As I stood over my first archery bull, I knew that I had found my hunting passion. It was early September 1992, and I was alone in the thick alder brush of northern Idaho.
After a week of clambering through the thickets, I had finally managed to get an open shot at a distance of six yards. That bull scored a little over 300 inches, and I was extremely proud to take him home.
Nobody in my family hunted, but from an early age I read every elk-related magazine article and book I could get my hands on, and I watched every elk hunting video I could find. Bowhunting quickly morphed from a passion into an all-out addiction. I hunted Idaho each season from 1992 through 1996, spending as many days afield as I could. In 1997, I started researching the elk-hunting opportunities in other Western states, and I started traveling more to hunt. For the last 17 seasons, I have hunted elk in three or more states almost every year.
In 1998, I designed an arrow rest that led to the start of my company, Trophy Taker. I decided that I was not willing to let work interfere with my elk hunting, and so far I have done a pretty good job of sticking to that goal. Every year, when mid-August rolls around, everyone at Trophy Taker knows that they will not see me for about six weeks. This ample time spent in the elk woods is definitely the biggest contributing factor to whatever success I have enjoyed.
Public Land Elk
I have also chosen to hunt almost exclusively on public land, and on my own. My reasons for this are simple: I am able to spend a lot of time hunting each year, I like to hunt where I want to, and I really like the sense of accomplishment I get from doing it myself.
With these factors in mind, I still have some very good friends who are outfitters/guides, and I know that with their help, I could have the same (or better) results in much less time afield.
Because I have the good fortune of being able to take this much time off each year to chase elk, I spend my hunt budget on longer hunts, accessing the best hunt areas I can, in multiple states each year. For those of you who have limited time, my advice is to hire a qualified outfitter so that you get the most value for your money. With today's fuel prices and the cost of out-of-state licenses and tags, not to mention archery and camping gear, elk hunting can get very expensive. In some cases, doing it yourself does not end up being cheaper than going on a good outfitted hunt.
My personal hunting tactics have evolved over the years. For the first several years, hunting in the brush country of northern Idaho, I primarily tried to call bulls in. Through trial and error, I discovered that strategy was not doing the trick for me, especially on the biggest bulls in the area.
After I started hunting other parts of the West, and began to break free of the stifling alder thickets, I started paying close attention to the tactics of a few hunters that I had great respect for. Hunters who consistently put trophy animals on the ground interest me.
If a hunter is employing legal hunting methods and consistently bringing home trophy bulls, he has to be doing multiple things right. After studying tips and tactics of other successful elk hunters, I worked to put those strategies into practice. Through time, I have learned which tactics fit my hunting style the best.
Strategy of Success
Several factors have had notable influence on my elk-hunting success. Willingness to learn and never giving up are probably the most important. Being in "mountain shape" definitely helps, too. My feeling is that, all other factors being equal, the guy in the best shape stands the best chance on an elk hunt. However, the other factors that need to be equal aren't always equal! So don't think you can't be successful just because you can't sprint to the top of the mountain.
For my style of hunting, patience is very important. I am not ashamed to say that I am a trophy hunter. There are many different ways to end up with an impressive collection of trophy elk mounts. Building a collection by hunting on your own is not very glamorous most of the time, and it can involve many lonely nights on the mountain.
Hunting for the largest bull in any given area usually consists of days, even weeks, of looking for a bull to hunt. If I want a bull in a certain size bracket, I have to be willing to let all the others go. Once I do find the right bull, I work within the set of circumstances I am given to get him in the back of my truck.
My tactics have continued to evolve with each passing year. After using calling as my primary tactic for several years, I noticed a few things. If I called a particular bull in and did not get a shot, I usually could not call that same bull in again. Of course, I'm talking about old, smart bulls. I also noticed that I could almost always tell when it was a hunter calling instead of a bull. If I can tell them apart that easily, how hard can it be for an elk to tell? Don't get me wrong, there are some guys who can sound real good, but very few.
Calling boils down to one thing: If you can convince the bull you are an elk, it can work well. If you can't, it won't.
I have also found that I prefer hunting bulls that have no idea I'm in the area. This, of course, means I need to spot and stalk, still-hunt, or ambush them. I have never really enjoyed sitting in a treestand or waiting at a waterhole, even though these tactics pay off for elk hunters every year. I have hunted elk (even killed a couple) by sitting and waiting, but spotting and stalking, or hearing and stalking, has become my tactic of choice. Many times I also employ a version of still-hunting/tracking, if I can find the track of a bull I am after.
