Elk Hunting: The Secrets of a Professional Hunter

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by Steve Coffman

It is no surprise that more than 80 percent of elk hunters continue to go home without venison even.

Although you’ve put in lots of effort and time to ensure your elk hunting season is worthwhile, that part isn’t in doubt. You’ve acquired tags and permits from the state. And your physical shape is top-notch in readiness for the rough and mountainous terrain. Yet deep down, you know elk hunting is not for the many.

What tricks do the savvier hunters have up their sleeves to make their elk hunting a success?

Given the lots of upfront preparation, it can be beyond frustrating – and even demoralizing – to lose the trophy bull elk when he shows up. Mature bull elk are more elusive than ever. They are no longer the naïve creatures they once were.

They are sneaky. Having learned that they are the key targets, they have adapted to make life more difficult for hunters. Nowadays, bull elk change their habits and sanctuaries at an astonishing rate.

The bulls are also long-range animals. You need to track them on foot for many miles. Their bedding (fortress) and feeding location are often miles apart. So, you must be able to keep up with their pace in an unforgiving terrain.

We’ve compiled practical tips and strategies, which are a result of many years of trials and errors so you save lots of time and effort trying to get the 700-pound elk. Read on.

Hunt public land bull elk during the opening and closing weekdays of the post-rut season.

The post-rut season lasts between mid-October and the beginning of November. It’s the period when the bulk elk pull away from the harem (cow groups). Mature bull elk on public land experience lots of hunting pressure and disturbance during the peak rut season.

Mature public land elk who have survived many hunting seasons and pressures are slippery. They have survived long enough to know that they are the chief targets of hunters. And so, they have adapted in kind.

As a result, they have made their movements to be inconsistent, switching locations so you don’t track them. And the locations are getting more inaccessible. Therefore, you need to adapt, too. You must be willing to venture to locations where few elk hunters dare.

Set aside two or three days for scouting.

Three days after the post-rut season begins, elk movements will have become more unpredictable. And so, set aside three days before the opening weekday to discover the new movement patterns. Don’t limit your search to a few places. Widen your scope as much as possible.

Focus on elk sightings so you don’t fall into the trap of deception. To catch sight of elk, glass during the first light from a vantage point to get a good viewpoint. Your goal is to find where the bull elk have made a temporary shelter to recover their physical strength. Chances are you’re going to find bulls at higher altitudes than cows.

Their terrain is likely to be rougher, and dense bedding cover is likely to be close. Bulls are also likely to spend their time in small meadows as well as where woods aren’t dense and where the basin begins to break the stream of high contour lines.

Keep an eye on bull elk until the opening weekdays.

Once you find the bull elk, keep an eye on them until the morning of the opening weekday. Make your chance count. Find the sweetest spot to place your shot based on the east direction of the morning sun and the downhill heat.

Use GPS to mark your path to the shooting spot so you can follow it when it grows dark again in the morning. If the bull elk is absent, he’s more likely to be sheltering in the woods. Wait for him to show up. Don’t squander this golden opportunity. He’s likely to show up in the evening.

But when he catches the human scent and hears gunshots, he’s likely to retreat to his secret sanctuary at dusk where many hunters aren’t willing to venture. If you missed your chance during the opening weekday, you can still catch the elk during the closing weekday.

Go deeper into the woods.

You’re more likely to find elk deeper into the woods and less accessible places than near roads and trails. Use a map to plan where to look. Walk on foot to small areas where there are water and food. Keep an eye on tracks to locate where elk hang out.

If you are unable to locate tracks, find a vantage point that gives you the largest field of view so you can glass hangout places. Bulls are less likely to leave their bedding. However, there are chances a bull elk can move out in the evening.

Don’t bugle too much.

Bugling is getting more challenging is more accessible elk hunting spaces such as the public land. It seems that the public land elk bull have learned all the tricks and none are left.

But this doesn’t mean bugling has ceased to work. Get as far as possible from the beaten paths. Find areas, where previous hunters thought, were inaccessible. Canyons and ridges tend to turn-off hunters. Are you willing to stand out from the crowd?

If risk-taking isn’t your thing, you can take advantage of the vicinity to private ranches to bugle and cow call.

Track elk on foot.

Hunt on foot. Avoid treestands if possible unless they are near wallows, and the weather is hot. It doesn’t whether the bull is noisy or taciturn, the spot-and-stalk approach works.

Chase the elk bull for miles. But make sure you are always downwind. Never give up, despite barriers like changing wind directions that can sell your position and spook your targets.

Place a double lung shot.

The bull elk are muscular animals. They have dense muscles, hard bones, and thick hides. They are resilient animals who can survive wounds outside the vital organs. A projectile, whether it be a bullet or an arrow, should have adequate power and energy to penetrate the bones and muscles barriers to pierce the heart and lung. When you hit the vitals, the bulk elk won’t move a distance of more than 100-yards before going down.

