It was the fifth day of a grueling Arizona elk hunt. My hunting partner and I had been hiking 7-10 miles every day from before dawn until last light chasing these majestic creatures. We had been calling them, they had been bugling, but we could never seal the deal. On that particular morning, we decided to try a different tactic and sit in a brush blind we built along some popular game trails. Finally, a lone bull elk came walking through the timber on my side of the blind, which meant it was my elk to chase. He was curious about our calls, but wouldn’t come within bow range. I watched him slowly turn, meander to a spot 90 yards away from us, and bed down. If I wanted a chance at this bull, I needed to close the distance by at least 40 yards. Unfortunately, that 40 yards happened to be a wide open meadow between our blind and the edge of the timber patch he was bedded in.
The wind was strong and in my favor, so I decided to go for it. I crawled on my hands and knees, carefully moving every stick and pine cone in my path that threatened to crunch and tip my hand. It felt like it took hours, but eventually I arrived at the edge of the trees. He still hadn’t noticed me, but was still at 56 yards...I could get closer. I crawled a few more yards to the next patch of trees, and as I raised my head to check on the bull, I was horrified to see him standing up, staring right at me. The jig was up! I slowly rose to my knees, readied my release, and waited for him to make a move. He started to run off, so I drew my bow, hoping he would do what elk so often do...and he did! He stopped again to get a second look at me, with his vitals sitting perfectly in a gap between the trees. I settled my pin, and released the arrow.
When he darted from his spot, I feared I had missed over his back, but as he ran I saw blood pouring out of his side. I watched him run into the timber and out of sight...all that was left to do now was wait. We gave him about 30 minutes to make sure he expired and we didn’t push him further out of the area, came to the spot he was standing when I shot, and quickly turned up some blood. We tracked blood for 30-40 yards, I looked up, and there was the unmistakable shape of the big, brown body of a dead bull elk. It was a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life, and the reason I look forward to September every single year!
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH ELK?
Few animals capture the imagination of the western hunter like elk. They are huge - almost horse-sized. Their antlers are a unique configuration and again, huge. They make this amazing bugle that will project clear across the mountains and make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. May I be so bold as to say they are the quintessential animal of western hunting? That’s not to downplay any of the other incredible species we’re so fortunate to hunt, or to say one is better than the other...I’m just saying there is something so incredibly unique about the elk that makes hunting them highly addictive.
But, to fully understand the elk mystique, we must take a brief look at where they came from. Just a couple hundred years ago, elk ranged across virtually all of the US Territory. By nature, they are a plains animal. They love to meander through open grasslands and feed to their heart’s content. If you were a pioneer moving across the great plains way back in the day, you would have surely seen massive herds of elk grazing alongside buffalo and other plains animals. Unfortunately, much like the buffalo, elk were hunted to near extinction by early settlers. Unlike the buffalo, however, the elk were able to quickly adapt and thrive in mountainous terrain. They migrated west into the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest (where yes, some elk were already living), learned to find food and shelter amongst the steep slopes and thick timber, and that’s why today we hunt these “plains animals” in some of the most rugged terrain the west has to offer. They’re remarkably resilient creatures!
Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of numerous states working together, elk herds are being restored to much of their former habitat. Small herds are being transplanted to different states that have been without any elk since the 1800s, and the elk are thriving back in their native lands. As those transplanted herds grow, portions of them are transplanted to other states who want to bring their elk back. And as these herds multiply across the country, it is slowly opening up opportunities for hunters to pursue these creatures closer to home. Just this year Missouri is opening up its first elk hunt in modern history! Now, rebuilding a state-wide herd is a slow process, so they’re only allocating five tags for the year. But, as the herd continues to grow, so will the opportunity for hunters in the Show Me State. As these transplanted herds are beginning to grow throughout the country, hunters should be on the lookout for future opportunities to chase elk right in their own backyards. If you don’t feel like waiting, numerous states out west have Over the Counter or easy to draw elk tags, and I highly recommend you take that trip. (If you’ve never hunted out of state and that sounds really daunting, check out this article that will point you in the right direction) [https://www.vparchery.com/post/planning-an-out-of-state-western-hunt]
HOW DO I HUNT ELK?
So, if all of that has you fired up and ready to chase these gigantic and awesome creatures, how in the world do you do it? Well, as annoying as this answer will be...it depends. Elk are pretty unique as far as ungulates go, and their behavior can vary wildly depending on the season. But, knowing when you plan to pursue them, what weapon you’re using, and your preferred method of hunting will help you formulate a plan with pretty decent odds of success.
