The Truth About Elk Hunting
You could hunt many lifetimes and never accrue the knowledge you need to get it done quite like the Primos crew; So settle in and soak up the wisdom to.
Photos by Lake Pickle
Known to deer hunters as a man who has given so much to their sport, Will Primos needs no introduction. His is one of the most trusted names in all hunting, both as the host of The Truth hunting show and the maker of so many of the effective game calls we all grew up with. But did you know his crew has filmed 20 videos with 10 to 16 elk killed on each? There may not be a team in history that have hunted elk quite like that—which is why they sold up to a half-million Primos Truth videos annually. He was willing to share with NA ELK Editor Skip Knowles just how much he learned in the process. We can all benefit from the Primos team’s long and storied road deep into elk country, hunting up to three states annually over 30 years:
SK: When did you first go after elk? What were those first experiences like for an old whitetail killer?
WILL: I saw my first in Estes Park Colorado in 1967 on vacation with my family. They had all these activities planned and I just wanted to go see the woods. I took a fly rod–I had learned to fish for bream and bass but never trout–I would hike trails and find beaver ponds and see the fish and catch a few. You couldn’t fish all those waters so I took just the tip of a fly rod and hid it in my pants. Made you walk funny, you didn’t want to break the rod. And I built a rock fort in the water for a creel and filled it with cutthroat. I saw mule deer and elk and said to myself “I’m coming back to hunt here one day.” I was 15, and made it back in ‘88 to Yampa, Colorado, and we were trying to video elk. We’d produced deer and turkey videos, and it was now time for the Truth elk. The first elk video was released in 1990. We were learning and we were trying, we just flew to Denver and drove. We’d hike in the dark three hours off the ranch to BLM, and I got my first shot, called a bull up right at dark, no range finders, estimated 18 yards, he was walking broadside. I put it right behind his shoulder and while he was walking, shot. It was a bad shot and we lost him, finding the 5x5 two days later. I learned a valuable lesson: Do not shoot them walking, stop them with an unintimidating cow call. Shooting video we got good at examining what we did. We could listen to our calls, watch the reactions. Starting in 1990, we hunted Angel Fire, New Mexico, right below Wheeler Peak. We would go back in summer and hang out around the elk and record them and listen to them. It was amazing what you can hear when not hunting. We got better and better, and finally figured out that we needed a caller, a cameraman and a shooter. When we did that everything started turning around for us. I hunted with a cameraman, and I had another team of shooter, cameraman and caller. They immediately called an elk and killed him from 200 yards, a 6x6, in the 280 class. I got their caller on my team, and I killed one. So we learned how important having a caller behind you is.
SK: You always seem to have a strong team.
WILL: I decided early on the videos didn’t need to be about me. We wanted to show mistakes and misses so we all could learn from it. We have been lucky to find great cameramen who are also hunters and also care about the customer. It’s not about us. If you can keep that in mind, you can be successful. We need good people to further the sport. There are three kinds of people: Those don’t want you to succeed, those that don’t care, and those that want everybody to win. I have sought out the last ones. We have terrific families here at Primos and we have the greatest team to produce shows.
SK: What is it about elk? They capture the imagination like nothing else.
WILL: I talk with a lot of people that are going elk hunting and for some reason they put the elk on a pedestal, like they are a man-eating monster. Yes, he’s loud and he’s big but he’s not going to hurt you unless he is cornered. The bugle raises so many emotions inside one, to hear it, and then to hear it up close. It is powerful. But then to understand the elk all have different voices, they can bugle loud or soft, and use it to their advantage. That first time I saw one, he was in velvet in Estes Park and I was just in awe…and the five point I got a shot at, it was an incredible experience, and I realized I had a lot to learn.
SK: How are you so consistently successful?
WILL: I’ve learned to access really well managed lands, public or private, to have as much opportunity as we can to share with the public just what it is we love so much about the places elk call home and the elk themselves. And I’ve got a caller 50 to 150 yards behind me.
