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Elk Education: Don't Be Afraid to Fail When Bowhunting Bulls

If you're not making mistakes while hunting elk with a bow, you might not be hunting hard enough.

Elk Education: Don't Be Afraid to Fail When Bowhunting Bulls

Things can escalate quickly when elk are in the rut. This is the perfect window to move in fast and close the deal on an unsuspecting bull. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

I was two days into a seven-day archery elk hunt in the Montana backcountry. On the first morning I had found rubs running along one particular ridge, more than I’d ever seen before or since. The mid-September conditions were hot. By 8 a.m. the thermals were rising, forcing me to keep the high ground above the elk. All the rubs were below me, some more than 100 yards down the hillside. They were easy to see with a binocular in the sparse, young pine forest.

I’d hunted the entire length of the ridge, well over 2 miles of it, multiple times. With so many rubs, I moved slowly, calling when it felt right. I never heard a single bugle. After two days of this, I decided to drop down the ridge and look more closely at the rubs and for any other sign I could find. What I quickly discovered was, frankly, embarrassing.

From a distance the rubs looked fresh. They weren’t. Every bit of shredded bark was dry and curling on the edges. The sap spilling from the scarred trees was dry. Droppings were everywhere, and they, too, were dry. I found two wallows in the bottom of the draw and neither had been used in a long time. I’d just wasted two days of valuable hunting time because I failed to look closely at the sign.

hunter approaches downed elk
Learning from mistakes results in greater knowledge, and that breeds success. Knowing what you can, and can’t, get away with when bowhunting elk only comes through experience. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

I didn’t kill a bull that year as the elk had moved out of the drainage I hunted. The following year I drew the same tag. I returned on opening day—two weeks earlier than the previous year—to the same draw and called in a dandy 6-point. Within the first hour my tag was filled. Ever since then I’ve made it a point to make sure any elk sign I see is fresh before hunting it. If it’s not, I move on, sometimes to a different drainage or new place within the game management unit. It’s just one lesson I’ve learned the hard way while hunting elk.

Get in Elk Shape

Of all the big-game hunts I’ve been on over the years, elk hunting whips more people into submission faster than any other. I’ve seen grown men pass up shots at bulls because they didn’t want to pack out the animals. Mind you, some of these were in extremely rugged country.

One year I hunted in rough terrain in north-central Idaho. There was a man in camp from Ohio. He’d dreamed of hunting elk his whole life, and he’d just retired. Unfortunately, he was out of shape and couldn’t make it up and down the mountains. He became so frustrated, or embarrassed, that he left camp in the middle of the night. Elk and elk country can break a hunter fast.

On an early-season archery hunt with my buddies who lived in Wyoming, we rode horses 18 miles high into the wilderness. We pitched camp at the 9,500-foot level. Doing simple chores at that elevation winded me. Hunting the next morning, it felt like I was going to implode. The air was so thin, and I was so out of breath, I couldn’t keep up with my buddies. They went uphill to hunt and I went downhill, but not too far because I knew I’d have to climb back up to camp.

I walked more each morning and afternoon, drinking lots of water, pushing myself hard. After three days of work, my lungs finally felt good. That’s when I really started my hunt. On day four I hiked up a ridge, down the backside and over another that was 10,000 feet in elevation. Four miles from camp, I called in a bull and killed it. I quartered it, hanging the meat in game bags in trees to keep it from the grizzlies I’d been seeing. The next day my buddies and I returned with horses to pack it out.

I’d worked out all summer for that hunt, but my training grounds were at my home, 500 feet above sea level. Strength-wise I felt great; I just had no lung capacity. Now, no matter where I’m hunting at high elevations, I devote training time to thin-air hikes with a heavy pack in the mountains during the summer.

During another season I had four elk hunts planned, all in big, rugged country. Beginning in early spring I worked out harder than ever in preparation for those and other hunts. I lifted a lot of weights and put on nearly 20 pounds of extra mass. I felt great, was shooting my bow with utmost confidence, and was ready to tackle the mountains.

The first hunt was on horseback. The moment my buddies and I loaded the pack string and I hopped on my horse at the trailhead, I knew I’d made a mistake. For the next 10 days we planned on hunting at the 8,500-foot mark, and that’s when things got worse.

Bull elk in woods
Shooting over branches or through openings in brush is a common scenario when bowhunting elk. Know your arrow’s trajectory so you are prepared when a bull approaches. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

I was in top shape for strength, but my cardiovascular fitness and flexibility were pathetic. After a couple days of hard hiking and lots of stretching, my cardio improved. But I was so tight from the heavy lifting, I struggled walking up steep mountains, over hillsides covered in downed logs and in rocky ravines where footing was less than stable.


