How to Bowhunt Real World Public Land Elk

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Do You Hunt Much Public Land?

What states have you hunted elk in? (Shutterstock / Thomas Groberg photo)

It’s difficult to imagine I killed my first elk with a bow — a patriarch cow — a bit more than 25 years ago. My first bull — a Pope and Young class 6x6 — fell a year later. Where did all that time go? In my case, most of it flew past while guiding paying clients (though I did sneak in enough personal hunt time to tag a dozen archery bulls during those years). I don’t really know where I found the time. In 23 years of outfitting and guiding, I shared a multitude of notable elk hunts, helped take a handful of behemoth bulls scoring up to 393, and many more scoring much less but no less memorable. I also did an unfathomable amount of walking, had many sleepless nights and witnessed hundreds of client catastrophes, both big and small.

What I learned, above all else, is that public-land elk hunting has irrevocably changed during the past couple decades. Elk are hunted harder and smarter than ever. This has made them more wary—sometimes downright neurotic. To wit, when I started bowhunting elk, receiving follow-up shots after a close miss was commonplace. Zing an arrow over a bull’s back today and he’s outta here. Bulls once inclined to confirm suspicions with gawking gazes now stampede over the nearest rise at the slightest provocation with nary a backward glance. New-age elk make many long-held beliefs outdated or downright counterproductive. To consistently score in today’s elk woods you must be willing to change with the times and become a savvier hunter.

Shifting Locations

One notable transformation in modern elk hunting is the changing face of elk habitat. Classic alpine scenes of old certainly still stand, but today the most productive elk ground also includes drier portions of the Southwest and even foothill plains. Rocky mesas and rolling piñon-juniper wastes have taken the place of spruce and aspen settings when talk turns to trophy bulls. Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado high country are still places where fine elk-hunting adventures are found, though increasingly the very best elk hunting originates in atypical habitat our grandfathers would’ve quickly dismissed.

Montana has established itself as the top producer of record-book bulls, though the biggest antlers in the Big Sky State normally come from areas far east of the Rocky Mountains made of rolling prairie and river breaks. Arizona and New Mexico have emerged as top-end trophy hotspots (if you can draw a coveted tag); the biggest antlers are normally found in arid piñon-juniper habitat and even at the edges of outright cactus desert. The same can be said of Utah, where Boone & Crockett bulls are taken annually. Drawing a Nevada elk tag practically assures a book bull, but you’ll be glassing sandy foothills covered with cedar scrub instead of treading through wet alpine mountains. The point is that no matter where you bowhunt elk, be willing to think outside the classic alpine-habitat box, giving those adjacent low-country, desert or rolling prairie areas a serious look. You just might discover a hotspot completely overlooked by those adhering to worn-out ideals.

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Tone Down the Calling

There’s no better example of the changing face of elk hunting than calling, especially bugling. Let’s face it — most elk-hunting videos that show industry guys arrowing monster bulls called in with belligerent bugling and aggressive cow calls aren’t secured on public lands. These are bulls living on exclusive, highly-managed private ranches or Indian reservations where hunting pressure is kept to a minimum.

Don’t get me wrong — bugles and cow calls are still a viable part of elk hunting, but understand that if access is reasonable then hunting pressure is present. Joe Average will continue to do what he sees in the videos. But bugling in or even cow calling trophy bulls on public lands is a low-odds proposition.

There are solutions to making calling work for you, however. One is getting as far off the beaten path as possible. The trick is finding an area so inaccessible, so nasty to get into, that bulls receive less education as to the evil ways of man. This isn’t easy because even wilderness has begun to receive a greater burden of hunting pressure. You might recognize a patch of ground where a single hellish canyon or lung-busting ridge keeps most hunters at bay. The other option is smartly hunting near the edges of those private ranches and Indian reservations, hoping to pull a non-jaded bull to your side of the fence. The investment in sweat equity is typically directly proportional to the odds of success.

Still, I find it best to stick to low-impact social calls. Even in Yellowstone National Park, not every bull is predisposed to charge into a fight. Bugling is an aggressive challenge that not all bulls are willing to face. Just because a bull wears big antlers doesn’t mean he’s spoiling for a fight. And you’re not going to pull a herd bull away from his harem. He has nothing to gain and everything to lose. Sticking to non-aggressive sounds such as soft cow calls and spike squeals normally provides the most predictable results.

New-age calling on harder-hunted public lands normally requires a more savvy approach. Scout to determine basic travel routes and set up to call blind, hoping a traveling bull will drop by just because it’s convenient. Set up and call in areas showing hot sign as if you’re calling predators. Expect a sage bull to slip in cautiously and silently instead of screaming and snot-slinging. Stay put a couple hours instead of covering country at a trot and making the aggressive calls that have been abused to the point of ineffectiveness.

