In case you forgot, you co-own 600-plus million acres of public land—and somewhere out there is your elk. To help you narrow down the search, we drilled six experts for their secrets on finding and killing bulls in the backcountry. Because while there’s nothing wrong with hunting private ground, there’s absolutely nothing like getting it done on public land.
✖ Mix Up Your Bugle
■ Most hunters can’t resist making the long, screaming bugles that sound good to their own ears, says world-champion elk caller Chad Schearer of Shoot Straight (shootstraighttv.com). But on pressured public land, you have to sound different. “Just shortening your bugle will separate you from the crowd and double your success,” Schearer says. Just as important: You don’t have to make a full bugle to rile a herd bull. Here are three abbreviated calls Schearer uses to sound more like the real thing—and less like everyone else.
The Half Bugle “This is a call that real bulls use to say, I’m over here,” Schearer says. “It’s a courtesy bugle, and a way for bulls to keep track of one another.” To make it, you simply cut your bugle short half to two-thirds of the way through. “It’s a great locator call, and one that bulls almost never hear from other hunters.”
The Squeal “When a bull is really worked up, he’ll often skip the full bugle and just squeal.” Here, Schearer increases tongue and air pressure on a mouth call while putting his lips loosely together to get the highest pitch possible. He ends it with a simple low note. “This is perfect for pissing off a hot herd bull.”
The Grunt “This short chortle usually comes before or after a full bugle. But after weeks of full-throated bugling, a few grunts may be all a bull has left.” To make the sound, Schearer says, “Cha-heh,” into a mouth call, exhaling on the first note and inhaling on the second. “Use it for close calling in the timber or finishing a bull that’s hung up.” —D.H.
✖ Stand Ready
■ When Bob Daugherty, owner of Redwing Outfitters in Winston, N.M. (redwinghunts.com), first started bowhunting elk, he made the same mistakes that he still sees Eastern hunters making. “We’d get too hidden,” he says. “We had good luck getting bulls to come in, but we couldn’t kill them because we were covered up by too much brush.”
Daugherty’s hunters now simply lean against a tree in the open—and they kill far more elk. “When a bull is hot, you can get away with a lot of movement,” he says. “But it’s important for the caller to set up to the side of the hunter, rather than behind him. That way, when a bull comes in he won’t be looking at the hunter, and he’ll more likely be broadside.” Shooters should range several landmarks quickly after setting up. “Even if a bull sees a hunter drawing and bolts, he usually won’t run 10 yards before you can stop him with cow calls.” —W.B.
✖ Log Some Riding Time
■ Don’t assume the old nag named Eeyore can’t kill you. Riding horses is the most dangerous part of a horseback elk hunt. You’ll be doing much of it in the dark, and some of it across narrow trails where if you or the horse falls, you’ll die. “It’s an outfitter’s job to pair you with a horse that you can handle, but we’re not here to give you horseback lessons,” says Miles Fedinec, owner of FMF Outdoors in Craig, Colo. (970-629-9894). “You don’t have to be a cowboy, but this isn’t the place to sit on a horse for the first time in your life, either. If you’re spending four grand on an elk hunt, spend an extra $40 on a riding lesson so you at least know the basics of stop, go, left, and right.” —W.B.
✖ Follow the Cam Plan
■ Sometimes the hardest thing about killing a good bull on public land is finding one. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Southern Utah District volunteer chair and hardcore backcountry hunter Byron Carter can’t keep an eye on every potential hotspot, so he deploys a battery of trail cameras to do the job. Here’s his plan:
Google It Carter identifies likely hotspots using topo maps and Google Earth, including feeding areas, travel routes, and water sources. Then he hits those spots on the first day of an extended backcountry hunt to pinpoint fresh sign.
Hang Them High He puts cameras on the hottest spots. “Usually it’s a water hole or a wallow,” Carter says, “but I’ll also put a salt rock off a good main trail or near other good sign.” (Check local regulations.) Because he’s had cameras stolen in the public areas he hunts, he uses tree steps to hang them 12 feet high with a cable lock.
Make a Run In the mornings and evenings, Carter hunts like anyone would without cameras, by glassing and calling. But at midday, when elk activity slows, he makes a milk run to check his cams.
Move In If a photo shows a big bull hitting a drinking hole or wallow, for example, Carter heads in for the kill. “Some bulls are very patternable, even during the rut,” he says. “A few years ago, one of my cameras showed a 340-class bull hitting a secluded water hole every day at 5 p.m. I built a little ground blind, put a client in it, and sure enough, he killed that slammer with a muzzleloader right at 5.”
