“Are you looking for me?” said the kid as he appeared out of the dark. I had just radioed to Lorren, my guide, who was riding the high trail looking for his hunter -- the kid, a 20-year-old apprentice electrician from Michigan on his first elk hunt. It was 7 p.m. during Colorado’s fourth rifle season, there was two feet of snow on the ground, the weather was clearing and getting cold, there was no moon, and we were starting to get worried.
“We sure were looking for you,” I said. “Was that you that shot?”
“Yep,” he replied proudly. “I got a nice big 4x4 bull.”
“Did you get him gutted out?” I said.
“No,” he admitted. “I left my backpack on my horse. I didn’t have a knife. Can I have a drink of water? I’m dying of thirst!”
After three big glasses of water, the kid told the story. He and Lorren had cut elk tracks and followed them until Lorren decided to go back and get their horses. The kid wanted to keep following the tracks. Lorren explained to him exactly how to reach the pack trail, and told the young man to wait for him there. The kid followed the tracks until he found an elk in them, and waylaid a nice bull at 60 yards with a shot to the spine. Unfortunately, he had forgotten his backpack with his water, food, survival gear, and knife, on his horse.
Well, that’s a big mistake,” I said. I had seen elk bloat up within a few hours of the final shot, ruining the meat. “You’ll learn why. You can’t wait until tomorrow to gut him out.” To make a long story short, Lorren and the kid got off the mountain at 3 a.m. after riding up to gut out the elk in the moonlight.
I had told the kid and his stepfather very clearly on the opening day of the hunt, “Don’t ever go anywhere without your backpack and all your survival gear, even if you only think you’re going to be gone 5 minutes.” Now he had learned it the hard way.
If you, too, spent as many days as I have in the woods hunting and guiding for elk, you’d have learned many of the same lessons. But if you read on and pay attention, maybe you can learn it the easy way. Here are some more tips that every elk hunter should know, in no particular order:
2). When you’re shooting at a steep uphill or downhill angle, the point of impact of your bullet is higher. If you’re standing on a steep mountainside, say 40 degrees, shooting at a bull 200 yards above or below you, if you aim for the middle of his chest cavity, you might miss him entirely. Aim for the heart at the bottom of his chest.
3). A shoulder shot is a poor shot. This fall, two of my hunters wounded and never recovered two elk that were shot in the shoulder. Unfortunately, I wish I could say that it was a rare occasion. It’s not. Aim behind the shoulder so that you hit the lungs and heart instead. Though you can indeed break the shoulder with a shoulder shot, many times it is not lethal and a wounded elk can cover a lot of miles on three legs.
4). He who covers the most ground sees the most elk. Once I rode in to check one of my drop camps, and the guys were complaining about not seeing any game. “I walked over a mile from camp and didn’t see a darned thing!” one hunter whined. “Who saw the most elk?” I asked. One hunter raised his hand. “I saw thirty head today,” he said. “Okay, now who walked the furthest?” I asked. The same hunter raised his hand.
5). 90% of the elk are in 10% of the country and vice versa. Elk are herd animals. Once you locate them, you’re in them! The trick is locating them. See Maxim #4.
6). Great optics are essential. Once while guiding a hunt, I spotted a herd of elk miles away on a distant ridge. I counted 37 head. “There’s the bull,” I said. “That’s ridiculous,” said my hunter, peering through his cheap binoculars. “I don’t see anything. You can’t see elk that far away.” I handed him my 10x42 Swarovskis, which he put to his eyes. “Oh, there they are!” he said excitedly.
Save your money, get a part-time job, cash in a stock -- do whatever it takes to buy the best optics you can find. You need three pieces of optics: a good variable rifle scope, a pair of 10-power binoculars, and a spotting scope. The three items might cost over $3,000, but it’s a lifetime investment, and it’s worth it.
7). ATV’s are just a means to an end. If you think you’re going to ride up on a herd of elk with an ATV, jump off, and shoot a bull, you’re wrong. Sure, it happens occasionally, but not often. They’re noisy. Park it on the road, get off, and walk! This leads to maxim #8...
8). There are no easy elk. Sure, every now and then some guy wakes up hung over, stumbles out of his camper, and a herd of elk is running through camp and he guns one down. This is one in a million. If you want to kill an elk, you’re going to have to earn it. However, you have to be smart enough not to work too hard, which leads to Maxim #9.
9). Do not walk through elk in the dark. This is one that really gets me. Sometimes you can watch a mountainside from below before daylight, knowing that there’s a herd of elk up there, and see flashlights bobbing through the area where the elk bedded down the night before. If you’re in elk country and you’re walking in the dark, you’re making a mistake. Many guys blow out a herd of elk in the dark and then walk all day and see nothing. The corollary to this, of course, is Maxim # 10, which is…
10). Do not camp in the elk. There are logical campsites where you can spend the night or even a week and never disturb the game, yet find elk within a half-mile or so. So why would you want to camp right where the elk have made their home for the last few weeks? So that the guy in the next basin can get some shooting on opening morning? Trust me, it happens, a lot.
