Where the Big Bulls Roam

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by Patrick Meitin

One man’s bowhunting trophy is another man’s raghorn. Be that as is may, trophy in the real sense normally denotes antlers meeting the minimums set by the Pope & Young Club -- a 6x6 (more rarely a 5x5) scoring 260 inches or better. Of course not every area is created equal -- management practices, genetics and hunting pressure all effecting outcomes. Some of the very biggest antlers come from states with relatively small overall totals, while other states produce lots of archery “book” bulls, but little on the top end. Still, to most bowhunters “making book” is still the goal.

I delved into this subject while researching a chapter for my book, “Bowhunting Modern Elk” (Intermedia Outdoors, 2008), seeking not only counties in each state which have produced the biggest bulls, but regions that have done so consistently during the last 10 years. Here are my top-five recommendations based on those findings.

Montana Bull Elk
Big bulls roam the Big Sky State from East to West 

#1: Montana

Montana has relinquished about 425 archery record-book bulls during the past 10 years, making it number one in recent archery record-book entries. Some 44 of these bulls scored better than 350, with around 50 percent scoring more than 300 inches. Unlike many states, Montana’s trophy bulls don’t come from a single isolated region; nearly any of the state’s elk units producing trophy big bulls. Boone & Crockett shows Big Sky’s top-end trophy quality has slipped slightly in recent years, attributed mostly to wolf depredation. Of 129 total bulls scoring better than 360 taken since record keeping began, only 37 (29 percent) have appeared in the past 10 years (29 typical, eight non-typical).

Montana’s elk opportunities are a proverbial smogousboard; from alpine to prairie habitat, the state harbors an estimated 140,000 elk. Besides eastern private lands, super Montana trophy-bull bets include areas in southwestern Montana, west of Anaconda, and northwest Montana north of Missoula and west of Kalispell. The largest bulls of these options traditionally appear from northwest units, abundant public lands making access easy.

New Mexico Bull Elk
New Mexico is one of the fastest growing elk hot spots.

#2: New Mexico

New Mexico has produced about 375 archery record-book entries during the past 10 years, 39 of those scoring better than 350, about 42 percent scoring better than 300 inches, making it the second best archery record-book producer in the West – though the state’s Gila region has accounted for the brunt of these. Boone & Crockett numbers solidify these findings. Of 73 total typical and non-typical B&C antlers, more than half, or 35, have appeared in the past 10 years.

New Mexico game managers have worked hard to placate politically-connected ranching interests in recent years, resulting in heavy cow-elk harvest, aggressive depredation programs and liberal land-owner tags. Reintroduced Mexican gray wolves also pose a threat to elk herds. New Mexico elk hunting’s still some of the best to be found in the Southwest, and in the past couple years managers have backed off on tag numbers somewhat. New Mexico game managers estimate 80,000 head in the state and while tags are hard won it’s still nothing approaching odds found in Arizona, Nevada or Utah. Too, while Gila regions receive the most attention, units found in northern New Mexico offer better draw odds and plenty of quality bulls.

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