Bowhunting Elk

The folks over at Elk101 have a forum thread asking visitors to post their top elk bowhunting strategy.  Elk101 is quickly becoming my favorite hunting site – with loads of information and really cool webisodes completely devoted to my favorite animal, I was an easy fan.  However, this particular thread got me to scratching my brain, and I’ve since tried to figure out how to narrow elk hunting tips down to a number one, favorite tip.  Aside from rubbing a raw spot on my brain, I came to one conclusion: It’s not possible.

Quite a few people gave persistence as their top strategy, but I’m not convinced that that is a strategy or a tip so much as it is a trait one must possess.  The following are some things I’ve learned while hunting elk that I’ll share in an attempt to make elk hunting more simple and effective for anyone interested in tips coming from someone that does not profess to be a know-it-all or even a know-a-lot.

My first bowhunting success story.

This bull from 2009 started my string of 4 successful bowhunting years.

The Silent Elk

For the eight years I’ve been bowhunting elk I’ve heard people say things like, “It’s too hot for the elk to be moving around.”  “I haven’t seen anything because the elk just aren’t talking.”  “I can’t locate any elk.” And, but, etcetera and so forth.

Even though the most rutting activity I ever experienced came during a 90 degree day on August 25th the very first year I tried bowhunting, I still echoed those same sentiments for the first four years of my bowhunting life.  But then, four years ago I heard about Jim Horn’s silent calling technique and I’ve shot an elk every bowhunting season since then.  Now, sometimes it is difficult to say something caused an effect – correlation does not imply causation.  However, in this instance, I’m confident that this technique has helped me turn frustrating bowhunting seasons into backstrap filled bowhunting seasons.  Even if the elk I’ve shot haven’t come directly from using Mr. Horn’s technique, his technique has helped me better understand elk.

I used to believe a lack of elk sounds meant a lack of elk. Now, I understand that a lack of elk sounds doesn’t mean squat about the amount of elk in the area. This knowledge helps bolster my hopes through the hours of calling, hiking, and glassing.  It’s also taught me that if I’m in good elk habitat and there aren’t any other hunters around, there is probably a good chance that there are some elk close by.

So, what do I do?

I focus on three areas: saddles on small finger ridges and the best looking elk habitat both as far away from other hunters as I can comfortably get, and in areas of steep and/or brushy pockets near pressured areas.  These pockets can be really small – and many hunters believe that because they walked within 100 yards of that spot and didn’t kick any elk out that there must not be any elk there.  It never ceases to amaze me how small of a pocket of brush it takes to conceal elk.  Of course, the deeper into the bowhunting season you get, the better those great habitat areas far away from other hunters is going to be.

You Stink

That’s right.  If you don’t, you will soon.  Elk live in the mountains – generally – and that means it takes some boot leather to hunt them.  Pounding the dirt when the temperatures can hit 90 or above means you’re going to sweat.  It doesn’t matter how cute and feminine you are or how much of whatever product you use to hide, cover, or eliminate your scent, the elk can smell you.  Heck, that hunter three ridges over can catch a whiff of you every now and then.  While some base layer clothing can help with scent control, their main function is comfort for the hunter.  Period.  Don’t think for a minute they will let you fool an elk’s nose.

So, what do I do?

Bowhunting success - 4 years in a row.

This is my latest elk – the fourth in a row since I began to pay attention to what my past bowhunting experiences were trying to teach me.

Shower, spray, rub, cover, lather as much as you want or as little as you want.  We can argue all day long about the effectiveness of it all, but the bottom line is if you don’t have the wind in your favor when bowhunting, you’ve got a blown set up just waiting to happen.  I know that in the mountains, the wind sometimes seems to swirl all day long.  If you know you’ve got plenty of time, and you’re targeting a particular animal, it’s best not to chance it. Wait for a time when the wind is better.  If your time is limited like mine usually is, all you can do is try your best.  Put yourself in the best position that you can and hope the wind cooperates long enough to get the job done.  I’ve known hunters to use wind as an excuse to be lazy with their approach to animals.  Even if the wind has been swirling and you’ve only got a limited number of days to hunt, you can wait a few hours to see if the wind settles.  If it doesn’t, then try and find the two or three directions the wind seems to be moving most and approach accordingly.  I’ve rarely seen a wind truly swirl for an extended amount of time – usually there is at least one direction that the wind doesn’t blow – even in the mountains.

Don’t be Skeered

When I first started bowhunting, I was a tepid caller.  I was scared that when I blew through that reed, it would make a funny noise and either the woods would erupt with elk running away or laughter from other hunters.  Then I noticed something: elk make funny noises.  Elk don’t always sound like a Primos Truth video.

So, what do I do?

Once I learned that elk make funny sounds and that they’re a very vocal animal, I refused to worry about over calling.  Despite angry hunters complaining on hunting forums about the idiots that wander through the woods educating elk with their incessant calling, I choose to be one of those idiots.  I call.  I call a lot.  I make funny sounds sometimes, but I make elk sounds, and I can’t see how that could possibly scare elk.  In fact, quite conversely, I have had a lot of success getting elk to wander in to check out my imperfect calls.

Be Persistent

Oh, c’mon.  Just because it isn’t a real tip, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be mentioned.  If you’re the type that gets discouraged easily or that just doesn’t find hunting and hiking hard to be enjoyable, then bowhunting elk is probably not for you.  Elk hunting can be supremely frustrating and sometimes agonizing, and if you can’t deal with those moments, then you’ll burn out fast.  Even using every tip you can find on bowhunting elk, there will probably still be days when it just doesn’t seem like there are any elk within 10 miles.  I’ve been there.  But, one way to assure defeat is to pack it up and go home.  There has never been an elk bowkill recorded while a hunter wasn’t hunting.

Enjoy your time in the mountains chasing the majestic wapiti, and learn from your mistakes, learn from others, and learn from the elk themselves.  Your future self will thank you for it.


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