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6 Tips For Your First Do-It-Yourself Elk Hunt

Fundamentals Every Bowhunter Should Know Before Hitting the Elk Timber

Every year, groups of hunters get busy planning their first archery elk hunts. Anticipation runs high and everyone is mentally and physically stoked.

Afterward, the 20-some-hour ride back home only adds insult to injury, in many cases.

Wait! It doesn’t have to be that way!

Elk hunting is never easy, but your first elk hunt can look very different from what I just described. Harvest or not, you can have a very positive time chasing elk and you can learn a lot of information to apply on future hunts.

The following are six fundamentals I’ve gathered by bowhunting elk over the last 12 years. Every bowhunter should know these basics before making their first visit to the elk timber. Let’s review.

satellite-imagery
For months prior to an elk hunt, spend as much free time as possible scouring satellite imagery via onX Hunt. McDougal uses it to identify north-facing slopes complete with aspens, dark timber, and a water source—classic elk habitat. (Photo by Darron McDougal)

1. Choose a State and Unit

Unless you thought ahead and bought preference points for several years toward elk in a western state or two, going elk hunting this fall will mean buying an OTC (over- the-counter) elk tag. That may mean you’ll probably get a tag in Colorado, where approximately 100 units are open to hunting with an OTC archery tag.

If you read this before April 1, 2022, you can still apply for a Montana elk tag, though. If you read it before April 6, 2022, you can put in for a Colorado limited elk tag. If that attempt is unsuccessful, try your luck in Colorado’s secondary drawing for a leftover limited elk tag in a different unit. If all else fails, go OTC.

Idaho is another option, but most quota OTC licenses for the following season sell out shortly after they go on sale in December. It’s certainly becoming more difficult to purchase an Idaho OTC quota tag because the demand has substantially increased.

elk-sign
Elk sign is only as good as its freshness. An old rub like this doesn’t mean a bull is right around the corner. Keep moving until you find the fresh stuff. (Photo by Rebecca McDougal)

To narrow down an OTC unit, I highly suggest subscribing to GoHunt Insider. The Filtering 2.0 feature can show you the following for each unit: percentage of public land, bull quality, bull-to-cow ratio, and success rate. There are also some tidbits on the terrain, public lands elk are likely to inhabit during archery season, and other pieces of info nuanced toward each specific unit.

Be forewarned that Colorado’s OTC units provide tough elk hunting. The OTC tags maximize hunting opportunities, and they’re a far cry from “quality” elk hunts. Don’t get discouraged, though, as tons of archers pluck elk from these difficult hunts. They sometimes even score record-book bulls, proving that success is possible.

packing-out
Packing out an elk is extremely difficult. Be sure to be in great shape so that you can hunt hard and then survive the pack out. (Photo by Rebecca McDougal)

2. Know Where Elk Live

First and foremost, scouting virtually using the onX Hunt app can help you map great hunting locations and identify potential issues with access. I begin by studying the general hunting unit to get acclimated, then I start zooming in and looking at elevations and terrain.

It’s commonly said that elk are up at 10,000 feet or higher in September until snow pushes them down to lower elevations. For the most part, this is true, but it’s certainly not a hard, fast rule. I shot my first bull ever at around 6,000 feet, and I was into at least five other bulls that morning. Elk that live lower are generally resident or non-migratory elk that inhabit virtually the same habitat year-round. In many instances, these lower-elevation elk aren’t hunted quite as much because most hunters focus up high but finding them can be tough and numbers can be low.

Regardless of elevation, elk in Colorado or other Rocky Mountain states can often be found on north-facing (cooler during warm temperatures) slopes with dark timber (dense evergreens) and a water source nearby. Creeks, beaver ponds, natural springs, and mountain lakes all fit the bill. Elk especially like habitats with thick aspens and dark timber that intermix with open parks that offer longer visibility.

stalking
When stalking or shadowing a herd, balance passive and aggressive paces based on available cover and what the animals are doing. (Photo by Rebecca McDougal)

Though not always classic September elk habitat, oak brush at lower elevations can hide many elk. Most elk in that habitat are resident animals on private ranches and hard-to-reach Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. Don’t overlook it, but know that most elk will be higher up in the timber until snow pushes them down into the oak brush, where they winter just above ag fields.

When you’re e-scouting on onX, use the roadless- areas layer. Pin those spots and make sure to pop into them during your hunt. But don’t overlook easy access, as some hunters do. Several times, I’ve seen elk in OTC units from roads, and one bull was just above multiple hunting camps where hunters were resting midday.

Finally, when you’re pinning waypoints on onX, make sure to pin multiple as your first choices, but drop many backup pins in case your primary ones don’t produce. Back-up plans can save your hunt from a nosedive.

elk
When you’re moving around and trying to find elk, don’t overlook wallows. McDougal found this one during his first elk hunt, and now he hunts near it each time he’s back in the area. He even bow-killed his first elk, a cow, over it from a treestand. (Photo courtesy of Darron McDougal)

3. Find the Elk

To find elk, hit your primary waypoints first. You’ll usually find that they’re more difficult to reach than you initially thought. But don’t get discouraged. Hike, and then hike some more. The saying “Elk are where you find them,” is so true. I’ve had many days when I was covered up in old elk sign but didn’t see a single elk or hear a bugle. Keep moving.

