Public Land Elk Hunting
by Mark Kayser, Editor Western Big Game
The rock group Europe’s song “The Final Countdown” was beginning to play in my head as I slipped along the rocky ridge trying to locate a band of bulls I’d found the day before. It was the last week of the archery elk season and the tag I held was for one of the lowest success units in all of Wyoming. It truly was the final countdown and the public-land bulls had likely blasted off for parts unknown.
Following a well-traveled trail down a steep slope I hit a bench and detoured with the trail. What I discovered next might be the answer to my success challenge. A hidden spring spawned a wallow and from the looks of its muddy banks I had just missed a mud-bath bull. I’d have to wait for another encounter to put my Mathews bow into play.
Unless you have access to some of the remotest property in elk country expect any elk you hunt to be public savvy. Not only does this make them ready for the Olympics with their sprinting style of escape, they’ve also heard every call by hunters in standard operating mode. Success for public-land elk requires a different mindset. One of these strategies may work for you.
LIGHT THE FIRE
Throughout archery season and even into the firearm season, elk converse, sometimes in an energized frenzy. If you discover elk that want to talk, energize them and create the atmosphere of an elk concert. That’s how 31-year veteran Colorado elk guide Travis Shippey handles reluctant bulls prior to the estrus explosion. Shippey’s humble answer “I really don’t have a set plan” may be truthful in his mind, but his brain is strategizing a plan when bulls answer his calls. In reality, his plan is simple. He wants to rev up the motor of elk, especially those that may not be in a rambunctious mood. In brief, Shippey’s not afraid to get mileage out of his calls.
“My goal is to fire them up if at all possible,” says Shippey. “You’re going to scare some off, I can promise you that, but when you only have a 5- or 6-day window to hunt, you just move on to the next one.”
Careful not to promote a strategy of never-ending calling, Shippey instead lays out a blueprint to find the right bull. He’s shared the woods with public-land hunters and has heard the nonstop chorus of hunters bugling from ridgetops. Although the band-rehearsal approach might work, too much stimuli can shut elk down. Instead of racing through the woods with calls blaring he takes on the approach of a largemouth bass angler and tosses out a variety of baits. Once he finds a willing bull interested in the bait, he’ll play conductor.
He begins most inquiries with a cow call to test the woodland waters. If that doesn’t ignite a return response, he may chuckle or even bugle. Years of hunting have taught him that elk, like people, respond to different stimuli depending on personality and mood. Once he gets a response his next step is to feed the bull more of the same, but ramp it up quickly. His goal is to make the bull mad and give it the impression there are cows in the midst of the chaos. “That’s what makes another bull come on down to check it out.”
SOUND OF SILENCE
Of course if the herd is energized before you arrive, you can use their gusto to slip silently in to range without further conversation. Elk have remarkable ears for distinguishing calls of their peers and that of intruders. If the dialogue is flowing, there’s no need to add to the debate.
For Wyoming outfitter Ross Adney, owner of Beaver Trap Outfitters, being silent is oftentimes the best strategy, especially at the end of the archery season when elk have heard it all in terms of hunters’ calls.
“At that time of the year bulls have been called to enough. They know what a human bugle sounds like, plus herds are established and bulls are focused on hot cows within the herd. Stalking or shadowing a herd at this time makes sense.”
Adney doesn’t promote a calling strategy because he knows the herds will already be giving away their location with fired up bull chatter for estrus cows, especially as breeding opportunities dwindle. That noted, he does use long distance bugles to find elk and when immersed in a herd a well-timed bugle can spark the herd bull into an instant showing. More than not you’ll find him in tow behind a herd as he waits for enough chaos for cover.
“Last season I’d been following a herd in my socks to stay quiet,” Adney relates. “One second the elk were at 80 yards and the next I had two six-point bulls of equal size bearing down on me as they tried to run each other off. They had no idea I was there. I ended up going for the easy shot and finished my season with a 10-yard bowkill simply by following along.”
This same strategy works during the firearm season when cows that haven’t been bred come into estrus again. Plus, as herd bulls give up their dominance due to exhaustion the younger bulls often ramp up bugling. October bugling and herd chatter can be just as crazy as in September. Use any of these explosions in elk ranting to put yourself in a shooting opportunity without making a call.
