Stand Hunting Elk

by Patrick Meitin

Nice Bull Killed From A Treestand
Killing elk from your Lone Wolf treestand is certainly a posibility if you can find the right spot to hang the stand.

Calling, dogging bugling bulls and sitting water are all typical modes of operation in elk country. Yet calling depends so much on weather and rut timing, and wrapping an entire hunt around calling success can invite disappointment. Chasing and stalking is a highly physical game often times culminating only through the highest degree of stealth possible. Chasing also requires actively-bugling bulls. Water-hole hunting is dependent on dry weather -- and today’s crowded woods can make finding unoccupied water challenging. The modern elk hunter needs to remain flexible. This includes the willingness to try something different. One such approach is taking a stand while bowhunting elk.

Whitetail Ploys For Elk?

Whitetail hunters know all about stands (or blinds), meaning Eastern bowhunters traveling West already understand the drill. Bowhunting water-holes and wallows include stands or blinds, but here I have in mind the finer points of true ambush -- guarding points that, in general, have no immediate attraction to elk, sites simply providing a higher probability of meeting an elk at close range traveling between two points of interest.

Like early-season whitetail, elk sometimes prove remarkably predictable. This is especially true during early seasons, especially before rutting bulls begin to wander widely. With elk seasons kicking off as early as late August in many western states, opening-week elk can present the same situations as early-season whitetail. Substitute Midwestern agricultural fields for mountain meadows and such situations begin to sound familiar.

Waterholes Are A Less Physical Method Of Elk Hunting
Waterhold hunting can be very productive during hot or dry years.

Ambush situations also arise due to high population densities; terrain features and funnels simply increasing your odds of an elk ambling past your position. Roosevelt elk seem most inclined to predictable travel, proving relative homebodies in their incredibly thick habitat. As a windfall, finding the right trail and setting up for an intercept can reap huge rewards in terrain and vegetation types that also make stalking quietly most difficult.

Follow The Food For Success

Like eastern whitetail, movement patterns normally revolve around food – directly or indirectly as bulls seek concentrations of cows attracted to food sources. If you’re lucky enough to gain access to a private-land area with abundant elk, including irrigated crop circles, river-bottom plots or dry-land crops such as oats or barley, winter wheat or alfalfa (or an inviting vega, in Southwestern argot), taking a stand can provide a viable option. On more extensive fields this can prove hit or miss as elk are less likely to travel the same path day to day. That said, patience is eventually rewarded, as choosing a beat-down trail entering such a site means that given enough time elk will eventually wander within bow range.

In elk habitat farther removed from civilization, open meadows of lush grass are more likely to create appeal. Elk are grazers, unlike browsing deer that typically nibble broadleaf plants and shrubs for sustenance. Grazing elk need reliable grass to remain healthy, their sheer size dictating they also need plenty of it. Whether discussing the piñon/juniper oceans of the Southwest, blacktimber regions of northern Colorado, northern Idaho or western Montana, or rolling Ponderosa pine forests scattered across any elk habitat, reliable grass is found only in open areas where acidic pine needles haven’t poisoned the soil and abundant sunlight prevails. While scouting, keeping an eye on the grass situation can reap big rewards. This also includes noting concentrations of cattle. Elk will mix with cattle, but given a choice prefer not to. Unless obvious sign shows otherwise – round, marble droppings instead of loose cow flop – look elsewhere for feeding areas.

Food Sources Are Always A Decent Place For A Treestand
If you're able to gain permission, agricultural fields are obvious places to ambush an elk.

An overabundance of food, of course, makes this approach less productive, but during periods of drought, in fringe areas with less than ideal habitat – so-called “desert” elk a perfect example – or heavily forested areas, food is pivotal to stand-hunting success.

