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Boots on the ground: run-and-gun elk tactics for he utmost challenge and ultimate reward.

Bowhunting elk, for me, has always been and always will be a highly physical dodge. When I guided bowhunters for New Mexico's "Gila Monsters," I regularly installed clients on water for stand-hunting success. When circumstances permitted, I often shared blinds with clients. Snoozing or reading a book while toiling for wages was admittedly a welcome break.

But when on my own time, sitting for elk becomes utterly intolerable. Every minute I sit and an elk fails to appear seems like time squandered, and I'm convinced I could be over a distant horizon making something happen. This itchy demeanor made initial exposure to whitetail hunting difficult decades past, not yet used to longs hours, even weeks, sitting in wait.

To this day I always mark wallows and secreted water holes encountered while running and gunning for elk. I seldom miss an opportunity to swing by these sites while chasing elk in the area, just to see if they're still viable or if elk sign is still abundant. I might pause for hydration or a lunch break, but never, ever haul a stand in to these places. I'm not prepared for that just yet.

I have a restless spirit. If I did will myself to sit, the first distant bugle would set me off on a heated chase. That's what elk hunting is about for me--the chase. If I killed very few elk hunting afoot I would continue to do so nonetheless. It's why elk are so engaging and ultimately the most fun I have bowhunting each season (even as I run myself ragged).

But the fact remains--I do kill elk. Pretty much every time I have a tag, in fact, which a lot of bowhunters who do choose to sit for success can't claim. After 30 years hunting elk, 23 of those guiding professionally, I've learned that aggressive bowhunters typically kill more and bigger bulls. Getting your boots on the ground and making it happen is how most elk-hunting success is found.

"Aggressive" Calling

It seems many harbor the notion that calling equals no-sweat success--you know, like waltzing beneath a roost tree before dawn and calling in a lovesick spring gobbler from the comfort of a pop-up blind. In elk hunting, things are a bit more involved. Firstly, elk are more mobile and maintain much larger territories. It's the nature of the beast. They must remain on the move or risk overtaxing their habitat through overgrazing.

In the simplest terms, you must cover plenty of ground to find bugling bulls initially. Even in the best habitats, elk are highly scattered or temporarily concentrated into isolated pieces of habitat. Yesterday's hotspot can prove dead today. The smart bowhunter keeps moving, continually covering ground to discover where elk are today. While I tend to depend on calling less than the average elk hunter, I always keep a cow call and bugle tube dangling from a shoulder, offering periodic cow chirps and spike squeals as I cross a piece of real estate. I keep my pace brisk until I get something going--sometimes grabbing miles before good light arrives.

Sleep is something you can do during the heat of day when elk are tightly bedded and generally tight lipped. My elk-hunting days generally start by 3 a.m., cruising back roads, listening for bugling and offering calls after I've parked long enough to allow things to settle. Detecting a bugle that sounds interesting, I immediately abandon the truck and do whatever is necessary to keep that bull in earshot. Elk can cover miles in a single morning, and getting the jump is important. In still other areas, where sign or recent encounters tell me elk are present, I don't hesitate to leave the truck and start hiking by red-lens headlamp hours before shooting light. I only slow down when I arrive in the thick of things.

With the arrival of shooting hours, lured deeper into remote areas by the siren's song of bugling bulls, the game becomes no less physical. Charging in, setting up and expecting a bull to respond to your calls is unrealistic. It happens, of course, but more often they'll make you work for it.

Last year's bull was fairly indicative. I got into vocal elk by 4 a.m., leaning against the warmth of my ATV for an hour and sipping hot tea from a Thermos until elk began to move with the first hinting of daylight. Within half an hour I'd caught the mixed herd of cows/calves, young bulls and at least two dominant bulls vying for a harem. I quickly made myself part of that herd, mimicking the cow calls all around me, offering non-threatening, squealing bugles to keep bulls talking as I maintained contact over miles of rough, nasty, thick terrain. Two hours later I was joined by another set of hunters, their man-made calls obvious to my ears. They set up, hung back and called incessantly. I waded in, continually closing the distance on the herd bull, dodging outlying cows and offering non-aggressive calls of my own. I soon heard crackling brush and detected glints of antler through thronged cover. I slipped into a position providing the only reasonable shooting lane in that thick cover as the bull advanced steadily. I shot him at seven yards as he swung by, seeking the source of my calls.

After the shot, the herd bull continued calling, fading fast. The two bowhunters down the ridge hadn't moved an inch, still offering their desperate calls as those elk faded deeper into roadless country. I'd beat those bowhunters to the punch only by remaining steadfastly aggressive.

