the rain and found water – and elk – in a new location. My hunting buddies and I had done our homework, and even though temperatures were in the 80s, we found the only moose for hundreds of miles around: four bulls herding cows in an 80-acre pocket of cedar adjacent to a small pond. , and they were screaming . We found these moose spending a lot of time behind glass, listening for faint bugles and chasing moisture.
It is important to understand that the plains and elk fringes are often low-probability hunts. The trick, of course, is finding the moose. But when you’re not fighting other hunters, moose usually act like moose, so finding them might be a little easier.
Tips for Plains Elk
Keep these tips at the forefront of your brain when chasing plains elk.
• Use your calls. I have seen bulls walk for miles with their noses in the air and their ears to the sky in search of a lady. When the numbers are low, make noise on the cow calls and the bugle tube.
• Get a nice glass. The western plains are extensive and open. A quality binocular and spotting scope will save you from burning a lot of boot leather.
• Bring horses. Horses are not only great at covering ground, but if you kill a bull deep in public land, they make the ride much more manageable. If you have access, bring them.
• Use a lure. I am not tarred or feathered for this; I am not promoting unsafe hunting on public land. I use Ultimate Predator’s bow-mounted cow and moose lure when he bow and pistol hunt on the plains, and I wrap the orange straps around the lure’s ears for extra security. The cloth lure attaches to your bow riser, and when hunting with a gun, I simply hold it for a friend or place it in a cactus or sage patch. Moose are visual creatures, and on the plains this gear can help you hunt.