Every year, in the months following September, I find myself reflecting more and more on what I've witnessed, what I've learned and what I thought I knew about elk hunting during the rut. I'd like to think I've come a long way since my rookie elk season seven years ago, but every day and every season spent in elk country brings something new to learn and challenges some aspect of your pre-conceived notions about elk behavior.
With our drives to and from elk hunting spots ranging anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour and a half each way, I have had plenty of opportunities to have the "what went wrong?" and "what went right?" conversations with my hunting partners. After an exciting but ultimately unsuccessful September this past season, I've done some reflecting and tried to boil down the top five lessons I've learned while bowhunting for elk over the years.
#5 - Keep tabs on your equipment
Particularly your bow, it's components, and your arrows. I think most hunters are pretty good about doing plenty of shooting, tuning, and sighting in with their gear leading up to the season. But, once opening morning comes around, it's easy to fall out of that routine and let your equipment become something of an afterthought. I know I am guilty of this. I never feel like shooting after a long day of hunting, and my hunting arrows would go into my quiver and stay there until I thought a shot opportunity was about to present itself.
I finally witnessed this scenario come back to bite us this season in heartbreaking fashion. On a particularly cloudy morning early in the season, my
brother and I found ourselves surrounded by bugles, and had a good wind to move in on one. I stayed back about 150 yards behind him, called and watched as a satellite five-point cautiously made his way in. I could not see my brother in front of me but I watched for what felt like 15 minutes thinking "he has to be in range by now." Finally, I heard the release of the arrow and saw the bull wheel around quickly and then trot to the top of the ridge he came from and look back to where the commotion just took place. It was pretty obvious that he was not hit. After he slowly moved off, we found the arrow laying on the ground just beneath where the elk had been standing with the nock snapped off. Our diagnosis was that there was a nearly invisible fracture in the nock, causing it to snap in half upon release, resulting in an arrow that flew weakly through the air as if it had been accidentally released at 1/4 draw. The arrow never even made it to the elk and never even punched itself into the dirt below the animal on a slam-dunk 30 yard broadside shot.
This is not to put my little brother on blast or anything, it could have happened to myself or anyone that I hunt with. Elk hunting takes you plowing through plenty of willow thickets, climbing over unending deadfall, and stumbling across rocky ridge faces - there is no shortage of opportunities for an arrow to get bent or slightly cracked on a rock, to have your sight knocked out of position, or even to have a severe mishap such as bending a cam. I have never made a habit of taking my hunting arrows out of my quiver, screwing in my field points, and making sure everything is still performing during the season, but you can bet that I will be doing just that from now on.
#4 - Leave elk to find elk
Let me preface this point by saying that I have adopted a fairly aggressive run-and-gun, calling-heavy style of elk hunting over the years - so, I am by no means saying that leaving elk to find elk is a good tactic in every, or even most situations. I have, however, found that leaving elk that are unresponsive to calling to locate cooperative elk has most often been the correct call for my style of hunting.
The area I hunt most frequently is comprised almost entirely of thick, dark timber choked with deadfall. Spot-and-stalk hunting is simply not an option about 95% of the time. Due to this, my archery elk season is based almost entirely around calling elk. Whether it be due to weather conditions, hunting pressure, or the temperament of the animals I'm after - there is just no sense in me hanging around an area where I just can't get any response, even if I'm seeing fresh elk sign.
I witnessed the benefits of this early during the very fist successful archery elk hunt that I was a part of. My friend and I had hunted all morning at one location, seeing plenty of the tell-tale signs - fresh rubs, recently used wallows, tracks and scat. However, no matter how far we hiked or what calls we made, we just could not get a response, even in the pre-dawn darkness. After some deliberation, we decided to move to another spot we had in mind at midday - about 40 miles as the crow flies.
We arrived and started our hike in as clouds started to settle on the area. Not more than 200 yards from the truck we heard our first bugle, and another, and another. We had made no calls to this point, we had simply stumbled into a couple of bulls that were getting fired up midday. After another couple hundred yards of cautious walking towards the bugles and few soft cow calls, we had a bull working his way right into 15 yards. No less than 45 minutes after getting out of the truck at a completely different spot from where we had started that morning and heard absolutely nothing, my buddy had a bull elk down.
#3 - Always be ready when you call
I'd like to think that I'll never make the same detrimental mistake twice in the elk woods, but I have already done exactly that.