Unless you have the key that opens the gate to a deeded elk paradise, begin looking for uncharted islands to find public-land elk. Elk have no aversion to moving if spooked. Remember, these are the same animals that routinely migrate dozens of miles to move from rich summer feeding grounds to lower elevation winter forage. One of the longest migrations extends more than ninety miles out of the northern Yellowstone ecosystem. That trip averages 1.6 miles per day when elk are spurred into movement by weather or hunting pressure.
In the book “North American Elk Ecology and Management” it’s noted that “when elk are distributed by hunters they may travel 2 to 3 miles before stopping, and are neither as evasive or quick to seek hiding cover as deer.” That last sentence may give you solace in finding a 600-pound, mountaintop ungulate as opposed to a 200-pound deer buried in brush, but remember the first sentence. Despite an elk’s nature to not burrow into thick cover they simply walk away.
Three miles may not seem like much as you walk around your summer neighborhood to condition for elk country, but elk country isn’t laid out with a systematic grid of sidewalks. Elk can drop 1,000 feet and race up another 1,000 feet in a matter of minutes when they put their mind to it. During hunting season this is more common than not. Hunting pressure, archery or firearm, spikes herd movement. Whether the herd moves one mile or a dozen depends on the paranoia of the lead cow. One this is for certain. Elk will begin moving to regions with no roads and that equals limited hunter access.
To be successful you need to scour maps for the roughest country in the area and one that is void of all vehicle traffic. Elk will undoubtedly move to a region such as this as long it offers feed, water and refuge. In some of the areas I hunt the elk actually scramble into cliff country that would offer safety for bighorn sheep, much less elk. Load your Garmin with reliable map programs like HuntXMpas (www.huntinggpsmaps.com) and combine that with satellite images and scouting aids from ScoutLook Weather (www.scoutlookweather.com). Assistance like this puts you miles away from the crowds and within yards of elk.
Despite this dire warning to get in shape and hike into a wilderness setting, keep your senses sharp. You may also find some elk right under your nose. Even today that ancient “nose” phrase has merit in elk country during hunting season. Elk may pack up and travel several miles on a whim, but then again, they may merely move to an overlooked hideout. You may even drive by that hideout with regularity on your way to a torturous trail to a road-free block of elk heaven.
Numerous studies have been conducted indicating elk do not embrace vehicle traffic and they may stay out of roadway swaths in an area from “0.25 to 1.8 miles, depending on the amount and kind of traffic, quality of the road and density of cover adjacent to the road” as stated in the book “North American Elk Ecology and Management.”
Nevertheless, some elk tolerate certain kinds of traffic and hide along the route. These locations oftentimes are stumbled upon or discovered driving to a remote area, and catching herd stragglers crossing the road in the headlights before dawn. Keep your mind open to under-your-nose locations.
To zero in further to a drive-by elk herd consider this analysis. A 1976 University of Idaho study in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest suggests that all traffic isn’t created equal. The research discovered that the slower traffic found bumping up and down logging trails was more disruptive to elk than the faster traffic found on an “improved” highway. Another study along Wyoming’s bumper to bumper byway, Interstate 80, discovered elk actually accepting of the constant traffic.
If you dig enough you’ll find studies disputing the highway hypothesis, oftentimes with traffic predictability being the overriding factor in elk leniency. Still, enough evidence exists for you to snoop along paved routes for tolerant elk.
One area I hunt from time to time has great off-highway hunting if you know about it. Elk drop down into a creek setting to feed, usually under
the cover of darkness, but you can climb into the adjoining slopes and have elk opportunities all day long, especially during the rut.
As for my newfound wallow I immediately constructed a ground blind in a downwind setting with fallen timber. By noon I had drifted into elk dream land only to be awoken to the sound of breaking branches. A bull was slipping in above the wallow, but passed by out of bow range. At sunset I figured the game was over when I spied another bull moving toward the wallow. This one had a mission and I prepared for a shot. I had pre-ranged the surrounding terrain with my Nikon rangefinder and mentally called out the distances as the bull advanced. Unfortunately, the bull came straight at me with no shot opportunity. At 15 yards it also sensed something amiss, but instead of bolting it simply started to circle to get the downwind advantage. When it put its head behind a tree trunk I stood, pivoted and drew. When the bull stepped out at 36 yards I released the string on my Mathews bow and the bull bolted in a failed attempt. I watched it pile up in the timber below. He wasn’t a trophy bull, but the raghorn was a trophy to me at the end of a very long season of hunting public-land elk.
