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Late and Long Range Elk Hunting


Elk hunting by its very nature is most often challenging and demanding.  The ultimate test of a hunter’s determination and skill is to succeed on a late season elk hunt on public land.

This is easy to confirm by checking success rates for late season elk hunts vs. rut hunts.  In Arizona, the late season success for the most part runs between 30 to 40 percent.  What most people don’t realize is that of the successful hunters on late hunts, the vast majority of the bulls taken are four and five point bulls and spikes.  To succeed during the late hunt on public land with high numbers of tags issued is difficult; to tag a mature 6x6 bull during this season is without question a huge accomplishment.

Late Season Bulls

Long range elk hunting

Hunter Bob Joice and Steve Chappell with a late season bull. Checking proper range and adjusting for wind allowed Bob to make a 498-yard shot in tough conditions.

Knowing where to look for mature bulls during the late season and employing the proper tactics are the keys to succeeding.  A late season hunter must remember that he is hunting a completely different animal during the late season versus the rut.  During the rut, a bull will typically be more vocal and in more accessible areas making him easier to find.  By contrast, hunting bulls after the rut involves seeking out and hunting more remote, rough areas.  Bulls move to these secluded areas to avoid pressure and because their diet has changed from grasses to mostly browse which is typically found in rougher, steeper country.  Browse such as Mountain Mahogany, Serviceberry and Cliff Rose occurs more frequently in canyons and on mountains and hillsides so this is where to find the bulls late in the year.

Glassing Long Range 

This brings us to tactics and why it’s crucial to be prepared for long range shooting.  Hunting canyon country and mountainous terrain by its very nature lends itself to glassing and long range shooting. There is nothing more effective than mounting quality binoculars on a tripod and methodically picking apart the landscape for elk.  Finding bulls will be your biggest challenge during the late season.  I use either my Swarovski EL 10x42’s or my Leica Duovid 10-15x50’s if the distance is greater than a mile.  Quality glass will allow you to look for hours uninterrupted and without eye strain.  Using low quality binoculars or hand holding them will decrease your glassing success tremendously.  The importance of using a tripod is proven and cannot be stressed enough. 

Long Range Success

A couple of years ago I was guiding a hunter through several small canyons during the late season.  We had spent the better part of the evening moving along the rim of a canyon methodically glassing each new finger that we would come to.  About 45 minutes before dark, I spotted a group of seven bulls directly across from us feeding on the steep hillside straight across from us.  My hunter and I assessed the situation and realized that our only option would be to shoot straight across the canyon since moving to their side would result in us losing them due to the tall brush they were feeding on.  We cut the distance down as much as possible until we were separated by just under 500-yards.  I picked out the best bull and setup the tripod for my hunter to shoot.  By this time the light wasn’t the greatest and Bob missed the bull.  I cow called and the bulls stayed right there and didn’t seem that spooked!  Due to the low light, I was having trouble telling where Bob was shooting so we decided to sneak out and come back first thing in the morning. 

After a short and mostly sleepless night, due to thinking about those bulls, we drove back to within a mile of where we had left them the evening before.  Sure enough, after stealthing along the canyon rim in the grey light we found our bulls within 300 yards of where they were the prior evening.  Despite a tremendous wind, some of the bulls were feeding in plain view including a 350-inch class bull that had most of his left main beam broken.  What a shame!  We decided not to shoot him since we were hopeful that the same bull from the evening before would materialize. 

A great long range bull

Another great long range late season bull with Chappell Guide Service

Because he was feeding just out of view in some heavy timber before finally becoming visible, it took me about 15 minutes to locate the same bull we had shot at the evening before.  With our excitement level rising 100%, we quickly formulated a plan and snuck down and positioned ourselves straight across from the feeding bulls. 

This time I set Bob up with shooting sticks and a tripod so that the front and rear of the gun were firmly supported.  I would have preferred to have him shoot prone but with the bulls straight across from us and the canyon being steep, we could not shoot in that position. 

Once Bob got rock solid and ready to shoot, my Leica rangefinder gave three readings of 498-yards.  Overnight, a 20 mph wind had kicked up and was blowing from right to left, making this shot that much more difficult.  My suspicion was that we had missed low the evening before.  With the bull now broadside with his head to the left it was time to make it happen.  I quickly determined that we had about 36-inches of bullet drop and 36-inches of wind drift to compensate for.  I coached Bob that even though his tendency would be to hold his .300 WSM exactly where he wanted to hit that he needed to hold above the bull’s back at the height of where the 3rd tine met the main beam (approximately 18-inches above the back) and directly in line with the center of the bull’s hind quarter to account for the wind drift at this distance.  This probably sounded crazy to Bob but to his credit, he nodded in agreement and settled in to shoot. 

At the crack of the rifle the bull was hit hard square in the front shoulder and immediately hunched up over.  He picked up his front leg for a few seconds and then began rolling down the steep hillside for about 75-yards before a large pine tree stopped him.  I was relieved that he didn’t roll any further down into the steep canyon! 

Bob and I erupted with excitement knowing that we had just filled his tag with a great late season bull!  I was extremely proud of him for holding right where I told him to at 498-yards and executing a perfect shot in tough conditions.  

It took us a couple of hours to make it across the canyon and down to Bob’s bull.  There was no ground shrinkage and we celebrated and took photos before beginning the cutting and packing chores.

In Retrospect:

Looking back on that long range hunt, I can now see the value of a custom turret or ballistic reticle on a hunting scope.  Check out www.nightforceoptics.com and www.huskemawoptics.com for more information.  You can also have a custom turret built for your scope- www.kentonindustries.com.  In a long range scenario which is the norm on late hunts, your scope is your most important piece of equipment. These scopes and turrets allow you to compensate for bullet drop and wind drift. When you can hold dead on at long range it increases your confidence and precision accuracy substantially. 

I definitely prefer magnum calibers for long range shooting during the late hunt.  Any 7MM or .300 Magnum caliber in a bolt action rifle with a 26-inch barrel is made to elk hunt at extended range.  Team that with a great scope and bullets constructed for heavy, thick skinned game and you are ready to tag a bull at long distances with the right amount of practice at the range! 

Best of luck on your elk hunts this year, especially if they are late and long range.