SK: How do you stay calm?
WILL: I still get excited, but I do tell people once you see the elk and decide you’re going to kill him, never ever focus on anything but where the exit hole is…the angle of the elk can be so many postures, front legs forward or backward, revealing less or more of the kill area, but if your mind is imagining where it exits you will know where to shoot him…if you are not careful you can end up with one lung, or miss the liver…it’s not about the entry hole it’s about the exit hole. That will allow you to lower the blood pressure; if you damage the engine, you take out the boiler room, he’s done. They are babies if you hit them right and monsters if you hit them wrong.
SK: This magazine largely targets the deer hunter who dreams of chasing elk. When I started chasing Roosevelt elk in the ‘80s in Washington, we set about using a more whitetail-style hunting approach than most of the local loggers, moving slower, tracking and ambushing. What is some advice you can give a whitetail hunter who wants to chase elk?
WILL: Deer guys dream about elk hunting, and I’ll be at a show and a guy will walk up and say, “I’ve been going for five years and only heard one bugle, what can I do differently?” and I am honest and tell them, it’s most often pressure. If it’s all horses and people and unlimited access, elk become very tough to kill. Once they start to smell you they will get into a place that they can go where they can do what they want to do without being disturbed. So I ask them what they’re spending, and typically they say all told about four or five thousand dollars. So they end up spending all that money…I tell them why not go every two years instead, and now you have eight or ten thousand and can get to a quality situation. There are some wonderful draws, we hunted the public Gila Units in New Mexico and some others and had fantastic hunts, but it’s work. You gotta plan and know maps and GPS your area. I used an outfitter to get me back in them and then was on my own tent camping.
The problem you have is you can’t kill an elk where an elk isn’t and we need to respect the places they call home. Some people frown on me for going to private ranches, but we don’t let anyone give us anything, we pay our own way because we need the opportunity. It might be ten elk we call before we get one right on camera.
There are ways to do it. I know a guy who pays for landowner tags, about $500 or so, who lives here in Mississippi. He has killed some five elk in five years, in the 310 to 350 class.
You just never know with elk. Weather is everything in elk hunting. This year in Colorado we hunted a beautiful place that goes to 14,300 feet. We were there for five days and on Sept. 11 we saw eight bulls that were five years old or bigger, together…but they just were not actively rutting. But on a ranch next to it they were going crazy; they just had more cows.
SK: You have to adapt.
WILL: Yes. Like in New Mexico once it was unseasonably warm out on a private ranch that’s so big, like 155,000 acres, and the elk would go into pronghorn country and learn to leave the plains and not hit the timber until 10 a.m. and we couldn’t really call them until then. We found we could wait and go into the timber late and then call ‘em because we could hide. It’s a given you want to access places where elk are managed well, and after that the number one thing is you have to have a caller who is 50 to 175 yards behind you. An elk will often come straight on but gets to 75 yards and stops and if you are lucky he comes to 20 yards but all you have a frontal shot. You need that bull slightly quartering away or broadside, and if you don’t know the range don’t shoot. Never shoot at an elk if you do not know the range.
SK: What’s the key to successful archery shots?
WILL: I love long bows and recurves and the romance of the arrow, I’ve read all I can by Howard Hill and the others, but an instinctive bow limits you to 25 yards. With a compound if you don’t know the range you are going to wound that elk. Do not do that…the elk deserves more from us. You have to have restraint. If you don’t know the range just enjoy the moment and don’t booger that elk up.
WILL: Some states don’t allow mechanicals, and when mechanicals first came out they were junk, but I now shoot the Rage Hypodermic Plus-P because they are one of the greatest inventions in recent times for bowhunting elk. I grew up shooting two-blade broadheads like Bear Razorheads, but they’re only 1 1/8”, and that’s only a slice, and they are only going to bleed enough to leave a blood trail once they bleed out the nose. But with the Rage 1 ½” it’s a hole, and you get a great immediate blood trail. I prefer the Rage 1.5” Plus P for elk because the 2” limits your penetration. Elk, you lower their blood pressure with that broadhead and they are done. That’s what you want.
