Written by: Mark Richman
When most people conjure up their ideal hunt in their minds, it doesn’t involve anyone other than those in their own party. Reality is, of course, far different. We need to compete for campsites, compete for glassing spots, ambush points and meadows to sit on. We want or need to be the first out of camp and first on the mountain in order to get ahead of the pressure. This is just something we have come to accept, but we really don’t have to.
There are many places that receive very light hunting pressure, and not just because of limited tags. Many of those places are difficult to access, have very few roads, are federally designated wilderness areas, have difficult terrain to hunt or maybe just don’t have enough game to support large numbers of hunters.
Some people are used to heavily pressured public land hunts and the numbers of hunters in the woods doesn’t bother them. But most come to the Rockies thinking they can get away from everyone else. In many cases this is possible by just hiking a little further than the average guy. But in other units, this is not possible for many reasons. In some places there are too many roads and in others there are too many hunters, many of whom also think they are going to just out-hike the next guy. We see this all the time, someone declaring they are going to hunt the Colorado Flat Tops during 2nd season, and stating their willingness to go further than everyone else to find unpressured animals. I’ve got news for you: the foot hunter just can’t walk far enough in some places and at some times of the year.
The good news is that you absolutely can hunt areas where you can have some elbow room. Where you can have entire drainages all to yourself, places where you’ll never see another soul, other than on the trails near the trailhead at dusk or dawn. If this sounds good to you, then there are a few places that need to be avoided. I don’t care if your brother-in-law says there aren’t “a lot” of guys hunting the place he has described to you. Most people don’t have the proper perspective to know what a lot of hunting pressure is and what light hunting pressure is. “A lot” of hunters to a Pennsylvania or Michigan public land hunter will likely be a lot more hunters than what a Texas private land hunter is used to seeing.
So, what is “a lot”? That’s subjective to some degree, but I think most people could agree that Colorado’s unit 12 with over 10 hunters per square mile of public land is “a lot”. Some of the Idaho panhandle units have close to 10 hunters per square mile of public land and Oregon’s Trask unit are places that most would say feel crowded. But at what point does the hunting pressure feel uncrowded? For me, it’s closer to 1 or 1.5 hunters per square mile of public land. It will vary depending on how many roads are in the area to spread out the hunting pressure, how much wilderness there is, how many foot and horse trails there are and how heavily forested and how flat the terrain is to determine what feels “pressured”. In areas that I’ve hunted that had a lot of roads, lots of timber, some wilderness and had some very difficult terrain, up to 2.5 hunters per square mile did not feel particularly crowded. You’ll certainly be seeing additional hunting parties, but they will only rarely be occupying “your” spot. Anything pushing 3 hunters or more per square mile of public land has felt crowded to me. Those are spots where I had to compete for campsites and meadows, and had road hunters driving up and down the mountains at dusk and dawn.
Of the variables that seem to affect how we feel about hunting pressure, which ones will have the greatest affect in determining which areas feel overpressured and how can we identify them ahead of time? For me, the number one factor to look for is wilderness. Most of the western states have several large federally designated wilderness areas that are ideal for foot and horse hunters. If you cannot stray far from your camp or vehicle, a unit that is primarily wilderness will feel especially crowded to you because the limited amount of land you can access. If I needed to stick close to the roads, I’d focus primarily on areas with a lot of logging activity, which often has many side roads to help distribute hunting pressure.
And just a reminder, Wilderness does not mean woods or National Forest. Wilderness is an area where all motorized and wheeled vehicles have been banned. Access is by foot or horse only. Keep in mind though, that outfitters will likely be using the largest meadows or basins in a wilderness area. They pay the Forest Service to operate out of a semi permanent camp and will have dibs on the biggest, most obvious places. Don’t worry about it though, you just need to know where to the small pockets of pressure.
So where are these wilderness areas where one can expect to get away from others? First of all, not the Flat Tops Wilderness. It’s 235,000 acres, but with hunter densities between 4 and 10 per square mile, you’ll never escape them all. Colorado’s largest wilderness, the 480,000 acre Weminuche Wilderness is primarily in unit 76, a trophy unit. So those two biggies are out. But we also need to exclude some other areas that are just too close to civilization. The Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, just outside of Boulder is the most popular wilderness area in the United States. Any early season hunt there is going to be marred by hikers in addition to hunters. Don’t worry, that leaves a lot land to hunt, the following is a list of some of the largest wilderness areas and the units they are associated with that you should either check out as a foot hunter or horseman, or avoid as a less mobile hunter in favored of areas with more roads:
Mazatzal Wilderness, 250,000 acres south of the Mogollon Rim, with numerous other small wilderness areas around it. The Salome (18K), Sierra Ancha (20K), and Hellsgate (37K), Cedar Bench (16K) and Pine Mountain Wilderness (20K)areas are also in the vicinity. There are very few roads south of the Mogollon Rim, making this terrible for road hunting, but fantastic for those who love wilderness areas. Units 21 and 22, has some good elk hunting, but getting a little far south of the main elk concentrations but a traditional deer hunting hotspot.
