Some Musings on Elk Hunting
After packing out 28 elk this fall, I still sometimes have difficulty believing that it is possible to kill an elk with a firearm. Think about it; you're taking a 19th-century contraption of wood and steel, and loading it with a tiny copper-and-lead projectile which is to be powered by Chinese technology from two millennia ago. You sight through a glass objective and point the contraption at a living, breathing animal that can bolt away at any time. There's a lot that can happen between the instant the brain sends a synapse to the finger, which tightens on the trigger and trips the sear, causing the firing pin to strike the primer, the primer to ignite, the powder to burn, and the bullet to speed out of the barrel and on its way toward a living, breathing, moving 700-pound animal.
Every time one of my hunters flicks off his safety, aims at an elk, and pulls the trigger and the elk does or doesn't end up on a packhorse, I wonder why. I analyze what decisions were made by the hunter and why his hunt ended in success or not. I've seen some great shooting and some awful shooting in my dozen or so years of guiding elk hunters. I've seen some incredible one-shot kills and I've seen guys knock the leg off an elk, leaving me to track it for two days. Heck, one of my hunters loves to tell the story of a hunting companion who brought 3 boxes of shells into the high country and packed out with one bullet left. He took 59 shots at game and never raised a hair!
I've assembled some thoughts on shooting at elk. If you know all this; then you've likely done a great deal of hunting. Maybe it's news to you. My musings:
Know Your Rifle - Of course, every hunter professes to be intimately acquainted with his rifle and capable of shooting the eyes out of a gnat at 400 yards. However, each rifle has its individual quirks that are only known through long experience with it. For example, my featherweight .30-06 tends to shoot higher when the barrel is hot. Its light weight lends it to shooting high on snap shots. Therefore, I have to remind myself to aim at the bottom half of an elk's chest, and my marksmanship is excellent when I do.
Many hunters show up on a Colorado elk hunt having rarely fired their rifles from anything but a bench rest. If your only shooting has been done from a treestand, bench rest, or platform blind, how are you going to be a good offhand shooter? Go to the range and get your rifle zeroed in from the bench rest, then spend time shooting offhand, from the prone position, from a log. Two of my hunters that came this fall lived in a rural area where they could safely set up targets. They made their own miniature biathlon course where they hiked or jogged until their heart rates were accelerated, then they practiced shooting. Guess what? They connected in Colorado.
On another note, don't mix up your ammo. I know, everybody should know this, but just because two brands of ammo are both loaded with 180-grain bullets doesn't mean they'll shoot the same. Often the point of impact will be six or eight inches away at a hundred yards, which is very significant! I only mention this because several of our elk hunters DID NOT know this. Also, research your ammunition selection and make sure that your bullets are designed for big game. Though thousands of elk have been taken with lighter-caliber rifles, I believe that you shouldn't attempt to shoot an elk with anything lighter than a .30-06. One of my friends, an excellent and very experienced hunter, shot dozens of elk over the years with a .270. One day he shot a small bull five times in the chest with that same rifle, and chased the bull a full mile before another hunter downed it.
He congratulated the other hunter on his fine kill, and then went out the next day and bought a .300 Magnum.
Find a Rest - Because most hunters learn to sight in their rifles from a bench rest, they come to depend on that most ideal of all configurations. Time and again, I've seen a guy stand there, his heart pumping, game moving through the timber, knowing he can't make a shot without a rest, and he doesn't know how to create one. I like to find an aspen tree and brace my left hand against it, then lay my rifle across my hand. Instantly I've got a solid rest. If there's a horizontal log that you can kneel down and shoot from, take it. If you can throw off your backpack and make an instant prone rest, do it. Above all, find a rest and find one quickly. It will increase your chances significantly of connecting with an elk.
Two years ago, we put a fellow on a point above a meadow where we'd seen five bulls the evening before. He tucked under a limber pine growing low above the ground and rested his barrel on a thick branch coming out at chest level. An hour later, his rifle boomed just once, and we walked up to help him field-dress a very nice 5x5 bull. One shot, right in the neck, and his first bull was on the ground. One reason for his success, he said later, was the great rest that he had found.
