Wrapping your hands around a bull’s rack for the first time is a feeling that goes unmatched. Hunting elk requires more than just having the right equipment—it requires proper planning and preparation as well. The elk hunting veterans at KUIU have compiled their best tips and tricks for a first-time elk hunt.
1. PRESEASON SCOUT YOUR ELK UNIT FROM EVERY ANGLE.
Once you have the state and unit you’re hunting nailed down, it’s best to dissect it in every way possible to make a calculated decision on where to hunt elk. You’ll need to understand where elk are getting the following 5 things:
- Human pressure
- Bedding or sanctuary areas
- Rutting areas (Find the cow elk)
Human pressure has a direct effect on elk behavior and patterns. Take into consideration where the pressure is coming from—near roads and trails—and you’ll have a better idea of where to start looking for elk.
Studying aerial photography and topo maps of the unit are a fantastic way to familiarize yourself with a hunting area. Highlight all the roads and trails that could gain you access to more remote areas. It may also help identify areas or pockets within high-pressure areas where elk are hanging out.
We have a lot of tech at our fingertips, but nothing is better than preseason scouting trips. Glassing in the early mornings and evenings, coupled with driving and hiking the trail systems during the day will offer a lay-of-the-land approach that can’t be accomplished from looking at maps or the latest high-tech phone apps.
Keep in mind where you find them in the summer months, might not be where they’ll be during the rut. Often bull elk will migrate off their summer range into a different area to find cows. Use your scouting trips to look for heavily used wallows and rubs on trees. Elk are nomadic, so they don’t necessarily follow yearly or daily patterns.
If it’s legal in your state, setting up trail cams on an elk wallow or heavily used trails could give you an inside look. In heavily timbered areas lacking in vantage points, it may be the only way to get a glimpse before your hunt starts.
2. GATHER HUNTING UNIT INFORMATION FROM OTHER HUNTERS.
Ask around, so you know where not to go. Hunters are their own worst enemy when it comes to public land elk hunting spots. Asking fellow hunters, engaging in online forums and following region-specific social media pages will turn-up the most popular places in the unit—areas you may want to avoid. There’s a lot of information to be had by perusing these outlets—knowing how to use this info will require some craftsmanship on your part.
Keeping tabs on the hunters that like to post videos, trail camera images, and harvest photos from specific areas will also give you an idea of what the unit has to offer. If you’re hunting a limited draw elk tag, knowing a fellow hunter that has hunted it prior may be priceless.
There’s a lot to be learned by contacting the area wildlife biologist. Keep in mind, what they tell you won’t be a secret, you’ll be getting the same information as any other hunter who asks.
Once you have identified all the popular spots, highlight them on your map system, along with the roads and trails, and you’ll notice areas that aren’t getting talked about. Areas that might be too far for others to venture off into. If the area has good feed, cover, and water—it’s likely holding elk.
If you don’t want people knowing where you’re scouting or hunting, don’t talk or post online about it. If you ask any of the hunters at KUIU about the best places to hunt elk, we’ll tell you to check out the head of Lettuce Creek, just South of the North end.
3. THE BEST PRACTICE FOR SCENT CONTROL IS READING THE WIND.
You may fool an elk’s eyes and ears, but never their nose. The absolute best practice for scent control is learning to read and play the wind.
There’s an entire scent eliminator industry, countless articles and numerous rituals dedicated to scent killer and elimination. Nearly every hunter has tried to find the best odor eliminating techniques, however, elk hunting is intense, it’s a workout like no other. You’re going to sweat and you’re going to smell, and even if you do buy into all the scent control hype, the elk will still smell you.
You’re better off to go with a layering system that’s lightweight and breathes well. This will keep you comfortable and minimize sweat and odor. KUIU’s lightweight synthetics are treated to reduce odor, which makes the gear a must-have for elk hunting. You may also consider the ULTRA Merino Collection. Merino is naturally antimicrobial. Keep in mind this is more for your nose, not the elk—they’ll smell you regardless.
By studying and monitoring the prevailing morning, midday and evening wind patterns, you’ll know the angle to take when you glass up a herd of elk. Religiously use a wind checker to keep tabs on what the wind is doing. If you’re getting close and the wind changes on you, and it’s not too late, have the discipline to back out and try from another angle or wait it out for the wind directions to normalize. Walk away from them before they run away from you.
4. LIMIT YOUR CALLING.
If you were to ask a panel of a dozen of the industry’s best elk hunters their take on the subject—you’ll get as many answers. Elk are callable, but they’re also smart—in areas that have historically had a lot of hunters, the elk have likely heard every brand of elk bugle and elk call ever made.
Even if you’re good at calling, a wise elk knows the herd. They’re around each other year-round. Sometimes you may fool them, other times you’re just announcing they are about to be hunted. If the elk are bugling a lot at each other, you shouldn’t have to call—get the wind right and slip in while they’re occupied calling to each other.
It is indeed possible to lure in a vulnerable bull with a cow elk call, especially during the elk rut—hunters are successfully doing it every year, however, when hunters that consistently take huge bulls (375+ B&C) are asked their techniques, most will say they use calls quite sparingly.
If you decide to blow the reed, and the elk are talking, but not immediately coming in, that’s an opportunity to have the caller stay back at a non-threatening distance, keeping the bugling bull occupied and let the hunter work in for a closer look and a possible shot.
5. THE BEST HUNTING TACTIC VARIES FROM HUNTER TO HUNTER.
There’s more than one way to get an elk on the ground. Often the most challenging elk hunts are the most rewarding. If you like hunting mule deer, utilizing similar spot-and-stalk tactics on elk may be effective—spotting a worthy bull, getting the wind in your favor and slipping in undetected for a clean shot is something to experience.
Some hunters enjoy the rush of calling them in. It is something to behold. Sorry turkey hunters, there’s nothing like watching a giant trophy bull that’s ready to fight come into a call. On public land, that most of us get to hunt, those occasions are rare. Though it is a great way to notch your tag on a satellite or younger bull.
Another favorite for call-shy elk is knowing the terrain, calculating where they’re headed, getting the wind in your favor and setting up for a shot as the herd passes by. This takes some hustle and endurance.
Setting up in a blind or treestand on a heavily used trail or water source and waiting them out is also a successful method, but not a favorite among the hunters at KUIU.
Whether you’re hunting with a rifle, muzzleloader, or bow, treat it the same. Spend a lot of quality time glassing. This is one aspect that is overlooked by new hunters. It takes a lot of practice and patience to get good at glassing.
Check out our founder, Jason Hairston, bow hunting in beautiful Montana.
6. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.
If you’re just getting started with elk hunting, get out and experience what it’s like. You’ll learn more in one day of actual elk hunting than what you’ll ever learn by reading 100 elk hunting articles.
If hunting regulations permit, don’t be ashamed to take any legal elk. Many elk hunting states like Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Montana offer over-the-counter or land-owner tag elk hunting opportunities.
Finally, always make sure you’re properly geared up for the hunt. Explore our top elk hunting gear, including early and late season hunting gear.