Lessons from a first elk hunt for those considering the same

gobears870

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It’s that time of year when many folks are starting to plan their first elk hunt. I was in the same place 12 months ago, and while there are several articles and posts out there on the topic, I wanted to share my lessons learned.

We hunted a unit in central Colorado for 1st Rifle in 2020. We only had one brief encounter with a nice bull but weren’t able to take a shot. We ran into several hunters on the road, on the trail, and encamped, and our one sighting was as good as any of them had done. It was just a tough year. What I want to share below aren't the keys to killing elk (obviously), but how to approach your planning.

First and overarching lesson: You HAVE to have the right frame of mind when you take on an elk hunt on your own. There is no other way around it. It’s not like TV or YouTube. Don't get into this expecting to kill an elk. If you want to hunt elk DIY, you need to do it for the right reasons: spending time in the mountains and playing the chess match with this amazing wild animal. It's a grind, and you need to get your mind right on that going into it.

There were several key decisions we made in our planning process, and realizations once we got there, that I hoped may be of some use to others out there.

Picking a partner
This may be the biggest decision you make. I don’t have many friends who are serious hunters, and among the few that are, most couldn’t make the trip and others I knew I would clash with, personality-wise, if we were alone for too long. That left the old standby, my dad, who is 62. I knew he and I would get along and have a good time, but I was concerned about his physical abilities at his age. Sure enough, we did have a great time together, but every day he struggled mightily with the altitude and steepness.

In my opinion, your priority in who you hunt with should be your ability to get along and work together. Next, you need to know what everyone's limitations are, because that will be the group's limit. Plan your hunt accordingly.

Selecting a unit
I would suggest picking one or two states to home in on based on how far you want to drive and tag availability. If for any reason, this will make trying to understand the draw process a lot simpler. Then, think about what kind of terrain you want to be in and how accessible the elk areas are to you. GoHunt is a tremendous resource for ironing out a lot of these factors, especially when you are looking at multiple states. However, if you already decided to target just one or two states, literally everything you need to know is on the state wildlife division’s website. If you have time and some ability with Microsoft Excel, I think your $149 for GoHunt can be better spent elsewhere. As far as the mapping goes, Google Earth, OnXHunt, and .KMZ overlays from TopRut and state wildlife departments are a very effective combination.

Although a lot of attention is paid to harvest success rates, what interested me more was days hunted per harvested animal and public acres per hunter. These were easily calculated after you pull the data. What I wish I had paid more attention to was the population trend. It had been going down in our unit, but I glossed over that fact. It became apparent that this was a big issue once we spent a week on the ground there. I also wish we had expanded how far we would be willing to drive to open up more opportunities for us.

Hunt style
I think a lot of people that are getting interested in backcountry hunting are first exposed to online personalities that are doing it backpack-style. There is a lot of romanticism in this, and there has been for decades, but its popularity has skyrocketed in the past few years. However, I do not think a backpack hunt is a good idea for a first hunt for a few reasons.

First of all, is it is extremely expensive. To get all the gear you need to do it the right way – lightweight, high performance stuff – you are going to spend a boatload of money. It’s too much for most people to take on right up front. Second, it limits your mobility. Once you hike “5 miles deep” or what have you, you are pretty much stuck in that area for at least a couple of days. If you picked the wrong part of the map, you’re going to spend a lot of time relocating when you could be hunting.

All that to say, we did a basecamp hunt and I think you are much better off doing the same on your first attempt. Most of the camp gear you need will be stuff you already have. And perhaps more importantly, being able to day hunt gives you the ability to cover a lot of miles from the truck or pull stakes and move to the other side of the unit if you need to. That’s what ended up happening to us. What I now know is we brought too much stuff that wasn't organized neatly enough, and that hampered our ability to move fast. One thing we did well was meal plan and use dehydrated meals for every breakfast and dinner. This was a giant time and space saver at camp.

Regarding archery or rifle hunting, I think I could go either way for a first hunt. We went with rifle because we drew rifle tags on 2nd choice in Colorado. Our unsuccessful 1st choice was an archery tag in another unit. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, which you will find discussed elsewhere, but I say go with where you can draw. You will have fun either way.

Conditioning
I caught onto the Atomic Athlete backcountry hunting program early on, which it is an outstanding 5-day/week mix of cardio, plyometric, lower body, and functional training. But midway into it I realized this wasn’t the best preparation for our hunt. The program was getting me in great shape, but I realized it is primarily designed for backpack hunters. I knew we would be day hunting with a base camp, and though the possibility existed we would have heavy loads on our back at some point, it seemed more important to me to build up my aerobic capacity so we could cover more ground and adapt to altitude faster.