Make a Decision!! - If you sense some "guide attitude" here, it's because my entire guide staff has experienced, on countless occasions, hunters who stood there with their mouths open, watching elk walk or run away. If you see elk and you can get your scope on it, DO IT, and DO IT NOW! Elk have a strong sense of self-preservation, and we've long ago eliminated the "curious and stand there" gene from North American game herds. If they know what you are, chances are elk won't stand there very long. You have maybe five seconds after an elk discerns your presence to get your rifle up and make a shot. Had all my hunters observed this rule and obeyed it, we would have packed out more like 48 elk this fall, rather than 28. ANY TIME that you see elk within range, get your rifle ready! You can't predict what will happen next, but I can assure you that your chances of killing an elk are a lot less if your rifle is not at the ready.
Even if you think it's just a herd of cow elk, put your rifle up anyway, and you'll be amazed at how many times antlers will appear out of nowhere. Don't stand there and scope them with your binoculars. That doesn't get the trigger pulled.
Have your mind made up before you ever put a shell in the chamber what kind of elk you're willing to take, whether you're glad to just get a shot at a raghorn or you're holding out for a 350-class 6x6. Once you see that bull you want to shoot, make up your mind instantly as to "shoot" or "don't shoot" and then proceed along that course of action. Don't stand there hemming and hawing; the elk won't.
Keep The Distance Reasonable - If you're any kind of a hunter, you should be able to get within 200 yards of an elk. Anything further than that is not fair to the animals. No doubt you can go to the range and punch the paper all day long at 350 yards, but then again, when you're hunting you'll most likely be pumped full of adrenaline, your breath ragged from overexertion, your nerves frazzled from lack of sleep, your muscles aching from overwork, you'll be shooting off a slippery log or a knobby rock, and the animals are moving. Not exactly ideal, eh? I've killed 18 elk in 19 years of hunting them, and the farthest shot has been 200 yards. The closest was 15 yards, and most of them were between 80 and 120 yards.
If you must shoot an elk farther than 200 yards, do it under these conditions: make sure it's in a position where you can shoot several more times if you miss or if you wound the elk on the first shot. In other words, if the animal is broadside on a treeless mountainside at 330 yards, with no cover for 50 yards in any direction, you have a chance to follow up your first shot with several more rounds if it's not a mortal shot. If you're presented with an angled-away shot at an elk in the timber at 275 yards with only a narrow window to shoot through, you'd better pass. The chances of wounding an animal are too great.
If you pass up that 400-yard shot at a moving animal, chances are, if you're a good hunter, that you'll be presented with another, better opportunity later in the hunt, an opportunity that won't result in a wounded animal.
Once you do shoot, shoot again. I once guided a guy who shot at a bull at 350 yards?about once every 15 seconds. Arrrrgggghhhh! Crank 'em through the rifle or quit shooting!! I would have shot three times as many shots as he did, and I would have killed the bull. As it was, he misjudged the distance and was shooting over the elk. If you shoot three or four times at the same point (above or on the elk) without any effect, then it's time to revise your strategy by either lowering or raising your point of aim. Think quickly and watch for bullets hitting the hillside. If you know you're missing and can't figure out why, quit shooting. It's better to quit than to wound an animal and spend two days tracking it.
If you're shooting at a cow elk, make sure that the cow you aim at is absolutely distinct from the others in the herd. Too often, after the first shot at one cow, the herd mixes up like ice cubes in a blender, and it's impossible to tell which one you intended to kill. Shoot again, and you may have killed two cows. It's better if they're lined out single-file and you can shoot at the last one in line.
Bring Pleny of Ammo - I've guided all kinds of fellows who laughed and scoffed at me when I told them to bring a full box of shells afield with them. Then I'll put them on point somewhere and I'll hear a long string of shooting, and I'll ride up to their stand and they'll breathlessly relate the story of shooting at a bull across the meadow, wounding the animal, and running through a dozen or more rounds trying to put it down. I know, it's not ideal, but it's real. People all too commonly shoot more than one magazine of shells at elk.
