Avoid Elk Hunting Agony

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Elk are, by their very nature, a difficult animal to hunt. They are smart, have superhero senses and travel in herds – a line of defense that’s hard to beat. They live in pockets of big, tough country, which is difficult even on prepared hunters, and when spooked, they have been known to travel far away.

When a successful elk hunt occurs, it’s nothing short of pure ecstasy. The majestic beauty of taking a proud, regal herd bull, tending to his harem of cows, is unsurpassed. Unfortunately, ecstasy only comes after many lessons of pure agony, but both are experiences that’ll last a lifetime.

It took me 10 years to arrow my first elk. Over those 10 long years, I learned there are five key elements to put the odds in your favour:

  1. Hunt in likely areas with fresh sign
  2. Wear and have the right equipment
  3. Know how to call and set up
  4. Move slowly and cautiously into position
  5. Always be wary of your scent

Do these five things and you’ll avoid the same agony I endured in my quest for the great rocky mountain wapiti.

My Dad always said, “Well planned is half done.” Elk hunting is no exception.

If you want to harvest an elk, you should be hunting an area that has an excellent elk density, meaning many elk to the many miles of land. A poor area, with little or no fresh sign, is not a place to start on opening day. These days, many large elk herds seek refuge on privately owned land. Getting yourself some county maps and asking for permission to hunt these private sanctuaries will definitely increase yours odds and quality of hunt. I’m not suggesting elk aren’t taken on public land, but elk are masters at avoiding people and public areas usually mean more people.

Elk inhabit various terrains throughout western Canada, from the rolling native prairie grasslands to the south-facing grassy slopes of the rugged Rocky Mountain ranges, along with everything in between. Elk often travel to and from prime feeding areas daily and will seek new locations if the forage is sub-par or they’re threatened. Therefore, hunters must be in prime physical condition to seek out elk herds.

Hunting where the sign isn’t fresh is pointless. Don’t hunt where elk were or where you think they may return – hunt where they are. I made this mistake when I first started elk hunting, because I thought it was like moose hunting. It’s not. Elk travel in herds and move often and are social, vocal animals. If you aren’t hearing them or finding lots of fresh scat, then keep hiking until you do.

These days, outdoorsmen are inundated with new gear and immerging technology. Regardless of makes or models, you must have reliable gear and binoculars, boots and clothing are among the most important.

A layered clothing system, which breathes and keeps out the ever-changing weather elements while in elk country, is mandatory. One fall day, while trying to ambush an elk at a watering hole, I had sun shinning in through one window, rain dripping in another and hail pelting the final two sides of my blind. Clothing systems that keep you warm and dry through these varying conditions will keep you hunting longer, increasing your chances for success.

Boots are like the tires on your truck – the wrong size, tread or quality will eventually limit the miles you can put on. Boots should be comfortable, waterproof and broken in before heading afield or, inevitably, blisters will bubble and make the simple task of walking painful or unbearable.

Binoculars are a must to field judge animals. Many places have three-point minimums on bull elk antlers, so count all three before squeezing the trigger – the consequences of a mistake are not worth enduring.

It’s important to note that not all bull elk are six-by-six majestic trophies. Spikes and rag-horns (anything less than a six by six) are common within the herds. The odds of taking a six-by-six bull early in your elk hunting escapades are near fantasy. If you’ve never harvested an elk before, my advice is to take the first legal one that comes into range, or be prepared to end your hunt with an unused tag. Don’t ignore Wildlife Management Units that offer cow elk hunts, either. Cows and calves are plentiful within good elk areas and they’re just as difficult to find and kill. Taking any first elk is thrilling, but difficult. It’ll be tough, but try to constrain your excitement within the hunt of the moment and make it count. Finally, elk hunting is hard work and exhausting. Having a nice, warm camp to come to, after hiking valleys and ridges in wet weather for most of the day, will help recharge you and your gear.

Once you’ve located some elk, you have many options to get within range. The most common ones are cutting them off, ambushing them and calling them using bugles and cow calls. A combination of any number of these techniques can also be used.

During unfavourable weather, such as strong winds, precipitation and snow, when elk are feeding, getting in front of them or sneaking into range can be very effective. The key is to go slow, remain undetected and blend in with your surroundings. One fall, my Dad and I had located some elk after their morning feed and followed them into a bedding area. We decided to back out and come back for an evening ambush before they made their way back to feed. Unfortunately, we arrived too late and the lead cow was already up milling around and didn’t allow us to get into ambushing position. That hard lesson has always stuck with me: “It’s better to be 30 minutes early, rather than three minutes late.”

Besides being on time (or early), wearing full camouflage and blending in with your surroundings is key to fooling an elk’s eyes. Camouflage breaks up your pattern, making it difficult for elk to pinpoint you. Regardless of the brand of camouflage, moving camouflage is useless so keep still. Never skyline yourself because elk easily identify drastic light contrast and will flee.

