Backcountry Elk Hunting Advice (PART 2)

Posted on May 3, 2013

Part 1 of this exclusive elk hunting segment covered tips for finding the right hunting hot spots. Read on for additional expert tips on elk hunting in the back country! Be sure to check back for the final section!


elk hunting

Bell, with his first wilderness elk, which he shot during a drop-camp hunt deep in the Colorado Flattops Wilderness.

Master Calling

Most backcountry elk regions are deeply forested. For this reason, spot and stalk is not an effective hunting tactic. Calling and aggressive setup tactics are what work best, with still-hunting and sitting on water effective when conditions are right.


For this reason, know when and how to call. I’ve learned that it can make or break your hunt, so don’t take it lightly.


In states like Colorado and Idaho, elk densities are usually quite thick. With so many bulls running around, there’s major competition, so don’t be scared to bugle often. Use commonsense, of course, but a well-blown bugle will help locate distant bulls (so you can aggressively move in) and bring in younger bulls on a string.


If you’re hunting with a buddy, set up well ahead of the caller—about 75 yards or so. This will prevent bulls from “hanging up” just out of shooting range. If you’re alone, try to be more proactive. Call and constantly try to get in closer. Learn to “dog” bulls so they can no longer take it. Make them mad, and they’ll charge, demonstrating their dominance and coming closer, eventually giving you the shot you need. Be careful as you do this, always playing it smart so you don’t nudge a bull, blowing the deal entirely.


Also, raspy cow calling can work like magic. This means using pitchy, squeally, ultra-enticing, seductive cows sounds that tend to make bulls come out of their skin. Typical bite-and-blow or push-button calls won’t work for this. Only open-reed calls like the Carlton Fightn Cow Call or Estrus Whine, or Primos Hyper Lip allow you to vary pitch and volume this way. They are the cat’s meow for wilderness elk. The only downside is that these are difficult to master; you must work at it. Practice long and hard till you get it right, and you’ll be thanked with some tasty back straps.


If you’re hunting the pre-rut, blind call as frequently as you can. Although bulls aren’t very vocal at this time, this doesn’t mean they aren’t curious or willing to seek out action. Set up in areas with lots of fresh droppings and start calling—mainly with your raspy cow calls. Then, be on the lookout for bulls coming in silently. In those cases, where a bull happens to respond with a strong bugle, respond back with a spike-like shrill, monitoring your pitch, volume and intensity as you see fit.


Sit Water

Make water hole hunting or sitting natural funnels a part of your game plan. Portable blinds are too heavy for packing via backpack or horses, so you must use natural makeshift blinds. Or, you can do what I do and bring in a lightweight Ambush Tree Saddle. At only 5 pounds and compact (the size of a loaf of bread), a Tree Saddle packs easily and allows a heightened view of hunting spots, keeping your scent off the ground and opening up shooting lanes.


Late afternoon/evening is best for hunting water or wallows. But morning or all-day sits can prove worthwhile as well. It just all depends on what type of sign you’re seeing and how confident you are in the spot.


bow hunter

Elk are “pocket” animals, and you must either cover a lot of ground finding such spots, or have prior knowledge of them so you can begin hunting from the get-go, instead of spending precious hunting time just searching.

Stay Out Late/Get Up Early

I see it all the time—guys start heading back to camp during the last hour of shooting light, which is a big mistake. Elk, and especially larger bulls, feel more secure coming into calls during approaching darkness. Consequently, the last 30 minutes of shooting light makes for prime-time hunting action. Be brave and get used to walking back to camp using a flashlight.


The same goes for the morning. Get up two to three hours before daylight if that’s what’s needed to be where the elk are. Try not to exhaust energy going back and forth to base camp. Pack a lunch and stay out all day if you can handle it, especially when weather is cooler.


Don’t Get Lost

Wilderness hunting demands safety and communication. Aggressive hunting will take you over one hill and the next, making it easy to get turned around. Buy a good GPS and know how to operate it like your home computer. A compass and map are mandatory as well, as foul weather can make your GPS practically worthless. Plus, electronics can fail generally speaking; so don’t stake your life on them.


When hunting with friends, use two-way radios to stay in touch. Purchase models with maximum talk range. So-called “20-Mile Range” radios are good for about 4 or 5 miles in mountainous country. If you’re alone on the trip (definitely not recommended), then have a satellite phone and a secondary battery with you at all times. Also, carry a PLB (personal locator beacon). If you break a leg and your phone won’t connect, the PLB will eventually bring help.


Bivy Option

Elk are big travelers, and you’ll eventually find yourself wondering how to get to a herd that’s far from base camp. The need here is being closer to them at first light, but how?


Well, that’s simple. Have bivouac gear on hand and be willing to spike camp with the elk. Set camp just close enough to hear the elk as you fall asleep, but far enough away to prevent detection. At the first hint of daybreak, make your strike.


It’s difficult spending a night or two away from a comfortable base camp, but if you want to kill an elk badly, then you’ll do what’s required. Mentally prepare yourself for the bivy option and bring a good overnight pack (Badlands 2200/2800/4500), one-man tent or bivy sack, sleeping bag, and some easy meals so you can rise to the challenge.


Just so you know, I’ve never been on a wilderness hunt where the need for a bivy camp was ruled out. That should tell you just how important this tactic could become.


Stay tuned for the final part of this three-part segment on elk  hunting for additional tips!


By Joe Bell


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