21 1-Minute Elk Hunting Lessons

There are more than 1 million elk in North America. So why are success rates so dismal in most states?

Elk numbers are higher right now than they have been at any other time in modern history, with total numbers estimated at more than 1 million animals, and—despite outlandish nonresident elk tag fees in most Western states— hunting opportunities on both public and private lands remain as abundant as the elk themselves. So why do success rates for firearms hunters average less than 25 percent across the board—and only half of that for bow hunters?

Simply stated, it’s because elk are, by their very nature, difficult animals to hunt. They are smart, have a terrific sense of smell, see very well and have excellent ears—a battery of defenses that’s hard to penetrate. They’re also herd animals, which gives them the added protection of several sets of eyes, ears and noses, and they live in pockets of big, tough country that are difficult to hunt, even if you’re in tip-top shape. When spooked, elk have been known to travel for several up-and-down miles before even thinking about slowing down.

Many novice elk hunters are east of the Mississippi River whitetail hunters who don’t understand the nature of the game prior to their first elk hunting trip. They might be good hunters on their home turf, but they often make the fatal mistake of believing hunting elk will be similar to hunting whitetails back home. That leads them to commit one or more of elk hunting’s 21 deadly sins.


NO.1 Don’t research areas before the hunt: Careful, meticulous planning is the key to successful elk hunting. Spend some long-distance phone money and call state game departments, biologists, etc. for specific elk herd information in specific areas. Troll the Internet, talk to other hunters, read books and magazines, watch videos and attend seminars at sport shows, looking for information about elk hot spots. The object is to shrink your focus from a certain state down into one or two drainages in a specific mountain range in that state. This planning process should begin many months before your hunt.

NO.2 Don’t apply for special draw permits: The best public land elk hunting is found in areas where both hunting pressure and elk harvest are controlled by issuing a limited number of licenses each year. The odds of drawing one of these permits are low, but you can’t play if you don’t apply. Each state has its own application deadlines and procedures. If the process confuses you, there are several professional licensing services that can help you separate the wheat from the chaff.

NO.3 Don’t research outfitters before booking a hunt: There are some outstanding elk outfitters in the West—and some real bad ones. It’s amazing how many people give outfitters money without first checking out both their references and the competition, and then are surprised when their dream hunt turns into a nightmare. Do your research and get everything in writing.

NO.4 Don’t get into top physical condition: Elk hunting is physically demanding, even if you’re on an outfitted horseback hunt. The mountains are steep, the elevation high and the drainages huge. The more ground you can cover day after day, the better your chances for success. And once an elk is down, caring for the several hundred pounds of meat isn’t easy, especially if it must be backpacked to the road. Out-of-shape hunters is the No. 1 complaint I hear from outfitters about their clients.

NO.5 Don’t practice: The inability to make the shot over broken ground under demanding field conditions is the elk outfitter’s No. 2 complaint about their hunters. By the way, this holds just as true for riflemen and muzzleloader hunters as it does for archers. Remember that, in elk country, shots will quite possibly be at longer distances than on back-home whitetail hunts. Often, steep uphill or downhill angles will be involved, or you might have to shoot quickly through a small opening in the trees and brush. Remember, too, that during a week’s tough hunt, one chance might be all you get. You don’t want to blow it because you didn’t practice.

NO.6 Don’t use enough bow: Elk are not whitetails. They are big, tough and more tenacious than any other animal I’ve hunted in North America. You need to shoot a bow-and-arrow combination with enough “pop” to achieve deep penetration through thick hide and big muscles. I recommend an initial kinetic energy delivery of at least 60 ft./lbs.

NO.7 Don’t have a laser rangefinder: Elk country is big country, and judging distance can be deceiving, even in thick timber. Unless you’ve called a bull right into your lap—possible, but don’t count on it—the only way to absolutely determine the distance to him is with a laser rangefinder. Buy one, learn to use it and never go afield without it.

NO.8 Don’t focus on elk, and only elk: Though it might be tempting, forget about buying tags for mule deer or black bears when bow hunting for elk. Arrowing an elk will take all you’ve got, and unless you focus completely on the task at hand you’re inviting disaster. You don’t need any distractions.

NO.9 Don’t know how to navigate the backcountry: A GPS and topographic maps are more than just backcountry navigational aids, they can help you locate potential elk-holding pockets, escape routes, travel routes, water holes and bedding areas. I never step into the elk woods without thoroughly studying a topo map, using what it tells me to formulate a plan of attack. Wandering aimlessly around the elk woods will get you nowhere but lost.

