5 Mistakes Rookie Elk Hunters Make

By Bowhunting ContributorAugust 26, 2019

There are numerous in-the-field tactics and strategies to increase your success on an elk hunt. These strategies can help close the deal, but it’s often the prep work we do before the hunt that can make those opportunities possible. Learning to find success in elk country can be overwhelming, but there are some beginner mistakes that are avoidable. Here’s a look at some of the mistakes rookie elk hunters make.

Not Maximizing Hunting Time

It’s a fact that the more time you spend hunting the more likely you are to be successful. This sounds like such an obvious statement, but there are several mental, physical, and environmental factors that can cut down on your hunting time. Be sure to address these factors before you hit the mountain to ensure you spend as much time as possible actively hunting.

 If you elk hunt a lot, you will learn that you spend a lot more time than you would like working with Plans B-Z. Hunting pressure, weather, road conditions, and actually finding elk are all factors that can require us to change our hunt plan. Don’t be left trying to come up a with new plan from scratch during the hunt. Many of us traveling from out-of-state may only have a week or less to fill our tags before heading home. We can’t afford to burn hours or even days searching for a new area, whether that be by ride or trail. There is no shortage of online mapping resources to learn a hunt area. The forest service and state game and fish offices for your hunt area can also be great resources for learning things about the area you can’t see on an aerial or topo map. They have often given me insight on recent wildlfires, road closures, or trail conditions that have led to a change in my plan. Use these resources and develop a few backup options to decrease the chances of weather, road conditions, or hunting pressure derailing your hunt.


Want to bring back a cooler full of elk meat? You better learn to overcome the common mistakes elk hunters make.

Unrealistic Expectations

Are you looking for a true backcountry hunting experience, or do you prefer a camp stove, drinks, and a campfire back at the truck each night? Maybe you don’t have a preference so long as you head home with a cooler full of meat. Whatever your preference, be realistic about what type of hunting you prefer and what you are capable of. When planning a western hunt, it is easy for your mind to write checks your body can’t cash. There are plenty of consistently successful day hunters just as there are backcountry hunters. Set realistic expectations early in your hunt planning. The longer it takes you to be realistic about your expectations, the greater the impact on your hunt when you realize your plan was unrealistic. It is also much easier to develop a negative attitude when things aren’t going as planned. Once you start to doubt you can have success, rarely does it come together.

cody climbing

Unrealistic expectations and lack of mental toughness can be deal breakers for any rookie elk hunter.

Lack of Mental Toughness

Physical fitness is a huge asset in the mountains, but there are plenty of successful hunters that don’t spend much time in the gym. One trait these hunters usually share is mental toughness. When things become difficult or go wrong on the mountain some hunters talk themselves into heading back to camp, or even worse, they head home early. It’s hard to be successful if you’re not actually hunting. Mentally tough hunters are great at staying positive and not talking themselves off the mountain. Some people are born mentally tough and others have to work at it to keep a positive attitude. For those that aren’t naturals, the preseason is a great time to improve your mental toughness so you can stay positive on your hunt.

As the days pass on a long hunt, your mind can start to drift to family or work responsibilities back at home. This can make it much easier to talk yourself off the mountain. Get your “Honey Do” list taken care of well before hunting season. If you aren’t leaving anything undone at home it is easier to keep your mind on the hunt. I always make sure I have a way to communicate with home to let them know I’m okay, but I try to “disconnect” while on the hunt. If I have taken care of my to-do list before the hunt I shouldn’t have to stay in constant contact. Staying connected to your day-to-day life on a hunt can lead to too many distractions.

You should also practice putting yourself in situations that test your mental toughness. In the weeks leading up to my hunt, I will break from my usual exercise or hiking regimen. One routine I have found especially helpful is hiking distances during the summer that are much further than I would expect to hike in a day of elk hunting. It is easier to convince yourself to hike over that next ridge if you know you have hiked much further many times in the recent past. The mountains are very physically demanding, but mixing up your physical training in the offseason can decrease the mental and physical effects during the hunt.

Lack of Experience With Equipment

Many of us traveling from the east don’t spend a great deal of time camping in the offseason. No, I don’t mean camping in your RV or pitching a tent next to your truck at a local campground. For those that choose backcountry hunting, familiarity with your equipment and living out of your backpack can be essential. A few years ago, we hunted a drainage where we never found a flat spot large enough for a two-man tent, the only water source was 1,000 feet below the elk, and high winds made trying to camp in our preferred area nearly impossible. We could have been better prepared for all of these factors. Each of them began to affect our decisions more as fatigue set in. I can’t say any of these factors were the difference between success and failure, but in hindsight, we could have made some different choices that would have improved our odds of success. The lack of experience with some of our equipment kept us from making those choices.  Becoming familiar with your gear ahead of time will allow you to be better equipped to manage factors like weather, difficult terrain, and water sources that may differ from what you expected when planning during the summer.

mistakes rookie elk hunters make - packing up

Have you tested your gear and equipment before heading to elk country?

Not Practicing Like You Hunt

Coming to full draw on an elk in the mountains is a far cry from shooting the same block target day after day in the backyard. And it isn’t just the adrenaline. There’s other variables that can plague your shot. Think about coming to full draw on an elk after you’ve been carrying a backpack up and down the mountain for days, or maybe you just had to sprint 30 yards in thin air to create your shot opportunity. I don’t encourage shooting for a long period of time when fatigued during the offseason. It can create bad habits, but it can be beneficial to mix in some shooting while fatigued in the preseason. It feels very different shooting when your muscles are already tired. You will benefit from gaining confidence from shooting when your muscles are fatigued. You don’t want to create opportunities for doubt or uncertainty to creep into the back of your mind when you are finally given a shot opportunity during the hunt. By practicing these scenarios before the hunt, you will have confidence in the moment that you can still make the shot.

mistakes rookie elk hunters make - 3d shoot

3D archery shoots are a great way to practice hunting scenarios you can’t mimic in the backyard.

Local 3D archery shoots or events like the Total Archery Challenge are also great opportunities to practice conditions you are more likely to experience on a hunt. The flat, unobstructed shots in your backyard don’t often happen on an elk hunt. 3D shoots can help you practice steep angles and shooting in dense areas. Joining a local 3D archery club or attending a shoot is a great way to break out of your usual routine and gain experience and skill shooting in more difficult conditions than what you can imitate in your backyard.

It isn’t too late to improve your odds of success in elk country. Be prepared. Plan ahead to avoid the mistakes mentioned above and this may be the year you pack a bull off the mountain.

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