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Look to Travel Patterns When Elk Won't Cooperate

A good old-fashioned “squeeze-play” is often the ticket to success for bull elk.

Look to Travel Patterns When Elk Won't Cooperate

This bull had no problem growing antler mass during the summer drought. I was very thankful I guessed right and the bull walked right through my pinch-point.

The faint scent of fresh pine sap already oozing from my foot pegs was wafting upward as I sat motionless in the warm September sun. It was the fifth day of an already taxing bull elk hunt, and I found myself sitting high up in a treestand that I’d hung just a few hours earlier. I felt the situation was perfect, as I patiently watched the game trail in the bottom of the draw below me. Sitting quietly, my mind turned to the events that had led to this very moment. I couldn’t stop thinking about the wild ride the entire year had been, yet somehow, I felt overwhelming gratitude for trials endured and the continued blessings of health, freedom, family, and friends.

It was hard to grasp everything that had occurred within the last six months in relation to the COVID-19 virus. I recalled the personal experience of being stricken for several weeks with the virus just a few months earlier, wondering at times if I would even make this hunt. Thankfully, I pushed on to recover with the help of my family, friends, prayer, and the mere anticipation of chasing bugling bulls in September.

Suddenly, as if awoken from a bad dream, my heavy thoughts of the year were happily interrupted by a deep growling bugle near the top of the mountain… The bull was out of his bed and on his way!

Tough Year

The weather out west had been extremely hot and dry. Arizona experienced its hottest summer on record since tracking began in 1896. This was due in no small part to the lack of summer rains (monsoons) that usually bring vital moisture and cooler temperatures to the hot, dry regions of the West. With the sweltering heat, most of the waterholes were completely dry by June, and many didn’t see a drop of rain the rest of the summer. This left archery elk hunters with little choice but to find what water was left and make the best of it. Much of the precious water still available to wildlife was contained in the “trick tanks” or “guzzlers” that were either being filled with water by the state wildlife agency, ranchers and volunteers, or held old water from spring rains. Simply put: The elk and other wildlife were constantly being bombarded by human activity near these water sources. Feeling the pressure, the elk were waiting until well after dark to drink.

The bulls were rutting, but due to the hot, dry conditions, most of the activity was at night.

With hot weather and nocturnal elk activity, hunting had become extremely challenging. Most mornings, the bulls were completely quiet just after sunrise, making it very difficult to find enough time to cut them off or coax them into bow range using conventional calling tactics. I was fortunate to have good friends and family helping me. My son, Cooper, and friends Brad Allen, Tommy Hancock, and Juan Carreon, came out to either camp with me or hunt mornings and evenings. We worked as a team to come up with the best plays to work in as close as we could to the few bulls that were reluctantly talking. I soon realized I needed to let go of the idea of bulls bugling and running at every whining cow call or bugle I made. I was going to need a different plan. The time had come to put the pinch on some elk.

Time For A Change

After scouting as much as possible before the hunt and pounding the hills during the first four days, I had a good idea where a couple of bulls were feeding, bedding, and watering. There was one bull in particular coming out of the thick timber an hour after dark, then moving his cows back up the mountain just before sunrise. I caught a glimpse of him early in the hunt when he headed to bed.

As I chased this bull up and down the mountain for several days, I quickly recognized his one weakness and put a plan in place to use it against him. Each morning, the bull seemed to travel the same small draw with a trail in the bottom that meandered up the mountain to his impenetrable bedding grounds. I made the decision to hike up into the draw a half-mile from the timbered edge and set up my treestand where I started this story. This is where I hoped to catch him during shooting light as he moved down for the night.

My son, Cooper, got aggressive on this bull in 2018, and was rewarded with a 45-yard shot.

Finding these types of travel routes has worked well for me in the past, particularly for elk, since they are large animals and tend to create prominent trails as the herd moves from feed and water to their beds.

In 2018, Cooper drew a bull tag in a neighboring unit, where we patterned a bull in this same manner. Toward the end of his hunt, just after sunup, Cooper made a bold move and literally ran from our calling setup to get in front of the bull as he moved through the bottom of a small draw. Cooper made it just in time to make the 45-yard shot and claim the Pope and Young-class bull. If we had not known of the bull’s habit of using that particular trail in that particular draw, Cooper wouldn’t have known where to make such an aggressive approach.