NO.10 Don’t move if there are no elk around: Hunting where the elk were, not where they are, is a huge mistake. Rubs, wallows, tracks, droppings and beds are all indicators that there were elk around at one time, but unless the sign smoking hot, it’s generally better to try to locate elk herds than sticking close to an area where you hope they’ll eventually show up. If you’ve hunted a specific spot for a few days and nothing’s happening, be aggressive and go find them—even if it means having to hunt far from the road or moving camp.

NO.11 Don’t learn about elk habits: Elk are not deer. They live differently, prefer different habitat, have different daily habits and even prefer different foods. For example, elk are grazers, preferring grasses and forbs to the woody browse deer target. In the Southwest, elk also love acorns. By learning as much as you can about the daily habits of elk, you’ll be more in tune with the woods when you step into them, and able to make the adjustments necessary to both locate elk herds and move in for a shot.

NO.12 Don’t take enough time: Most novice elk hunters plan hunts that are too short. It often takes the better part of a week just to figure out where the elk are concentrated and what they’re doing, then who knows how many more days before you can maneuver in for a shot. Simply stated, the more days you have to spend, the better your chances.

NO.13 Don’t wear the right clothing: Elk have excellent hearing. Bow hunters should wear super-quiet outerwear of wool, fleece, cotton or an ultra-quiet synthetic fabric. Always dress in layers, choosing a wicking underwear system topped with hydrophobic layers that will repel moisture.

NO.14 Don’t constantly watch the wind: For some strange reason, whitetail hunters who work overtime to control their scent and keep the wind in their face often forget all about both when hunting elk. But if an elk gets a whiff of you, it’s gone. Also, you’ll find the wind in the mountains constantly changes, even if it’s just subtly. A small wind-detecting puff bottle will show you the direction of the breeze both where you’re standing, and how it’s flowing up and down the mountain as it drifts off. Carry a couple, and use them constantly.

NO.15 Don’t hunt from the top down: Elk country is steep. For most of us, trying to climb rapidly uphill to intercept moving elk is a pipe dream. Whenever possible, you should hunt elk from the top of the mountain down the slope, which makes it so much easier for you to move quickly and quietly when closing the distance.

NO.16 Don’t take a stand: Some of the most successful elk bow hunters I know do little more than scout until they find a heavily used water source—it might be anything from a large stock tank to a small seep, a little stream to a muddy wallow—and set either a ground blind or tree stand there and wait ’em out. It can be very boring— until a big bull shows up.

NO.17 Don’t hunt near agriculture: In much of modern elk hunting, the animals are concentrated near low-elevation crop fields, bedding in adjacent foothills or mountains during the day, then heading to the fields during late afternoon and evening to feed. Setting up near the fields along a travel corridor can be pure poison.

NO.18 Don’t know how to call: Calling elk is not that easy. Many of today’s easy-to-use cow calls are highly effective, but the best elk hunters carry a variety of calls with them and have practiced with them long before the hunt.

NO.19 Don’t know when, and when not, to call: Hunters love their game calls. Why not? They’re fun to play with. But modern-day elk have heard all the calls. Smart elk hunters call sparingly, only when it’s to their advantage. The best big-bull bow hunters I know sometimes never call, instead locating elk by glassing and hiking, then slipping in close on cat’s feet for a shot. They also bugle sparingly, if at all. Calling is an important part of elk hunting—just don’t overdo it.

NO.20 Don’t pare down gear: We all like newfangled equipment, but the one thing I’ve learned over the years is that the less stuff you pack around the woods, the easier it will be to cover lots of ground, avoid fatigue and hunt hard for days. Instead of a fully loaded daypack, I carry a small fanny pack with a few essentials. Go light, and you can stay strong and go fast.

NO.21 Don’t have realistic expectations: Magazine articles and TV shows rarely show anything but big 6x6 bulls in all their glory. What a fantasy. The odds of you taking such a trophy bull on public land in most states are so low that even Las Vegas would be embarrassed to cover the bet. If you’ve never taken an elk before, be happy with any bull you can get, or be prepared to go elk-less. And don’t overlook cow elk. In many areas, cow tags are easier to obtain than bull tags, and offer relatively high odds for success, while still offering the excitement of elk hunting. And the steaks can’t be beat.

Elk hunting is one of the most exciting and challenging adventures you’ll ever experience. The majestic beauty of elk country is unsurpassed anywhere in the world. The elk themselves are a proud, regal creature and have become a symbol of wild, wide-open spaces. The lessons that can be learned from both will last a lifetime.

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