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Bowhunting Elk in the Mountains

NAE Photo Bowhunting Elk in the Mountains

Why every bowhunter must head for the mountains at least once.

Show me a lifelong whitetail bowhunter who hasn’t, at least a few times in his life, concocted elaborate daydreams about screaming bull elk and I’ll show you someone who isn’t operating with a surplus of mental bandwidth. Targeting mature whitetails with archery tackle is a worthy challenge for anyone, of course, but when compared to the average do-­it-­yourself elk hunt, it’s like the difference between thumb-­wrestling and cage fighting.

Everything is bigger, harder and more difficult in the mountains. Factor in the reality that far fewer things are in your control when compared to how contrived whitetail hunting can be, and you can start to grasp that it is quite literally, a different beast altogether.

It’s also something that every diehard bowhunter should try. Elk are made for bowhunting and there are killer opportunities out there for the taking, but they aren’t going to last forever. The days of easy quality elk tags are a speck in the rearview mirror, which means the few states that sell over-­the-­counter licenses are selling them to a lot of your fellow hunters.

Spend a day at the trailhead on any given day in an OTC unit in Colorado about Sept. 10 and you’ll know what I mean. Couple this with the fact that you’re never going to see a doorbuster sale on non-resident elk tags because in many states they are the golden goose laying the golden-­revenue eggs, and the situation starts to feel a little now-­or-­neverish.

The experience isn’t going to get less expensive. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it, because bowhunting is supremely worth it.

Just understand that you’ll have to put in some serious effort to wring the most out of your days in the high country so that you can give it everything you need to in order to get your chance to breathe the rarified air of a successful elk hunter. This all starts with a keen understanding of why elk do what they do.

Understand The Animal

Randy Newberg is the host of the popular show “Fresh Tracks” as well as a podcast called, “Elk Talk.” Randy also made the move from Minnesota to Montana, so he understands more than most what it’s like to try to figure out what makes elk tick. When I asked him what he would advise first-­time elk hunters to consider, he led off by saying, “One of the first things I learned about elk is that they aren’t patternable like a whitetail. They move a lot, which means you’ve got to cover a lot of ground to find them. Too many bowhunters will conduct some pre-­hunt research and find a great-looking drainage or basin and decide they will hunt a specific spot until they kill an elk. The problem with this plan is that elk densities are typically pretty low, so that great-looking drainage might not have a single bull in it. In fact, the next three drainages might not have elk in them and while your spot may look awesome, it’s actually a game desert.”

Elk are low-­density critters, so you’ve got to be prepared to hike until you find fresh sign. Just because a meadow or drainage looks good, doesn’t mean elk are there. You’ve got to hoof it until you know for a fact that elk are using an area.

This is a common affliction among newbie elk hunters, and it pays to understand why there aren’t elk in every decent looking spot. Besides the fact that you might be dealing with one small herd for several sections of mountain cover, you’re also dealing with animals that are reacting to hunting pressure and changing food sources, which both factor into Newberg’s hunting strategies.

“I always try to understand what elk need when I’m going to be hunting them. This usually involves thinking about cow elk and what their preferred food sources are at the moment. Primary food sources vary a lot from state to state and unit to unit, so understanding where the cows are traveling to in order to fill their bellies will clue you in on where to start your search.”

This, of course, will lead to the bulls provided you’re hunting pretty much anytime in September because where the girls are, the boys will be close. Finding fresh, quality food sources whether you’re in the aspens of Colorado or pinon country in New Mexico is only one part of the process, however. You must also consider what else elk need, which will include water and sanctuaries with little or no hunting pressure.

The last time I hunted southern Colorado my hunting partner and I focused on a series of meadows that not only provided lush grazing opportunities, but also several small water sources. They bordered steep mountains that provided excellent bedding benches. On paper, the elk had everything and when we showed up the sign indicated we’d made the right choices.

Three things besides breeding influence elk movement—water, food and sanctuary. Factor these into your research to find areas with a high likelihood of holdinge elk.

But the elk didn’t show in the meadows until after dark, and our best guess was that pre-­season scouting and opening-­week hunting pressure had pushed them off of the openings and into the dark timber. They were still using the meadows for food and midnight debauchery, but in the day they’d hoof it into the gnarliest drainages they could reach, which when you’re talking elk, is pretty gnarly.

This meant that while food and water were a part of our strategy, sanctuary became the driving force during the day. Try to understand what elk need on a daily basis, and what should take precedence in their decision-making process for survival, and you’ll be on track to have far more encounters than the average hunter.

