Close encounters with elk are life-changing and addicting experiences for bowhunters. There's truly nothing like being in extremely close proximity to these majestic animals — especially bugling bulls. Creating those encounters is difficult and many bowhunters are still waiting to experience those magic moments.
It is even harder to create that close-range encounter and also be able to successfully place an arrow in the vitals of an elk. More often than not, the archery hunter must do nothing wrong, have everything go right, and have some luck on their side to kill an elk with their bow.
With success rates for common public land archery hunts hovering around 10%, bowhunting elk is a pursuit that is not for the faint of heart or the half-committed hunter. Many things set the successful 10% apart from the other 90%, but let's take a look at five common mistakes that keep many bowhunters among the majority that go home with an unfilled tag.
1) You’re not dedicating enough time.
Hunters can get lucky, but luck isn't a strategy. Consistency comes from the commitment that is invested before, during, and after the hunt.
Many times hunters might not have time to spend time scouting their hunting area before the hunt begins, and in those instances, a hunter should try to maximize how many days they set aside for their hunt as possible. Nothing replaces time in the field. And sometimes it takes several days to locate animals on a hunt before "the hunt" truly begins.
If you are heading into a new area that you haven't scouted or hunted prior, figure out a way to stretch your 3-day hunt into a 5-day hunt, your 5-day hunt into a weeklong hunt, or your 7-day hunt into a 10-day hunt. You can always go home early if you tag-out early, but set aside as much time as you can to give yourself as much opportunity as possible.
Another strategy for maximizing your time and increasing your chances of success is to hunt the same area year after year. Many over-the-counter hunters are tempted to bounce around from unit to unit in search of a magical honey hole. In all reality, those hunters are typically better off investing themselves in learning an area well, year after year. With patience and dedication, you can learn how elk use an area, how they respond to pressure, where they like to spend time in different conditions, etc.
Think about your home state and the animals you know best. You know the behavior, patterns, and habits of these animals because of the time you invested learning them.
2) You’re not paying attention to the wind or calling setups.
It is essential to understand that every move made in the elk woods has the potential to alert elk and reduce a hunter’s opportunity at filling their tag. The hunter must account for both predominant winds and thermals in their hunting area, and also understand how these wind patterns change with the time of day, terrain, and other factors. To be successful, a hunter must think about every entrance and exit strategy as they plan their daily hunts, and keep the wind in mind as they move throughout the day. For example, side-hilling below a bedding area when the thermals are rising at midday is a great way to alert the elk of your presence.
The wind is also an important factor to consider when calling elk. This includes location calling, cold calling setups, and bugling or cow-calling in the known proximity of elk. Where hunters call from, and how the wind will affect the "carry" of that call, is important to consider. Where the caller and/or shooter is located while calling proximate elk and anticipating the approach of those elk is very critical.
The wind can and will switch without any notice, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do everything you can to keep the wind in your favor while moving through elk country, calling elk, and setting up for shot opportunities when elk may be headed in your direction.
3) You’re not in good enough physical shape.
Getting in shape for elk season has become a popular topic on social media and in the hunting community, and for a good reason. Elk live in some of the roughest and most challenging parts of mountains, often up near timberline during September. To hunt elk where they feel most secure will present some physical challenges, and the hunter should prepare accordingly.
The difference between many successful and unsuccessful elk hunters is the ability to make a quick and stealthy move on a bull in time to cut him off or get close enough to call him in. If a hunter is huffing and puffing up the mountain because they did not take their offseason training seriously, they will struggle to get into the right spot at the right time and capitalize on the fleeting opportunity.
In addition to those quick actions, your base of physical conditioning is also what will give you the long-term capacity to hunt hard and cover miles day after day on an extended hunt. A lot of guys can crush it in the mountains for a day or two, but they're the ones feeling crushed by day three or four. The stamina you build in the off-season will directly translate to stamina during your hunt.
This year, train like it is your last elk hunting trip of your life, and you will get closer than you ever have before and maybe send an arrow into a bull's vitals.
4) You’re too timid or too aggressive.
When it comes to elk hunting, hunters can tend to be either too timid or too aggressive. A consistently successful hunter needs to be both timid and aggressive as the specific situation dictates. Knowing when to be patient or when to push is ultimately a skill developed with experience.
Timid hunters tend to call from a stationary position for too long, stalk elk so slowly and carefully that they never catch up to the herd, or set up on a water hole or other ambush area and wait it out, even when the conditions are wrong.
Overly aggressive hunters tend to get busted by cows they didn’t see, stalk with a lousy wind direction, cross open meadows when it isn't required, and find themselves pushing elk up and over the top into the next basin.
The most successful hunters know when to practice calculated patience, and they also know when to aggressively call and move or close the distance in the direction of elk.
Analyze every scenario and encounter — both in the past, as well as those opportunities yet to come — to assess whether you were too timid or too aggressive for that scenario. The experiences you have and lessons you learn will help you know how to respond in the future.
5) You do not adapt.
To be consistently successful when elk hunting with a bow, a hunter must be willing to adapt in any and every situation. This may mean you have to change tactics from calling to spot-and-stalk. It may mean you have to pick up and move to a different drainage, or even to the other side of the unit. This may mean that a hunter finds elk on lower elevation BLM land one year, due to heavy snow that pushed the elk off the mountain, then hunt higher elevation the next year because mild conditions are keeping the elk up on the mountain.
Every year, every hunt and every elk encounter will be different. A consistently successful hunter reads the year, the hunt, and the situation to come up with the best plan for that unique moment.
To become more consistent, you must examine your flaws, mistakes, and successes as learning experiences. Every experience is an opportunity that should instruct you and help you make good decisions in the future. Take a hard, honest look at yourself, your experiences, and your mistakes — all with the goal of becoming a better hunter this year, and in the years to come.
Jake Horton grew up in rural Pennsylvania hunting deer, bears, turkeys, waterfowl, and everything in between. His annual western hunting trips were the highlight of his years, so upon graduating college he decided that Colorado would be a great place to live with his wife Gina and four daughters. Now he enjoys hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and photographing wildlife just minutes from his home. He loves to share his passion for the outdoors with men and women who are just trying to get started in the western hunting world in order to help them be successful. If you want to follow along with Jake and his western hunting experiences, follow him on Instagram @wildernesspeak.
All Photos by @craigwatsonphoto