Conventional wisdom says that 10 percent of archery elk hunters kill elk 90 percent of the time. With typical archery success rates below 20 percent annually, this leaves little room for the remaining 90 percent of bowhunters to find success. What is the magic behind killing elk every year? The primary variable of bowhunter success is number of shot opportunities per season. Bowhunters who experience multiple opportunities each year, even passing shots on smaller bulls or cows, are the 10-percenters–lauded for their skills yet sometimes hated for their predictable success. Obviously, this debate becomes a matter of personal experience for each hunter, but I believe shot opportunities are ultimately determined by three primary factors.
This category for determining routine bowhunting success can vary widely among States and units within States. Having only hunted OTC areas in Colorado, I will primarily focus on this distinction. Of course, highly coveted draw units and private land access can dramatically improve a hunter’s odds. Within Colorado elk are found in every unit west of I-25, but heavier concentrations of them in certain specific areas should be a hunter’s primary focus. Specific to archery hunters, elk rutting areas become a key ingredient to predictable opportunities for success. Some of my favorite “honey-holes” are void of elk until around the 12th of September. Hunters who visit these places prior to this are likely to never return after a poor hunting experience. We must learn elk behavior well enough to understand why they move, when they move, and where they go; elk rut areas are usually very predictable from year to year once they have been located.
Of course, these areas can be difficult to find especially for hunters who have limited time to hunt/scout. I prefer looking in areas with a variety of vegetation: timber patches, aspen groves, willow and other scrub/bushes. My favorite areas to hunt usually share one ingredient; bushes and trees which are absolutely destroyed by bulls displaying their dominance. Nearly every bull I’ve ever killed was within a short distance of willow/scrub patches. In fact, I’ve arrowed 4 bulls within 100 yards of one another, all on the same mountain bench covered with aspens, willows, scrub oak, and a small water source. These areas are bull magnets during the rut whether they have a harem of their own or are simply dogging the herd bull and his cows. Once these rutting areas are located, remember them forever and lie to everyone else about where you killed the big bull you found there. If you’re not finding elk at least every-other day—move.
2. Gear/ Tactics
Hunters are bombarded these days with a myriad of products all advertised to make us more effective killers. To me, many of them are a joke and are akin to fishing lures– lures only need to catch fishermen to be a great product. Assuming I have a trusted bow that I am familiar and capable with, a few items are critical in my pack or on my body. Good boots (and socks) lead the list as they are my ticket to places where elk live; if I am limited by my feet, I’ll never reach these magical places. My pack and clothing is critical gear which must fit well, be built tough, and have the capacity to carry my other essentials. I will always have the requisite supplies to handle a dead elk, rain gear, fire starting items, water procurement abilities, insulating layer, and headlamp. Having the minimum gear to spend an unplanned night in the wilderness builds confidence to explore that next valley or ridge in search of elk. Decoys are incredibly valuable in many situations. The Heads Up Decoy is so light and easy to use it is always in or on my pack. Although smoke-in-a-bottle and face camouflage paint aren’t critical gear, they are effective and part of the fun behind chasing elusive elk.
An entire book could be written about elk hunting tactics (many have been), but one word defines my attitude: Aggressive! I prefer to create situations as opposed to waiting for them to develop on their own. I lack patience in most of life’s events; elk hunting is no different. Swirling wind is one of the few situations which force me to back-out and be patient. Archery elk hunting typically involves two speeds of movement: full-bore or super-stealthy. Once elk are located (or sometimes smelled) I transition from looking/moving to stalking. If elk are on the move I like to anticipate their route and simply get ahead of them. This tactic often involves running–no stealth required! Mid-day elk are often my favorite as they lazily relax on shady hillsides. A killer tactic is to stalk close to the herd on the downwind side (usually uphill) and wait for the herd bull to walk by. He will usually be up-and-about among the herd, checking cows or running satellite bulls away. Shot opportunities develop quickly when hunters press to create them; be ready and enjoy the adrenaline rush!
This final ingredient to success is difficult to clearly define as it involves our physical, mental, and emotional aspects. The mountains where elk live are a humbling environment for every hunter. Even excellent physical conditioning is no bulwark to frustration from lack of elk sightings, lack of bugles, heat, cold, sleep deprivation, or too many hunters, etc. One critical item to remember is that elk are likely nearby if hunting desirable habitat. We must train ourselves to stay focused and ready at any time for an elk encounter. I prefer to hunt all day while always being cognizant of the wind. Midday naps under a nice shady tree help re-energize the mind and body and often does wonders for creating elk encounters (waking-up to elk has happened too many times to count!). Take breaks as needed and enjoy the wilderness, but don’t pack it in early!
Envisioning our own success is a critical element to living it. I like to think of these “daydream” scenarios as good mental training for the real thing as well as a powerful aspect to actually creating our own reality. Stay positive. Know it in your mind and soul that you are going to go kill that big bull you just spotted. Go! Make it happen! Most of us have heard the saying “power of positive thinking”, but I believe there is something magical about this notion. Some days it is a real challenge to carry this positive spirit, but I can remember so many times when this power was surging from within culminating in killing fabulous animals. This all sounds easy from the comfort of our living rooms but we need to be mentally and physically prepared for struggle and challenge once in elk country.
Every successful elk hunt is a unique recipe of events and timing, never duplicated again. Our goal as bowhunters is to manipulate the variables which we can control while taking advantage of situations as they develop. If luck can be defined as opportunity meeting preparation, then we have much to contribute to our own luck. Pursuit of elk every September with bow and arrow is fuel for the soul; a re-connection with primal forces from our prehistoric roots. Link yourself to those primal instincts and guide them with positive energy to find success every year.