A complex of wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevadas around Mt. Whitney, Yosemite National Park and Sequoia-King’s Canyon National Parks make for a huge wilderness system. Much of this land is either in National Parks or so far above timberline (much of it between 12 and 14,000 feet, with Mt. Whitney at almost 14,500 feet) that there is no point hunting half of it. However, there is some fantastic mule deer hunting to be had between the X and D zones that fall within the 650,000 acre John Muir, 230,000 acre Ansel Adams, 300,000 acre Golden Trout Wilderness, especially the legendary X-9B.
For the blacktail hunter, the B zones have numerous large wildernesses, but few as productive for hunters as the 525,000 acre Trinity Alps Wilderness Area or 180,000 acre Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel.
We’ve already ruled out the Flat Tops and Indian Peaks and the Weminuche requires too many points to be of interest to most hunters. However, for elk hunters, the following wilderness areas are all over 100,000 acres and feel uncrowded: 120K acre Lost Creek Wilderness in 501 (draw only), the 228K acre Sangre De Cristos in unit 82 and 86, 120K acre Holy Cross in 45, 180K acre Marroon Bells-Snowmass in 43, 120K acre La Garitas in 681 and 160K acre Mt. Zirkel Wilderness in 14. The elk are hard to get to in many of these places, and success rates are often quite low, but if you are looking for some elbow room, you can find it in these units.
The largest single wilderness area in the lower 48 is in Central Idaho, the 2.3 million acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. While it should need no introduction to the hardcore, the Middle Fork of Salmon River is about as far away from civilization as you can get while elk hunting. The Middle Fork and Selway Zone Tags in the 1.3 million acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness are the only over the counter tags in the US available to nonresidents that permit rifle hunting in the elk rut. Small landing strips provide the best access into these areas for those without horses.
The 1 million acre Bob Marshall Wilderness is the one most folks hear the most about, but it’s never impressed me. The 248K acre Lee Metcalf Wilderness and 900K acre Absaroka-Beartooth are more productive. For those with a general elk tag (draw only for nonresidents, OTC for residents), unit 316 in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, just north of Yellowstone National Park still allows a mid September elk and deer hunt. The Hunting Districts of 150,151 and 280 in the Bob Marshall, 239,000 acre Scapegoat and 286,000 acre Great Bear Wildernesses also offer the mid-September hunt.
The 113,000 acre Jarbidge and 115,000 acre Arc Dome are the two largest wildernesses administered by the USFS in Nevada. The Jarbidge, in Northeast Nevada is especially known for it’s deer hunting, but Central Nevada’s Arc Dome shouldn’t be overlooked either. In reality, it’s tough to go wrong deer hunting anywhere in Nevada (I’m working on the rankings right now), and with so much public land it’s really an overlooked state.
The Gila Wilderness, at 550,000 acres, gets the most press and deservedly so. It’s an elk hunting mecca, with tightly controlled tags, fantastic bulls and extremely light pressure. But the Aldo Leopold and Pecos Wilderness deserve at least some mention for their deer hunting, and both Wilderness Areas are over 200,000 acres. The elk hunting in both 21A(Aldo Leopold) and 45(Pecos) isn’t especially great.
Much has been said about the 350,000 acre Eagle Cap Wilderness in Northeast Oregon by the likes of Cameron Haines, but some fantastic deer and elk hunting can also be had around the 500,000 acre Hells Canyon and the 130,000 acre Hells Canyon Wilderness. Oregon also offers an early, high country blacktail hunt in several wilderness areas. The 279K acre Three Sisters Wilderness is among the largest of those included in that tag (which is easy to draw), but the 116K acre Sky Lakes should not be overlooked.
The High Uinta Wilderness is Utah’s only wilderness over 100,000 acres, but at 456,000 acres, it’s a big one. The elk hunting there is just marginal, but some great deer hunting can be found in the South Slope.
While much of Washington is overpressured, the High Buck hunts are worthy of consideration for those seeking a quality experience. The 360,00 acre Alpine Lakes, 529,000 acre Pasayten, 100,00 acre Henry Jackson and 570,000 acre Glacier Peak Wilderness areas are all included in this September OTC deer tag.
It almost seems pointless to write anything about Wyoming’s Wilderness Areas for DIY hunters, as Wyoming requires nonresidents to hire a guide when hunting any wilderness area. There are several huge wilderness areas around Yellowstone National Park and the Tetons, and much of Wyoming’s best general tag elk hunting opportunities are in those areas. But you have to be willing to hire a guide, in which case you’ll be hunting where they take you, not relying on a DIY website for assistance in finding a good place to hunt.
For those who can’t handle or choose not to endure the hardships of a backcountry hunt, your best bets are to find those less popular units, especially those with logging roads. There are several places with less than 1 hunter per square mile of public land in some seasons, but they aren’t on the tips of anybody’s tongues. Remember though, it takes very little pressure for game to realize its being hunted. So, in lightly pressured areas, you may not get the amount of game movement you are used to from the heavily pressured areas. Sitting and waiting on trails or meadows in those places will often be less productive than still-hunting the timber.
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