Elk Blitz

by Patrick Meitin

Elk hunting shouldn’t be confused with deer hunting. I offer this not in the obvious sense of species and size, but in the way bowhunters approach elk after a lifetime of bowhunting nothing but deer. Deer hunting is meticulous, slow and calculated. Elk hunting successfully requires a near-opposite strategy, aggressive approaches requiring quick thinking, running to cut the distance one minute, moving at a snail’s pace once you catch up. Without this relentlessly-aggressive mindset elk will leave you in the dust.

The trouble comes when bowhunters apply deer-hunting mentalities to elk. They’re too contemplative while dogging a bugling bull, or they're too slow moving and the long-legged elk quickly out distance them, leaving them forever playing catch-up. In bowhunting patience is normally a virtue, but when the game is elk too much of a good thing will more often make you late for the game.

Dogging and Stalking Bull Elk
In some hard to hunt public lands, dogging and stalking bulls could provide you with the best opportunity to harvest.

It goes without saying not every elk hunt involves aggressive run-and-gun ploys. There are always other options; sitting water-holes when weather is warm and dry, for instance -- if you’re lucky enough to find water that isn’t already claimed by another hunter, or it doesn’t rain every day of your hunt, turning every low spot into a potential watering site. Theoretically, you can call an elk to you – if the area you hunt hasn’t been hunted too heavily, timing is just right and herd dynamics ideal. When it comes right down to it, especially on public lands shared by the general public, stalking and/or dogging bugling bulls is a higher-odds bet for tagging archery elk.

Regular hands to western elk hunting normally have this program down – if not pat. New elk hunters traveling from eastern locals to invest in do-it-yourself forays, on the other hand, normally find they’re completely out of their element. They’ll label elk super intelligent, ultra difficult and as elusive as winning lotto numbers, elk quite literally are always one step ahead. If I’m describing you, listen up. It’s time to cowboy up, forget everything you know about bowhunting (whitetail especially) and get aggressive.

This aggressive approach to elk hunting is best when accompanied by bugling bulls, of course, but when bulls clam up due to hot weather or hunting pressure, all is not lost. If elk are still there but proving tight lipped, straight-forward spot-and-stalk ploys are still an option. This means finding a vantage and being on hand during prime hours to probe surroundings with quality optics, spotting game and planning a viable stalk. Still, bugling is what makes elk hunting special, and what makes aggressive methods most productive. I like early mornings best, not because I like getting up in the dark hours of the a.m., but because locating bugling bulls is easiest then. I normally arrive in my hunting area when it’s still black dark out, checking a couple areas from my truck or wandering a high ridge seeking a mouthy bull. I’ll then follow a bugler from a distance until good light arrives, just to assure he doesn’t wander out of hearing. The more quickly I can establish contact with a bugling bull following the first hint of light the better, as the clock is ticking. The warmer it gets, the less likely a bull is to keep bugling – making cool, rainy or overcast days a boon as well. Establishing contact means running, jogging, pushing until it hurts.

I maintain a pretty brisk pace until bugles tell me I’m closing or I actually see elk – the bull making the noise or the edge of his herd. Elk are big animals, making them more conspicuous than, say, deer. Once I’ve positively located the bull or herd I work to maintain that contact, playing wind most especially, but also topography, always aggressively working to move closer, to create a shot opportunity. This can take some doing, especially with elk on the move. A walking elk requires a man to jog to maintain pace – the reason most bowhunters get left behind, tippy-toeing when they should be running.

This is a delicate balance between moving quickly but quietly. Binoculars are all-import, making it easier to keep tabs on nearby elk, gaining better insight into when it’s safe to push, when you should freeze. I normally wear stalking slippers in this business, allowing quieter steps, though luckily, elk are noisy creatures; which is to say cat-like stalking isn’t necessarily important – yet. Also, due to the confusion of mixed herds you can risk aggressive moves like slipping across gaps in cover in relative plain sight, ducking behind a single tree trunk while quickly closing the gap, waiting out a staring cow or calf by simply holding still after detection – things deer wouldn’t tolerate. The ultimate goal is to shadow your bull or his herd until they make a mistake (a bull swinging around to marshal his troops, for instance) or traveling into terrain that suddenly gives you the drop (crossing an abrupt cut, dropping behind a sudden fall of earth or cresting a ridge), allowing you to aggressively run in a quiet crouch to create a shot or narrow the range.

Stalking Big Bull Elk Can Be Very Successful
This bull was successfully stalked and killed with archery equipment.  Bulls like this one can be difficult if not impossible to call, sometimes being sneaky is your best bet.

Success comes through a series of trial and error. Experience is the best teacher. In time instincts tell you when to push your luck instead of holding still, sensing when a laggard cow will catch you red handed, when a familiar type of terrain will lead into a certain wind trap, coaxing a safe skirting instead. This is also a huge part of the game, always playing the wind, anticipating fluctuating temperatures and how they influence prevailing breezes. This is elk hunting in its rawest form, but also ultimately its most rewarding. It’s not as challenging as stalking a woodland whitetail deer in my book, but challenging in a different sense, most of all physically. The words “aggressive” and “bowhunting” will seem an oxymoron to most in this game, but that’s what separates those who succeed from those who go home empty handed – especially in elk habitat where water is too abundant and elk calls have been too liberally applied. Chasing bugling bulls is as exciting as bowhunting gets -- demanding, nerve racking, physically taxing – but ultimately the ultimate bowhunting reward.



Cheyenne, WY
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