I ended up killing bulls on each hunt that season, along with a moose and a mountain goat, but I suffered. Never again did I lift to gain bulk in preparation for hunting season. I keep my lifting to building strength, not adding mass, and cardio and flexibility top the list of priorities. You don’t have to bench-press 400 pounds and look like the Hulk to successfully bowhunt elk. In fact, if you’re lean and flexible, like Gumby, and have stamina, you’ll be way ahead of the game from the moment you start hunting.

hunter overlooking valley in fog
No matter where you hunt elk, the better shape you’re in, the greater the odds of finding the animals and filling a tag. (Photo by Scott Haugen)
Prepare for the Shot

One benefit from the season of heavy weightlifting, however, was my shooting accuracy. With the added muscle came a more stable base, and my upper-body strength made drawing, holding and steadying my bow easy. But even at that, knowing when to draw and let an arrow fly trumped the strength benefits. There’s no substitute for learning and understanding animal behavior.

More strength means I can increase the draw weight of my bow. Pulling 83 pounds all season, my goal is to shoot fast arrows that travel with a flat trajectory. Most of my shots come in brush and thick cover, meaning an arrow often must be laced through small windows. The faster an arrow moves, the flatter its flight path and the more precisely I’m able to shoot through openings.

When shooting at targets, don’t limit practice sessions to the backyard, standing on flat ground and shooting in the wide open. This is great for building strength and proper form, but it’s not often you get such shots at elk in hunting situations. Take those targets into the hills, placing them at known distances and shooting through holes and lanes in the brush. Learn your arrow’s trajectory from 10 to 70 yards. Sometimes you’ll get a close shot, and sometimes you may have to slip a follow-up arrow from a longer distance into an animal that was less than ideally hit with the first shot.

Practice shooting from various kneeling positions and at different angles and directions on hillsides. Of all the animals I’ve arrowed, I can count on one hand the number of times I was standing, using perfectly comfortable archery form.

man shooting bow
Before the season, put on hunting clothes and even the pack you’ll be hunting with, and shoot from various positions, angles and ranges. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Pay attention to your bubble level—especially on steep hillsides—and never take a shot unless you know the range. Most of the elk I’ve killed have come while I was hunting alone, doing my own calling and wind monitoring. When I find a place to set up and call, the next thing I do—even before nocking an arrow—is get multiple distance readings with my rangefinder. I scan the ground from left to right, picking any tree, rock, grass clump, stump or other mark that allows me to get a distance. Ideally, they’re all within 40 yards; this is where shooting a fast bow greatly aids in accuracy. Anticipate where you might have to thread an arrow through narrow lanes, or over or under horizontal tree limbs.

A shot should come naturally, without thinking about your anchor point, breathing, grip or release as a bull approaches. By the time of the hunt, this should all be second nature, almost like a reaction. Practice builds muscle memory, so when it comes time for a shot, all you have to do is focus on the bull’s behavior and monitor the wind.

Play the Wind

I used to host TV shows for a living, thus the high number of elk hunts I was fortunate to go on for many years. More than once, scent-elimination companies approached me to sponsor a show. I gracefully declined the offers, and here’s why. Elk live in big country, and within minutes of leaving camp, you’re sweating. Layers of sweat build up throughout the day, and much of our body odors are emitted from our hands, mouth and head—places that aren’t usually covered by scent-blocking sprays or clothes. Elk have some of the most sensitive noses on the planet, and unless you’re wrapped in multiple plastic bags that lock in every hint of odor, an elk will smell you if the wind is wrong.

Many hunters won’t believe me, and scent companies won’t appreciate me, but that’s fine. I’m just sharing from my experiences, and not just from 40 years of elk hunting, but from decades of going on hundreds of big-game hunts around the world. I don’t care if an elk sees me moving in the shadows or hears me, but if it smells me, the gig is up—always.

Scent-blocking sprays, even specialized clothing, give many hunters a false sense of confidence that they can hunt with the wind or keep closing the gap on a bull when the wind changes direction. It won’t work. For hunters who claim they have done it, I’d like to know exactly what the wind was doing where the elk was standing at the time. Wind currents and directions shift, even within a few feet.

However, I have found scent-blocking spray to work when applying it on a trail I’ve walked to get into a ground blind or treestand. If we had noses as powerful as big game, especially elk, we’d hate life because so many of the daily odors we can’t smell would be overpowering. We can’t begin to comprehend the power of an elk’s nose. I just know their sense of smell is so good that I never approach them when the wind is at my back or swirling in a draw.

hunter wearing backpack
To fill bull tags with consistency, learn when to take chances with aggressive tactics that can result in shot opportunities. (Photo by Scott Haugen)
Fail and Learn

I like hunting on my own, as that’s when I learn so much, mostly through making mistakes. Learning to hunt elk—or any big game—is a never-ending process. The more hunts you can go on, the more you’ll learn, and this is largely achieved through recognizing errors. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not pushing hard enough, and if you’re not pushing hard, you have no idea what you can and can’t get away with.

