Last Minute Prep for Your Elk Hunt

By Darron McDougalAugust 30, 2023

A herd bull and a satellite responded to every single cow call. The back-and-forth exchange lasted for a good 20 minutes. I figured that if one of them was going to come in it would’ve happened fast considering how close they were. So, I started growing impatient.

But, just when I was beginning to devise subsequent plans — perhaps stalking within range — I caught glimpses of the satellite bull through the oak brush. He was coming. I confirmed that he was a legal bull, and then I abandoned my rangefinder because he was obviously going to be 20 yards or less. When his eyes were obstructed, I brought my Mathews bow to full draw. The bull paused less than 15 yards away, lifting his head erect to scan for the “cows” that had been talking to him.

Last Minute Prep For Your Elk Hunt
What you accomplish in the days leading up to your departure can make an impact on your hunt’s outcome. (Photo by Meredith Fontana on Unsplash)

My Rage-tipped arrow buried to the fletching where the neck swells into the chest. He whirled, painting everything red as he lumbered only about 30 yards downhill before his legs collapsed. The hunt was a thriller. I couldn’t believe that I was tagged out on only the second day of my Colorado hunt.

Elk season is upon us, and if you’re counting down the days until your mountain adventure, here are some things to go over before you point your vehicle west.

Load Your Quiver With Top Performers

If you haven’t done it yet, now’s the time to shoot your broadheads. Don’t just take a couple of shots, and call it a day. Shoot with every single arrow and broadhead combination that you’ll be loading into your quiver and possibly others.

Over the years, I’ve found that one or two arrows outperform the others. At 20-40 yards, most typically fly about the same. But, when I’ve stretched beyond that, I start to see distinct winners, and I dedicate my first and second quiver slots to the two arrows that fly truer than the rest. Every arrow that makes the cut for my quiver must easily hit the kill zone, but the top two must be capable of hitting a baseball every time at 80 yards.

Last Minute Prep For Your Elk Hunt
Broadhead practice is critical. Shoot every arrow from your minimum to your maximum hunting yardage in 10-yard increments. Put the best two arrows in your first two quiver slots, and try indexing nocks as discussed in the article to get a few other winners for your quiver. (Photo by Darron McDougal)

Spend time with every arrow at every yardage you plan to shoot while hunting. This is how you can determine where each arrow tends to hit. When an arrow consistently hits high, low, left or right, I rotate the nock one-quarter of a turn on a four-fletch arrow and one-third of a turn on a three-fletch arrow. Then, I shoot it again. If it hits the middle, I leave it alone. But if not, I rotate it the same amount once again. I’ve had good results with “steering” broadheads into the bull’s-eye using this indexing technique.

Too many people underestimate the importance of meticulous broadhead practice. It is by far one of the most important aspects of your equipment. Practice diligently to identify the best arrow and broadhead combinations, and then load your quiver with them.

Run Through Challenging Shot Scenarios

With the days counting down until your hunt, there’s no time like now to take your practice to the next level. Set up the most difficult shot challenges you’ve done yet. Shoot through tight windows of brush or saplings. Run to various places (don’t run with an arrow nocked), and then stop, nock an arrow and attempt shots while you’re breathing heavily. Wear your backpack while shooting. Estimate yardage rather than always relying on your rangefinder. Don’t get caught up in shooting groups. Walk up to random distances, and shoot one arrow, as that is more realistic to a hunting encounter.

Very few elk opportunities unfold on level ground with the sun shining and birds singing. Particularly on OTC hunts, you can realistically expect to dog a bull for a mile and then be given a split-second opportunity through a small window with your heart slamming inside your chest. So, simulate this type of scenario as closely as possible. Make your practice harder than ever. Your extra effort will tell you just how “ready” you actually are.

Don't over-practice. One and done can be all you need to keep your confidence where it needs to be through the hunting season.

