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Hunting elk in the western mountains is a dream of many
bowhunters. Lots of bowhunters make this dream happen every year. You should too.
Life is short and new adventures await you, so if you’re looking for some elk
adventure, start planning now. A do-it-yourself hunt for elk will be one of
your most exciting and remembered hunts. Elk are found in every western state,
and through efforts of sportsmen and women, are now more common in our eastern
states as well. Elk make their home in every type of habitat imaginable. They
are found in the high alpine basins above timberline at 12,000 feet, the
low-lying deserts of the southwest, the jungle-like forests of the western
coast, the foothills of the Rockies and the
hardwoods of eastern states.
Except for certain isolated regions, elk populations are increasing
throughout the west and overall trophy quality is excellent. States are managing
populations better for quality elk, and recent record book entries reflect
those efforts. Utah, New
Mexico, Nevada and Arizona continue to
produce whopper bulls, consequently, it is tough to draw a tag in these states. States
like Wyoming and Montana
give you a more reasonable chance to draw, and states like Colorado,
have great drawing odds or even offer over-the-counter tags. Most states have a 2-4
week bow season and Montana
allows bowhunters about 6 weeks.
As a beginning elk hunter, try not to set unrealistic goals
for yourself. Taking any elk with your bow is a great accomplishment. I know
everyone wants a huge bull the first time out but, like with all hunting,
experience pays off. There are several states you can hunt elk in every year, so
don’t set your sights too high the first time out. Unless your western elk hunt
will be a once in a lifetime hunt for you, or you want a Pope and Young scoring
bull your first time out, I suggest a DIY hunt. Decent bulls are plentiful
in many areas and provide an affordable, enjoyable hunt. I strongly suggest taking
any elk that you like, even a cow, to build experience for that
once-in-a-lifetime tag you may draw sometime. When you plan your bowhunt, give yourself at
least 7-10 days of hunting time, preferably 2 full weeks. Elk hunting is hard
work, and experience, persistence and number of days in the field directly
correlate to success.
Remember, you can’t kill a big bull if you don’t hunt. Each of the states that allow you to hunt every year have record book bulls available for
bow hunters, and I recommend hunting elk in one or more of these states every
year. The more elk hunting experience you have, the better your
chances of being successful when you do draw a premium tag. Experience counts in
the elk hunting game. Every year you hunt, you will find yourself fine tuning
your skills based on previous encounters.
Overall, I would choose the third week in September as the
peak rut period and the best time to be hunting. Each individual state and area
varies, but it’s a sure bet that by hunting the third week you will encounter rut
Planning and Research
Doing a little state-by-state research is your first order
of business. Check out the different game and fish agencies on the
internet for each state. Study and compare. Lots of decisions need to be made. Are you going
to begin applying for hard to draw trophy areas planning for future hunts? It
can be a very expensive endeavor! Several states require you to purchase a non-refundable,
non-resident hunting license just to apply for a special tag. Are you just
going to go to a state where you can hunt every year? Personally, I recommend
both if you can afford it. Go ahead and apply for those hard to draw tags, but
before you draw those tags, you can gain valuable experience by hunting elk
wherever you can. Researching the Pope and Young records might help you narrow
your focus to a few specific counties in a state you are interested in. Contact
the state Game and Fish department and ask to speak to the biologist and game
warden assigned to your area of interest. Direct the conversation to where elk
typically summer and spend the month of September. Gather Forest
Service or BLM maps and you’re on your way.
Equipment and Camouflage
Use what you are comfortable and confident with. Period.
It’s more important to put your arrow on target with a 50# bow, than struggle
to shoot accurately with a 70# bow. Most all of today’s bows pack plenty of
Kinetic energy to get the job done. Broadheads fall into the same category. Use
what you are comfortable with.
I do have suggestions for camouflage. While elk do not see
nearly as well as deer, it is still very important to blend in to the local
vegetation. Dark camo patterns are not very effective and I don’t recommend
them. Some proven patters I have used are Seclusion 3D Open Country ™, Mossy
Oak Brush®, Advantage Max-1 Open Terrain™ and Cabelas Outfitter Camo™. My
favorite clothing and camouflage I use exclusively now is Sitka Gear (www.sitkagear.com ). It is excellent
camouflage for any habitat. The technical strengths of Sitka’s clothing and their layering system are
hard to beat for elk hunting in any terrain or conditions.
