Chasing Wapiti with Whitetail Wisdom
Like many of you, I grew up hunting whitetails and mule deer, but always had fantasies of pursuing elk in the high country of the West. After college and finally with some spare cash in my pocket, the elk gates opened. A handful of my first elk hunts were with friends, but when I had the chance to hunt solo I immediately reverted back to my deer-hunting roots. That’s why when I stumbled across a particularly “elky-looking” spring on a long-ago hunt I thought I could perform a treestand ambush instead of calling in the heavily-hunted national forest.
On and off for a week I posted at the spring with breaks in-between to chase bugles and scout for sign. Finally, one evening my gut told me to again post at the water’s edge. Evening elk bugles indicated a herd was restless on the ridge above me, but it was the surprise sight of a bold bull wading into bow-range at the muddy edge of the spring that grabbed my full attention. Once the bull’s attention was focused on the wallow, I reached for my bow. A 26-yard shot caused the bull to exit in burnout mode, but it was futile. I had the pleasure to watch him tip over in the timber 60 yards away.
That DIY experience cemented my belief that you could topple elk with a deer-hunting mindset. If your elk education is lacking, but you’ve been to deer camp, take your deer schooling with you to the elk woods.
Waiting For Wapiti
My treestand success illustrates a deer tactic you can take with you anytime you hunt elk. You can wait successfully for elk like deer. Elk, like most animals, utilize patterns. Unlike deer, elk patterns switch constantly and can cover miles of country, but it’s not uncommon for them to establish reliable patterns for short periods of time. The rut is one such period, and the best clue you can find to pattern elk are wallows.
Unlike whitetails that scrape and leave their scent markers on the ground, elk carry it with them hoping for a cologne deal by Axe. Wallows are their scrapes. They transport scent easily when elk urinate in a muddy area and cake themselves with the concoction. This activity increases with intensity two weeks prior to when the majority of cows come into estrus. You may catch a bull at a wallow anytime from dawn to dusk, but you need to discover one used with the regularity of a public restroom in Times Square. Elk wallow anywhere on a whim, but lots of fresh sign and trail camera evidence can point you in the right direction.
Begin by locating all water sources in your hunting area. Note springs, creeks, seeps, pools, reservoirs and any topography character that may hold water. Ask public land managers, cowboys and other hunters about any areas of high wallowing activity they might share. When you have some idea of where the elk may be wallowing you then should pinpoint the most remote and distant possibilities. Despite taking on a lethargic, deer hunting style, watching wallows you still have to escape the average hunter. Moving beyond a mile from any motorized access separates you from the out-of-shape crowd. With a target objective in hand you can pack in a ground blind or a treestand, or simply create a hide from forest debris in a downwind location. Four years ago I was down to the wire in one of Wyoming’s lowest-success, general units when I stumbled upon bulls departing from an unmarked spring.
After checking the prevailing winds I spied a deadfall with a tangle of limbs that would provide a great hide downwind of the kiddie pool. I added a few more branches, cleared a shooting lane and padded a seat with my extra jacket. Then I plopped down to see if the bulls would rehydrate using the high-rise pool.
After two days of sitting it out one of the trio, a raghorn bull, walked out of the shadows toward the spring. I gripped my bow in anticipation, but the bull’s gestures hinted at apprehension. As the bull swung around water to get the downwind advantage I began looking at all the tree trunks able to hide his head for more than a second. When he passed by the first one I swiveled to line up for the shot. When he passed by the next trunk I stood up. As he passed a third I drew and when he reappeared I sent a fixed-blade broadhead on its way.
Watching the bull tumble in a heap brought on a second surge of adrenaline that was needed to pack the bull out of the roadless, national forest area I was hunting.
Funnels & Narrows
Wallows aren’t the only GPS waypoints you can use when attempting to arrange a meeting in the elk woods. As you scout elk country you should begin to narrow down other areas elk tend to congregate such as meadows and thick recesses of forest. Next, identify the corridors they use to visit these enticements. In brief, you’re hunting funnels and trails just as you would while targeting a Midwestern whitetail. To reach areas elk want to be in they tend to use the path of least resistance. Although they’ll scale mountains like King Kong if spooked, a herd moving about naturally utilizes hoof-friendly terrain and trails to commute unless badly pressured.