Get Real

There is nothing like bowhunting elk. It’s a surreal experience that contains some of the most adrenaline-­dumping encounters a hunter can have, tempered by a hell of a lot of pure misery. That may sound like bravado, but it’s true. Elk hunting often sucks for days at a time.

It sucks more if you go into it thinking that any part will be easy. When I reached out to John Barklow at Sitka Gear to ask him what advice he’d give neophyte elk hunters, the first thing he said was, “The biggest mistake I see is mismanaging expectations. I strongly recommend every bowhunter to shoot the first legal elk they have an opportunity to. If you head west for your first elk hunt and set your standards at a 300-­inch bull or nothing, you are almost guaranteed to fail. In fact, you might fail for a decade or more, maybe much more if your standards are that high.”

Sitka’s John Barklow encourages every bowhunter to give it a go, but also cautions against unrealistic expectations. Hunt for any legal elk first before targeting solely a bull.

This can be a hard concept to grasp, especially for Midwestern and Eastern whitetail hunters who are routinely successful in the deer woods. Take a realistic approach to your elk hunts and understand your odds so that you can target animals accordingly. Personally, I don’t pass any legal elk, period. I live in central Minnesota and on a good year might get eight days in the mountains to try to accomplish something with an overall success rate that might hover in the high single digits. Cows, spikes, calves, they are all fair game for me and I’ve got enough elk bowhunting experience to feel no shame in admitting that.

Work to get an elk under your belt before you set your sights on a decent bull, and you won’t regret it.

Prep Accordingly

Most elk hunting advice, especially for hunters who hail from the pool-­table flat states of the Midwest, involves physical fitness. This beaten horse has been dead for a long time, so I’ll just say this—no one has ever gotten into shape too good for elk hunting. No matter how prepared you are, it’s always possible to do better. Dedicate yourself to year-­round fitness and you’ll have an advantage over most of your hunting competition on any given day in the high country.

It’s also possible to gain an advantage through not only choosing the right gear, but understanding how to use it. Barklow brought this up during our interview and he stressed a few points, most of which focused on shooting. “Be honest about your bow and your arrow setup. Good enough for whitetails might not be good enough for elk, so understand that. A bull will weigh three or four times that of a good Midwestern buck, which necessitates a hard-­hitting setup.

“It’s also important to understand your elk arrow’s trajectory. The one thing about elk that you can’t usually plan for is how far they’ll be and from which direction they will approach. This is especially true when you’re calling, so don’t miss a chance because a bull stops at 40 yards and halfway to him is a cedar bough blocking part of his vitals. If you know your arrow will easily clear the obstruction, you can shoot. If you don’t, you won’t. Understand your setup and practice in ways that simulate elk encounters so that you’ll be prepared.”

Hunt To Your Strengths

Maybe the most salient point that Newberg and Barklow stressed was that you’ve got to understand not all elk hunts play out like a Primos video. In high-­pressure areas, bulls will be tight-lipped and cagey about charging into your calls. You might not be able to call them in at all if they’ve been messed with enough, which is a very common scenario in over-­the-­counter units.

The elk will tell you how to hunt them, so keep an open mind. If they aren’t sounding off and calling like crazy, you might have to ambush them at a wallow or a funnel leading to a food source.

Or, you simply might not be skilled enough to engage in a convincing conversation with nearby bulls and cows. If so, you’ll have to find other ways to hunt and while it may seem counter to the spirit of a dream elk hunt, you might have to set up an ambush.

This might mean posting up at a wallow or a pinch point and waiting for a bull to cruise into range. Or it might mean lugging in a lightweight treestand setup to a waterhole and putting in some aerial hours. Hunt to your strengths, and hunt in a way that should produce encounters. And always, always, play the wind no matter how you plan to try to arrow a bull.

Scent control in the backcountry is a lost cause, and while elk will tolerate a surprising amount of noise and maybe a little movement on your part, they won’t put up with a whiff of danger. Use a windchecker religiously when calling or ambushing and pay attention to what’s going on throughout the day as far as temperature and wind direction are concerned.

If you remain ever-­mindful of even the wispiest of thermals while hunting to your strengths, you will get a chance at an elk provided you’re in an area with some animals. There are a lot of ‘ifs’ involved, I know, but it’s such a unique experience that it’s worth all of the effort and potential ass-­kicking.

Get After ’Em

Just do it. Figure out a way to make an elk hunt happen with a good hunting buddy or two and go. Do you research on the land and the elk, get your cardio in, and amp up your equipment so that it’s up the task. After that, temper your expectations and hunt to your strengths. If you do all of that, you just might get a chance to do what nine out of every 10 elk bowhunters can’t: Bring an elk home.

That possibility makes it all worth it.

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