When you think of Utah elk hunting, it can bring about some pretty intense emotions. Utah is already quite popular for its stunning scenery, but September brings out spectacular fall colors. And nothing quite compares to the sounds of bugling elk in the crisp autumn air. So while it can be somewhat dangerous and tough to get back to where those big bulls live, elk hunting in Utah is an overall exhilarating experience.
Locke Wheeler traditionally focuses on whitetail hunting in the South and the Midwest, but has an upcoming elk hunt in Utah. And he's getting excited. Not only is it his first elk hunt, but it is his first time hunting in the West at all. He is going to be on this adventure with an outfitter out of northern Utah named Rusty Farnsworth, who is the guest on today's episode.
Meet Rusty Farnsworth
Rusty grew up in a little town in Northeastern, Utah called Mountain Home. It's a little tiny town that is mostly made up of cattle, ranchers, and oil field workers. His dad was always a very avid outdoorsman, and so at a young age, his dad was dragging him along up in the Uinta Mountains on pack trips, fishing trips, and hunts.
His dad was also a taxidermist and when Randy finished serving his 2-year mission for the Latter-Day Saint Church, he came home and went through taxidermy school as well.
In about 2009 or 2010, Randy started guiding bear hunts and elk hunts for other Outfitters. Then in 2012 he got his outfitting license and started guiding on his own. All of the hunts that he guides are horseback hunts or utilizing mules.
Randy still lives just five minutes from where he grew up, so he is very familiar with the terrain that he takes his clients out hunting in, which is Northeastern Utah. And currently, when Randy's not guiding, he does taxidermy and ranch work full-time.
Elk Hunting Tips from Randy
What is the craziest taxidermy mount you've done?
"There's a gentleman from a little town about a half hour from here, and he's a cattle rancher. And he had bought a registered red Angus bull at a bull sale. And the first day he turned him out with his cows and there was another bull with him. The Red Angus bull broke his leg and [the other bull] killed him and he asked me if I would mount the bull for him. So I just ordered a form as close to the anatomy of a Red Angus as I could and I mounted his bull for him."
"And he's got it hanging in his barn. And it turned out really nice. I'll have to tag you on Instagram or whatever, so you can see it, but it turned out to be a pretty cool little beast."
For those hunters out East, can you explain how you get ready for a mule team and horseback hunt into the backcountry and what they could expect with that style of hunting?
"I have camps that are 10 miles in and I have camps that are 20 miles in. So you're looking at our shortest horse ride to one of our camps is about three hours in. And then I have some camps that you'll be eight or nine hours on the horse just getting there."
"And then we're gonna be hunting and we will drop down into some heavy, dark timber anywhere from 10,500 feet. And there are spots where bulls will push their cows up into little bear pockets up on the mountain - out of the timber - where we could be hunting you as high as 12,000 feet."
"So typically the way it goes is, when our hunters arrive, we have them based out of a little place close to the trailhead. The next morning they'll meet us at the trailhead and we will get everything laid out, load their gear and we'll make the trek into camp that first day."
"When we get in there, a lot of times we have guys they're just so gung-ho, they want to get out there that first night if there's time. But one thing we run into a lot in this country, where it's such high altitude, they'll get symptoms of high altitude sickness. So they'll start getting headaches and start throwing up. So to kinda mitigate that, we make them sit in camp the first night to acclimate and get used to that altitude."
"I've seen a couple of guys working for me that get high altitude sickness, even though they're locals here. And they've got a prescription from their doctors that they take that helps. So that's one thing I've been encouraging guys to do."
"After that first day of traveling in, we will do a five-day hunt. And if we can, we will utilize the horses as much as possible. Sometimes if there's a meadow or something we're wanting to get to, we'll have to ride for an hour in the dark to get there at prime time. And then there are camps where when you get a couple of hundred yards from camp, you can be hunting bulls that way."
"One thing I do notice is by about the third day most of my clients from back East - low elevation, is guys are whooped. They just don't wanna go out that day, or they'll miss the morning hunt to sleep in, and then we'll go back out that evening. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with how much we're walking and the altitude."
