Elk Hunting on Your Own

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Most attempts at DIY bulls fail miserably, but these experts are here to help

Have you ever trekked into the backcountry alone? (Bill Konway photo)

Nearly every big game hunter dreams of elk hunting out West, but most of the time, that dream is not a reality. Most first-time, out-of-state elk hunters go in unprepared, and then go home without an elk. That’s why we polled these three DIY elk hunting experts for their advice.

Think of Yourself

Bill Vanderheyden of Iron Will Broadheads, knows the elk woods well. The first thing the out-of-stater thinks about when planning for an elk hunt is being in physical shape, and that’s important. But if you live near sea level, nothing can prepare your body for the change in elevation except for time. Vanderheyden sees it every year. “The altitude can really take it away from you at first. It can reduce your ability for critical thinking and physically drain you for the first few days,” he says. “I’ve seen people come out here and have to turn around and leave because they felt so bad. If you can spend the first day or two of your trip getting acclimated, that will help.”

Stay hydrated in the mountains, too, and carry plenty of water. The last thing you want miles from camp is a cramp. Plus, if you get lost, you can make it for a while without food, but without water, you’re toast. What you wear, and carry in your pack, is also important. Temperatures in the mountains can fluctuate like crazy. It can be in the 30s in the morning and in the 70s in the afternoon. Even if it’s mild out when you start, pack a heavier jacket. Lastly, buy quality boots, and break them in before you go. Sore or blistered feet are a deal-breaker.    

Plan Ahead

Jace Bauserman, noted outdoor writer and elk hunter, certainly understands the game. “My biggest tip is to do your homework ahead of time,” Bauserman says. “Pay your subscription to the onX Hunt App and start prospecting your hunting area. Don’t pick a single basin to explore and call it good. Pick multiple spots. I like to find at least three, off-the-beaten path areas that are a mile walk or more from the trailhead. But I also like to locate three, close-to-the-road spots that I can pop into and out of quickly. The “go-deep” drum has been beaten hard. I’ve had some great elk hunting right off a main roadway. Mark your spots on your map and be sure to save your maps offline. This way if you don’t have cell service, you still have access to your maps.”

Basically, focus on elk basic needs. And they only need three things to survive, but you need to understand four things to hunt them:

  1. Prime forage. I’m not talking about grass. In September, you need to be looking on north-facing slopes, not the south-facing ones where the summer grass will be burned out.
  2. Cover. Not just a place to hide, but thermal cover for keeping cool during the early season, and warm during the late season. Cedar thickets are a prime example.  
  3. Water. That can be the limiting factor, especially in places like New Mexico because of the heat and relative lack of it.

Pick Your Spots

After looking at those three things, consider pressure. That’s a limiting factor in Colorado and in Idaho, but in two different ways. In Colorado, there is a ton of human hunting pressure. In Idaho, the pressure is from wolves. You need to find where they are not pressured. Figure out which of these four things is the limiting factor, and your success at finding elk will go up.

Get at least a mile or more away from roads and you’ll escape much of that pressure. Then, get high and use the binos to find elk. Use OnX to identify quality glassing points.

Don’t expend all of your energy walking. Glass to find elk, and then burn some calories getting ahead of the herd. If you can’t glass them up, look for fresh sign.

Vanderheyden has a lot of elk hunting experience as well, and he says their nomadic tendencies can make them tough for traveling deer hunters to pin down. “Elk move around a lot. The typical Eastern or Midwestern whitetail hunter can find some good sign and sit there and probably see deer,” he says. “Deer typically have a small range of a mile or two, so sitting tight in a good spot can be productive. Not so with elk. They cover a lot more ground. I suggest putting some miles on to find them. I keep moving around until I either see elk or find extremely fresh sign, made within the last 24 hours. But actually seeing an elk is best.”

Don’t be so intimidated by your dream of a western elk hunt that you put it off. But don’t go unprepared. Follow this advice, and your hunt will be a lot more memorable — and probably more successful, too.

Don't Miss: 10 Habits of Unsuccessful Elk Hunters

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