The largest bulls in any given area don't survive by accident; they find ways to avoid hunters. Knowing this, and the fact that year after year first-time hunters kill some of the largest bulls, makes me constantly remember another thing: Big bulls are where you find them, and not where you think they will be, or should be.
Similar to large whitetail bucks, the oldest bulls will often find areas to live that are not where people expect them to live. With this in mind, I try never to get stuck in a "tactic rut." Always being willing to explore new areas, at new times, can really pay off.
Your Greatest Ally
Confidence is probably the greatest ally we can take with us on our elk hunts. Obviously, there is no substitute for elk-hunting experience, and there is only one way to get experience. Being able to look back at years of successful hunts gives a huge confidence advantage going into each elk season, so spend as much time hunting elk as you can afford to each year.
One thing that can really defeat your confidence is letting yourself get overwhelmed by "iron elk syndrome." If you have multiple close calls without getting a shot, or maybe shot opportunities that you mess up, it is very easy to feel that you just can't put a bull on the ground.
I can remember giving up on hunting a particular bull because I blew an opportunity at him. He won. There's no way I can get this bull, I thought. This is a very common thing with us as hunters. Always remember, every bull can be brought to the ground with one well-placed arrow — period! It doesn't matter if you have hunted him for 30 seconds, 30 days, or three years.
One thing I have learned about myself that I believe applies to many bowhunters, is that I dream about and look forward to elk season all year. But, when I'm actually out by myself on the very hunt I've dreamt about, it isn't always a dream hunt! It's easy to get discouraged, lonely, worn out, and pack up and head home early.
I remember days in hunting camp when I slept in because I didn't know where to go or what to do that morning. I have packed up in the middle of the night and started driving home because I was so discouraged with how my "dream hunt" was going. We all face mental, physical, and emotional challenges on our hunts.
Dealing with the Challenges
How we deal with them is up to us, and it will impact the experience. Deciding ahead of time how you will handle things can really help when you are faced with hard decisions on a hunt. Take every variable out of the equation that you can through preparation and research. Commit to keeping a positive attitude through the tough hunts, and always remember that the worst hunt can turn into the best hunt in about as much time as it takes you to draw your bow.
Putting a trophy elk on the wall, in very simple terms, breaks down to this: Hunt an area that holds quality bulls, find the bull you want, get within good bow range, set up a shot opportunity, make a good shot, and you're done. We can talk strategy all day long, but being able to close the deal is critical.
Confidence in your equipment, and your ability to deliver the shot at the moment of truth, is another big aspect of elk-hunting success. Over the years, I have known some really good hunters who consistently get close to elk, but they don't shoot well enough to bring them home. There are also many bowhunters who are great tournament archers, but they are never able to set up a shot opportunity while elk hunting.
Start with the best equipment you can afford. There are multiple bow companies that make quality bows. The same can be said for accessories, arrows, and optics. Work hard at becoming proficient with the equipment of your choice. I am a big advocate of long-range practice (not long-range hunting).
Practice routinely at distances twice that of those you would normally feel comfortable shooting in an actual hunting situation. Learn to make proper shooting form a subconscious part of your skill set, and put yourself in pressure shooting situations whenever possible. Everyone is different as far as how they are affected by stress.
Learning to perform under pressure is the key. If you shoot in tournaments, or even just with friends, it will help you feel pressure to make your shot count. Another thing I like to do to stay calm for the shot at a bull is to always remember that this is not the only chance I will get. This is not the bull of a lifetime. This bull will be mine with one perfect arrow, and it IS like me to shoot a perfect shot. Last but not least, I say to myself, "I have done this before, and I will do it again."
Appreciate the Small Things
Maybe I'm just getting old, but I have seen my appreciation for many things in life change over the years. Next to God and my family, my annual trek through the elk woods is my biggest passion. More than ever, I really enjoy my hunting camp each year, and I try to never take a hunt for granted.
When you find yourself on your dream elk hunt, commit to giving it your all, and never give up! Enjoy the experience, the country, and the elk. Research, prepare, stay calm, and execute. Expect success, and make it count.