DIY Elk Hunting: Must-Know Mental-Prep Tips

After years perfecting the craft of do-it-yourself bowhunting in the backcountry – where big elk bugle and roam, here a few thoughts about what it takes to be successful where few others dare to trod

DIY Elk Hunting: Must-Know Mental-Prep Tips
Outdoor icon Cameron Hanes shows off a nice 6x6 bull elk he harvested in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Cameron Hanes)

In the early days of his budding outdoors career, renowned Oregon bowhunter Cameron Hanes had little choice.

Little choice in terms of being a do-it-yourself kind of bowhunter, that is, if Hanes' to-do list were to be fulfilled, an annual directory containing goals of filling the freezer full of elk steaks and making a trip to the local taxidermist.

Over time, the archer became quite good at his craft, perfecting the art of physically preparing for an arduous hunt, hiking deep into a remote wilderness area, finding an elk from scratch, getting into bow range of that elk and then sealing the deal with a well-executed shot.

And that's before the grueling task of breaking down a fallen bull began, not to mention getting the animal's meat, hide and antlers packed out of the backcountry with little more than muscle and sheer willpower.

After serving various stints in the outdoors industry ranging from serving as a columnist for Bowhunter magazine and being a co-host for RMEF Team Elk television show on Outdoor Channel, Hanes can no longer show up at a trailhead incognito.

Instead, he's one of the most readily-known bowhunters in the nation, one of the longest tenured athletes under the Under Armour brand.

So much so that Hanes was recently honored for his role with the Baltimore-based company alongside the likes of Duck Dynasty's Willie Robertson, Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, Olympic gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn and two-time major championship winning golfer Jordan Spieth.

But despite how far Hanes has come in his career, the bedrock of his hunting and physical training all goes back to the days when he wrote the book on backcountry bowhunting.

Quite literally, I might add; Hanes still autographs and sells his book, Backcountry Bowhunting: A Guide to the Wild Side, now in its third printing.

Wilderness Trailhead
Before you hit the trailhead this fall in search of a bull elk to wear your tag, there is much work to do according to veteran bowhunter Cameron Hanes.

With bowhunters across the country currently going to their mailboxes and hoping to find a hard-earned elk hunting tag delivered by the postman, many of those same hunters are beginning to launch dreams for a DIY-kind of wapiti bowhunt.

All of which makes this advice Hanes was gracious enough to share with me in an interview a few years back still very applicable to this very day.

For starters, what exactly is a do-it-yourself bowhunt and how does Hanes actually define the term?

“Do-it-yourself, as it relates to backcountry bowhunting, is a phrase that has really taken hold the last (several) years," said Hanes in answer to my Q&A with him about the topic.

"To me, plain and simple, it means the hunt starts and ends with you," he added.  "You have done the research, bought the maps, tested the gear, scouted the country, found the animals and if it all works like it supposed to, stalked or called your trophy to within bow range and finally, downed him with a razor sharp broadhead released from a well-tuned bow."

Sounds simple enough, right?

Hardly, cautions Hanes. In fact, he deems a realistic approach as a prime ingredient for success.                           

"(First), I would say set realistic goals," said Hanes. "Everyone wants to kill a huge bull, say a 370-inch 6x6. But not every area is capable of producing such a bull.

"For the new elk hunter, on the typical DIY elk hunt, I would say any bull is a trophy," he added. "From there I would suggest holding out for a mature 5-point (bull). After working your way up the success ladder, I would think the time would be right to hold out for a 300-inch 6x6."

And so on and so on.

"Elk hunting is tough, I just don’t think the average bowhunter should get too focused on only shooting a monster trophy bull," said Hanes.

Even if a 20-minute-long television show or a 1,500-word magazine article tries to suggest otherwise.

While Hanes' above advice is generally good regardless of where a bowhunter finds themselves hunting this fall, there are a few notable exceptions.

"Now if you’ve drawn a premium tag in say Utah, Arizona or New Mexico, my guidelines change a little," said Hanes. "Some of those tags take 10 years or more to draw and it is because they allow you to hunt in areas which produce the biggest bulls in the world.

"If this is the case, I would suggest doing research in an effort to learn exactly what size of bulls to expect. Holding out for a big boy, at least for the first five days, would make sense in a premium area."

Regardless of whether a hunter sets his sights on a legal rag-horn bull or a 380-inch monster, most hunters think getting a tag and then finding themselves in shooting range of such a bull are the toughest aspects of a DIY hunt.

Elk hunting in Montana
The American West is huge country that can swallow up a herd of elk and make them disappear. According to Cameron Hanes, one key to success is to adopt realistic goals before heading into the backcountry. (Jeff Phillips photo)

And while they certainly can be, don't overlook what happens after a hunter fills an elk hunting tag.

In fact, Hanes says figuring out how to get a bull out of the woods is of paramount importance, something that hunters should focus on now and not later.

"(You) must have a plan for getting your bull out of the woods if you are fortunate enough to kill one," said Hanes. "They are big animals, of which a mature bull will yield about 200 pounds of boned-out meat.

"A guy on a solo hunt will have a tough time getting all the meat from such an animal out of the mountains before it spoils if he is more than a mile or two back," he added.

"I have used llamas, horses, mules and a handful of buddies to help me get my bull to the processor. However you do it, plan for success. The last thing you want to do is walk up on the bull of your dreams and think, 'Now what?'

"I think a lot of guys underestimate how tough those backcountry hunts can be," said Hanes.  "On most of my long hunts, at one time or another, I have wanted to quit. Wanted to be at home, on the couch watching SportsCenter, living the good life.

"I think our typical everyday life is too easy for most of us," he added. "We have it too good and it makes us soft. I am not complaining, I just try to keep that in mind when preparing for my DIY adventures."


"(Because) the harder I work getting ready, conditioning-wise, high-pressure shooting-wise in combination with consistent everyday practice and simply having the mindset that I will succeed makes almost all my DIY bowhunting trips end in success," said Hanes.

And he's got an impressive collection of antlers on the wall and a freezer full of elk steaks to prove it

Editor's Note: Hanes still produces the popular t-shirt emblazoned with the words “I Eat Elk,” a shirt worn by many hunters including Eva Shockey.

Antlers and meat earned with the currency of hard work and dedicated training, fueled by Hanes' longtime commitment to go Beast Mode along with a willingness to Keep Hammering long after others have quit.

It's a way of life for Hanes, one that started many years ago in the backcountry of his home state of Oregon.

"All those elk hunts in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of Oregon are where I cut my teeth in the backcountry," said Hanes.

"I was so intimidated at first, the longest I could stay in deep hunting (country) was one night," he added. "I would drive eight hours to get there, pack in 12 miles, stay one night and drive home eight hours. Brutal trip, but that is where it started.

"Eventually I got to where I could hunt on my own back there in the Eagle Cap for 10 days (at a time) and have killed many bull elk, big mule deer bucks and black bear (there)."

And while his steadily-growing career has afforded him with more far flung opportunities to chase elk and mule deer – not to mention migrating caribou, big whitetail, speedy pronghorn antelope, dangerous bears, mountain sheep and much more –  the Oregon bowhunter never forgets his roots and how and where it all got started.

"I will never forget those times," said Hanes. "I learned so much about myself in those lonely mountains."

Forgotten backcountry, where so many offseason bowhunters dream about spending time, there in the DIY bowhunting adventure of a lifetime.

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