September 03, 2023
In the old song by Johnny Horton, “Battle of New Orleans,” there is a reference to “Old Hickory,” the nickname of Colonel Andrew Jackson, who later became our seventh president. He was renowned for having his fighters hold off shooting the enemy, “til we looked ‘em in the eye.” The British lost several thousand men; the Americans, about 70. Although elk certainly aren’t our opponents, the analogy of waiting to shoot until they are that close certainly rings true. If you didn’t start humming that song or singing it in your head, I am impressed.
Bowhunting elk is certainly one of the most exciting hunts in existence. Every year, droves of hunters head out after the regal elk—visions of big ivory-tipped bulls bugling and walking or running into bow range. I know many of us shoot cows as well, but I think if we are being honest, we don’t lie awake dreaming of a big slick-head cow, even if we are happy to take one.
Many of us head afield each year, not fully realizing the tremendous odds stacked against us. Despite our high hopes, not to mention all the money spent and all the time that goes into preparing for an elk hunt, the fact is: The percentages are just not with us. Many of you reading this may understand exactly what I mean.
I struggled on public land when I first started hunting elk. Even after har- vesting both bulls and a few cows on public land, it seemed I wasn’t getting the shot opportunities I felt I should be getting. I knew I was a better hunter than that, yet my success levels on both public and private land were just not what I wanted them to be. Many hunters give up after frustrating experiences, or after multiple years of not killing an elk. I was lucky, in that I had just enough success to keep me motivated.
I decided to try to learn more about elk: Their habits, what they eat, how they are impacted by predators, how far they travel, how their feeding habits change during different times of the year, and how to talk their language. I even asked experienced elk hunters questions, because I wanted to know why some people seemed to be consistently successful, while others were not.
I also studied the statistics from the Colorado Division of Wildlife. I wanted to know what percentage of other bowhunters were successful, and how I was doing in comparison to other elk hunters. Studying the odds made me feel way better about how I was doing. It also pushed me to not only be better, but to continue following the odds to keep track of what was going on and to be able to help others understand that they weren’t necessarily bad elk hunters.
For example, in Colorado in 2019, we had 51,485 archery elk hunters. That is both resident and nonresident hunters combined. In 2019, bowhunters had an 11-percent success rate. That number included both bulls and cows harvested. That doesn’t sound too bad, until you realize that the 11-percent success rate also included not only public-land hunts, but also guided and private-land hunts, plus limited-draw hunts, where hunters may have put in for 25-plus years to draw an area with only a few tags available that may have close to a 100-percent success rate with a bow. You may also be interested to know that out of the 5,915 elk harvested to make that 11-percent success rate, 1,361 of those were cows. So if we just look at the percentage of bowhunters in Colorado who killed a bull elk in 2019 , that number was just 8.7 percent.
It’s pretty easy to deduce that if you subtracted all the limit- ed-draw hunts, guided hunts, and private-land hunts where success percentages are usually the highest, the odds are pretty dismal. So if you go out on public land after elk with a bow and actually get one, pat yourself on the back, because you have beaten the odds.
In the interest of full disclosure, these percentages don’t show the number of bowhunters who missed, came super close, or passed on elk. Yes, I said passed on elk. I personally don’t pass on any legal elk, but I do know others who do, including some of my own elk clients. You see, I got so addicted to hunting elk, that besides hunting these wonderful animals for myself, I have been guiding elk hunters in Colorado for over 25 years with bow, muzzleloader, and rifle. I guide clients on both public and private land I am permitted access to, so I am writing this because after harvesting just over 30 elk myself on both public land in three different states as well as quite a few on our ranch and on guided hunts with others, I have made a lot of mistakes that hopefully others can learn from. With all the time I spend watching elk on our ranch and guiding clients, I do feel I know a little more about them than I did when I first started.
There is rarely just one thing that results in a successful archery elk hunt. It is usually a combination of a lot of small things working out, or just one small thing not working out. By that I mean let’s look at all the things that have to happen to make a successful elk hunt. You have to get an elk in range. You have to draw your bow undetected without getting winded before you make the shot. The elk has to present a shot. You have to execute an accurate shot. That may mean using a range-finder before even drawing your bow, which means more movement and more time, both of which increase your odds of getting busted by wind swirling or the elk seeing your movement.
Your equipment must function without being interrupted by an arrow striking a twig. You have to ensure your bow’s limbs won’t contact anything when you shoot. You can’t have an issue with your rest, release, peep sight, or have your broadhead open in flight ( if using a mechanical head). Your string can’t break, and your bow and arrow must be silent when you draw. Sound crazy? I have seen all these issues result in a lost shot opportunity. To help avoid some of these problems, I suggest you start by first looking over your equipment every day during your hunt. Next, every time you hunker down in some brush, get into your blind, or are about to set up to call, draw your bow to make sure your bow’s limbs are clear of anything that could alter your shot. I have watched clients get into brush that I knew they couldn’t draw in if a bull showed up. They weren’t inexperienced hunters; they were just inexperienced at hunting from the ground. I spend almost as much time picking a perfect ambush spot to set up in, as I do actually hunting. I want the wind in my face, the sun at my back, and enough cover to conceal me but not so much that I can’t draw my bow without interference.
If you’ve never bowhunted elk, or you have and you fall into the category of the vast majority of unsuccessful elk hunters, you may be wondering how you can increase your odds. Here are some of the mistakes I have made myself, and those mistakes I’ve watched others make when hunting elk.
