Tips for Hunting Colorado Elk
Ten Tips for Hunting Elk
By Jim Bulger
If you are waiting to hear the results of the limited license draw, it is the right time to begin planning for the elk season in Colorado. In the past lessons of EHU, have covered many of the basics of hunting elk and those fundamental lessons will not change. In the next series of lessons, we want to talk a look at some ideas that have been shared by our “professors” as tips and tricks you can apply to your hunt this fall. First, let me say that there is no pure science to hunting elk. We are learning in a classroom that changes every day and a subject (elk) that can be very unpredictable in behavior. So the tips below are just that, tips. Read each one and then think about it as it pertains to the way you hunt or the way you want to hunt.
1. Say What You Mean, and Mean What You Say!
By Chris Roe
Calling can be an important part of the success for many elk hunters each year, but the more successful callers are those that have learned to embrace being “specific” in their calling, rather than simply being “general.” What do I mean? A lot of folks out there have learned how to make elk sounds with their calls, and do a great job at “sounding like an elk” in their calling sequences. Unfortunately, however, many elk out there today – especially the mature bulls and cows – have become educated to “general” calling, and know the difference between hunters “sounding” like an elk, and actual elk out there talking to one another.
While sending out your basic chirps and mews, and sounding like a group of cows and calves, can still be effective at times, try focusing your calling efforts to “say what you mean, and mean what you say.” Remember… basic chirps and mews (what most of us do with our Hoochie-Mama’s and other cow calls) don’t actually say anything to other elk – they are simply basic contact vocalizations used by a group to stay in contact with individuals within their group. Because of this, many elk we’re “calling to” simply either ignore us (after all… we weren’t talking to them), or bugle at us to let us know that they’re around (hoping we’re interested in joining them). Instead of “general calling,” try using vocalizations like "lost" mews, "assembly" mews, frustrated whines, etc. Those vocalizations speak to other elk, and ask – or demand – other elk to do certain things; i.e. respond vocally, physically come to the caller, relay a sense of urgency, etc. By focusing on these vocalizations, a hunter can separate themselves from the rest of the hunters in the field, and increase the level of consistency, and ultimate success, in their hunting and calling efforts.
By Kim Herfurt
I am personally not big on scent locking clothing. I know that others depend upon it. Therein lies the problem. When I was a young boy hunting in the 60’s with my step-father, before sent locking materials, he always wore a red and black plaid wool coat and Elmer Fudd hat that matched. He probably harvested more elk than any man I know. Scent locking clothing gives many hunters the impression that they are immune to the elk’s phenomenal sense of smell and a false sense of security. There is no replacement for good personal hygiene in the field. How you accomplish that is up to you. My step-father used to wash in cold mountain streams. I personally prefer to take a hot solar shower occasionally during my hunt. I use unscented soaps to wash my clothes before the hunt, and unscented soap for my shower during the hunt. I never use scented deodorants or colognes. Have you ever noticed that person in a crowd that wears strong cologne or perfume as they walk by where you are sitting? An elk has much more sensitivity to that smell than a human. Here are some tips to help hunters contend with the elk’s sense of smell.
Always try to keep the wind in your face as you hunt. Breezes tend to flow downhill early in the morning hours and then reverse as the earth warms. In general it is advisable to hunt up early and hunt down later. Often, when winds are swirling the elk will probably win, and there is little you can do to overcome the wind. However it will also be difficult for your quarry to determine where you are located
Wool clothing has natural scent covering properties, but is not a scent lock. When I am in camp I never wear any of my hunting clothing. Cooking and campfire odors will be picked up in your clothing and be a dead giveaway for elk.
When I return to camp, I place my clothing in a contractor size trash bag with a tie strip to close the top. I also include in that bag dirt from the surrounding area, pine boughs and any other plant material that might be appropriate (like sage brush or oak brush). The objective is to pick up natural scents from the area to help cover human scent.
When I harvest a female of the species, particularly toward the end of the rut, I always harvest her urine. It is loaded with that musty estrus smell. I cap it in an air tight container and then when I am sitting on stand early in the morning I drip a small amount on one half of a female tampon and hang it in a tree or shrub next to where I sit. You can also spray a small amount on the soles of your boots to help “cover your tracks”.
During archery season, a good tactic is to use a tree stand to get your human scent above the elk.
