By Curt Wells
|I was getting real good at hunting elk
from a sleeping bag. Snuggled deep into my sleeping bag for
a mid-morning nap, a soothing breeze brought instant slumber through the
well-ventilated camper. I was comatose in seconds.
On my early bowhunts for elk, I would have been too wound up and nervous to sleep during the day. I always felt guilty if I wasn't out tromping around in the timber hoping to stumble across a bull. Elk hunting was supposed to be a tough, back-breaking, sunrise to sunset endeavor. There was no time to rest as long as there was shooting light.
But this morning I slept easy. There was no guilt, no fear that I was missing something, no reason to be restless. No, I wasn't being lazy, I was hunting smart.
Besides doing my usual “positive imagery” exercises by dreaming about perfect shots at bull elk, I was working the local elk herd by allowing them the same opportunity to rest. I know, it sounds like an excuse to take a nap but let me explain.
A few years back, my hunting partners and I were having a difficult time getting into elk. The weather was warm, the elk inactive and there was no bugling.
One hunting buddy was an animal. He was always the first one out of bed in the morning and the last one back to camp. He worked his butt off trying to get a branch-antlered bull and would be gone out of camp before the rest of us had our teeth brushed.
My other partner and I were more deliberate, worked a different drainage each morning, looking for elk. When the sun got high and hot, we'd head back to camp, rest up, then go out in the late afternoon, again trying to find elk.
Most would expect the successful hunter to be the one who put forth the most effort and worked hardest, but that's not always the case. My hard-charging buddy found some elk but gradually saw fewer and fewer animals and was never presented with a shot.
When we discovered fresh elk sign in a particular creekbottom we were cautious and backed off because of a bad wind. It snowed that night and the next day we moved in, got into a calling set up and I took a nice low-end Pope and Young class herd bull.
Needless to say, my hard-charging partner was not too happy with me. He sweated a lot, I took naps.
There are times when a hard-charging approach will get you into more elk, but not always. Sometimes the reverse can be true. Here's why.
Elk are very sensitive to human presence. They like their privacy and do not appreciate having it invaded by a smelly bowhunter. Elk will not tolerate such an invasion and are consummate experts in the art of disappearing off a mountain.
Now, if you have two, three or four bowhunters in your party, and they’re all stumblin', bumblin' and hustlin' around in your hunting area, at all hours of the day, you'll soon be elkless.
Let’s look at some ways to hunt smart for elk. But remember, there are exceptions to every rule and you won’t read the words “always” or “never” here.
WATCH THAT TOXIC CLOUD
Hunt like your body is on fire and producing a cloud of toxic, black smoke, because that's what your scent is to an elk. It's almost impossible to control that cloud in mountain terrain, but you have to try. Do not allow your scent to drift into a known elk hideout, or even a suspected elk lair. Circle around, run, crawl or fly if you have to but don't let an elk smell you.
This is one of the major problems we all face. We want to be out hunting for elk but while we are, we're spreading that toxic cloud all over the mountain. The wind shifts and blows our scent up the drainage, down the drainage and across the drainage and it's not long before our scent cloud blankets the area like a September snowfall, tipping off the elk that the invasion has begun.
All we can do is try and limit the size of our toxic cloud by using typical scent control measures, which, at times, seems futile on an elk hunt. Then we have to do what we can to prevent “contamination” of the resident elk with that toxic cloud by keeping it away from them as much as possible.
Successful elk hunters get that way by being careful about the way they locate elk. It's a rookie mistake to pull your bootlaces up tight and take off through the timber at Warp 3. If you feel you have to cover 15 or 20 miles a day to find elk, you're simply not in very good elk country.
There are a couple of ways to discreetly locate elk, the first of which is glassing. Inexperienced elk hunters have a tough time with the feeling that sitting on a ridge and glassing a mountainside at dawn or dusk is wasting hunting time. They want to be out stalking around. They’re wound up and anxious to make something happen.
Watching from a distance certainly won't present a shot for a bowhunter, at least not immediately. But it does tell you where the elk are, what they are doing and when, without letting them know they are being hunted. Just one evening of glassing can create a better opportunity to take an elk than will a week of stumblin' and bumblin'.
For example. A couple years ago one of my partners and I had already taken our bulls and were driving a logging road while my other partner, Kendall Bauer, was hunting solo. We spotted a nice bull and four cows grazing a tiny meadow near the top of a ridge. We glassed them until they fed into the timber.
That was like a gift from the Elk Hunting Gods. We knew right where to be the following evening and Kendall and I snuck up to the edge of that meadow just as the thermals pulled our scent down and away. I cow called the bull to within 16 yards but Kendall didn't get to open that gift as his arrow hit a twig and zipped under the bull.
