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The Art of D.I.Y Elk

Sep 16, 2015 |  #hoyt #compound #bowhunting

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By Ron Niziolek

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, Idaho, Oregon and Washington 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.  

Do-it-yourself- Preparation

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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 activity.

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.

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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

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.

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Practice

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.

Hunting Methods

Calling

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.

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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 brush.  

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.

Decoying

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.

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The Shot

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 through.”

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.

 ATTITUDE

Persistence

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.  

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Tenacity

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.

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Conclusion

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 time.

Good luck out there!

Ron Niziolek