Punching Your Elk Tag

By Justin Davis

The day before, I changed locations in the unit I was elk hunting. I was finding sign, but not locating elk. Instead of continuing to hunt that drainage, I decided to relocate. As I hiked into another area that I had scouted, I heard the sweet sound of a bugle. The unseen bull bugled off and on somewhere around 80 yards up the hill from my location. Finally, I spotted jet black legs of the beast as he moved down the hill towards my location. The bull walked passed as I came to full draw. It couldn’t get any better. The bull, however, spun around to face me after I cow called to try and stop him at broadside. At full draw, the bull stared at me with glaring eyes. He ripped a bugle of epic proportions in my face, making my legs tremble. With no cow in sight, the big bull slowly turned and headed back up the hill. My heart beating hard, I released an arrow as he passed through a small opening in the lodge pole pine. The bull trotted 20 yards and tipped over right before my eyes. Adrenaline purged through my body like a punch in the mouth and I was forced to lay on the ground. As I tried to breath, I couldn’t help but think to myself that bowhunting doesn’t get any better than this!

pic1Elk hunting can be one of the most exciting bow hunts in North America in my opinion; bulls screaming in your face, intense wild heart stopping action, and the list goes on. But all too often, elk hunting can leave you hanging your head. More times than not, bow hunters aren’t successful in punching their elk tag and don’t get to experience the best of it. To me, punching your tag means elk hunting, there are no excuses. Anyone can stroll into the woods and see an elk or hear a bugle. It is the seasoned vets of the elk woods that constantly harvest elk with archery tackle. I am by no means an elk hunting god, but I do have a few good bulls under my belt. I often get asked by friends who are new elk hunters, how they can become successful. I am always glad to give them a few basic pieces of advice. These are my to[ four tips that come to mind that help better the odds when chasing the elusive Wapiti:

Physical Conditioning

I once heard an old timer say, “If you’re not sore, you’re not elk hunting hard enough.” This simple phrase speaks magnitudes. Elk hunting is rugged and you’re going to be sore…that is if you are hunting hard! To be successful, you have to work your butt off and hike, hike, and then a little more hiking. Steep hills and heavy loads are what come to mind when I think of typical elk hunting. Being in shape will not only make your body feel better, but you will be able to hunt harder and in turn be more successful. I think everyone knows that being in shape helps, but it seems like every year the season always comes upon us fast and guys run out of time. After the hunt they promise themselves that they will be in better shape the following season. But the following yea,r the process repeats itself. Guys don’t get in shape and in turn, suffer during their hunt.

Out of shape hunters find themselves checked out within a couple of days. Often going home early, or simply taking it easy and spending more time in camp. Just remember to follow thru with your promise to yourself and you will be better the following year.

When it comes to getting in shape, I am not talking marathon running or kill yourself Navy Seal mock-training. If you want to run marathons, that is great, but you don’t have to be a runner to kill elk. In my opinion, hiking is the best training you can do. It simulates the hunt the closest. Running and hiking in elk country are two totally opposite things. Each individual is different so just because one guy says running every day gets him in shape, doesn’t mean it will be the best for you. You know your body best so do what you need to do to get in shape. With that said, whatever your training regime is, being in shape will only help you be successful when it comes to elk hunting.

Mental toughness

It is no secret that hunting elk can be physically demanding, but it can also be very mentally demanding, especially when you are not finding a lot of elk. Elk season only happens once a year. Many guys look forward all year long to their elk season. Over the years I have noticed that guys will often give up early on their hunt. They will get discouraged and either quit early, or not hunt as hard as they did in the beginning of their hunt. Overcoming this can be a huge task. You are tired, your body is sore from all the hiking and you just aren’t finding elk. It can be easy to just slow down and not hunt as hard, or to throw in the towel for the last days of the season. Successful elk hunters are those who hunt hard to the bitter end. No matter how hard it gets or how down you get on yourself, remember, elk season only comes once a year. Come wintertime, you will be regretting quitting early even if you were tired and sore. I have seen many guys quit early because they are checked out mentally. They have given up and watching football sounds better than hunting the last day of their season. I will admit that I have mentally got down on myself before because I was frustrated and about to quit. I stayed in the game and I can honestly say, that multiple times throughout my bow hunting career I have harvested animals towards the end of seasons when I was darn near ready to give up. Those times engrained in me that you need to stay mentally tough and never give up. Remember, you can’t kill an elk by staying home resting on the couch. Hunt every day you possible can!

Successful elk hunters are rugged guys and have an attitude that being unsuccessful is not an option. I think this is an important trait. I also know a few guys who go into their hunt hoping to be successful, but don’t really care that much if they don’t punch their tag. I know personally if I am unsuccessful, life will in fact go on, but I will be hard on myself for the failure. Is this going over the top? Some might say yes, while others might say it’s just hunting right? It’s about being fun right? Yes it is fun, but to me this bow hunting thing is life. Being unsuccessful is not an option and being mentally tough will help you succeed. Having that mental aspect of never give up can make the difference between successful and unsuccessful.

Outside the Box

So how does someone go about killing a bull on public land where other hunters seem to be more numerous than the elk themselves? I have found by hunting areas that I, and probably other hunters, think are non-elkish spots, you can have great success. I try to think outside the box in regards to finding elk.

I have on numerous occasions pulled up to a trailhead to see a bunch of other hunters vehicles parked at the trailhead. Everybody loaded their packs and headed in deep. So I loaded my pack and hiked 500 yards away from the trailhead and got into elk right away. Elk will often find certain areas, “holes” so to speak, where they are not bothered by hunters. When trying to find a area like this, think outside of the box. Try to think like an elk. Where would you hide? Where are all the other hunters going? This is also another thing to consider when scouting for a new area. It is funny some of the spots where you might find elk. These are elk that everyone else is missing and as a bonus, they may be unpressured.  

Hunt Different Areas

Ok, so you have a unit to hunt and you have spent a lot of the off season scouting and researching. You know it’s a good spot that frequently has elk. Come hunting time, you hunt the area hard day after day. Sign on the ground tells you elk are in the area or were recently……but you are stuck with no elk. What to do?

Elk are not like whitetail in that you can just go find a used trail, put up a tree stand and expect to arrow a bull. Getting into elk can often be tough because of the ranges that they will wander in. I heard a guy put it into simple terms when comparing elk to other game in which I think sums it up pretty well. Think of a house on a 5 acre piece of property. Whitetails home range will be confined to the master bedroom, mule deer’s home range will encompass the entire house, while lk will wander the entire 5 acres. That’s a good way to think of it. Elk are big critters and will move long distances.pic2

Having a couple different areas to hunt can be key. One common mistake guys make is sticking to one area for the duration of the hunt. They hunt the area and basically waste their time hunting a spot where there aren’t any elk. I can’t count the times I have hunted an area where no elk were located. I soon left the area and relocated to a different part of the unit, only to get into elk right off the bat. Granted, the elk could show back up in the area any day, but you are wasting precious time waiting for them to do so. I like to stay on the move and if I am not finding elk in an area, I don’t hesitate to move areas in search of them. Having a couple hunting spots is key with this. If you put all your eggs in one basket and for some reason the elk aren’t there, your season could be ruined. By having other areas to hunt, you can constantly stay on the move after elk

Whether you are brand new to elk hunting, or a guy who wants to learn more, being in shape both physical and mentally can really benefit in helping you harvest an elk. Thinking outside the box and hunting different areas, that others might not venture into, can also produce hidden gems in the form of Wapiti. By using, or at least taking these four basic tips into consideration, bow hunters can be successful at locating elk and in turn, be successful on one of North Americas more exciting hunts.