Openings For Elk

Roosevelt elk bring to mind clear-cuts, recently logged areas creating openings where second growth vegetation flourishes and attracts elk. And though bowhunting Roosevelt elk seems to revolve around logging activity (positive and negative alike), Pacific Northwest forests certainly don’t own an exclusive to this activity. Clear-cut logging is the Catch-22 of forest management. Yes it’s ugly, but it also creates elk feed no matter where you’re bowhunting. Clear-cuts are always worth giving a close look, sometimes offering prime opportunities for ambush along abrupt edges, seeking obvious trails coming and going from adjacent areas of thicker forest.

Forest fire is Mother Nature’s natural process for creating clear-cuts. Fire not only clears growth starving feed of sunlight, but puts important nutrients back into the soil. Three- to five-year old burns are elk magnets. They create open areas of lush new grass, shrubs and berry patches, in general a literal elk dinner table. They vary in size from a football field to thousands of acres. The smaller stump-fire burns can offer the best opportunity for dependable ambush, but don’t discount larger burns requiring more thorough investigation and thought.

Fence-Crossing Hotspots

Fence-lines are the next-best ambush alternative, more pointedly, breaks or crossings. Not just any fence line, mind you, but a fence representing a major barrier between two points elk want to be according to hour or hunting pressure.

The situation I’m most familiar with is the fence marking the border between Arizona and New Mexico in some of the Gila’s most productive elk habitat. While Arizona’s later archery season dates make that side of the fence a temporary haven, in the particular area I’ve in mind, the best feed is in New Mexico. Daily commute between the two states becomes a regular routine with the area’s elk. Walk a couple miles of that fence and you’ll find several broken-down sections and established trails leading east and west.

I think, too, of several areas in Idaho and Colorado where public land sits adjacent highly-exclusive private holdings. Despite the fact these elk are relatively safe on their private side of the fence the compulsively nomadic elk nevertheless hop or duck over and under those fence-lines to take their chances on the public side. Of course, too, such places make obvious destination points for elk fleeing hunting pressure and looking for safe haven, so traffic runs both directions.

I’ve friends who find regular bowhunting success along the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. The way they tell it, the more remote the location the more likely these highly-protected bulls are to wander out of off-limits park and onto public lands for the taking. Such opportunities can also be offered via state parks and wildlife refuges. If there’s a clear boundary, one side of a fence including zero harvest, there will nearly always be some amount of overflow from displaced animals seeking reliable food sources found on outside areas with lower population-densities.

Working The Land

Topography’s another obvious factor that funnels elk – a point where sitting in ambush can pay big. Elk are wanderers by nature, though hunting pressure also has the potential to shove elk around and in front of waiting bowhunters.

Old-fashioned scouting pays here, but U.S. Geological Survey maps give you a solid starting point. Deep saddles separating adjacent valleys or basins are always good bets, unpressured elk naturally choosing the path of least resistance. Long, narrow ridgelines also provide obvious travel-ways. Rutting bulls, in particular, seem inclined to maintain the high ground while cruising for receptive cows. Long, isolated ridges become bull highways when the rut kicks off, allowing bulls to cover a lot of ground while maintaining visual and audio advantages over two swatches of land.

In the Southwest, ambush sites are often found at the edges of abrupt mesa edges fortified by broken volcanic rock. While relatively flat mesas offer obvious feed in the form of open meadows, abrupt edges can prove quite treacherous, gentler ridges sometimes creating “off-ramps” from the top, other times only an abrupt cut through the rim offering a way off. Such places normally reveal well-used trails to bedding cover below.

Sitting for elk certainly doesn’t offer the heart-pounding excitement of more proactive approaches to elk hunting but can turn the tables during difficult hunts. More appealing, when elk are abundant but hunter numbers just as high, sitting stands allows crowds to work for instead of against you. Too, having reliable stand sites gives you an option when long days afield leave you a bit ragged and foot sore, staying in the game while regenerating for another physical assault. For those who’ve arrived out of shape, you can still get your elk by playing it smart, and taking a stand.



Russell, MB
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