Every year, I have some clients who don’t realize how tough elk hunting is, or what the odds of being successful are. Time and again, I watch said clients pass on a smaller bull or cow, that by the end of the hunt they wish they had taken. Make up your mind before you ever go out. If you are going to hold out for a trophy, then do it. If, however, you realize that if it came down to the last day you would be happy with a small bull or cow, then take the shot if it presents itself on the first morning of the first day and be proud and happy you are in the small percentage of successful archery elk hunters.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO MOVE
Elk can and do travel large distances when spooked by people or predators. Bulls searching for cows ready to breed will also travel long distances. We had one bull on our Stealth Cam trail camera at a waterhole one day, that was killed by one of our clients seven miles away as the crow flies 24 hours later. You have two options if you aren’t into the elk: Wait and hope they circle back into the area before you have to go, or keep moving until you find where they are. I prefer to travel until I find them.
AVOID THE RUSH
Opening day of elk season on public land is often a zoo. You may have to hike quite a ways to get away from people. You can use this to your advantage if you study the escape routes and learn areas elk will go to avoid pressure. This is generally pretty easy, if you look for the thickest cover around, or the shortest route to private land where they may head so as not to be as pressured. Oftentimes, that chaos of the first 10 days of the season is best to avoid. When elk season starts out west, the majority of the elk are not breeding yet and are still on their normal summer routine of feeding and bedding in larger groups before they break up for the rut. The advantage to that is if you are in the elk, you are in them; the disadvantage is that if you aren’t in them, you aren’t. Sounds simple, but my point here is you might be better served to wait until a little later in the season before you start hunting them hard, because this is when elk splinter off into smaller herds, and bulls are searching for cows that are getting ready to come into estrus. Elk that are spread out into smaller herds increase your odds of running into them. Bottom line: Avoid the mentality of “first week is going to be best,” and consider waiting until the parking lots thin out later in the season.
DO WHAT YOU DO BEST
I am convinced that if many of the experienced deer hunters who come out elk hunting used the strategies they are great at and familiar with, the success percentage on elk would soar. The problem is, oftentimes people who are used to effectively hunting from blinds or trees, suddenly start walking around the woods trying to call elk into range. Stay in your wheelhouse. We harvest as many if not more elk from blinds and treestands as we do calling. Don’t get me wrong. Calling is great, if you know how to do it right. But if you want to increase your odds, then set up in a stand or blind near an active trail, water source, or wallow. I also like setting up on the edge of small meadows that are bordered by dark timber elk are bedding in. If elk aren’t coming out early enough, I will often try quietly slipping into the dark timber a little ways in an attempt to catch them where they may be staging before stepping out at last light.
HUNT THE EVENINGS
In the mornings, most hunters are trying to beat the elk before they bed down. You have to try to get ahead of them and cut them off. This is often difficult and hard to do without spooking the elk. If I am on a herd, I much rather prefer to let them go bed down and then play the wind that evening in an attempt to catch them going back out to feed in the afternoon. At this point, I try to set up and let them come to me for a close shot. That may be setting up a treestand or stacking some brush to conceal myself. Or just trying to find some good cover where I think they will pass by within bow range. Bear in mind, elk will often come back into the field in the late afternoon or early evening by a different trail than they left out of in the morning. If there are three major trails coming into a meadow and I watch the elk leave out on one, I will pick one of the other two trails based on cover and wind direction. Since elk like to travel with the wind in their face whenever possible, I will often search for a bend in the trail or a natural obstacle that may put the wind in my face. Letting the elk walk past on their way to feed, water, or wallow increases the odds of an up close, easy shot at a calm elk.
This is probably the biggest reason elk success rates are low. I cringe most times when I hear someone calling. It’s because they do what I used to do: Call way too much, and oftentimes way too loud. If I could make a call that would only allow itself to make two to three low cow calls every hour, I could increase elk-harvest statistics by at least 20 percent.
There are times when it’s advisable to cow call and bugle to try to sound like a herd. But it’s not often, and you better know what you are doing, or you will run elk into your buddy a mile away. I suggest making just two to three soft cow elk calls when sitting on a trail and then wait. Same if you are slipping through the woods quietly. If you want to increase your odds, call softly a few times, and then sneak 40–60 yards toward where you know the elk are and set up in cover for 30 minutes. I also angle off the direct upwind side, as most elk on public land will often try to circle around the source of what they heard. If an elk comes to check out where it last heard your calling, you are already set up to catch it coming in. The biggest problem with calling elk is that they are on high alert when they do come in, because they are trying to see, hear, or wind what they think might be another elk. On average, we have to call 10 elk into bow range to get one killed.
I have used elk antlers to rattle-up elk just like whitetails. Use actual elk sheds to make it sound right. It’s a pain to carry them around, but during pre-rut or the rut, it can be just the ticket. Get an elk decoy. I have had great success with them. I like the Montana Decoy, because it’s an actual picture of a real elk. They will often also keep a bull from circling, and you can catch them coming into it if you set it behind you for some in-your-face action. I rarely call now without using a decoy, because I think it gives me that much of an edge.
If you are elk hunting and hiking, I don’t care how much scent-elimination spray you apply to yourself, or how much carbon your clothes have in them. You are going to stink. If an elk smells you, unless you are at a park or a zoo, they are going to run. Pretty simple. I do like to use elk scent on and around a blind to help hold an elk a little longer, or on a decoy. I use scents from Conquest, but there are others to choose from.
Every tactic covered in this article is effective, depending on the situation at hand. But if I had to pick the one that has rewarded me with the most success over the years, it would be to sit relatively quiet at a place where they feel comfortable being each and every day—and with the wind in my favor, of course.