A quality topographic map or topographical overlays on your GPS display many of the terrain features that disappear under a forest canopy while utilizing satellite images. Top contenders to attract traveling elk include hidden benches that stand out in steep terrain, saddles between mountains and flat lowlands that allow elk to travel fast, and furious.
My ScoutLook Weather (scoutlookweather.com) hunting app includes all the imagery and overlays, plus property ownership information. If you have a hunch about an area with potential to be a travel conduit then a few hours of scouting during your hunt is indispensable. Steer toward the suspected travel route with a focus on fresh elk sign and the possibility of an impromptu elk meeting.
If your scouting reveals a recent traffic event you need to piece together clues to try and determine usage times. Are elk using the route to flee hunting pressure, visit feeding areas or retreat to bedding? Maybe the elk are simply using the area via a one-time passage to move towards winter habitat? In some public areas that border private you could find the x-marks-the-spot pathway along a fence line. Downed wire, broken fence and open gates all can beckon lackadaisical elk crossing between deed owners.
If you do find a well-beaten path with smoking-hot evidence, a wait-and-see approach may be in order. Like a wallow, think downwind and veiled. Although elk tolerate ground blinds they still keep their eyes open for hunkering predators like mountain lions and humans. Don’t ignore thermals either. Sitting above a saddle could be ideal as afternoon temperatures push breezes up the mountain, but at sunset, when elk may slip through the saddle, cooling temperatures could plummet your scent right into the nostrils of elk. Be prepared to adjust.
The most used routes generally occur beyond the hiking limits of the average hunter. A suspected pinch point close to a busy trailhead likely gets used less by elk than one with a canyon barrier separating it from the parking area.
On a hunt several presidents ago a herd left me in the dust to bed within sight of God on his throne. Knowing the elk would have to drop out of the air traffic zone to feed I scoured my map and found a gentle canyon nearby that would connect them to the lush parks below. A quick evaluation of my hunch proved right with squishy droppings and a beaten path through the bottom.
Finding a wind-friendly location I waited and at dark a bugle above signaled that the toll road was about to get busy. Twenty minutes later and staying calm through the passing of a dozen cows less than 50 yards way finally brought the bull into bow range. It took me two days to retrieve the bull, but the thoroughfare approach proved worth the wait.
Hearing the screams of distant bugles could entice you to bugle back with equal intensity, but sometimes a better approach is simply to stalk the outspoken herd. Deer hunters may not have the same auditory clues to follow, but stalking bucks in open areas proves successful with the proper approach. When elk herds vocally explode it can pay to be a stalker, not a caller.
Whether you get a herd to respond via your bugles or they ignite on their own, note the location of the calls and map a downwind course to intercept the herd. Keep in mind elk will likely be moving into the wind and advancing higher, especially during morning travel. It’s generally the opposite in the afternoon. Instead of bantering back to the already fired up herd, use your time wisely to cut the distance with a paralleling, downwind approach.
Once you can smell the herd slow down and advance with caution. Maneuver into a position where the herd is likely to flank your post without catching your scent. Be on alert and look for your chance to arrow the herd bull or a satellite as they pass around you. If you believe a shot is not imminent quickly evaluate if you can reposition or if a call could lure a bull right into your lap.
And if you have reason to believe the elk are nearing their end destination you may want to avoid a risky move. Elk will tolerate a tad bit of noise and even motion, but have zero tolerance for the scent of humans. Instead, tag along with the slowing herd. Oftentimes elk chase each other around the bedroom before settling. They may do the same once they reach an opening to feed. These lovebird shenanigans could divert enough eyeballs away from you to provide a chance to creep in to break up the engagement.
Last year I ascended to a high saddle at daybreak to beat a local herd to the mountaintop. Elk bugles below brought relief knowing the herd would soon head up the mountain where we could meet in the middle. While dropping toward the scant auditory clues I ran smack into a satellite bull on the herd edge raking a small lodgepole pine. I moved in and eventually cut the distance to a chip shot, but when finished he lifted his head and spotted me. He freaked and ran back to the herd noises. I followed.