If you aren’t hearing bugles, it doesn’t necessarily mean elk aren’t in the area. Highly pressured bulls are mostly tight-lipped come dawn, unless the stars align and they get cranked up. When you find steaming fresh sign, bugling or not, elk probably aren’t far away. Then, it’s time to get tactical. After a few days of inaction, hit your backup spots. Don’t stop until you find elk.

As you hike, watch for things you can’t always see on onX. Pay attention to wallows with fresh sign. These can be very productive to hunt around early in the season in hot temperatures when bugling action is slow or nonexistent.

author
The author bow-killed his first elk on his third DIY hunt in an OTC unit on public land. Since then, he’s taken a few more elk, including some bulls. That’s a testament to learning something on each hunt and applying it to the next. (Photo by Rebecca McDougal)
4. Call to Bulls

Calling in elk is a steep challenge in highly pressured OTC units. When hunting solo, I make sure to call from thick brush with 30- yard maximum visibility. Elk can pinpoint your calling location very well, and if you set up on a large opening that’s 100 yards across, they’ll most often appear on the other side. They may look for a few moments and then walk away when they don’t see an elk. In the brush, they have to get close in order to see where the call was made, which puts them within archery range.

When you’re the caller and hunter, bulls often approach head-on, so be sure to learn about how to ace the frontal shot on an elk. I’ve taken two archery bulls with the frontal shot, and neither one made it out of view. If you’re hunting alone and calling, this is the angle you’ll get most of the time, and it’s deadly within specific parameters. I won’t take it unless the bull is totally clear of obstructions and is less than 30 yards away. Too many variables can lead to a poor hit. Use good judgment.

If you’re hunting with a buddy, a hunter/caller setup is ideal. The caller walks 50 to 100 yards behind the hunter and out of sight. The shooter stands in the path that the bull will most likely take as he approaches and circles downwind of the caller. It puts the bull’s attention on the calling, and the shooter can often get a broadside shot as the bull wanders by.

habitat
Find habitat like this during your hunt and try to get away from high-traffic roads and trailheads. (Photo by Darron McDougal)

5. Stalk Bulls or Shadow a Herd

Stalking after bulls or shadowing an elk herd involves balancing passive and aggressive paces. When elk are noisy, you can typically move faster and noisier than you would while deer hunting. When they’re making little to no noise, you must assume a stealthier approach. When a bull continually discloses his location, use that to your advantage and don’t call. Each time he bugles, run ahead, and try to close some distance.

If you’re able to see the herd or even just a bull, study their demeanor and move when they’re feeding or distracted. I took my first bull by following a herd with satellite bulls swarming around it. It took at least three hours to finally get a 14-yard shot at a bull. When hunting alone, stalking or following a herd is my preferred tactic because I can keep moving and call a little or not at all.

elk-hunting
If you aren’t finding elk in your primary locations of interest, don’t be afraid to pop into your backup spots. You can’t succeed where elk were, you must find out where they are. (Photo by Rebecca McDougal)

6. Close the Deal

Great elk hunters can consistently get within archery range of bulls. But getting in range doesn’t automatically fill your freezer with elk meat. Closing the deal is often regarded as the most difficult part of the equation. Many times, I’ve been seconds away from getting a shot when the wind shifted, or the bull took an unsuspecting path. I have also shot arrows over and underneath bulls. Most of those shots were now- or-never opportunities with no time to use a rangefinder— only to make a hurried guess, aim, and shoot. In varied terrain and at distance, yardage estimation can be very difficult, especially with only a second or two to do it.

Here are some tips I’ve learned. First, draw when the bull’s eyes are obstructed or once he’s traveled by you and is quartering away. If possible, cow call to stop him so that you don’t shoot too far back. If he’s alert, force yourself to take an extra second or two to guess the distance and bury your pin. Sometimes rushing is necessary, but in most cases, you’ll have that extra second or two to slow down your shot process and make a better yardage estimate and ultimately a more accurate shot.

Follow these six tips, and you should have a much more productive time in the elk woods.

shots
Closing the deal is tough in elk country. Often, shots are presented at unknown distances without time to use a rangefinder. Still, slow the shot process down an extra second or two to make the best shot you can under the circumstances at hand. (Photo by Rebecca McDougal)

WIND AND THERMALS

Elk inhabit some of North America’s most unforgiving terrain. In deep canyons, bowls, and on sidehills, winds can be highly unpredictable. I constantly use a Dead Down Wind Wind Detector. If I’m moving in on a bull with a good wind and then it starts shifting, I discontinue or reroute because elk can wind a hunter from hundreds of yards away.

Thermals are also an important element. When the sun hits the slopes in the morning, warm air rapidly carries your scent uphill and will do that for most of the day unless strong winds override the thermals. Before dawn and after sunset, once the sun is no longer hitting the slopes, cool air descends. There is also a transition between thermal shifts where thermals are highly unpredictable.

When hunting at first or last light, always anticipate the thermals and their direction related to your stalk or calling setup.

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