It might be summer but elk firearms season will be here before you know it. Use these hard-won tips to help jump-start your way to a trophy bull this fall.
Elk are one of those “bucket list” big game animals most hunters dream of pursuing. And there are many reasons for this. Two of the best are that elk live in areas synonymous with extreme backcountry adventure, and their venison represents some of the best table fare found in North America. No matter where you get a chance to hunt these majestic animals, or what part of the hunting season it is, here are some tips to help you find more wapiti success.
LEARN TO TALK THE TALK
I have shot the majority of my 23 elk with help from calling. It is the most useful tool in an elk hunter’s arsenal, and the better you get at speaking “perfect” elk, the more successful you’ll be on most any hunt. Mastering cow calls is a must. When you’re talking like one of the ladies, you’re always a potential target for area bulls. Cows are extremely social, and they will often come to investigate, leading bulls right to you.
I use cow calls in many different ways, including on spot-and-stalk hunts. I like to use a “pleading” call, mimicking a cow looking for the rest of the herd, as I wander along game trails. Occasionally a resounding bugle will bring immediate action, but more times than not, the lead cow will “bark” or “chirp” back at me, to let me know where the rest of the herd is.
Most of the good elk calls on the market come with directions and supporting websites that provide helpful video instruction. Using the proper sounds ensures you’re communicating in a positive way…and not setting off alarm bells. If you haven’t started practicing, start now.
WHEN IN DOUBT USE YOUR CALLS
There is never a bad time to try calling. I’ve called-in elk from late August well into January. Cow calls are always a good bet and bulls continue to bugle well after the first rut, with the hopes of finding a cow that wasn’t bred.
Calls can be used to bring animals to you, or simply to locate them by soliciting a response…which lets you know exactly where they are. The bull I harvested two years ago was bugling and fighting with a challenger, and it was late November. It was easy to get the cows chirping and the bulls bugling with a few inquisitive cow calls. My son and I tracked a herd of elk to their beds on a late-season adventure, and when they busted from their beds and started running, I called like a cow sneaking in to join them. The lead cow walked right back to us and my son shot her at under 40 yards.
Remember to always carry your elk calls and use them often, as you’re severely handicapped without them.
THE SIGN CAN POINT THE WAY
Don’t look merely for elk bodies when out hunting; also be sure to note their tracks, wallows, rubs and feeding locations. The best ways to lay your eyes on elk is to know where they live and what their daily routine is. Check droppings to see if they’re fresh, as hunting old sign isn’t going to produce a freezer full of venison. Depending on the time of year you’re in the field, critical information can be obtained from tracks and wallows. If you can confirm where elk are watering, your reconnaissance will likely pay off big. If you’re hunting the rut and find a fresh, regularly used wallow, you have a natural calling card to use to your advantage.
FIND THE COWS & FIND THE BULLS
Throughout the elk hunting season, there is only one certainty—bulls will be courting, or keeping tabs on cows in their home range. Whether you are hunting the early archery seasons, or the cold and bitter, late-season opportunities, bull elk will never be far from the ladies in their areas.
The bulls aren’t always as visible, and like to hang back in the timber or landscape, but they will never be far away. I never ignore a sighting of an antlerless elk, and consider it the hottest tip I can get on any hunt.
START YOUR HUNTING DAY EARLY
You may have heard that the early bird gets the worm, and the same holds true for early risers in elk camp. You can learn lots while wandering an elk trail in the darkness. Elk often feed in open areas under the security of darkness, only to return to dense cover before legal shooting light. The wily wapiti are extremely social creatures, and on more than one occasion I’ve heard their vocalizations from close to a mile away. Cows and calves “mew” and “chirp” with regularity, and if you’re lucky a bull will bugle and give up the herd’s location. I’ll follow those sounds, hoping to have a bull in my sights when legal shooting light finally does roll around.
The HuntStand app offers helpful sunrise information for the exact locations you’ll be hunting, meaning there’s no excuse not to be out where you intend to hunt, a full hour before shooting light.
USE THE WIND TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Elk have sensitive noses, and if you don’t stalk them with the breeze in your face, there is little chance you’ll even get close. If you are trying to stalk a herd of elk, be forewarned: There are more alert noses than you can account for, ready to pinpoint even the stealthiest of hunters. The only sure way to avoid detection is to remain under a herd’s olfactory radar.
When service allows, I always refer to my HuntStand app before planning a stalk. And when I know I will not have service during a hunt, I make sure to do as much “pre-hunt” prep with the app as possible, checking various areas I know I will be hunting. And if I do have service, I know the app is one of the best hunting tools I could possibly carry. Not only does the app give me the current wind conditions and directions, but it will accurately predict what will happen over the length of time I need to complete a stalk. If I know the winds are going to change, I can plan for it appropriately, to maintain my hunting advantage. That kind of knowledge is huge.
SETTING UP A DEADLY AMBUSH
Elk can be creatures of habit, and if they find a “safe zone,” say, where they can travel back and forth between bedding areas, they will stay there until bumped or until they find a better food source. Rain or snow will provide confirmation of fresh tracks and other clues to where elk are traveling. Use your HuntStand app to log well-used trails and crossings; this info also allows you to create waypoints that represent the best places to ambush or otherwise intercept a traveling herd. Scouting cameras can help too. I like the Bushnell Trophy Cam HD Aggressor Low-Glow game camera, as it has an incredibly fast trigger speed and uses a 36 LED Low-Glow IR flash to remain undetected. I use game cams to confirm antler size in a herd, and I like to log my photos into the app to not only increase my local knowledge, this also helps me “zero-in” on a specific trophy bull.
During some specific stretches of the fall, with dry, decaying leaves on the ground, it can be next to impossible to “sneak up” on elk. Strategically setting up ambush points will put you in the shooter’s chair. Make sure to do your homework and log a variety of ambush locations in your HuntStand Hunting app for the wide-ranging wind and weather conditions you might experience.
ACCURATE SHOTS BEGIN WITH KNOWING ELK ANATOMY
Elk are notorious for being tough, and if you don’t shoot one in the right spot you likely won’t catch up with it. Bullet placement on a bull is critical, and not only does a hunter need to wait for the right shot opportunity and angle, but he/she needs to put the bullet in the vitals to ensure a quick kill.
If you search “elk anatomy” or “shot placement on elk” on the Internet, you will find lots of photographs and diagrams of where the heart and lungs sit in the chest of a bull elk. You will also see where their heavy bones run, allowing you to quickly find the “sweet spot.” Many elk are shot too high in the chest and never found. When opportunity knocks, make sure you know your firearm and optics, and exactly where to thread the needle to ensure you close your tag on that animal.
A BETTER DIAPHRAGM CALL
If you’ve struggled with using diaphragm calls for talking to elk, you need to try the TST (tone slotted technology) by Rocky Mountain Hunting Calls, which are quickly becoming my “go-to” calls. There are several different models to ensure you’re producing the sounds elk prefer; the call is shaped and designed to place forward in your mouth, close to your teeth, preventing the “gag reflex” common with many other diaphragms. Also, a plastic dome with a slot centers your air flow in the middle of the latex, to provide more realistic sounds and volume. These calls are just very easy to use and produce incredibly realistic sounds. Good luck out there this fall!