This winter, like winters past, I’ve been constantly replaying hunts from last archery season. I’ve been analyzing my mistakes to determine what I could have done differently to better capitalize on those ‘so close’ opportunities.
I’ve been bow hunting elk for the last 10 years and have learned something every time I’ve gone out. Through a decade’s worth of lessons, I’ve found the following tactics have special merit in the elk woods and, when I have remembered to implement them, increased my chances at arrowing a bull.
Boots and shoes are loud! When you’re in the heart of the herd, there’s nothing sneakier than pulling your shoes off and feeling the dirt under your feet. For me, bow hunting elk is all about cutting out variables. Cutting variables means less attention on me and more chances to get in close and possibly loose an arrow. A snapping twig is an inopportune variable I can’t afford. When I stalk in socks I can feel the earth under me. I can feel if I’m about to snap a twig. It allows me get in closer without drawing attention to myself.
If you’re trying to kill the herd bull, don’t call. Again, cutting out variables is key. Letting the bull know your location will only make him wary of you. In my experience, herd bulls won’t leave their cows for any reason. If you get in close and bugle at them, they’ll usually just round up their cows and move the opposite direction. Instead of calling, my approach is to shadow the herd bull. Parallel him as he moves up the mountain then cut him off when the wind is right.
Last September, minutes before I arrowed my bull, a whitetail doe walked by at 30 yards. I had a doe tag, but wasn’t interested as it was the peak of the elk rut. To see what kind of movement I could get away with, I drew my bow anyway. My facemask was off and the timber was thick. To my surprise, she spotted me after I drew and ran off. Assuming it was my pasty white face that gave me away, I pulled up my facemask and continued sneaking down the timbered ridge. Five minutes later I drew on a bull at 20 yards. He was walking up the same ridge that I was walking down. He never saw me draw, and when he got to three yards, he didn’t even notice my quivering arm. Had I not pulled on my facemask, I don’t think a three-yard shot would have been on the agenda.
Wild animals are the most discerning judges and practice drawing on them will expose any flaws in your routine and setup.
Sniffling, coughing, clearing your throat, the ‘swish’ of your pant legs rubbing together, the jingle of a zipper tab – they’re all unnatural sounds in elk country that scream danger to elk. Fortunately, these noises are variables you can control.
If you have the sniffles or a runny nose, use your sleeve!
When my throat is dry or I have a slight cold, I’ll throw a few cough drops or hard candies in my pocket to keep from coughing or clearing my throat. Sipping water every so often from a Camelbak helps too.
We’ve all heard our buddy walking down the trail. The swish, swish, swish, swish, swish of his pant legs rubbing together is unmistakable. This can be a tough fix because you can’t hear yourself doing it, but the elk can! Pay attention to your stride and widen your stance slightly if your pant legs touch.
Finally, I cut off any zipper tabs on my gear that might jingle and replace them with just the nylon cord. This will not only cut out unnatural sounds, but also reduce weight. You’ll notice that Sitka has already done this on all their gear.
Especially during the rut. The highest elk activity will be in the mornings and evenings, but bulls will continue to bugle from their beds throughout the day. This is a good opportunity to drop your shoes and go into stealth mode. A bugle every hour is plenty to pinpoint their location and move in. Smart bulls will bed with their backs to the wind and eyes downwind. This way they can smell threats from behind them and see threats in front of them. Playing the wind and always keeping a tree between you and the bull’s eyes is key.
Bow hunting elk is fast paced and, in my experience, I’ve rarely had time to range elk. In fact, I haven’t ranged any of the elk I’ve killed. There wasn’t time! When I’m hunting, hiking in the mountains or even walking to work, I’m constantly picking objects and guessing their distance. I’ll then range it or pace it off to see how close I was.
Do this enough and you can get pretty accurate at guesstimating distances out to about 40 yards.
Every year, on opening weekend I hunt a steep timbered face littered with coulees, avy chutes and benches. The elk are always thick, but the wind is so fickle it’s nearly impossible to get close. It’ll be blowing up one draw and down the next. It’s a constant swirl of wind. I’ve hunted it for years to no avail and have never picked up on any pattern that gives me an advantage, and if you can’t play the wind you should be playing at all.
After the opener, the elk typically move into more remote and rugged country where the prevailing easterlies dominate. Getting into this spot is an all day grind, but it’s treated me well. When you cut out the sporadic wind variable, odds go up significantly.
Every elk I’ve taken has been in an area with predictable wind. It takes a lot of time to figure out the thermals, prevailing winds, and elk patterns in relation to the winds, but once you do, play the winds and prepare to be surrounded by elk.
When it comes to bow hunting elk, there’s no rulebook. Wild animals are pros at evading you. They will continue to fool even the most experienced hunters, but every now and then, a bit of luck will spark against everything you’ve learned and you’ll gaze upon a fallen game animal you’ve devoted a better part of your life to.
The tactics I’ve listed have yielded great results for me, but may not be applicable for everyone. If you have questions or want to discuss strategy, hit me up on Instagram @stevendrakephoto.