Archery elk hunt: 7 tips for a first-timer
By Scott Haugen
Welcome to the world of elk hunting.
Most Western states open for elk hunts in September, largely just to archers. Bowhunting season opens at a great time for calling and stalking herds of elk, which are particularly vocal during the rut.
With decades of personal elk hunting experience at Slayer Calls, our goal is to help fellow elk hunters, especially those new to elk hunting. This is the first article in our series for first-time elk hunters, which includes what to do as you close in on a bull and pointers for calling in late season. Give these tips a try to have a safe and memorable first archery elk hunt.
1. Set interim goals
The harvest is only part of the adventure. For the newbie, holding yourself to the high standard of killing an elk is a recipe for frustration. Worse yet, a frustrated hunter may drop out of the game before ever tasting success. The statistics for most states suggest success rates are less than 10% for over-the-counter elk tags. So, the hard truth is that the vast majority of hunters won’t kill an elk until they’ve hunted for several years.
What, then, can maintain a hunter’s enthusiasm and commitment to the sport? Interim goals! Setting incremental goals is key to success for any hunter, new or experienced. Examples might include finding fresh sign, hearing an elk bugle, spotting a herd or having a close encounter, and each of these should be celebrated. After all, none of these could be accomplished from the couch.
Your interim goals can be simple, like spending quality time in nature with people you care about. Be conscious of the amazing memories you’re making with friends and family at hunting camp. Long after any meat enters and exits the freezer, these memories will live on.
2. Anticipate a successful first elk hunt
Hunting is a good balance of patience and anticipation. We know odds of bagging an elk are around 1 in 10, implying that you must wait for the elk gods to give you your chance at taking an antlered ungulate. Yet at the same time, luck can strike during any season. In an instant, you may need to harvest an animal — and you want to be prepared.
Conduct the mental exercise of walking step by step through selecting your gear, practicing your shot, knowing how to clean and process meat, and having a plan to get the meat to a butcher. Essentially, what will you do when there is a 650 lb. animal lying in front of you? Until you can answer that question, better to leave your bow in the truck.
3. Avoid the crowds with scouting
The popularity of big game hunting has grown in recent years. More and more hunters are coming out west for the elk hunting experience they’ve seen come to life while watching their favorite YouTube channel. This is great for the sport of hunting, but it’s not so great for your individual chances.
One way to improve your outlook is to e-scout using services like the onX hunting app or Gaia GPS. Use services like these to look for areas that are insulated from roads and trails. Ensure you have a plan A, B and C, just in case these spots look different in person than on the computer.
Another great way to get away from the average weekend warrior is to spike camp, leaving your vehicle parked and hiking in to set up hunting camp. This allows you to be mobile and go in deeper than someone who is just doing an out-and-back from their truck. It also means you have more distance to pack out, so always ensure you have a plan to get the meat out. What goes out must come back.
4. Be mentally and physically prepared
Preparing for an elk hunt is somewhat similar to training for a marathon. Very few people roll out of bed and run a marathon successfully. Climbing mountains every day for the duration of your hunt and trying to work harder than the competition can be a grueling labor of love.
Do yourself a favor and begin eating healthfully and working out months before your planned trip. Hunters who condition their bodies as well as their mind will fare best in the elk woods. If you aren’t used to being alone, with no cell phone service and fewer creature comforts than home has to offer, this can take a toll on your mental health. Plan a few camping trips to simulate your planned hunting situation. This mind and body conditioning will help keep you in the woods.
5. Hunt long and hunt hard
Arriving at your trailhead only to find six other rigs parked in your spot can be a punch to the stomach. However, if you want to cash in on your fall scouting, commit to outworking the competition.
Prepare to be in the woods all day long. It can take hours to find an elk herd, so the last thing you want to do is leave them to get back to camp. Pack a lunch and take a quick nap in the heat of the day so you can keep hunting. At midday, bedded elk herds can often be located in timber, and calling to them often gets bulls up and moving.
If you’re seeing fresh elk signs but no elk, another approach is to scout at night. Don’t call, just listen for elk talking and monitor which direction they’re moving. As cows and calves separate this time of year, they’re very vocal in an effort to keep track of one another. It’s nothing for elk herds to travel 3 miles or more at night to reach prime food and water, and scouting by moonlight or with a flashlight can help you locate them. Then back out and return the next morning to intercept the elk before they reach their bedding area. Try to catch them while they’re still spread out and calling, not bunched up and on alert.
6. Close the gap by calling and stalking
The West encompasses some very big country and relatively low densities of elk, so you want to make the most of every encounter. Cows, calves and bulls are very vocal in early September. Emulate the sounds you hear the entire herd making to locate animals from a distance. Depending on the situation, calf, cow and bull sounds can all be effective at calling in a bull. Gain an appreciation for how the elk use these sounds to communicate, and practice making them before elk season.
In addition to calling an elk to you, stalking a herd can also be very effective. But remember, you can fool an elk’s eyes and ears — never its nose. Make sure to hunt into the wind and constantly check the direction with wind-checker powder. If the wind changes direction, elk can smell your scent from hundreds of yards away. Be prepared to back out and come in from another angle or return another day if they catch your scent.
7. Be safe
It’s always a good idea to let someone know where you’ll be hunting and how long you plan to be out. Satellite texting devices are worth the investment to give you and your loved ones peace of mind.
Even for day hikes, it’s imperative to have safety equipment like a first aid kit and fire-starting material with you. Food and water is a must, because you never know when that distant bugle will take you farther from the truck than expected. Staying hydrated is vital for early season elk hunters when the weather is warmer, so bring a hydration reservoir and filtration system. The more water you drink, the better you’ll feel and the more endurance you’ll have.