With great reward often comes great hardships and elk hunting is one of the best examples of this phenomenon within hunting. The weight of a bull elk can be around 800 pounds and a cow 450 pounds, which is a lot of delicious meat no matter how you look at it.
The flipside is that elk hunting comes with a lot of discomfort, some pain, and a whole lot of work. It also comes with a lot of risk that you simply won’t get the kill that you’re looking for.
Most people run into a major snag when elk hunting: they lose patience.
It’s hard to maintain patience with such a physically and mentally taxing task, but the following guide will give you the most clear elk hunting tips, tactics, and tricks to save you from grief.
There is no substitute for getting in the field and doing it, but this will come as close as possible to arming you for the hunt to come.
How to Hunt Elk: Getting Started
Elk are far larger than whitetail deer or any other deer that you may have been hunting for meat. Once roaming across the United States with herds in the great plains, elk are now primarily found in rocky mountain areas of higher elevation in rugged terrain.
For decades elk hunting was illegal, but conservation efforts has made it possible to hunt elk in specific states. According to conservationist Steve Rinella, hunting elk “…should be regarded as an essential pilgrimage in the life of any American hunter.”
Of course, with any great pilgrimage comes a sacrifice and elk hunting is no different. These animals are large and have great senses of sight, smell, and sound. They also move… a lot.
Elk cover great distances at a high speed, which means spotting and stalking these animals can be physically taxing. This is one reason why prepping for elk hunting season requires physical as much as mental preparation.
Elk Calls and Bugling
It is common to hear of elk hunting and think of bugle calling, but this is most applicable for compound bow hunting. Archery season in western states coincides with the rut (early September to mid October). This doesn’t mean that a rifle-toting hunter can’t benefit from elk calling, but it is less useful than bow hunters might find.
Like anything worthwhile, to become proficient at elk calling, it requires a lot of time. A hunter who is involved with elk hunting must truly become capable of understanding and speaking their nuanced language to have a higher rate of success. Typically, there are a few different types of calls that can be made:
- High-pitched bugle – this is a sound made by bull elks in an order to establish themselves in a hierarchy with others for mating privileges
- Glunking – this is a deep “glunk, glunk, glunk” sound
- Whiny squeak – this could be two bulls sparring or a cow sound, but as you become more accustomed to elk hunting, it will become more apparent which is which
- Bark – this usually means the elk are alarmed by something. It sounds like a raspy “ark!” and it’s very loud. If you hear this, something has spooked the animals.
There are more sounds made by a cow, but these are some of the main bull elk calls and noises. Most experienced hunters use elk bugles to locate distant herds especially when on public land (where there are vast expanses of land).
It is possible to overdo the bugling, though. Some people try and bugle to get a bull elk to come closer, but it only scares him (and his cows) away. It’s best to play it by the situation and ensure you make the call only when there aren’t any other options to get into range.
The closer you are to the bull, the more likely he is to come investigate, which means whatever method you are using for elk hunting, it is up to you to close the distance.
When to Go Elk Hunting
The right time to go elk hunting is the legal time where you have the highest chance of success. For archery season that usually means September and October, which coincides with the rut. However, there are some nuances in the way you plan an elk hunt.
By the time rifle season rolls around in mid-October, many elk have already finished mating. Breeding season typically peaks in late September, which means archers may be able to use calling at that time, but rifle hunters might not be so lucky.
The conventional wisdom on when to go elk hunting coincides with the rut and shortly thereafter (October and September), but if you aren’t opposed to inclement weather, a late hunt in November may be a possibility for certain states in the U.S.A.
Hunting later in the season comes with pros and cons. The elk find harsh weather unbearable, which sends them out of their elevated habitats in search of food. If the elk are struggling to survive in the weather, it’s going to be uncomfortable for hunters, but the upside is that big bulls are available if you can snag the tags to do so in the late season.
Elk Hunting Legalities
The rules on hunting elk in the United States change frequently and for much of the 20th century it was illegal as populations recovered. In many of the eastern states it is still challenging to go elk hunting, but they often run based on a lottery system. It’s harder in the central and eastern U.S.A., but in the western and rocky mountain states it becomes much easier.
States like Idaho have relatively relaxed elk hunting laws even for non-residents. Of course, an easier way to go elk hunting is to simply do it on private hunting land. This may be as a hunting trip with an outfitter or with owners that are willing.
It will cost more money to hunt private land, but the chances of success will probably be higher and it will be less physically taxing. For many people who are hunting on public land, the greatest challenges are physical feats of strength and endurance. Private land takes the sting out of that process to a degree so may be a useful option.
