Updated: May 14, 2020
Unit 23 is one of the very best trophy elk units, not only in Arizona, but the entire country.
The Arizona Game and Fish manage the elk herd in unit 23 for older age class and high bull to cow ratios. This is accomplished by issuing a good number of cow tags and lower number of bull tags.
If you are into early season elk hunting, unit 23 can be a fantastic hunt due to bulls competing with each other for limited numbers of cows. This leads to a lot of bugling and unlike many other units in Arizona, the bulls often bugle late into the morning and even all day long under the right circumstances.
The late hunts are also very good as unit 23 is very glassable. There are many deep canyons and steep, open, south facing slopes that bulls love during the late season. When its cold and snowy, the south facing slopes will be warmer and the snow usually does not get as deep, which makes for easier feeding.
Glassing the sunny slopes at first light can often turn up many 6 point, mature bulls on one mountain or canyon slope. The southern and middle sections of the unit has the best glassing, but is rugged and often you can see a bull across a canyon, but getting to him can be an hour or more hike or maybe there will not be a way to get to him at all due to the steepness of the canyon, cliffs, etc.
There are also several burns in the unit that hold elk all year long. These are more productive in the northern third of the unit, in ponderosa pine areas.
There are a lot of roads in unit 23, especially in the northern half. The southern half is more rugged with less roads and the roads that are there can be really rough. If you are in good shape and can hike steep and deep country, the southern section of the unit can be a fantastic hunt. Lower tag numbers but also lower elk numbers. Getting back into canyons that other people will not go in can result in a huge, old wise bull.
The Northern section can be rugged too, especially around the rim and the Haigler Creek areas. Hikes into these areas will be shorter due to the number of roads but it will still be steep and more forested.
There are also 3 Wilderness Areas in unit 23. Salome Wilderness, Sierra Ancha and parts of the Hells Gate Wilderness areas. All of these hold elk and being wilderness areas, no motor vehicles are allowed.
A backpack hunt into any of these areas, can produce a big a bull. Be aware that water can be hard to find during dry years so plan accordingly.
Elk need three things – Food, Water and Bedding (shelter) areas. Areas that lack any of these three components will not likely hold a large number of elk. Elk, especially bulls, will travel long distances on a daily basis to get food and water but areas that have all three within a close proximity will be hot spots.
Feeding, Bedding and Water
Elk are primarily grass eaters. They like open areas to feed in where the sun gets down to the ground causing grasses to grow. These area are more prevalent on south and south east facing slopes. Glassing these areas at very first light will often reveal elk as long as they have not been disturbed. When pressure builds or areas near roads, the elk might only feed in the open areas at night. When looking for feeding areas on maps or even better, Google Earth, look for south facing, open slopes or canyon faces. Usually there will be a mixture of junipers, pinyons, and a few pines on the slopes but for the moth part it will be open. This is where grass grows the best. Burns on a south facing slope can be fantastic. The ashes and rotting, fallen, timber provide a nutrient soil for grass to grow. Burns are pretty easy to see on Google Earth but unless you have some data on the fire, you don’t know how old the burn is. At the bottom of this article is a link to download Google Earth Fire data will give the year of the fire. The best burns are 2-6 years old, but they can all be good and should not be overlooked.
Bedding areas will almost always be on a north or northeast, northwest slope. This is where pines and thick junipers can be found that provide shade and cover for the elk during the day. Look for thickly vegetated areas on steep slopes. There is often water at the bottom of a steep slope. Water close to the bedding areas makes it easy for the elk to get a drink before heading out to feed or as they are heading to the bedding areas in the morning.
Hunting bedding areas can be difficult. The best way is to get on the opposite slope and glass with tripod mounted binoculars or spotting scopes. I prefer binoculars as the field of view is larger. Sitting on a knob glassing thick timer takes patience but it can turn up elk while everyone else is back at their camp.
Elk will often get up during the day to feed around within the bedding areas, in small openings. Also, they will get up and move if their shady bed starts getting warm as the sun moves across the sky. They will get up and find shade if their bed gets sunny and warm. This is a great time to be glassing.
Water is abundant in unit 23. There are a few streams that have running water, even during drought years. There are also many cattle tanks. Most have roads nearby but there are so many that all of them cannot be pressured by hunters.
Elk, unlike deer, need to water everyday. Even in the winter. When looking for elk hunting areas always start with locating water. Elk will travel a long ways to get water if needed but obviously will they would prefer to have food, cover and water nearby, so look for tanks or streams with bedding areas nearby.
The screen capture above from Google Earth shows typical:
Bedding areas (green arrows)
Feeding areas (red arrows)
Water (blue arrows).
There is a link at the bottom of this article to a file download that will highlight water tanks in blue and make them much easier to find in Google Earth. Make sure to check it out before starting your pre-season "E-scouting" efforts.
Glassing is by far the best way to hunt the later seasons. Getting on a high knob where you can look over large areas of land will almost always turn up at least a few elk. You will need to find your points before you start scouting and hunting so that you can be in the spot at very first light. Elk, especially bulls, will start heading toward bedding areas soon after the sun rises. Being at your glassing spot before daylight will give a much better chance of spotting a bull or cow.
When looking at Google earth or maps, look for steep slopes where you get on the top or near the top and not have brush and trees blocking your view.
For morning hunts you want to locate a glassing knob that will allow you to look to the west or northwest so that you can glass the open south and southeast facing slopes where the elk will likely be feeding.
You will also need to find some glassing spots that will allow you to look at north facing slopes starting mid morning to find elk in bedding areas.
Knife edge type ridges are good because you can often glass the feeding areas in the morning and then take a short hike to the other side of the ridge and glass bedding areas.
Bulls in unit 23 will be looking for cows on the early rifle and archery hunts, so you should be scouting for cows during your pre-season scouting efforts. So when you are glassing these feeding and bedding areas for a early season hunt, look for the cows and don't so worried about finding bulls until they have rubbed their velvet and moved toward their preferred rutting areas.
Bulls in the late hunt will almost always head to a steep remote canyon or mountain with feed,, bedding and water nearby so they can rest up and recover from the rut and put on weight for the winter.
Unit 23 Scouting Packages and Downloads
We offer one and two day scouting packages in unit 23 (and all other units too) for Coues Deer, Mule Deer, Elk, Javelina and Bear.
Go here for more info on these affordable options for DIY hunters.
you can find more information on our scouting trip here - More Info
Each scouting package will include the following:
1 or 2 days of scouting (appx 10-12 days before opening day)
Link to the same video on Youtube (set to private so only you can see it)
Maps marked with each location
Google earth KML File with markers for each location
GPX file for uploading the GPS coordinates to your GPS or GPS APP
Written description with pictures of each locatio
Unit Data - downloadable
We also have data that can be instantly downloaded. It an accumulation of data we have complied over the years on unit 23.
It includes GPS waypoints, Photos, Google Earth Links and a written description of each location. Downloadable Unit data