Hunt Close Even if the bull you catch on camera isn’t that consistent with his routine, at least you know you’ve got a good animal in the general area. “Unless I’m already onto a better bull, that’s where I’ll focus my efforts the next morning or evening.” —D.H.
✖ Get Moving
■ Most hunters in over-the-counter units never even get a decent chance at a bull. “It’s because they don’t find any elk to begin with,” says Travis Reed, a backcountry outfitter in the San Juan National Forest near Durango, Colo. “Elk are herd animals, and they move. They’re not like whitetails that are dispersed every quarter mile. You can burn a whole week of hunting in the wrong spot and never get close to one.” Reed hunts remote areas by horseback, and his clients are successful in some of the same drainages year after year. Here’s how to find a hotspot of your own.
Map It Out “Look at a map and get at least 2 miles away from the closest road,” Reed says. “That doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re walking up and down mountains, it’s farther than most people are willing to hike. And really, that’s all it takes. Elk don’t live next to the roads during hunting season. Many people give up, when if they’d just gone another mile, they would have had elk all over them.”
Read the Signs Finding fresh sign is good—but 20 elk can destroy a ridgetop at night and be 3 miles away by daylight. “That’s why to be successful, you need to see them,” he says. “At daybreak, I like to spend my time in high, open areas where I can glass. If you’re seeing elk every day, you’re in the right area. If you’re only seeing sign, keep moving.”
Plan Big In big country, the elk you see may be several miles away. “If I watch a herd a few mountains over do the same thing two days in a row, I’m making a move to hunt them on the third day. That might mean getting in closer and setting up a spike camp, or it might mean packing out and driving around them. Always bring a map with you, because as often as not, there’s an easier way to get to where you’re looking than by walking straight to it.” —W.B.
✖ Don’t Go There
■ Public-land hunters are automatically drawn to the classic high-country habitat of aspens, dark timber, and open parks. These areas do typically have the highest concentrations of elk, says Byron Carter. But to actually tag a trophy on public ground, he suggests looking elsewhere.
“I concentrate on areas that have both fewer hunters and fewer elk,” says Carter, who has guided clients to more than 100 bulls. “That’s because both human pressure and too much breeding competition cause bulls to constantly move their cows around. On the flip side, where there’s not much of either, even the biggest bulls become much easier to pattern and call.”
In Carter’s home state of Utah, that means leaving the high picture-book country to the masses and hunting lower-elevation thickets of piñon-juniper, mahogany, and oak brush. “Many hunters think of that as mule deer habitat,” Carter says, “but as long as there’s good feed and water, it will hold some of the biggest bulls—because they are just like you; they want to get away from the pressure and competition.” —D.H.
✖ Shoot With Confidence
■ “If you’re calling elk by yourself, you’re going to get a lot of straight-on shots,” Miles Fedinec says. “That’s a shot I’ll personally take every time. The crease between the neck and shoulder blade is a beautiful opening to the heart and lungs, and it will kill an elk in seconds. But it’s a small target. If you’re not confident with your bow or gun, well, you shouldn’t be elk hunting anyway, but you definitely shouldn’t take that shot.” —W.B.
✖ Take the Hook
■ “In Arizona, the farther you get away from a road on public land, the closer you get to another one,” says Jay Scott, co-owner of Colburn and Scott Outfitters (colburnandscottoutfitters.com). That means he’s always hunting pressured bulls, which requires a sneaky approach. Here’s his public-land plan:
Spot Him “First I try to glass a good bull heading toward bedding cover with his cows,” Scott says, “and then I’ll slip in very close—sometimes as close as 50 yards.”
Flank Him “Elk typically move with the wind in their faces. In order to keep the wind in my face, I parallel the herd.” If there’s a slight angle to the breeze—and there usually is—he sets up on whichever side gives him an edge.
Cut Him Without calling, and moving as quietly as possible, Scott sneaks alongside the head of the herd, all the while looking for an opening. “Our piñon-juniper habitat has lots of little gaps where I can make a buttonhook. I watch and let the cows go by first, as they usually lead the way, and then I move into bow range and wait for the bull.”