ELK SHORTCUTS FOR PUBLIC-LAND SUCCESS
1. HAVE THE RIGHT GEAR
Guts is the implied meaning in the movie “The Right Stuff,” but in elk country the right stuff is dependable gear. Most outfitters and guides grumble because hunters bring too much, but one fall a buddy of mine forgot to re-check the gear list.
The terrain was steep, the elk scattered and the weather increasingly turned soggy. As a cloudburst chased us to cover under a large pine I dug my raingear from the depths of my pack, but he just hunkered.
“Aren’t you going to put your raingear on,” I quizzed as the storm built. “It looks like we’re in for a wait based on the cloud cover.”
You guessed it. He didn’t bring any rain gear. Fortunately, I always keep several Hefty bags in my pack and I improvised a rain suit for him from the plastic sacks. He didn’t get soaked, but suffice to say I made him remove the refuse-receptacle look before continuing the hunt.
2. PICK A GOOD PARTNER
“Dancing with the Stars” contestants don’t win the big enchilada with a lousy dance partner. You’ll also struggle in elk country without the right cohort. For Colorado guide Travis Shippey each week is a learning experience as he meets new elk dancers from across the country.
“I was on a two-on-one hunt, two hunters to one guide, when it became apparent one of the guys wasn’t equal to the other,” relates Shippey. “The one guy just shuffled along with short steps. He may have been moving at about a ¼ mile per hour, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”
Realizing this wasn’t going to work for the other hunter or for Shippey’s aggressive hunting style, he began placing the foot-dragger at waterholes. He and the normal-paced hunter then raced between bugling bulls. How did it end? Shippey received an unsatisfactory on his customer service score card from the trudging hunter, but a gold star from the other hunter for effort.
3. BE IN SHAPE
You don’t have to boast pecs like Chris Hemsworth in the movie “Thor,” but you do need to be in in above-average condition when you tackle elk country. Ross Adney owns Beaver Trap Outfitters and focuses on Wyoming high country big game. He advises his clients to get in “mountain” shape. That equals conditioning to tackle several miles a day at altitudes up to 9,000 feet or more.
“One season a hunter told me he had been walking at the golf course instead of taking the cart,” tells Adney. “I’ve heard workout programs like that before. Sometimes clients brag that they’ve been exercising all summer. Unfortunately, it’s just a nightly walk around the block with their wife. That usually won’t get you into mountain shape and guys like that always struggle for success.”
4. KNOW WHEN TO CALL
In the video game “Call of Duty” characters understand their call to service, but if you fail to understand the power of elk calls and the language, your mission may suffer. Wyoming-based Adney still has nightmares about when a friend of his decided to take over calling duties without official notice.
“I had a 350 bull about to step through an opening. My buddy was right behind, 10 to 15 yards away. Everything looked perfect,” recalls Adney who was ready to shoot with the next step of the bull.
Believing Adney was too excited to stop the bull on his own, the friend mewed, but his view was just off enough that he couldn’t tell that Adney needed the bull to take one more step. In a flash of tan, the bull turned and disappeared.
“From that moment on I told him I was perfectly capable of stopping elk on my own. Thanks, but no thanks!”
5. KNOW WHEN TO SHOOT
Chris Kyle’s depiction in the movie “American Sniper” was spot on for knowing when to take a shot. You may not have sniper training, but you do need to know when to take the shot in an elk encounter. Shippey’s experience with Colorado elk hunters has taught him that inexperienced and veteran hunters alike can get lost in bull fever.
“I always stay with my hunters. I’m so close I can touch them and whisper directions, but even that doesn’t always work with a bull in sight. “
On a past hunt Shippey was baffled by a hunter’s unwillingness to shoot. The bull was coming to the call perfectly when the first shot opportunity presented itself.
“Here comes the bull broadside and he just sat there letting the first opportunity pass. The bull keeps walking and another opportunity comes and goes, and he still just sits there. Unbelievably the bull gives him a third chance for a shot, but nothing is happening beside me. That’s when I said “draw your #$%! bow!”
The bull ran off and Shippey told the hunter that if he wasn’t going to draw his bow they were headed back to camp…for good.