Elk Hunting Tips, Tactics and Gear From 3 Hardcore Hunters

by Scott Bestul, Dave Hurteau, and Jeff Hull

Thirty-one years ago, at age 14, Jack Schoonen shot his first elk. He has killed an elk every year since. Hunting the forested slopes of Montana's Big Hole Valley, Schoonen specializes in tracking bulls and killing them in the timber, often with shots of less than 50 yards. He's taken all 31 of his elk on publicly accessible land--and he's done it hunting only on weekends. "I'd love to hunt four or five days in a row, but I've never had that opportunity in my life. I'm a schoolteacher," says Schoonen. His family relies on the meat he and his 15-year-old son, Sage, bring home.

Sitting on his back patio outside of Dillon, Mont., Schoonen looks every bit like a man who ran traplines for beavers, coyotes, and bobcats when younger and helped pay for his college education by guiding fishermen. His wiry frame is corded with muscle and tendon. He has to cinch his belt to keep his jeans on his hips. Schoonen is quick to deploy a self-deprecating laugh, but a quiet intensity hums around him.

Schoonen's family is steeped in elk. His brother, Tony Jr., worked for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and is now president of the Boone and Crockett Club. Schoonen's father, Tony Sr., is a well-known advocate for ­public-​lands access. On the day Jack was born, Tony was packing out an elk he'd shot the day before.

"Some people play football or basketball," says Schoonen. "In my family it wasn't sports, it was hunting. I grew up with it. It became part of my personality."

Early on, Schoonen's personality focused on one hunting strategy: waiting for snow, and using it to track bulls through the woods. "Most guys don't know what they're doing in there, but I understand what elk are going to do in timber," he says. If conditions are right, "you can get in there and get them."

Easier said than done, but Schoonen's observations, gleaned from years of tracking bulls, can help:

1. "Hunt in the lodgepoles. In fir patches, it's too thick to follow. All you can see is legs. I hunt in big patches of timber. Not a mile or so. Miles and miles of timber."

2. "I watch the weather forecast like a crazy man. When we get a new snow, I'll drive in the dark and see if elk tracks have crossed the roads. I'm not afraid to stop other hunters and ask what they see. Not just 'Did you see elk?' but 'Did you see tracks?'"

3. "When you cut a track and you can see all four feet, check how they pee. If they pee behind the back feet, it's a cow. If the pee's in the middle of all four feet, it's a bull. And watch if tracks go around narrow gaps in the trees. A big bull will go around because of his rack."

4. "I always make sure I have the perfect wind. Sometimes I see bull tracks and I know where they're going to bed, but if the wind's not right, I just leave them alone. I'm continually picking up snow and throwing it in the air to see what the wind is doing."

5. "Before they bed, bulls will do a J-hook uphill and lie so they can look back at their tracks. I always walk uphill from the tracks, far enough away so I can just see them, and I keep looking ahead."

6. "If I know there are cows and calves in a bunch of elk, I rarely waste my time. Too many eyes."

7. "I never trail elk early in the morning. I like to see where they are, but I never start tracking until at least nine. They get dopey in the middle of the day, real lazy. They've got a bellyful of food from the night before."

8. "A lot of it is just knowing the country. I've shot bulls 100 yards from where I shot one 10 years earlier. If you know the lay of the land, that's a big advantage."

9. "Bulls like to lie on knobs or little flats on sidehills. Or they'll go straight uphill to lie on top of a ridge."

10. "I've heard guys say, 'Once you jump a bull you'll never see him again.' If I jump a bull, I'll give him 45 minutes and go after him. I've shot at elk and missed, sat for an hour, then tracked them and got them."

11."The biggest mistake elk hunters make is misinterpreting the signs elk leave in the snow. The way an elk is walking gives a ton of information, such as whether they are skittish or relaxed, moving out, or simply looking for a place to bed down."

Jack Schoonen__
State: Montana
Biggest Bull: 290-point 6x6
Rifle: Winchester M70
Caliber: .300 WSM
Scope: Leupold Vari-X III 1.75-6x32mm ("I usually have it set on 1.75X when I am hunting in the timber.")
Ammunition: Hornady 180-gr. SST handloaded with 65.3 gr. of IMR 4350 powder ("I have had great luck with these bullets, and have killed elk from 30 to 360 yards without any problems.")

Pete Davis grew up hunting Arizona's abundant big game: mule and Coues deer, antelope, sheep, mountain lion, bear. But elk have always been his biggest fascination. "To have an animal that big come to a call and stand 15 feet from your boots, screaming at you…well, that's what my clients come out here for."

For 24 years, Davis has guided hunters in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. He runs an outfitting service, Southwest Outdoors, owns a working ranch, and recently retired after 28 years as the Coconino County sheriff. "I started guiding when I was 20, and opened my own business when I was 24," says the amiable 50-year-old. "I guide on public land in Arizona, on public ground and ranches in New Mexico, and on private land in Colorado. But my best bulls come from Arizona."

