Mike Hoops made his first trip to Montana to hunt elk in 1997 and began guiding for an outfitter in 2006. This will be his fifth season as a guide for Wilderness Connections in Gardiner, Mont.
Hoops, 62, retired as manager of Minnesota's Crosby-Manitou State Park and previously served as park manager at Tettegouche State Park.
"I love hunting in Minnesota, but I really love the mountains," Hoops said. "It's so much bigger in scale, and, of course, it's the opportunity to hunt elk. But it's also the things you see -- you're seeing grizzlies, you're seeing mountain goats and full-curl rams. It's the diversity."
The Duluth News Tribune asked Hoops to share some thoughts about western elk hunting:
Question: Should a hunter use the services of an outfitter or hunt on his own?
Answer: It all depends on their level of expertise and how much time they have to invest in it. With the Internet, hunters have more options than they used to. They can do map searches. Every state has its way to find a place to hunt.
But if you have time constraints, or you're the kind of person who wants to jump on a plane, have someone pick you up, if you have a week off and five days to hunt, that's when it's imperative to book a hunt.
Q: How much does a guided, weeklong hunt with an outfitter run?
A: It'll vary from state to state, unit to unit. Probably a five-day guided hunt, with accommodations, is in the $3,500 to $5,000 range. There are always people willing to make deals, especially in this economy.
Q: What are some tips for choosing an outfitter?
A: Don't just call someone you read about in a magazine. It's like a marriage. It's a short-term marriage. You're living in each other's faces for five days. Call several. Check references. That's imperative. Talk to them in person. There are a lot of folks who don't have the best intentions. The respectable ones will have a list (of references) for you to call.
Q: How much does physical conditioning matter in a western elk hunt?
A: I always remind hunters: We're going to make this as tough or as easy as you want. It's harder to get into areas where elk are hanging out. Be in the best physical condition you can be in. Even if you haven't started until Sept. 1, six weeks of walking and working out on machines will give you a lot of conditioning.
Q: What kind of expectations should a hunter have?
A: They need to look at the number of licenses sold and the number of kills. It's (success rate) typically one in four, one in five. And we're not all going to be able to kill a 400-inch (Boone and Crockett scoring system) bull. What's a trophy to you?
Q: What's the biggest problem you have with your hunting clients?
A: It's the lack of physical conditioning. The Minnesota hunters are more aware of it, but we get a lot of eastern hunters who have physical difficulties that they minimize while they're booking the hunt.
Q: What elevations can a hunter expect to reach?
A: In Montana, we're at 6,200 feet and we hunt up to 9,000. In Colorado, you camp at 9,000 and hunt to 12,000.
Q: How much shooting should a person do before the trip?
A: I know ammunition is very expensive, but it doesn't hurt to spend extra time on the bench making sure the rifle is going to shoot straight. Zero your rifle at 250 to 300 yards. If you shoot a bolt-action rifle, practice with a .22-caliber bolt-action (to save on ammunition). Muscle memory in shooting is important, especially for quick shots where you just get that glimpse. Same with an archery hunter. Shooting six arrows every day will do more than shooting 50 on Sunday.
Q: How much does rifle size matter?
A: Anything from .270 (caliber) up is good. A .300 short mag is a good gun, or a .30-06. Shot placement counts a lot more than having a big gun.
Q: How about clothing?
A: You need good-quality clothing, a quiet outer layer, and bring enough stuff. Your clothing should be wicking. Dress in layers. Make sure you have plenty of clothes so you can change 'em out. It can be 70 during the day, and the next day a front will be blowing with a blizzard, and you're wading through 10 inches of snow. Have good boots, well broken in, and have them to match varying conditions.
Q: How about applying for a license?
A: Application in Montana is by March 15. In Colorado, it's April. Wyoming is earlier. Your outfitter should be working to help you get your application in. In Montana, you can get a guaranteed license if you hunt with an outfitter. Otherwise, you can put in for the lottery. In Montana, you typically draw a general tag every other year. But there are units you may not be able to hunt.
Q: Does a hunter need to have passed a firearms safety course?
A: Depending on your age, you may need firearms safety. All the states vary by when the cut-off date is. Make sure you've got that taken care of.