ELK--The Old-Fashioned Way

They're still pretty much the same, but we're not -- and that's why so many of us fail to get an elk each year.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Elk hunting is best when elk abound, as now they do. But many tags still go unfilled.

"Elk haven't changed much," a veteran hunter once told me. "But hunters have. They've lost the will to hunt hard and the skills to hunt right." A couple of decades later, having guided several dozen elk hunters and having been outfoxed by many bull elk, I agree with the old fellow.

** The Old-Fashioned Skills**
Traditional hunting skills may work better now than ever, mainly because modern elk have had little practice outwitting hunters who use them. Few elk hunters these days have grown up hunting elk. Many hail from the East, where they hunt deer from tree stands.

The biggest difference between whitetail hunting and elk hunting may be the size of the country. It is big on the map and even bigger on the ground because a lot of it is vertical. You must move to hunt elk, often over roadless terrain a mile and a half above sea level. The scope of your task can be intimidating.

Nonetheless, the fundamentals of successful elk hunting are easily learned.

Hunt Where Elk Live
Many hunters hunt where elk are not because it is easy country or because old elk sign is abundant. Elk move, and they move in response to weather and hunting pressure. Day beds are not where elk lounge at night. During the day, hunt in jungles of lodgepole pine or second-growth Douglas fir.

In warm weather, look for elk to bed high on north slopes where timber is thick but breezes keep flies at bay. Elk like to forage in the open, mostly early and late in the day. Alpine basins and wet meadows wedged between blocks of timber offer succulent forage and quick access to security cover.

Light snow won't move elk, and they forage ably in deep snow if it is not heavily crusted. Late in the season, look for elk in stands of conifers that keep snow off the ground and offer a windbreak.

Elk are unperturbed by cold snaps, but in warm weather they like cool places with lots of water. They like to bed high to catch daytime thermal drift from the valleys and to give themselves several escape options. When they must, they'll dive into canyon bottoms to evade hunters but seldom bed there because they can't see far. Wind coverage is poor in the gutters during the day, and moving water covers the sound of approaching hunters.

More hunters waste time on ridgelines than in the bottoms. Elk learn that hunters like the easy walking and great visibility of mountain spines, so they stay a third of the way downslope, high enough for a quick exit over the top but concealed from hunters patrolling the crest.

Hunting the crest can pay if you put yourself within rifle range of a seep, meadow, or well-traveled saddle (wallows produce poorly after the rut). You must get to your post early and stay late, mind the wind, be still, glass constantly, and hope very hard that a bull passes by.

Come Prepared to Walk and Shoot
Elk hunting demands serious physical effort. There's no benchmark level of fitness, but if you can walk 8 miles in two hours (equipped to hunt, on an undulating back road) without feeling tired, you'll likely be able to hunt comfortably.

Most hunters could improve their field marksmanship by refining their shooting positions and practicing trigger control. While elk rifles must be zeroed (at 200 yards) from a bench, subsequent shooting is best done without a rest, primarily from the sit because that is the steadiest useful hunting position. Kneeling is tougher, and standing a last resort.

Practicing from hunting positions, you'll know your maximum effective range for each. However, wind, steep angles, and excitement can reduce this on the hunt. My rule of thumb: Shoot only as far as you can put nine of 10 bullets in a 12-inch circle.

** Know Where and How to Look**
Diligent glassi helps you kill elk. Unless you're hunting on private land, you probably won't see many bulls in the open, and certainly not any big bulls. They've learned to stay back in the trees, so that's where you have to glass for them. Don't look for an entire elk. Try instead to spot a glint on eye or antler, a cream-colored rump, the flick of an ear. Always look carefully before you come out of cover into the open. Begin when you're well back in the trees. Elk like to hang around edges, and they're alert to movement across a clearing.

Concentrate your glassing at dawn and dusk, when elk are most active. Watch meadow edges, burns, and mountain passes, keeping the sun behind you as much as possible to illuminate elk and hide your own image. At midday, poke around in the trees. In bedding cover, I move slowly and spend about half my time glassing. But because elk country is big and not all thickets promising, I sometimes walk in high gear between coverts without glassing en route.

