Close-In Hunting for Elk
Thousands of elk hunters each year have their favorite means of bagging an autumn wapiti. In a minute Iíll tell you of a specialized technique by which a friend of mine once took a bull every fall for 12 years before he finally missed out! To top it off, the son-of-a-gun hunted mostly in close-in units and only on weekends.
by Richard North
The most classic elk-hunting method is to whistle, grunt, and "bark" mature bulls into range during the mid-September rut. With modern mouth diaphragms and seductive "cow calls," this approach is so effective that elk rifle hunts all over the West are now held in post-rut October to avoid heavy bull killoffs.
Eight back-country units in Idaho are still open to rifle/bugle hunting in September. In a few warmer and lower units, you also might "talk to" an undisturbed bull still on the prowl when general hunts open in early October. Other than this, calling a rutting elk in Idaho is mostly an early-season bowhunting proposition.
A very few hunters working in larger groups successfully practice elk "drives" in country they know well. Herded-up elk arenít very predictable, however, and if they decide to go thataway, theyíll take half the forest down with them as they go. Besides, most elk live in country so wild and vast that it takes a small army of coordinated gunners to surround, push, and ambush a herd.
A similar but quieter approach is to snipe one of the big animals as herds move between feeding areas, water, and mid-day beds. If you can dope out their daily migration route between bed and board, try locating yourself nearby just before dawn. Stay downwind, avoid silhouetting yourself against sky or other light-colored background, and move in with extreme silence. Hard-hunted elk in particular usually stick in very heavy cover during daylight hours and move out only at night for feeding. You might get lucky and catch them on their return trip at first light, while most hunters are still sipping their last camp coffee.
If your area is really being hammered by hunters, this last method might not work at all. Badly spooked animals would rather stay safely hidden around the clock than fill their bellies in an exposed pasture a mile or more from refuge cover. Ambush-shooting is also limited to very brief periods at dawn and dusk. Mid-day hours are next to worthless for this approach, unless other hunters are actively stirring up game.
In theory, glassing-and-stalking should work great on undisturbed elk resting and feeding in open pastures. But other than Yellowstone Park, tell me where elk stay in the open these days once the shooting starts! No, modern elk are mostly creatures of dense forest during hunting season. Those that arenít were shot off long ago.
So how do you root out elk herds holed up in super-dense brush? The most popular (and least effective) method of doing so is random "still-hunting". In this approach you simply walk as silently as possible through the woods, hoping to spot an animal before it sees you. The game is "still" and youíre moving, so donít confuse this technique with stand or ambush hunting in which the hunter remains still while game comes to him.
Beginning elk hunters who have recently "graduated" from easy-to-jump mule deer are especially fond of still-hunting. They often expect to jump a big, fat bull and blaze away while the animal bounds away in the open. This does happen, but I wouldnít count on it! More likely, a brushed-up bull will hear or smell you coming long before youíre in range. Heíll then silently slip away unseen or crash away safely behind a concealing screen of branches, leaving you gnashing your teeth and stomping your foot.
Yet it is by a highly refined form of still-hunting that my friend, mentioned earlier, has bagged so many bulls! The first difference is that he never still-hunts "at random." The second is that he moves more slowly and silently through the woods than the vast majority of hunters are emotionally capable of.
After arriving in good elk country (with or without hordes of competing hunters before him), my pal typically locates the biggest, densest, nastiest, darkest, most impenetrable tangle of windfallen trees and snarled brush in the entire country. He says you can be certain thatís where local elk are holed up. He then starts circling around the edges of the tangle, whether itís a few hundred yards or a full mile across. Heís looking for fresh tracks and droppings to confirm that elk are indeed hiding inside that particular cover. If he finds no evidence of holed-up elk, he moves on quickly to other brush tangles and repeats the whole process.
Once he finds fresh elk sign, my systematic buddy enters the "elk jungle" from the downwind side. He typically takes one step, then scans the brush ahead for many minutes. He may stand in one place for a mini-eternity, listening and even smelling for the faintest sign of game ahead. Then he takes another step, and repeats the pattern all over. Sooner or later he works his way to within mere yards of an entire herd of bedded elk, whereupon he freezes while searching among many cows for the bull he wants. If heís lucky, no wind or sound gives him away, and he spots his bull before an alert cow barks a general panic alarm.
Several items of equipment are especially important to this hunting method. One is super-soft and neutrally-hued clothes. Head-to-toe wool is generally the softest and quietest material. For safetyís sake, clothing probably should be red or orange, (preferably broken up in camo patterns), but definitely not the bright fluorescent cast so widely sold these days. Face and hands camouflage is also strongly advised, as is a heavy dose of body scent neutralizer. On longer hunts youíll work up a daily sweat, so take a bath and change clothes regularly. Do this long before hunting companions begin to complain, since they canít smell nearly as well as a point-blank elk herd!
For close-in stalking like this, thin-soled boots are much better than heavy, stiff footgear. You might want to pack some dark-colored running shoes along and switch to them from your regular boots before entering a red-hot elk covert. A second very successful hunting friend of mine simply removes his boots and completes delicate close-range stalks in stocking feet! Now, thatís real elk hunting dedication.
In the dense, shadowy deadfall jungles where mid-day elk typically bed, an average-quality rifle scope isnít of much use and could even handicap close-range shooting. Exceptionally bright, expensive optics are much better for picking out a clear firing lane in these low-light conditions. If your eyes are still good, open sights should also do. You definitely donít want to wound an elk in track-riddled thickets of this kind. One shot is all youíre ever likely to get, so make it count!
If all this sounds like a super-tough, tension-filled hunting method, youíre right -- but it clearly produces fabulous results.
My pal says he has shot several bulls right in their beds a mere 20 or 30 feet away. He points out that few hunters have the patience, self-discipline, and systematic mind to hunt this way, but for those who do, thatís how to bag an elk at 10 paces! In fact, Iíve found (from limited experience, I grant you), that the best hunters for this degree of patience are huntresses, and those experienced with bowhunting tactics.