Elk Hunting Strategy

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Hunt where the elk are going to be

Wayne Gretzky, the Great One, was once asked why he was such a successful hockey player. He replied, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Elk hunting success can often be summed up the same way. If you’re going to tag an elk, try to position yourself where elk are going to be, not where they have been. I’ve used this approach during my last four elk hunts and have shot a bull each and every time, three of which were six-point animals. Going further back in time, I shot a fat cow elk using the same approach. I’ve taken a number of other bulls by spot-and-stalk hunting, which isn’t always an option. Granted, a spot-and-stalk elk hunt is hard to beat, in terms of sheer excitement, but elk can often be hard to locate, especially when hunted hard, so these opportunities may be few and far between. Also, their herd behaviour often leads to an all-or-nothing search, which can be very frustrating for even the most seasoned elk hunters.

 

Avoid frustrations

Elk hunting has often been compared to a wild goose chase, and for good reason, because it can be a hopeless quest for many hunters. This usually only gets worse as the season drags on. It’s been my experience that late-season elk can be particularly difficult to hunt because they become much more wary as the season advances. It’s not that they can’t be patterned, it just that they become more nocturnal and evasive towards the end of the hunting season. Furthermore, their herd behaviour makes for many watchful eyes and ears to contend with while hunting. It goes without saying that it pays dividends to get to know your elk hunting territory as well as possible. Don’t switch hunting areas, because it takes years to get up to speed in a particular wildlife management unit. The more familiar you are with the area in which you plan to hunt elk, the better.

 

Scouting is paramount

So, how do you position yourself where you can expect a shot opportunity on elk? It all boils down to understanding their behaviour during different times of the hunting season and correlating their travel patterns (seasonally) between bedding and feeding areas. This requires advanced scouting, not showing up on opening day with the expectation you’ll be successful. Scouting involves looking for elk sign, such as droppings, feeding areas, tracks, beds and (favoured) game trails between bedding and feeding areas, in advance of opening day. It also involves looking for wallows (which can be very difficult to locate), watering sites and rubs where bulls scrape off their velvet and polish their antlers. Last, but not least, it involves listening for the sounds of elk, which are very vocal animals: mewlings, bugling and cow elk barking (an alarm call you really don’t want to hear) and the rattling of jousting bulls.

Scouting is absolutely paramount if you want to tag an elk. Studies have clearly demonstrated that elk avoid humans. In uneven terrain, elk will be at least a ridge top or more away from the nearest road or human activity. While this isn’t true in the case of national parks where there’s no hunting, elsewhere they are intolerant of any kind of human activity. They’ll avoid humans at all costs. Also, bulls, particularly after the rut, distance themselves from people and head to remote areas where they stay in bachelor herds. So, don’t expect to shoot many elk near a road. Get out of your vehicle and start scouting for elk, and elk sign, at least a ridge top away from where you can drive a vehicle in elk country.

 

An elk’s Achilles heel

If elk have an Achilles heel, it’s the amount of food they eat daily, which is in the order of 20 pounds (on average) depending on the size of the animal. This represents a lot of grass. A large square bale of hay, for example, weights about 65 pounds. Cow elk average about 500 pounds in weight, but bulls average about 700 pounds and can exceed 1,000 pounds. They’re primarily grazers, feeding mainly on native grasses, but will also browse deciduous vegetation such as aspen shoots. They spend a long time feeding every day. Your job is to figure out where they’re feeding, to set the wheels in motion for an elk hunt. You can do this by scouting before the season opens, although you always run the risk of scaring elk out of the country, or by looking for sign in likely feeding areas, which is a less risky approach. Elk tend to chop off grasses in patches, called feeding craters, and they are not hard to find.

There will be droppings in feeding areas, and these are also important clues. If the droppings are fresh, this is a good sign that elk are still frequenting the area, as compared to finding only old droppings, which means they’re likely feeding somewhere else.

