Have you ever wanted to go Elk Hunting With a Bow?
It could be the adventure of a lifetime!
But be careful! You might get hooked!
The bull bugled from the top of the Ponderosa Pine covered ridge. I had to make a plan. Quickly.
I was hunting up this elky looking canyon in hopes of catching a bull coming to water. I had located a remote source of water during my scouting trip, with plenty of elk sign. It seemed like a good place to start.
This was my first day of an archery elk hunt in one of New Mexico’s premier hunting units. Even though I had been elk hunting with a bow for many years, this hunt was special. The number of elk and size of the antlers in this area are legendary.
The morning thermals had the cool September air moving down the slope from the elk to me, but the ridge was much too tall and steep to try a direct assault. Since the bull was moving in the general direction of the water hole, I decided to keep to my original plan. Maybe everything would come together.
As I approached the water hole, the bull continued to bugle. He had not dropped to the water in the canyon bottom as I hoped, but stayed on the ridge top. I decided to begin the ascent, angling upward hoping to cut him off. I did not call, preferring to try and keep my location a secret.
In the upper half of my climb up the ridge, the bull fell silent. Had he smelled me? Unlikely. I still had the wind in my favor. Had he heard me? Probably not. I had not rolled any rocks or made much noise. Where did he go?
I crested the ridge behind a small juniper. I wanted to avoid making myself a silhouette on the ridge top.
After only a few seconds, a loud bugle sent a shiver up my spine and raised the hair on the back of my neck. The bugle came from the pine trees a little over 100 yards further up the ridge.
Before I had time to make a move, a bull answered from the canyon in front of me. He was close. Then another bugle from the head of the canyon about 200 yards away.
As I moved in the direction of the commotion, antlers began to appear out of the canyon about 80 yards away. The bull walked quickly, but with a significant limp.
He bugled as he topped the ridge. He was huge. I counted 8 ivory points on one side, and 7 on the other. One of the biggest bulls I had ever seen. My adrenaline meter was pegged.
His lame leg was on the opposite side, so I couldn’t see why the monster limped. Maybe the third bugle was actually my brother-in-law who was hunting in that general direction. Had he arrowed the bull and was he now trying call him back?
This thought raced through my mind as each bugle was answered by two more, only to start again seconds later. Of course, what was uppermost in my mind was trying to devise a plan to close the gap between the bull and me.
He turned away from me, and that’s when I saw that there was no blood on his bum leg. No evidence that he had been shot. Apparently this brute had been injured in a fight.
It all happened so quickly. My heart was racing in overdrive. I didn’t even think to try a cow call. Bugles this close are fire alarm loud. Each one driving my mind and body into accelerated states of excitement.
All three bulls moved up the ridge to the steep, heavily wooded slope ahead. They kept track of each other with their bugles, and finally settled down for a morning snooze. They made sure that they were a comfortable distance from each other.
Since it was day one of my hunt, I wasn’t going to pursue the bulls into their beds. That would have been a high probability of running them out of the area.
Close Encounters of the Elk Kind
Experiences like this don’t happen on every hunt. But they aren’t rare either. When planning this article, I had a hard time choosing which of my experiences to relate while elk hunting with a bow. Even though I didn’t even draw my bow, just being that close to these majestic creatures is a rush.
That’s why I am a bowhunter. That’s why elk is at the top of my list each year. All other hunts revolve around elk season. In fact, most everything seems to revolve around elk season.
Most archery elk seasons are held during the rut, the elk’s mating season. This usually occurs anywhere from early September to early October. Many people believe that the average peak is close to September 20.
Throughout most of the year, the mature bulls hang together in bachelor groups away from the cows. But during the rut, the bulls will move in on the herd of cows, intent on gathering a harem for breeding.
Competition between bulls can lead to fights, but they are rarely fatal. More often, bulls avoid each other by keeping track of other bull’s locations with bugles.
These bugles, along with other rutting activity can give a bowhunter some advantages. Elk bugles can reveal the bull’s location to the hunter. They can sometimes be attracted by artificial calls. They tend to be less wary, concerned more with other elk than potential danger.
Hunting the rut is what makes elk hunting with a bow my favorite game animal and weapon. The excitement from close encounters is addicting.
Bowhunting Elk Basics
Many readers of this article will already be familiar with bowhunting other species, especially whitetail deer. There are definitely things in common, but there are differences too.
