The Ups and Downs of Backcountry Elk Hunting… and Why I Wish I'd Hired a Guide

Hiring an experienced elk hunting guide just might be the difference between a full freezer and an empty one.

Sep 12th, 2018 #hunting#biggame

Knowledge is powerful, and hunting outfitters are full of it. In fact, hiring an experienced elk hunting guide just might be the difference between a full freezer and an empty one.

It was October 2017, five days into Utah’s general-season bull elk hunt. The optimism I’d had opening morning wasn’t gone, but it sure was waning. I know elk hunting is far from a sure thing, but I’d hunted hard and had little to show for it. The afternoon of opening day, my buddy Chad and I stumbled into a herd in thick brush. We caught glimpses of bulls and cows and heard a few bugles. Other than that, the elk did their annual disappearing act that’s triggered upon the first sight of blaze orange in autumn-strewn landscapes.

Day 5 found me on a steep ridge two miles back from any road. My buddy Tyson glassed the valleys south while I took the ones to the east. As far as I could see, we’d found the only spot of flat land for miles.

I was about to suggest we move to the next ridge south when Tyson tensed up. “There’s something over there,” he said.


He pointed to the southernmost ridge within reasonable spotting distance. I didn’t see anything.

“He’s right there, next to that big bush, just down from the top,” Tyson said.

I hefted my Ruger America .308 and peered through the Vortex Diamondback HP 4-16x42 scope. I should’ve been using binoculars, but they were somewhere in my pack and I didn’t want to look for them.

It took me a few minutes, but I finally saw the faint light- and dark-brown outline of a massive elk. It walked out of a stand of pines, looked around, and sat on a steep hillside. Nothing but cheatgrass and sagebrush surrounded it.

Tyson said he could see antlers – he was glassing the correct way – and I took him at his word.

For elk hunters, there’s nothing more exciting than the adrenaline rush brought on by the deep, guttural growl of a bull elk.

“Is he a spike?” I asked, holding my breath.

It was quiet for a minute. I kept watching the trees around the elk, trying to see if he was with a herd or not.

“I think so,” Tyson said after an excruciating silence.

I agreed. We’d stared at the elk for the better part of 15 minutes, and in that time no other elk walked out to join him. Spikes tend to get kicked out of herds once a bigger bull claims its cows, so I figured this lone elk was a spike. The rut wasn’t over either, which meant the cows and bulls would still be grouped together.

The rangefinder said the elk was 1,500 yards out. A saddle between our high point on a ridge and the elk’s spot on its ridge was the only major obstacle in the way.

Then we got to the saddle and plans had to change.

A light brown bear – a young sow, by the looks of her – sat on her haunches, going to town on what looked like a deer. She looked up, and even from 70 yards away I felt her eyes on mine. I looked at her through my scope. Her muzzle was splattered with blood.

We spent the next 15 minutes navigating around the bear. I wasn’t too worried. She had dinner, after all. Why would she chase us?

Still, we kept our distance, got up on the other side of the saddle, and quickly closed the gap between us and the elk to 113 yards.

Violet rays streaked the sky; we had scant minutes of daylight left. After triple-checking the elk was a spike, per Utah’s hunting definitions, I loaded a round in the chamber, flicked off the safety, and put its front shoulder in my crosshairs.

I’m no crack shot, but 113 yards? If I couldn’t hit an elk from there with a .308, I’d need to pack things up and leave.

The true value of hiring a hunting guide comes from learning all you can during your time with that guide so that next year, you can confidently head out on your own.

As I slowed my breathing and got ready to pull the trigger, Tyson stopped me.

“What?” I hissed.

“When do legal shooting hours end?” he asked.

I shrugged.

Tyson dug out his field copy of Utah’s hunting guidebook. I waited, aware with each passing minute that we were losing the chance to nail this bull.

“They ended 15 minutes ago,” Tyson said.

And just like that, all my hard work was erased. We hiked back to the truck under a thick blanket of stars, and I didn’t see another spike for the last seven days of the hunt.

Though I ate tag soup last year, I learned two valuable lessons. First, unless you see a bear with cubs, don’t let them get in the way of you and a good elk. Second? Well, I realized just how important it is to hunt with someone who knows the land. Both spots I hunted last year weren’t near my usual fishing haunts, and I’d done a piss-poor job of scouting them. I paid for it, since none of my hunting buddies could make it out during the remainder of the hunt.

It’s this type of circumstances that make me wish for a hunting guide. The way I see it, there’s two types of folks who hire guides. The first are those who fly out to Texas or Colorado for an all-inclusive hunt on limited-entry units or private land. They’re there to shoot an animal, cape it, and have it mounted above the fireplace. Sometimes they eat the meat, and other times they donate it. I’m not condemning anyone – it’s just a fact.

Then you have the hunters who, like myself, have a passion for it but aren’t all that successful. We hire guides because we need that presence of someone who knows what they’re doing to help lessen the learning curve. I didn’t need my hand held, but I did need some third-grade level instructions on scouting, identifying good places for elk to feed and water, and how to spot them.

That’s where the true value of a hunting guide comes from. It’s not from having a successful hunt – that’s a byproduct of the guide-hunter relationship. Instead, it’s learning all you can during your time with that guide so that next year, you can confidently head out on your own. At that point, you’re the author of your own success.

If I’d hired a guide last year, I think I’d have a spike elk in the freezer. However, I know I’d have left the hunt acutely aware of not only what I did wrong, but why it was wrong.

In my experience, that kind of knowledge is the most powerful. And hunting guides are full of it.

Spencer DurrantSpringville, Utah, United States

Share this page
Facebook Twitter
Greg Merriam A DIY, Semi-Guided, Guided only, or guided with meals and lodging is much like buying a car. It is you want the fanciest best car so you enjoy driving it and others like it aswell but then again what can you afford. Simply put price vs return. I see this every season as the DIY hunters come home empty handed after a hunt expenditure while guided hunters come home with a "Little more" expedenitor and talk about all the elk they saw before they got this one. In every sport their is a cost level for performance, and hunting is no different. The key is how much does hunting success cost. Many say that I know it all I don't need a guide. The bottom line is unless you are a guide you do need one to be successful as often as a guided hunter. A guide/Outfitter has 3-4 month of hunting experience added under his belt every season added to his history. To relate to him if you look at the job you do and get paid for it, could someone walk in and do it like you do. Of course not.
a year agoReply
Greg Merriam I ask the hunters that I put on Deer and elk hunts annually, "Do you need a guide or do you know this ground and this animal that you know as much as a guide does or is it because of the lower price of a DIY hunt. The answer is one for the hunter to ask him self and to think how important being successful and taking home an animal. Also would it work best if you had the opportunity to fill in 2 days instead of 5. Or would you like to hunt prime maintained private ground or the over run public ground? Seriously ask your self these questions before you enter the woods if you want a successful hunt answer your self honestly to will reep the negatives or the positives from the correct decision. It is also proven that guided hunter average not only a higher success rate, but larger animals, and in less days than the DIY hunter. Almost all of our hunts are on private land so the animal are there it is up to you to enter the woods with the right tools for success.
a year agoReply
Greg Merriam Almost all of outr hunts are on private land to make the hunter as successful as possible. I have never found a hunter that asked to go on a hunt to be unsuccessful so I make every effort to provide a venue to success for all of our hunters, DIY, Semi-Guided, GUided only. or Guided with Meals and lodging. I wish you all well this fall. If you want to discuss my views and why our hunter harvest success rates are so High, it is not by accident it is by 12 months a year of effort. You can contact me on 303-776-7528 Https:// or Thank-you Greg Merriam Be safe and successful out there.
a year agoReply