The elk’s long legs and outsized lungs seem to compel it to travel almost constantly, and a hunter’s desire for elk meat seems to compel him to follow. No matter where or how an elk hunter is hunting, he or she is almost surely going to end up using some aspect of the spot and stalk strategy.
Thanks to their size and two-tone appearance, tan body, chocolate mane, elk can be much easier to spot at long distances than other mountain game. When glassing for the animals, a hunter can move fairly quickly with his optics, especially in the morning and evening hours when the elk are most likely to be up on their feet feeding. When hunting in the snow, you can glass for elk sign as readily as you can glass for the animals themselves.
Feeding areas, where elk have pawed through the snow to reach the grass below, show up at great distances through binoculars and spotting scopes. So do elk beds. And if you’re lucky to be hunting in snow that’s less than 24 hours old, you can get especially excited about the discovery of elk feeding areas. Make sure to be watching that area again at dusk and again at dawn – there’s a good chance that the elk will be back.
Spot and Stalk Hunting
When glassing for elk, you sometimes need to ask yourself this question, do I want to spook an elk now or kill an elk later? The importance of patience is something that all experienced spot-and-stalk elk hunters will agree on. Quite simply, it’s not always best to just start chasing after a herd of elk as soon as you see them.
Sure, if it seems like the elk are calmly feeding and you’ve got plenty of daylight left, or that a bull has a group of cows balled up and he’s rutting them enthusiastically, then it might be advisable to check the wind and start after them. But if the elk are single file and moving, it might be best to sit back and see what the herd is up to and where it’s headed.
Often, elk that are unapproachable due to their location and general attitude will move into a location that’s much more conducive to a stalk. Or you might even decide to wait until the next day, when you can use what you learn from your observations in order to plan the perfect approach.
But when you do decide to go, go quickly. If you lose sight of your herd and then dillydally for several hours in the bottom of a canyon, you might not ever find them again. For this reason, hunting elk requires peak physical condition. Most hunters who fail physically on an elk hunt do so after they’ve already spotted the animals. They can see the prize, but they just can’t reach it.
While patience is important to spot-and-stalk elk hunting, it’s essential to ambush elk hunting. An elk hunter with a detailed knowledge of his or her hunting grounds can be very successful in utilizing an ambush strategy if they keep in mind the wide-ranging and seemingly willy-nilly habits of the animals. Elk do in fact have patterns and preferences, but those occur over large landscapes.
An elk’s feeding grounds might cover many square miles within multiple drainages, and it might travel for hours just to get a drink of water. If someone tells you that elk frequent a certain south-facing hillside, this might mean that elk show up there three or four times a month rather than three or four times a week. Thus, ambushing elk can turn into a waiting game that favors the patient hunter.
Typically, an ambush hunter will set up on one of two types of locations for elk. Travel route ambush sites are positioned along well-used trails, pinch points such as ridgeline saddles, major migration corridors, and historically used escape routes.
The latter is where experience in a certain area pays off especially well. Let’s say you know that a herd of elk gets spooked off of Green Mountain every year on the opening day of the season. And when they do, you know that they spill off the east side of the mountain and then wrap around the neighboring hill on the lowest game trail before crossing Sentinel Creek near the main fork…well, you get the point. You can put that kind of information to use when elk hunting, because elk are that kind of animal. You can trust them to behave in the same general ways, year in and year out.
The second type of site is where elk go for feed and water. These are places like meadows, hayfields, watering holes, and wallows. When contemplating an ambush setup near food or water, check for plenty of fresh sign. And not just elk tracks, but also fresh scat and beds. Elk leave tracks everywhere, but scat and beds are found mostly where they are spending a considerable amount of time.
Beds are usually associated with thick cover, but elk actually bed down during the night to chew their cud in the meadow they are feeding in. Fresh scat will have a moist appearance and fresh beds will look crisp, with the grass matted down flat. Don’t be afraid to use your nose; the more pungent the bed, the less time has elapsed since the animal left it. These signs point to recent activity, making for a good ambush location.
Wallows can be trickier to set up on, because it might only be a single animal that’s using it and he may visit only periodically. But still, wallows are great places to sit during the middle of hot days, when there might not be anything else going on. Quite often, a bull will sneak away from his midday bed to have a splash in his favorite mud hole, which might be located at a small seep or along a stream or even at a cattle stock tank.
Bulls will literally crawl into the mud and cover themselves with it, it could do any number of things for them, from repelling biting insects to distributing his glandular odor to cooling him off to making him look mean and scary in the presence of other bulls. In the Southwest, some hunters will even pour jugs of water into dried-up and abandoned wallows in hopes of drawing the bull back to his preferred cooling-off spot. While pop-up blinds and blinds built from natural materials are commonly used at wallows, tree-stands are another great option because they keep your scent up off the ground.
Speaking of scent, mountain thermals are yet another consideration for the ambush hunter. In steep terrain, the swirling afternoon winds will usually give way to a constant downhill thermal in the evening. Sometimes this happens two hours before dark, sometimes it happens just twenty minutes before dark. Regardless, an ultra-cautious hunter might use these thermals as protection when sneaking into an evening ambush location, particularly when hunting elk that are approaching an evening feeding area from an uphill direction.
Thermals are also useful to the still-hunter, whose goal is to spot an elk before he’s detected by the animal. The eyes of an elk might let you get away with a fast movement, and its ears will forgive the thud of your boot on a log, but let your scent enter the elk’s nostrils and you can bid it farewell. For this reason, a still-hunter has to constantly monitor the wind and you need to do everything in your power to keep it in your face.
Despite the challenges, still-hunting works well enough under most circumstances and remains a trusted elk-hunting strategy for many rifle hunters. Generally, still-hunting does not produce close enough shots for archery hunting. An archer’s still-hunt will often morph into a stalking situation when he locates an elk and then moves in for a shot.
Most hunters who are good at still-hunting insist on going alone, in order to minimize disturbance. If you have the luxury of time, it’s best to save your still-hunting efforts until immediately before or after a storm. Elk tend to be on their feet and feeding in preparation of coming weather and again on its heels, and it’s typically easier to creep within range of feeding elk than bedded elk.
Another benefit of waiting for bad weather is that it leaves fresh snow on the ground, which is a great aid for muffling your footsteps and also for revealing the whereabouts of elk through the presence of fresh tracks.
Around these weather events, expansive groves of aspens provide a near perfect medium for the still-hunting elk hunter. These groves hold elk by providing security as well as an abundance of bunch grass, a favorite elk food, whose long blades poke up through the snow. The vertical lines of the aspen forest work well at breaking up your outline, and the aspen’s lack of lower limbs, elk eat those too, allow for clear shooting from a kneeling position.
Still-hunting through bedding areas and along well-used trails through thick timber can be a productive way to hunt, though you should refrain from doing it during the early season because you’re likely to spook elk clear of your hunting area. But if the clock is winding down and you’re running out of options, it’s worth considering. Keeping quiet is not the challenge here, as these trails often look and feel as if someone has recently run a tiller through the soil. But in the dark evergreen timber, it can be very difficult to spot elk, especially bedded elk, before they’re jumping out of their beds and storming up the mountainside in retreat.
Not only do you need to use your binoculars to pry apart the timber and examine every shadow, you need to be ready for quick shots as well. And those shots will need to be accurate. Elk are undoubtedly the toughest critters in North America. They can take a punishing bullet or arrow and still run up mountains that you could hardly climb at a slow crawl. But if you do your job right and put your shot where it needs to go, an elk will tip right over or drop within a few steps. At that point, you’re free to start planning a year’s worth of the finest eating that you’ll ever enjoy.