Davis's hunters annually kill monster bulls, and in 2005 client Robert Hartwig shot a 4647⁄8-inch nontypical, the reigning SCI world-record free-range archery elk. "That was a bull we knew from encounters in previous seasons," Davis says. "We'd nicknamed him Godzilla, and we knew he was a giant. But the best part about that hunt was that it was the first bull Robert had ever killed, and he shot it with a recurve bow at 20 yards. Being on a hunt like that is one of the special rewards of my job."

Davis works hard to make those encounters happen.

By the season opener, his off-season scouting has him intimately acquainted with dozens of trophy bulls. "Most of my clients are working-class guys who save up for years for a quality elk hunt," Davis says. "When I bring a hunter in on a bull, I might have scouted that animal for weeks. Obviously I want my client to get his trophy. But I also want him to feel immersed in the world of elk, in the beauty and challenge of getting close to a fantastic animal. There's no greater hunting experience than that."

Here's what Davis does to achieve those experiences:

1. "The longer I guide, the more I rely on scouting. Topo maps are the best place to start. I look for north-facing slopes that will be cool in early fall. Bulls usually bed on benches one-third of the way down the slope. You locate nearby feeding areas and read the terrain between bed and feed to figure out where you can call in a bull moving between the two."

2. "Bedding areas are sacred ground. Elk will tolerate getting bumped in other parts of their territory--they run into ranchers and ATV riders all the time. But spook a bull out of his favorite bed, and he might not be back for weeks."

3. "Starting June 1, I put out every trail camera I have--20 of them--on water holes. Bulls have good antler growth by then. It's a perfect time to take inventory."

4. "Here the biggest, oldest bulls don't bed near cows, even when they've got a harem during the rut. They'll bed up to 3 or 4 miles away in a place where they feel safe. When they get up in the afternoon, they'll start bugling and walking toward that harem, but you don't have a prayer of calling him in unless you're on the route he's taking to his cows."

5. "At daybreak I'm up on a ridgetop, trying to locate a bull by bugling. If nothing answers, I'm covering ground."

6. "Elk are like 800-pound turkeys, and any turkey hunter knows there are days when birds don't gobble. When elk just won't bugle, your scouting comes into play. Sit on a high point and glass in a good area."

7. "I hear guys say they can tell a big bull from a small one by the bugle. That's nonsense. I can recognize individual elk by some quirk in their bugling, but if you don't know the bull, all bets are off. I've watched 400-inch bulls bugle like a baby. And a young bull that's worked up can sound like a monster."

8. "When I locate a bull at a distance, I move toward him, but slowly. If he responds from a quarter mile, and then I show up at 75 yards and call, he can get startled. I'll make a 100-yard move first, then call to the bull and see if he responds. And I'm patient if he doesn't; he could be moving toward me and just not talking."

9. "When bulls aren't talking and it's warm, we often make a natural blind by a water hole. A bull can visit a water hole almost daily if it's in his home range. A couple of years ago, we had a great bull that hit the same hole five afternoons in a row, within 15 minutes of the same time."

10. "Calling elk is perfect with a partner. I set up 50 to 60 yards behind my hunter and stay behind some screening cover so the incoming bull can't pinpoint me. The hunter is behind a tree that hides his draw and also gives him a chance to reposition if he has to."

11. "Not knowing how to call well, and then calling too much, is the biggest mistake hunters make. If you can't run a diaphragm, get a quality out-of-mouth call like the Primos Hyper Lip single-reed. Then get a good DVD and start practicing until you sound like elk."

Pete Davis _
States: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico
Biggest CLIENT Bull: 4647⁄8-point 8x7
Rifle: Weatherby Mark V
Caliber: .300 Wby. Mag.
Scope: Swarovski Z6 3-18x50mm
Ammunition: Weatherby 200-gr. Nosler Partition
Bow: Bear Carnage
Arrows: Gold Tip XT Hunter shafts with 125‑gr. Rocket Ultimate Steel broadheads
_

Dick Ray wears a white Stetson. His eyes are green laser points. His face is rawhide. His mouth is a razor slit under an iron-gray mustache. And when he parts his thin lips, you'd better listen. Ray is 72 years old, 5 feet 6 inches, and weighs about a buck fifty--but it's an upright 5-6 and a wiry 150. While we talk, I picture him holding the phone in one hand and dragging an outlaw to justice with the other.

You'd better listen, too, because he is an elk-­guiding legend. The owner-outfitter of Lobo Outfitters ­(lobo​​­outfitters.com), Ray has guided hunters in New Mexico and Colorado for 44 years, along with being a founding member of the New Mexico Outfitters Association and former president of the Colorado Outfitters Association. Since 1967, his clients have tagged over 2,000 elk.

Ray has been at it long enough to have an opinion on everything, and he's not afraid to speak up. "I like to argue," he says, "and I like to win." But unlike so many hunters with opinions, Ray has 60-plus years of field experience to back them up.

