Strategies, Tips, and Techniques
By Gary M. Moore
In this lesson, we will cover how to go about stalking elk and then move on to getting your body ready for top physical performance at high altitude. Stalking elk requires endurance and physical preparation so pay close attention to that section. Finally, at the end of the article, there is a discussion about elk calls – for both bulls and cows.
First and foremost, there is no straight-forward recipe to a successful stalk. Because there are so many variables, all we hunters can do is tell stories of what has happened and try to glean out what were the important lessons from each experience. Over time, and after reading a number of articles and books like this, you can create your own list of 20 to 30 important things to keep in mind as you hunt. Make the list! From the next two stories you can add eight or nine things to get your list started. Read books on elk hunting, and by the way, when you’re sitting in the woods on your next elk hunt trying to be quiet, reading a book on elk hunting is a great way to pass the time.
In general, I don’t recommend stalking elk as your primary strategy. That is to say, if you know where elk are and you try to walk through timber to get to them, it is very difficult to be successful because their hearing is so much better than ours. They didn’t grow up ruining their hearing by listening to Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd with head phones and going to ZZ Top concerts like so many of my hunting brethren. They spend 24 hours a day, 365 days a year out in the wilds listening specifically for threats that may be approaching. So if you think you can just leave your daily 9-to-5, head out into the woods, and sneak up on one in the woods, think again.
That said, it can be done. Don’t lose heart - it’s just hard and you have to be in shape! We’ll get more into the “in shape” part later. As a novice hunter with no one to teach me how to hunt, my first approach was to stalk elk, and here’s the amazing part, it worked. But as I tell you the following two stories, I’ll point out how all the stars had crossed in my favor allowing me to be successful, and it was just dumb luck on my part because I didn’t know squat about elk behavior at the time. By knowing what factors worked for me in these cases, and all the other things that can work against you, you can greatly enhance you probability of success by stalking. If I were to see these things working in my favor in the future, I would do it again.
One more thing, I still stalk from time to time because things can sometimes work in my favor and occasionally I am successful. Sometimes, in the middle of the day, that’s all you’ve got, so pay attention and keep your list in mind. Keep it in your pocket while you hunt. Over the years, it will be committed to your memory and you can toss the list and start to tell a few of your own stories. Keep the list handy and you have a decent chance of pulling off a successful elk stalk.
The very first time I went elk hunting I went by myself. On the very first day, I walked up a river bank between Pagosa Springs and Durango at about 9000 feet. After about 300 yards I found elk tracks where they had come down to the river in the morning to water and headed back up the hill to bed down for the day. Point One – know their daily routine. At the time I was a complete novice and didn’t know their daily routine, but now I do and so will you. I followed their tracks straight up the hill to about 10,500 feet where they turned laterally and headed east along the ridge. Point two: Be in shape. I was in my late 20s and in great shape. I couldn’t do that today, or at least it would take me a heck of a lot longer to get up that hill. It was steep.
I realized at the time that because it was raining ever so slightly and had been misty for a couple of days. All of the sticks and underbrush were soaking so I could walk very quietly (point three – wet underbrush was essential to walking quietly). As I continued slowly along, I found fresher and fresher scat and I started to smell elk urine – kind of a sweet smell – and my heart started to pound. Point four: During a mid-day stalk; if you find fresh elk sign, the elk are close! This is because elk bed down during the day and don’t move much. If you encounter this situation, you will usually find some younger elk milling around as the old ones lie there and chew their cud.
Unbelievably to me, I rounded some small pine trees and saw a young cow, maybe 1 ½ years old standing 100 yards away with a few more behind some trees slightly uphill from her. Remember: this was my first time out and I was alone. I wasn’t’ very confident and I had a .270 in my hand with 150 grain bullets. So being the novice hunter that I was, I decided to sneak up hill and try to get a little better shot, dumb move! Point five: if you have a clear shot at your quarry, take it! The chances of getting another shot aren’t great. Statistics show that about 1 in 6 elk licenses issued are filled, don’t be part of the “5 out of 6”. If I had taken the shot I would have killed an elk on the first day of my first elk hunt with no help. In retrospect, that would have been monumental.
