Elk poured over the ridge in a steady wave, two legal bulls among the herd. My hunter sucked at the high-altitude air, trying to catch his wind. A moment later the elk were gone, and the client emphatically insisting that he was not climbing the ridge after him. I tried to talk him into it, because I knew where those elk had gone. I knew that if only we could crest that ridge, the opportunity he had traveled clear across the Lower 48 for would be waiting. But he would not—perhaps could not—do it.
This story repeats itself multiple times every fall in the rough country elk call home. A few avoidable mistakes cost a lot of hunters a lot of elk, year after year. Don’t be that guy. Here’s how to prepare now for success in the elk woods this fall.
The best elk hunts are limited draw hunts, awarded by lottery each year. Application periods vary by state from late winter to early spring. Put in your time researching and filling out applications. Unfortunately, due to a supply & demand imbalance, those tags are getting ever-increasingly hard to draw. But it’s worth applying each year, and someday you just might draw the best elk hunt of your life. Good states to apply in are Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Oregon. Meanwhile, develop your skill and experience levels by hunting over the counter (OTC) or easily drawn units. Great easy-draw or OTC hunts can be found in Utah (spike only hunts), Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming.
Your next task is to use Google Earth to scout out likely elk honey-holes. Elk need four things: Food, water, cover, and security. Find those four things, and you will find elk. Favored feeding areas include open south-facing grassy slopes, hidden deep-timber meadows, and brush-filled woods – especially if the woods are aspen or oak. A dark, north-facing timbered slope provides ideal bedding cover, and if water lies at the base of the slope or in-between bedding and feeding areas you’ve found a honey-hole. Security, the last requirement, means one thing these days: no people. The harder an area is to get to, the better the hunting will be. Only one caveat applies: If there are wolves in the region, the elk will move erratically in an effort to avoid them.
More opportunities at elk are lost every year to being out of shape than any other one thing. Elk live in tough, steep terrain with a shortage of highly oxygenated air. Whether you are young, old, or in-between, get in the best physical shape you possibly can. Run, work out with weights, ride a bicycle, and climb hills or stadium stairs with a loaded backpack on. Eat good food and consider a good multi-vitamin or supplement program like Mountain Ops. Sign up for a race or two during the summer– setting concrete deadlines will motivate you to work even harder. One word of caution, though: take care of your body. Don’t push so hard that you hurt yourself. Going into your hunt with a strain or injury is a recipe for trouble.
The second most common reason hunters fail to take home an elk is unfamiliarity with their rifle or bow. It is an agonizing thing to watch a big bull walk away because a hunter couldn’t find the elk in their scope, or couldn’t get into an adequate field position. You should spend time with your rifle until your better half becomes jealous—then spend some more. Once it’s sighted in at the range, practice shooting and dry firing from every conceivable field position, and at myriad different targets. I have never been able to find a bench-rest conveniently nearby when I wanted to shoot an elk, but there usually is a rock, log, tree, or backpack just waiting to help out. When the big moment arrives, you should be able to drop into the best available position, instantly find the elk in your scope, and squeeze off a steady shot. Train to immediately rack another cartridge into the chamber and follow up. Elk are tough, so keep sending careful shots until they are down.
Thousands of elk, including some of my own, have been killed with simple cup-and-core bullets, or even cast lead projectiles. They work fine, in lots of cases. But you will up your odds—and your opportunities—if you shoot a bullet that is capable of performing under any circumstances. Regardless if your shot is very close, very far, or severely quartering toward or away, you want a bullet that will succeed in reaching the vitals. Use a premium projectile like Federal’s…