No critter I have bowhunted with some frequency has been more humbling than hunting wilderness elk on my own. I am not talking about places where elk are thick and killing one is more a matter of being a competent archer than a skilled woodsman. Places like high-dollar private ranch hunts in New Mexico, for example, or one of the many game ranches that are springing up like weeds these days, or those places the cable TV hunting stars go. I’m talking about elk that live wild and free across the mountains and badlands, where steep terrain and high elevation strain even a young man’s body, the winds are always squirrelly, and the brush thick as the summer air over L.A.
I mean, look at the statistics. Even on a guided hunt with an honest outfit staffed with skilled guides, success rates on wilderness fair chase elk hunts are rarely more than 40 percent on any bull. State statistics show that archery elk hunters rarely punch 20 percent of their tags. Despite what you read in the magazines and see on hunting videos and TV shows, taking a mature bull on a fair chase DIY elk hunt is about as easy as finding a truthful politician in an election year.
With the tag draws over and results looming, you’ll soon know whether or not you drew a coveted limited-entry elk tag for this fall. Most articles you read on elk hunting tell you how to get a shot. That’s great.
Here, however, are the Top 10 reasons why most people will never arrow an elk.
10) You Don’t Have A Plan
The best way to hunt elk is to begin with a game plan built around basic hunting strategy. It should be designed around the terrain, season, current weather conditions and prevalent hunting pressure. Then be ready to adapt to the activity patterns of the elk themselves. Staying flexible is critical – but the key is to do your homework and research the area months in advance, and not just wander around the woods willy-nilly, hoping to find some elk.
9) You’re Not a Wind-Doping Fanatic
You can take this to the bank – elk have incredible noses, and the smell of humans will send them into a panic, every time. When the wind is wrong, do whatever it takes to make it right before moving closer. In mountain country, the wind is almost always swirling or blowing crossways, not perfectly from the elk to you. Heck, if you waited for a perfect wind, you’d never move closer! You must be constantly monitoring the wind, making your move when it lets you and backing the heck out of there when it is wrong.
8) Ants in Your Pants
Elk have incredible eyesight. When you are calling a bull in, they will know the exact tree or bush you’ve just called from, and they’ll be looking for you. Sometimes they come in slow, but if you get impatient and move you can be sure the bull is right there and will see you. When he does, it’s adios, amigo. That’s why having two hunters working together, one calling and the other set up out front 50 yards or so, is so deadly. The bull comes in looking for the caller, hangs up 50-100 yards away when he can’t find that other elk, and whack!
7) You Call Just Fine
If you are going to call elk, you have to become the very best bugler and cow caller you can be, proficient with as many types of calls as you can. The time to learn is before your hunt, not when you get to camp.
6) You Call Too Much
Many experienced bowhunters have learned that calling at mature bulls is a great way to ruin everything. Instead, they call rarely, if at all. Often the very best technique of all is to locate the elk, get in front of the herd as it moves to and from bedding areas and food sources, and set up a silent ambush, or set a tree stand over a wallow or water hole.
5) You Think You’re Plenty Tough
A guide I hunted with two years ago said it all. “A lot of the clients can only hike around for a day or two, then they’re shot,” he said. “So when we get a bull bugling, I try and assess whether or not they can physically go get that elk without scaring him off. A lot of the time that answer is ‘nope,’ so we don’t even try. Or I won’t take them into a place where I know they can’t handle it. Or when the wind is swirling, if they can’t move quickly so we can keep it right, we won’t try it.” To give yourself the best possible chance, start getting in shape months before your hunt. It will pay big dividends.
4) You Think You’re Robin Hood
When the heavens smile and present a shot opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. And that usually isn’t a broadside bull standing in the middle of a meadow at close range waiting for you to get it together. The bulls are often moving through the thick stuff and you may only have a few precious seconds to make it happen. Bowhunters dream of calling a big bull to within spitting distance, where it turns broadside and there is no brush in the way. That rarely happens. Often the elk is out there 40 or 50 yards and there is just a small shot window through thick brush and tree limbs, often at a steep downhill angle, and you don’t have time to use the rangefinder. Stay within your own personal limitations, but prior to the season spend a lot of time pushing those limits to become a better shot at distance. You’ll never regret it.
3) You Can’t Take Enough Time
Elk live in big country, and it can take days just to find a bull to hunt. Once you find a bull, the things that can go wrong are endless. If you have to travel any distance to hunt elk, taking less than a full week makes no sense. Ten days is better, and if you can pull it off, allowing two weeks is primo. Bottom line: you cannot take enough time when your goal is a mature bull elk.
2) You’re Afraid to Spook Them
Too many people hunt elk too passively. That is, when they finally locate a good bull, they spend too much time trying to figure out what to do, then watch as the bull walks off. The best way to get it done is find a bull, assess the situation – wind direction and speed, terrain, the number of other elk (and deer) in the immediate area, the elk’s attitude, their speed and direction of travel – and when you see a window of opportunity, go for it! When I locate a bull, I try and close the gap as quickly as possible, wait for an opening, then aggressively make my move while continuing to monitor the external variables, adjusting accordingly. Sure, I’ve blown it. But I’ve blown it more often by not making a move.
1) You’re A Trophy Hunter
Watch the videos and TV shows and read the hunting magazines, and you’ll think that a bull that’s not a huge 5×5 or big 6×6 is a dink, not worthy of a serious elk hunter’s broadhead. Horse poop! In the real world of elk hunting, there’s no such thing as a bad bull elk. Heck, even a cow elk can be tough to tag at times. If you’re a public land hunter and want to hold out for a bull with lots of bone on his head, that’s great – just be prepared to eat some tag soup.
Elk hunters: drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and share some stories and photos with me! I’d love to hear from you.
Featured image: John Hafner