Elk hunting is hard, especially public land elk hunting. Expect to struggle to find elk and then expect to struggle to kill one. Also, a dead elk is a lot of work to break down and pack out. Expect that process to be more work that you thought. Killing an elk is not easy or everyone would do it and in the end the struggle is what makes the reward of harvesting one so sweet.
Along the same lines as above, there is a saying that elk are where you find them. Meaning elk can be anywhere from the desert sage flats to the tallest pine peaks. This is true to some extent, but all elk have to have water, food and cover and even when you’ve seen elk in an odd place, there’s probably a good answer for why they are there if you think about it. Some real research into the elk life history and behavior can be very helpful. Using that information to then dissect and scout an area before ever showing up to hunt can help you a ton.
You usually have more time than you think. What do I mean by that? I have missed elk that I should have killed because I let the intensity of the situation overwhelm me and I have rushed the shot. I have also killed elk by telling myself, take your time, let it play out and then capitalized when the moment was right. Stay present, be patient then pick your time and spot.
You might get away with making some sound or allowing an elk to see you but you cannot beat their nose, play the wind at all costs.
Elk hunting is physically demanding. I don’t know who said it first, but I completely agree with the sentiment, “legs and lungs kill elk”. Big biceps are awesome, but make sure you have plenty of cardio to go along with your curls. Elk can change elevation and cover so much terrain quickly that it’s in your best interest to be as physically fit as you can be. I remember an archery elk hunt a couple years ago when I got close to a herd bull and his cows almost right at light and I ended up finally killing him mid afternoon more than three mountainous miles from where it all started.
Let’s face it, we plan, prep and dream about elk hunting all year and whether you only get a weekend or five to ten days, those days are sacred. Leading up to a hunt I try to be very careful with my health. Sounds funny, but I make sure I maintain some distance from sick people and I wash my hands regularly. If I go into a grocery store or gym, I make sure to wipe down the shopping cart or equipment. A couple weeks before a hunt I also add a immune system booster like Airborne or Emergen-C.
Test your weapon. Shoot your gun or bow and make marks needed or write down that information so that you can return it to zero should something get bumped. Test your other equipment as well. Break in your boots, nothing can ruin a hunt quicker than sore blistered feet.
Know exactly how to set up your tent and ensure it’s in good working condition. Is your camp kitchen/stove system in good working order? Does your lighter and stove work at the elevation and temperature you will be hunting? Is your backpack comfortable and can it handle the weight you may end up carrying? Those are things you should know and test if you can prior to your hunt.
Like our friend Santa Claus, build a list and check it twice, in fact check it 3 or 4 times. If you travel many hours and arrive at a trail head only to find you forgot your quiver full of arrows it’s going to ruin your day. Months in advance I build out a spread and categorize all the gear I need for each hunt. I open it every few days and review it to see if there are things I have missed and need to add to it. Two or three days before I leave for a hunt I get everything I need laid out in one location, check it for functionality, clean anything that may need it (like my optics), add new batteries to any electronics (rangefinders, GPS, camera) and then I pack it. I check every item off as I add it.
Food and water are crucial. As physically demanding as elk hunting can be you need to make sure you are hydrated and fueled. On a multi-day hunt I prefer to prepare all my food and organize it in one gallon zip lock bags per day. That allows me to know the exact calorie and the nutritional content of each days food. You should also have a plan to make sure you can get water.
Have a plan to take care of the meat. A boned out a bull elk could yield 200-300lbs of meat plus the head and cape. How are you going to get that much weight back to your truck and when you get it there do you have a means to keep it from spoiling and to a butcher? Having a plan to get the meat taken care of is critical.
Wrap up work or school, whatever it is that might be a stressor, take care of it prior to leaving so that you can focus on hunting. It’s a lot easier to talk yourself into headed back to the trailhead when times get hard if you have left loose ends at home.
The goHUNT unit profiles are a great place to start for access, terrain, vegetation and other tidbits of information pertaining to your hunt unit. Leaving a comment on the unit profile asking other INSIDERS is a good way to get intel.
I touched on this in a recent article I wrote but successful hunters are often connected, meaning they have developed a network of other hardcore hunters they can reach out to for input on where to scout and hunt. With social media and hunting forums, it’s never been easier to find other hunters to exchange information with. Your hunting contacts are a great place to start
The area big game biologist and game warden are also worth an initial call. When you call, be prepared to leave a message, it typically requires a couple tries to talk to the biologist or game warden. Also, when you do get ahold of them be prepared with a list of pointed questions to ask and either record the conversation or have a pen and notepad ready to take notes. I would also suggest that you do some research before you call and if you can work the information that you’ve learned on your own into the conversation they often open up and offer a lot more than they otherwise would. Other contacts worth trying are area taxidermists.
GoogleEarth is an extraordinary tool for finding places to hunt. Scan for water sources, feeding and bedding areas, and burn scars. Like alot of big game animals, elk love edge habitat and typically the more edge the better. When we say edge habitat, think of it as a mosaic of feeding and bedding areas with good water sources intermixed. GoogleEarth has a wealth of features that can be utilized.
Once you have done everything you can from your phone or computer, nothing beats boots on the ground experience. If you can, a multi day scouting trip can yield a wealth of information and either confirm or refute your prior intel. I always like to explore the access roads and trails on a scouting trip. One thing to keep in mind, glassing up a bull in June or July may not translate into Sept, Oct, or Nov. Bulls are going to begin to move looking for cows prior to the rut. If you are planning to hunt elk during the rut in Sept, it’s worth more to find large cow/calf herds than it is to find pockets of summering bachelor bulls. Along the same lines, late season bulls are going to pull away from the cow/calf herds and often find reclusive pockets to feed and reclaim body condition. Burn scars, south facing slopes and craggy canyon country are often great places to find late season bulls. If you are finding a few shed elk antlers on your summer scouting trips, you’re probably in the right area for a late season hunt. Finally, if it’s legal, hanging a few trail cameras is a great way to scout an area. Water sources, salt, or pinch points are all great ways to capture trail camera pictures.
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