Bowhunting Elk 101

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This bowhunting tale begins like most: “It was a quiet morning in the woods …”

I wish I had a different way to start my story, but it was a quiet morning, and that’s important. It’s why I got to enjoy an awesome elk encounter.

My hunting partner and I hiked into our chosen area before dawn. We then sneaked through the timber while looking for movement, sniffing for whiffs of elk, and listening for bugles or cow calls. Instead, we heard a dreaded branch break, and then the pounding hooves of spooked elk.

My partner immediately gave a cow call and darted behind a tree. I scurried about 50 yards ahead, kneeled in front of a tree and nocked an arrow. The sun was just high enough to provide shooting light. A bugle erupted through the timber a few yards ahead, but too far to see. Another elk bugled to my right a little farther away.

For being so big-bodied, elk can move almost silently through the thickest forests. I stared into the timber, hoping to glimpse an antler or blond hide sneaking toward our cow calls. I was surrounded by thick timber, except straight in front where a clearing stretched for about 20 yards.

Suddenly, the bull appeared. Its hair was blond and its antlers big, and it was staring into my eyes. With its head down and antlers slightly forward, the bull strolled to within 10 yards of me. It was expecting a lady elk, not a lady bowhunter. After what felt like forever, yet not long enough, it turned and walked away.

Thinking I was out of its line of sight, I began to draw my bow while hoping it would turn broadside and head toward the call to give me a shot. But the bull glimpsed my movement or heard me move. The big, beautiful creature bolted into the timber and disappeared as quickly as it arrived.

My story doesn’t end with a notched tag, but every close encounter while bowhunting teaches lessons that get you one step closer to future success. That’s not the only way to learn, of course. A team of elk-hunting experts at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation also share everything they’ve learned over the years. If you want to chase wapiti with your bow, you’ll enjoy the RMEF’s tips for getting into bow range.

Where to Find Elk

Elk gravitate toward water and food sources as well as hillsides. Photo Credit: John Hafner

The first step to elk-hunting success is finding where they live, but that’s seldom easy. Elkneed food, water and shelter, of course, so study maps and aerial photos to find open hillsides, especially shaded, north-facing slopes. Elk won’t live near busy roads, so look for areas with restricted access. That means you must usually go in a few miles to find productive areas. Most bowhunters backpack in, but horses, llamas and mountain bikes also help bowhunters escape competition.

Elk have huge ranges, and sometimes bed several miles from where they feed. They also travel to different areas, depending on the season. Always look for fresh elk sign while bowhunting. If you find recent rubs, tracks and droppings, you know elk are around. One sign, however, trumps them all. “If it smells like elk, chances are you just busted them out of their bedroom or they’re very, very close,” said PJ DelHomme, hunting editor of RMEF’s Bugle magazine.

Don’t Over Bugle

If you’ve heard bull elk bugle, you know why chasing elk with a bow is so addicting and exhilarating. Bowhunting season occurs during the rut, which is when bull elk are most active as they search for receptive cows.

Bowhunters dream of big bulls bugling their approach while responding to the hunter’s cow calls and bugled challenges, but calling isn’t always the most effective hunting method. DelHomme said elk hunters can bugle too much. “If you went bowhunting 20 years ago and you had a bugle, you got into elk,” DelHomme said. “Now if you’re on public land, bulls that have been around a few years know hunters like to bugle.”

That’s not to say bugling never works. DelHomme said bugling works best on bulls that seldom hear hunters’ bugles, which can happen on private lands or deep backcountry public lands. If you bugle on public lands, DelHomme recommends trying locator bugles. That means hiking to ridgetops to bugle, typically at daylight, and listening for a response. When an elk responds, head that way immediately.

Carry a Cow Call

Calling can be beneficial, but don’t overdo it. Photo credit: ATA

Cow calling is DelHomme’s preferred bowhunting method. “Elk aren’t as conditioned to cow calls, and there are lots of great cow calls on the market,” he said. Archery shops in elk-hunting states carry large selections of calls.

Cow calls can attract bulls and cows. DelHomme recommends cow calling, and then sitting and waiting 20 minutes to see if anything comes in. If you saw elk or you located them with a bugle and think they’re near, wait an hour or longer. Find some cover and be sure the wind is blowing your scent away from the herd. Elk are usually extremely quiet when coming into a call, so you must watch for movement or a glimpse of their hide. You might also hear a branch break or a call that warns you one is approaching.

Team Up on Calling

Calling usually works best in pairs, with the caller 30 to 60 yards behind the shooter. The shooter should wear camouflage matching the surroundings, and set up in an area that offers clear shots but enough cover to hide. To succeed in this setup, bowhunters get the elk to key in on the caller and look past the shooter.

Spot-and-Stalk Elk

Elk require a more active hunt than deer. Photo Credit: ATA

Although bowhunters use several tactics to pursue elk, a common approach is spot-and-stalk tactics. “Bowhunting elk is more dynamic than your typical white-tailed deer hunt,” DelHomme said. “It’s running and gunning, opposed to sitting and waiting.”

DelHomme recommends finding elk when they’re on the move and cutting them off before they reach their destination. “Hike to the highest ridge before dawn,” DelHomme said. “Sit there with your binoculars and spotting scope. You have to find the elk, and then you need to figure out where they’re going to bed.”

That’s where cow calling comes into play. As you move toward the elk, cow call to try to coax them closer while masking any noises you make. “It’s a matter of meeting in the right place at the right time,” DelHomme said.

Time for Treestands

Treestands and ground blinds can also be effective for bowhunting elk. If you do your homework and pattern elk on a wallows or game trail, try hunting from a treestand or ground blind. Bowhunters often have great success after hanging treestands above a wallows. That can be especially effective early in the season during hot weather before the rut.

Distracting Decoys

Decoys can fool elk into coming closer. Photo Credit: RMEF

When elk come into a call they often get cautious about 70 yards from the caller. Many bulls won’t come closer unless they think there’s another elk just past the call. That’s where a decoy can pay off. If bowhunting alone, a decoy might be just what you need to lure elk into range.

“If you have a decoy, it can pique their curiosity,” DelHomme said. Less is more when placing a decoy. “Don’t slap it up in the middle of a field,” he advises. “Put it in the bushes so they can only see an ear or the butt.”

Keep Camouflaged, Play the Wind

Elk are herd animals. They protect themselves by having many eyes watching for danger. Dress in quiet camouflage clothing. Stay out of openings and don’t silhouette yourself.

Even if elk don’t see you, they’ll smell you if you get close. Elk have a powerful sense of smell, and if they catch a whiff of human they’ll flee. When approaching an elk herd, always remain downwind. Keep a bottle of wind-indicator powder handy to regularly check the wind’s direction.

Additional Help is Available

RMEF has a database of tips for hunting elk. Photo Credit: RMEF

RMEF has several resources available to tutor beginners to experts. Bugle magazine publishes six times a year, including a bowhunting issue that goes out just before bow season. Also visit its rmef.org website to find a complete gear list for elk hunting.

If you live in a state with elk hunting, don’t forget your local archery shop. It’s a great resource for answering your bowhunting questions.


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