Hunting Educated Elk

February 9th, 2009 / Posted by
Hunting Educated Elk

By Randy Templeton

In my early elk hunting years, I never had much luck bringing elk within bow range by bugling. In fact, in nearly every instance a bull would answer to the first bugle, but before we could close the gap he’d almost always slip silently away. Perhaps much of this was due to the fact that inexperienced elk hunters had already flocked to their summer time feeding grounds trying to call them up. I’ve found that calling elk is much like hunting wary gobblers, you may call one in once, but after that the odds start plummeting. Calling elk during the open season is fine and dandy, but to do it beforehand only puts you and all others at a disadvantage come opening day.

After a considerable amount of deductive reasoning and another year of going home empty handed, it became painstakingly obvious I was doing something wrong. The third year, I slipped within 40 yards of a bull bedded amongst a harem of cows. Only a couple of cow mews later, the bull stood up and my dry spell ended.

The following year, Craig Owens and I arranged for Nigel Frazer of Ute Creek Lodge to pack our equipment up to an area known as the Flattop Wilderness. We had chosen the area mainly for its remote and difficult access. It wasn’t until afterwards that we realized few hunters are in good enough shape to withstand a week of grueling torture climbing up and down the steep canyons and foothills.

After loading our equipment on packhorses, we made our way up the mountains to a location I‘d hunted before. Late that afternoon we had our camp setup and ready to do business.

We were up well before dawn that next day, trekking back to an area I’d scouted that summer in a basin shaped similar to an amphitheater. Just as we climbed high above the timberline near the flat tops, the bugles of a raspy old bull resonated off the canyon walls and across the basin. I must say it was sweet music to our ears.

Craig and I split up, going in separate directions in order to cover more area. Shortly after reaching a small plush meadow, a bugle rang out from above. Moving quickly through the timber, I cut the distance in half and setup. Letting out a spike squeal, he answered before I could finish.

Pack horses are a must on a wilderness hunt, especially if you want to hunt where most other hunters stop long before.

Pack horses are a must on a wilderness hunt, especially if you want to hunt where most other hunters stop long before.

Clicking hooves and branches snapping told me he was quickly approaching. I turned and squealed again, he stopped and bugled back. Hearing what appeared to be an elk tearing up a tree, I grabbed a big stick and started mocking the bull by racking a tree. Obviously irritated, he paced back and forth just inside the timberline bugling at will. After three or four seductive cow calls, the bull was on the move.

The adrenaline rush had me gasping for what little oxygen there was available as I waited for the bull to make the next move. My heart was pounding like a base drum and I could feel every beat through my throbbing fingertips on the bowstring. As the 5×5 charged into the meadow at 20 yards, I focused on a mud spot behind the shoulder before letting the string slip free. The Easton 2315 sporting 125-grains of Satellite disappeared behind the shoulder, sending the bull on an 80-yard death run.

Perhaps you’ve already heard the same old stories of missed opportunities that I have. Nevertheless, it seems when the moment of truth arrives, many relate they either shot over or under their quarry. If you’ve experienced this problem, then you shouldn’t feel alone because it’s typical to most beginning elk hunters. If it wasn’t, success rates would be much higher.

Hunting the wilderness areas of Colorado offer challenges beyond comparison.

Hunting the wilderness areas of Colorado offer challenges beyond comparison.

However, there are a few simple things you can do for improving your odds in making that shot. For example, I’ve found that range finders are advantageous to those who have trouble judging distance. In most instances (but not always) you’ll have the time to shoot a few yardage markers before your quarry arrives. Becoming proficient using a range finder is very basic, but nevertheless knowing the distance is definitely a confidence builder and therefore stacks the odds in your favor.

Don’t be so naive to think a range finder is the answer to all your problems. The old saying, “practice makes perfect” couldn’t be truer than it is here. I’m sure you’re thinking you practice enough, but the real question becomes, are you going about it in the right way? Personally, I’ve always believed that it’s best to practice shooting targets as close to life size of the animal you’ll be hunting. Since most 3-D outdoor ranges have at least 1 elk target , I for one get my monies worth before a hunt!