Bottom line, focus your training on your hunt plan. When I backed off the Atomic Athlete plan, I started running 4-5 miles twice a week, doing two days of mixed strength and cardio circuits for 45-60 minutes, and hiking with increasing weight and duration once a week, eventually getting to 60 lbs. for 5 miles. Because of Covid I did this all at home with little equipment. I would do the exact same thing again if I was doing a similar hunt again.

Education
Early on I bought the University of Elk Hunting membership from Elk101. It’s a pretty great soup-to-nuts course, but it is also heavily weighted towards bowhunters. I think I learned just as much for our rifle hunt for free by reading articles, listening to podcasts, and watching Randy Newberg videos, although admittedly it takes a lot more time to consume all of that than what UEH offers. UEH has the benefit of putting everything in one digestible and well-thought-out package, with some great videos and an app to boot. If you’re starting from square one and know you will bowhunt, I would recommend it.

Randy Newberg’s videos and Live Q&A archive are an unbelievable resource for someone starting out. If you’re looking to save money, I would go there and stay there. If you’re looking to save time and will bowhunt, UEH is a great choice. I think the podcasts I learned the most from were Hunt Backcountry and Elk Talk. I know there are several others, but I think these two have the most relevant content for a beginner.

I spoke a number times to the CPW biologist for our unit. He was more than happy to talk about areas to look at and told me he was surprised by how few hunters reach out to him. I know these people can be hit-or-miss with how helpful they are, but I absolutely recommend the cold call.

Gear
I think people put too much emphasis on this, and while we were careful not to ourselves, we still went overboard on some things. Basically, if you are a whitetail hunter and camp frequently, you have 90% of what you need. Focus your purchases on things you don’t have, and think very hard about what you’re spending money on upgrading.

Everywhere you look people will say to invest in a good pack, boots, and rain gear. That’s pretty much true. I would also add quality base layers to the list. This will do the most to keep you warm, dry, and comfortable. If you’re a hunter you probably have decent fleece and an insulating jacket – I say run what ya brung. Mix and match camo and earth tones to save money. Again, focus on what you don’t have.

I think there are a ton of great options in the $300 range for good backpacks that can haul meat. Don’t go cheap on this but don’t feel like you need to spend $600, either. I had a mid-priced pack and my dad had a bargain brand. There was a huge difference.

Take your time finding the right boots. Boot brands/models are a personal choice, but I am a believer in having a moderately stiff boot (think 3 out of 5 on the GoHunt scale) as a good all-around choice unless you plan to be extensively off trail for days at a time, in which case you might need a 4 or 5. When we had a bad day of sidehills, I was shocked how much my boot flexed. The biggest factor is that your boot fit really well. REI has the best return policy, by far, but not the best selection. If you take your time buying, trying on, and sending back boots from GoHunt, BlackOvis, MidwayUSA, or Amazon, you will probably find the right design and fit, but it will take weeks to sort it out.

In conclusion
Just go for it! It’s not impossible. It’s also not prohibitively expensive. Even if you don’t fill a tag, which the odds favor to be the case, your success should be determined by the experience you gain. You will have a great time regardless of the outcome if you prepare the right way, and if you can do it with family or good friends, you will talk about it forever.
 

CAElkhunter

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Good write up you have learned a lot. Only thing missing is go shoot your rifle from as many field positions as possible and not on the bench. Try to become confident out to 200 yds, 300 if possible. Elk don't stand around like a target at 100 yds.

Conditioning is the #1 thing though. I encounter people every year that don't understand Elk hunting involves a lot of hiking at high altitude to be successful.
 

caesAR15

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Good stuff. Thanks for taking the time to convey some knowledge!
 
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gobears870

gobears870

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Good write up you have learned a lot. Only thing missing is go shoot your rifle from as many field positions as possible and not on the bench. Try to become confident out to 200 yds, 300 if possible. Elk don't stand around like a target at 100 yds.

Conditioning is the #1 thing though. I encounter people every year that don't understand Elk hunting involves a lot of hiking at high altitude to be successful.

Yes, this is completely true. I didn't get into shooting/rifles partly because of word limit and also because you see that advice a lot - I hoped to shed light on some lesser-known things for the first timer. But a quick story on shooting:

Our lone bull appeared in a meadow about 100 yards from us behind a strip of trees. We weren't even sure what he was until he started trotting and got out in the open. Then it was clear it he was shooter. There was light sleet and cross wind varying 15-20 mph at the moment. He was galloping away from us in the clearing as I was getting my rifle on him. He finally stopped broadside where I had marked 300 yards and looked back at us. A giant gust of wind came up as I held over his vitals. I thought if he could just stay there 5 more seconds and wait for this gust to die down, I would have him. As I was thinking that, he bolted into cover.

