Unit 23 Elk

Updated: Jan 31

2021 update - During 2019, the late hunt in November became very difficult after opening day as a huge snow storm dumped several FEET of snow and made travel very difficult and impossible for many. Many hunters either went home for safety's sake or found themselves unable to get to the elk because of road and hiking conditions. This accounted for a lot of bulls that would have otherwise been killed making it into the 2020 hunting seasons.

Following that, we had the worse monsoon season ever with virtually no real rain for months. This made the archery elk hunt very difficult as the bugling and rutting behavior normally experienced on this premiere hunt was sporadic at best.

What that means is that there should be a lot of older bulls that still alive that would have normally been killed.

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.

Bull elk hunting arizona unit 23
Glassing a burn for bull elk in unit 23, Arizona

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.

Wilderness elk hunt unit 23 arizona
Wilderness Areas Unit 23

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.

arizona fire data
Example of fire data available for Arizona public lands

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.

Unit 23 elk feeding and bedding areas
Typical feed, bedding and watering areas in Unit 23

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.