After about four minutes of trying to get closer, I came into a clearing where a large old cow was bedded down. She jumped up, ran to her little gang of friends and they all took off lickety split. I never got a shot and was left there wondering what went wrong.
Important lessons from story one:
Know the elk’s daily routine. In the middle of the day, elk are on the steepest thickest part of the mountain. You will hear this again and again, and it’s true! When the elk are not in migration mode, their daily routine is pretty predictable. At night they are active and often feeding in meadows near the bottoms of ridges. Just before dawn they head up (straight up) hills toward the areas where they bed down. During the day they bed down in the steepest thickest part of hillsides – usually (but not always – in this case the elk were on a southeast facing slope) on north facing slopes. Why do they bed down there? Because it’s the hardest place to sneak up on them! Another thing – no matter how cold you are, the elk are hot. The temperature needs to be something like -20 to start to affect elk behavior. Another reason they like north facing slopes, they’re cooler. The elk will almost always bed down in the coolest place they can find.
Be in shape and be able to take advantage of your knowledge about their daily movements.
Stalk when the underbrush is wet – if it’s dry, it is extremely difficult to stalk quietly. ‘Easy to say’ you’re thinking, because wet underbrush is rare, and you’re right to think so.
During the middle of the day, fresh sign means elk are near, so be super quiet.
If you have a shot which you are confident in making, take it, things are not likely to get better.
Right after I scared off my quarry on the first day, I mean within about one minute, a major blizzard blew in. The coincidence of it was like an omen, God was telling me I didn’t know what I was doing so I had better get off that mountain, and I did in a big hurry. Fortunately it was straight down hill about 1,500 feet to my truck. I hopped in and got the heck out of there, went into Pagosa Springs, had dinner, went out to my truck and bedded down for the night. The next morning was pretty cold, maybe 15 degrees and there was about 1 foot of snow on the ground. I headed northeast toward Wolf Creek Pass.
At the East fork of the San Juan River, I took the forest road along the river heading east for about five miles. I got out of my truck, crossed the river heading south on foot and went up a foot path about 400 yards before I found fresh elk track crossing (laterally again). One large set and one small set of elk tracks were heading east. I knew they were fresh because, first they looked fresh and I knew it had just snowed the night before, so I took off to the east following the tracks. After only about 75 yards I got into some thick stuff and started to notice fresh scat and fresh urine in the snow (remember lesson four from above?). I kept going and unfortunately, the lessons of the previous day were not well absorbed through my thick skull yet.
I didn’t know just how close they were as I kept going along slowly. I came up a little rise only to see a large mature cow and her calf standing 30 yards in front of me with the cow staring straight at me. So, like a genius, I quickly ducked down hoping they wouldn’t be scared off. After a few seconds, I poked my head up to take a shot and they had vanished (remember lesson 5 from above?).
Elk have three main ways of detecting you in the woods: smell, sight, and hearing. I guess if you bump into one in the middle of night they might feel you – but that’s just silly! So here’s the deal. If they don’t see you; they just smell or hear you, they will usually wait until they get confirmation from another sense before they act. The suspicions created by the first sense detection are not enough. That cow had heard me (first sense created suspicion) which is why she was looking right in my direction when I came up that rise. She waited to act until she saw me (confirmation).
You might be asking yourself, why wouldn’t they take off based on one sense alone? Here’s the answer from a biologist’s point of view. Food is energy and food and energy are scarce, especially when snow starts to accumulate on the ground. Winter is coming so the elk instinctively know they must conserve energy because it’s both hard to come by and a long cold winter is coming. They act carefully based on solid information. Two-sense-confirmation is solid information.
So if they smell you, unlike white-tailed deer, they will usually wait until they have confirmation from another sense before they take off, either by sound or sight. In my case she heard me first, and when she saw me, that was all the confirmation she needed.
