LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015
Back in 2001, it took me about 20 minutes to harvest my first bull elk with my Dad’s Remington .308. My dad cow called the bull in during a late October rifle hunt, we knew where the bull lived and beat out a half a dozen other hunters to his core area during opening morning. The next year I picked up my first bow and that was it for me, I was married to hunting with archery equipment. The caveat was bowhunting brought me a way better season for elk hunting, but I didn’t harvest another bull until 5 years later. This five year learning period was what I refer to as the ‘gnashing of teeth’ years. The school of hard-knocks so to speak, and if I knew then what I know now, I’d have punched my tag every year.
The drought did finally come to an end in 2006 and since then I’ve harvested 14 bulls with a bow in 8 seasons. I have had my fair share of misses and close calls and continue to learn and evolve each season. The rate of a person’s progress in gaining experience or new skills when it comes to elk hunting can be enhanced with some key information. Let’s go over a handful of ways to make elk hunting your second nature and avoid the rookie mistakes that many of us made early on. The following is 5 ways to accelerate you’re learning curve if you’re brand new to elk hunting.
1. Be Realistic – watching Primos Elk hunting videos are fun and exciting, but they’re not what you can expect, especially on public land. Most of those hunts are on ranches in Colorado, New Mexico, and Montana – like the Hill Ranch in Colorado where the elk see less pressure and elk numbers are great. Even on places like this, it’s no slam dunk, those guys are great elk hunters and employ awesome calling techniques and set-ups. So the first bit of advice is to be successful by killing an elk – any elk that is legal. Passing or holding out for a certain caliber will raid you of not only experience, but confidence as well. In my book, getting your hands bloody, packing the elk out, and filling up the freezer is a huge step in the right direction. Any elk with a bow is a trophy and should be special, check your ego at camp and go get that first elk on the ground.
Getting your hands bloody on any elk will help you gain experience and confidence in your elk journey.
2. Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan – The plan is to have a plan from the word “Go.” What I mean is do not go on a nature hike while holding your bow. You must have plans to visit elk feeding areas, rutting areas, and bedding areas. Know your quarry, their escape routes, where they head when pressure gets thick, and plan for things to not go as planned – because they will. I have 5-6 contingency options for when certain herds are not where they should be or simply because they’re not rutting very hard. I prefer elk to do all the talking, when they’re quiet, my odds go down, so it’s time to go find the elk that are talking – somewhere in the mountains, a bull is talking. You can create more plans by studying maps, Google Earth, and putting boots on the ground prior to the season. I’ve ran into so many scenarios that have caused me to completely change my plans – IE – wildfires, wolves, more wolves, hunting pressure, weather, road wash-outs, and the list goes on. My best advice is to have several plans and be prepared to adapt and overcome.
Having contingency plans will help you adapt and overcome over scenarios that are out of your control The wildfire pictured caused us to move our horse base camp about 13 miles and hunt new ground.
3. Perfect Practice Makes Perfect – Congratulations, you can hit a pie-plate at 50 yards with field points in your backyard. Elk do not live where it’s flat, you do not shoot elk with field points or mechanicals in my opinion. Part of that 5 year drought of mine could have been remedied if I had used a fixed blade broadhead, but I was lazy about super-tuning my bow and relied on the ease of mechanicals. I center punched a herd bull in New Mexico in the early 2000’s and never found him, he would have been well over 350″ but I hit ribs and got zero penetration. My set-up for elk the past 8 years has been an 80lb limb Hoyt with a 340 grain Easton Full Metal Jacket tipped with a 100 grain Shuttle T-Lock broadhead. This combination works well for me and I encourage you to find the set-up that works best for you. The next thing is to practice shooting with your hunting pack on at uphill and downhill shots, with rangefinder and without. From your knees, crouching, and with your actual set-up. If you can get your hands on an elk 3D target even better. Simulate the real thing or you could blow your one opportunity; remember separation is in the preparation.
I firmly believe in shooting elk with fixed broadheads and practicing with broadheads several months leading up to the season.
4. Clothing is Gear – I used to buy my hunting clothing from Walmart or anywhere convenient. I wore almost 100% cotton and learned the hard way. You see, your clothing can often dictate how well you hunt when conditions get harsh. You need top-notch clothing that works for you when it’s cold, hot as hell, windy, or hailing. Cotton wicks away nothing, holds the moisture in and when water contacts your skin the game can be over. I rely on Sitka gear, the clothing is pricy but worth it when you consider the finite number of hours you have to elk hunt in the fall. Don’t squander a second due to clothing failure; find a layering system with synthetic materials so you can hunt your best regardless of weather.
Invest into the best clothing system you can afford to enable you to hunt your best regardless of harsh weather conditions.
5. Be Clutch – Take advantage of that one hard earned shot opportunity. There’s an extra second it takes to really pick a spot, level off your bow, and squeeze off that perfect surprised release. Crunch time comes down to controlling your emotions and being an automatic cold blooded killer. Reading the animals body language is critical. You should be able to tell if he’s hot as a pistol, shy or unsure, what trail he’s going to come in on, what he wants to see or where he’s going to stop to sniff, bugle, or showcase his dominance. Being clutch is similar to an NFL quarterback; you have to read the defense at the line of scrimmage and make the right audible call to run the play that gives you the best chance given the circumstance. High stakes shots during those practice sessions with a buddy will help. Shooting with a high heart rate, or in competition might just help you add more ice to your veins when it comes time to execute.
Add more ice into your veins by becoming familiar with high pressure situations.
The more time you put in the field, the more you will learn. I hope these tips help shorten your learning curve and I look forward to hearing of your adventures and success come next year.