There are plenty of big-game animals in North America, but elk tend to have the most distinct habits of them all that require various hunting strategies to be successful as a hunter. For instance, the rut tends to be pretty theatrical, with high-pitched screams originating from the woods as the bulls compete for the cows. In addition, the cow call is uttered all years by cows as well as calves, offering hunters an assortment of chances to vocalize.
Once breeding season comes to an end, the bulls will retreat to the woods. As the weeks go on, the elk are then forced out of the higher elevated due to the deep snow, at which time they migrate to lower ranges where the snow isn’t nearly as bad. As you can see, depending on the exact situation, as a hunter, you must use a multitude of strategies when elk hunting.
Elk hunters who are most successful are the ones who are most familiar with their prey’s habits. There are two different ways that you can go about hunting elk: with a guide or a DIY hunt. If you go with a guide, he or she will make decisions based on his or her experience. The only thing that you are required to do is to follow the guide and shoot an elk when the opportunity arises. If you go without a guide, you must be savvy enough to place yourself within adequate shooting range of the elk. Therefore, you need enough familiarity of the backcountry and behaviors of the prey to make it work.
The first, and possibly most importantly, part of an elk hunt is the planning aspect of it. Once you have decided on who will be going with you on the hunt, you must choose what state you will go hunting in. Then, you need to decide which unit to hunt, what the options are for preference or bonus points if you have previously been accumulating them, and any other details that are required for non-resident elk tags. In some states, these tags are not offered over-the-counter, and they are instead required to be drawn in a lottery.
So, let’s assume that the hunt has been planned, you have your elk tags, and you are ready to travel out West with your hunting companions, as soon as you reach your destination, you immediately head for the woods. At this point, your hunting success will heavily depend on your overall ability to locate and shoot your prey. The odds aren’t incredibly good, as the rate of success among elk hunters is under 30 percent across the nation. However, this shouldn’t discourage you. Below are eight tips that will help increase your chances of success when you embark on your upcoming DIY elk hunt.
#1: Among the biggest mistakes that elk hunters make is calling from a location that is popular with other elk hunters during the rut like a well-used or two track trail or a road. While you may assume you are calling from a prime location that no one near, the chances are high that the bulls are accustomed to hearing calls from these common spots. It is likely that others have called from convenient areas like these. So, leave the trail or road behind and head deep into the woods.
When possible, go downhill, as most elk hunters are not going to be willing to carry/move a big elk up a steep slope to a truck, especially after they have been hunting all day and they’re tired. When you are deep in the woods, avoid calling frequently. Instead, keep an eye out for fresh signs. For instance, a lot of rubbed saplings will let you know that you are in a location that bulls like and may be nearby. More often than not, a bull will not respond unless you are calling right in his backyard.
#2: When you are consistently calling throughout the rut, it is important that you carefully choose your calling area. You should squat down in a location where you are free to move your bow or firearm once a bull decides to approach. Saplings, branches, and trees that are near you may cause you to twist and turn, creating pointless and redundant movements. If a bull bugle is heard, locate an area where he will likely make an approach and be within range once you see him.
Prior to calling, consider various scenarios. The bull may rush at you and hang up suddenly unseen and refuse to get closer to you. Alternatively, the bull may not approach you at all, particularly if it is a herd bull with some cows, which is when your tactics need to change. You may need to back off and retreat. With the wind to your advantage, make a circle and call from a new location with a cow call. Regardless of whether it is a solitary bull or herd bulls, they can’t often resist a new cow in the area. If you are hunting with a friend, one should be the caller and one should be the shooter, with the caller behind the shooter. A shy bull may approach the caller, without a clue that a shooter is nearby.
#3: As you are moving through the forest, try to softly blow your cow call, particularly if you are making noise within the underbrush. You will be heard by bedded elk, though the sound of the call will allay any concerns they have, permitting you to get closer. It is sometimes impossible to be silent when you are traveling in the woods. Keep in mind that cows and calves vocalize 12 months of the year, and it is said to be similar to that of a cat’s meow or a bird’s chirp.
#4: Once the rut is over, bulls won’t vocalize any longer, and if they do, it won’t be very frequently, and that is on the infrequent occasion that there is a cow that was no bred and she is in heat again. Bulls will sometimes bed in dense thickets and blowdowns where inexperienced hunters doubt that elk are able to negotiate thick cover. Because you will be making excessive noise in dense areas, the chances are high that you will be heard by the elk and they’ll leave their beds before you ever see them and be able to take a shot. This creates the perfect chance to put a small drive with your buddies. If it is just you and one other person, then you should have one person go far ahead and be prepared to intercept scared animals. Safety should be priority, of course. While the law may not mandate it, you should always wear blaze orange gear.
