Enchanting as elk hunting may seem, if you’re not prepared it’s mostly not fun. In fact, it’s often positively agonizing.
No western species is more dreamed about by easterners than the rutting bull elk—and rightly so. Elk are, however, a species one should graduate to, as the West chews up and spits out a lot of would-be elk hunters.
Elk hunting, particularly DIY wilderness hunting, can be absolutely brutal. On the bright side, once you’re finally successful, the experience can be one of the most rewarding of your life.
But make no mistake: You cannot go from being a dedicated, all-day-in-the-treestand whitetail kind of guy to being a hard-core elk hunter overnight. Like transitioning from being a top-notch chess player to being a great cross-country track star—both of which require discipline, effort, and savvy—you’ve got to shift gears, both mentally and physically.
Here’s how to get started on the challenging and rewarding road to becoming an elk hunter.
The Species Step Ladder
You don’t want the West to burn you out the first time you try it, so start with small, palatable doses. The best way to do this is by opting to hunt the various species in ascending levels of achievability.
Pronghorn antelope are a great place to start. Success is high, and hunting methods quickly pull whitetail hunters out of their comfort zone and command new skill development.
Next, try a western whitetail hunt in north central Idaho or in areas of Montana or Wyoming where public land is checkerboarded among private ag land. With a bit of map research and a few phone calls to wildlife division offices, you can find a decent place to spot-and-stalk whitetails.
While cutting your teeth on pronghorn and maybe a western whitetail, start putting in for a decent mule deer tag. Not a premium lottery-type tag—although you should apply for those, too—but rather a tag that you’ll pull within three to five years and will provide the opportunity to hunt great country with a good mule deer population and a decent buck to doe ratio. Or opt to head north to Idaho or Montana for a DIY, public land spring bear hunt, which offers a great opportunity to backpack in and polish your spike camping, glassing, and spot-and-stalk skills.
The farther you can ethically shoot, the higher your chances of success. Purchase an accurate, reliable, not-too-heavy rifle in a capable caliber, pick a high-end modern bullet with good aerodynamics, and sight-in at 200 yards. Then calculate your holds to 500 yards and polish your marksmanship skills until you can keep your shots on a paper plate from field positions.
Schedule a hunt for pronghorn antelope. Such hunts are not particularly expensive, yet success is high. You’ll have to glass hard, cover miles, stalk long, judge wind, and shoot far. Don’t succumb to the temptation to roar around in a pickup and jump out and shoot. Your meat will be rank and the experience tainted if you do. It’s fine to use trucks or ATVs to access hunting areas and vantage points, but once the animals are found, leave the wheels behind.
Many antelope are taken in excess of 300 yards. Once you’ve become comfortable stalking as close as possible, going prone, judging the wind, and putting a careful shot through the boiler room, you’ll be well prepared to take long shots across the rugged canyons that elk call home.
Tip: For a relatively light, modern bolt action that will almost assuredly be very accurate, check out Browning’s X-Bolt and Tikka’s T3x Lite.
Learn to Glass
A very good binocular will be your best friend in the West’s rugged, wide-open country. Yep, your rifle comes second because if you can’t find game, you can’t shoot game.
Spend at least as much on your glass as you do on your rifle and scope. Binos that cost upwards of $1,000 will serve you well, and if you spend the $2,000 that it takes to get a premium binocular, you’ll never regret it. Hours of glassing through subpar glass causes eye strain, and eye strain causes headaches. Combine that with high altitude and a bit of dehydration and you can come down with a performance-halting, migraine-level headache.
Learn to get stable and slowly pick apart the country. With experience, you’ll begin to focus your attention on the types of areas that hold game, including heavily timbered north-facing slopes where elk like to bed, saddles that offer easy travel routes to feed or water, and so forth.
If you’re hunting really big country, you’ll be well served to pack a lightweight tripod with a binocular adapter. It’s truly a marvel how much more game you find by simply eliminating the tremors from your field of view.
Tip: Instead of packing a binocular and a separate rangefinder, save weight and reduce time and movement before a shot by carrying a premium rangefinding binocular. Yes, they’re obscenely expensive—and worth every cent.
