Win With This Elk Hunting Game Plan

You have to be smart, tough and patient to bag a bull elk. (Shutterstock image)

Drawing a tag is half the battle when elk hunting; filling it is another story.

Consistently killing a mature bull elk is one of the most difficult tasks a hunter can accomplish in North America.

Elk are smart and display nomadic traits that can keep a hunter guessing. Elk country is often remote and significantly more rugged than your average whitetail woodlot. And when you throw an over-the-counter elk tag into the mix, trying to come to terms with these Western icons is daunting. 


Physical fitness contributes to mental toughness. Having the right mindset will get you through the difficult challenges an elk hunt will inevitably throw at you. By its very nature, elk hunting is tough, and it's as much a mental game as it is a physical one.

 "Separation is in the preparation," says Dan Staton, developer of

Not only is this true in life, he says, but it's also a fact in the elk woods. In order to achieve this, a hunter really has to do something physical virtually every day if he wants to be ready.

When you train, do so with a high level of intensity that pushes you to the next level. Each time you push yourself to the limit and succeed, you've not only improved your stamina, but you've also enhanced your mental toughness by accomplishing something you didn't think you could achieve.

To build mental toughness you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and carry a "can't quit" attitude regardless of the situation. 

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Topographic maps present a three-dimensional landscape on a two-dimensional scale, and they are very effective tools in locating key terrain features elk use on a daily basis: food, water, cover and space. Since elk spend the majority of their time living in social herds, these items have to be plentiful.

Pairing the advantages of maps with today's digital aerial images enriches physical scouting efforts. Not only are you able to identify terrain features — like north-facing slopes, saddles, ridges, benches and valleys — but the visual element an aerial image provides only enhances those locations. 

Determine how the elk herd connects food, water and cover. Elk prefer to take the path of least resistance when unpressured. Saddles where elk can easily cross a ridge and long, covered slopes that lead to food and water are great travel corridors.

A bench on a north-facing slope is a great bedding location, as well, so identifying terrain features and cover between bedding and feeding locations will give you a leg up on your competition. Once you've located these areas digitally, physically scouting them before and during the hunt will only confirm your suspicions as likely elk hotspots or cause you to forget them altogether. 


Without question, one of the toughest elk hunting challenges is to kill a bull while he is in his bedding area. Not only do you generally have dozens of eyes to contend with, as well as sharp noses, but the inherent risk of bumping a herd of elk is a strong possibility.

Before you even consider an attempt, know the wind direction and wait for it to be consistent. A capricious mountain breeze is the first thing that will ruin such an attempt. It may mean waiting an hour or two before the wind currents level out, but if you are patient an opportunity will present itself.

Second, use an elk's biological yearnings as a weakness. If there is even a hint of rut activity in the thin mountain air, attempt to sneak into the downwind edge of the bedding area and present a call. Bulls will generally check their harem several times while bedded and will likely swing on the downwind edge to do it.

Using a seductive cow call could arouse his attention, or a bugle could spark his biological rage. Either call can work, depending on the situation; the key is getting within 50 yards or so before raising his curiosity. 

Another option is to still-hunt from above, at a quartering angle, while keeping the wind to your advantage. Bulls tend to bed above their harem, so coming at an angle can put you in the best possible position for a shot. This obviously requires a stealthy approach, sometimes taking over an hour to slip into range, but when using the cover and terrain to your advantage, it can be accomplished.

Last, rifle hunters can use their longer range to their advantage and wait on the upwind edge for an opportunity. This requires a hunter to be positioned at least a couple hundred yards beside or parallel to the bedding area, maybe on the opposite side of a valley, and waiting. Elk will generally move into the wind as they leave a bedding area. Use this predictable behavior and patiently wait from a safe distance.

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