#5: A lot of DIY elk hunters will pursue their prey on public property where there is a lot of competition with other elk hunters. This is particularly true in basic hunt units where there aren’t any hunter quotas and decent access. Some places are teasingly referred to as pumpkin patches due to the large amount of blaze orange everywhere you turn around. Unless you are fully comfortable with sharing the woods with a lot of people, you may be able to scout the area and locate places that the elk use heavily, even if there are other hunts in and out of the area. Go to that area prior to the sun rising and make your way to the pre-selected area.
Sit near a heavily used trail with a sandwich and plan for your day to be spent there. Choose a location that is relatively elevated to ensure you have a decent vantage point like a rock outcrop, ledge, or a saddle on a ridgetop. Elk like to cross the tops of the mountains by running across a low spot or dip on a ridge, also known as a saddle. Other hunters will move throughout the forest around you, which means that your prey will be moving as well. If you sit still, you will be able to hear the activity in the woods around you and potentially get a shot when elk become noticeable. If you get bored or impatient, try to resist any urge to head back to camp. If you must take a short nap or read a book. With patience, it will be possible to see bulls at 20 or 30 yards away, and if you are lucky, one may even jump over you and you’ll be able to take a shot at five or 10 yards away.
#6: Elk are labeled as grazers, which means that they like grass as forage. This type of feeding behavior is not the same as deer, as deer are labelled as browsers and like shrubbery. Due to the fact that grass grows the best out in the open where it is not shaded by the trees, elk prefer to feed in those areas, which are known as meadows, clearings, or parks. In areas where there is heavy activity of hunters, elk will become nocturnal. They will often leave their bedding zones in the forest just prior to dusk, feed throughout the night, and go back to the forest early in the morning, often while it is still dark out or just before dawn.
Smart hunters will climb to high ridges before dawn and arrive at their vantage point before the sun rises. In doing so, you can look down into the clearings when it is barely light enough to see and locate elk heading in to the woods. During the afternoon, head to that same clearing and locate a hiding area near the location where you saw the elk enter the woods. Chances are high that the elk will come back to the clearing similar to the same way that they left. You should intend to stay until the last shred of daylight. Make sure you have a plan in place to perform the field dressing of an elk in the pitch black and can safely remove yourself from the forest.
#7: As the hunting season comes to an end, elk exit from the high country, which is where their forage is covered by deep snow. They begin to move toward winter range, sometimes traveling 50+ miles. Due to the fact that you will likely be dealing with extremely cold temperatures, lots of snow, and bone-chilling winds, this can be a difficult time to hunt for elk. However, on the positive side of things, elk are now concentrated in much lower elevations, which means that access is much better than in the backcountry that you have been dealing with.
Elk have long been tolerant of extreme temperatures. During the Ice Age, these animals traveled from Siberia to North America by crossing the land bridge (at that time) across the Aleutian Islands. With that being said, the food availability is the force that provokes their migration as opposed to the snow or cold, though herds will often stop whenever they can find adequate forage. Throughout the mountain country, they can find lots of nutritional grass on wind-swept ridges where strong winds that blown off the snow.
Smart hunters will search for these specific feeding areas in search of fresh tracks and the elk themselves. On a sunny day, it may be likely to see fresh tracks from at least a mile away. You will see a large area of tracks that has been made by a large number of elk, sometimes hundreds of them. As soon as the elk settle in an area, they often stay there for at least a week. Hunters who are often willing to expel a significant amount of energy can head up to these area with the wind to their advantage. More often than not, the elk will be bedded near the wind-swept ridges.
#8: Regardless of when you hunt, it is important that you have a cow call handy. If you can attach your cow call to a string, then do so and wear it around your neck. The cow call can be utilized in a variety of situations, including these scenarios. Let’s say you are walking in thick backcountry and you see fresh signs of elk around you. You softly blow the call and come to a stop. Bedded elk nearby may possibly hear the call and look in your direction, assuming you are another elk.
Another scenario is that you have spooked an elk herd and they’ve ran off. They split into two+ groups, but the wind is to your advantage. Stay put and wait for roughly 15 minutes. If you can, get up on a rock, log, or stump so you are at an elevated vantage point and then blow your call. The elk want to regroup to the original herd, if possible. Thinking that you are park of that original herb, they may start to slowly come to you.
A third scenario is that you have scared a herd of elk or you notice a herd that someone else must have scared off. As hard as you can, blow your call. Many times, the elk will stop and look at you, offering you the chance to look at them and take you a shot. This is somewhat comparable to stopping a whitetail deer that is walking beneath your stand. You will grunt at the buck and he stops suddenly and looks up at you. Even if an elk is running full speed, he is apt to come to a stop. Once you blow the call, be ready to shoot, though.
For more information, contact us at Full Draw Archery.
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