BOWHUNTING: Quirky Elk Traits
Elk are two animals in one body. You get one version during the rut, and an entirely different beast the rest of the year.
Bob had never shot an elk with his bow. He had tried for five straight years in his home state of Montana, but bulls always gave him the slip. A few years ago, he asked me for help.
I had drawn a nonresident elk tag in the Treasure State that year, so I suggested that Bob and I hook up. We had both hunted the same public area before, so we decided to camp and bowhunt together for a few days. I hoped I could help Bob break his jinx.
The very first morning, half-a-dozen bulls were bugling as we hiked into a remote canyon. A nice 6×6 with several cows appeared in a meadow 200 yards away. Bob immediately crouched behind a bush and froze.
“Let’s go get ’em,” I suggested.
“I don’t want to scare them away,” Bob replied.
“Come on,” I insisted. “We won’t get that bull sitting behind this bush!”
The next 20 minutes were an eye-opener for my friend. With me in the lead, we scampered from tree to tree and bush to bush every time those elk dropped their heads to feed. On four occasions, cows or calves caught our movement and momentarily stared. But the bull was rutting and oblivious. He was constantly pushing females around. None of those elk ran away, because they were concentrating on mating.
Bob and I hooked past the herd in a heavy stand of trees, and crouched to one side as animals filtered past at ranges between 20 and 50 yards. A crosswind kept our scent away.
Suddenly, the herd bull bugled nearby and sauntered into view. As usually happens during the rut, he was moving non-stop to keep his girlfriends in sight and keeping a wary eye peeled for intruding bulls. The 6×6 paused 30 yards away, and Bob shot him through the chest. Ten minutes later, we were high-fiving over his first archery elk.
Elk Will Let You Move
As Bob discovered on that fateful day, it is often best to move aggressively on elk. These animals are quirky during the rut, and do not focus on survival from predators the way they do during the balance of the year. You can often get away with short spurts of movement as you approach, and you can make more noise than you could ever get away with on a vigilant deer.
In my experience, many elk archers are too timid when they try to call or stalk bulls. Elk will often let you move, even when they see something suspicious.
As long as you keep the wind right—no animal doubts its nose—you are better off being overly aggressive rather than overly cautious on elk. Sure, you will blow some opportunities, but you will blow more by tiptoeing when you should be hot-footing it.
Be sure to wear camouflage that matches the vegetation, and even just as important, keep your silhouette broken by always having a bush or something just behind you. Getting busted in the open is almost as bad as getting winded.
Don’t Mess with the Bedroom
You can get away with a lot on rutting elk, but only when they are moving early and late in the day. It is a cardinal sin to invade on elk’s bedding area. Midday elk are more alert and less sex-driven than they are before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m. If you bump them from their bedroom, you might never see them again.
I have often chased the same elk day-after-day in the early morning as herds moved from feeding to bedding zones. Many times, I have spooked animals with my scent or too-close encounters with cows or satellite bulls. But I cannot ever remember running a herd out of the country with such activity. They are usually back the next day, feeding in the same general area and then bee-lining for dense bedding thickets.
By comparison, consider one mature bull that Montana game officials radio-collared in the Missouri River Breaks. This animal would stay put for several days in this heavily hunted area, but when he moved he moved BIG! On average, the bull traveled 15 miles overnight, and he never returned to his previous location.
I’m betting that elk was bumped from his bed by overly enthusiastic all-day archers. I know it’s tempting to hunt elk during midday, but if you bumble around in an elk’s bedroom, the animal will likely pull up stakes and permanently disappear. You are better off taking a nap and concentrating on prime hunting times.
Rutting Grounds Are Predictable
I have lost count of the numbers of bulls I have seen on multiple years in the same general area. Some have been oddballs with distinctively deformed racks. Others, like my 2000 Pope and Young World Record or the 7×8 bull I shot in 2010 were simply huge with recognizable antler traits. There are exceptions to every rule, but I believe most elk rut in the same place year after year.
This does not mean they are in that vicinity all year long. More often than not, I have found that elk visit traditional rutting grounds during September and October. Where they are the rest of the year is anybody’s guess. A game-warden friend of mind told me that one radio-collared bull spent most of his life on the Idaho Panhandle, but predictably migrated into northern Montana each year for the mating season. Distance between that bull’s winter and fall habitats? About 75 miles!
The point here is simple. You cannot scout in the spring or early summer with any guarantee of finding elk hotspots. But if you locate a great elk place during September, it is likely to be a great place every September. You might even begin to recognize bulls that give you the slip and grow similar antlers the following year.
Find a productive rutting ground by scouting during the rut, and it will probably be a dependable honey hole every time you hunt!
Don’t Rely on the Alpine
In some ways, elk are emotionally confused. When white settlers arrived in North America, most elk inhabited wide-open prairies. In the face of heavy hunting pressure, these animals quickly adapted to thick cover and higher elevations. For that reason, many modern archers assume that the best elk hunting always occurs in high, alpine habitat across the Rocky Mountain West.
Some elk certainly fit this stereotype. I have backpacked above timberline in places like Colorado’s Flat Tops and seen hundreds of elk. But I have also seen lots of other bowhunters.
Anymore, I avoid the alpine whenever possible and search for bulls in less traditional, less heavily hunted locales. I see fewer archers in weird elk habitat, and improve my chances of locating a giant, lightly hunted bull.
Take for example elk in northern Arizona. One outfitter friend of mine puts clients on some outlandishly large elk, but he never hunts in high, pine-clad places with abundant meadows and lots of water. Instead, he goes to lower, drier, scrubbier places with fewer but bigger bulls.
One area I bowhunt in Wyoming also harbors large elk. Not many, mind you, but enough to keep my anticipation high. This place has almost no trees. It is a true badland, with deep dry washes and lots of sage and juniper brush. Nobody bowhunts the place, but there is enough grass and enough seeping water to keep a few elk happy. Like their ancestors, the animals here are in touch with their innate urge to live in open terrain. Modern bowhunters who rely on conventional elk wisdom are overlooking some of the best offbeat bull habitat on our continent.
Elk Move into the Wind
Most wary modern big game like mule deer and white-tailed deer move with the wind at their tails. This lets them look ahead for danger while smelling for danger from behind.
But elk are quirky about the wind and usually move against it. I believe the reason for this is simple. Moving upwind lets a herd bull keep better tabs on his harem and potential rivals as he pushes the herd ahead of him.
A savvy bowhunter can capitalize on this bit of movement knowledge in two important ways.
First, you simply cannot get ahead of moving elk in most cases without being smelled. And unlike their other senses, elk always run when their noses tip them to danger. Rutting bulls routinely doubt what they see and hear, but they always trust their nose.
Second, you can usually dog an elk herd from the rear or one side without being smelled. These animals often move several miles each morning during the rut—usually in an uphill direction with cool thermal downdrafts in their face. If you are in good physical condition, you can climb after morning elk without much worry of being smelled. Just don’t get in front!
Now, hopefully armed with these pointers, you can chase after your own elk and end up like my buddy Bob with a punched tag and a smile a canyon wide.
Life member Chuck Adams has written 10 books about bowhunting—including Super Slam, detailing his adventures with all 28 species of North American big game.