Don’t Quit Now

Hopefully, you’ve been training physically for at least a couple of months in preparation for your hunt, but now isn’t the time to skip workouts. However, depending on how quickly your muscles recover and how long your trip to elk country will take, you might want to take the day before you depart off for muscle recovery.

In the days leading up to your departure, focus intently on hydration. It’s extremely difficult to drink enough water during an elk hunt, and going into your hunt dehydrated from slamming coffees and/or caffeinated energy drinks is like asking for punishment. In order for your body to do what you ask of it during your entire hunt, you must be hydrated. That begins right now. 

Load and Organize Your Pack

Your backpack is a critical piece of gear. In it, you’ll keep very important items. Take some time to load items such as calls, snacks, hydration pack, meat bags, cutlery, spare release, paracord, etc. in the most organized manner possible. Of course, if you’ll be camping, the importance of organizing your pack increases. Do it now rather than when you arrive. Commit to memory where you stow each item. This will make it easier to access during your hunt.

Last Minute Prep For Your Elk Hunt
Loading your backpack at least several days before you head west will help you organize it well so that everything is easily accessible during your hunt. (Photo courtesy of Becca McDougal)

Make a List, Check It Twice

Hopefully, you’ve already created a checklist of everything needed for your hunt. If not, make it now. Forgetting even one essential can needlessly complicate your hunt. If you have the space in your home or garage, create an organized gear heap and compare it with your list. Do it twice or three times. And then, check them off as you load them into your vehicle. I also suggest loading your vehicle as much as possible a good three days before departure. I know what it’s like to scramble the day before and the morning of departure, and it adds lots of stress. Leaving stressed out is no fun. 

Last Minute Prep For Your Elk Hunt
September is a magical time to be in the woods, but your preparation must be on point, or you could have a poor hunt. (Photo courtesy of Becca McDougal)

Fuel the Fire

If you can find the spare time in the evenings prior to your hunt, ramp up your excitement just a little bit more by watching elk-hunting videos on YouTube. Try to watch videos that offer more than just an arrow going through a bull. Try to learn any last tidbits you can. I like to watch Elk101, ElkShape and Born and Raised Outdoors. A lot of these videos are produced by hardcore elk hunters who are grinding it out on public lands and in OTC hunting units. These are the types of hunters you want to pay attention to because you can potentially learn something.  

Last Minute Prep For Your Elk Hunt
Check all of the right boxes, and you could be bringing some tall tines and a heap of red meat home. (Photo courtesy of Becca McDougal)

Pace Yourself

If you live hundreds of miles from elk country, it’s a big trip. I live about 20-22 hours from where I normally like to hunt elk, and my wife and I agree that just getting to elk country is a huge task. When we pull a camper, it takes even longer, and I do all of the driving. So, I’m usually smoked by the time we arrive. I lighten the blow by breaking the trip into 2 1/2 days, but it’s still a big job towing a camper that far.

Anyway, if it’s more than 12 hours to elk country from your home, don’t let your excitement to arrive shadow good judgment. You don’t want to endanger others or yourself. And, you want to arrive in the right frame of mind, not drained and barely able to keep your eyes open.

Give It All You Got

September comes once a year, and for some, elk hunting isn’t an annual event. You’ve planned. You’ve prepared. You’ve arrived in elk country. Now’s not the time to become discouraged. Elk hunting isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s rugged country. Bulls are difficult to pull within bow range. And despite the hugeness of an elk’s vitals, it’s extremely easy to miss or make a marginal hit. Those are some of the reasons why the combined average success rate for hunters across the West is 10 percent or less. But, give it all you’ve got, and you might be traveling home with tall tines and coolers laden with nature’s finest protein. 


Darron McDougal
Darron McDougal is a full-time freelance outdoor writer/editor who lives in Antigo, WI with his bride, Becca. He's hunted in 12 states and successfully taken elk, bear, hogs, turkeys, pronghorn, whitetails, and mule deer, most with archery equipment on DIY hunts. The McDougals enjoy all things hunting and shooting. They believe in God and love to travel.
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