Elk Hunting - Problems and Solutions
How To Find And Harvest Elk In Todays Woods
By Aram von Benedikt
I sat at the edge of one of my favorite high-country elk meadows, watching the rising sun of opening day touch the aspen and fir trees with golden light. It was a beautiful morning, in a spectacular place, but my day turned bitter in a hurry. I’d hunted this meadow for years and found my share of elk there, but this opening day all I found were other hunters. In an hour I watched no less than ten hunters stumble, bumble, or sneak their way through my meadow.
Now, bear in mind that this is not an easy spot to access – you don’t just ride your ATV up the mountain to this meadow. In addition it’s hidden, off the beaten path. I’d rarely seen another hunter there in the two decades I’ve hunted it, only an occasional hardy soul with more dedication than sense, just like myself. But times are changing and the hunter who wants to keep killing elk has to change with them.
The fact is technology – trail cams, ATVs, Google Earth, GPS units, and so on – have changed the face of hunting. No longer does a hunter don a wool shirt, shove some matches and jerky into his pocket, and head into the woods with his trusty Winchester in hand. Don’t get me wrong, I get all giddy inside when I look through today’s marvelous optics or whack a steel target at 1,200 yards with a precision rifle. But technology has changed hunting, and the savvy hunter needs to adapt.
Another big difference in todays elk hunting is created by Limited Draw hunts. Bonus point systems in conjunction with burgeoning hunter numbers have created an inescapable problem for Wildlife Resource Departments – they’ve painted themselves into a corner, and can’t get out. Point creep averages perhaps two points higher in every three years. Some states are worse than others, but what that means for our future (and our children’s future) is that we may draw only one tag in our lifetimes, and many young hunters will never draw a limited draw tag in their home state. Statistics indicate that my 10-year old son will not have a sure chance to draw a great elk tag in Utah until he is in his late 70s. That’s a tough wait for a kid to consider.
What all this means for us as hunters is that unless we get really remote, we are hunting different elk than in decades past. For example, 15 years ago I guided a bowhunter from New Jersey for cow/spike elk. He was the worst shot with a bow I ever guided, and in four days I called six elk into less than 30 yards for him to shoot at. He missed shots from seven to thirty yards, finally killing a cow with a heart shot at 20 – but it wasn’t the cow he shot at. Point is, in those days a person good at calling could call elk - a lot of elk. These days, if you blow an elk call in those same meadows the elk will pack their bags and apply for a passport. The reason, of course, is that everybody is blowing calls at elk every time they go hunting, fishing, hiking, four-wheeling, etc. It’s a hobby. The elk hear the calls, see the people, and learn the lesson.
More elk behavioral changes have occurred from the amazing skill/abilities possessed by many hunters today. Hardcore is the name of the game, and guys are developing superpowers with their smartphones, trail-cams, and satellite imagery. In a nutshell, today’s elk in many areas behave more like whitetail deer than elk. They stay close to deep cover, exit open meadows and feeding grounds well before daylight, and have learned to keep their mouths shut when the pressure is on. As an example, I spent the night before 2015s limited-entry season on a high ridge, watching the stars and listening to more than a dozen bugling bulls just upwind of my position. An hour and a half before dawn four wheelers started rumbling far in the distance, and the elk shut up quieter than kids stealing cookies. You wouldn’t have known there was an elk within miles.
So what can you do to find and kill elk in today’s woods? You’ve got to hunt harder, smarter, and (sometimes) deeper. You’ve got to be willing to hunt spikes on spike-only units (if you live in Utah) or to hunt out-of-state. You better learn to hunt (if you don’t already) with a bow - it’ll open up new opportunities. And you’ve got to develop new and different hunting skills. Here are techniques – some modern, some traditional - that work for me:
Use technology to put yourself ahead of the game. Scout remotely via Google Earth to find those hidden meadows, wallows, and travel routes. Use trail cameras to learn the characteristics and movement patterns of local elk. A GPS will help you navigate unfamiliar terrain in the dark. Study wind and weather patterns via your smartphone. You get the picture.
This strategy is as old as hunting itself, and it’s still a great way to kill an elk. But you’ll need good optics and strong lungs. The last three bulls I’ve killed on spike-only units have been on opening morning. I spotted them way in the distance, and literally raced other hunters to the elk. Get on a hill, ridge, or similar terrain feature that enables you to see a lot of prime elk habitat. Glass aggressively till you find elk, then move on them fast.
I’m no supporter of the current fad for shooting animals at extreme range. But with today’s superb precision rifles, scopes, rangefinders, and projectiles, 600 yards is the new 300. Mount a quality scope with a good ballistic reticle or turret on an accurate rifle. Shoot premium long-range ammo like Hornady’s ELD-X line. Then practice until you can hit an 18-inch gong every shot, every day and in any conditions, out to 600 yards. You’ll more than double your chances to kill an elk.
TAKE A STAND.
Watching over a good meadow or travel route can be a dynamite way to kill an elk. Sure, it can be boring, but often you’ll see more elk than if you are bumbling about the woods. Travel or escape routes can be especially good when other hunters are moving, and causing elk to move. Set up downwind of your meadow, trail, or saddle, and find a steady rest. When a bull shows up stay calm, squeeze the trigger, and claim your prize.
As previously mentioned, blowing an elk call can be a great way to rid your surrounding area of elk. This is especially true if there are cow elk in the area. They don’t have a sense of humor, and are likely to vacate the premises on suspicion alone. I once watched a “hunter” driving slowly up a gravel road, diesel motor idling cheerfully, while blowing a Hoochie-Mama cow call out the window. Don’t be that guy. A while later he idled back through, still blowing his Hoochie-Mama. I never did see any elk come running. Guess I missed them.
If you’re going to call elk, call very sparingly – maybe one chirp or mew every thirty minutes. Mix in other natural elk sounds like breaking twigs. And try “blind” calling around bedding areas during midday hours. It’s a well-kept secret, but spooky cows will often stay put (in their beds) and bulls (even herd bulls) will often respond during midday. They may come in silently, so have an arrow on the string or a bullet in the chamber.
This tactic can be especially great for bowhunters. Bulls and cows alike appreciate a good mud bath, and will often visit a wallow between mid morning and nightfall. Lurk downwind of a good wallow or waterhole, blow a quiet chirp or mew at long intervals, and exercise patience. A bull doing the belly flop while you try to find a good angle for your arrow just might be your reward.
SCOUT AT NIGHT.
Lots of salty old elk hunters believe that finding elk is the hardest part of elk hunting. If you can’t find elk, go scouting at night. Move from ridge to ridge, point to point, and listen. If there are elk in the area, you’ll hear them. (This strategy only works when elk are bugling.) Then, just before dawn, stalk downwind of the herd. When daylight silences the elk, you’ll already be in position.
Used to be that hiking five miles from the road would put you into undisturbed elk. But with high numbers of hard-core, ultra-fit hunters in the woods, you need to go 10 – 15 miles from the nearest road. You’ll need good gear, firm resolve, and pack animals to carry your meat out of the mountains. But, if you’re lucky, you’ll find beautiful mountains and meadows, few if any other hunters, and undisturbed elk that still bugle their challenge into the dawn.