The Art of Hunting Cow Elk
You’re laughing. I know you’re laughing. “What art?” you’re saying. “If you’re hunting cow elk, you just go out and shoot one.”
Well, it’s not so simple. True, it’s much easier to put your scope on a cow elk than a 6-point bull, and the success rate for cow elk hunters is high. But hunting cow elk poses some interesting difficulties that you won’t encounter while hunting bulls, and if you’re not careful, you can get yourself into a lot of trouble.
In the last several years, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has been on a campaign to reduce the numbers of elk statewide, and the best way to do that is by harvesting cows, which also allows more bulls to grow up. In 2002, a hunter could have taken four elk in Colorado—a bull and three cows. Last fall, a hunter could harvest a bull and a cow.
Personally, I have taken advantage of the opportunity. Three of the last four years, I’ve taken two elk. You never know when you’re going to go home skunked, and my growing family plows through the meat. I’ve also donated meat to needy families, which I think is good karma.
I’ve always said that I’d much rather shoot a big cow than a raghorn bull. If you’ve never shot a bull before and have a chance at a young 4-point, go ahead and take it, but for my money, a big cow yields a lot more tender meat. One year a friend and I harvested a big cow, and she dwarfed all but one bull that I’ve ever shot. My friend was about 6’ tall and 200 pounds, and I’m pretty strong for my size, but we couldn’t even budge this cow. She had to be 700 pounds on the hoof. There was a lot of very tasty meat from that animal.
When you go after a cow elk, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Shoot selectively. You must be very careful about your shot selection when you’re shooting at cow elk. This fall I guided a hunter who had both a cow and a bull tag, and we got into a herd of about 20 head about 300 yards away. It was blowing and snowing, we had only one approach, and our scent blew to the elk. We were as close as we could get, peering through a stand of aspens, looking at a string of elk moving up a ridgeline into another stand of aspens. “No dice,” I said.
At 300 yards without a good rest, and with the view partially obstructed, it just didn’t make sense to shoot at a cow. Two jumps and she would have been over the ridge, and then what? It would have been difficult to tell if he had hit her, close to impossible to tell which cow he had shot at, and getting off a follow-up shot would have been difficult as well.
The location of the animal is important as well. Don’t shoot a cow in a blow-down of dark timber where you’re going to have to freight quarters over downed logs for half a mile, then another couple of miles to the truck. Opportunities are plentiful enough that you should be able to find a cow within a few hundred yards of a horse trail or jeep road.
Wait for a good opportunity. Don’t worry if you pass a dicey shot at a cow. If you’re any kind of hunter, you’ll find another herd with plenty of cows in it. Wait for a good, clean, standing shot. This fall I passed on several elk running through a gap in the trees, dissatisfied with the possibility of badly wounding an elk and then having to track it. Sure enough, ten minutes later another cow stepped out 175 yards broadside and stopped. There was a snow-covered aspen log lodged between two trees at perfect chest height for me. I laid my rifle on that handy rest, centered the crosshairs right behind her shoulder, and squeezed off. Meat.
Once you shoot, only shoot at the same animal. It’s different when you pick out a bull from a herd, because you can easily identify the same animal. You can keep shooting at the 5x5 with the funny tine on the left side, for example. When you shoot at a cow, the herd can mill around, you’re disoriented from the recoil of the rifle, and it may be difficult to tell which elk you shot at. All the cows look the same. Don’t shoot again until you know whether you hit or missed. It’s extremely helpful if you have a spotter with good optics to watch the animal you’ve selected and verify whether you hit or missed. Any experienced elk hunter can tell you that an elk can take two or three solid hits to the vitals before dropping, and if you’re not careful, you could assume you missed the first time, shoot two or three more times, and end up with several dead animals. It’s better to pick out a clearly identifiable animal, such as the last animal in a string of elk crossing a hillside, and shoot at the same animal until it drops.
A good shot!
A bad shot!
Shoot a big one. Four years ago, I was stalking down through a stand of aspens after a big snowstorm. I walked right up on a herd of bedded elk. The first animal I saw was clearly a cow, sleeping, at 40 yards distance. I could see only her head. I was raising my rifle to shoot her in the head when another cow sensed my presence and stood up. With the standing cow for reference, I could see that the bedded elk was a calf. Calf elk is fantastic meat, and biologically speaking, a calf has less chance of making it through the winter than a mature cow, but they’re less than half the size of a mature cow. I shot the standing cow instead.
Some guys like to pick out a yearling cow or a smaller animal on the theory that the meat will be more tender, but I haven’t noticed much difference in the meat from the yearlings and the big cows that I’ve shot.
Try another method of hunting. If you’ve always wanted to try muzzleloader hunting, archery, or hunting with a pistol, a cow elk hunt is the perfect opportunity. A friend of mine recently related to me how much fun he had hunting with a Thompson/Center single-shot pistol, and I thought how much fun it would be to take a cow with a rig like that. One of my wranglers has made it his goal to take a cow with his grandfather’s open-sighted .30-30 from the 1890’s.
Introduce a new hunter to the sport. For a beginning hunter such as a teenager or a lady who has never hunted before, a cow elk hunt can be both tremendously exciting and highly successful. Often you can get a private land cow tag, where the hunting is easier and chances of success are high. Once you get into a herd, the animals are often less wary and will allow a beginning hunter more time for a shot. For a new hunter, there’s nothing like success, and usually when you’re hunting private land, there are jeep trails and roads so that it’s easier to get your meat out.
Hunt the late seasons. My wife has a cow tag that lasts until January 15, and the elk are now a few hundred yards from the main road. We can go fill it any time we want, but the freezer is full already. During the late seasons, as the snow fills up the high country and the herds move to lower elevations, the hunting can be fantastic. Two years ago, my wrangler Randy and I had a day free during the fourth rifle season. I had a bull tag and he had a cow tag. We left the stables fairly late in the morning and by 1:00 we had been into three different herds totaling about 70 elk. I filled my bull tag and he filled his cow tag, all on public property and in a single day of hunting.
Any elk is a trophy. I’m not the first guy to write this sentence, but it’s true. When a hunter has spent five or six unsuccessful seasons hunting elk, he realizes just how significant a big cow elk can be. I encourage my hunters to have a cow tag in a group of three or four hunters, because often that can make a lot of difference in how many elk they bring home. One of my hunters bagged his first elk - a cow - this season, and he was as happy as a guy who has just shot a trophy 6x6. His happiness was understandable - it was his first elk in six years of hunting out West.