By Darron McDougal
You've probably seen them: trail-camera images of big bull elk flopping around in a muddy wallow or drinking from a stock tank. It's easy to assume that these images were captured on private ranches where pressure is limited, and where driving an ATV to numerous camera locations is legal and possible. Thus, few of us ever consider packing a trail camera and treestand when preparing to head west to hunt elk on U.S. Forest Service lands open to public hunting.
In my eyes, this is a mistake. You see, I didn't pack any trail cameras on my first elk hunt in Idaho seven years ago. My hunting strategy was the common hike-and-call method, and a stationary ambush seemed like an unproductive way to spend my precious 10 days of time off.
That's when I stumbled upon it one evening toward the end of my hunt: a wallow with a big "bull print" (as I call it) stamped in the middle, and fresh mud slung all over the surrounding foliage. Enormous tracks in the mud confirmed that indeed a mature bull had wallowed there not long before. I could've been there when the bull wallowed and had a chance to kill him, but I wasn't. That moment changed my outlook on elk hunting forever.
A New Way of Thinking
Some folks choose not to bowhunt elk from a treestand because they feel it robs you of the call-and-bugle exchange that happens between hunter and beast when hunting mobile. In fact, I'm sure there are hunters who'd rather not kill a bull at all than to stake out a treestand daily for long hours. But let's be real, people. Any elk taken on public lands is considered a trophy by the general bowhunting community. As difficult as elk hunting is, I'm all about taking an elk by any legal method.
I believe flexibility is a must-have attribute of successful elk hunters. That means climbing 20-feet high when you find a place elk regularly frequent. Don't get me wrong, calling in a bull elk is the pinnacle of bowhunting, but the fact is that elk come in looking when you call to them, where an elevated ambush overlooking a hoof-pounded trail or water source lets you take them by surprise. When they visit these areas, side of swirling winds, they'll likely offer higher percentage shot opportunities than during a calling scenario.
Treestands, Trail Cameras and Their Place in Elk Country
Now, when I bowhunt elk each year, I don't religiously hunt from a treestand day in and day out. When I arrive, though, I set a trail camera and treestand over a hoof-trampled seep that elk visit regularly throughout Idaho's September season.
Elk don't visit it so often that I'll place my bet there for my entire hunt, but often enough that if bulls aren't bugling or if conditions are warm, I'll monitor the seep for an afternoon/evening hunt periodically. From that treestand, I've had some action-packed hunts. I even arrowed my first elk from it, an eating-fat cow that traveled just 10 yards after the hit.
That said, calling and stalking are my plan A, but when they aren't producing encounters, I have a plan B to fall back upon, and that's going airborne in my treestand. How does my trail camera play into this? Simple. It hunts the seep 24/7. I sneak in midday every few days to see what's been visiting the seep and at what time. This intel is priceless.
Now, if I hunted exclusively by calling and stalking methods, would I still pack a trail camera? You'd better believe it! Trail-camera evidence can show you places to focus on where elk are spending time. Plus, bulls go silent on certain days â€“ either when temperatures are warm or when hunting pressure rises. When this happens, hunters often misconceive that bulls aren't in the basin, canyon or drainage they're hunting.
That could be, but more often the bulls are still there, but not bugling. This is a discouraging time to hunt. Again, trail-camera evidence can instill new hope that bulls are still in your hunting area, and even show you where to focus your efforts despite the lack of bugling.
Case in point: Two seasons ago, I (and dozens of other hunters) had been hunting a large canyon with easy foot access. I was encountering bulls regularly, but hadn't closed the deal. You've heard it said, "Don't leave elk to find elk." So, I didn't. I continued hunting that canyon. Then, one warm day, the canyon went dead. From past experiences, I knew this was my cue to hunt the aforementioned seep located within that canyon not far from the highway.
Before climbing into my stand that afternoon, I pulled the SD card from my trail camera. At 1 p.m., not an hour before I arrived, a nice but one-antlered bull had slurped water from the seep. I climbed up the tree with renewed confidence, and with the season winding down, I capitalized during the evening's waning moments when two large cow elk drank at the seep.
Yes, Whitetail Tools Belong in Elk Country
For the last three seasons, I've hauled treestands and trail cameras into steep elk country. You think it's tough to do in whitetail country? Try it at elevation where elk live. Used properly, I assure you the work is worth the return.
While I've only killed one cow elk from a treestand, I've experienced some incredible action, and I won't leave for elk country without one. And, my trail camera always updates me with the latest happenings by the little seep. Bottom line, a well-placed trail camera shows you where elk spend time or pass through, which can be an asset regardless if you hunt from a treestand or not. In my opinion, treestands and trail cameras are an elk hunter's ace in the hole.
Public-Land Elk Hunts
Idaho is a solid state to try for archery elk. I've hunted it four times now, and I encounter elk often. There are numerous units that offer OTC tags on a first-come-first-serve basis. Idaho has something like nine national forests, so there is plenty of room to roam. Steep country and thick brush make shooting difficult, so practice hardcore before you hunt. For more information, click here.
If you want to pull together a last-minute elk hunt, no state makes it easier than Colorado, which has an OTC archery either-sex elk license valid in more than 100 units. Since these tags aren't sold on quota, expect lots of pressure and plan to hunt hard-to-reach areas where most hunters won't go. Numerous national forests and wilderness areas are found throughout OTC and draw units alike. For more information, visit here.