Elk Hunting Absolutes

by Patrick Meitin

More bowhunters than ever leave whitetail country behind each fall to pursue Rocky Mountain elk. The elk’s popularity has grown exponentially, understandable given awe-inspiring habitat, sheer size and gregarious nature. Elk numbers are stable or expanding in most of their range and archery equipment becomes more efficient every season, yet nearly 80 percent of visiting elk hunters fail because they’re unprepared for the physical nature and aggressive rules of engagement. These statistics needn’t apply to you. These three absolutes can set you apart from the crowds.

1. Physical Conditioning Is Essential

Packing Out An Elk Is No Easy Feat
There aren't many more physical hunts in the lower 48 than a back country elk hunt. Getting in and getting your trophy out requires physical conditioning.

Elk hunting’s decidedly physical. If altitude doesn’t sap you, steep terrain and long miles certainly will. Visiting bowhunters are at an unquestionable disadvantage, a sea-level existence a solid handicap. There’s less oxygen for your system to utilize, meaning you work much harder to simply breath. Too, most of us spend more time than ever scrambling for nickels, sitting behind desks, growing soft. This puts you at a huge disadvantage.

Put simply: The better physical conditioning you’re in the better chance you have of elk-hunting success. Physical fitness allows you to better deal with sudden altitude gain, to keep pace in twisted terrain. Physical training needn’t dominate your life -- strenuous cardio-vascular exercise for a couple hours, four days a week normally sufficient. Jogging or treadmill work’s an obvious solution, starting months ahead of season, slowly easing into more miles. Vary workouts, investing in long jogs one day, shorter, high-intensity sprints another, running stairwells or steep hills another, strengthening various muscle groups important to mountain travel. This increases stamina and the ability to efficiently process oxygen. Just as importantly, strenuous workouts increase your mental toughness by stretching your threshold for pain and helping you better understand your physical limits.

2. Shooting Longer Increases Your Odds Of Success

It’s beyond frustrating working so hard to arrive in range of a trophy bull only to miss a “gimme” shot. Stand-hunting whitetail hardly prepares us for shots at elk. Sure, you’ll occasionally plunk trophy bulls at “whitetail range” – say anything less than 30 yards – but you certainly can’t bank on it. In elkdom, to make the best of hard-earned shot opportunities – while stalking in open-country (relative to whitetail woods) especially -- a confident maximum effective range of 45, 50, even 60 yards, increases your odds of success considerably.

Shooting Long Distances Increases Your Odds
Practicing at longer distances not only helps your odds, but makes you significantly better at close range.

This isn’t nearly so difficult as it once was. Modern compounds combined with tight-speced carbon arrows and modern broadheads, not to mention accuracy-enhancing drop-away rests, active stabilizers and precise, fiber-optic sights – most especially precise laser rangefinders -- makes 30 yards the new 50; to borrow from the witticism regarding modern health and aging. This isn’t automatic, of course, requiring some small effort and shooting savvy, but no longer represents the ethical dilemmas it once posed (granted you’ve embraced the entire high-tech philosophy). This involves finer equipment tuning, polishing shooting form (especially follow-through) and smart practice. Pore over magazine articles and books on these subjects. Seek the services of a qualified shooting coach. Strive to extend maximum effective range only 10 yards and your odds of elk success improve dramatically.

In direct correlation to shooting farther is learning to think on your feet as a shot develops. In elk hunting you shoot when game dictates, not when you’re ready, as is often the case while installed in a whitetail stand. This means taking advantage of fleeting opportunities, less-than-ideal shot angles, even walking shots; though it’s still imperative to apply the discipline necessary to hold off when a shot simply doesn’t feel right. No matter range. Regular stump shooting and small game hunting better prepare you than target shooting.

3. Remain Flexible Or Fail

One of the problems I’ve always had with typical literature regarding elk hunting is it always comes with an agenda. The calling expert insists any elk can be brought into range easily, granted to buy into his new call model, or maybe it’s a decoy he’s pushing this year. This isn’t to say these techniques don’t bring positive results, have their time and place, but it’s just that too many elk hunters arrive to a new season with a single-minded agenda, only one plan of attack on which they hang all their hopes and dreams. They dream of calling in a trophy bull, just like they saw on the latest video, but elk prove call-wary and impervious to their best efforts. They’re convinced the sign-pounded water-hole they’ve discovered during summer scouting is the answer to their prayers, but it rains three days straight and turns every bar ditch and pothole into a potential watering site. Or, they arrive only to find another hunter has laid claim to the site. They plan to dog bugling bulls, but unseasonably warm weather turns bulls tight-lipped, or area footing corn-flake noisy, making closing the deal beyond their stalking capabilities. So they’re at a loss as to how to proceed. Their hunt is essentially finished – unless they are able to change gears, reach deeper into their elk-hunting bag of tricks. Any savvy elk hunter carries an array of elk calls, and arrives ready to use them after appropriate practice to assure they are true to tune. But rarely does the realistic bowhunter become wholly dependent on them for success. Productive water can result in often untouchable trophy bulls when it’s dry and hot, but rain can quickly slap a damper on festivities, though wallows might still do the trick. Dogging bugling bulls comes into its own during wet periods, cooling things off to encourage rutting, making the ground stalking quiet. Heat can postpone rutting activities, and bugling especially, but elk can still be hunted using the patient spot-and-stalk ploys applied to deer. On hard-hunted ground bulls might clam up and take to the thickest cover possible, asking for patient still-hunting skills. The point is regular success on public-land bulls requires a flexibility required by few other big game animals. Weather, hunting pressure, ranching activity, moon phase, global warming and sunspots can conspire to foil the best laid plans. Keep an open mind, remain open to new, or less popular, approaches. It might not be what you had envisioned for your long-awaited elk hunt, but this season’s success can depend on it.



Russell, MB
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