Herds tend to follow well-used game trials from bedding areas to feeding areas, so look for signs of fresh elk tracks along these trails. However, they often bed on the edge of aspen stands and timber adjacent to feeding locations, in remote areas, so also look for signs of fresh beds in and around areas where they’re feeding. At any sign of danger, elk can quietly slip into cover, and they will. Because elk are herd animals, count the number of beds near feeding areas you’ll have an idea how many elk are using the area. If there are rubs near the feeding areas, you’ll know that bulls are nearby.

 

Elk sign

After you’ve analzyed all the forensic signs you’ve located, such as feeding craters, droppings, tracks, shed antlers, etc., you should have a fairly good idea where to position yourself during your hunt. Remember what Wayne Gretzky said: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Parlay this line of thinking into where you think the elk are going to be at first light, and approximately where you should be to position yourself for a shot. You should know roughly where the elk will be feeding, or will have likely fed, which travel lane(s) they’ll follow to go to a bedding area and how many elk are in the area. Elk are a lot like white-tailed deer when they travel – they’ll generally cross open ground in low areas where they can stay out of sight, so don’t expect to see them skylined. They also travel along the edge of escape cover and will be gone in a heartbeat if they sense danger. Near their prime feeding area, take a stand by the well-used game trail that the elk are most likely to follow, after feeding, as they head towards a daytime bedding area.

 

Take to the chase

You should be on your stand before daylight. This means rising early in the morning, walking in the dark – often for an hour or more, preferably without using a flashlight. Elk are almost always up feeding well before daylight, so you have to be very careful not to disturb them while you’re making your way to a stand. You must be familiar with local trails and be able make your approach out of sight, with minimum noise. It also helps to wear camoflague clothing where permited by law, to make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. Travel along the edge of cover when approaching your stand, slowly, to break your outline. Stop frequently as you move forward and glass the area in front of you, all the while searching for elk. I’m a firm believer in using 10×40 or 10×50 binoculars, which are ideal for spotting game in low light. Obviously, if you spot elk, make ready for a shot: pick out your target, chamber a round, extend the legs on your bipod or find a rest. In poor light it can often be difficult to distinguish bulls from cows. Bulls tend to have a lighter tan-coloured body and a dark mane; they’re larger than cows and blocky in shape. Cows tend to have darker coats and are more slender in shape. Their antlers may be dark, which can make it difficult to judge their size when seen against stands of aspen, in particular.

Quite often when elk hunting, I’ll be on stand at least half an hour before first light, when it’s virtually impossible to see practically anything. This is just the way I like it, because sounds tend to carry long distances on a cold morning when winds are calm. And, elk are very vocal animals. Always keep your ears open for the sounds of elk during the hunting season, not just the call of rutting bulls. Often you’ll hear the mewlings of a herd well before sunrise, as they move about feeding, or while travelling to a feeding ground. Sometimes young bulls (in particular) will spar, even well after the September rut. The sound of antlers clashing can be heard from a great distance. Actually, bulls will bugle long after the rut, well into November on occasion. This is one reason why I always pack a cow call when hunting elk during November.

 

Prepare for the unexpected

A few years ago I heard three bull elk bugling during a November hunt, all in different locations, one of which seemed to be moving in a certain direction. By using Gretzky’s strategy, I positioned myself in a shooting lane where I thought the bull would cross a clearing. I sat down to wait for a shot. Sure enough, a bull elk appeared in the clearing, on the heels of a small harem of five cows. I made a couple of chirps with the cow call. The bull slowed down, to listen to the call, and looked in my direction. He then walked forward a short distance and stood still, before a log in front of him on the trail. I was prepared for a shot, with my bipod in the ready position. I anchored him with a shot through the lungs at a distance of about 275 yards with a 180-grain .300 WSM. I had scouted this area before the season opened, knew where the local elk herds were feeding and was familiar with a game trail they’d likely follow. It was no accident that I tagged a fine six-point bull that morning.

One of the secrets of a successful elk hunt is to position yourself where you think the elk are going to be, not where they’ve been.

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