Looking back on it, we should have called or done something to stop him in the meadow. It all happened so fast we were just caught flat footed. I know I did the right thing passing on the shot, because I had not shot my rifle in wind like that before, and I would rather be telling this story than a different one tracking a gut shot bull. But that's the thing. More practice in tougher conditions at distance would have maybe given me a chance.
 

CAElkhunter

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you made the right choice. Another very important thing I learned in my early years of Elk hunting that is different from Deer hunting. Take the first shot you have that you are comfortable with. I understand your scenario of wind. Many people wait thinking they will get a better closer shot and the elk bolts. They don't understand that Elk don't like standing around in the open waiting to get shot.
 

Wentzler1425

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Great writeup! Ill add a few things, as I did almost an identical hunt and prep cycle as you did. Hunted with my 55 year old dad, CO rifle DIY hunt, base camp, similar prep etc.

The first is the pack - I was REALLY reluctant to spend what I did on a pack (Mystery Ranch), but in hindsight I would spend more in a heartbeat. We were extremely lucky and both shot bulls, and I didn't realize how valuable a quality perfect fitting pack is until you hike 1 mile plus with 100lbs on your back. Especially for you in the case with your dad. I know I wound up packing much heavier of the loads out to save the strain on mine (my dad isnt in the best shape).

The second is to know the area youre going to as far as shot distance goes. We spent a ton of time working up the perfect load and shooting out to 500 yards, only to find out the fields were littered with other hunters and we would never see shots past 100 (I shot mine at about 90, he shot his at about 60). Not that shooting practice is ever bad, but we were almost expecting only long shots.

The last is to reiterate your point on base camp over backpack. The ability to switch gears and move areas is paramount to success. We moved twice before we were successful, and I attribute that 100% to the people on here who talked me out of the backpack idea and into the basecamp/truck camp idea.
 
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gobears870

gobears870

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Wow, that's amazing that you both scored. What unit and drainage were you in? Just kidding!

I have a Mystery Ranch too, and thought it worked out great for the hunt, with the caveat that I never had elk quarters in it. I had it loaded down pretty well in practice hikes and thought I had the fit dialed in.

Someone told me your foot breaks into your boot as much as your boot breaks in to your foot. It makes a lot of sense, and I think it applies to your pack as well. When I first loaded my pack down after I bought it, I couldn't believe I had paid $300 or whatever for something so uncomfortable. But as I adjusted it a little bit each hike and started adding weight and miles, my shoulders, back, and hips adapted to it, and throwing 60 lbs on really wasn't that bad.
 

Wentzler1425

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I did exactly the same thing, with bags of sand pre hunt. The MR worked out great and I found the same thing out, even on trip 4 with elk meat. Small adjustments and learning how the pack is supposed to fit you and how the weight is supposed to be loaded.
 

Indian Summer

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Have a rest for your gun. It sounds like you wouldn’t need that using the method of hunting you did but where I hunt the shots can definitely be long. In that scenario you have more time to setup too. We come a looooong way for that one chance to squeeze the trigger so it’s really important to make it count. I use a Bog Pod with this attachment. I can even throw the gun on while it’s lashed to my pack. My spotting scope has an attachment that pops right in too and that adapter holds my binos as well. One tool, three purposes, rock solid.
 

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Howiemoth

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Have a rest for your gun. It sounds like you wouldn’t need that using the method of hunting you did but where I hunt the shots can definitely be long. In that scenario you have more time to setup too. We come a looooong way for that one chance to squeeze the trigger so it’s really important to make it count. I use a Bog Pod with this attachment. I can even throw the gun on while it’s lashed to my pack. My spotting scope has an attachment that pops right in too and that adapter holds my binos as well. One tool, three purposes, rock solid.
Thoughts on Bog pod bipod vs tri?
 

Indian Summer

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Thoughts on Bog pod bipod vs tri?
I’ve used several bipods. A Harris back in the day. A Versa Pod which was a nice bipod. More recently I was given a Swagger Pod to try. A bipod allows movement. I used a Dead Shot Field Pod for 2 seasons too but it was too bulky, took too long to set up. And it caved in to the abuse.

When it comes time to send it I want as close to benchrest stability as I can get. That means no movement side to side or front to back. For that I much prefer a tripod. It’s just way more of rock solid pivot point. With wind, adrenaline, elk movement, and any other variables coming into play I just like the feeling of a rest that stays put with 3 legs. When you start shooting out past 400 yards it makes all the difference in the world but I’ll take it at 150 yards too.