When ambushing or stalking, go slow and keep noise levels low and natural. Under no circumstances should you make any foreign noises, such as zippers or metal clanging. If you happen to snap a twig or make another native noise, it’s ok, but be patient and sit tight for a few minutes to convince any nearby elk that you aren’t a threat. I was once in tight on an elk, but not quite close enough. Unfortunately, he saw me. I was moving too fast, trying to cut off the elk as they fed up the mountainside. Even this young bull wouldn’t come any closer after seeing me move. I was busted. When moving in on elk, there is no such thing as going too slow, so be patient.

If you plan on stalking elk in their beds, be aware that it’s a one-shot deal. Once spooked from their beds, they won’t rest there again for a long time.

Ambushing from a treestand is very effective. Because elk travel on many routes, picking the right spot is difficult, but key. If you have an elk herd patterned, which is easier said than done, perching yourself at least seven metres high on a commonly used trail system, and having some patience, will likely yield success. Setting up over watering holes or wallows is a common treestand location for hunting elk. Sit quietly and sit lots – dusk, dawn and midday. Get in quietly and undetected and stay quiet. Again, patience is the key to success.

The toughest part about ambushing elk or stalking them is usually you don’t know where are the elk are located. You may think you have them all in view as you move cautiously into shooting position, then all of sudden three or four elk will flank you – busted! Many times I’ve been looking at one or two elk, and then all of sudden another 15 or 20 will stand up right in the same vicinity. They were probably watching me move when I thought it was safe to do so. Wrong. It’s all part of the agony.

When bow hunting, nothing gives you a better shooting opportunity than letting the animal come towards you, and calling is an effective tactic to do just that. Unfortunately, calling gives away the element of surprise and your position, so animals tend to enter cautiously. Before you ever begin a calling sequence, make sure you are set, meaning ready to shoot with limited movement. During the rut, elk can come in quickly. But often, at all times of the year, they’ll approach cautiously. Make them seek you out by setting up with some cover – not too much cover that it’ll impede your shooting lanes, but just enough for them to expose themselves while searching for you.

After calling, be patient and don’t move. Remember, they’re coming in ultra-alert and expect to see another elk. If they see any movement whatsoever, they will halt until they positively identify it as an elk. Never take your eyes or ears off your downwind side.

Elk make plenty of different sounds. Social mews, pleading and estrus whines, warning barks, intense growls and bugles of all types, such as challenge, location, are all in their vocal repository. Even seasoned elk hunters haven’t heard all the different sounds they make, or the varying pitches and tones they use. Elk talk is like human dialect – it differs from place to place, elk to elk.

The key to successful elk calling is not making the perfect sound, but rather the correct sound at the perfect time. Each elk sound means something different and you must respond accordingly. To be an effective elk caller means learning all the different types of sounds elk make and why. If you hear a lost elk call, don’t answer back with a challenge bugle. Give a few chirps and excited cow calls to calm it down and give it a bearing on your location – the right response for the situation. The more sounds you know, the better equipped you’ll be to call elk into range. Don’t just bugle every day because it’s the only call you know how to make, expand your repertoire to increase your chances of luring elk into range.

Another calling rule of thumb is to “do what the elk are doing.” If the elk are being very quiet and passive, do the same. If you locate a raging herd bull one morning because satellite bulls trying to steal his cows have harassed him all night, join in with a challenge of your own. Practice, calling before you head afield, and practice often. Using an incorrect sound at the wrong time can alert elk and cause them to lose interest and simply walk away, or worse, send them running over the mountaintop.

Calling solo is a tough bow hunt. It’s best to partner up and have the shooter out in front, in between the caller and the elk. It’s the caller’s job to drag that elk past the shooter. It’s the shooter’s vital responsibility to remain oblivious. This set up is superb and frequently used by bow hunters. If you have to hunt alone, call first and then quickly and quietly move up 20 or 30 metres and off to the downwind side and get ready.

Wind is a hunter’s worst enemy or his best ally, depending on how you use it. Elk have a keen sense of smell and will not tolerate any human odour. Elk country is full of mountainsides, small meadows, drainages and valleys that produce some unpredictable wind swirls. Scent control cannot be ignored. You’ve heard it again and again, but hunt from the downwind side. In the event that wind swirls or suddenly changes direction, do your best to not remain directly upwind on an elk. Elk identify noises like branches breaking and footsteps as non-threatening as opposed to a dose of human stench. Use scent elimination products on yourself and gear. Cover scents, such as cow elk urine, are powerful tools to disguise yourself in the event the wind briefly changes direction on you.

Follow the tips above to avoid common elk hunting pitfalls. Elk hunting is an experience, and an experience like no other. Every day it’s ecstasy or agony, but either way, the memories last a lifetime.

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