3. Stay On The Stand Just A Little Longer
Many of our elk hunters in Colorado are very familiar with the whitetail deer tactics used in the East and the South. But something about this big country we call the Rocky Mountains makes a person want to move and cover a lot of ground. You can spend more time walking and looking than you do hunting if you are not careful. Elk are big animals but they can appear and disappear very easily in the slopes and ravines of their native habitat. If you have done your homework and chosen a good location to sit and glass the terrain, be patient and stay put just a little longer before you give up and head to the next place. Often, you may have glassed a location and seen not sign of elk but other hunters below have spooked them and pushed them right to you. Patience is a key part of hunting in general and the decision process you use to decide when to stay put and when to move is all a part of this wonderful game.
4. Hunt The Entire Day
Elk hunting is hard work - talk to any long time hunter of the wapiti. We leave camp way before dawn to move up the mountain to a good vantage point but many hunters return to camp about midmorning to eat some lunch and take a nap. This pattern is a human pattern, not one the elk will follow. The morning hunt needs to be one that takes you to a good glassing point well before daylight. You should have found several of these during your scouting trips and identified the benches or saddles the elk will use as crossing points from feeding areas to bedding areas or those “escape routes” used when they are bumped by hunters who slept in a little late. Midday is a great time to hunt but the tactics change a bit. Around 11:00, many hunters are bored, tired and ready to head back to camp for a break or they decide to go find another place to hunt and head out aimlessly looking for new scenery. This additional movement by hunters can help you see more elk as they slip away from the human movement and move to better hiding places. Pack a lunch the night before, maybe add a small butane backpack stove and a couple of tea bags for a warm drink with lunch and find a good vantage point to allow you to glass a lot of terrain. Just maybe hunters heading to camp will bump some elk your way and have the animals move past your position or maybe you can watch the herd move into some timber and bed down. If they are undisturbed, you can set up for an evening hunt as they leave the timber to feed or plan a stalk into the timber after they settle down a bit.
Your patience on the mountain during the morning and midday can help you develop a plan for the evening hunt. If you have seen elk going to timber, or watched a few head using a specific crossing point between two ridges, you can slowly move to your evening hunt location and get in place before the elk begin to move to evening feeding areas. Once in place, choose a location you can use to glass as much terrain as possible and put yourself in a good shooting position if the opportunity presents itself. If you see elk leaving a stand of timber to move to a feeding location that is too far away to hike before dark, make note of the location and plan to return to the location before daylight the next morning and setup your ambush site.
Hiking the mountains is tough work and the less time and effort spent moving to and from camp and other potential hunting spots will allow you to extend your hunt physically. Several days of climbing ridges, avalanche chutes and steep slopes will take their toll physically on even the most fit hunter. Saying on the mountain all day will allow you to save some energy for packing your harvest back to camp.
5. Tune Up Your Body As Well As Your Equipment
Many hunters spend time at the shooting range, combing the sporting goods stores for a new gadget or taking out all of their gear and checking it twice to insure it is in top working order - but they forget to “tune up their body” in preparation for the hunt. A good hunter can insure every piece of their gear is ready for service in a few hours, but our bodies take weeks or months of preparation to get ready for the rigors of a high-altitude elk hunt. We will look at this special kind of physical fitness preparation in another article soon but for now, go take a mile walk at lunch time and practice your cow calling.
6. Take Enough Time To Do It Right
While I prefer to consider hunting as a life-style, passion or heritage, modern hunting is a form of recreation. Take a moment and break down that word - recreation. With a simple break, it becomes the word "re-creation": the need to create change. Wikipedia lists the definition as “recreation is an activity of leisure, leisure being discretionary time. The need to do something for recreation is an essential element of human biology and psychology.” I believe the definition is accurate and I find hunting essential to get “right” again. But far too often I meet hunters who are trying to cram an elk hunt into a couple of days on a weekend or a few days of vacation and are driven to hunt beyond the enjoyment of the hunt. They are exhausted, frustrated and not enjoying the hunt. Taking the time to scout, check gear and then hunt at a pace you can enjoy is all a part of the overall experience of the hunt. My best hunts have been those that I took the time to properly prepare and then took the time needed to enjoy the hunt. Before the next season arrives, take some time to look at the calendar, plan a few scouting trips and then take the time off from work to enjoy the hunt.
7. Place Yourself In A Situation To Be Successful
By Aaron Bulger
Each year thousands of elk hunters head afield with the best of intentions to go the extra mile, hunt those great places they have seen in past on scouting trips; be tough and hunt hard. Where things go awry is when the physical demands of climbing the Rockies become reality. Often hunters don’t want to leave the comfort of the wall tent, the cooking station, camp chairs after a day or so, hiking ridges and dark timber. This is fine, because the treasure of hunting doesn’t always result in a harvested animal, but can be more about enjoying the camp, the camaraderie among the hunters, and the great concoctions whipped up in a camp kitchen. This is my kind of hunting. But when getting into elk is important, when accepting the challenge of the Monarch of the Rockies; it is time to be miserable! It is time to think about why you are hunting Colorado. It is time to pack in.