He started at his father's heel at age 9 in New Mexico and shot his first muley buck at 12, but his main passion was running hounds for lions and bears. In the fall of 1966, standing on a rock point listening for his bear dogs, he watched a nice bull stand up and bugle. "I'd never seen a live elk," he says. They were few and far between then. "The bull walked away with all the dignity these animals can possess, and I thought, Wow!" He killed his first elk, a 331-inch 6x6, that year and started guiding the next.

In 1970, Ray took a 30-day leave from a good job with the railroad to manage hunts for the Lobo Lodge in Chama, N.M. "It was tough. I worked long days and made 80 cents an hour. But after some soul searching, I decided to make this my life. I've never stopped learning about elk. Today, my greatest pleasure is walking these mountains and sharing what they offer with my family and my clients."

Here's what Ray can share with you:

1. "If you're just out to kill an elk, you'll want the ­flattest-​shooting, hardest-hitting rifle you can buy. But if you want to hunt elk, to use skill and woodsmanship to get close, then a .30/06 or even a .270 with today's hot loads is all you need. I can kill an elk at 350 yards with my .30/06. If I can't hunt my way closer than that, I don't deserve the animal."

2. "All of our early hunting heroes were naturalists. We need to be naturalists, too. Don't just shoot elk. Immerse yourself in their world. A naturalist sees everything, the whole ecosystem and its connectedness, rather than just the bull he's after. It makes you a better hunter."

3. "Lack of shooting skill is the most disappointing thing we see with clients. They don't practice. People say they can't get to a range, but I'm not just talking about accuracy. You need to practice getting into position and taking a good rest quickly. One client who made a nice shot on a bull told me he dry-fired at every animal he saw on the Outdoor Channel all summer. So you see, you can practice."

4. "Get the best optics you can afford. Some of today's inexpensive glass looks great when it's new, but it doesn't stay that way."

5. "Elk have werewolf blood. They hate the light. So the simplest way to up your odds is to leave camp earlier and come home later. People brag about hunting hard--which is synonymous with hunting dumb. Hunt smart instead. Concentrate on the first and last hours, minutes, seconds of light, when elk are on their feet. In the morning, cover ground to spot elk or hear one bugle. Then try to make a stalk if possible. Spend the rest of the day scouting and be prepared to come home in the dark. In the evening, pick one spot--near a wallow or feeding area or transition area from bed to feed--and be patient. Evenings can be so productive if you can sit still. We take more than half of our bulls then."

6. "In 1972, I guided a plumber who had a little curled-up gas pipe that he bugled with. Later, I met a kid who had a flute he bought at Wall Drug that made a passable bugle. These days, bugle calls are everywhere. But they're overrated. Bulls that come to bugles don't live long. That's why many of the best bulls don't respond to them. Look: If you walk into a bar and shout, 'I can whip anyone in here,' maybe one dumb guy will say, 'Try me.' But the smart ones--including the big, smart ones--will just go back to what they were doing. Sure, when bugling works, it's better than sex. So a lot of guys want to hunt that way. I tell them the truth: It can work. But bulls bugle to bring estrous cows to them, so it's better to let the bull bugle you in. Keep him talking while you slip into range for the shot."

7. "We see more and more hunters toting five grand's worth of ultra-long-range shooting equipment because they saw someone make an 800-yard shot on TV. First off, a lot can go wrong at those ranges. Second, we're not out to assassinate animals and brag about it."

8. "Give me hot and dry. At 5 p.m. there's going to be a bull elk that is hot and dry. And I'm going to be waiting at the nearest water hole."

9. "The rifle season--or a big snowstorm--changes everything. Elk go from rut mode to survival mode. They hole up where they can eat a lot and move very little. They become needles in haystacks, very nocturnal, and one of the toughest animals to hunt in North America. If you know those pockets of activity, you can have success. Otherwise, good luck."

10. "Late-season tracking is the ultimate hunt. You're a predator. Man, you're into it. It takes a lot of physical effort; you need a large area; you need fresh powder; and you have to be prepared to spend the night. But there is nothing like following a big track to its maker."

11."Following elk into their bedding grounds is the biggest mistake I see hunters make. Public-land hunters are often their own worst enemies in this sense; they push elk onto private land. If you bump them, you may never see them again."

Dick Ray
States: Colorado, New Mexico
Biggest client Bull: 367-point 6x6
Rifle: Remington 700
Caliber: .30/06
Scope: Leupold Vari-X III 3-9x40mm
Ammunition: Federal Premium 180-gr. Trophy Bonded Tip
Bow: Bear Takedown ­recurve, 55 lb.
Arrows: GrizzlyStik shafts with 125-gr. SilverFlame broadheads

From the September 2012 issue of Field & Stream magazine.

Photos by Jamie Kripke(1,2) and Charles Alsheimer(3)