Five Elk Hunting Myths


Bowhunting is filled with wives-tales and tired myths. It’s amazing how much of this lore persists in modern archery dialog. While most elk-hunting myths aren’t as dramatically blatant as, say, the one about waving a white hanky to bring curious pronghorn into range (which can work on occasion, but isn't likely), many long-held beliefs persist in a game that’s changing rapidly. Elk hunting isn’t what it was 20 years ago, even a decade past. The ever increasing popularity of elk means they’re hunted harder than ever, transforming them into savvier beasts. Bulls are also pursued by more knowledgeable archers today. Animals at the shallow end of the gene pool are quickly eliminated, leaving behind a smarter brand of elk.

Bugling

Myth One: Bull elk come to bugles just as Tom turkeys come to hen calls.

Let’s get something straight: Bugling is an invitation to a fight. Some bulls are simply timid. A bull with a painfully-assembled harem has nothing to gain and everything to lose by abandoning his herd to involve himself in a shoving match. That’s part of it, but more importantly public-lands elk are subjected to a barrage of calls. Bulls certainly come to bugles. You just watched the famous call manufacturer do it on his latest video, right? I can assure you those rich manufacturers don’t bowhunt the same places you do. They have the resources to hunt exclusive properties, secure the best tags. If you’re bent on bugling success understand you may have to settle for smaller (younger) bulls, or bowhunt where others won’t. Young bulls are vulnerable to calling just as teenage boys are prone to car wrecks and fistfights. They’re ruled by hormones instead of logic and correlations between actions and consequence have yet to sink in. They’re also sexually-frustrated little bulls…. You can also get as far from the human race as possible. This is increasingly difficult. Even in New Mexico’s 850,000-plus-acre Gila Wilderness drop-camps delivered atop mules, outfitted packstring forays and ambitious backpackers mean even places well off the beaten path see steady traffic. Still, if you manage to find that magic place overlooked by others, bugling just might work. You then have the dilemma of getting meat back to civilization in a timely fashion….

Bugling for bull elk
Bugling is most likely not the best way to kill a monster bull, specifically on public lands. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

Cow Calls

Myth Two: Bulls might not come to bugles, but they’re vulnerable to cow calls

Cow calls certainly aren’t the obvious hunt-blowing vehicle of the bugle, but if you’ve absorbed anything laid out above it’s easy to understand the implications. The real problem with calls is abuse by uninformed operators. A beginning elk hunter watches the latest elk-calling video and absorbs only portions promising sweat-free success; without understanding a thing about timing, what’s being related, most importantly when simply putting the call away proves most prudent. They arrive in elk woods to blow their call -- sometimes proficiently – at everything that moves. Calls are blown at downwind elk, elk that have been shot at and missed or following a stalk that’s ended in thundering hooves. At least once a year I encounter the idiot in the local archery shop bragging of all the elk he’s been calling to weekends, practicing for season opener weeks away. These encounters serve to firmly implant the correlation between calls and a possible human element. Elk turn taciturn, or communicate only under the cover of darkness. Persistent cow calls serve to set elk on edge, or send them slinking in the opposite direction. The best approach, like successful turkey calling, is allowing your prey to dictate the pace. Hunting an area with plenty of fresh sign, but nary a peep from your quarry? Think tooting a cow call non-stop will make them feel warm and fuzzy? They may be highly allergic to calling, or the rut simply may not have kicked in. Days later those same elk may turn as gregarious as school children. Timing’s everything, and properly reading that timing’s what creates calling success. Again, not calling at all is an option that should always be considered. When in doubt, hold off.

Flat Elk Hunting Terrain
Elk can often times be found in less suspecting sagebrush flats and flatter stands of timber

Where They’re At

Myth Three: Elk live in only the highest, most remote alpine habitat.


Interestingly, western elk were once regular denizens of wide-open prairie habitat. It was hungry explorers and settlers who pushed elk into remote locations of rough alpine habitat. There they remained for generations, elk habitat soon thought of collectively as ragged peaks, aspen, spruce and fir. Of course elk still inhabit these picturesque strongholds, but with increasingly effective game management, augmented by transplants, elk have reclaimed much historic range. Nowhere is this more pointed than the Southwest. While predominately “desert” states have alpine areas, the biggest bulls are more often discovered at lower altitudes; drier sagebrush flats, rolling cedar breaks and piñon/juniper mesas. It’s not uncommon to find trophy bulls far from trees where cactus spines are heeded while crawling toward a bull. I know an Idaho bowhunter who tags bomber bulls in desolate lava wastes far from forested habitat. One of Colorado’s top trophy areas is dominated by sagebrush draws with only occasional patches of aspen. The ambitious elk hunter takes advantage of these situations to find bigger bulls, and to get away from crowds that throng obvious elk country. Atypical habitat generally means lower elk density, making scouting more difficult. Concentrating scouting efforts around available water becomes more important to success. You might also hire a pilot for aerial scouting missions over wider swatches of ground. Elk are incredibly conspicuous during early morning hours when sun angle is low and the open (or flat) nature of atypical elk habitat makes such scouting especially productive. Another recent phenomenon is suburban elk in places where land development nips at the edges of elk habitat. Because of the presence of houses many of these areas have been set aside for bowhunting only, mostly with highly-limited tags and low-odds lottery drawings worth building preference points to win. While private-land access and small hunting parcels complicate matters, places like suburban Denver produce big bulls.