Many whitetail hunters that venture out west in pursuit of elk fail to understand your best or only shot might be at 40 yards. The last time I heard, the average shot on a whitetail is between 15 and 20 yards, which means if you practice at that range, then it’s probably safe to say you’ve cut your odds in half. I can’t stress the importance of practicing at longer ranges and from different positions since the likelihood of getting a shot from the standing position is probably slim to none.

In all honesty, I normally practice from the kneeling, sitting, standing, and from tree stands out to 50 yards. As the season approaches I rarely shoot from 20 yards at all. When practicing, my first arrows are usually launched from 30 or 40 yards and then I move back to 50. Not only will this drastically improve your confidence, but also the ability to judge distances.
Tone Down
Every year I make it a point to speak with the local outfitters about the area I’m hunting as part of my pre-season scouting efforts. Too often the same old story unfolds of how the pre-season scouts busted the herd up by calling too early. Therefore, because of this early bugling, by opening day any bugling whatsoever might be too much, sending the bulls scanting across the mountain.

The author took this 5x5 bull on a do-it-yourself hunt in the Colorado Flattop Wilderness.

The author took this 5x5 bull on a do-it-yourself hunt in the Colorado Flattop Wilderness.

Personally, the only time I use a bugle is to first locate a bull and then I put together a plan for moving closer using the wind to my advantage. It’s usually best to stick to natural vocalizations such as that of the cow or calf.

Dogging a herd bull using calls that might threaten the takeover of his harem is risky business. It’s a safe bet that he will gather up his cows and vacate the area all together. Since nearly every herd bull has 3 or 4 subordinate satellites constantly trying to steal the cows, it only stands to reason that you want your bugles to sound like a whimp that he can whip. Keeping this in mind, I wouldn’t recommend using raspy herd bull bugles, but rather stick to immature spike squeals and grunts.
Two Man Setup

I’m thoroughly convinced the most productive means to harvest an elk is by utilizing a tactic known as the “two-man setup.” Like rattling for whitetails, one hunter sets up on the upwind side of the other, maybe 20 or 30 yards apart. Generally, the hunter out front is the designated shooter, while the other calls from behind. It’s usually best to have this worked out beforehand!

When a bull comes in, he’s likely to be preoccupied trying to find the caller, therefore, the shooter stands a better chance of getting a shot off without being detected. In most instances, the bull will try to circle down wind of the caller when he gets within 50 or 60 yards, giving the shooter a 20 to 30 yard shot.

Other than fresh tracks and droppings, wallows are the most reliable piece of evidence that implies you should be hunting here!

Other than fresh tracks and droppings, wallows are the most reliable piece of evidence that implies you should be hunting here!

Generally speaking, elk are fairly easy to locate, providing they are bugling and you’re able to find the open meadows where they graze. Two of the best ways I know of are glassing small park meadows and high open areas near the tree line. Early morning and late evening are normally best for setting up with a spotting scope or a set of quality field glasses (10×50) from a vantage point.

Perhaps the next best thing to getting a visual on a bull will be listening for their distant bugles. As mentioned before, I seldom use bugles, but it’s a good way to locate silent bulls that might not otherwise answer.

In addition, during your daily jaunts across miles of rough terrain, it’s best to keep your eyes open for fresh sign such as elk droppings and tracks. I say this because most are less likely to cover the same territory twice, especially if they haven’t found rewarding sign.

Typically elk like to use the wind and thermal drafts to their advantage. As the sun heats up the mountainside, warm thermals carry your sent upward, therefore elk normally move downward into the rising thermals toward their bedding areas below. Once in the cooler areas of the dark timber, the shifting wind currents can get tricky. In shaded areas, the scent streams move downward and when they hit open areas where the sun is able to penetrate, they’ll sometimes reverse upward, causing a rolling eddy current effect.