Elk have a great sense of smell, so scent control is important. However, by far, the most important factor in preventing an elk from smelling you is wind direction. Yes, there are many scent control products available that can help, but none are 100% effective. Many are expensive and impractical for some elk hunting methods.
An elk’s eyesight is designed to catch unnatural shapes, and especially movement. That’s why it’s so important to take advantage of terrain, vegetation and shadows when stalking. Ensure that there is something solid between you and the elk when drawing your bow.
It’s important to be as quiet as possible when elk hunting with a bow, but this may be a little less critical than scent or eyesight. There are many noises in the woods, so stepping on a stick may not alarm the elk. However, elk have very good hearing ability, so any sound that is not normally heard in the woods can alert them. This includes noisy clothing, plastic or metal clanging with each step, squeaky boots, and sloshing water bottles.
Due to an elk’s exceptional sensory abilities, your choice of clothing is important. Your clothing should be quiet, and the camouflage pattern should blend with the environment.
Elk Hunting Methods
If you are used to hunting from a treestand, the biggest change when it comes to hunting elk may be in your method. While elk can be hunted from a treestand, other methods are often more effective, and usually more fun.
Elk are very vocal animals, and mimicking their calls can sometimes bring an animal in range for a shot. There are many types of calls available, and learning how to use them well takes lots of practice. Public land elk are often call shy from hunters calling too much. A call at the wrong time can push the elk away, but at the right time can make the difference in getting a shot or not.
Spot and Stalk
Depending on the terrain, spot and stalk methods can be very effective in hunting elk with a bow. To spot the elk, you will need to be on a high point, and have good optics. This is often a good method for mid-day, when the elk are bedded. Once located, you can plan a stalk that will put you near the elk when they get up to move. Approaching a bedded elk is difficult, especially in thick timber, and should be avoided. Pushing an elk from his bed will likely push him out of the area completely.
Hear and Stalk
This is my favorite method for bowhunting elk, especially during morning hunts. Elk bugles can be heard from long distances, and allow a hunter to locate and stalk a bull. Even cows can be heard calling to each other, revealing their location.
Stalking an elk introduces variables into the hunting equation. One of the most critical is that as you move, and the elk moves, the distances are constantly changing. If you are used to shooting at known distances from a blind or treestand, you will need to learn the skill of quickly determining distances.
One of the best ways to know how far it is to your target is to use a laser rangefinder. These tools are extremely accurate, easy to use, and easy to carry.
However, stalking situations won’t always allow you to use a rangefinder. That’s why it’s important to learn to accurately estimate distances. With some practice, you can usually estimate within 1 yard at shorter distances.
Also, many shots taken at elk are at longer distances than the typical whitetail treestand setup. Practice at longer distances than you expect to shoot, and determine your maximum distance to take an ethical shot. Remember that the kill zone for an elk is larger than a deer, so it may be ok if your 50 yard shots don’t group as tightly as your 20 yard shots.
I would like to preface this section by addressing hunters who have only hunted from a stand. If your plan is to hunt elk from a fixed location because that’s what you are familiar with, you will be missing out.
Much of the excitement for me are the close encounters like the one described in the opening story. While I have killed multiple elk from ground blinds, I’m normally not content to sit and wait. When I hear a bull bugling, and it doesn’t sound like he is coming my way, I’m going after him.
Having said that, waiting for elk to come to you can be an effective method for elk hunting with a bow. The trick is to identify a location that elk are likely to come within bow range. In drier climates, water sources can attract elk, both for getting a drink and for wallowing. Other good spots include meadows between bedding grounds and water, and funnels such as a saddle on a ridge that is an easy crossing point for animals.
Concealment for your ambush is another big consideration for this hunting method. Treestands can be used, but the best locations for ambush are often remote. It may be difficult to haul a treestand and ladder to where you want to hunt. A climbing treestand may be a better option.
Ground blinds are another good option, but commercial blinds are bulky and heavy. Hauling one in to a backcountry water hole may not be feasible. Building a natural blind out of materials found close by is a good option and is not difficult.
Elk hunting with a bow is one of the most thrilling adventures a big game hunter can experience. It can also be challenging, but rewarding. Whether you chase a bugle, call the monster to you, or wait for him at a water hole, you’re likely to have an experience you’ll never forget. But be warned, it can be addicting.