11). Elk can see you, but they’d better not smell you. Quite often elk will spot you and look at you intently for several seconds, even minutes, before spooking. But if they smell you, they’ll bolt instantly. Stay downwind if you want to be successful.
12). Good gear is essential. It’s true that you can hunt elk in an old pair of mechanic’s coveralls, but eventually you’ll be wet and miserable. Spend the money for good waterproof, quiet gear.
13). Horses are wonderful creatures, if properly trained. Once you load a big bull on two well-trained packhorses, you’ll never want to drag out an elk again. Then again, once you load an elk on two poorly-trained packhorses, you’ll never want to see a horse again, either. Which leads to corollary 14…
14). Yes, you can shoot off a horse ... once! Enough said.
15). The elk don’t owe you anything. Just because you paid $5,000 for a guided hunt or because you need the meat or because you really want an elk bad or because you scouted all summer doesn’t mean you deserve an elk. The national success rate on elk is around 25%. 75% of the hunters have to go home empty-handed.
16). Don’t violate game laws. This is very important. This last fall one of my guided hunters got trigger-happy and shot a spike, which is against the law in Colorado. I reported the violation, just as I had told my hunters I would do. The fine was $1,300. (By the way, he shot the spike five times with a .338 before it finally expired, which ought to tell you how tough elk are. See Maxim #23.) Party hunting is dead and gone. It’s easy enough to make a drive and post a shooter who can blast three or four elk, but that ethic went out in the 70’s. Stalk and shoot your own elk.
17). Keep your rifle at the ready! When I’m stalking through the woods, it’s rare that I have my rifle slung over my shoulder. Every time I walk up to a clearing or crest over a little ridge where I can spot new country, I have my rifle at the ready and my thumb on the safety. If there’s a herd of elk or a nice bull, I can make a snap decision, shoulder my rifle, and fire in about three seconds. That’s very hard to do if your rifle is on your shoulder, and lazy elk hunters waste thousands of good opportunities each season by walking around with their rifles slung over their shoulders.
18). Get in the best shape of your life to have your best hunt. I’ve said it over and over again, but if you are not in top condition, you’ll suffer on an elk hunt. They’re typically found at high elevations in steep terrain. Lose weight, gain cardiac reserves, quit smoking, and get in shape!
19). If you have addictions, plan in advance. You wouldn’t believe how many guys are addicted to Mountain Dew and chewing tobacco. In denial of this fact, they book an elk hunt and don’t plan adequately for their six-pack-of-Dew-and-a-tin-of-Skoal-a-day habit, and then go into major withdrawal when supplies run out. This is an ugly scenario, and I, as the outfitter, refuse to drive 60 miles into town and back and then ride five hours to feed your addiction. Either cut down your consumption prior to the hunt or bring enough to tide you over.
20). The cows will be fine when you get home. I once ran into an archery hunter on the trail who was having a great time, getting into elk and almost getting shots, but the problem was his buddy who had driven them out from Indiana. “The sumbuck (I’m editing here) can’t get his cows off his mind,” he said. “They’re in a good pasture with a tight fence, and he can’t think about nothing else. He says he wants to leave tomorrow, and we just got here!”
Sure enough, after three days of hunting, all three guys had to pile into the cattleman’s pickup and go home or find their own ride. Maybe the problem wasn’t the guy’s cows, but his wife, we surmised, but the point is, get your affairs settled so you can take off for a week and enjoy the hunt.
21). Go before it is too late! This fall we hosted a hunter who was over 60 and on the downward slide of his physical condition. Yes, it was his dream elk hunt, but he couldn’t fully enjoy it because he couldn’t walk far and found riding uncomfortable. “I should’ve done this years ago,” he told me upon departure.
22). Don’t pack too much gear. One time my packer, Jack Toney, looked at a hunter’s two gigantic duffle bags and said, “Whatcha got in there, the Cabela’s catalogue?” Please, be reasonable! If you can’t fit your personal gear into one medium-sized duffle bag, it’s too much. You won’t wear more than two heavy shirts and two T-shirts, one waterproof pair of pants and one lightweight pair of pants, longjohns, wool socks, and various foul-weather gear. Space is at a premium on a packhorse and in an elk camp. Tighten your gear down to what you really need.
23). Bring an elk rifle for an elk hunt. The bare minimum caliber for elk hunting is the venerable .30-06. You make take dozens of whitetail at home with your .270 or .257 Roberts, but that doesn’t cut it for elk. Bring a .300 Mag or a .338. You’ll be sick to your stomach if you wound a big bull with a .270 and never see him again—and I’ve seen it happen all too many times. See Maxim #3.
24). Enjoy the meat. Don’t hunt elk if you don’t want the meat, which is, by the way, the finest and healthiest meat in the world. This means taking care of the meat in the field.
25). Vote for elk! Your politicians may not care about elk or elk habitat, but if you make them aware that you care and you vote for elk instead of gas pipelines and electric transmission towers, we might eventually prevail against the forces of darkness.