After I finished delivering an elk hunting seminar, a man in the front row waited for the room of more than 300 people to clear, then asked me, “I’ve been bowhunting elk for 12 years and I get close every year, but I’ve yet to take a shot. What should I do?” After chatting more with the man, my advice was to hunt more aggressively. He needed to position himself more in the open so he had clear shooting lanes, and he needed to call and move more in order to close the deal.

"But what if I spook them?" the man asked in response.

"You’ve hunted 12 years and never shot at a bull; spooking them would be the least of my worries," I said. "Getting close does no good if your final moves are made with hesitation and doubt, and you don’t have openings to shoot through."

hunter checks wind direction
Playing the wind is the author’s top priority when bowhunting elk. Regularly checking wind direction is vital to getting within range for a shot, as it can shift in a moment. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Many times I’ve had bulls hang up, and many times I’ve made aggressive moves to try to close the deal. Calling louder and more frequently, moving closer to the herd before calling, or trying to get closer with a decoy, I’ve spooked a lot of bulls, even entire herds. That’s OK, because in these situations I knew I had to make a move to get a shot opportunity.

Sometimes I could feel the wind changing so I moved closer, trying to beat the shifting currents because I knew I was too far in to back out. Sometimes I cut off bulls with reply bugles that resulted in them gathering their harems and bolting. Sometimes I’ve been so focused on stalking to within range of a bedded bull, I failed to see the cows between us. Mistakes, all of them, result in learning.

In elk hunting, if you do what you’ve always done and you’re not routinely filling tags, you may never find success. Don’t get frustrated. Make changes. Many of the elk I’ve spooked heard me or saw me—not smelled me—but weren’t sure what I was. I was able to get back on many of those bulls later in the day, or in following days, and close the deal.

Because of the number of hunts I used to go on every fall, I didn’t have the luxury of taking my time. Our filming and production schedule was tight. Once I found a good bull, I was moving aggressively, doing all I could to kill it.

bull elk
Bowhunters yearn for a close encounter with a bull. Once it happens, evaluate what you did to find yourself in this position, and then do it again. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

The No. 1 thing I learned was, as long as the wind was in my favor, I had a shot at killing a bull. I got out of TV nearly a decade ago, but I still hunt aggressively. Elk are wild animals, and when bulls are rutting, common sense is often overshadowed by the urge to breed. Catch a bull in the right frame of mind, and you’ll be amazed at what you can get away with.

When bowhunting elk, you’ll make mistakes, just like in life. But never give up, never quit. Learn from mishaps and keep pushing. Minutes later, just over the next ridge or a few hundred yards farther up the draw, a bad hunt can quickly turn into one you’ll never forget.

Night Moves
  • Scouting after dark can reveal a herd’s secrets.
elk in woods
Elk may be bedded long before sunrise, and to beat them to the spot for a setup, you’ll have to hike while it’s still dark. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

I rolled into a camp after midnight one season. I pitched a small tent next to my truck and tried getting some sleep as it had been a long drive. About 3 a.m. bugling bulls awoke me. I couldn’t get back to sleep, anxiously awaiting sunrise. I hunted all day and didn’t see or hear an elk. The same thing happened the following night, and again I hunted the area and didn’t see an animal. On the third night I got up when I heard the elk. I followed them and could even see them in the glow of the full moon. I learned those elk were traveling 3 miles every night to feed, returning to their bedding area in the middle of the night.

Over the years I’ve scouted a lot at night for elk, usually when I was seeing fresh sign but finding no animals during the day. I discovered herds often travel between 1 to 7 miles per night, one way, from their feeding grounds to bed. Many times they’re back in their beds two hours before sunrise.

When scouting at night I use a dim headlamp, rely on a navigation system—especially when there’s no moonlight or it’s cloudy—and do not call. I’m listening for cow and calf talk and bugling bulls. Sometimes elk move quietly and all you hear are footsteps on hard ground.

The goal is not to get close to elk, rather to get a line on where the herd is heading so you can set up ahead of them the next day. This might mean starting your hike in the middle of the night.

Because elk often move uphill to bed, be sure to monitor the thermals if you’re on them at first light. Waiting until rising thermals stabilize before you move in from above is a must. I’ve called in and arrowed a number of bulls after 9 a.m. once air currents started rising.

When scouting at night, take naps during the hottest part of the day. Remain in the field all day, not returning to camp. If it’s too hot to hunt, search for sign. You’re there to kill an elk, not hang out in camp.

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