DIY Elk Hunting: 7 Common Blunders To Avoid

Hunting public-land elk can feel like a mission impossible, but avoiding these common missteps will have you on the path to sweet success.

by Jace Bauserman

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Jace

Blunders5 900I’ve learned a lot during my stick-and-string elk hunting adventures. The most important thing: Elk hunting is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Those who dub elk as big, loud critters who come running recklessly in to calls likely spend their time on private ranches, or haven’t stepped into the western bowhunting woods in a few years.

It’s my opinion that killing a public-land bull elk is one of bowhunting’s most-complex challenges, and I’ve been kicked in the teeth enough over the years to prove it. My relentless drive has earned me opportunities, and I’ve been blessed to pack more than a few monarchs off the mountain, but I’ve also made throngs of mistakes. Here are seven elk blunders to avoid this year—and forever.Blunders2 900Chasing Ghosts. Social media is great, but it sucks at the same time, mostly because the images and clips you see tend to showcase only unrealistic top-end animals. Many hunters, no matter the species they’re chasing, feel the need to kill a giant. Don’t fall into this trap. My buddies and I did for a grip of time, and it was flat stupid. Learn from our shortcomings, and trust that it’s a bad idea to limit yourself to a certain caliber of bull when hunting over-the-counter public land.

I’m a slow learner, and it took me a few years to learn I wasn’t a giant killer. We were hunting over-the-counter units and trekking on pressured public-land dirt. Seeing a 300 bull was unlikely, let alone getting a shot at one. It didn’t take us long to change our tune, and that’s when we realized the pure joy of elk hunting. If you have a premium draw tag or are on a once-in-a-lifetime guided venture, I don’t blame you for holding out. If this is your first trip out West, however, or you’ve made a few trips and have yet to arrow a bull while hunting OTC public land, shoot the first legal bull you see. Get a few bulls under your belt before you start worrying about the upgrade process. If you don’t, burnout will happen, and what should be a looked-forward-to hunt will become one you never want to do again.Blunders8 900Hunting Where Elk Are Not. The HuntStand app will be your best friend when elk hunting because it offers instant options to new country. For years I made the mistake of grinding it out in areas that weren’t holding elk. If you spend a few days covering the country and aren’t finding greasy fresh poop, urine-stained beds, fresh rubs, and most importantly, elk, move on. Elk are great travelers, and when they leave an area, there are zero guarantees they will come back.

Don’t fall into the “I hunt here every year, and if I’m patient, they will be back” crowd. If elk move from your area, use your HuntStand app and find some new locations nearby. You can’t kill a bull if you can’t find a bull.

Those willing to move will find elk. It may not be in the first, second, or even third place you look, but you will find them if you keep searching.Blunders3 900Going In Too Deep. As an outdoor writer, I’m as much to blame for this as anyone, and I apologize. There was a grip of time, especially in my youth, where I beat the hell out of the, “Go deeper!” drum. Not anymore.

Never walk past great elk dirt to access ground you think will be even better. Elk are where you find them. Before your hunt, drop 10 or 15 pins in your chosen HuntStand hunt area. These should be close to an access road or near main-trail areas you can quickly pop in and out of. If you find fresh elk sign in an area, or better yet, actual elk, start hunting. The problem with getting in too deep, unless you fall smack in the middle of an elk rut fest, is that if the elk aren’t in the area, you’re going to waste several days of hunting.Blunders7 900Three years ago in Colorado, my hunting partners and I killed two bulls over a span of 22 hours, and both were killed less than a half-mile from the truck. Not coincidentally, both areas were void of pressure, and not once did we see a truck at either trailhead. If elk aren’t getting pressured and have access to food, water, and cover, they don’t care whether they are a quarter-mile off the road, or four miles further in.Blunders10 900Lack Of Patience. I’d have a lot more elk racks in my trophy room if I wasn’t so impatient. Let me explain. Public-land elk can be tough customers to call in. Too many times, I gave up on calling sessions much too soon. And yes I learned the hard way. I would put my gear in my backpack, walk 20 yards or so, and bump into a coming-in-quiet bull. Then there were those instances when my head wasn’t on a swivel. The bull I (or my hunting partners) was calling suddenly went quiet. Minutes would pass without a single stick snap or bugle, and I (we) would lose interest. Then, after just a single step or two away from my chosen hiding spot, the mountain would thunder with hoofbeats. What happened? In most cases incoming bulls had been watching me, or the general area, looking for the elk making all the calling racket. But  because my mind had moved on to other things, and negative thoughts about the bull not coming in were at the forefront of my mind, I failed to notice these wary incoming bulls.