There are a lot of “no-smell” products out there from special (and expensive) clothes to soaps but I don’t buy into most of them. The fact is that when I’m walking in the woods, I sweat so I stink like human sweat. No amount of soap or special clothing will prevent that. The best advice I’ve seen on the subject is this: Elk are accustomed to smelling fire in the woods; either naturally occurring or from hunter camps somewhere off in the distance, so the smell of smoke doesn’t alarm them. So what I do is stand by the fire in camp and try to take on the scent. From a practical point of view this is the easiest least expensive way to address the issue. The second inexpensive easy way is also by masking your scent. This time, it’s by pouring a little elk urine on your clothes. I never do both methods at the same time. Smokey elk urine scent doesn’t go over too well or make much sense.
I went over to where they had been standing. The snow was about 2 feet deep. I paced off from where they had been standing to where their next foot prints were: 20 steps! At about 1 ½ feet per step (the snow was deep) that means they leapt 30 feet. Elk are strong and fast, don’t bother trying to track them now, go home, regroup and start again. I read in a tip book put out by the Rocky Mountain Elk foundation where one fellow wrote that when you spook out a group of elk and they’re crashing through the woods, take off with them, you’re just another set of feet crashing through the woods with them. Yea right…. The problem with that is that elk run about eight times faster than you and it’s hard as hell to take a shot while running. By the time they settle down for you to take a shot, they’re miles away and you’re completely out of breath. Like I said, go home, take a break, drink some coffee or cocoa and regroup. Start again fresh. Notwithstanding that particular tip from that book, I highly recommend you get it and study it.
Once you’ve scared them off, call off the stalk, refresh and regroup, save your energy.
Fresh snow is a great time to stalk; any tracks have to be fresh.
Remember the first detection and second sense confirmation theory.
Mask your scent, and it doesn’t cost a fortune to do.
Go to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation website (link below) and buy their book on elk hunting secrets. For about $10 it has hundreds of tips from experienced elk hunters. It’s great to read around the campfire and discuss with your buddies and WILL make you a better elk hunter. (http://www.elkcountrytradingpost.com/product/34/product-books)
The “In-Shape” Part
Folks, I don’t know where you’re from, but in Colorado, the elk live way the heck up there. In the summers, elk tend to stay between 9,000 and 12,000 feet. Out here, the timberline is usually between 11,000 and 11,500 feet. Above timberline there is lots of tender fodder for them to graze on, and if they need cover they can run down hill into timber to hide or get cover from thunderstorms. All the way through archery and muzzle loader seasons and into the first rifle season, elk stay at high altitudes until snow starts to drive them in late September and October.
Now, at what altitude do you spend most of your time? I live in Denver so I spend most of my time between 5,200 and 5,400 feet. During the day I work in a laboratory so I’m sitting at a work bench, walking around a little, or sitting at my computer writing reports or checking my email. How about you?
Now think about the difference between how you prepare for elk season and how the elk prepare: Running around at 11,000 feet or sitting around 5,200 feet – or possibly much lower – sea level in many cases. The difference is staggering! So what can you do?
It’s so easy for me to tell you to ‘go work out’, work out hard and you’ll do great. But we all know it’s a whole lot easier said than done. For this reason, I like to give practical advice that you can easily integrate into your daily life. Rather than entirely change your life style, here are some tips for things that you can add to your current lifestyle.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you. If you start out on your life’s dream elk hunt, on which you plan to spend thousands of dollars, out of shape the outcome is predictable. If nothing else, use the potential waste of all that money to motivate yourself.
I work on the 9th floor of a big research building. Every morning I walk up the stairs to work – I don’t take the elevator. I never take the elevator.
Tip one: Never take an elevator – always take the stairs – I don’t care if you work on the second floor – take them anyway. If you don’t have stairs, find a tall building and climb the stairs there.