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You’ve Got Legs — Use Them

It seems a good portion of bowhunters have lost the ability to effectively hunt afoot. The treestand is mostly to blame, and is why many visiting elk hunters have a difficult time finding success. Day in and day out, stalking is the most productive approach, whether engaged in basic spot-and-stalk on tight-lipped bulls or pursuing mouthy herd bulls. The first, like deer hunting, involves as much sitting and probing as stalking, but is commonplace in areas where hunting pressure has made bulls reluctant to talk, or a warm early season means festivities simply haven’t started. It’s not as fun or romantic as calling or chasing bugling bulls, but often necessary.

“Dogging” bugling bulls, on the other hand, is elk hunting at its most fundamental and exciting level. No other game provides the audible clues necessary to keep you on track during a 2-mile (or 8-mile) chase after a traveling herd of elk. This better allows you to keep pace, maneuver to keep the wind in your face, and otherwise close the distance without so much guesswork. It’s also one of bowhunting’s greatest challenges. There are plenty of stumbling blocks, including treacherously noisy ground, lots of watchful eyeballs and ever-shifting mountain breezes delivering your scent to the quarry. There will be many more unsuccessful stalks than triumphant endings, but nothing in all of bowhunting is more engaging. Your calling must walk that fine line between keeping a bull talking and clamming him up completely.

Timing is everything and overall, being aggressive is the name of the game. You must learn when to move like the wind, or as slow as the hands of a clock. Moving silently and quickly means donning over-the-boot stalking slippers or removing your boots completely and proceeding in socks alone. You’ll also learn to anticipate wind changes that can unexpectedly give you away. Cool air falls; warm air rises. A sunny hillside might mean a steady downhill flow suddenly turns 180 degrees. Falling off a sun-soaked ridge and into cool bedding ground might mean wind that has been in your favor is suddenly spilling straight at your target bull. The smartest elk hunters don’t fall into these traps. They read terrain and potential wind shifts before committing to any given situation. They also seize those moments when wind conditions are most favorable and predictable, hang back when conditions appear iffy, or circle widely to avoid potential disaster.

Take a Stand

Even when hunting elk, there can be merit in staying put. Increasingly, visiting eastern bowhunters have applied what they know best — stand hunting — to earning elk success in western regions. A lot of their positive lessons have rubbed off on even died-in-the-wool western bowhunters. Water-hole hunting is the best example, something few considered when I started bowhunting elk. Today, finding unoccupied water during an archery season can prove difficult indeed. The trick has become locating out-of-the-way watering sites others are too lazy to access or stumbling onto places where elk water that aren’t obvious on maps. Examples of the latter might include hidden springs; a rocky place or logging-road dip that naturally holds water after summer rains; or sometimes even a wildlife drinker, stock tank or pond that’s overlooked by map designers. If it’s difficult to locate and elk sign is abundant, you’ve likely discovered a hotspot.

It goes without saying that water holes are most productive in the driest regions, but in wetter regions, it pays to take note of major wallowing sites. Even if it’s raining daily, turning every bar ditch and depression into a potential watering site, it seems that many wallows are visited repeatedly and regularly. Some wallows will appear in the same places annually, so even during the off-season, conspicuous wallowing sites should be duly noted. Place sticks across active wallows during the open season to confirm they’re being revisited.

Stand-hunting elk can also revolve around topography or feed. A deep saddle connecting two large swathes of prime habitat can sometimes act as an elk highway, constricting movement between wide areas to a concentrated point. A single cut might allow elk to move off a sharp ridge or mesa edge most easily, concentrating movement to an area easily covered from a blind or treestand. Food is another obvious draw; lush meadows or even isolated grain or hay fields often lure elk to a common spot each evening and morning. Elk are big creatures and leave behind plenty of sign. Scouting pays huge dividends if you desire to wait it out on stand.

Flexibility

In writing my recent book, “Bowhunting Modern Elk,” I stressed the importance of flexibility. So many elk hunters arrive with a single agenda or strategy in mind. That may be calling, a “sure-thing” watering hole, or the meadow filled with feeding elk prior to the season opener. But then the calling doesn’t work out because bulls in the area have become overly exposed to the latest call sensation; it rains nonstop to make the water hole a moot point; other hunters arrive and run all those obvious elk away from that feeding meadow; and they’re at a loss for what to do next.

The modern elk hunter carries with him a highly varied bag of tricks. He arrives prepared not only to work harder than the next hunter and go the distance but also equipped to shift gears and adapt to changing conditions or circumstances. He arrives with an attitude of bowhunting not just hard, but smart. When his calls fail to produce, he switches to dogging bugling bulls. When bulls won’t bugle at all he doesn’t give up and go home. He resorts to old-fashioned glassing and careful spot-and-stalk ploys. Sitting over an obviously hot water hole can slow the pace of bowhunters who abhor the idea of sitting still — if only for a couple evenings. The most successful elk hunters, the ones who bring home trophy bulls hunt after hunt, are those most willing to adapt to the conditions at hand.

Editor's Note: Patrick Meitin’s 15-chapter book “Bowhunting Modern Elk,” endorsed by Randy Ulmer, Jim Dougherty and Larry D. Jones, provides more details of every aspect of bowhunting elk today, including techniques and equipment needs. This was originally published on September 11, 2009.

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