Can you dodge the crowds and pack your freezer full of elk steaks? Check these proven tips from a western expert known for his consistent elk success.
Hunters look forward to rifle elk season each year in hopes of not only tagging a worthy trophy, but filling the freezer with some of North America’s finest wild game. Unfortunately, ignoring how your brethren hunters will attack the same forests leaves many disappointed after the opening weekend.
You can beat the elk crowds, but it doesn’t start the morning you walk out of the wall tent and look up at the big dipper. It begins months, or even a year or more, in advance of your hunt. Follow these six tips for elk season preparation and you could stack the odds a bit more in your favor on your next rifle elk adventure.
TIP No. 1: GET IN SHAPE. Yes, your spouse, doctor and friends are right. Approximately 70 percent of Americans are overweight or worse yet, obese. You need to be in shape to tackle most elk hunts that are do-it-yourself in nature, and unfold on hard-hunted public land. You may be able to drive to elk in a pickup truck on a private-ranch hunt, but that option costs lots of moola most of us don’t have.
You don’t need to be in marathon-race shape to hunt elk, but your goal should be to hike at least three miles into an area and the same amount out daily. While hiking those miles you also will need to be able to tackle at least 1,000 feet of vertical ascent. Consult with a doctor and begin a year-round program for overall fitness.
Finally, if you do find success, remember it typically takes four backpack loads to remove meat and antlers from a mature elk. In some areas a game cart could help, but don’t bet on it. With some preplanning you could also have a local horse outfitter on speed dial for help, if your back won’t stand the weight.
TIP No. 2: GET REMOTE & RUGGED. New GPS tracking data from collared elk are telling a story we already knew. When hunting pressure starts elk retreat to remote, rugged terrain. Remember that 1,000-foot challenge in the physical fitness section? That’s the canyon you’ll need to cross to get to elk that have left meadows near the Forest Service road. This is where the full-featured HuntStand app stands out. You can scout from home or even at work (don’t let your boss see you).
After you’ve pinned down an area with good elk density note all roads and major trailheads. You’ll need these as jump-off points to elk country, but everyone else will use them as well, so expand your search to locate parcels of ground at least two to four square miles without wheeled access. Rough and rugged adds to the attractiveness for elk, and any deep canyons typically dissuade the out-of-shape crowd.
Although miles of thick forest separated by steep country may look appealing to you as an escape from other hunters, remember elk also need the basics. For elk to stay in an area they need some open areas for grazing. If snow hasn’t invaded the area they also require a water source. A herd of elk is like a herd of cattle and need lots of groceries in addition to seclusion.
TIP No. 3: HUNT OVERLOOKED AREAS. While you’re zooming in on the remotest areas of your hunting area keep your eye open for overlooked elk zones as well. Those same GPS and radio collars have shown that all elk don’t leave the building like Elvis. What some research suggests is that elk shy from the buzzing of ATVs and rumbling trucks on Forest Service roads, but fail to acknowledge the threat of constant traffic flow on county, state and even interstate highways. Your next elk success story may take place behind a rest stop on the highway leading to your backcountry camp.
As you utilize the satellite imagery of your HuntStand app again, pay close attention to areas of forest that border these byways that include canopy refuge, water and open regions for nearby grazing. One of my favorite places to hunt in Montana is a parcel of Forest Service ground bisected by a busy county road. Ranchers routinely bump up and down the road moving cattle without realizing the amount of elk within a mile of the dusty travel corridor.
TIP No. 4: DARK TIMBER CAN SHINE. One of the most-overlooked areas to hunt by resident and visiting hunters alike is dark timber. Most rifle elk hunters wait patiently on the edges waiting for elk to step out at dawn or dusk. That’s fine, but during the rest of shooting light elk bed, roam and wander throughout dark timber. Think like a whitetail hunter of yesteryear, and slip through slopes that adjoin large mesas, alpine meadows and privately-owned valleys green with agriculture. Elk seldom lounge in the open, but they don’t always hide out like a Pennsylvania whitetail after opening weekend. By using a stealthy, slow, still-hunting methodology you can ease through the woods looking for the telltale signs of elk.
A quality binocular is worth its price in this department. You’ll need to take a few steps and then glass ahead. An elk herd is craftier than your teenager and as secure as Fort Knox. Once you spot elk ahead in the timber it’s best to wait for them to make the next move, but if terrain and wind allows you can duck out of sight and make your move.
TIP No. 5: SCOUR SOUTH-FACING SLOPES. You could get lucky and have a group of elk walk right out onto the meadow you’re watching, but don’t bet on it. A better option is to survey open, south-facing slopes. These typically hold the best grazing opportunities for elk and are a favorite of rut-weary bulls beginning to recover from the rut.
Research ahead and locate all major, open slopes on your HuntStand app. During the hunt try to visit as many as possible. If you don’t see elk, take a closer look and scout for fresh tracks, droppings and even rubs from the rut that is wrapping up. Watch steep slopes with a keen eye.
TIP No. 6: HOT LEADS ARE WHERE YOU HEAR THEM. Finally, listen closely to convenience store talk. Your buddies and new hunting friends love to talk, and sometimes loose lips sink ships. That means they could clue you in to places to try, or, sometimes just as valuable, places to stay away from. If they’ve been seeing elk in certain areas while scouting, take a minute to check the area and see if it has adjoining regions fitting some of the criteria above. When your friends put pressure on the homeland elk the herd will likely move to a new zip code in a more hunter-unfriendly environment. That’s your cue to be waiting for them “next door,” as the initial push prods them into an area with fewer hunters and ATVs.
Elk don’t come easy, even during firearm season. Nevertheless, if you plan, prepare and scout well in advance you can leave the crowds behind—and quite possibly, feel the weight of a winter’s worth of elk venison in your pack.