Tip two: There’s no way around it, you must do some form of aerobic exercise. Do you own a bike? Can you ride it to work? Do it – no excuses. And with the price of gas you have an extra incentive. Try this: go to Craigslist and find a used stairmaster and buy it. Put it in front of the TV in your living room and use it while you watch TV. I just went to Craigslist while writing this article and found 23 listings in the last 2 months for Stairmasters between $50 and $500. Keep in mind, the most expensive at $500 isn’t that much to help insure a successful hunt. When you consider all the costs of your hunt, not to mention all of the other benefits you get from it, that’s money well spent.
Tip three: Buy a $15 pedometer. A pedometer is a little electronic device the size of a wristwatch that you put on your shoe that measures how far you walk in a day. You can buy one at any sporting goods store that sells running shoes. Every hunter I know is basically a competitive person and is always trying to outdo himself or the guy next to him. If you can measure something, you can improve it so start by measuring how far you walk in a day and try to do a little better each day.
Tip four: Park at the far end of the parking lots so you will walk farther to the door. It will add up. If you go to the grocery store three times a week, Home Depot twice a week and Wal Mart once a week, that’s six trips to those stores alone, add 150 yards – twice – for each trip and you have just walked an additional mile each week. It will add up and it’s easy to do.
No matter what, you must get in shape. Living in Colorado I have the opportunity to go into the high country and hike around during the summer in anticipation of hunting season. If you can get up there, get up there as much as you possibly can.
A few more things to consider for enhancing your physical performance at high altitude:
Breathing: Before I walk up the stairs each morning I start breathing hard and loud before I even enter the stairwell. If I don’t do that and I start up the stairs, I will be panting by the time I hit the 5th floor. When you start up the stairs your leg muscles start burning up the oxygen that is immediately available. The pH in your muscles starts to drop and your blood is pumped back to your lungs devoid of oxygen. This is called oxygen debt. By starting to breathe hard before I exercise, I’ve made a down payment on the oxygen debt I’m about to incur.
Don’t be afraid to make a little noise when you breath, Breath loud and hard, build up your oxygen levels in your blood before you start to hike, you’ll be glad you did. By preventing accumulation of oxygen debt, you can recover faster when you are near the elk and you will shoot better because you’ll be more stable. Try to make your diaphragm (breathing muscle) tired before your legs get tired.
Hydration: At high altitudes you will dry out faster. Colorado is pretty dry with an average relative humidity between 10 percent and 30 percent depending on your location. If you’re from Mississippi ask yourself – what’s the average humidity there? Eighty percent, maybe higher? When you get dehydrated you cannot perform at your top physical potential. If you are not from a dry climate you will not be in the habit of drinking water like we do out here, put it on your elk stalking list of things to remember and tie a string around your finger so you’ll remember to drink more water. Before you start your stalk, drink one liter of water – whether or not you are thirsty – do it. If you are not urinating regularly, you are not fully hydrated.
Think of it like this. Each breath you inhale (in Colorado) is about 20 percent water saturated. Every breath you exhale is 100 percent saturated so with every breath you lose about 1/4 milliliter of water. That means that you will exhale about 1 liter of water with each 4000 breaths. With heavy exercise your breathing rate will be about 45 breaths per minute. With an average of 45 breaths divided into 4000 (4000 quarter milliliters in a liter) you get about 89 minutes to burn up 1 liter of water from breathing alone. Do the math and you realize that dehydration is real and a real threat to top physical performance.
I haven’t even mentioned the water you lose from urinating or sweating because those forms of water loss are obvious. Add all three up and you realize that you can run into significant dehydration after one hour of hiking and an elk stalk might take three to five hours.
Note one important thing here. I said drink water, not coffee and not soda pop. Soda pop contains so much sugar that it takes more water to metabolize it that is contained in that can of soda. Coffee is a diuretic and the same thing applies, it takes more water than is in that cup of joe to create that diuretically induced urine. Sports drinks are better but they still contain a lot of sugar. If you must, drink one liter of water for each liter of Gatorade or other such drink.
Altitude Sickness: Lack preparation for high altitudes can lead to altitude sickness. It’s not so much of a worry for people like me, but if you’re from sea level you can get it at base camp (7,000 – 9,000 feet) so be aware of it and remember these symptoms. If you get it, don’t ignore it, you can get into serious trouble.