Pinch-Points, Defined

A pinch-point is: “A place where a road or path becomes narrow, or a place where there is often a lot of traffic, causing traffic to slow down or stop” (Cambridge Dictionary). Pinch-points are found anywhere elk live, and a keen bowhunter can learn to recognize these locations to provide close shot opportunities. Pinch-points are often found along trails leading to funnels, saddles, fence jumps, creek/river crossings, concentrated food and water sources, and many other locations that accommodate predictable game movement.

You may find yourself in a situation where you’ve waited several years to draw a coveted tag, only to experience extremely hot, dry weather; a rut that doesn’t go as planned; perhaps the hunting pressure is intense; whatever the case, the animals are not reading the script. These types of events place a lot of added pressure on the DIY bowhunter’s time and resources, requiring mobility with quick setups and an open mind to tactics using pinch-points.

As a hunter, you feel pretty good when you can consistently call the play, knowing exactly where your prey will step. Perhaps it stems from my early years of trapping, but to me, tracks will tell the story of what elk, or other animals are doing when they become extremely shy or nocturnal. I often ask myself, if I were an elk, what would I do? Where would I be right now? As I make my best human attempt to answer these questions, I often find my quarry.


I recall an elk hunt several years back, where asking these questions, along with looking for pinch-points, took me and Cooper up the steepest, nastiest mountain in the area. Sure enough, we located a large bull hiding out with a dozen or so cows in an old burn covered in extremely thick aspen and locust saplings.

In short order, we found fresh tracks along a path that resembled a sheep trail more than an elk trail, and which led us to a simple pinch-point situation. The trail zig-zagged between a rocky outcropping and a well-used road near the bottom of the mountain. I figured the old bull had taken his harem up there in order to avoid the public-land hunting pressure, so he probably wouldn’t want anything to do with the road below.

On the last morning, we set up on the pinch-point between the rock outcropping and the road well before daylight and waited for the herd to come back to their bedding area. Just after daylight, we had a 20-yard encounter with one of the largest bulls I have ever seen. Unfortunately, that bull didn’t take a ride home with us, but it was an unforgettable experience and a lesson in locating and using available pinch-points.

The Closer

Back to the beginning of this story… My ears were now perked up, and after hearing the bull bugle a second time, I could tell he was closing the distance fast. The question now was if I had picked the right trail? There were other trails for the bull to choose that led down from the mountain, but I had a hunch he would choose the path of least resistance and walk through the shallow draw, and straight into my setup.

Twenty minutes later, I could see antlers towering high above the brush. It was the bull I was after, and my heart immediately started to pound wildly.

The bull stopped to rake a small cedar, and when he did, I used the distraction to slowly stand up and ready myself for the shot. Eventually, the bull continued along the trail toward me, passing a large ponderosa pine roughly 20 yards out. I patiently waited for his head and eyes to be covered by the tree trunk. I drew and anchored as smoothly and quietly as possible.

The bull was now so close and the evening air so still that he picked up on that slight noise. After clearing the pine, the bull stopped perfectly broadside at 15 yards and stared intently in my direction. I settled my top pin just behind his massive shoulder and released a lightning-fast arrow.

My arrow hit hard, and the bull lunged and crashed through the forest. Within seconds, there was only silence. I could see my lighted arrow nock on the ground 40 yards out where the bull had sheared it off in his death run. After several minutes of watching and listening intently with no indication of movement, I climbed to the ground and headed for camp, where I made a few phone calls for help in getting the bull off the mountain.

After gathering lanterns and flashlights, we went straight to the still-lit nock and followed a short blood trail to my personal best bull! With all the amazing help, we had the bull broken down and were headed back to camp around 1 a.m. I thanked God and my friends for the help, hung the meat to cool, and fell into my bed reflecting on the absolutely perfect day... I smiled smugly and laughed out loud straight in the face of the hard year!

Life is unpredictable, but wise bowhunters will use pinch-points to predict regular, consistent movement of game. It might be as simple as low or missing wires in a barbed-wire fence, a nearly unrecognizable trail between a cliff and a road, or the path of least resistance through a small draw. When the going gets tough and the elk are laughing at your best attempts to close the distance, put them in a pinch!

The author lives in Arizona, with his wife, Keri, and their four children.

Author’s Notes: My equipment included an Obsession HB33, Carbon Express Maxima Hunter 350 arrows, 100-grain Savora Triple Sec fixed-blade broadheads, Scott Little Goose release, Vortex Razor HD 12x50 binoculars, and Leupold rangefinder.

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