Which Way for Elk: When it Comes to Bowhunting Elk, There Are Different Ways to Create an Ambush. Which Tactic is Best Depends on a Variety of Factors.
Posted on June 10, 2014
Elk could be the most diverse big-game animals to walk the North American continent. Large, robust and highly vocal, these herd-dwelling creatures live in a variety of settings, from thick-timbered mountain country, to pinion-juniper foothills, to lowland-desert scrub, to open sage. Simply put, if there’s water to drink, food to nibble on, and bushes to lie down in, elk will adapt.
Couple this with the animals’ tendency to cover vast amounts of ground, even in a single day, and what you have is all the challenge a bowhunter could ever ask for.
This brings us to effective hunting tactics. What’s the best way to bring one down? Well, it seems, there is no “one-does-all” method for tackling these hearty animals. You simply have to adjust your style of hunting to best match the terrain they live in.
With that in mind, here are some tactics my friends and I have used to take bulls in a variety of states and conditions.
Thick Cover, Heavy Calling
My first years of bowhunting elk took place in the northwest wilderness regions of Colorado. The country was the epitome of traditional high-mountain elk habitat. Hunting elk here proved difficult for sure, mainly because spotting elk was nearly impossible and moving in on them when you did was even tougher, given the steepness and thickness of the terrain. The key to hunting elk here I found was being a good caller, reading a bull’s mood, and knowing how to set up.
Seductive, high-volume cow calling is just the ticket for luring in the bigger bulls, although a well-blown bull squeal can sometimes ignite a bull’s temperament, bringing him in for a fight when nothing else seems to be working.
In mountain country in various parts of the west, terrain and bull densities are thick, which makes it difficult for a “harem master” to know the sounds of other larger bulls in the area. This gives you the upper hand when using a bugle and snapping limbs to mimic another bull’s raking behavior.
However, limit bugling only for locating, when a bull hangs up out of range, or for those special circumstances when you deem it necessary to excite a bull. Heavy, continuous bugling for big bulls is a risky event, even in these settings. It demands incredible finesse, experience and properly reading the animal’s vocalizations, a skill most hunters don’t have. For this reason, rely more on cow talk.
When choosing a cow call, don’t call heavily using a common bite-and-blow or push-button style call; save these for final coaxing, since their sounds cannot be varied. Instead, use a hand-blown open-reed style call (i.e. Primos Hyper Lip) or a variety of diaphragms and a hollow tube, which offer much more versatility in sound, pitch and volume.
Many of the bulls you’ll be calling will be far off and hidden in the dark canyons of timber. They’ll only hear a loud cow-call. Open-reed hand calls also offer a lot of rasp, giving your pleas more seductive sounds. These calls tend to require lots of practice to master, so rehearse your sounds months before opening day.
Setting up properly before calling is critical as well. Try to mimic elk behavior as much as you can. Don’t call from where elk don’t go. Travel along game trails and call from places elk hang out, otherwise mature bulls will grow suspicious.
In cases where a bull is responding back, but isn’t moving closer, try to move on him. “Dog” the elk for as much as you can, closing the distance to a couple hundred yards, or closer if possible, so you can suddenly surprise him. Then throw out some great cow talk. An estrous cow that “moves to him” can prove too irresistible to refuse.
Many times a close, quiet stalk-in and a couple soft cow mews will seal the deal. If he doesn’t give you a bugle or squeal, then throw out some raspier notes. This will almost always provoke a reaction. Be sure to stay put when doing this; he may come in quietly.
Try to set up in semi-brushy areas for adequate shooting lanes and cover, and ideally on the edge of a “shelf” so when a bull appears, he’ll pop into view in range and unconcerned about not seeing any elk around until it’s too late.
Another tool you can use, believe it or not, is rattling. Yes, just like whitetail hunting. When clashing two elk antler sheds together, you can create serious noise, but this is something elk are used to hearing and just what bulls get excited about.
My friend Ron Way introduced me to elk rattling years and years ago, before anyone I knew even did it. He’s successfully used this technique to call in countless bulls, for himself and others, while hunting the big-bull states of Arizona and New Mexico.
There’s no doubt, the best calling is done at the height of the rut, when bulls are cranked up and vocal. However, many times, you’ll find that elk are rather quiet, either due from hunting pressure or since it’s too early in the season for heavy vocalization. When this is the case, you’ll have to blind call.
I’ve used this method successfully, believe it or not, during the latter part of August through the early part of September and it works quite well. To start, walk the hills and search for fresh elk sign. When you begin seeing lots of very fresh elk dung, find a good place to set up and begin calling. Use your raspy cow call, and start a calling sequence that lasts about 30 to 45 minutes.
Keep your eyes peeled for movement; animals usually come in silent. If nothing comes in, take another walk (at least half a mile or more) and repeat the process again, always near fresh sign.
When blind calling, you’ll notice many animals will circle to get your wind. This is why scent control remains important. I’ve found it helpful to use commercial elk lures/scents to confuse their smell and help prevent getting busted.