Use Calls and Tracks to Advantage
Rutting bulls can be bugled up or enticed with a cow call. But lots of bugling, from elk or other hunters, reduces the effectiveness of your music. I don't bugle. I use a cow call, mainly to settle elk when my step is noisy on the last stage of a stalk. That cow call can also briefly stop a bull that's moving away.

In much of the Mountain West, early November brings the first serious snow and prompts elk to migrate. Snow enables you to track. Elk can travel far in a day, so you're smart to pick up a track quickly in the morning and disregard tracks you think are more than a day old. Fresh snow is important because it covers old tracks. When you find a trail that shows elk moving with purpose, follow briskly, but remember that elk with more than a couple of hours' head start can stay ahead of you indefinitely.

If the animals bed, you're in luck. A herd about to bed typically loosens up: Individuals separate from the group and meander from the central line of travel. They often hook to watch their backtrail. They start nibbling at forage. When tracks show these patterns, slow down and follow to the side.

I can't tell cow tracks from those of immature bulls, but mature bull elk weigh half again as much as cows, and their prints are noticeably bigger. Bulls with wide antlers may split from other elk to skirt thickets or trees with low limbs. Bulls urinate in the middle of their beds, which are often located in thick cover apart from a herd, and big bulls commonly travel alone or in pairs.

** Take the Right Stuff**
In warm early seasons, I hunt in jogging shoes, T-shirt, and shorts, with a light wool jacket knotted around my segmented belt pack. Later I switch to 8-inch Red Wing leather hiking boots, baggy cotton or light wool trousers, and layers of cotton and wool shirts. I still carry the Filson jacket, but I trade my baseball cap for a wool stocking cap. I never wear long johns because they impede leg movement. Jeans do, too, and wick away body heat when they're wet. Do not bring the bulky jacket or insulated pants you'd wear on a whitetail stand; you'll cook in them. If you need added warmth, pack a down vest.

In very cold weather, I wear Malone wool pants, a King of the Mountain heavy wool jacket, and insulated leather boots. Deep-lugged Vibram or air-bob soles both work. Soles on upland hunting boots lack traction.

Binoculars are a must for cross-canyon glassing but also help you see detail in the woods. The best buy is the best you can buy. One of my favorites is Leica's 8x42 Trinovid. Zeiss and Swarovski also make fine glasses. Yes, they're expensive, but they'll outlast you. Steer clear of compact glasses because they're not bright enough in thickets or at the edge of day when elk move. If your hunting is mostly in timber, a 7X should suffice. In open country you might choose a 10X, but 8X is a fine all-around choice.

A high-quality 4X scope is perfect for most elk hunting. In variables, the 1.5X¿¿¿6X and 2X¿¿¿7X seem about right. As with binoculars, stay away from scopes that are bulky and heavy. I always mount a scope as low as possible on the rifle to speed aiming and keep the package compact.

A good elk rifle is any gun you can shoot well. Useful cartridges include the .270, .280, 7mm/08, .308, and .30/06 because they're easy to shoot and with loads like Federal's High Energy can deck elk out to 300 yards. The most popular elk round after the .30/06 is Remington's 7mm Magnum. Next come the .300 and .338 Winchester Magnums. New supermagnum cartridges like the .338 Ultra Mag and .338/378 Weatherby add reach but are not necessary for most elk hunting. all-around choice.

A high-quality 4X scope is perfect for most elk hunting. In variables, the 1.5X¿¿¿6X and 2X¿¿¿7X seem about right. As with binoculars, stay away from scopes that are bulky and heavy. I always mount a scope as low as possible on the rifle to speed aiming and keep the package compact.

A good elk rifle is any gun you can shoot well. Useful cartridges include the .270, .280, 7mm/08, .308, and .30/06 because they're easy to shoot and with loads like Federal's High Energy can deck elk out to 300 yards. The most popular elk round after the .30/06 is Remington's 7mm Magnum. Next come the .300 and .338 Winchester Magnums. New supermagnum cartridges like the .338 Ultra Mag and .338/378 Weatherby add reach but are not necessary for most elk hunting.