SK: What are some ways in which chasing elk can be like hunting whitetails?
WILL: There are definitely parallels. A whitetail uses his nose more when he’s coming in to a call, than an elk. If you will get 50 to 175 yards behind the shooter the elk won’t use his nose too much until he gets within 75 yards. At that point, guess what? He’s broadside and the shooter can put a broadhead behind his shoulder. An elk doesn’t get suspicious until he’s within 75 yards because he doesn’t want to walk in on a fight with another bull. An elk will come downhill to you a lot faster than he will come uphill. A bull above him has a big advantage to come down on an elk and roll him over. He knows that. You hear the bugle, you better get below him or even with him, depending on the thermals. The thermals and air currents in the mountains are your enemy, that’s what you will always be crying over, the wind direction. You can sit in a treestand over a wallow and without a good steady downwind they will smell you and they are going to ease off. You will never see them.
SK: Ozonics? Are you a believer?
WILL: Yes. I tried to buy that company it’s so effective. Ozone’s been around since God created the world. They outlawed smoking in bars years ago, and the way they got rid of that horrible smell is to put commercial ozone units in there. I use it in my hunting clothes…it will absolutely blow your mind.
SK: What’s the smartest way to use it elk hunting?
WILL: From a tree, hunting a wallow or a trail. The wind needs to be steady, one direction, and set the Ozonics above your head at an angle so your scent is blown through that curtain of ozone. O3 is heavier than air so it will flow downward. Whitetail hunting I’ve killed some deer that you would never kill if you didn’t have it. You can see them smell it and think what is that, but it doesn’t relay as danger to them. In a blind, you check the wind and place ozone over the window where it’s going out, so they can’t smell you from your downwind side. It’s a curtain of ozone over that window. If you can smell it you are using it wrong.
SK: They say you cannot pattern elk like deer.
WILL: You can find trails from their nighttime bedding area to their grazing area, and if the wind doesn’t betray you, it can work. They smell you once and you just stacked the deck against yourself. Elk cannot stand the human predator…I have seen them leave whole mountain ranges. They smell you once and everything changes.
SK: We love how easy your calls are to use, and the best elk killer I know uses your grunt tube. But lots of guys think pressure on public has it to the point where calling is counter-productive. When does calling make sense?
WILL: I totally agree; too much of anything is a bad thing. Same goes for elk calling in elk country. You see guys calling on and on; elk don’t act like that and don’t do it nonstop—you blow a call he thinks you’re an elk and if he comes in and smells you he thinks ‘dagummit a predator has moved in’ and they learn to shut up. And it’s so hard to call a herd bull out of a herd because the lead cow runs the show. Many times they become so used to people calling, that old smart cow will take the bull away because she thinks a predator is around. The bull is then screaming at the cows that are leaving because they are smarter than he is and they are leaving him. You think he is answering back at you. Bull donkey, they were calling at the girl with the nice sweet smell who is leaving.
Sometimes you just aren’t going to kill him because that cow is not going to let you. So go back to where he’s hanging out at night and ambush him, try to get the wind in your favor and let the cows pass by you. Calling can be counter-productive, but it can be amazing. My wife Mary is a fantastic elk caller, she called a 300 inch bull that runs into our setup, throws his head down and almost flips over and he’s peeing all over himself and Brad shoots him at 20 yards, and I turned and said to her “What did you say to that bull?” And she said, “I know what all you boys are thinking.”
Another time we called a small one in and let him walk, and I swore I heard a big one walking back there too. I told her, “One came in and it was just a raghorn, but did you hear all those elk behind me?” And she said, “that was just me.” She was just rubbing rocks to sound like walking elk.
