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5 Keys to Elk Hunting Success

5 Keys to Elk Hunting Success
Killing a prime bull is one of the hardest tasks in the outdoors to pull off. (Shutterstock image)

These tips will help you fill a tag this elk hunting season.

The undisputed king of North American big game is the elk, and it is the Western sportsman who gets to hunt them.

Although they once roamed over the entire continent, only hunters west of the Rocky Mountain Front Range get to experience the sounds of bugling elk echoing from mountain top to mountain top. 

However, if you are one of the multitudes who chase elk every October, then you know that killing a prime bull is also one of the hardest tasks in the outdoors to pull off.

Most hunters work long and hard for a few animals over a lifetime, and rarely score every year.

Killing a prime bull is one of the hardest tasks in the outdoors to pull off. (Shutterstock image)

Statistics tell the story, as Brian Lewis of Twisted Horn Outfitters knows well. "The average elk hunter kills an elk every 17 years," noted Lewis. And unless you concentrate on the keys to elk hunting success, "you'll be an average hunter," he added. 

The best hunters in the Western states all know the keys to elk hunting success, and if you ignore those keys, or give them little attention, you will be one of those average hunters. If you want to kill more quality bulls, then pay close attention to what the professionals offer in the way of advice.

These seasoned veterans are not average hunters primarily because they never, ever ignore the keys to success.

What follows is sage advice from some of the best elk hunters in the West. Use these keys to lock in success, and you'll not only kill that bull you've dreamed of this year, but success will follow you in all the years you hunt.


How many times have big game hunters been advised about the importance of scouting, and scouting year 'round? No discussion of elk hunting tactics is complete without it. And yet, so many hunters do not scout at all, or scout haphazardly. A few game cameras on the trails and a couple days of scouting simply won't do it. But that is exactly what many hunters do. 

Surely, in this fast-paced world we live in, many hunters simply do not have the time. But there are others who do and still do not get out. Perhaps it is laziness, or perhaps they are busy with other pursuits. But when you know how much harder it gets every day to draw that prized tag, shouldn't you do everything in your power to fill it? 


According to Don Ward of Upper Trask Outfitters, a man who has several Pope and Young bulls to his credit, scouting is the key to "being at the right place at the right time." It's not just learning the animals, either. "You need to get familiar with the area you are going to hunt," he advised.

Taking that trophy bull will require persistence and more than a little patience. (Shutterstock image)

Knowing the country you will hunt in is not only paramount to successful elk hunting, it is a matter of safety. Yes, you have a GPS, but what happens if it fails? Can you find your way out, let alone find a quality bull, if you don't know where you are? If you succeed at getting a bull down but are unsure of your location, how can you pack it out? 

Outdoor writer and successful big- game hunter Troy Rodakowski noted that pre-season scouting is critical, but it needs to be combined with scouting during and after the season as well.

"You have to figure out where the elk will go when pressured," he said. This is especially important to the rifle hunter, because bowhunters have already been in the forest, putting pressure on the herds. "What you are looking for is food and safety," added Rodakowski. 

If you take the time to scout and learn the area you're hunting in, that task is easier. Knowing the terrain is important for other reasons, too. "If you know the land, you'll not be afraid to go in deep," noted Lewis. 

Also, savvy hunters know that you have to scout the right way. "Don't be obvious about it on public land," said Lewis. "First, find them. Then, sit back and watch them, but do not disturb them."


Talk to any big game outfitters, and they will tell you to a man that many modern hunters need to "shape up" before the season. "You must be in shape," Lewis advised. "It's not so much about the terrain, because there isn't anything easy about elk hunting. Even when hunting in low elevation, you have to be in shape to be able to go all day if you need to." 

Hunters who have harvested elk before know that only half the job is killing the animal. "If you get something down in a hole, or way back behind some gate, you have to be able to pull it out," said Lewis. If you can't get the trophy and the meat out, what have you actually accomplished? 

If you have chased elk at all, you know that a big percentage of hunters never get out of their vehicle, and spend the day driving roads looking for the few uneducated animals that are out there. These are the hunters who are lucky to take that bull every 17 years. 

It takes a hunter with real drive and the physical ability to leave those roads behind and tackle the often-steep country where the hunter-wise older bulls are hiding.

Can you make the shot when you need to? Or, do you even know if you can? (Shutterstock image)


Can you make the shot when you need to? Or, do you even know if you can? Those hunters who take bulls every year leave nothing to chance, and that includes marksmanship.

"How many times have you heard someone say they had a huge bull right there, and they missed it or hit it, but it didn't go down?" asked Rodakowski. He attributes these missed opportunities to not using the right rifle, or not practicing enough with it. 

"Choose the right weapon for the job," he noted, "and spend time with it." Elk are huge animals, and trying to down one with a rifle that doesn't pack enough punch just won't get the job done. Good caliber weapons include the 30.06, .270, .338 and up. 

It is also very important to practice with the same loads you intend to use when hunting. Ward noted that you should "practice with the load you will be using," to make sure the load performs the way you want. 

Remember that it will often be a downhill or uphill shot to take that bull, especially in steep terrain. Therefore, you should try to practice these kinds of shots when you can.

It is true that there is a shortage of good ranges where hunters can experiment with loads and distances. Look for areas where target practice is legal, or find a range that offers what you need.


It has been said that persistence pays off, and that is especially true of elk hunting. "Going the extra mile makes a difference," said Ward. "Go back in deep, and you can succeed." 

Last season Ward got a Pope and Young bull for one of his clients, but it took hard work. "We went back in and found this bull and went after him," he noted. "But it took us three days to get him." A hunter with less drive would undoubtedly not have taken that wise old bull. 

This is especially true in modern timeframes, for many hunts are only a few days long. Just hunting the morning and evening hours or giving up early because you are exhausted are bad habits many hunters have a hard time breaking. However, the few days of a short season are often all you have to find glory. And you need to be out there to score. 


Patience is a virtue, and that's especially true when hunting elk. The patient hunter will still be in the right place when the right time comes, even as the less patient sportsmen are off having lunch at the diner. Elk cover a lot of ground in a day, or a week for that matter, and even though there may be no sign of animals for hours on end, they are out there. If you have done your homework, and you know where they will be eventually, wait it out. "Eventually" they will come, and that bull you want will be back.

Remember, patience and persistence go hand in hand. "Be patient and aggressive," said Lewis. "Be patient until you see an opportunity, then act on it aggressively. Create the opportunity."

All these keys point to the same thing: being prepared. Scout until you know the animals, and the country. Get in shape so you can handle the terrain and the rigors of a big game hunt. Choose the right rifle, and practice with it until shooting it becomes a well-honed reflex action. Be persistent, and stick with your game plan. Be patient, until the time comes for aggressive action, and then take it. 

If you concentrate on these keys to elk hunting success, you will be more successful. And as you use these keys year after year, you will become a seasoned veteran, and a true elk hunter. Just being out there enjoying your hunt is fun, but without eventual success you will lose interest. If you have not been successful, rethink your strategies, follow the advice from these savvy hunters, and you, too, can join the elite ranks of successful elk hunters.

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