October 28, 2022
One October many moons ago in Colorado, I thought I had it all figured out. I drove out to my hunting area—an OTC tag unit—two days before the general rifle elk season opened. There wasn’t another soul in sight. I joyously set up camp and then scouted on foot both days, locating two small herds of elk.
Then, the afternoon before the opener, other hunters started arriving in droves. The dirt road leading to camp looked like an L.A. freeway during rush hour. Where did they all come from?
Most general firearms elk seasons do not open until the rut is, for all intents and purposes, over. While elk still talk on occasion, and the odd bull might bugle, pretty much all that can be heard are tumbling streams and screaming mountain jays. And other hunters. Obviously, I needed a new game plan—one completely different from hunting during bow season.
SCOUT BEFORE YOU GO
Elk are herd animals that live in small, isolated pockets in a vast sea of good-looking habitat. A large elk drainage may encompass 50 square miles, but elk might only live in a handful of places within the entire drainage. To kill a bull, you have to first find one, and you can’t find one unless you cover some country. This point cannot be overemphasized.
Today’s hunter has two advantages we old-timers did not have back in the day—the internet and hunting apps like HuntStand and onX Hunt that can help you get the lay of the land and locate potential elk hidey holes before you ever leave home. Google Earth can give you the same area overview old-school topographic maps will. There’s tons of good information now available on state game department websites, too. You can build a game plan long before your boots even hit the ground.
My plan revolves around two basic things–knowledge of elk habitats after the rut has ended, and hunter pressure.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Our hypothetical 50-square-mile drainage might be 10 miles long and 5 miles wide. It might also encompass a lot of country between the valley floor and the tallest peaks several thousand feet higher, with lots of finger drainages branching off the main drainage. At first, the task seems impossible. How do you hunt this entire place in a week’s time?
The answer is you don’t. You scout on the go, splitting up the drainage into manageable sections with your hunting partners. Your first goal isn’t necessarily to kill an elk, rather simply to find elk to hunt. Three or four hunters in decent physical shape, who know how to climb high and glass early and late, and are able to walk 5 to 10 miles during midday in search of elk sign, can cover the entire drainage in two or three days. This is crucial if you did not have a chance to scout before season, as most nonresident hunters do not. It’s imperative you find the elk—and the other hunters.
You can also cover a lot of ground in your vehicle on backcountry roads that wind around the mountains. However, you’ll find that most other hunters are basically lazy and spend all their time glassing from points easily accessible by vehicle. They might shoot a bull now and then, but the elk–many of which have already been harassed by early-season bowhunters–move away from these easy access points. They go places that the majority of hunters look at and think, “No way am I going over there! Even if I kill a bull, how will I get it back to the truck?”
POST-RUT BULL BIOLOGY
After rutting, bull elk—especially the old herd bulls—are tired and worn out. They’ve expended huge amounts of energy breeding and protecting their harems from interloping satellite bulls. Your scouting efforts may produce lots of elk, but they will more than likely be cows, calves and small- to medium-sized bulls. That’s because herd bulls are now ready to resume their life of bachelorhood. They often find isolated pockets of deep cover where they can rest without being disturbed by anybody or anything, including other elk. This they do alone, or in small groups of other bulls.
You can find these pockets in the dark timber, among blowdowns and other hell-hole cover; on small benches notched into the sides of steep, brushy ridges; near high-mountain saddles; in thick creek and river bottoms; and among other nasty, inhospitable places. Elk will travel for food and water daily, but during rifle season they often minimize their exposure to danger by moving less. So the most important thing I look for is timbered benches in close proximity to both food and water in an isolated location. These benches are flat spots found on otherwise steep, timbered slopes.
A quick sidenote: Reports from friends who have hunted for many years in areas of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming that are now covered up with wolves tell me that the elk in these areas have started living in the nastiest, meanest country in the region as they try and escape fang and claw. They’ve had to shift their hunting tactics accordingly.
Once you’ve found the elk, you must plan carefully before making your move. If you spook them with your scent, careless walking and talking or poor shooting, chances are they’ll move several miles and you’ll have to start all over again. When approaching the elk, make sure all parties use caution. Never underestimate an elk’s eyesight, especially its ability to spot a careless hunter out in the open with the sun shining on him. Try and move in from either the same elevation as the elk, or, ideally, a bit above them. Remember, too, that while elk like to bed in the same general area day after day, they won’t necessarily bed in exactly the same place day in and day out. So, before moving in on them, it is always better to try and spot them first with your optics.
OUTSMART HUNTERS AND ELK
On my Colorado hunt, instead of giving up, I did what I love to do when there are lots of other hunters around—let them work for, not against, me. On opening morning, I grudgingly crawled out of my sleeping bag at 2 a.m., grabbed my rifle and pack, and quietly started up the mountain in the dark. I kept a low profile, careful not to let the other camps see or hear me. It took three hours of hard climbing, but by 5:30 a.m.
I was set up in a saddle 2,500 feet above the valley floor. My perch overlooked two long, deep timbered canyons, both of which had well-used elk trails coming out of the top of the timber stringers that led into my saddle. I had stumbled across this spot during my scouting, and it was obvious that here was a natural pathway for the elk to travel between one drainage and the next.
I found an old log to lie behind, over which I first set my daypack, then rested my rifle. I took a long drink of water, dug out my binoculars and got ready. An hour or so before daylight the sounds of waking hunters traveled up the slope (it always amazes me how far sound travels in the mountains). As soon as it got gray enough to see, I spotted my first elk in small open pockets about halfway down the slope. Far below, I could soon see several orange vests working their way through the brush. I was reminded of the massed charges infantrymen made on entrenched positions during the Civil War, and, like the hunters below, how futile their efforts usually were.
During the first 30 minutes of light, I saw no fewer than 75 elk, mostly cows and calves, as they worked their way up and across the slope, with several passing through my saddle into the safety of the next drainage. Then, out of nowhere, a very nice, heavy-antlered 5x5 bull led a small procession of six elk into the saddle at a trot. The 75-yard shot was a gimme.
NOT ROCKET SCIENCE
That morning I had two choices: Beat my head against a big rock and hunt with the masses, with minuscule odds for success, or let the other hunters do the work for me, in essence becoming a large herd of beaters driving the elk right past my hide.
The key is to recognize the opportunity when it arises, and, through scouting and/or knowledge of the terrain, determine where the elk are likely to move once they’re spooked and begin to escape to greener pastures. The same scenario has played itself over for me many other times in similar fashion. Whenever possible, it’s advantageous to set up above the elk—and the other hunters—and to play the wind. It’s always helpful if nobody sees you take your stand. Who says you have to join the crowd? I’d rather let them do the hard work. Best of all, the meat pack was all downhill.