However, it was an opportunity we would not have had if we hadn't spotted those elk the previous evening. Glassing allows you to plan a strategy to get within bowrange of elk that are following a pattern and don't know they're being hunted.
Another way to locate elk is to practice the art of listening. I mean really listening, not just stopping to see if you can hear anything. Elk are noisy when undisturbed. Move slow and stop often. Listen for that snap of a limb or that rock getting kicked by a hoof, or the soft mewing of noisy calves. If elk are close you’ll hear them if you listen.
WORKING THE FRINGES
Glassing elk is not always practical, particularly in heavily timbered areas, so you have to do some close range scouting.
The best way to do that is to work the fringes looking for fresh sign. Nice, green, squishy droppings are, in my opinion, the most significant sign you can find, especially if they're lying where the sun can hit them and are still squishy. They're really fresh if there is no apparent crust when you bite into one. Okay, I’m kidding.
If elk are using a clearcut, you'll see lots of fresh sign along the “alley” between the standing timber and the new growth pines. Lush green grass grows where the sun warms the ground and that's where elk like to belly up for dinner. High meadows, or parks, also attract elk and if you find squishy droppings in or near such a place you'll have located elk. No squishy elk dung, no elk.
Now here is where mistakes are made. The tendency is to take off into the timber above such places in search of the elk that left those droppings. Meanwhile, somewhere in that timber are a few elk laying down, chewing their cud. They can hear, see and smell everything around them and when that stumblin', bumblin' bowhunter comes up the mountain, their early warning alarm goes off and the bowhunter rarely knows they were ever there.
A better option after finding fresh sign is to slow down and think. Where will your toxic cloud go if you pursue the elk that left the sign? Should you call? Would it be smarter to back off and wait for those elk to become active? What you do next will largely determine whether you’ll take advantage of the fresh sign before you.
If you are fortunate enough to come across a hot bull that is bugling, grunting, ripping up trees and has generally lost his mind, forget everything I've said so far and go after him until you shoot him or he quits bugling. He may never be that worked up again, so don’t squander such an opportunity. Be bold.
Sadly, that scenario doesn't happen much these days, so here's what you do with a bull that is less enthusiastic.
If you locate a bull that's bugling or raking a tree, it’s usually best to try and get as close as possible before you do anything. You must fear the wind and watch for other elk, but get as close as you dare. Once you decide to call, I find it's usually best to try and bring him in with cow talk first. If that doesn't ork, start with some lackadaisical bugling, then work yourself into a frenzy if the bull’s reaction warrants.
But keep that toxic cloud away from him at all costs. If he heads downwind or the wind switches, run if you have to, to correct your position. You have nothing to lose, even if you have to leave the area completely, because if he smells you, it’s over. Maybe for the entire season with that particular bull.
If the wind is right but the bull just will not come to bowrange, or his bugling begins to taper off to nothing, just back off and leave. Hunt smart, not with reckless abandon. If you push too hard, usually something bad happens. Leaving allows him to rest and does nothing to tip him off he was being hunted. He may bed down somewhere close by and you’ll have a place to start when he becomes active again. I’ve worked bulls for several days, waiting for the right situation, the right response and the best shot.
This brings us to nap time. So far, we've run into several situations where we have to kill some time. We know where there are active elk, either traveling, feeding or bugling, and we know about when they will be there. This gives us some control over the situation. We can watch the wind and make our move when it's right rather than stumble on elk and try to make the best of a spontaneous situation.
So, we have two choices. One is to mark the spot, and take off looking for another possible elk “honey hole.”
Or we do what the elk are doing, rest. If I follow a bugling bull up a mountain at sunrise and he eventually shuts up, I may bed down just like the bull and wait. I've taken some great naps propped against a deadfall, only to be awakened by the bugle of a nearby rested bull. In fact, a majority of the bulls I've taken have caught my arrow within two hours either side of noon. They just can't sit still long during the rut, especially if it's cool.
If my morning hunt is a bust, but my earlier glassing showed me another spot where elk will flow out of the timber at sundown, I may head back to camp and rest up until it's time to make a controlled move on those elk when they’re active. I'll be rested and confident and probably have shot a few arrows for practice. That's preferable to being a tired, hungry, stumblin', bumblin', hustlin' bowhunter, who's not really sure where he's going, or why.
Bowhunting elk is like most jobs, the more experience you have, the less effort you waste. You become more controlled and efficient.
Some may call it a passive approach. I prefer to think I’m hunting smart for elk.