The best thing you can do is get a caller who knows what’s going on, looks at terrain and starts backing up, keeping that bull upwind of you and backing up as much as he needs. He might be 150 yards back. If the caller stays close to the shooter you limit your opportunity for a shot big time.
SK: What would you tell a Midwest deer hunter who feels overwhelmed by the idea that they can roll out west and chase bull elk?
WILL: They just need to do their homework. Take a summer vacation, get a map, find a place, meet the people, do your homework and plan your trip and when you hunt, take a caller with you. Two guys have a tag and 5 days to hunt, flip a coin who hunts first and call for him and do not take two bows, take one bow. The hunters focus on the hunter who is to shoot, and make the sacrifice and commitment to bring that bull broadside to that shooter. It will change with a bow in your hand.
SK: What are some of the keys to out-perform the competition on public land? How do you speed scout when forced to?
WILL: Sometimes people will beat you when you start three hours early and you get back to trailhead and the guys have killed an elk, and they went maybe one mile off trailhead or even stayed near the trailhead. You gotta remember elk want to get away from you, and it might mean right next to the trailhead. Wherever people don’t go, is where you need to be. Study a map look and look at the wind currents. If I am going to hunt a place I will never ever hunt that place with the wind at my back. Whitetails, they smell anything and it tells them to stay laying down, and elk are far worse. If they smell you, they don’t lay down, they leave the mountainside. You cannot access elk country with wind at your back. If they smell you your chances are lowered by 99 percent.
SK: Everyone knows the fundamental cow call and bugle business. Great callers talk about putting emotion into it.
WILL: In my opinion, most people call way too loud. Part of the emotion that can be put into a call is to try to see how soft you can make a cow call so a hunting buddy can barely hear you at 20 yards. You must remember that elk can hear so much better than you can. Maybe a thousand percent better. That goes for bugles too. A bull can bugle very softly anytime he wants.
SK: What’s a bull sound that you have a lot of confidence in, that maybe everyone doesn’t know?
WILL: The other (emotional) sound we have found the cows most interested in is a display bugle. You vibrate your lips up and it gives a really growly bugle. It’s an aggressive sort of bugle and you have to do it with confidence and be behind the shooter—you can’t be the shooter. That’s how I called in Troy Ruiz ’s bull this year. It’s a call that says, “I am the king, stay away,” and big bulls cannot stand it.
SK: Terrain and setups…often when I’m in the woods in a spot I want to call, it can be real tough to set up so you can hide but still see to shoot. My buddy called a big public land 320 sixer for me in black timber last year, and I doped the wind knowing the bull would circle downwind and put myself much closer to the elk. It worked perfectly except he came in silent and I could not see the elk for the 12 trees between me and him, but my caller buddy had a perfect view of him. So frustrating. What is the key to setups?
WILL: The big answer is to get a caller 50 to 175 yards behind you so the bull isn’t looking at you to begin with. Kneel beside the bush not behind it, with the wind in your favor. Elk will come in on a line. If you ain’t got the caller behind you and off to the side, you may as well be trying to win the lottery without playing the game. I drew a tag in Arizona and was trying to kill a 400 inch bull with my bow, in flat country with junipers (cedars). And these elk would scream, and we’d go to get close and they’d shut up. Then another would scream we’d get close and they’d shut up.
Finally a bull bugled 200 yards out and as we were trying to get set up I moved to one side and could see him. He was bent over with his head under the bush looking under the bush at our legs walking, and he also shut right up. They are adaptable. The elk wanna see you and expect to see you and whenever they do see you it is over.
SK: So true. We have watched them carefully step around sticks while coming in: So much for the angry monster bull! Do you still get buck fever?
WILL: Oh yes. I just missed a big buck the other day, using the wrong pin on my sight, and the cameraman asked me what happened. “I got excited,” I told him. If you don’t get that excited you need to quit.
SK: Parting words of wisdom?
WILL: I hope what I've learned helps somebody’s chances, learning from our failures and what we’ve been through.