Cover the Miles
Elk are nomadic, so you must be, too. In public wilderness country, most of the battle is just finding elk. You might have to plumb the depths of multiple vast, rugged canyons before finding a herd to hunt, and here’s where most first-timers lose heart. I’ve seen hunters give up and head home just three or four days into a hunt because they just don’t want to continue doing what it takes.
Physical fitness is important, but assuming you’re at least moderately fit, mental toughness is what gets you through 10 brutal days in rugged country and sends you home with a bull. Jogging to prep is good, but you’re better off climbing bleachers or walking a treadmill set at its maximum angle. Start easy to get seldom-used muscles working, then add a backpack. Every week add another 10 pounds to the pack. Having your joints, quads, and mental toughness honed will absolutely make or break your hunt.
Tip: Carry a lightweight energy powder and attempt to achieve a thankful-for-the-exercise perspective that makes long, arduous days fun.
Sprint for the Shot
When a big whitetail buck materializes, he’s often already within range. The challenge is controlling buck fever and making a good shot. When you find elk, however, they’re often a mile or more away and the light is always fading.
Back in my guiding days, my brother and I used to tell new clients that when you find a big muley buck or elk on public land, you go after them with everything you’ve got because you’ll likely never see them again.
Nothing can really prepare you for a desperate, mile-long hustle against time across high-altitude, broken wilderness, but two things will help. First, practice sprinting a quarter-mile and then—heart pounding and limbs shaking—flop into shooting position and force yourself to make a careful, precise shot. Second, get out of your cautious-whitetail-hunter mental state and get aggressive. There’s no worry that you might spook a big buck off the family property. Your primary concerns are to get close enough before the window of opportunity closes and to fire a clean, killing shot.
Tip: When moving fast, carry your rifle in your hands and always on the downhill side. That way, when (not if) you fall, you won’t fall on your rifle and scope.
Learn Spike-Camp Skills
Too many harsh-country miles eventually tear you down. Often the better part of valor is to backpack in and spike camp where you find elk or big alpine bucks. Every few days you can take a midday trip out for supplies and to hear the news from your hunting partners.
You’ll need a quality backpack that enables you to carry significant weight comfortably, super-light camping gear, and food. Don’t expect to like what you eat, but if you spike out in the right spot, you’ll hear bulls bugling through the night, sleep until dawn, and be hunting immediately when you roll out of your sleeping bag.
Tip: Camp near fresh water. Filter or treat it so you don’t have to pack drinking water.
Learn to Be Lonely
Wilderness hunting provides more time to meditate than to socialize. Vast wilderness can be both inspiring and daunting, especially if you’re not used to being alone. I know more than one experienced eastern hunter who are positively insecure in big-mountain country.
Yes, you can get lost or injured and find yourself in a real pickle. Polish up your basic survival skills and relish the challenge. Nothing is quite as mind-opening as confidently facing several days hunting wilderness country alone, but you’ve got to anticipate the loneliness, the occasional boredom, and the fear.
Tip: Carry a Sat phone or SPOT device in case of real emergency.
Be Motivated by Defeat
Western success rates are low for pretty much all species but pronghorn. Part of that is because most hunters only hunt weekends. Schedule a full week to hunt and the likelihood of success goes way up.
You will fail much of the time, particularly in the beginning. Once you learn the country and master the skills needed to hunt it effectively, you’ll fail less often, but you will still experience defeat. Sometimes, that defeat is almost insurmountable—few experiences can scar the soul like a missed shot after days of physically shattering effort.
There’s only one way to heal such scars. Come back. Give it your all and sooner or later you’ll stagger out of the backcountry with a heavy pack loaded with meat and topped with a magnificent set of antlers.
Tip: If you foresee only one trip West during your life, fork over the money for an outfitted, private-land hunt in mild country. You’ll still need a different skill set than what you’ve developed for whitetail, but you’ll have help and your likelihood of success will be much higher.
With a few less-challenging western hunts under your belt, and with a honed, newly found skill set, you will be ready for the challenge of elk country. Go deep, hunt hard, and hunt long. If the hunting gods smile, you might just come out with the heavy-racked Monarch of the West.