Hunting Western Ranches For Elk, Deer

I was a full five minutes into my elk-hunting career, and found I’d become an island amid a rushing river of wapiti. Four cows gushed out of the draw before me and clattered across the creek below. Nine more, and a spike, trickled over the bare ridgeline, far above my cowpasture stand. A calf and its mother nearly galloped over me while I glimpsed a dozen more chocolate-colored legs crash through a pine thicket with the typical grace of elk in a hurry.

Three of my seven fellow hunters killed bulls that morning. There would be many more sighted and two more taken in our four days of elk hunting, Oregon rangeland style. And when I finally pulled the trigger on my first bull, there was no doubt I’d received the perfect introduction to elk hunting. I left for home with a sense of pure satisfaction. And some relief, because that big hunt West can be a bit bewildering.

It’s exciting to dream about western big game hunting, but setting up a hunt can be a headache and high-risk endeavor. A wilderness guide may cost you thousands of dollars. And you aren’t assured of seeing game, will probably see a hardship or two, and you may end up hunting public land, competing with many other hunters. You can strike out on your own to hunt that public land, but chances are you’ll do just that — strike out.

Try Ranch Hunting
There’s a better way. You can hunt elk, muleys, and western whitetails all to yourself in places that have been off-limits to the public for over 100 years. You can have twice the chance of getting a buck or a bull than with a do-it-yourself hunt. You’ll even have a better shot at success than with a wilderness trip, at maybe half the cost. It’s ranch hunting.

With the economic pinch on farmers and ranchers, and the ever-increasing numbers of western hunters elbowing each other on the diminishing public land, more ranchers are realizing they can get back in the black by guiding hunters on their land. Ranchers offer the best of all worlds: They can restrict the numbers of hunters in the area. They know where the game is and how to hunt it. They can make the most effective use of time, money, and effort. And their per-hunt costs are comparatively low, so they can usually charge a lot less.

One such place is the Anderson Ranch of Pilot Rock, Ore. Draped over the serene Blue Mountains of the state’s northeast corner, the hunting area covers 12,000 acres of prime elk habitat. It’s a land of bald mountains and high wheat fields, thick creek bottoms full of ruffed grouse, and a blossoming whitetail herd. Its pine canyons and brushy draws are loaded with muleys and elk. The ranch, a collection of old homesteads, has been in the Anderson family since 1943. Manager Terry Anderson grew up here, hunting elk on this and neighboring ranches with his friends. A few years ago, Anderson decided to share this hunter’s paradise.

Outstanding Success Rate
Today, he and his friends guide limited numbers of hunters for elk, mule deer, bear, and the big western whitetails that are filtering in. For a region little known for elk, the hunting is superb. Anderson works with a big-game biologist to keep his elk herd at an optimum level. Elk here are ever increasing and rather easy to find when they feed on the bare mountainsides or concentrate in the thicker bedding cover of draws and creekbottoms. People are amazed that success on this ranch ranges up to 80 percent or more — not per season, but per five-day hunt! Hunting techniques are whatever the customer orders.

Going after elk and mountain muleys can be the most strenuous endeavor on earth, but on ranch hunting, you have options. Most clients choose to set up drives. Hunters are transported by 4×4 to stands overlooking sere hillsides and wooded creekbottoms while guides drive the draws and thickets. Elk are sighted throughout the day. It’s a place where you and a few friends can go and hunt and have fun and eat and sleep well and not kill yourselves in the process. And, untypical of most elk hunting, chances are you “will” kill a bull.

Typical of such first-class operations, Anderson provides a hunting lodge in the form of a quaint, turn-of-the-century white frame farmhouse perched on a high peak. A 7-point bull on the drawing room wall greets visitors and leaves them something to dream about. You can even catch a glimpse of live elk at dusk from the window of your upstairs bedroom before you turn in.

The First Morning
Our first morning’s rendezvous was a dusty crossroads at daybreak. Coyotes yipped and yowled in a nearby brushy draw; six muleys, bald as the mountain except for their long ears, bounced over the ridge. The 4x4s arrived one by one, and Anderson began to lay out plans: Hunters would take stands at the ridgeline, creekbottom, and pasture while guides drove a mile-long fir thicket on a steep sidehill.

I had the pasture post, and as soon as I settled into the long shadow of a Ponderosa pine, I was seeing elk. After a dozen cows clamored by me, I glimpsed a spike trotting for the ridge 400 yards off. He disappeared behind a pine, and when he came back into view, he was rolling. Dave, one of our party of seven, had killed him with a single shot. More shots followed, and when the guides appeared, we took the tally: three bulls for seven hunters on our first drive of the hunt. The perfectly executed push had netted all the bulls seen, and left the hunters in ecstatic disbelief. The cool hunt master said it really wasn’t unusual.

“That thicket usually holds a lot of elk,” Anderson said. “We’ll be seeing a lot more. On the home ranch we usually take 13 bulls a year; our lease acquisitions should double that.”

The stockpile was obvious and as the hunt progressed, the excitement continued. Day two broke clear and cool, catching us glassing the stark, dark hillsides for feeding elk. A good-sized herd — horns among it — sauntered toward a draw. When we had their intended bedding area figured, we went into action. The push seemed perfect, drivers working a thick riverbottom and converging as they trapped elk at the narrowing head of a draw. But somehow, when the herd rumbled to a stop 10 yards from me, the bull was not among them. The next day Herb Brusman took a nice 4-point with a long shot. On the evening of our fourth day, a forkhorn tried to run the ridge … he didn’t make it.

Western ranch hunting is your best chance for success on elk and other western big game species.

Successful Drives
I was amazed at how effective the drives were. Anderson’s intuition always seemed to tell him where the elk would run; he would place a stander on a certain point on a vast mountainside, and the elk always seemed to head there.

“We’ve been hunting here a long time,” he said. “We’re out here every day of the year, and we get to know the elk real well.”

My last morning in the Blue Mountains found me keeping watch over a pretty ridgetop meadow surrounded by thick pines. The elk that got my heart pounding with its noisy approach turned out to be only a cow that danced regally through the clearing. But somehow it didn’t matter; I snicked the safety back on and tried to imprint the scenery in my mind. When fog and rain ended the worst dry spell in 95 years and washed out our hunt that afternoon, we had five elk in Ye Olde Meat House and memories to last us till next year.

Ranch hunting for elk is the best bet going for what most hunters are looking for: The best chance of success at a reasonable price. Prices, services, and quality of hunting vary among the ranches, and you’re advised to look into what you’re getting.

Another advantage of ranch hunting is that you don’t usually have to deal with the hassle of permit drawings. In some states, landowners may acquire permits and issue them to clients themselves. Deer hunting is also becoming more popular among the ranches as hunting pressure increases on public land. The good western ranches produce several trophy muleys each season, and whitetails are increasing steadily.

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