By Zach Bowhay
For the better part of 20 years my bowhunting life revolved around trying to coax public land bull elk into bow range.
Calling elk is something I dearly love and my hunting partners and I have had many encounters and a good amount of successful hunts using this method.
However, it seems it's getting considerably harder to trick a bull into coming close enough for a shot these days.
I still call on a regular basis, but like many elk hunters I've had to look for other methods, adapt them to each hunt — even each encounter — and capitalize on the situation presented to me. One such method is stalking without the use of calls.
When to Ditch the Calls on the Right Bull
Many times my decision to either stalk or call to a bull depends on the type of terrain he's in. If I'm in thick timber and can hear the bull bugling I'll try to move in close and call to the bugling bull.
My preference is to stalk a bull in semi-open terrain where I can keep tabs on him by keeping him in sight throughout the stalk. Broken type cover with a mix of open trees, brush, rocks, and ravines works best. This type of terrain allows the hunter to remain hidden, but still be able to take a peek once in a while to make sure they're still on course.
Elk on the Move
Locating a bull or a herd of elk that is either moving toward their bedding area in the morning or toward their feeding area in the evening is ideal. Reason being is the hunter can figure where that herd or particular animal is heading and position himself or herself to head them off.
The only problem with this type of situation is you had better be physically capable of covering ground in a hurry. Once the animal is out of sight hike hard or even jog in order to close the gap in the shortest time possible.
With moving critters you need to move fast, then get them back in sight as soon as possible, this will ensure they haven't changed course. You can also get away with moving faster on milling/feeding animals because elk are usually quite noisy when moving. They don't notice small noises as long as sounds aren't metallic or human.
As far as the wind is concerned, it's okay to make a fast stalk even on an "iffy" wind. When I'm moving fast I'll take my chances even if the wind isn't perfectly stable.
If the wind switches while on the move, either hold up or change direction and loop around to get it the wind in your favor. Of course, when you're in close you need to slow down and make sure the stalk is done right, but being able to shift on the fly and cover ground can (somewhat) make up for swirling winds.
This method of stalking is what I use most and it's produced several shot opportunities over the past few seasons. As mentioned, I don't always stalk, but the times I have tried this method it has worked well and it has quickly become one of my go-to methods.
As a matter of fact the first bull I tried this on was a big bull a friend spotted moving toward a lush patch of grass above our camp. Wanting to try a stalk, I left my calls in camp and made my move.
I got out of sight and moved as fast as I could. In no time I was on top of the bull and popped out just 35-yards from him for a broadside shot that resulted in a quick kill on my first day hunting. Needless to say, I had found a method I could utilize in the right situations.
Stalking bedded animals can also be productive, but in my opinion is more difficult. Reason being, is usually the type of bulls I'm stalking will have a herd with them and that means more eyes.
Not only are there more animals to see you, but they often bed facing all directions so they have all their bases covered. When stalking in these types of situations your moves should be much more calculated. It's like stalking a bedded mule deer buck where every step must be precise to ensure you don't get busted.
When stalking in on a herd of elk try to pick out the cow that you have the best chance of getting into comfortable bow range of and use her as your target. If you've ever watched a herd bull with bedded cows he is always circling his herd checking out the area. Try to get into bow range of a cow in the herd and wait for the bull to come within bow range.
When moving in on bedded elk there is no room for error as far as the wind is concerned. It's best to wait until the thermals have switched and stabilized as much as they are going to, even if it means waiting a couple of hours. Once it's stable move in with that wind. If it does switch again, back out and regroup.
I would like to say to I have a big bull to show for this method, but I only have a 'one that got away' story. A couple years ago I spotted huge herd bull and his cows bedded high over timberline on the last day of the season and snuck in on the lowest cow and waited for the bull to come by. Fifteen minutes later he did just that and I missed a 29-yard chip shot. That one still stings to talk about, but it was at the beginning of my stalking endeavors and it helped to reinforce my newfound method and its merit.
The Right Stuff
I set up all my bows for western hunts with stalking in mind. I prefer a stable forgiving bow like the Elite Energy 35, which provides a 35-inch ATA and 7-inch brace height. Another thing I feel benefits me is a moveable sight.
Currently I shoot a Black Gold Pure, 3-pin slider. I love this setup because I have my fixed 30, 40 and 50 yard pins and beyond that I can dial exact yardage. The reason I prefer this type of setup is when stalking you never know what you are going to come across and having a setup that allows you to place arrows at extended ranges can be an added benefit.
Stalking elk can be every bit as exciting as calling them and can sometimes mean having an encounter you wouldn't have had if you solely called to heavily hunted public land bulls. As I've said, its not the perfect method for every situation, but in the right situations stalking can be downright deadly.