I grew up rifle hunting blacktail deer in western Washington. It was not until my senior year in college that I finally picked up a bow in pursuit of elk. I have never looked back and it has become quite a passion. There are several things I wish I had known as a new elk hunter that would have saved me a lot of time and missed opportunities. I am far from having it all figured out, but I have learned much. If you are a new elk hunter, here are a few things that will hopefully give you a boost up the learning curve (it's quite steep):
Elk move: Elk travel considerably more than deer and are prone to completely vacate an area if over-pressured. Cover ground until you find fresh sign or hear elk talk in the area. Making noise is ok when elk hunting so long as it is natural and you play the wind right. In the proper situation, breaking sticks and rubbing trees can even bring elk in.
Be aggressive: Don't hunt elk like deer. Move fast and aggressive when you hear a distant bugle until you are within 150 yards or so (terrain dependent), then slow it down. From here, you can either stalk in or execute your calling sequence.
Understand the language: There is more to calling elk than one bugle and one cow call. The elk language is driven by emotion. Based on that emotion, there are numerous bugles and cow sounds that mean different things in different situations. Learn what the elk are saying in a given situation to understand how you should respond. My first year, I thought a location bugle was the only bull sound there was and it was used for everything. Predictably, elk weren't very interested in what I had to say. Learn the language. I have found the Elknut to be the most useful resource on the topic of calling. Find out more here.
When the bull responds to your location bugle, quit calling: I have to admit, this one drives me nuts. I see it all of the time and I totally used to be that guy. When you finally get a response to your location bugle, do not keep exchanging bugles from 600 yards away and across the drainage. If you do, any savvy old bull with cows is not hanging around. At a minimum, he's not likely to come to you. The point of a location bugle is to find where another bull is. When the bull responds, it is now your job to start hoofing it to get in the red zone. Once you are in tight to the bull, call him in the rest of the way. Remember, you have to give the bull the right reason to stick around and reveal himself—fight or breed.
Learn to read a map: If you would have shown me a topo map in my first year of elk hunting, I could not have begun to point out an elky looking spot. Now I can look at a map and have a pretty good idea of whether or not an area I am interested in will hold elk. To put it very simply, look for the following:
Wind is king: You can fool a bull's eyes, you can fool a bull's ears, but you can never fool a bull's nose. Learn to play the wind even if it means walking extra miles. Do not be lazy. Also, learn thermals. A general rule of thumb is thermals fall at night and in the morning while they rise throughout the day. With that said, wind and thermals can do funky things in the mountains and you need to learn your particular area.
You can't put elk hunting on a single page. The ultimate teacher is experience and encounters. That being said, hopefully, these tidbits help you get the ball rolling. If you want to be successful in the elk woods, you have to do your homework. Every dog gets thrown a bone every once in a while. However, those hunters that are consistently successful study, practice, and workout in the off-season.
A good starting resource is the University of Elk Hunting found here. If you are serious about getting into elk hunting, it is worth the cost.
Good luck. Remember, nothing good comes easy.
- Jess Patrick