"And that seems to happen quite a bit. But we will hunt those five days and we pound it pretty hard. I mean, we will hunt it as hard as you want. If it's active, we're hunting all day long, and then hit the evenings hard too."
"We have a lot of guys that will hunt the morning hunt and just wanna relax during the day or go fishing. There's awesome fishing in this country. And if it's really hot, a lot of times that's what we'll do. We'll go back to camp and let the guys fish or whatever. That way, if elk aren't talking super good we're not just blowing basins out."
"On that seventh day, it's a full day out of there. We get up, give them breakfast, pack their gear and head out so they can get home good time."
You hear a lot of opinions from a lot of people about different ways to prepare for backcountry elk hunting. In your experience, what's the best way for someone to prepare themselves physically if they aren't used to hunting that way?
"I have had guys come in that are insanely fit. But honestly, I don't know that there's any good way to prepare for the high elevation unless you're just there. I mean, the more physically fit you are, you're gonna have way better odds at getting a bull than somebody that's not fit. It's just gonna be a butt kicker for whoever you are."
"One thing I would say is, I see a lot of guys that just wanna hit the weights and bulk up and get ripped. But I'll tell you when I have those guys show up, those guys are the ones that struggle because they gotta pack all that muscle up the mountain and keep the oxygen there. The guys that do the best are just the guys that do more cardio-type stuff. They're just walking a lot. Because that's the thing we're gonna be doing if we're not utilizing the horses. And even if we are, we're gonna be walking 10 to 15 miles a day around these basins."
"I would just pack on and do walking is what I would do. And I mean, there are some fitness programs out there that I see, like the Mountain Tough Fitness. I'm sure that is good and that would help you. But definitely do something because you don't wanna just sit on the couch and show up here. It'll just kill you."
What type of weather do you typically expect during a mid to late-September Utah elk hunt?
"It can vary a lot in that country. I've seen it 80 degrees up there midday, and then I've been in a blizzard an hour later. That's just mountain hunting - that can happen in any big mountain range. But typically that time of year, it'll get pretty cool at night. In fact, on a lot of nights, it'll dip right at about freezing. A lot of times when wake up there will be a thin layer of ice or frost and then, if the weather's good, it should be the upper 60s, possibly 70 degrees during the day."
"On the earlier hunts in the month, sometimes it will get into the 80s. We hope it doesn't do that because the elk are just in that thick timber and won't move."
"All I wear is Skre camo and so I layer up. You'll wanna layer up because in the mornings it's gonna be brisk and cold. And then as you start hiking, you'll wanna layer down a little bit. And then by midday, you're down as far as you can on layers. And you're gonna have that gear with you all day. If one of those thunderstorms rolls in the afternoon or snowstorms roll in, you're gonna want to have that gear so you can get warm. And there is a possibility in this country - you just never know. Especially in the last week of September, it could come in and dump some snow. For several years now, it hasn't snowed those first three weeks of September, but it's always a potential. And the afternoon rainstorm is pretty common in that country, so you wanna have some good rain gear with you as well."
How does the change in weather affect the hunting strategies and the elk movement?
"I was with a hunter by the name of Kelly Passy and we had an afternoon blizzard roll in. And it lasted an hour or two, and just put down a pretty good skiff of snow. Those elk were out of the timber and active all over. The bad weather does suck to be in but when it happens, I love it as a guide. Usually, that's when you get the majority of the action."
"On the flip side, when it's really hot, that's when elk shut down. They just wanna go in that heavy timber and just lay down all day. And so if it can be cool with a bit of weather, even though it's kinda uncomfortable it just makes the hunting that much better."
"And even if it is bad weather, mental toughness is probably one of the biggest things when it comes to mountain hunting. If you wanna be successful, you just gotta push through when it's uncomfortable. We're going to be out there trying to hunt them."
