Bowhunting Elk: The Basics

By Tracy BreenAugust 21, 2012

LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015

If you are an avid bowhunter, you have probably dreamed of going on an elk hunt.  Whether it was seeing elk country on TV or reading about elk hunting in magazines, most hardcore bowhunters get hooked on the idea and eventually take a trip West to chase the wapiti. 
Elk are just giant turkeys that live in tough terrain.  I say that half joking.  Elk are vocal animals like wild turkeys and respond to calling in similar fashion.  If you are a good turkey hunter, with a little practice, you can also be a good elk hunter. If you have mastered turkey mouth calls, you can quickly master elk mouth calls. After you have calling mastered, you are headed in the right direction but a long way from gripping and grinning with a bull of a lifetime.

Calling in a bull can be difficult because they are notorious for hanging up just outside of bow range. Bringing a bull that last ten or twenty yards is what can take years to figure out.  Al Morris figured it out.  Morris works for FoxPro Game Calls and has won many elk calling championships.  He has called in dozens of bulls across the West.  “If there are two guys hunting together, one should hang back and do the calling,” Morris said  “Most successful hunters have the caller fifty yards or further behind the shooter.  When a bull comes in, he walks right past the shooter.  When hunting alone, I suggest hunters rely mainly on cow talk and turn their head in different directions to make the bull believe the cow is leaving or moving around in the timber.  When a bull hears a cow calling form the same spot repeatedly, he gets nervous.  Liven things up by calling with some excitement and by sounding like you are moving around.”

Another option is not calling at all.  I killed a bull in New Mexico a few years ago by quietly slipping through the brush looking for bulls.  I glassed a lot, walked for hours, and eventually slipped in on the bull pictured.  I didn’t call.  Most Eastern bowhunters believe stalking an animal like an elk is extremely difficult.  It isn’t difficult; you just need a little luck and a lot of patience.  If I can do it, anyone can!

TB 1

The author with his New Mexico Bull.
One of the least discussed but most important subjects that should be covered while elk hunting is physical fitness.  Elk live in steep, nasty places where the air is thin, the terrain is unforgiving and if you are from the East, you will surely get your butt kicked unless you work out ahead of time.  I have cerebral palsy so I must do everything I can before elk season to prepare myself.  The last time I went elk hunting, I went on a diet, lifted weights and hiked with a 40-pound pack on my back.  It still wasn’t enough.  I was sucking wind the first three days of my New Mexico elk hunt.  You won’t be able to kill an elk if you are at camp most of the time because you can’t breathe or hike.  If you want to kill an elk, get into shape months before heading West.

Because elk often live in open country and because they often hang up, the further you can shoot accurately, the better chance you have of bagging a bull. Elk hunting isn’t like hunting deer. Getting a bull inside twenty yards can be difficult where a 20-yard shot while deer hunting is typical. To prepare for further shots in the woods, take further shots in your back yard. John Schaffer from Schaffer Performance Archery in Minnesota often practices at 80 yards and beyond. “I would never take a shot at an elk at 80 yards but if I can keep a tight group at 80 yards while practicing, killing a bull at 50 yards is fairly doable,” Schaffer said. If you want to shoot accurately at 50 yards and beyond in the woods, practice at extreme ranges. Western hunters who shoot at 50 yards and beyond in the field often weigh every arrow, every broadhead, and spin test each arrow before putting it into their quiver.  Any inconsistency in an arrow can cause a complete miss at 50 yards or more.


Spin-Test all arrows for broadhead alignment before heading out west for tough game such as Elk.
Having top notch gear is very important while elk hunting. On my list of must have gear is a top notch shelter (when hunting in the backcountry), top notch boots, top notch binoculars and a good GPS. Many bowhunters buy top notch binoculars, a top notch shelter and a good GPS. Hunters often skimp on boots. Your feet take you in and out of the field each day.  Take care of them.  I have seen more hunters go home early because of sore feet or blistered feet than any other reason.  Bloody, blistered feet will ruin anyone’s day.  I usually wear high-end boots like Schnees or Danner.  I wear them several times a week before going on a hunt so I am not breaking the boots in on the hunt.  When I show up for an elk hunt, my boots look beaten up and worn out.  If your boots are shiny and new on the first day of your hunt, you might be in trouble!

You will want a good GPS because elk often live deep in the backcountry.  Finding them requires putting a few miles each day under your boots.  If you don’t know how to read a compass and GPS, you could get yourself into trouble.  Elk hunting isn’t like backyard deer hunting.  Knowing how to navigate in and out of the backcountry is necessary.  The easiest way to do this is with a good GPS.  A recent study done in Pennsylvania indicated that most deer hunters there don’t travel more than a half mile from their truck while deer hunting.  This is for two reasons: they are lazy and afraid of getting lost.  If you want to become a successful elk hunter, you can’t be afraid of either.  Every time I elk hunt, I rarely know where I am, but my compass and GPS helps me get back to the tent every night.


Filling an Elk tag has more to do with physical conditioning rather than calling skill or technique.

Failing to plan is planning to fail. If you want to be successful, you must plan. Most of my western hunts are planned a year in advance. I choose where I will hunt and who I will hunt with a year ahead of time.  I purchase topographical maps for the area I will hunt in.  My hunting buddy and I strategize, choose our spike camp locations and call biologists to learn as much as we can about an area ahead of time so when the season opens, we are ready to fling arrows. 
You will notice this article contained very little information about calling elk or the act of elk hunting. Most first time elk hunters don’t go home empty handed because they don’t know how to call elk or know how to hunt.  They go home empty handed because the terrain overwhelms them, the physical part of the hunting is more than they can handle and the gear they bought wasn’t up to the task.  If you want to be successful on a do-it-yourself hunt, practice shooting, exercise, and make sure you have the right gear.  The archery elk success is only about 10% in most Western states.  The odds are against you, but if you work hard and hunt hard, you may be part of the 10%. 

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Tracy Breen
Tracy Breen is a full-time outdoor writer and marketing consultant in the outdoor industry. Over the past twenty years, he has been able to hunt and fish all over North America. Tracy was born with cerebral palsy and often writes and speaks about overcoming physical obstacles, chasing dreams and living life to the fullest. Tracy writes for a wide array of publications including Outdoor Life, New Pioneer, North American Whitetail, Buckmasters, Petersen’s Bowhunting and Bowhunting World to name a few. Tracy resides in Michigan with his wife, Angie and their two boys Thane and Hendrik.
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