There are lots of great shooters who use bipods. Many of them shoot prone which requires flatter ground. That’s not common where I hunt elk.

The other thing is you can’t use a bipod for a spotting scope or binoculars so I’d have to carry a separate tripod for that. Don’t get me wrong it’s all about the gun rest but it’s nice to have tools that serve more than one purpose to keep weight down.
 

Goatie

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Great write up. I’ve hunted out west for 3 archery seasons and my mystery ranch pack cost me half of what my partners spent and I had fewer problems or complaints than they have. Good options are out there.
 

Blackstorm

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The only thing I would add is quality glass and the ability to use them, weather they be bino's or spotters, I saw more Elk than I expected and at distances and covers that I did not anticipate, I have been practicing on all subsequent hunts since the elk hunt glassing on anything that I can find in the woods
 
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gobears870

gobears870

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The only thing I would add is quality glass and the ability to use them, weather they be bino's or spotters, I saw more Elk than I expected and at distances and covers that I did not anticipate, I have been practicing on all subsequent hunts since the elk hunt glassing on anything that I can find in the woods

I went back and forth on discussing this. Ultimately I think it comes down to where you’re hunting. A while back I bought a mid-priced spotting scope. After looking more closely at our unit map, and after realizing you only get the full utility of one when it’s really high quality, I sold it. In the months leading to our hunt I kept thinking I needed to upgrade my binos (Leupold BX-2 Acadia 10x42), but didn’t. I think both were really good decisions - for the hunt we went on. There just weren’t many great places for us to post up and glass. Part of that was my dad being unable to get up 1,500’ to a knob. But I’m glad I didn’t throw money at better glass when there were other things I needed but didn’t have already.


Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
 
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gobears870

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If it is of interest to any newcomers, I drew up a workout plan below based on what I did last year. I'm not an expert, and everyone's body is different, but this worked really well for me. It's not a beach body workout but I lost 16 pounds and felt as strong as I have in years. I'm 36 and had only done enough in the gym recently to keep high blood pressure at bay.

The only equipment you need are dumbbells and your pack. The goal of it is to get you ready for a basecamp-style hunt, with a balanced approach to expanding aerobic capacity and building up your lower body and core strength. Some key points to keep in mind:
  • This is a 6-month program, so it kicks off in March or April, depending on your hunt date. If you aren't working out right now, start jogging and throwing in some lunges and pushups so you limber up before it begins.
  • This is designed for 5 days a week. Break it up along the week as you like. If you are getting too sore or feel like you are going to injure something, back down and take a week off. It's better to do that than get sidelined for several weeks.
  • For pack weight, I filled a roll-top dry bag with sand and weighed it with a luggage scale.
  • Dumbbells are hard to find right now, but see what you can do with Craigslist and garage sales. As the program moves along you'll need to bump up the weight you're using for different exercises.
  • If you don't know what the exercise is, look it up on YouTube.
  • For the stretch sessions, find a program that works best for you. YouTube is your friend.
Screenshot 2021-01-22 083933.jpg
 
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mtwarden

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First and overarching lesson: You HAVE to have the right frame of mind when you take on an elk hunt on your own. There is no other way around it. It’s not like TV or YouTube. Don't get into this expecting to kill an elk. If you want to hunt elk DIY, you need to do it for the right reasons: spending time in the mountains and playing the chess match with this amazing wild animal. It's a grind, and you need to get your mind right on that going into it.

This is probably worth repeating :)

I'll read someone's account on how they drove out to spot they've never been, hiked in a short ways and shot a bull- I can can count on one no hands on how many times that's happened for me.

You would think with 40+ years of hunting elk there would be at least a couple of easy ones in there- there hasn't- maybe I'm unlucky, maybe I suck at elk hunting :)

Elk hunting is a lot of hard work, followed by more hard work, closely followed by more hard work- and sometimes that hard work pays off
 
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gobears870

gobears870

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Yep. I knew getting into this it would be different than the success stories I've seen or read. I wasn't expecting to get into a big herd on the first day, or second, or maybe even at all. But even with that in mind, it was still difficult to stay positive after not seeing anything besides old sign on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and I'm generally the one who stays positive.
 

T28w

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How can u get the biologist name for an area. When I asked the cpw people who I talked to, they would not give it to me. Said it would flood them and they wouldn’t do anything but answer question from people like me. I understood and wasn’t upset but it would be nice to be able to ask one of the locale guys some questions.
 
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