"If it is hot, we'll hunt it to a point, but sometimes it just becomes so difficult. If they're not talking, you're just trying to sneak through the timber and unless you have a really good game plan or already have your eyes on one bed, you risk blowing elk out of an area if you're not careful. And so, we're pretty careful about how we hunt on really hot days. Usually, we'll let it cool down a little bit before we get after it."
We've heard that whitetail deer don't sweat, which is why they don't move as much during warmer temperatures. Does the same apply to elk?
Rusty: "It's funny you bring that up 'cause I can say I never saw one sweat either. I believe it."
Mike: "I'm not a biologist. I can't say I know that for sure, but I can tell you, the weather makes all the difference when it comes to elk hunting and mule deer hunting here in the west. I believe wholeheartedly and I think it's the same with mule deer... I believe that these deer are a lot like us and even though we obviously can sweat that doesn't mean we wanna just go bake out in the open sun. We're no different now; We wanna lay up in the shade until it gets cool and once it's cool then we become more active."
What other kind of outfitting do you do?
"The thing that I'm best known for is mountain goat hunts across the Uinta mountains. The units that I guide would be the high-Uintas Central, the high-Uintas West, the high-Uintas East, and any high-Uintas units. And you can see a lot of those pictures on my Instagram."
"The first three weeks of September, that's when I'm doing my archery elk hunts, and from there, I'll go right into my mountain goat hunts and have two or three weeks of those."
"And then for years and years before I started pushing these wilderness archery hunts more, I guided in Little Creek roadless area - The Book Cliffs - via horseback and that's a trophy bull unit in Utah. They've cut the tags there so much and that's kinda the reason I started pushing these high Uinta elk hunts more and found that there's a huge market for it. There's a lot of guys from back East, that want that wilderness experience."
"And the great thing about it is these tags is they're guaranteed. The archery tags in Utah are unlimited. And so if you have a good time, you could come and hunt with me every single year and be guaranteed a tag."
"I also will do some buffalos hunts in the roadless. I have a Buffalo hunt this year that I'll be doing... This mountain range has some incredible fishing opportunities. So I'll pack groups of fishermen in. The highest peak in Utah is in this Mountain range, it's called King's Peak. And I can do pack support for people doing that as well. In fact, just on Monday, I had probably one of the oddest trips I've ever had. I rode a guy and girl up onto a mountain top where you could see miles and miles and mountains tops and drainages. And I had to video him while he proposed to her on the mountaintop. So that was one of the oddest things I've done as an outfitter."
The unit you guide isn't considered a trophy unit. So what can hunters expect in terms of the size of the bulls?
Randy: "I would say, the average bull you are hunting in this unit is from a rag horn up to like a 290 type bull. Rag horns, and five points, they're a dime a dozen in this unit. That's typically what you'll be seeing. But with that being said, it is a wilderness area and there are some spots that just because of the ruggedness of it and the amount of work to get back there, they're just not getting hunted that hard. So there are 300 to 340 type bulls killed on this mountain range every year. If you kill a 300-type bull it's getting talked about, just because there's not a ton of them. But there's definitely a potential for bigger. It's been some years ago, but my dad killed a 370 bull up here on this unit."
"Bow hunting elk in and of itself is just extremely difficult, let alone in the high Alpine basins at high elevation. But one thing that I think is funny and I see it with a lot of my mountain goat hunters is when they're preparing for the hunt. They're calling me and they're always talking about how they wanna look over the whole drainage and look at every Billy and shoot the biggest one that they find. And I can tell you with almost all my bow hunters when you finally get them within range of the first animal, that idea goes out the window. They're killing that feller because they just worked their butts off to get a chance. And that kinda speaks to how difficult it is. But if you can get a bull in this country it doesn't matter the size man. It's a trophy."
Locke: "It's a mature animal and it's a trophy. You bust your butt to get back in there in, in that country. And you're sleeping in base camp and you're hiking every day and you finally get a bull and he gets in there and gives you that whole experience. And maybe the standards change a little bit at that moment."
Rusty: "I hate seeing it where trophy hunting is such a big thing that, you can have an amazing hunt, an amazing experience. And when you get up to your animal, if it's 10 inches less than you want to be, that totally ruins the hunt for some guys. That's one thing I hate about trophy hunting. A guy's just gotta take in the experience more than anything. The experience is where it's all at anyways."