Generally speaking, heavy elk calling is best for densely wooded areas with high-elk densities or remote country where little hunting pressure exists. In areas that are more open, big elk often grow suspicious of sounds when there are no elk in view. This is why it’s better to stalk in on bulls and light call as needed.
Run and Then Ambush
In states like Arizona, New Mexico, southern Utah and Colorado, and certain parts of Wyoming, spotting and/or listening, and running at bulls, and then intercepting, is a productive hunting tactic. But doing this well relies on being set up properly.
First off, know where you can glass bulls. This means, being on a vantage point an hour or so before first light. In some cases, you may not see animals, but you’ll most likely hear them. As long as the terrain isn’t overly steep, you can move quickly and do your best to set up an ambush.
Your goal is to intercept a bull, or his herd, as he travels from point A to point B. Choose a straight route to an ambush point, which gives you the ability to “catch up” instead of being left behind.
The key is to intercept from the front or side; you won’t catch an elk from behind, never. A side approach is usually most practical as elk frequently travel with noses into the wind.
To run at bulls effectively, you’ll need to be in decent shape and travel very light. Get rid of the 20-pound daypack full gear. Instead, use a 2-liter hydration pack that hugs your back, which will keep it from swaying from side to side when jogging. Store a small knife, two to three energy bars, a headlamp, and a pair of Safari Stalkers (www.crookedhornoutfitters.com) in the pack—that’s it. Leave the rest of your gear in the truck.
More than anything, this tactic demands appropriate footwear. Rather than using full-sized hunting boots, go with lightweight cross-training hikers. These will quicken your step and absorb shock during those jogs across smooth-surface terrain.
Go to a top-quality hiking/running store (don’t buy from a catalog) and get fitted from a professional. They will offer suggestions on what shoes best match your feet and the type of support and protection you’ll need to traverse rugged terrain.
Remember, a walking elk travels at about the same pace as a man running, so speed is a necessity.
Two last things. Carry a diaphragm cow call, so you can slip it in your mouth and stop a bull when needed, or even use the call to coax a bull out of a bad spot. A wind checker bottle is a must as well, so you can squeeze the powder out and monitor thermals while you move.
Sitting Can Really Pay Off
For as boring as it can be, sitting water is probably the best all-around technique for taking a big bull, given daytime temperatures are on the high. Unlike deer that can go two or three days without water, elk require it daily.
My advice is to take advantage of water early in the hunt. Don’t wait until other methods fail you. Why? Because once big bulls sense hunters in the area, they may reserve drinking only under the cover of nightfall, not giving you a chance. This is why I often divide my hunting into calling and stalking in the mornings, and water in the afternoons.
Elk will frequent waterholes (and wallows) at anytime during the day, especially during the rut, but early morning and evenings are best. Let your pre-season scouting (including trail camera photos) guide you to the most productive times to hunt.
My biggest Arizona bull serves as a prime example of water’s effectiveness. After 10 hard days hunting, I still hadn’t gotten my bull. My good friend Bruce Barrie shot a giant bull midway in our hunt over water, so I decided it was time to give up the calling and stalking and switch to water as well. I tried a couple sits but had no luck. Bruce suggested hunting the same pond where he shot his bull.
I didn’t think the idea would pay off, given the recent disturbance and gut pile, but the elk were not talking and I didn’t know what else to do.
At about an hour before dark, on the very last day of the season, a beautiful 320-class 6×6 stepped from the tree line and ventured in for a drink. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Fortunately, I was able to calm my heart long enough to deliver a good arrow. After that experience, I realized the true power of water.
Waterhole hunting is straightforward, but I always try to avoid hunting sources that are easy for other hunters to get to, unless you hunt private land. These areas tend to be overhunted. Personally, I prefer small “tanks” that are reached only by mountain bike or foot.
Ground blinds are what most hunters use for this tactic (which should always be appropriately “brushed” in), especially in the drier regions where few trees exist around stock tanks. But, when possible, I prefer a treestand setup, one about 15 to 20 feet off the ground. This allows my scent stream to hopefully float above game, while at the same time opening up my viewing and shooting lanes.
One last thing. Make sure you’re in position and in your blind or stand well before first light, or at least four hours before dark.
When All Else Fails
You don’t hear much about still-hunting elk but it works well enough, only when it’s done with care and precision. However, given its difficulty, save this tactic for a last resort when everything else has failed you, particularly when it’s too wet to hunt over water.
Still-hunting can be done early in the morning or late in the evening along known travel corridors, such as along meadows or edges of habitat-transition zones. Again, let pre-season scouting and general in-season observation tell you where to find good elk hangouts.
As a very last resort, try still-hunting an elk’s bedding area. Typically, invading an elk’s bedroom is a cardinal sin, but if you’ve got a couple days left to hunt and no more tricks up your sleeve, why not give it a go?
Don’t attempt tiptoeing an elk’s bedding area unless it’s “open enough” for silent travel, otherwise you’ll surely fail and blow every elk out of the country. Do it only if it makes sense.
