Bowhunting Elk Tips

by Shawn O'Neal
elk bowhunting tips

For many hunters, heading out to chase elk through vast western landscapes is a lifelong dream. The first time a bowhunter is surrounded by a herd of chirping cows being driven by a powerful, six-point bull is breathtaking memory. A few important considerations can help bring a novice elk hunter a little closer to a successful hunt.  

Prepare to Cover Some Ground

Elk territory is magnificent, but this can be hard to remember after a week of carrying your bow over mountain passes at 9,000 feet of elevation. The high country where elk reside can be a series of physical insults: boulder fields, steep ridges, and black timber choked with downed spruce. That’s why preparations for a public land elk hunt include more than tuning your weapon and getting your tags. You have to be able to get to the elk. That means hiking.  

Additionally, the limited oxygen available at the higher elevations of the intermountain west can be a serious challenge and is often a surprise to a hunter new to this pursuit. It’s important to start training early. Focus on the challenges you’ll face once the season opens- distance and topography. Chasing animals for over ten miles a day is common. Remember, this is seldom done on flat land. Know that these efforts will be worthwhile in honing in on that bugling bull.  

Eyes and Ears Everywhere

Bowhunting often means navigating pre-rut elk behavior. As bulls are gathering harems of cows, this activity can make them easier to locate, especially if they are vocal. Once you’ve trekked across steep ridges and located a herd, it’s time for more discrete tactics. These groups have the collected advantage of many sets of eyes and ears. It often seems like every cow is assigned a different direction to monitor and at least a few always have their head up and watching. 

 Keep terrain and your background in mind when planning your approach or you’ll never get close enough to release an arrow. I once crept through an oak stand to overlook a resting herd of elk on an early-season bow hunt. Thinking I was safely above their view, I casually began my stalk. Immediately, a cow turned her head up toward my location. That hunt was ended as she stood and led the whole group away. 

Noise is another matter. Elk are big creatures who often thump logs and snap branches while moving through dense timber. While it’s true that sounds can alert elk to your presence, they might not spook if they can attribute the clamor to something else. The sounds of moving through the trees can even be used to a hunter’s advantage when combined with a few judicious cow calls. They might just assume the disturbance is being caused by some of their comrades. However, keeping out of sight and managing your noise is wasted if your scent betrays you.  

Wind, Wind, Wind.

Camo and care might keep you hidden from sight, but if the elk smell you, they’re likely gone. Paying attention to the wind cannot be over-emphasized. Learning the prevailing wind patterns of an area is a good start. Local weather conditions can change quickly, but some guidelines are relatively consistent. Hunting the first light mornings often means cooler night air descending the mountain slopes. Consequently, this is the time to hunt uphill with the wind in your face. The swirling breezes that follow sunrise are a good time to rest after your climb and listen for bugling bulls while glassing meadows and hillsides for herds headed to bed down.  

Warmer daytime temperatures tend to stabilize the air currents in a downhill direction. Plan approaches accordingly, using hidden back slopes of ridges to navigate above resting elk. For final approaches, use wind indicator powder and be aware of changing conditions. Moving quietly, with the wind in my favor, I once stumbled across a feeding herd on the last evening of the archery season in Utah. Already within shooting range, I took a moment to crouch down and nock an arrow. Just then, the wind swirled, alerting the elk and ending that season’s hunt.  

Bowhunting for elk is a physical and strategic adventure, one of the most rewarding in the pursuit of North American big game. So, watch your silhouette, check the wind, and get moving. It’s almost elk season.  

[H/T Outdoor Life]

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