"And I think a lot of that has to do too with how hard you've worked for it. I would say most of my backcountry hunts are extremely difficult. They're just tickled pink when they get one. Cause they have worked their butt off for it. Maybe for hunters who don't work quite as hard, that trophy thing comes into play a little bit more."
Mike: "I think as you get older, I know for me like the experience is the trophy."
Locke: "When you said as you get older and you hunt more, it becomes so much more about the experiences and that rings true to me because I've gotten to that point. My desires as a hunter have changed."
"When I go out Whitetail hunting, my objective is to match wits with a mature animal and get that animal in bow range and be able to take him. And if I'm hunting in an area where a mature animal is growing 130 inches of horns, he is the same adversary in terms of the hunt and the experience as in another place where they are growing bigger."
"I've had opportunities to go out West and do different hunts. And I have been waiting and buying my time because this is the kind of hunt I wanted to do. I wanted to do something that was more wilderness experience."
"And you get two ends of the spectrum with hunters. You have the trophy hunter that is dead set on the score and the size of the animal and the guy that tries to claim that they don't care anything about that. They just want to eat the meat. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. All of us at some point learn to be hunters and learn to be outdoorsmen and go out in the woods. And at some point in that process, every one of us dreams of killing the big buck or catching the biggest fish. So there's always a hope that there's that trophy animal of a lifetime around the next corner or behind the next tree. But there's a happy ground in between that'll make you a much happier, more fulfilled hunter."
Any other advice you could give to hunters thinking about coming out for a western elk hunt?
Rusty: "Have some faith in your guide. I wouldn't have them guiding you unless I didn't think knew what they were doing or would do you a good job. Perfect story that I could throw in on that. I was guiding a guy last year and we'd been seeing elk every day at the head of this basin. And he had numerous opportunities. And one day I told him I wanted to switch up where we were going and I told him about another really good meadow. And he just kept fighting me on it. He didn't go there. Finally, I talked him into it and we hunted throughout the day and didn't see a whole lot. And we were coming back. He just was convinced there were no elk in that part of the basin and he basically had given up hunting. He looked at me and said "Hey, I'm done. I just want to get back to camp. I'm done hunting." And it wasn't 10 seconds after that, we walked right into a big bull right on the edge of the meadow."
"I think most guides aren't going to take you somewhere if we don't think there is a possibility to get you an animal. I mean it's already a ton of work. So definitely listen to your guides. We will do anything to get you a bull. I mean, we will try anything. And if you do have a suggestion, we're more than open to hearing it. But we'll do anything and give you the best odds we can. So just listen to your guide and if you do have a suggestion, throw it out and we'll try it."
Locke: "You [as a hunter] have to do your job upfront to know what you're walking into with anything in life. And that includes when you're choosing an outfitter, you wanna do your homework and make sure that there's some reputable reference there. But then just try to sit back and enjoy it. Let the guide do their job. There's not a lot of value to them having someone not be successful."
Rusty: "Another thing you gotta remember too is your guide is human. And there are times we may mistake and maybe blow opportunities because we play a scenario, but that's just hunting. You're gonna make mistakes, you and your guide. But you just work together and push through and just keep hunting and you'll get opportunities."
Where can people find out about you and what you offer?
"For those listeners who have Instagram accounts, you can find me on Instagram. I post a little bit of everything on there - mainly just my taxidermy, my trips, and my hunting. But I offer fishing trips, pack trips, and camping trips. I can offer you access to King's peak if you want to climb that mountain."
"The majority of what I offer is mountain goat hunts and archery elk hunts here in northeastern Utah. So if there is something like that I can help you out with feel free to give me a call I'll help you out any way I can. And aside from that, I'm an avid hunter myself. I know a lot about hunting in Utah and I can help you out if you have a question. I love to talk about hunting so reach out if you want to know more."
Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of the Skre Country Podcast. Until next time!