Opening day can be successful for many people because the animals haven’t been pressured by hunters yet. Once they feel the increased pressure of hunters, all bets are off. They move to two places; private ground or further away from pressure. The only way to consistently be in the elk is to move with them. Personally, the tactic that makes the most sense is to me is to be where they will be going, to hike in several miles from the road and then put in camp. You probably won’t be eating steaks, drinking cokes, or snacking on summer sausage out here. Many meals consist of something you add water to and let it soak for a while. Most drinks originate from a powder and mix with filtered water. But you will put yourself in a situation to be successful.
This season try something new, if only for a night or two. Hike in away from the roads, vehicles, and other hunters and see if you notice any difference in the number of animals you see, the number of humans you encounter, and the amount of ground required to cover on a daily basis. I think you will find that sacrificing a little comfort will open your eyes to a whole other world.
8. Develop Your Woodsmanship Skills
Many novice hunters take to the woods each year with limited skills. That is OK, as you learn a lot from each experience in the field. But there are many skills you can develop at home before you take to the field that will save you time, effort and perhaps a missed harvest opportunity. There are many resources in print and online to help you improve your field skills. Several key skills for the elk hunter include: understanding scent control, wind direction, learning to read tracks and sign, etc. In future lessons, we will take the time to talk about some of these skills in detail, focusing on those more specific to the elk hunter.
9. Stay Mentally Tough
Let’s face it, elk hunting is a tough game. Elk live in big terrain among steep ridges. Finding them can require miles of hiking and at a time of year when weather can play a big factor in the overall hunt environment. Preparing yourself mentally is a big part of your hunt plan and your ability to be successful in the field this fall. In thinking about this mental toughness thing, consider yourself an athlete for a moment. You are one. You are training physically, improving your skills, studying the game and even getting coaching tips from other “athletes” and experienced mentors. So, yes, you are preparing for your Olympic event and you need to bring all the tools and skills to the game. A relatively new aspect of athletics is the use of visualization when preparing for an athletic event. Sports psychologists have developed many sports visualization techniques for elite athletes that will work just as well for the hunter as you work to gain that extra edge for the hunt. Consider this technique for helping you through the tough parts of the hunt.
In the months of preparation before your hunt, each night before bed, go to a quiet place; maybe your comfortable chair in the den or a place on the back porch where you can spend 10 to 15 minutes with your thoughts. Visualize the hunt, from the time you leave camp until you have your quarry in the crosshairs of the scope or you are at full draw. Visualize each step you have taken to get there, the trek up the mountain, the burning in your legs, the shortness of breath and the cold wind on your face. Build a mental picture of the thing you want to have, to do or to be. Visualize this quest in a step by step manner, seeing the effort you are making to get to this achievement and the day by day successes you are making to get there. See yourself reaching the top of the steep drainage, getting setup on your chosen ambush spot, seeing the elk begin to move at early sunrise and follow the drainage path you have chosen for your location. See the shot, the harvest and the grand culmination of all your hard work.
This mental preparation, which began months before your hunt, will help you pull through the hard training times, the adverse weather on the hunt and the burning legs as you carry your harvest to the drop site five miles away.
10. Enjoy The Hunt, Not Just The Harvest
This tip is the true bottom line for this article. Let’s face it, you could go buy the best beef steaks available at the local market for less money than you will spend on this hunt. We no longer hunt to feed our families, we hunt for the enjoyment of the hunt and our opportunity to re-create ourselves for another year. Take a camera and take lots of pictures, enjoy the sounds and sights of the Rocky Mountains as they awake from an evening slumber, share this special time for friends, family or that new hunter you have taken into your mentorship to pass along this unique passion.
Chris Roe is a Certified Wildlife Biologist by trade, Chris Roe has become one of the leading experts in true elk behavior, communication, calling, and hunting. As the head of Roe Hunting Resources, and Colorado’s Prostaffer for Primos Hunting Calls, Chris talks to thousands of sports-men and –women each year across the country about how they can be more successful in their game calling and overall hunting efforts. Whether it be for turkey, deer, predator, waterfowl, or elk, Chris loves to share his knowledge and experience with everyone who is interested. Chris’ teaching style is one that allows everyone – whether beginner or veteran hunter – to comfortably learn and improve upon their calling and hunting skills. Although experienced in calling a variety of game species, elk are truly his specialty.
The team of Hunt Planners can be reached by calling 303-291-PLAN.