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Big Bull Blunders

Common mistakes in the Backcountry.

When gearing-up for an elk hunt, the author suggests purchasing equipment that will keep you comfortable during harsh weather, safe when the terrain becomes shaky, and on game in any situation. This means not skimping on essentials such as optics and other important gear.

For the past 25 years, I've been a serious, do-it-yourself archery elk hunter. Such being the case, I've slowly refined my elk hunting tactics down to a very productive system, which eliminates many of the mistakes that lower your odds for success. In the following lines, I'll try to highlight many of the ways that you can make such an outing more productive and enjoyable. If you're thinking about trying a "self" hunt for elk on our open public lands of the West, consider addressing these issues, and you'll save yourself a lot of hard knocks.

The Big Three

By far, most do-it-yourself bowhunts for elk are doomed to failure before they ever get started because an individual fails to supply a liberal dose of three critical ingredients: time, and physical and mental toughness. All these factors are intertwined, yet distinctly separate. Only by learning to combine all of them at a top-end level can you cross the dividing line between consistent success and average failure. Few people have any idea of the true level of participation I'm really talking about here; even fewer will ever grasp such a reality. Most stay on the porch, a few run with the big dogs.

Firstly, and by far most importantly, comes mental toughness--herein lies the single greatest factor to success or failure in the do-it-yourself, elk bowhunting game. You must have a burning desire to do it; to learn it, to settle for nothing less than your absolute best effort. If this is you, if you've got the fire inside, you'll find a way to supply everything else.

In addition to this mental toughness, you must be able to back it up with a capable, warm body that can get the job done. The physical rigors involved in this type of hunting must be experienced to be understood. Here, let me interject this: Certainly, you can bowhunt for elk on your own without "taking it to the limit," as I've always done. Nevertheless, from my own personal experience, this type of "top-end" effort is absolutely necessary to achieve the kind of success that I've enjoyed--100-percent, on public land, mature bulls.

If you've got the mind and body for the undertaking, then you must supply the time to bring it all together. You'll spend countless hours preparing for the trip before it ever starts. Additionally, whenever you get to elk country (especially if you'll be hunting above 10,000 feet in elevation), you must figure that a large part of the first week will be needed for your body to acclimatize, and to start to acquire the physical capacities it needs to accomplish the task at hand. As you can probably see why, I always allow at least two weeks for my elk trips--three weeks is much better. Let me give you an example of how I quickly learned the necessity of combining a liberal dose of time and toughness to assure success.

On any bowhunt deep in the backcountry, be prepared to work hard. Physical and mental toughness are sure to swing the odds in your favor.

The first time I attempted a do-it-yourself elk bowhunt was in 1981. I knew virtually nothing about what I was getting into, but I had the desire to simply dive in headfirst. My first few days were spent climbing around in near-vertical country at a very high elevation. I got altitude sickness and lost half of my third, and all of my fourth day afield. Getting started again--as I started to get my "mountain legs and lungs" about me--I soon found myself into elk action.


As I neared success, the time I'd allotted for the trip (10 days) ran out. I headed for home just as I was getting prepared to bow-kill my first elk. Leaving like this certainly yanked my under-shorts into an immediate and quite serious wad. As soon as I got home, I started preparing to go back. Meeting some work requirements as quickly as possible, I loaded my old truck and headed to the mountains again.

This time, I was going to stay until I got the job done, or the season closed, whichever came first. With the determination to mentally and physically stretch my body to its limits each day, and with the time to hunt unhurriedly, I killed my first bull after 13 days of gut wrenching toil and strain.

The landscape on wilderness hunts has the potential to be fickle. Don't let the country get the best of you, be prepared for anything.

Synthetic Helpmates

If you've supplied the aforementioned ingredients for success, it's certainly a good idea to attempt to save yourself as much heartache as possible. Owing to the inherent difficulty of such an outing, it's an absolute necessity to surround yourself with gear that keeps you safe, comfortable and effective. On my first hunt, I was sadly deficient in support gear, and thus, my hunting effectiveness suffered greatly. When I got home, I saved every dime I could muster for the next year so that I could purchase some quality backpacking equipment, clothing and optics. As I look back on this sacrifice of money, however, I realize that my total expenditure was less than what the average guided hunt costs...what a deal!

I hesitate to tell people to equip themselves with top-end gear before they ever attempt their first do-it-yourself hunt for elk. I've seen many get the gear, try the trip, and then bail out. On the other hand, if you don't have the good gear when you first try such an outing, you'll be even more inclined to "melt down." I say, get the gear. E-Bay can be a lifesaver!

Spaced Out

One of the most intimidating factors that most newcomers face on a mountainous hunt is the "size" of the country. The elk habitat that I tackle is best described by adjectives such as rough, rugged, thick, steep and dangerous. The reality of getting lost or seriously injured in such country is a constant threat. Certainly, the unprepared novice is going to have problems remaining orientated in elk country, though, with time, you'll develop the savvy to get the job done effectively and safely.

After the kill, the work begins. If not prepared, this can be a burden and has the potential to turn a successful hunt sour.

Rather than learning everything the hard way, however, it's best to get savvy on the use of a compass and topographic maps. Thus equipped, the fear of being lost becomes a relatively mute point. Additionally, there's another option--the GPS. Use it only as a "backup" to your own skills, not as a "crutch."

Natural Helpmates

Due to the sheer nature of a backcountry elk hunt, it is impossible to practice good bodily hygiene. Combine this with an elk's excellent scenting abilities, and you see the problem. Few hunters truly give elk the credit they deserve in the olfactory department. Personally, I've witnessed elk smell me at nearly one half-mile away. Such being the case, it goes without saying that you've got to use the wind as your ally--nothing else will suffice.

Failure to understand the workings of air currents in relation to topography and temperature changes is a sure recipe for failure. Particularly, "thermal" air currents--the natural flow of air up or down a slope--are the ones we're talking about here. Once you're in the element with the elk, "playing the thermals" will go further towards determining your success or failure than any other single factor. For instance: Hunt west and/or north facing slopes in the mornings because they will remain shaded longer, thus allowing for steady, downhill airflow. Contrarily, hunt east-facing slopes in the evening because they will "shade-up" earlier, providing dependable downhill air movement. As far as midday times are concerned, I have a simple rule here: Stay out of the woods. Winds are too unpredictable, and you'll be hunting elk in their bedding areas, which is, generally speaking, a very bad deal.

Tactics And Times

During my very first trip for elk, I learned a lot about matching the right tactics to the right time of the season. A lot of archery hunters shoot themselves in the foot by making bad decisions as to what tactics to use in each individual stage of the rut and/or each individual hunting situation. For instance, many go afield, bugle in hand, trying to call a bull to within range well before the rut is in full swing. Others try to spot-and-stalk rutting, bachelor bulls, when such animals will often "come-a-running" at the first sound of a bugle. Others may sit at a wallow well after the rut is in full swing, the weather has cooled and bulls are running wild in search of cows. Not so smart, get the picture?

My first year afield was an escapade of errors. More often than not, I found myself missing out on golden opportunities because of bad decisions and/or ill preparedness. Let me give you a couple of examples: On my first trip in '81, it was hard for me to lay down my "whitetail mentality," and thus, I spent too much time sitting in ambush, waiting for "the bull that never showed up." The rut was already started, but I sat idly by in silent ambush--not using the best tactic for the time.

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