Remember, still-hunting is simple but mentally-exhausting. It takes practice and focus to move three slow steps at a time, then pausing to scan your surroundings, before slowly moving on and repeating all over again, and then again, and again. But this old-school method works just as well today as it did a hundred years ago.
To keep noise to a minimum, use Safari Stalkers slip-on booties over your shoes. Your binocular should be in constant use as well, so you can scan small gaps in the foliage, looking for a tip of an antler or a patch of elk hide. You need to see elk before they see you.
Again, this tactic only works when traveling light, using ultra-soft clothing, and wearing head-to-toe camouflage that blends in.
Improvising is the key to bagging elk, especially big bulls. Simply put, as conditions change, so must you. This is why you must go well prepared before heading afield. This could mean learning the tricks of effective cow-calling and bugling, how to stalk aggressively when the terrain is right, when to sit a stand and wait, or when to tiptoe through the woods hoping for a shot. Knowing all these tactics, and how to execute them, is usually what successful elk is all about.
“Don’t call from where elk don’t go.”
“To run at bulls effectively, you’ll need to be in decent shape and travel very light.”
Most bowhunters use common, easy-to-use bite-and-blow or push-button style calls, which aren’t a bad choice. However, these calls aren’t very volume versatile and don’t allow a varied, raspy pitch that drives elk crazy.
For this reason, an open-reed style call is best (i.e. Primos Hyper Lip) in my opinion, although different diaphragms and a hollow tube can produce great sounds, volume and pitch as well.
My favorite open-reed call now is made by Phelps Quality Game Calls (phelpsgamecalls.com; (360) 402-2617). The sound, aesthetics and control of this call is outstanding. —J.B.
Decoys and How to Use Them
Years ago, I began experimenting with various Montana Elk decoys. At first, I thought they were nothing but a pain to lug around… until one brought in a bull when nothing else would. Then I became a believer.
For this reason, every elk hunter should own one. They are just the ticket when bulls become more educated and begin to “hang up.” They are ideal for run-and-gun style elk hunting, or when hunting open country and “flashing” a cow decoy can send a bull heading your way. They are simply a great item to add to your arsenal of tricks.
I asked my friend CJ Davis, president of Montana Decoy, what he thought were the most important “dos and don’ts” to using decoys. Here are his suggestions.
*DO be sure your decoy can be deployed fast and without excessive noise and movement. This is why I strap mine to the very “outside” of my pack.
*DO position the decoy about 15 to 20 yards behind or, even better, to your side when calling alone. This will keep the bull’s focus off of you while increasing your chances of getting a shot as he walks by. With a partner, the caller can be behind you with the decoy, hopefully drawing the animal near you for a shot. Be sure to set up downwind of the decoy.
*DO use rubber gloves when handling your decoy to prevent contaminating it with human sweat
*DON’T use the decoy to stalk behind. This can create a life-threatening hazard as other hunters could be nearby and mistake you for an elk.
*DON’T place elk scents directly on the decoy fabric unless you want this same scent on your backpack, vehicle or tent.
*DON’T set up in the open where animals can easily spot you. Instead, conceal yourself next to tree or other cover so you can draw undetected.
Elk in open sage? That’s where the author spotted this big Wyoming bull. A combination of tactics was needed to make the kill in this case. First, the animal was stalked, and then coaxed in using a cow-in-estrus call.
My friend Jason Stafford prefers to stalk big elk, rather than risk calling and educating them. Most of his hunting areas in Wyoming are wooded but cover isn’t so thick that he can still navigate in between cover and get out in front of a bull to make an ambush.
Many hunters favor the simple bite-and-blow or even push-button cow-calls for elk hunting. These calls surely do work but they don’t produce the volume, pitch and raspy sounds often needed to draw in bulls from afar or those that are heavily pressured.
Arizona bowhunter Ron Way relies heavily on clashing two elk antlers together to effectively “rattle” in big bulls. He’s perfected this method based on nearly two decades of rattle calling. He’s pictured here with an excellent Arizona bull.
Sitting water, although boring, is the author’s favorite back-up method. Elk simply need water and when it’s warm, no other method produces as well in his opinion. He arrowed this nice bull while sitting this exact waterhole setup.
Most archers wait till the peak of the rut before heading into the elk woods. But the author has had tremendous luck hunting earlier in the season, when the bulls are doing a lot of rubbing and susceptible to cold calling. This bull was spotted in his bed and then drawn in close while calling.
Fred Eichler, well known bowhunter and host of Easton’s Bowhunting TV, is a big fan of using elk decoys. He’s teamed up with Montana Decoy to create a decoy of his own, called the Eichler Elk. ““I’ve always been a big fan of the facing pose for elk, so that’s what I wanted,” said Eichler. “The Montana Decoys are quick to use but you don’t always have time to set up the leg poles or you’re not hunting on ground that is soft enough to push them in! I’ve been playing around with strings attached to the decoy as a different way to set them up for years. It works great and it’s fast and easy.”
Text and Photos by Joe Bell