One of the most unique things about the elk is the bull elk’s bugle...it’s this high-pitched scream that cuts through the woods like few other sounds you’ll ever hear in nature. It’s simply breathtaking. But, the elk’s vocal nature makes them a very call-able animal to hunt. By engaging in a “conversation” with an elk, you can convince him that he needs to come over to where you are to investigate (or beat up) this unwelcome elk. Entire books have been written on the exact science/art of elk calling, so we won’t dig into those details here. Simply know that if you plan to be hunting early in the year (typically September), this is when calling can be most effective. It’s when the elk rut happens, it’s by far when they’re the most vocal, and they’re also incredibly territorial at this point. Convince a bull elk who’s already gathered up his harem of cows that you’re a competing bull elk coming into his territory to steal his ladies, and you just might have a very aggressive bull stomping right into your setup before you know it. This is not to say that calling can’t work during later seasons, but the elk themselves are much less vocal, and they might not have the same sense of urgency to come and find you as they do during the rut.
Spot and Stalk
This is one of the most effective and popular methods of hunting just about anything out west, and it can certainly be used for elk as well. Honestly, during just about any season, glassing them up and then finding a way to make a move on them can be highly effective...even if it’s the middle of September and they’re screaming their heads off. This is also a great tactic for later rifle hunts when there’s often snow on the ground. Their light brown bodies stick out like a sore thumb, and you can even glass up their tracks in fresh snow from clear across a drainage. Just make sure you keep the wind in your favor, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities on elk using this method. The only downside is that elk often live in densely wooded areas, and they’ll come out to meadows with nearby cover to feed. Consider glassing them going to and from feeding areas, and then if you’re on an archery or muzzleloader hunt where you really need to close that distance, watch where they head back into the timber to bed down and make your play in there.
Another tried and true method that has been perfected by whitetail hunters of the Midwest and Eastern parts of the country is setting up an ambush. Whether it’s a brush blind on the ground, or putting in your time in a well-placed tree stand, it all still applies to elk hunting. My father in law has hunted elk in Arizona for years from a tree stand, and there’s a giant 6-point hanging on his wall that serves as proof that it can work wonders. The story I told at the beginning of this article was a “hybrid ambush” as the whole situation started in a brush blind, and I simply had to adapt as the elk refused to come any closer. It can be a ton of fun to have a screaming match with a bull, or put miles and miles on your boots every day chasing them around, but there is also definitely success to be had by waiting patiently in the right spot. As with most other animals, try to scout out their game trails and travel corridors, and set yourself up where you’ll have a few shooting lanes when they come by.
SHOULD I TRY IT?
Short answer: yes...absolutely! Wherever you live, check with your local Game and Fish Department to see what (if any) efforts are being made to rebuild your local elk population. Depending on where you live, that opportunity may still be a long way off. If that’s the case, the majestic elk is a terrific reason to finally take that adventure and head out west. Many of the western mountain states have Over the Counter or easy to draw elk tags available, the herd numbers are largely healthy, and if you’re a seasoned deer hunter, you already have a lot of skills that will carry over. You should be prepared for at least a few differences, though…
First, elk are a big, tough animal. I’m not saying you need to change your entire archery setup before chasing them, but just make sure you’ve given thought to the durability and kinetic energy of your setup. You need something that’s going to punch deep into an 800 lb. animal and hopefully keep on moving. That means a sturdy, razor sharp broadhead, and maybe give a little more thought to your total arrow weight...it’s better to lose a few FPS on your arrow flight but still have the momentum to carry that arrow all the way through one of these giants. [https://www.vparchery.com/product-page/3-blade-200-grain-non-vented-1-1-8]
Second, as stated above, these things are big! If you know how to skin a deer in the field, you can manage your way through an elk...it’ll just be roughly the effort of dressing four whitetails at once. All that to say, make sure you have adequately sized game bags, a way to sharpen your knife during the process (because you’ll be doing a lot of cutting), and prepare yourself for some heavy packouts if you’re hunting any distance from the road. Also, make sure you have big enough coolers with ice ready to go back at the truck to care for all that fresh, hard-earned meat.
Finally, the country can be brutal. In general, elk feel safest in thick, rugged, timbered country. The mountains are steep, the blow-down can be grueling, and in many cases elevation is its own factor you have to contend with. That isn’t to say you have to become a triathlete before embarking on a western elk hunt, but give some consideration to your physical fitness. You’ll also want to make sure you have some tested, broken-in, comfortable boots to carry you through that terrain.
All that being said, elk seasons are just kicking off around the country. Hopefully, you’re already out there creating memories and stories to tell. If your curiosity is piqued and you feel the call of the elk woods running down your spine, the timeline might be a little tight, but you could still make it happen this fall if you’re serious. Whether you run out and chase them this year or start planning for a future adventure, if you’ve never hunted elk before, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It's truly a one of a kind animal to chase, the meat is beyond delicious, and the memories of Falls spent in the elk woods will stay with you the rest of your life.