Finding elk can be difficult, but if you have done your
research properly it will minimize your search time. In warm weather, elk will
typically bed on north and east facing timbered slopes. They prefer small
benches on these steep slopes and when you find a bedding area, the amount of
elk sign will be significant. My favorite way to find elk in familiar or new
country is to find a high vantage point and sit and glass for hours in the
morning or evening. Your elevated position will let you see for miles and also
let you hear bugling elk from a distance. If the habitat isn’t suitable for glassing, it’s time to put some miles on your boots. Don’t get into the hunting
mode right away. Elk inhabit big country and you may travel miles before you
find elk. Cover as much country as possible until you find fresh sign. Then you
can slow down and begin calling or still-hunting. Also, key-in on water sources
shown on your maps to increase your odds of finding elk sign.
The last thing any bowhunter wants to do is blow the shot after all the effort just to get an opportunity. Sadly, I don’t know anyone who is immune to this and even the best miss occasionally. There are ways to improve your odds of a successful shot. Preparation is a key factor, both physical and mental preparation. We’ve all heard you should practice while wearing our hunting gear. If you don’t, you should. Every small aspect of your practice session can make a big difference at crunch time. The mental preparation is just as important. My favorite practice sessions are “roaming” or “stump shooting” days. I wear full hunting gear, including binoculars and backpack and roam through the woods or sagebrush shooting Judo tipped arrows at likely targets. I treat every shot like I’m shooting at a bull of a lifetime, using visualization. I’ll spot a sagebrush or stump, picture it in my mind as a big bull elk and stalk it exactly like I would if I were hunting. I will crouch, crawl and often shoot from uncomfortable or unfamiliar positions. The whole point is to simulate as many hunting situations as you can, as often as you can.
Every elk hunter should have a basic mastery of bugles and
cow calls. What types of calls you use is irrelevant, but without them you are
limiting your chance for success. Personally, I don’t call much, but I know how
and when to call and it can be effective. Usually I call only to locate elk and
then stalk or still hunt them. Also, be sure to check out the instructional University of Elk Hunting DVD’s by Elk101.com and
7-time world champion elk caller, Corey Jacobsen.
Stalking - Take Chances to Make Chances
My crew and I mostly utilize hunting tactics that are familiar to
everyone. Calling, decoys, still hunting, sitting water
holes, wallows, and spot and stalk are all part of our repertoire. Usually what puts meat in the freezer and
antlers on the wall every year is just our tenacity, aggressiveness and willingness
to try just about anything. We relate taking chances to making chances and we
are very persistent. Big herd bulls are especially difficult to call away from
their cows, and many bulls now-a-days seem to be getting more “call shy”. That’s
why we prefer to stalk our bulls. We usually spot our elk first, or hear them
bugle, then close the gap quickly, often in plain sight if we have to. You even need to run in certain situations. Physical fitness can make a huge difference in you chances for
success in the Elk world.
Simple basics: Try to
move when the elk are moving or feeding. You can stalk elk in open terrain much
easier than a deer. Movement, unless you have plenty of cover, should be extremely
slow and directly at your target. Lateral movement is a sure way to get busted.
Concentration should be on the elk, not on your feet. Freeze when they lift
their head, DO NOT suddenly drop or crouch. It’s a sure way to get
busted. We often walk and crawl up on elk in low sagebrush habitat, utilizing
scant cover when available or slow, direct movement when cover is not
available. It works. Knee pads and elbow pads are a definite help in the
final stages of your stalk. Balance your bow on your back while crawling. It
makes much less noise and movement than pushing or pulling it. Baer’s feet over
your boots are recommended, or if not in cactus country, I prefer to slip my
boots off and pull an extra pair of wool socks on over the cuff of my pants.
This is even quieter than Baer’s feet and doesn’t have as much bulk to snag on
Another tip, if at all possible, is to get to the mountains
during summer scouting trips and practice stalking elk with a camera to
experience for yourself what you can get away with. Every bit of time you spend
with elk will make you a better hunter.
