Although Cornhusker hunters have been traveling to Rocky Mountain states like Colorado and Montana to pursue elk for decades, elk hunting closer to home has been gaining popularity recently.
That’s because Nebraska has a burgeoning elk population. Sightings, especially in western Nebraska but also in other portions of the state, have become increasingly common as elk populations have grown and expanded.
According to Kit Hams, big game program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, elk have been around for some time.
“They came in on their own starting in the 1960s,” Hams said. “Most came from Wyoming, but some from South Dakota. The NGPC did not introduce elk.”
This natural reintroduction eventually led to sustainable elk numbers to the point that they could be hunted within our borders. According to Hams, Nebraska held its first modern elk season in 1986, albeit on a limited basis.
However, in the last 20 years elk hunting in Nebraska has really taken off. Since 1995, an elk season has been held continuously in the Pine Ridge region.
As populations increased, so did opportunities, resulting in increasingly more Nebraska elk hunters deciding to try their luck in-state.
Two such hunters were local elk aficionados Terry Dvorak of Wolbach and his son Kevin Dvorak of Dannebrog.
Last fall, the father-son duo filled their once-in-a-lifetime Nebraska bull elk tags, although they each went about it differently.
On opening day of the archery season, Sept. 15, Kevin arrowed his bull while hunting Metcalf Wildlife Management Area in northwestern Nebraska.
“I had this bull at 80 yards for about 1 1/2 hours, until my dad came walking down the hill behind me and made some noise,” Kevin said. “The bull must have also heard my dad and thought he was an elk, because he started coming closer.”
The bull advanced to within 52 yards, but then suddenly stopped. As luck would have it, his vitals were hidden behind three trees, so the wait was on.
“I was able to range-find him and knew he was exactly 52 yards,” the younger Dvorak said. “When he finally took a couple steps out from behind the trees, I made a cow call. He stopped to look, and I was able to make a perfect heart shot.”
For this hunt, Kevin was using a Bear bow and shooting Easton Full Metal Jacket arrows tipped with Muzzy 3-blade broadheads. The arrow passed clean through the bull, which only traveled about 40 yards before piling up.
A few weeks later, on Oct. 5, it would be Terry’s turn. However, for this hunt the elder Dvorak elected to use a rifle instead of a bow, since the rifle season was now open.
“We had bulls bugling from every direction that morning,” said Kevin. “Our hardest decision was trying to decide which bull to go after.”
The duo was sneaking towards one of the more vocal bulls, when another bull snuck up behind them.
“We quickly shifted gears and set our sights on him,” said Kevin.
After a hurried stalk down one hill, across a big hollow and up another hill, the pair stopped and let out one more bugle. The bull appeared 350 yards away.
Kevin told his dad, “There’s your shot.” Terry settled his rifle onto his shooting sticks and squeezed the trigger.
At the shot, the elk disappeared, but both father and son were pretty sure it had been a good hit. They found the bull laying just 10 yards from where Terry had shot him.
For that hunt, which was on private ground, Terry was using a .300 Winchester Magnum rifle shooting a 185-grain Hornady bullet.
The pair believes that the extensive pre-season scouting they did, combined with the good contacts they made with some generous ranchers who graciously allowed them to hunt their land, contributed to their success.
“All the local ranchers we met up there were very good to us and made us feel right at home,” Kevin said. “One family even let us stay in their cabin.”
Kevin said, “The bulls were very responsive to our calls, and we were able to get on a lot of different elk. We did a lot of calling, mainly cow calls, but bugling also got the bulls fired up.”
Although this was Kevin’s first elk hunt, Terry had previously hunted elk in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado.
“Nebraska was, by far, the best elk hunting experience I’ve ever had,” said Terry.
For those who also want to experience Nebraska elk hunting, Hams has some advice for first-timers.
“You simply apply and hope to get drawn,” Hams said. “If you have killed a bull in the past, you can’t get another bull permit. If you’ve drawn an elk permit in the past, you must wait five years to apply again.”
Last year, the application period was in June, and dates should be similar again this year. Also in 2014, the NGPC started issuing drawing bonus points for those who were previously rejected. Permit fees and restrictions are also different for landowners than for other resident hunters. Elk hunting in Nebraska is not available to non-residents. Check out the annual big game guide due out later this spring for specific details and dates.
“More than 1,300 elk have been harvested in Nebraska on about 3,100 permits,” said Hams. “We’ve issued around 300 elk permits each of the past four years with about one-third going to landowners and two-thirds going to resident hunters.”
Although most elk are taken on private land, there is also good hunting available on public ground.
“The Hat Creek, Ash Creek and Bordeaux units have the highest densities of elk,” said Hams. “To my knowledge, nearly all public lands in the Pine Ridge area hold elk all or part of the year.
“The North Platte River unit is also good, but most elk there are taken on private land.”
For those who are up to the challenge but don’t want to travel out of state, it may be time to give Nebraska elk hunting a try.
Jarrod Spilger of Grand Island writes about the outdoors for the Independent.