The sound of antlers and pines sparked me to nock an arrow and seconds later the wide frame of a 6x6 bull weaving through the tight timber jolted me at 10 yards. He freaked too at my sight, but as he trotted off I mewed with my cow call. He stopped broadside at 27 yards as my broadhead met up with his vital zone. Two days of packing the herd bull from the steep, public-land basin still wasn’t enough pain to stop me from smiling at the rack resting against the trailer back at camp.
Bulls In The Bedroom
As you slip through elk country pay special attention to bedrooms. Whitetails spend much of their day in sanctuary bedrooms waiting for darkness to shroud their movements. Elk, although not as nocturnal, still prefer to take respite in a refuge setting. Think isolated areas characterized by thick cover. North-facing slopes and overgrown benches meet these criteria, plus they open up the door to still-hunting the wasted hours of the day.
While targeting such areas with abundant sign you need to slow down and become a creeper. Few hunters ever move as slow as you need to in these spots. These dark bedrooms will be revealed by trench-like trails leading into them, abundant droppings and they should be littered with rubs from restless, daytime bulls. The presence of elk beds definitely prompts you into loitering in an area.
You have two options if you believe you’re in an occupied bedroom. First, it pays to ease ahead at the speed of a turtle. A rut-restless bull or anxious satellite could get up and prowl the perimeter giving you a shot opportunity. Stay alert. You may also find yourself with no possible way to get closer to the herd. In that case a calling attempt could prevail. A yearning cow could lure a bull to the edge hoping to recollect a stray. A squealing bull may fool a herd monarch into tromping over to trash a youngster. Only you’ll know what call to use based upon the mood of the herd.
Two seasons ago I revisited a bedroom bench that held the aroma defining it as a regular pit stop. Midmorning I found a comfortable log in the middle of the shadowed bench with old elk beds all around me. Before I gobbled a fistful of trail mix I nocked an arrow and set my Mathews gently beside me. As I chowed I thought I heard a cough. Slowing glancing to my side revealed a bull 20 yards away! He coughed from the forest duff in his nasals as he dug mushrooms for snack time.
As he moved my way in browsing fashion the herd materialized behind him. He turned to catch up and I drew when his head passed behind a tree trunk. When he stepped out from behind I settled and dropped the string before another trunk obstructed my shot. He tipped over in sight with legs stretched out in full surrender.
Rattle A Bull’s Nerves
Finally, you could meet up with a bull ready to brawl. Your calls might work as well as rattling to a whitetail buck in the pre-rut. And like calling deer, the pre-rut tends to be a better window to call in elk ramped up by testosterone as they wait for the first cow to come into estrus.
All calling situations differ so you need to be able to read a bull’s enthusiasm and be cognitive of what is driving the herd that particular moment in time. Some bulls may be call-shy from hunting pressure or the fear of losing females to a more dominant male. The boss cow could also run to your calls in attempt to dominate your aggressive cow calls or run away if she smells a rat.
Once you determine a starting call, add reality into your setup. The subtle sounds of a herd could be the ingredient to bring elk right to your doorstep. Taking a branch and raking a tree imitates an aggravated bull sparring with a timber foe. Snapping limbs as you move sounds like a bull’s antlers going through a tight spot or a rambunctious herd on the move. Finally, tossing a stone into a rock pile rings the tone of hooves moving along a rocky slope.
While chasing elk in a general hunting area with unbelievable hunting pressure my son and I ran into a vocal bull that wouldn’t budge no matter what call I threw at him. It was the pre-rut and the bull wanted to talk, but not move. After 15 minutes of pointless banter I decided to run away from the bull while breaking limbs and tossing rocks. I added in a few mews and one bugle as we trotted down the mountain. Once we hit an opening I hastily directed my son to a shooting lane and I backtracked to call again. Before I could bring the call to my lips the bull was standing within bow range looking for the unsocial herd. My son planted an arrow in that bull at 22 yards to begin an all-day retrieval.
If you are a newbie to elk hunting and daunted by the DIY aspect of hunting pressured elk on public lands you can relieve some anxiety. Go back to your roots. Tailor your deer hunting tactics and you’ll do just fine.