I am always pumped to get right into a stalk when I spot a
good bull, but experience has taught me to take my time and analyze my stalking
route and what the wind currents might be doing near the elk. Knowing that, often, stalks are blown by other unseen animals, I study the terrain in between, looking for any deer or other elk that might be obstacles during my stalk.
An elk decoy can be a tremendous help with bulls. We use Head’s
Up Decoys with good results. Sometimes when we can’t close that final gap
during a stalk, we’ll find a place to set up for a shot, slip back 30-50 yards
and set up the decoy. Always remember to set-up on the downwind side of the
decoy and at least a little ways out in front. Since the decoy will most likely
be a two dimensional silhouette, you will need to shoot before the bull can
circle downwind for a better view. Also make sure you have cover to get back to
your shooting position because once you set up the decoy; the bull may be
focused in your direction or even on the move toward you. Once the decoy is up
and you’ve made it to your shooting setup, a few soft cow calls will often do
the trick, especially with the visual help from the decoy. Several bulls have
ended up in the freezer from this method. Another great time to use a decoy is
when you are not able to get in front of a traveling herd. Get as close as
possible and use the same setup technique.
It is sometimes possible to pull the bull from his herd, making him
think he lost a cow.
When preparing for a shot at a bull, I personally have to
tell myself over and over not to look at the antlers and to pick a spot. It’s
the only thing I’ve tried that works for me and keeps my nerves settled. My
buddy, Jason Stafford, is pretty much on auto-pilot when he’s drawing down on
an animal. He very seldom misses. He tells himself “Make it count. Put him
down”. Randy Ulmer says when he is finally in range of an animal he wants, he
tells himself “Don’t screw it up!” “Think, think, think”. Randy thinks through
every single step and tries to be very aware of the target animal and others
that may be around. “There are a hundred ways to mess up and get busted with an
animal that close, and you must think through every movement you want to make
before doing it”. When everything is right, Randy tells himself “Now all you
have to do is shoot.” These are four key things Randy focuses on for the actual
shot. “1. Make sure of the distance. 2. Use the right pin and put it on the
exact spot. 3. Check for any branches or intervening objects. 4. Squeeze and follow
It’s important to figure out what works for you and keeps
you somewhat sane at “Crunch Time”.
Unless I have a routine, mental checklist or phrase I can repeat to
myself, the urge to just let the arrow go is overwhelming. Experiment with different things to find what
works for you and keeps your nerves under control.
Like I said, tenacity and persistence can make up for many shortfalls that a hunter might have. Persistence to me is making time to hunt and hunting every available minute of that time. This may mean driving all night if you have to reach your elk area, so you don’t waste precious hunting hours driving, or rearranging a work schedule so you can hunt every afternoon or morning. Persistence also means hunting when you are tired and sore; when you miss your family, when you are lonely and when you are scared. And when you hunt in grizzly bear country, there will be fear involved. Persistence means you will not give up; period. I am fortunate to live in elk country and I hunt all thirty days of September. If I tag out early, I have friends to go with and help. Every minute, hour or day you can spend in the field adds to your elk hunting knowledge. It may not seem like much at the time, but when accumulated over a few years it can sure make the difference for you.
Tenacity to me is all a state of mind. It’s an attitude that says “I will get my elk today”. I never go hunting without actually expecting that I will succeed. While my hunt quality is never defined by my being successful, that is my ultimate goal and I push myself hard to meet it. I never get down if I don’t see or harvest an animal. I remind myself that it just means the next time out I will see one and get one. No matter what the conditions are, or how you are feeling, you must keep that positive attitude at all times. It will make a difference. Tenacity is seeing a nice bull a mile away, with only a little daylight left, and going for it. It is hunting when you have sore muscles or injuries. It’s hunting on little or no sleep. Tenacity is waking up to rain, snow, wind or cold, getting out of your sleeping bag and hunting anyway. It’s going alone when no one else can go. It’s hunting harder and going further and not giving up when game is scarce. It’s an attitude, and it works.
Be open to alternative hunting methods and don’t hesitate to
try something out of the ordinary. It will make you a better hunter. Have fun
and make your elk hunting dream come true. If you don’t succeed the first year,
don’t be discouraged. You will have gained valuable experience for the next