Backcountry Elk Hunting Advice (PART 1)

Posted on May 1, 2013

Follow these tips for a more successful wilderness hunt. Part 1 of this segment will cover finding the right hot spots. Be sure to check back for the remaining sections which will cover additional elk hunting tips that you won’t want to miss!


elk hunting


It was mid-morning when my hunting buddy, Craig, and I heard the bull. The scream shrieked through the alpine valley like violent thunder, quickly giving us goose bumps and a surge of adrenaline. We hustled uphill, huffing and puffing, taking in the thin Colorado air, hopeful of intercepting the throaty-voiced bull.


Eventually, we found ourselves on the same bench where we heard the bull. We knew the location inti­mately—a tucked-away draw with a park of aspens, dark pines and a well-used wallow neatly notched in a small meadow. We began still-hunting through the tall grass and downed timber, following known elk trails, eyes peeled for the mountain king. We heard cows mewing in the distance, and that’s when we decided to split up.


Moments later, I heard a crash in the brush, then elk hooves pounding the earth. I swiftly crouched to my knees and noticed a cow and two calves filing through the grass, totally unaware of my presence. It appeared as if they were being chased. Then I saw it—dark-brown antlers distinctly wagging amongst tall ground cover.


I guessed the shot range quickly and came to full draw. Nearly a minute later, I was still holding the 40-yard pin on his side, waiting for that critical one more step. Before I knew it, the shot was off, and I caught a glint of the Muzzy-tipped arrow sailing right into the sweet spot.


Walking up to that bull was truly unforgettable. Not only was he a tremendous animal for the area, but he was my very first elk. Also, we were on a pack-in trip—a do-it-yourself wilderness hunt. And that simply brought more meaning to the kill.


It’s been nearly a decade since I shot that elk, and I’ve experienced many more elk hunts since then. Today, I recognize that my luck on the mountain that day wasn’t all by chance. That great backcountry bull was the result of an effective plan and being in good elk country. We were eight miles deep in the Colorado wilderness, with not another soul around. The area was essentially unpressured, although we did hear a few gunshots (muzzleloaders were in season) over the course of the week, further down toward the trailhead.


However, thanks to our packer, we knew where to hunt. We were in a huge valley, but we wasted no time moving in on the elk. With only five and a half days to get it done, spending a of couple days figuring out the “lay of the land” and which side of the valley the elk were on would’ve proved devastating to our hunting time, cutting it in half. Trust me, this country all looks good, but you’ll find out that elk are in pockets of country, not wandering everywhere. You’ve got to know where these pockets are right from the start. Otherwise, your hunt becomes a bit of a wash.


With five wilderness elk hunts now under my belt, I’ve learned some valuable lessons. In this article, I’d like to share a few tips and suggestions with the hope they’ll benefit you and your success in the field.

bow hunter

Research of top hunting areas is mandatory for effective wilderness hunting. is the author’s favorite source. Study these maps well before the hunt begins, quizzing packers, guides, or local hunters on elk habits and likely hotspots.


Find the Hot Spots

Many hunters are under the impression that the more you penetrate the wilderness, the better the hunting, which just isn’t true. Like I mentioned earlier, elk gravitate to certain pockets where they always seek out areas with the best food, water, and cover.


Research of probable hotspots must begin well before the hunt. Get with a game biologist, your packer, or a local hunter and quiz them about pro­ductive hunting areas and how elk travel. It’s important to truly grasp how elk shift around and what are their daily tendencies. Whether you hunt 3 or 12 miles in from the trailhead, you must hunt wisely, otherwise, you’ll likely fail at killing an elk.


I like to begin my research or assessment of a new area by trying to identify elk bedding areas. These spots are usually high up on a ridge somewhere in dark timber or thick vegetation like scrub oak. Wilderness elk typically venture to lower ground in the evenings and during the night. However, by early morning, they are back en route moving to higher elevation and bedding areas.


Also, water holes and wallows are critical pieces of the puzzle. Bulls almost always like to water or wallow before resting for the day. Keep this in mind when analyzing travel routes. Wind direction, of course, is a major factor, and will determine how you’ll make your ambush.


Another helpful tip is to use your topographical maps to identify transition locations (where two types of cover meet), especially along ridge areas. These locations draw elk like magnets. For example, in the Colo­rado wilderness areas I’ve hunted over the years, an abundant amount of elk were always found right near treeline where dark timber intercepted open hillsides.


High-mountain saddles are prime spots, too. These form natural funnels for bulls to travel through during the rut, allowing them to access additional basins for seeking out cows in estrus.


Look for natural benches along ridges. Elk like to stage in such locations prior to bedding or before venturing to lower ground in the evening. Benches with wallows can be goldmines.


When sorting through hunting spots, remember, you can never have too many. Weather, hunting pressure, the phase of the rut, and various other factors can force elk to haphazardly move. When this happens, you must improvise and rise to the challenge. The more hunting plans you have, the greater your chance of success.


Stay tuned for Part 2 for extra tips!


By Joe Bell


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