The worst scenario is when guys shoot all the shells in their guns, then stand there fumbling through their jacket pockets or backpack for extra bullets while a wounded elk gets away. Make sure your ammo is handy, and practice reloading on the fly. Also, make sure your rifle is carrying all the ammo it can handle. If you load the magazine on a bolt-action rifle, you can press down the shells in the magazine and slip one more round above them into the chamber. Yeah, I know, everybody knows that, right? Wrong. I guided a fellow this fall who shot three times at a bull, wounded it, and as the bull struggled through the aspens, he fumbled around for more bullets. One more shot would have killed it and saved us two hours of tracking, but he had loaded only three in the magazine and didn't slip the fourth round in the chamber.
Shoot And Shoot Again - Countless times we've read in magazines about one-shot kills and how splendid that is. Okay, great, I had a one-shot kill on a cow elk this fall at 80 yards, but I still shot her twice more, anyway, as she struggled her last. That way I was absolutely confident that she was dead, because "dead" elk sometimes have a habit of getting up and running off!
Before I got married, I had a roommate, an experienced elk hunter, who had a cow tag one fall. He hunted with family off horseback. One day he rode up on a cow elk, dismounted, tied his horse, and drew his rifle from the scabbard. He jacked a shell in the chamber, shot the cow right behind the shoulder with a 7-mm. magnum at 60 yards, and down she fell. Confident that the cow was dead, he unloaded his rifle, turned around to replace it in the scabbard, and turned back around to see that the cow was gone. Four miles later, he heard a shot and came upon two other fellows field-dressing his cow.
Every time you shoot at an elk, you owe it to the animal to follow up and look for sign of a hit; blood, hair, gastric contents. And just because you find nothing, don't assume you didn't hit it. I shot a cow three years ago and figured I missed, after carefully searching in the new snow for blood or hair. I then followed the herd 300 yards and got another shot at a placidly grazing cow, which by all good luck turned out to be the one I had shot at twenty minutes previously. I had mortally wounded the cow in the liver, but she wasn't dead yet, and there was not a speck of blood or hair in her trail. It was only sheer luck that I had shot the same cow twice!
Shot Placement is Crucial - I shoot a .30-06 with 180-grain bullets, which most fellows will agree is plenty of rifle to kill an elk, especially at ranges under 200 yards. While I've had plenty of one-shot kills, I've also hit them hard and still had to shoot them three or four times before the killing was done. If you think a .30-06 is not enough rifle, one of my guides shot a bull this fall with a .338 magnum, and the next thing he knew it was 200 yards further away and headed uphill. A better-placed shot anchored it in its tracks. While some guys advise shooting an elk in the shoulder to "take a wheel off," that strategy can sometimes backfire. I've seen hunters blast elk in the shoulder (particularly with 7-mm. Magnums, for some reason) only to splatter the shoulder without breaking it. This is obviously a matter of choosing the wrong bullet, but I find that a shot into the heart/lung area right behind the shoulder is more effective at killing game, and doesn't ruin meat like a shoulder shot. However, an elk can often take a mortal wound right behind the shoulder without exhibiting signs of being hit. A quick follow-up shot, if possible, is often very helpful in making sure the animal is down.
True enough, it seems like a magical phenomenon, and it is. But it works, thousands of times every autumn, by men and women with steady nerves and keen eyes, as they place a copper-and-lead projectile into large game animals at a distance. Amazing, isn't it?
Gary Hubbell, a Colorado native, is the principal owner of OutWest Guides, LLC, in Marble, Colorado. He guides elk, deer, and upland bird hunts, as well as flyfishing and summer pack trips. His articles and photos have appeared in Outdoor Life, Bugle, Outside, Newsweek, Forbes, and Heartland USA, among others.