Hunting elk, and western hunting in general, comes with its own set of obstacles for some hunters, though. Beyond the challenging terrain that requires more physically and mentally from hunters than a whitetail hunt often will, the costs associated with travel, licenses, tags, trophy fees, the cost of a guide and more can ultimately be enough to put a pin in your elk hunting plans before they ever get off the ground. However, elk hunting doesn’t have to be a pipe dream and there is a way to take advantage of the western hunting experience without breaking the bank. Pump the brakes on your fantasies of 400-plus inch monster bulls and keep an open mind. Your focus needs to be readjusted, and you need to redefine what elk hunting success means to now include cows. Did I just say cows? Yes. While you won’t be chasing magazine cover inspired record-breaking bulls, you will still be busting your tail to fill your tag. It’s the complete elk hunting experience, without the antlers.
There are several factors that make hunting cows, instead of bulls, advantageous for budget minded hunters. Tag fees, draw odds, OTC availability, success rates, and meat sit at the top of that list.
- Tags - You can save a decent sum of money on antlerless tags. In Colorado, a premiere elk hunting state, non-resident bull or either sex tags will set you back $660. However, a non-resident cow/antlerless tag will run $496. In some states an antlerless tag can be as much as half of what a bull tag would cost like in Wyoming where a non-resident bull tag is $692, but a non-resident cow/calf tag costs just $288. The situation is the same in Montana where a bull tag is $885, and an antlerless tag is $275. When budget is on the brain, this is a good place to save some money. Also relating to tags, when it comes to tag access and availability there are several states that offer OTC (over-the-counter) cow tags. However, in states with draw only systems the draw success rates are often very high with antlerless tags with many individual units known to have 100% draw success.
- Success - Just because you secure a tag doesn’t mean that you’ll be driving home with an elk in the back of the truck. The general success rate for hunters chasing bull elk hovers somewhere around 15%, and statistically speaking, those aren’t great odds. That number dives even more to just 10% if you happen to be a DIY, public land hunter as most budget conscious hunters are. Unlike bull tags, antlerless tags increase your odds of success exponentially with harvest rates of cows doubling that of bulls in some states. That’s not to say that an antlerless tag is a slam dunk guaranteeing your success, however it does increase your odds. Plus, by increasing your odds you also make the most of the money you spend on the hunt itself. There is a very real possibility that you could go to Colorado, Utah, Montana, Idaho or somewhere else and come home empty handed, that’s the nature of hunting. If that’s the case, you’ve spent a lot of money without much return, other than the experience. That is a big risk for some people. Because your chances of filling an antlerless tag are greater than filling a bull tag, it leaves you with greater odds of maximizing the investment you’ve made.
- Meat - The meat is the greatest reward of all, in my humble opinion. I’ve never met a person that didn’t like elk. It’s delicious and that’s a fact. Depending on the subspecies, size and weight of the cow, the number of pounds you’ll be packing out, processing and putting in your freezer will vary. It is more than realistic though to say you’ll walk away with 150+ pounds of fresh, lean, cow elk provided protein. You’ll often hear people say, “You can’t eat the antlers” and while it may be cliché, it rings true. Antlers or not, meat is meat and cows are a great way to fill the freezer. A monster bull looks great on the wall, but once it hits the freezer can you really tell the difference between a bull and a cow? Truthfully, most people can’t. And if you are going to nickel and dime every detail of your tip, it’s worth noting then that the price per pound of elk meat you could potentially bring home will be less with an antlerless tag than it could be with a bull tag.
It can be easy to become blinded by big racks and bugling monsters, however it’s important to realize that there is an incredible opportunity available to you via cows. It’s not a lesser hunt. They may play second fiddle to the big boys and they may not have impressive headgear, but they are far from an “easy” hunt. If you are afraid that a cow hunt won’t be challenging enough, then consider this. First, if you are hoping to keep your costs at a minimum, you are most likely planning a DIY hunt and forgoing a guide and outfitter. That automatically increases the challenge by putting the onus on you to research units, apply for the right tags, pour through maps of the terrain and topography, create a game plan and execute it once you’re on the ground – all with very little first-hand knowledge of the area you are hunting. This part alone can humble you very quickly. As for the animal itself, a cow hunt is challenging, just as a bull hunt is. Elk, regardless of sex, don’t just give themselves up. Success requires the hunter to work to find the herd, get within shooting distance, make a good shot and drop one cleanly. That’s often easier said than done, especially when you have a whole harem of cows with attentive eyes, noses and ears ready to bust you. Your success will be contingent upon your effort. If you are able to get a cow on the ground, it’s an achievement you should be proud of, antlers or not. Once on the ground you still have hundreds of pounds to pack out. As your hoofing those quarters out, you likely won’t be thinking about how “easy” the hunt was. Furthermore, the experience as a whole will better prepare you should you decide to hunt cows again or try your hand at tagging a bull in the future.
If you have champagne hunting taste on a beer budget, or if you’re just looking for a way to dip your toe in the water of western hunting, a cow elk hunt should definitely be something you are considering. It’s not too late to start planning an elk hunt for this fall. Get online and search state agency game and fish websites to determine tag fees, OTC tag availability, units and more, then put the sweat equity into research. The time you spend preparing now will pay for itself later.
Every elk is a trophy elk,