By Zach Welch
My heart was pounding out of my chest as the bull ripped off a bugle that seemed to shake the ground beneath my feet. The tip of my arrow was shaking like leaf as I began to put tension on my string as the bull marched toward us, his ivory tips seeming to glow as they towered over the head-high weeds that we were tucked on the edge of. My dream of killing a bull elk with a bow was about to come into fruition and to top it off, it was about to happen in my home state of Nebraska.
Every year thousands of hunters make the trek from all over the world to a handful of western states to chase one of the most iconic big game animals in North America. Glassing up a dream bull as the sun illuminates him on a mountainside, bugles echoing through the pines, and packing meat back to camp through alpine terrain are all thoughts that most hunters can say are familiar as they make this trek year after year. However, as elk continue to spread into new places, and are being reintroduced into areas, little do many of these people know that there are opportunities to chase these critters in some unique areas that are far from the alpine habitat that is often thought of when the discussion of elk hunting comes up.
If you enjoy big game hunting, western Nebraska is a location that is under the radar for most people. With a low population density, some of the most beautiful terrain east of the Rockies, and a plethora of big game, there isn’t much about it that is not to like. Places like the Wildcat Hills, Pine Ridge, and the bluffs that surround many of the western towns just before the Wyoming border look like they could hold just about anything. Elk have begun to thrive in these areas, and their populations are skyrocketing as they continue to spread across the state. Thanks to conservation efforts, residents have access to some of the best elk hunting that there is to offer, that is, if you can manage to draw one of the once in a lifetime tags that are nearly the equivalent of hitting the lottery.
I was one of those who happen to hit the lottery in this case. Not only did my experience mentioned at the beginning, end in the hunt of a lifetime, but it truly opened my eyes to just how many elk reside in the state, and how fast they are reproducing. One of the landowners that I had the pleasure of getting to meet mentioned to me that just 5-6 years prior while harvesting corn, he had laid eyes on the first elk he had seen in the state, which happened to be a nice bull. At the point, he was in disbelief, but little did he know that it would become nearly an everyday occurrence just a few short years later. I was also one of those people who thought seeing an elk was a rare occurrence. After sorting through a handful of bulls, and seeing dozens of cows, with nearly every one of them having a calf, I walked away from opening weekend in awe at seeing how elk were thriving in my home state.
While populations may be skyrocketing, and elk are being found in places that once were thought impossible to hold elk, getting your hands on a tag is the true challenge. The Nebraska elk draw works in a lottery-style with “bonus points” factored in. This draw is for residents only. Residents must choose which unit they want to hunt, and are also limited to a one bull elk in a lifetime. Bonus points have come into play in recent years. A bonus point is simply an extra entry in the draw for those who didn’t draw an elk tag in previous attempts. So, applying every year is beneficial in gaining more entries into the lottery. Numbers of tags vary by unit but are very limited in quota. Cow tags are also available and are not limited to once in a lifetime, however, they cannot be drawn every year, and demand for them is also very high and are difficult to draw. Aside from the normal resident draw, landowners can also apply for tags and have the benefit of not being limited to a once in a lifetime bull. Now, if you are a non-resident and are reading this, you are probably wondering how you can get your hands on one of these tags. Currently, only one opportunity exists to draw an elk tag for non-residents. This is through the multiple-entry super tag, which is a lottery tag open for residents and non-residents with unlimited entries. It allows the permit holder to harvest 1 elk, 1 deer, 1 antelope, and 2 turkeys with any weapon in any unit, as well as 2 years to fill the tag. With elk spreading across the state, and populations booming, it may be no surprise if someday in the near future, more opportunities open up to residents, as well as non-residents.
Gaining access to hunt elk in Nebraska is key in finding success. With less than 3% of the state being public land, you are more than likely going to need to gain access in order to chase your dream bull. While gaining permission may seem like a huge barrier to overcome, it is far from impossible compared to what it seems like in many other western states. Many farmers consider elk to be more of a nuisance than anything. Most farmers who hold elk on their property will be quick to complain about the crop damage they suffer year after year. If you are willing to pay a trespass fee, many of these farmers will be more than happy to have you harvest an elk on their property.
It should be mentioned that the seasons that exist for elk in Nebraska are also very generous. The tags allow you to hunt with archery equipment from September 1 through October 31, and with firearms from October 1 through October 31. A limited number of hunters, long hunting seasons, and plenty of opportunities to gain access to private land all help to put the odds of harvesting a bull in the Cornhusker State in the tag holder’s favor.
Last, and certainly not least, the conservation efforts to get these elk to where they are today need to be mentioned. These herds are closely monitored by the game and parks, and each elk that is harvested is checked by a wildlife biologist. These elk are aged, and data is recorded year after year to closely monitor these herds, and determine quotas for tags. As mentioned earlier, ask any landowner you run into that have elk on their property, and they will most likely have a similar story of how seeing an elk in Nebraska was once a rare occurrence, to now having to deal with so many elk that they are almost considered a burden. Elk populations in Nebraska reflect a great act of conservation that has given many opportunities for guys like myself to fulfill a dream of harvesting a mature bull.
So while many people venture to high altitude, and drive hundreds of miles to hunt elk year after year, if you are a resident in the state of Nebraska, you are truly missing out on an opportunity to have the hunt of a lifetime essentially in your own back yard if you aren’t playing the lottery every year. If anything, continue to apply so that the money raised from the applications can go to continue to support the conservation of these animals, so that one day when you do draw the tag, you know that you are reaping the benefits of one of the most successful stories of conservation the state has seen.