How to create success on difficult elk hunts


Bull elk with herd
Photo credit: Ron Niziolek

Elk hunting and the associated difficulties are like fire and fuel -- you cannot have one without the other. Understanding what to expect when chasing elk in the mountains is important. It can be a grueling task and makes you gauge your personal fitness, fears and commitment.

Weather difficulties

Full moon while elk hunting

Inclement weather can cause significant difficulty while bowhunting for elk. If it is too hot, it may decrease daytime activity. Warm temperatures combined with a full moon can lead to a dramatic decrease in activity. The dryness can make stalking difficult or impossible, but if finding an active water source or wallow with predictable wind can salvage your hunt.

Elk wallow

I have taken a couple of good bulls over wallows on hot afternoons. Another tactic is to concentrate your efforts on north facing timbered slopes that are contoured with bedding area benches. Multiple calling setups near bedding areas may be your only effective choice during warm weather.

Herd of elk in snow
The flipside is too much rain and/or snow. I’m not talking about the typical afternoon thunderstorms that are prevalent in the mountains, but serious storms lasting for a couple of days or more. Prolonged cold and wet conditions will challenge your mental commitment to continue hunting. If hunting from a base camp with a trailer or tent and a wood stove, having the ability to dry gear can be a huge mental boost. When confined to a bivy shelter or backpack tent, drying gear is all but impossible, and unless you are dressed in wool or the wide array of technical clothing available, you will be miserable. The upside is that stalking conditions will be perfect. Since I prefer spotting and stalking, my favorite weather conditions are after a fresh snow has melted.

Rugged terrain

Elk hunting terrain

Elk hunting terrain varies widely depending on location, but typically ranges in elevations from 5,000 to 13,000 feet. There are areas in places like Arizona that are more flat and may allow you to hike 10 to 20 miles per day. Years ago, I learned that while this is physically easy elk hunting, without a functional GPS unit, I was easily turned around. The alternative elk terrain is the incredibly steep mountainous country found in other western states, with the toughest terrain found in Idaho. Lung searing hikes at high altitudes can cause altitude sickness (AMS), lactic acid buildup and blisters from endless uneven ground. Most problems can be avoided or minimized with proper physical conditioning, nutrition and comfortable boots. You should be aware of the symptoms of AMS so you can recognize if your health is in jeopardy. Headaches are the most common complaint and resting for a few days should improve symptoms.

Continued below.

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Predator problems

Wolf track in snow

Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are home to wolves and grizzly bears. These predators can have quite an impact on your selected hunting area so be prepared with Plan B and Plan C. In northwest Wyoming, there are high concentrations of wolves and grizzlies. I have watched elk and wolves together in the same valley — even the same meadow at times — with just a cautious reaction from the elk. I have also seen a pack of wolves completely clear out a valley and the elk do not return for days. Elk recognize the hunting behavior of the wolves and react accordingly. Keep that in mind as you hunt these states. One day may be the best hunting you have ever experienced and the next day you may not see a single elk. Wolves can definitely impact your hunt.

Pepper spray for bears

Grizzly bears may also cause difficulties. I have had my share of encounters with them. My best advice is to be aware at all times, but do not let the thought of bears prevent you from hunting where you would like. Either carry bear spray or wear a gun on your belt so that you are prepared should you encounter a grizzly. Personally, I carry bear spray since I can flip the safety off quickly and spray right from my hip if needed. I also like the peace of mind that a handgun or shotgun gives me at night when I am alone in my tent.

Grizzly bear

The most significant way a grizzly may impact your hunt is after an elk goes down and you must track it, find it, and break it down to pack it out. Bears find kills quickly, so the faster you can bag the quarters and move them away from the carcass, the better. Try to move them at least a couple hundred yards and, if possible, leave them where you can observe the kill site. On your return trips, you will feel more comfortable if you can glass the carcass for bears rather than run into one while loading your harvest.

The difficulty of silent elk

Glassing for bull elk

Every bowhunter’s nightmare is a week-long vacation without any bugling activity. You cannot change your plans this late, so what do you do? Try to make the best of a bad situation! Yes, it is infinitely more difficult to find and hunt silent elk, but that does not mean it is impossible. The key is to cover ground and look for very fresh sign — possibly even bumping some elk in the process!

Checking out a map on an elk hunt

Again, dark timbered north facing slopes are important. Look especially hard where drainages converge for water or wallows. Search out rub trees. If you find a significant number of rubbed trees in close proximity to each other, you are most likely right in the bull’s bedroom. Take advantage and try some cold calling. Try not to give up too soon. Many times bulls will remain quiet and sneak in. I recommend a couple of calling sequences, then sneaking forward 50 yards and staying quiet for 20 minutes or so. You may put yourself within range if a bull comes in and hangs up a distance from your original setup.

Summing it up

Ron Niziolek with an archery bull elk

Staying positive and remaining persistent will help you overcome elk hunting difficulties. Remain committed for the duration of your planned hunt. Remember that every hour spent in the woods could be the one when it all comes together. When you are holding those antlers, any difficulties you have encountered will become part of the story you tell when you talk about your memorable hunt.


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