Altitude Sickness Symptoms:
Unexplained Headache – most common
Read more about altitude sickness.
We’ve talked about stalking and a few things to consider when you want to stalk elk. I’ve pointed out that you have to be in shape to do it and you have to know about elk behavior to know how to go about it. In this last part I will discuss another part of elk behavior – vocalization. I use that word, not bugling, because that would ignore a hugely important part of elk sounds – the cow call.
Traditionally elk hunters in archery, muzzle loader and the first rifle seasons have used bugling to call bulls. For a few examples of bugling I recommend go to YouTube and look it up. You can spend hours listening to both elk and men bugling. There are instructional videos there and most of the guys there are using those YouTube clips to entice you to buy their videos or calling devices. I won’t say don’t do it. Obviously, hunters have done this for years because it works. My own personal reservations about bugling have been three fold:
I usually hunt later in the year for meat (cows) when the bulls don’t bugle near as much.
I’m uncoordinated and can’t do a very good bull call.
I’m afraid I’m going to do it wrong and send them running in the opposite direction.
If you’re new to hunting and want to take up bugling because you are pumped to go after that big bull, I recommend the following: Buy Mike Lipinski’s Book “High Pressure Elk Hunting – Secrets of Hunting Educated Elk”, Printed in 1998 and available from Stoneydale Press Publishing Company, Stevensville, Montana, Telephone (406) 777-2929.
Right now you are reading an article in Elk Hunting University and university courses require textbooks. Let this be your textbook. In his book, Lipinski uses his own anecdotes along with ones from many experienced elk hunters to talk about both the theory behind, and actual strategies for elk calling and hunting. I recommend you read his book before you buy your calling devices.
The cow call is a much more recent development than the bull call. I can’t say when the first ones arrived but they have really taken off in the last 15 years. I prefer to carry a cow call for three main reasons:
Both cows and bulls will come to a cow call
I hunt mostly for cows in the later seasons so bringing in a bull is not my top priority.
In third or fourth rifle season, when the snows come in up high, the Black Mountain elk herd gathers on the winter wheat fields a few miles north east of Craig, Colorado. It’s on private land so they’ll gather there for days, sometimes weeks before all heading toward Maybell for the winter. While this is going on, you can go there and see thousands of cows with some massive bulls milling around at close range. If you do that you will hear a non-stop litany of cows calling with a "mieu… mieu…" sound. By the way, in that area, within a 20-mile radius, you will find many groups of five to 15 lesser bulls (four- to six- pointers) that have been run off the herd by the big bulls (just an FYI thing). I recommend you listen to cow elk communicate in the field. They chat almost nonstop with mews and chirps. Do not be fooled, it is a language and they are making specific sounds for specific reasons. I recommend you listen and watch the elk as they communicate so you can imitate the sounds in proper context.
I love cow calls. They’re easy to do and they work which is why they have grown so much in the recent past. A couple years ago while scouting north of Hayden I walked a couple of miles onto a ridge where I had heard bulls calling at sunrise just before fourth rifle season. I sat down to rest and take in the beautiful view and started blowing on my cow call just for fun. I wasn’t using any special strategy or technique – just a few little blows. Within 30 seconds, a group of about 10 cows showed up 75 yards to my left. They looked at me, I looked at them, and they took off at a full run in the opposite direction. Lesson of the story: You don’t have to be good, no special strategy, but cow calls work. You can get one for $10 to $15, and hang it around your neck and practice a bit. I highly recommend you add one to your gear list.
This article covers a number of topics and all are important as you take your understanding of hunting elk to the next level. The main concept in the article is to create a list; your list, of factors that influence success during a stalk. I gave you a start with the information in the article, but you can develop some others as you read about the “art of hunting elk” in EHU articles and other sources.
I wish you the best of luck this season. Read, study and apply the lessons you have learned, add a bit of luck and the results of the season can be awesome.