Elk, especially early-season elk and satellite bulls that have been whooped a time or six, often come in quiet. If a bull stops answering your calls, it means one of two things: he has lost interest and has left, or two, he’s coming in quiet. Always bet on the latter, and give a quiet bull at least 45 minutes to show after his last bugle. Don’t get lazy. Keep your eyes up and keep scanning the woods.Blunders6 900 Hiding Too Much. Modern-day camo is a great thing. It works exceptionally well, so let it. On my first elk hunt, some 22 years ago, I had bull coming on a string. The area was semi-open, and I could see the bull coming from a distance through the aspens. He was rut-crazed and committed. For some reason, I felt the need to hide behind a log jam with a pair of little aspen trees in front of it. That setup cost me a shot at the bull. He got to a point where he expected to see his rival, didn’t, and simply walked away. Had I set up in front of the log jam, between the two baby aspen trees, I would have had a wide-open 36-yard shot at his lungs.

Whenever possible, set up in front of the cover. Some guys and gals like to stand, while others like to kneel. It’s up to you. If you stay still and trust your camo, it’s rare for a bull to pick you off. I had a three-point bull in Colorado a few years back step on my right foot. I was standing in the wide-open between a pair of pine trees, and he never saw me. Give yourself a chance to be successful by setting up in front of the cover, and be sure to take note of every single shooting lane.Blunders11 900Using Only ‘Classic’ Hunt Strategies. Nothing beats calling a bull in bowhunting close, but calling isn’t the only way, or maybe not even the best way, to notch your tag. Don’t be too surprised, but I highly recommend that you bring along a treestand or two on your next bowhunt, especially if you’re hunting not-too-deep-in areas. Bull elk have to drink, and they love to wallow—cover themselves in urine-stained mud while they send vegetation flying. If you discover a well-used water source or wallow, slap a trail camera on it, mark it on your HuntStand app, and get out of the area. Return a day or two later and pull the card. If elk images are found, get the wind right, hang a treestand, and wait.

Another great kill tactic is to find a herd and stay close, but not utter a sound. If you can keep the wind and thermals right and remain on elk by paralleling the herd from a distance—using available cover and terrain features—you can slip in and kill a bull without ever making a call. This is an excellent method for killing herd bulls that have lots of girlfriends with them.

In years past, I would call my guts out, and the herd bull would simply move his cows away slowly. Time after time. I wasn’t close enough to him to trick him into a fight, and cow calls proved fruitless. He had all the cows he could service. Why would he leave them to come 200 or 300 yards to look for another?

I learned that because herd bulls have cows and are in full rut, they bugle often. Herds are noisy going through the woods, and it’s relatively easy to keep tabs on them. I stay patient and wait for my moment. When a bull is preoccupied with a cow, or maybe doing battle with a satellite bull that suddenly slips in, that’s when I like to make my move.

If you can’t get any closer to the bull, let him and his girls bed. Then, slip in as close as you can, get in front of cover, make sure to have some good shooting lanes, and let out a guttural bugle. Big bulls aren’t fond of other bulls charging right in on them and stealing a lady away.Blunders12 900Hating On Decoys. You have enough gear to tote in your pack, I get that. However, those who carry along and set up a realistic deke, especially if hunting solo (or your calling partners don’t have time to drop back), will kill more bulls.

Savvy public-land elk, especially those that have been called to before, get to a point during their approach when they know they should see another elk. When they don’t, they will stand and stare holes through the timber for a grip of time, and then, they will turn and leave. However, if you’re using a bow-mounted decoy, or have a partner holding a super-portable Montana Decoy next to your position, you’re in the chips.

Regardless of what decoy I’m using, I try and show as little of it as possible—just a piece of the white rump or the side of a face—less is more. If a bull sees what he believes might be another elk, it gives him some extra incentive to keep coming and investigate.Blunders4 900When it comes to elk hunting, I’ve made plenty of blunders over the years, and I don’t mind sharing some of my shortcomings with you. Because in the end, if you can avoid some common mishaps as you head into the public-land elk woods, and eventually come out with a pack full of some of the finest game meat North America has to offer, well, for that kind of result I’ll consider throwing myself under the bus to have been well worth the trouble.



HuntStand is the #1 hunting and land management app in the country. It combines advanced mapping tools with powerful map layers to allow users to create and share the best hunting maps possible.