Big Bull Minimums

Myth Four: You need “he-man” draw weight to kill elk.

I blame gun writers for the magnum mentality permeating elk hunting. To hear the average gun expert tell it, nothing short of a .338 Winchester Mag should be used to take on mature bulls. So it goes that the neophyte bowhunter shows up for an elk hunt with bows they must fight to full draw. Just as a .270 Winchester deer rifle will cleanly take elk with proper bullet placement, the whitetail bow will cleanly kill big bulls by placing quality broadheads just so. Arrow placement is what bowhunting’s all about after all. The archery-shop blowhard telling about the “perfectly-hit” elk that got away after miles of tracking makes me batty. That elk wasn’t hit perfectly or it wouldn’t have traveled more than 150 yards. It amazes me how often I hear this bunk from even experienced hands. Nothing lives with perforated lungs or heart. Nothing. Stay away from that shoulder, holding dead-center lungs, and not only do you gain a larger margin of error, but encountering arrow-shattering, penetration-stopping bone is less likely. And though your current draw-weight is likely elk ready, your broadhead/arrow combination might not be. Elk are big and tough, with heavy bones and thick hide. Unless you are wielding he-man draw weight (accurately) avoid mechanical broadhead designs in favor of something including a cutting tip and conservative cutting diameters in the neighborhood of 1- to 1 3/16-inches. A change in arrows might is also in order. My favorites are low-profile, heavy-walled shafts like Easton’s Injexion or Axis, Beman’s MFX series or Quest Archery’s tapered Power Punch, shafts that prove power-packed, streamlined and indestructible. Also understand average ranges encountered in western elk habitat mean longer shots than you’re used to in whitetail woods. This isn’t a must, of course, but the ability to convert on 40- to 50-yard shots improves your chances of elk-hunting success exponentially.

Physical conditioning for elk hunting
While it is extremely important to be in excellent physical condition, there are options for those less physically fit.

Shaping Up For Elk

Myth Five: Only marathon runners are privy to elk-hunting success.

There’s no doubt being in super-human shape increases your odds of elk-hunting success considerably; especially when coming from sea-level environs to conquer rough, vertical mountains 7,000 to 10,000 feet higher. While acclimation is always prerequisite, the better shape you’re in the easier the transition to high-altitude performance. For many bowhunters finding the time to get into that kind of shape might prove impossible. If you want to bowhunt elk I would aggressively encourage you to find that time, to get into the best shape of your life. Still, for those who can not or will not get into shape, elk-hunting success is still within grasp. This is heresy to serious elk hands, but as a professional elk guide of 23 years I understood the eventual reality. Getting a fat-boy elk still entails plenty of hard work, but hunting smart will become more important that brute force. The key lays in whitetail tactics allowing you to kill an elk from a stand or blind. Water’s an obvious solution. During warm early seasons elk come to water regularly. The only problem today is that you won’t be the only one in your unit with this bright idea. Plenty of map work and preseason scouting reveals places more easily overlooked – waterholes far from roads or a more subtle spring. Find such a place littered with elk tracks and ball-bearing droppings (cattle leave flat patties) and you’re in business. An often overlooked option is wallows bulls create during the rut to cool themselves and add a layer of odorous mud. These are useful even when rain puts a damper on water-hole action or overabundant watering sites make pinpointing a drinking spot difficult. An active wallow is normally wholly obvious, a bomb crater of freshly- plowed mud often showing defined elk impressions at its edges. Like whitetail scrapes, primary wallows found at springs, wet meadows or at the edges of ponds or streams are visited regularly, often by several bulls. Sometimes topography, fence lines or feed sources concentrate elk movement that allows a classic ambush. A deep saddle between lush meadows and thicker bedding areas, a break in a fence where elk cross regularly, or even an isolated agricultural field or meadow can bring elk past the same place repeatedly. Poring over maps and plenty of preseason scouting are again required to make the best of these situations. A highly-varied bag of tricks makes elk-hunting success more likely, but first the modern elk hunter must abandon hackneyed ploys that promise to hinder instead of promote bowhunting success.

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