The unmistakable scent of bull elk was overpowering as I worked my way down through a dark timber patch into a small clearing. I shed my pack, set my bow down and stretched a bit as my hunting partner did the same. I decided to make a few cow calls followed by a weak bugle and see if I could get a response. About thirty seconds after calling, I heard footsteps and before I could react, a five-point that I would have been very happy to put my tag on came walking in to about 30 yards. He stood there for about two full minutes before sauntering off and leaving us dumbfounded. I really wish I could say that was the only time I've ever done something that stupid.
"Let's try a locator right here" I said to my hunting party as we crested the top of a little knoll on opening morning of the 2020 season. I ripped off my bugle into the patch of timber ahead and turned my ear towards it to listen for a response. Nothing. Then, what sounded faintly like foot falls. Ten seconds later I was whisper-screaming at my hunting partner "Nock an arrow! Nock an arrow!" as a little five-point came strolling into 15 yards. We were once again caught with our pants down and could not get a shot, so apparently it took two instances of this scenario for the lesson to really hit home with me.
Now that this hard lesson has been burned into my brain and I know I never want to be in that scenario again, I always have my shooter nock an arrow and step up about 5-10 yards before I make my calls. It's a step that adds about 15 seconds to every locator call you make, but one that could mean the difference between filling your tag or watching your season slip away in front of you.
#2 - Patience
Patience is a virtue. A virtue that I do not possess, but I am trying hard to work on it. There are certainly scenarios where it makes sense to keep moving and keep trying locator bugles until you can strike a response - this is what I'm doing most of the time. There are also scenarios where it makes sense to slow way down and be a lot more patient, especially if you know that elk are around.
I realize this somewhat contradicts my #4 lesson of leaving elk to find elk, but all I can say is that every scenario in the elk woods is different, and over time you start to see when it's time to pack up and head to a new spot versus sticking with elk that aren't particularly vocal, but you believe can be called in with a little more patience.
This lesson hit home for me when we decided to sit a wallow for an unprecedented amount of time - over an hour - during a midday hunt in an area where we knew elk were bedded nearby. After an hour and fifteen minutes of cow calling and small bull noises, curiosity apparently got the best of a nearby bedded bull and he came walking in to ten yards in front of hunting buddy. He sent an arrow through his heart and in all of about thirty seconds the longest time spent sitting in one spot on an elk hunt was over.
Had I given up and said "let's keep moving" after 15-20 minutes as I normally would, there would have been a perfectly good bull elk standing right in the middle of our setup while we were probably already a mile away. Learn to recognize when a scenario calls for a patient, slow-calling sequence and wait it out.
#1 - Never give up
"All it takes is one" is a common saying that I toss around ad nauseam every season. But that's only because it has been proven to us time and time again. Many hot and windy bugle-less days have been salvaged by a lone, distant bull responding to what felt like our 100th location bugle of the day.
A slow day with seemingly zero action can turn into an intense bugling match with a lone bull at midday incredibly quickly. It's easy to get discouraged, especially when you are getting seemingly zero action day after day. I have certainly been guilty of throwing in the towel halfway through the day due to frustration. A part of me will always wonder what might have happened if I stuck it out on those days. Maybe more of the same - wind, no bugles, walking ridge lines and making locator bugles in futile fashion. However, maybe a different scenario would unfold. Maybe on that 100th location bugle of the day we would get a response and quickly find ourselves setting up on a bull practically tripping over himself to come in for a fight. You just never know unless you go.
During the 2018 season, I hunted hard for 24 days straight before finally connecting. Granted, I was working a standard 8-hour, six days per week job at the time, so they weren't usually full days. But still, from either sunrise to about 10am, or about 4pm until sunset, I was chasing elk every day. We had plenty of close encounters throughout that season, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't getting discouraged and ready to take a morning off by the time the last week of the season came around.
The morning of September 24th, we seemed to catch lightning in a bottle with elk screaming all around us. One bull seemed to betray every instinct that he should have had at that time of year, and came trotting down the ridge opposite us, crossed the creek, and started storming back up the ridge we were on to meet his challenger (me) at 18 yards.
Not before or since that day have I seen a bull elk so fired up, and although I may be biased, it was the most intense and exciting hunt I have been on, and one I never would have experienced had I decided to take the morning off.
As I get older, the time that I am able to spend in the elk woods every September seems to be less and less, and I realize that most hunters, especially those who travel from the east coast and midwest to hunt, only have so many days to hunt. Still, the urge to maybe head back to camp and catch a midday nap, or call it early, or sleep in for just one morning of your hunt may well be present, especially when the hunting is tough.
Elk hunting can be an absolutely grueling physical and mental grind. Fight the urge. You just never know what scenario is waiting to unfold unless you spend every possible minute you can chasing these magnificent animals in their own beautiful and punishing habitat.