Elk Hunting 101: In the Field
There are many method of hunting elk and each will depend heavily on the terrain and your level of comfort with the method. One method some hunters like to use is often referred to as a T-Boning technique, which is where hunters move parallel to the herd downwind. When the time is right, the hunter will call (or not), get close enough and take a shot. This often leaves multiple opportunities for success.
It’s not always possible, but hunting with a partner can stack the odds in your favor. Typically this entails a partner making calls from 50 – 75 yards behind the shooter. This requires plenty of challenge beforehand (as that range is quite close already). Once an elk comes to investigate, the shooter will be closer and more capable of taking a shot.
As usual, the elk (and particularly bulls) will show up when you least expect it. Traversing through terrain and communicating over long distances can create a sense of complacency, but just then you’ll have the lumbering 800 pound beast headed your way like a freight train.
Elk Hunting Tactics
There are usually two methods of hunting elk whether you are on public or private land. One of them is to spot and stalk the animals (by far the most popular on public land) and the other is to ambush animals. Typically, the ambush method is not done from a blind like deer hunting, but instead at points (such as water landmarks) where the animal is likely to cross.
Hunters who have familiarity with the land may recognize the patterns of elk herds and wait in ambush. Even though this sounds good in theory, elk cover lots of distance and their territory often emcompasses many square miles. It’s challenging to know when (or if) a herd will come through a spot they have been seen before. As one hunter noted, just because elk frequent one hillside, it might mean they do so a few times per month rather than on a weekly basis. This is where patience becomes even more important for ambush hunters than spot and stalk.
Extra Elk Hunting Tips
By this point, you should have a basic idea of the best elk hunting tips to get you started. This doesn’t mean you’ll have success right away, but it should allow you to ask the right questions and make the decisions you need to get in the field and learn a thing or two.
Even still, there are many small things to learn about elk hunting that comes from hard-work and bitter experience. These extra elk hunting tactics can save you a lot of time and they have come at a high cost!
#1. Prepare physically – elk hunting on public land is one of the most rigorous physical feats you can attempt in the hunting world. Not only will you have to traverse up and down hills in high elevation (making breathing difficult), but you will have to maintain the strength and endurance to bring down an animal, dress it, and haul back all the meat.
Typically, the hauling back of meat is the hardest part. Strength and endurance training are of paramount importance. Get in the gym, get out for some brisk walks, and be prepared.
#2. Practice off-hand – compound bowhunting requires practice no matter which way you look at it, but rifle hunters can get into the habit of feeling prepared when they’re really not. In the field, you are going to take some gnarly shots with the rifle and they won’t be comfortable to make. Be comfortable with uncomfortable shots by practicing them intentionally.
#3. Off the beaten path – the typical “legendary” spots for hunting elk typically yield great scenery, but rarely the best shots. Places like Idah’s Frank Church or Montana’s Bob Marshall are beautiful, but have poor yields. It may be better to be on forested regions near agriculture where the density of elk is larger (especially late season).
#4. Hike past the elk – in the early morning hours it isn’t uncommon to hike past an elk herd on the way to some high ground. Ironically, elk are a lot more forgiving of noise than other animals. They spook less easily and they may not leave bedding in those situations if you make sure to leave and head to whichever location you’re headed. More than likely, you will have a position to shoot one later on.
The #1 Problem of Every Elk Hunt
As enjoyable as the act of hunting can be, sometimes in the moment it feels less exciting. After all, freezing in the Colorado weather while hiking up and down mountains is more of a challenge than a treat. For this reason, many hunters start to lose their patience.
It’s a common occurrence and it is completely natural. Hunting elk is not an easy task otherwise everyone would be doing it to haul in 2 – 600 pounds of red meat. But lacking in patience will be the defeat of any hunter.
Elk are incredibly adept survival creatures, which means they are in-tune with their surroundings and making sure things are safe. If you ignore wind direction because there is a shortcut, if you take the shot because you don’t want to wait, or if you make any other number of mistakes that stem from a lack of patience, things are not going to go in your favor.
That might mean that you see an elk at a distance via glassing, but have to wait until the next day to allow for wind to change and better conditions for yourself.
Make sure you remember that patience is key when you go out on the next hunt. If you plan to prepare physically by jogging, running at elevation, and a number of other techniques, also consider what you can do for exercising the patience muscle.
As odd as it might sound, adding a meditation practice of some sort might be an effective way to increase patience and success while elk hunting.
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