It’s been my experience that elk favor these areas with fickle winds for bedding during mid-day. For these reasons, it’s sometimes best to stick to hunting the outer fringes of the dark timber in the morning, catching them before they bed. Feeding elk normally travel the opposite direction in the evenings. As the mountainside starts to cool down, the thermals reverse direction and start to drop. On morning or evening hunts, it’s best to stay vertically parallel with suspected elk travel routes. In doing so, you’ll stand a better chance of staying out of rising and falling thermals.
Wallows & Rubs

Much like whitetails, elk leave similar sign that can help us locate their whereabouts on occasion. Take rubs for example. Hunting rublines during the early season will be a pretty safe bet for whitetails, but I’ve failed to find the same type of correlation in elk habits. However, elk make rubs for many of the same reasons as whitetails, such as, removing velvet, scent posting, signs of dominance and to exhibit their aggressive behavior brought on by the rut. Unfortunately, rubs are often sporadic and rarely indicate the direction of travel such as with deer. Rubs can be found around the outer edges of bedding area, meadows and wallows, but to setup an ambush and expect the bull to walk down the prim-rose path on a daily basis might be too much to ask.

Of all elk sign, wallows are most interesting. During the peak of the rut in September, bulls are on the move and often get overheated chasing cows and sparring with rivals. In the process they visit mud wallows to cool down by splashing, rolling and flinging mud over themselves. Even though you could catch them frequenting them at anytime of day, the best time to ambush an elk at a wallow might be during the mid-day hours when it’s the hottest.

In addition, not only are wallows used for taking a good mud bath, but also as a calling card to cows and a warning to other bulls that the territory has been spoken for. Quite often they’ll urinate on themselves and in the mud puddle, then roll in their own toilet water.

If you’re unable to visually locate a wallow, then it’s probably best to just follow your nose. Generally the pungent of odor of a well-used wallow can be smelled from some distance away. Perhaps the best places to find established wallows are at the base of seeps, drainages, or near springs in grassy park meadows. Daytime wallows are usually found in shaded areas where elk lay-up during the mid-day. Some wallows are only the size of a single animal, but others are enormous and exhibit years of use. Most would agree tree stands offer few advantages to elk hunters. But, setting up an ambush near a wallow could be well worth your efforts.
Rattle Up A Bull?

Usually when we hear about rattling success it’s often associated with whitetail hunting. Although it’s been some years ago, I’d tried rattling elk with a set of whitetail antlers, but without avail. After hauling the noisy things over hill and dale for nearly a week, I figured it was a fruitless effort to carry them anymore.

Needless to say, when Gene Goddard of Atalissa, Iowa told me his successful story on rattling elk in 1992, I was intrigued to say the least. Although he hadn’t tried rattling in his previous years, Gene figured if it works on whitetails, it certainly couldn’t hurt giving it a whirl on elk.

According to Gene, they had glassed a rather large group of elk with a herd bull and a half-dozen satellite bulls that morning. They dogged the elk bugling, but that didn’t seem to work, therefore, he then decided to setup and rattle the bones. Slamming the big mule deer sheds together, the first rattling sequence brought a 5×3 bull running to within 15 yards, but he held off hoping to irritate the herd bull enough that he would leave his cows. Eventually two other satellite bulls came in to his rattling setup, but the king pin refused to leave the girls.

Working his way closer toward the herd, Gene gave an immature bugle and followed up with a little seductive cow talk. It wasn’t long after the bull answered from just 25 yards away. The bull passed through three different shooting lanes, but each time Gene wasn’t able to get a shot off. As the bull started to meander out of bow range, he turned quartering away. Using the Bushnell 400, he estimated the distance to be 35 yards, so Gene drew his Hoyt bow and settled the pin behind the last rib and hit the release. After tracking the bull another 200 yards, Gene found the big 6X6 piled up.

Hunting today’s educated elk can be tough and the rewards are sometimes few and far between. However, I’m quite confident that if you follow these simple tactics, you’ll find success too! Good luck and happy hunting!

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