More often than not, traveling elk are reluctant to deviate from an established flight plan to investigate suspect calls. You have to make it easy for them. Any calling success I've enjoyed recently was proceeded by mad-dash scrambles to skirt herds with a destination in mind, or a lone bull cruising a long ridge or bench. This is a complete 180 from the typical view of bowhunters as stealthy, sneaking predators. This means scrambling, hustling, even running when topography permits.

Dogging Bugling Bulls

I said earlier I generally rely on calls very little, because I've found calling the biggest bulls--herd bulls with no reason to abandon an assembled harem, savvy old warriors who've kept their hides intact through innate caution--is mostly a losing proposition. In fact, remaining silent makes it less likely such a bull will keep an eye peeled for danger, helping me to slip in undetected.

Dogging bugling bulls is one of bowhunting's most challenging endeavors; requiring moving quickly and decisively while maintaining a high degree of stealth. Elk aren't as hard-wired to flight as deer--they're generally herd animals and relatively noisy creatures, especially when traveling or sorting pecking orders during heated breeding activities. This doesn't mean they're pushovers either. This is further complicated by the fact elk saunter faster than you jog. Success depends on moving like the wind, or like the hands of a clock--more importantly, knowing when to apply which.

Most elk hunters fail in this game because they live by the sneaky-patient mantra learned through deer hunting. While they're sneaking like the hands of a clock they get left in the dust by elk going places. Dogging bugling bulls requires an unrelenting, aggressive approach--sometimes even when in sight of game. You must move fast, but silently, cover ground in a hurry, but avoid overrunning your quarry. Contact is first established and maintained through bugling at some point, and then hopefully visually. This running cat-and-mouse game can go on for miles as elk seek distant pastures while you follow carefully, waiting for the right combination of terrain, wind or distractions allowing you to slip in for the shot.

Lone bulls generally require greater stealth than herds because many animals create more confusion and open movement is (outside 80 yards) often ignored--though the herds' additional eyes, ears and noses provide more opportunity for detection.

In all, wind is your biggest enemy. Elk alerted by movement or noise can often be waited out. Elk that catch your scent are history. Learning to anticipate, wind shifts as you traverse various terrains while shadowing a moving herd is imperative to success. The basic rule of thumb is that warm air flows uphill (sunny hillsides, bottoms late in the morning) and cool air settles (cool, damp or shaded hillsides, bottoms early morning or late evening). For example: A herd may move from a sunny ridgetop (thermals rising) to a cool canyon head (thermals falling) while seeking bedding cover. Anticipating this and circling to accommodate wind keeps you in the game.

Rough elk country also requires sturdy boots, for obvious reasons. Not the best vehicle for stealth. This is why I find stalking slippers indispensible. Rancho Safari's ( Cat Prowlers are a favorite. I keep a pair strapped to the outside of my daypack when covering ground, slipping them over clumsy boots after cutting the distance, padded soles muffling crunching gravel or snapping twigs.

Ultimately, I believe so many fail in this ploy because the very nature of this aimless pursuit intimidates most bowhunters. They worry about returning to distant vehicles or camps for lunches and naps, or meeting friends at some specified time. They begin to form false apprehensions about retrieving meat from some hellish canyon. We're creatures of habit, often worrying more about keeping schedules than playing the cards dealt to us. Many bowhunters back off simply because elk are leading them somewhere they really don't want to go. I admit to these failings myself.

The nice 6x6 I arrowed two seasons ago lived in a bottomless gorge I'd never penetrated before the week I tagged him. In fact, we'd labeled it "The Abyss," reaching the rim of that void invariably signaling retreat. But that year I was hunting alone and decided to shun schedules and convenience and go for it. I climbed in and out of that damned place numerous times before I ultimately put an arrow into that gorgeous bull. And you what? The place no longer intimidates me.

I've always lived by a motto--get them killed first, worry about getting them out later. This has resulted in some grueling meatpacking adventures, but looking back the anticipation was always worse than the actual work.

Make no mistake, bowhunting elk is hard work. You'll sweat, ache, cuss, dehydrate, go hungry and completely shatter any semblance of a circadian rhythm. You'll blow stalks before they even start, stampede herds by overreaching your pace, even blow shot opportunities by hesitating one second too long. But this is ultimately what makes elk hunting so fun and so highly rewarding. When it all comes together you know you own something earned through sweat and blood and not through mere luck.
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Title Annotation:2013 Elk-Hunting SPECIAL SECTION
Author:Meitin, Patrick
Publication:Petersen's Bowhunting
Date:Aug 17, 2013
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