RENO, Nev. If the modern hunting world ever compiled a definitive and comprehensive collection of wisdoms and virtues for future generations, noted elk-hunting expert and acclaimed outdoor writer Wayne van Zwoll just might be quoted in the first chapter.
"We're not going down into the hole just to climb out. We're going in there to shoot a big bull."
From his days as an elk-hunting guide to his recent years spent traversing the world in pursuit of big-game animals (most of all elk), van Zwoll said that this mentality the one that keeps hunters from pursuing game into areas that are difficult to access and even more difficult to leave is becoming more and more pervasive in today's hunting culture, an observation echoed by outfitters at the 26th Annual Elk Camp, the yearly convention of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which runs through Sunday.
Sure, everyone says they want to shoot a big elk, but when it gets cold and windy; when the grades get steep, the air gets thin and the miles between here and there are more like war crimes than hikes, how much would you care about the big 6x6 that could be hanging over the fireplace or the thousands of dollars plunked down just for the privilege of such abuse?
Dreams of wealth and fame are seldom accompanied by the realizations of the inherent problems that come with millions of dollars and mass notoriety. The same could be said for elk hunting, where big bulls equal big work.
In the interest of fairness, not all fair-chase elk hunts require such work. There are places where elk are hunted that aren't as harsh. Sometimes a big bull can be harvested in areas adjacent to easily accessible farms. And then there's always dumb luck.
But the quintessential elk hunt in the western United States is going to be a far cry from sitting in an insulated box blind overlooking a food plot in South Texas or driving ridges to spot pronghorn on the plains. Anyone who thinks they can fly into Montana (or any other state) and squeeze in a fair-chase, trophy elk hunt and be back in time for Junior's ballgame are going to be sorely disappointed.
"I think maybe we just don't give fair-chase elk hunting enough credit," said J.B. Klyap, owner of Dome Mountain Outfitters in Montana's Paradise Valley region. "I don't know if it's even something you can do in a week."
Jack Hooker, owner and operator of WTR Outfitters in Ovando, Mont., has spent the last 55 years guiding hunters into the notoriously harsh Bob Marshall Wilderness in search of elk. His hunts utilizing horses to cover the 21 miles to the furthest of his three camps can be quite demanding.
While he and his staff spend most of the year taking care of the chores that need to be done prior to hunting season (stacking wood, hauling hay, etc.), hunters need focus solely on the task at hand. Doing so requires massive amounts of walking steep and uneven terrain and hours of non-stop glassing in uncomfortable and cold positions. D
espite his reputation as an outfitter, the 80-year-old Hooker said that over the last decade or so, his success rates have dipped sharply to 40 percent. But Hooker and his crew can only control so much; the responsibility for success ultimately falls at hunters' feet.
"Times are changing," Hooker said. "Most people, even though they paid money to do it, just don't seem to want to put out the effort to shoot a big bull. Our country is so hard. And the success rates are dropping every year because hunters aren't capable of doing what it takes."
Klyap said that every year, his average client arrives in camp more and more out of shape, unable to exert the energy needed for trophy elk hunting. After a couple of days – unwilling to admit that the mountains have worn them slick the hunters begin to lose their focus: staying up late, sleeping in become the norm as do other things that take time from hunting and lower their chances of success.
To combat this major hurdle in fair-chase trophy elk hunting, van Zwoll maintains a dedicated year-round fitness regimen to ensure that he's physically prepared for any hunt that comes his way. Though he spends many days a year working at a desk and producing copy for one of his many editorial assignments, he starts each day with push ups and sit ups (even in the floor of an elk camp's wall tent) and engages in hour-plus sessions of aerobic activity like running or basketball at least four times a week.
Needless to say, van Zwoll's level of physical fitness will never preclude him from descending into a steep canyon in pursuit of a trophy bull elk.
"Back when I was guiding, I had a hunter tell me that he didn't want to go into a hole after a big bull because it was going to be so much work to get it out," van Zwoll said. "How could someone say 'I put in all that work into finding this elk but now I won't go shoot it'? (Once the elk is down), you have all the time in the world to get it packed out. Sure, it's going to be work, but you don't have to rush. If it's worth time and money that you already have invested into the hunt, why wouldn't you want to go after it regardless of how far back you are."
If claiming a record-book or near-record-book bull elk without a guide is your goal, the odds of success are even longer. In addition to being physically fit (or even more so to ensure that your body can endure the rigors of doing everything yourself), all of the pre-hunt chores, scouting, logistics and safety issues fall squarely on your shoulders.
From selecting an area out of the millions of acres of public lands available throughout the West (more than 5.7 million of those conserved for elk hunting by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation), studying topographic maps, scouting, arriving early to acclimate, hiking into areas or renting/borrowing pack trains and learning to handle the horses/mules, hunting and packing out meat and trophies, the investment of time can make a guided hunt look like an absolute bargain.
"I have friends who do hunts on their own and they take a whole month off," said Klyap. "The hunters who kill bulls especially the ones who kill big bulls year after year take a lot of time in their preparation. Sometimes it's a year-round deal.
"You have to do your scouting and pay some dues if you want to score a big bull especially on your own. Money can get you a big bull if you can afford it, but do-it-yourself, fair-chase hunts take a commitment that most hunters just can't make today."
And still, once you've got all the hard work done, you've got to find the bull of a lifetime.
"Realistically," van Zwoll said, "if you're looking for a 350-class or better bull by yourself on public land, your odds are probably about as good as winning the state lottery."
And it's not just hyperbole from van Zwoll. He said that scoring a big bull on public land in the West is largely about access to areas that have been under state management programs with the sole purpose of producing big bulls. In the most coveted areas, the odds of drawing one of those tags can truly rival lottery odds as hunters from around the world submit their name for a chance at a trophy elk.
While the odds of being drawn are long, the success rates in these areas are generally pretty high, van Zwoll said, with 300- and 350-class bulls not uncommon. But, he warned, anyone expecting to see – much less shoot – a 350-class bull elk is likely to come away disappointed.
"Still, to give yourself a reasonable chance to shoot a big bull on your own," van Zwoll said, "you will either have to hunt managed, private land or get lucky in a draw."
So what do you think? Still want a big bull elk knowing what it will take to make it happen? While dreams of elk with antlers that seemingly stretch from horizon to horizon are what drive many hunters to press on in the face of physical agony and previous failures, Hooker, in his brochure, shuns the obsession with inches of bone in favor of a different perspective – one that emphasizes an appreciation for beautiful surroundings, fine friends, the satisfaction of hard work and the excitement and adventure that fuels a lifetime of stories.
"Part of any big-game hunt is the anticipation and getting ready. The taking of big game is only a bonus to any hunt. By far the most rewarding aspect is experiencing the overall adventure."