The mountains of the West are home to America's greatest big game animal. Hunters from across the globe make the long trip to our western states just for a chance at this legendary creature. When the sound of bugling bulls echoes off the steep sides of the rugged mountains they call home, it can be a reminder of just how wild this part of the world is.
While thousands of hunters enter the woods and forests every season, there are a few that excel at finding, and killing big, mature bulls. They are the ones that take the majority of well-antlered elk that are harvested each year. When you look at the success rates of elk hunts, and you see that 5 to 15 percent figure, you can be sure that the biggest percentage of that success rate are hunters that do it year after year.
The rest of us make up that much smaller percentage within the success rate itself. We are the ones that sometimes get lucky, or on occasion stumble onto an animal that is not. More times than not we go empty-handed, and we end up admiring those hunters that more times than not take a quality bull.
What is it that makes them so successful? Is it that they are that much savvier than us? Or, is it just luck?
It's not luck. They succeed where we fail because they avoid the common mistakes that the rest of us make. They don't sleep in, they don't drive around searching empty clear cuts, and they get out of their truck and they hunt. They have learned as much what not to do as they have what to do. And we could all learn something from them. That is, if we are willing to listen. We can even join their ranks, if we take their lessons to heart.
So, outlined here are some of the most common mistakes that western hunters make when they chase these grand animals. This is advice from some of the West's most successful elk hunters. However, it is up to each individual hunter to actually change the habits that make for poor hunting. If we do that, than we, too, can smile as we pose with that prize. And, we can do it year after year, too.
Mike Jenkins, of Upfront Outfitters, hunts elk in Arizona, Washington and New Mexico. And in all three states he sees the packs of hunters leaning out of their truck windows and glassing the empty mountainsides for animals that aren't there.
"Guys drive around, and when they don't see elk they don't know what to do next," he noted. "We need to get back to basics and learn how to put meat in the freezer."
Troy Rodakowski is a big game outdoor writer that lives in Oregon, and he echoed the thoughts of Jenkins. He explained that by the time the rifle seasons roll around, elk know what is going on.
"They won't stay in the areas where they've been pressured by archers," said Rodakowski. "They hear the chainsaws, they see the trucks driving the roads, and they know what is going on. They are not going to be close to the roads."
Don Ward, of Upper Trask Outfitters, is an Oregon big game hunting guide. He sees the mistakes made all the time by lots of hunters.
"Most hunters stick to the roads too much. You have to get out in the brush," he advised. "Get off the roads, get in deep, and you will have a lot better success."
When he says get back in there, he means it. Ward has been known to cover up to 15 miles or more a day in his pursuit of mature bulls.
"Just because you are seeing cows doesn't necessarily mean there are bulls nearby," added Jenkins, who notes that cows know they are not the target of hunters, and will often stay near the roads. "This is especially true during the October rifle hunts. The bulls are in the post-rut stages, and will be off by themselves. A lot of smaller bulls, 2- and 3-year-olds, will still be with the cows, but mature bulls are often off by themselves."
This is another big mistake that elk hunters make, and that is not putting in the time. Jay Mitchell, of Action Adventures, has guided wilderness hunts in the heart of Colorado's elk country for over 35 years. And he sees this frequently. "A lot of people try to hunt elk," he said. "But they don't want to put the time in."
Sometimes people hunt early, but they quit if they don't see anything, added Mitchell. "You need to be out early and stay late," he noted. "You cut your odds in half if you quit too early."
Elk hunting requires some serious time, Mitchell emphasized.
"They want it done by nine in the morning," he said. "You have to be ready to put in the time and effort."
Elk hunting is not easy. If it was, more take-it-easy hunters would be successful.
Perhaps some of the blame rests in our impatient culture. Instant gratification is something that is often touted in everything from health to hunting. Everything is supposed to come quick. But it just doesn't work that way with elk hunting. If you want success, you will need to invest in the time it takes to make it happen.
LACK OF SCOUTING
Just about any accomplished elk hunter will point to a lack of scouting as being one of the biggest mistakes made by big game hunters. And yet many still do not do it.
Oregon wildlife biologist Mark Vargas thinks elk success rates might climb if more hunters spent the time in the preseason to learn the land and the movements of the animals.
"Get out and scout," he said. "Spend two or three days scouting, and take the time to learn the country."
It is true that in our rushed world many hunters simply do not have the time to spend scouting properly. When that is the case, Vargas has some good advice. "If you don't have the time, then treat that first season as a scouting year," he advised.
It makes sense from many standpoints. As you hunt you will learn the landscape. You will also have an opportunity to observe the elk sign out there and learn from that as well.
You may not have as much chance at success in that first year as the hunters that have scouted, but when the next season rolls around, you will have a better knowledge of what the animals are likely to do. "You will have a much better chance that next year," added Vargas.
Trail cams are one modern tool that will help hunters learn the animal's movements. They can spend the time in the woods that you do not have to spare. Of course, it takes a little time and effort to put them out. But the rewards can be exciting.
Most hunters have doubtless heard this advice before. Few articles about hunting big game do not touch on the importance of pre-season scouting, and yet many hunters that could scout do not do so. Don't be that guy, as they say. Do your homework, and success will follow.
You've done your scouting, you've hunted well, and now you have a chance at the bull you've always wanted. However, if you can't hit that animal's vitals, all your other hard work has been wasted. Bryce Logan, of Sarvis Prairie Outfitters, points to this mistake as being an issue he sees all too often.
"Most of the hunters we guide just don't shoot well," he said. "They are hurt by bad shooting. They need to practice more."
Dale Denney, of Bearpaw Outfitters, guides for elk in Idaho, Utah and Washington. He has seen this mistake many times.
"Hunters don't shoot their rifle enough," he noted. "They may sight it in one year, but sometimes they don't shoot it that year, and the next season they don't sight it in. Probably half the guns we see need some kind of help."
Shooting well means practicing at different distances, but it also means learning to shoot from different levels and angles. Hunting in the mountains rarely means making level shots. Hunters often find themselves facing a shot that is downward or upward. Gravity changes the action of the bullet as it travels, so only shooting at level targets can hurt your chances.
Also, hunters need to practice with the same ammo they intend to use while hunting. Different ammo has different ballistics, so make sure and use the loads you intend to use when actually hunting.
This may be the biggest mistake of all that modern hunters make, and almost every expert interviewed cited this as one of the most common mistakes they see. Elk don't often live in country that is easy to navigate, and they have learned to avoid the easy country that so many hunters target.
"You need to be prepared, both physically and mentally," said Mitchell of Action Adventures.
Mitchell is not young, and it surprises him how poorly prepared many hunters are. "It's bad when you have to wait for some 30-year-old to catch up," he added.
Once again, it can be tough for modern hunters to find the time to exercise. And since many occupations require a lot of time at a computer, fewer people have jobs that allow them to stay in shape. However, it is absolutely imperative if you want to get a shot at that mature bull. If you can't make the hike up that canyon wall, you're not going to get the shot you want.
PUT IT ALL TOGETHER
To sum it up, the best hunters do not spend their time driving the roads along the clearcuts. Hunters who want to be successful get back in the brush to hunt. They invest in the time to scout the areas they will hunt, and they learn the elk movements. They stay and hunt all day. They learn to shoot, and they practice at all angles and distances. And,they prepare themselves before the season, so when the time comes they are ready physically and mentally to put all the pieces together for success.
However, the best advice for elk hunters may be to appreciate the hunt itself.
"Don't think of the harvest as the only quality part of the hunt," advised Vargas. "Spending time out there, with family and friends, that's quality, too. It's not just about the harvest."