The Best Elk Hunt Ever!
Before answering the question, "What is the best type of elk hunt?," you may wish to read, "What is a successful elk hunt," and then ask yourself, "What are my expectations?" You may also ask, "How much experience do I have as a hunter or elk hunter?," and, "What is my general physical condition?"
Then you can look at the types of hunts, and their pros and cons.
In the broad categories there are two types of Montana Elk Hunts: outfitted and non-outfitter. Within the outfitted, there are fully guided and non guided, or drop camp hunts.
A fully-outfitted camp is comfortable. Tents are set up and firewood is stacked and ready.
Outfitted Hunts (Fully guided)
- Everything is provided
- No car rental
- Experienced guides and operations
- Camp is set up
- Firewood is usually cut and split
- "Everything" is rather subjective. Some outfitters have "valet" service, others have "bare-bones" operations.
- Experienced guides and operations are also subjective. Some outfitters have more experience with construction or computers they used in their former professions than with hunting and outfitting. Young (or old) inexperienced guides may know less than you about elk or the area being hunted.
- Hunts are scheduled to maximize the number of hunters that can be taken in one season. You may have to hunt when you really don't want to. Weather is important.
- Since outfitters try to fill each hunt, you may end up hunting with someone who isn't quite your type. That happens more than writers write about.
- In Montana, non-residents that book with an outfitter get the more expensive guaranteed license, but can only hunt with an outfitter. They can't come back later and hunt on their own.
- Bad things can happen on fully-outfitted hunts, as well as the non-outfitted ones. Go here to read about hunters who got lost in less than 600 yards.
On fully-outfitted hunts, guides and packers do all the work that requires a wide knowledge base of horse, mules, and game processing.
- No set schedule
- If you have the time from work, you could hunt all season or several times that season
- Cheap can get expensive: If you thought you could pack an elk on your back, you may end up hiring an outfitter to pack it out. Emergencies that outfitters (some) can handle may be life-threatening on your own.
- The learning curve for those new to elk hunting or rustic camping is steep. Getting experience on your own can be expensive and life-threatening. For more information on the learning curve go to, "It Really Happened, Really."
- Non-outfitted hunters must buy draw-type licenses. There is no guarantee that you will be drawn.
It is easier to watch someone quarter an elk with an ax than it is to do it. That goes double when the weather is cold and snowy.
Outfitted Hunt (Drop Camp Style)
- In the middle between outfitted and non-outfitted.
- Allow the new hunter/rustic camper a chance to get experience while still under the outfitter's protective umbrella. Most drop camps have camp set up and the outfitter's crew usually takes care of caping, quartering and packing game.
- Day-to-day you are on your own. This can be pro or con. You may learn more on your own, you may not.
- No guaranteed license
- Day-to-day you are still on your own.
Drop camps can be rather primitive.
Fully outfitted hunts can be further divided between wilderness, or pack-in hunts, and drive-in or ranch hunts.
This may be were physical conditioning comes into play. If you are in good shape and can handle hours on a horse or mule the wilderness hunt may be the way to go. If you are out of shape, then the ranch hunt will be a better fit.
Wilderness hunts can provide memorable rustic experiences. Ranch hunts may as well, but they can be more like staying in a motel and going out for day drives. Choice is yours.
Whether the wilderness hunt or ranch hunt provides better elk hunting opportunities is a crap-shoot. Area, weather, and even outfitter/guide experience are larger factors. An over-hunted ranch won't be any better than an over-hunted wilderness hunt.
Here is an additional point on wilderness hunts. In Montana, outfitters who operate on most public land, like Forest Service, DO NOT HAVE "AREAS." There may be gentlemen's agreements with neighboring outfitters, but like any of those, they depend on how gentlemenly the neighbor is.
Prospective hunters should know what they want, then do research to get it.
My view on what is the best hunt changed when the new (now old) license system was introduced. In the past, I thought hunters got the best deal on a drop camp hunt--even when I was an outfitter. The drop camp was an especially good deal for hunters who wanted to come back several years in a row. Some of the old drop camp hunters knew more about elk and the hunting area than guides with two or three years of experience.
I now think that the fully-outfitted hunt is best, as long as the outfitter fits your needs and expectations. As of the mid-term elections of 2010, that has changed. Nonresident Montana elk hunters booking with an outfitter no longer receive a guaranteed license. More here.
This is written the end of April 2009. If you want to hunt elk in Montana this year, and you are a non-resident, it is too late. If you want to hunt elk in Montana in 2010, now isthe time to start your research and save some dollars--pennies won't do. License applications for both outfitted hunters and non-outfitted hunters in Montana are due March 15 of the year you hunt.