Take Him “If I don’t have to call, I won’t,” Scott says, as the bull often walks right in the footsteps of the cows. “If I do, one cow call will usually put him in my lap.” If Scott knows he is hunting an aggressive bull, he may bugle to make the animal think a rival has gotten between him and his ladies. “That works, but you’ll need to put down the call real quick and pick up your bow.” —D.H.
✖ Make Some Noise
■ “A lot of hunters try to be quiet in the elk woods,” Byron Carter says. “I think that is completely the wrong approach when calling. I make a ton of noise, because elk make a ton of noise.” And if he can get some buddies to help him make an even bigger racket, so much the better.
“One of my favorite midday tactics is to work through prime bedding areas with three or four buddies,” he says. The hunters spread out roughly 10 yards apart and start walking, stepping heavily, kicking logs, rolling rocks, and snapping twigs while cow- and calf-calling back and forth. “The idea is to sound like a small herd of cows moving through the timber. It works like a charm, and it’s something pressured bulls just don’t hear from other hunters. You’ve got to stay on your toes, though. If there’s a bull bedding in there, he’s probably coming.” —D.H.
✖ Get in Bed
■ The buttonhook isn’t Jay Scott’s only sneaky move, or even his sneakiest. Whenever he knows where a herd is bedded—whether he’s watched them enter a specific area or if they bed down while he is paralleling them—he slips in right among the animals. “I move very slowly, then start tiptoeing, and then belly-crawling,” Scott says. “The elk aren’t going anywhere for a while, so I really take my time. Even if they’re bedding in just grass, you’d be amazed how close you can get if you go really slow.” Once he is among the animals, he simply waits. “Eventually, that bull is going to get up and start moving around to check on his cows, and he’ll give you an opportunity to shoot him or call him in.” You can wait for your shot, use a cow call, or throw a bugle like a rival bull—as long as you’re ready to shoot fast. —D.H.
✖ Do Your Homework
■ There are millions of prime public elk hunting acres across the West. So how do you pick a starting point for a D.I.Y. hunt? Ty Stubblefield, a chapter coordinator with Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and a serious hike-in hunter, does it all from home. “Like most guys, I can’t afford to travel and scout a bunch of areas before I hunt. So I use my computer and phone instead.” Here is his four-step plan:
Get the Facts Focusing mainly on over-the-counter tags, Stubblefield visits state-agency websites to compare unit stats: “I want a good elk population, a high bull-to-cow ratio [15 to 25 bulls to 100 cows or better], a decent but not too high success rate [too high usually means easy access for others], and low wolf numbers.”
Work the Phone Next, he calls state biologists to help him pinpoint remoter areas that have light hunting pressure. “What I want to hear is ‘You’ll have to work harder, but the elk are there.’ ”
Search for Spots He then uses Google Earth and OnXmaps to nail down a starting point in prime elk habitat. “I want to see open meadows for feeding, thickly timbered north-facing slopes for bedding, and plenty of water.”
Back It Up Finally, he chooses several backup locations, a few within hiking distance and a few within driving distance. “Elk are naturally nomadic, and they’re easily bumped from one good area to another by hunters,” he says. “You need to have options.” —D.H.
✖ Get High
■ Most rifle seasons open after the frenzy of the rut is over. You may locate a bull with a bugle—but don’t count on it. Post-rut elk hunting is a more methodical spot-and-stalk game. “High points are the key later in the season,” Miles Fedinec says. “Get yourself into a location where you can glass numerous meadows at dawn and dusk, when elk are up and moving. Getting down into the timber and still-hunting is a last resort for me. You’ll probably see some elk, but they’ll probably be spooked and running.”
Finding open meadows becomes even more important as the post-rut fades to the late season. “As it gets colder and snow starts falling, the grass inside the dark timber is the first to die off,” notes Travis Reed. “That forces elk into the open where they can find food.” —W.B.
✖ Plead to Post-Rut Bulls
■ Bull elk get bombarded with estrous-cow calls from public-land hunters during the rut, which is one reason why Chad Schearer sticks mainly to non-estrous cow and calf calls then. Come post-rut, however, he breaks out those drawn-out, pleading estrous calls. “Any cows that weren’t bred during the primary rut will come into estrus again 28 days later,” Schearer says. That’s smack in the middle of rifle season in many states—a time when elk hear fewer estrous calls from other hunters, and when you don’t need to call a bull into your lap to kill it. “Get within shooting range of a bull and use that estrous call without bugling. Odds are really good that he’ll at least step out for a look—and give you a clean shot.” —D.H.