Bowhunting Modern Elk

by Patrick Meitin´╗┐

I killed my first archery elk nearly 30 years ago. Since that time I spent 23 years guiding other bowhunters to elk-hunting success. This long-term experience has taught me many things, but possibly most importantly is public-lands elk hunting has changed considerably during the past two decades. Elk are hunted harder and smarter (for the most part) today, transforming elk into a more wary quarry. New-age elk make many long-held beliefs outdated or downright counterproductive.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.

Where It’s At

One notable change in modern elk hunting’s the changing face of habitat. Classic alpine scenes of old still stand, but today productive elk ground includes dry portions of the Southwest and even eastern woodlands. 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.

Hunting Elk in the Low Lands
Elk have expanded in many areas, now reclaiming the low, more open country they inhabited when Europeans first arrived in the West.  An open mind is sometimes needed in regards to elk habitat.

Montana’s established itself as the top producer of record book bulls, though the biggest antlers in the Big Sky State normally come from areas far from Rocky Mountains, habitat of rolling prairie and breaks. Arizona and New Mexico have emerged as top-end trophy hotspots (if you can draw a coveted tag), the biggest antlers normally found in arid habitat far from aspens and snow. The same can be said of Utah, where Boone & Crockett bulls are taken annually. Drawing a Nevada elk tag – no small feat – practically assures a book bull, but you’ll be glassing sandy foothills covered with cedar scrub instead of treading alpine mountains.

The point is no matter where you hunt elk, be willing to think outside the classic-alpine box, giving 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 – and the biggest bull of your life.

Calling All Elk

There’s no better example of how elk hunting has changed than calling; especially bugling. Certainly bugles and cow calls are a viable part of elk hunting, just understand that if access is reasonable, hunting pressure present and Joe Average continues to buy into the latest video hype, bugling in, even cow calling, trophy bulls on public lands is tougher than ever. The qualifying word is trophy, as smaller, younger bulls, like teenagers everywhere, are always susceptible to moments of naïve bravado. If you’re bent on calling success, also be willing to lower your standards in harder-hunted areas.

There are solutions to making calling work for you. Getting as far off the beaten path as possible is one of those. The trick’s finding areas so inaccessible bulls receive less negative conditioning. This isn’t easy, packstringing normally your best option, though even wilderness has began to receive a greater burden of hunting pressure – though nothing like traffic seen in areas where the ATV scrounge reins. 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 the edges of private ranches and Indian reservations rich guys bowhunt, hoping to pull a non-jaded bull to your side of the fence. 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. Sticking to non-aggressive calls – 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. Determining basic travel routes and setting up to call blind, hoping a traveling bull will drop by just because it’s convenient, is time well spent. Set up and call in areas showing hot sign as if you’re calling predators, expecting a sage bull to slip in cautiously and silently – instead of screaming and snot-slinging. Stay put a couple hours, producing those soft cow calls and spike squeals already mentioned, instead of covering country at a trot and loosing off aggressive bugles and hyper cow calls that have been abused to the point of ineffectiveness.

Glassing and Stalking Bull Elk
Glassing and stalking skills have become just as important, perhaps more so, to the modern elk hunter as honed calling skills, though it’s always wise to remain well rounded and master both. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

Run-And-Gun Tactics

It seems many bowhunters have lost the ability to effectively hunt afoot. The tree-stand’s mostly to blame, and why so many visiting elk hunters have difficulty 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 involves as much sitting and probing as stalking, but is commonplace in areas where hunting pressure has made bulls reluctant to talk, or warm early seasons when festivities haven’t yet kicked off. It’s not as exciting, or romantic, but often necessary in the times we live in.

“Dogging” bugling bulls, on the other hand, is elk hunting at its most fundamental and exciting. No other game provides the audible clues necessary to keep you on track during a two-, three-, or eight-mile chase like a traveling herd of elk. This better allows you to keep pace, maneuver to keep wind sorted and otherwise close the distance without guesswork. It’s also one of bowhunting’s greatest challenges. Stumbling blocks include treacherously-noisy ground, lots of watchful eyeballs and ever-shifting mountain breezes. There will be many more unsuccessful stalks than triumphant endings, but nothing in all of bowhunting is as engaging. Calling becomes part, walking that fine line between keeping a bull talking and clamming him up.

Timing’s everything and, overall, being aggressive 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.

Big Bull Elk Are Hard Won
While modern bowhunting equipment has become more efficient than ever, allowing us to shoot farther and straighter, elk have also become more wary, making a trophy bull as hard won as ever.

Cool air falls, warm air rises. A sunny hillside might mean a steady downhill flow suddenly turns 180 degrees; while 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, reading terrain and potential wind shift before committing to any situation. They also seize those moments when wind conditions are most favorable and predictable, hanging back when conditions appear iffy, or circling widely to avoid potential disaster.

Take A Stand

Increasingly visiting eastern bowhunters have applied what they know best – stand hunting – to earning elk-hunting success. Water-hole hunting’s 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 on places where elk water that aren’t wholly 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, sometimes even a wildlife drinker, stock tank or pond simply overlooked by map designers or originating since its latest addition. If it’s difficult to locate, and elk sign 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 make note of major wallowing sites. Even if it’s raining, turning every barrow ditch and depression into a potential watering site, it seems wallows are visited regularly. Some wallows appear in the same places annually, so even during the off-season, conspicuous wallowing sites should be duly noted.

Stand hunting elk can also revolve around topography or feed. A deep saddle connecting two large swatches of prime habitat can sometimes act as a literal 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 tree-stand. Food is another obvious draw, lush meadows, 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, work paced at the front end of a hunt instead of concentrated during open season for those who might’ve shown up in less than top physical conditioning.

Fresh Elk Tracks
Elk are hunted harder and smarter than ever today.  The
regularly-successful hunter is one who remains flexible and learns to change with the times.


In writing my recent book, “Bowhunting Modern Elk” (Intermedia Outdoors, 2008), the one point I hammered at again and again was flexibility. So many elk hunters arrive with a single agenda or strategy in mind; be that calling, a single “sure-thing” watering hole, or the meadow filled with feeding elk prior to season opener. But then the calling doesn’t work out because bulls in the area become wise to the latest call sensation, it rains nonstop to make the water-hole a moot point, other hunters arrive to run all those obvious elk 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, to go the distance, but also equipped to shift gears, adapt to changing conditions or circumstances. He arrives with an attitude of bowhunting not just hard, but smart. When his calls fail to produce results, he switches to dogging bugling bulls. When bulls won’t bugle at all he resorts to old-fashioned glassing and careful spot-and-stalk ploys. Even the bowhunter who abhors the idea of sitting still, the obviously-hot water-hole or wallow can bring easy success. The most successful elk hunters, the ones who bring home trophy bulls hunt after hunt, are those most willing to adapt to changing times and conditions.



Cheyenne, WY
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