This past week, I found myself in Wyoming with a rifle, a hunting license, onXmaps and a tag from the state granting me permission to hunt elk.
I have hunted Wyoming many times for elk, mule deer and whitetails, and I have fallen in love with the Rocky Mountains. Having said that, I have never hunted the hills of eastern Wyoming and have never set foot in the hills or valleys along the Black Hills region.
According to the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s online site, the Black Hills are a small, isolated mountain range rising from the Great Plains of North America in western South Dakota and extending into Wyoming. The name “Black Hills” is a translation of the Lakota Pahá Sápa. The hills were so-called because of their dark appearance from a distance, as they were covered in trees.
Set off from the main body of the Rocky Mountains, the region is something of a geological anomaly — accurately described as an “island of trees in a sea of grass.” Harney Peak, which rises to 7,244 feet, is the range’s highest summit. The Black Hills encompass the Black Hills National Forest and are home to the tallest peaks of continental North America east of the Rockies.
Our hunting party was composed of three friends who gathered based on the advice of a legendary hunter and outfitter who suggested we check out the hills for hunting opportunities in the present and future. Our cow elk tags are valid for five months, so this trip had many layers to it, the first being to scout the hunting grounds and terrain for elk. The second was to find a support system from local landowners who could assist us with the most important details of any elk hunt: how to handle the game effectively and efficiently if and when we are successful in punching our tag.
In fact, these details are as important as the plentiful game and access to property that hold elk. It has taken me years of experience to understand just how important these details are. If you are lucky enough to hunt and find yourself within the stalking range of an elk, once you pull the trigger, the work starts. For example, say you find elk on a high mountain ridge, 5 miles from your truck. You had better have a recovery plan.
Can you get a vehicle or horse to assist you with the mechanical advantage to get the animal out? What is the temperature outside, including the solar load from the sun? There can be a huge difference in temperatures outside from early elk season compared to late season.
Do you have the right pack and game bags to quarter the animal, and are you physically able to make multiple trips to the vehicle? Do you have others to help you to do so? And then, do you have a plan to get the meat into a cold storage facility as quickly as possible?
All these details are crucial for any DIY elk hunt and equally as important if you decide that a professionally outfitted hunt suits your needs more effectively.
The trip was incredibly successful in many ways that did not include filling our tags. We found wonderful hunting grounds that included elk, plentiful mule deer and whitetails and Merriam turkeys. But equally important, we found a lodge with all the facilities to handle and process the elk. The cow elk tag is burning a hole in my pocket, and I am already making plans to return when the weather turns cooler.
I can’t wait to make tracks in the Black Hills again, only this time, with a solid plan in place to fill my freezer with some of the best wild, table fare possible — elk.