You can benefit from fresh venison. Therefore, when you rifle-hunt an elk, your choice of caliber and load can make a big difference. A bolt-action sniper rifle chambered in heavy-recoiling calibers is most suitable.

As well, you require a tough and durable scope that’s able to withstand heavy recoil. A sniper rifle scope can more than suffice.

Just as important, when you bow-hunt an elk, your choice of an arrow, poundage, and broadhead counts. A straight, heavy and stiff arrow with a small diameter and adequate fletching can take down an elk with ease. The arrow should not glare. Nor should it have bright colors.

To place a double lung shot, aim at the elk’s broadside at a position about 1/3 of the way above the front legs. While a quartering shot is possible, it requires more skill and a higher-penetrating projectile.


Want to join the rank of the few savvier hunters who take home well-antlered bucks? Mature bull elk are hermits after the rut. But you can find them in harem during the peak rut. They don’t stick around the roads where they are easy targets.

Elk hunting is not for the faint of the heart. You need to put in lots of time and effort to increase your chance of nailing down the big six by six. Scout. Take advantage of the preseason to learn the terrain and elk movements.

About Steve

Steve Coffman is a professional hunter and shooter and editor of Bionoscopes. He loves to spend time in the wild and hunts wild animals to live.

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  • Yup real sport hunting is hard period. Real sport hunting doesn’t consist of stands over feeders set at 9am and using ATVs and heated blinds with chairs.
    Elk hunting under rules is difficult. Under no rules they quickly perish as they did in Oklahoma in the 30s.

  • Great article, Steve. My husband tries to get drawn for bow elk hunting each year, which starts in our state before the rut. Because more and more tags are being sold at a premium to out of state hunters, it’s tough to get drawn.
    You make great points about scouting and observing behaviors before, during and after the rut, because their patterns change. My husband says he avoids those tough areas to get in and out of because it’s a challenge to field dress and haul the carcass out in a timely manner, especially if you’ve gotten the elk just before the sun goes down and bears are a threat. He and his hunting buddies have tried packing in with horses and took a Razor last year to help with hauling the animal out. Any tips you have on that would be welcome!

  • If you need a double lung shot …. maybe more range time.

    Second use cameras to scout.

    We live in a remote farm and have a few 6×6 elk around they are a pest because the piss on the hay and nothing will eat it after.

    We have 1 stand with a heater you just sit and wait before dusk…. easy 300 yard shot head and neck 3006 or 300 blackout.

    You don’t need sniper scope I hit with a 6x scope. Just need to know your weapon and have a few 1000 rounds through it.

    Over magnification reduces your ability to assess the surrounding area which can lead to issues expecially if hunting on in familiar territory as where the round will end up after hitting animal.

    The other thing is most hunters don’t carry enough cloth for the animalsame to wrap on way to butcher ( we own a abbotoir) many are very dirty and lost a ton of meat from poorly dressing the animal.

    Drag animal whole to place you can get vehicle if you can’t don’t ducked shoot it cause you are wasting meat and time. To properly enclose large game moose elk and buffalo ect buy cotton commercial laundry bags with the draw strings bring at least 6 they wrap a 1/4 or 6th easily without exposure to contaminates in transport and you can wash and reuse.

    And for god sakes bring a sawz all with extra battery packs and a longer blade so you can quickly get through hips and ribs and spine.

    Have hide clamps and skinning hooks so you can pull on hide and skin without risking a cut to your hands.

    Having a mandrel and a type of block and tackle with meat hooks helps with a skin leave in vehicle.but don’t leave home without or it makes YOUR life hard.

    Bring cable ties and a few of those cheap plastic grocery bags .. when taking as and wind pipe out cable tie a plastic bag to it so it does not contaminate your meat.

    • You using a reciprocating saw? What blade you using?
      I like the long demolition blades but no one round here really has any feedback.

      • We use demo blades just soak in paint thinner first to get any paint off it then coat in veggie oil.usually a 8 to 10 in lnch long blade..

        Finer saws teeth clog just be aware of bone fragments and use a bone shard brush or a loop of 1 inch thick heavy plastic bend ends together use the loop end to brush off bone fragments.

  • Many elk are killed by trains, sometimes multiple deaths from a single herd. Hard to believe that it was, until recently, against the law to harvest those carcasses! But even now you’re supposed to get some kind of permit. 😉
    The best way to know when this happens is to have a friend who works on the rail line.

  • Dont have elk, but we have deer, black bear, and the occasional moose.

    On the ground, heavy dense brush, a rifle with premium ammo or reloads, tipped with a heavy bullet will do the job just fine (with proper shot placement).

    When using deer stands shots out to 400yrds, while are doable, are not recommended. It can be windy out there, 30-40 ft off the ground.

    The deer are on our property nearly year round. We see their game trails, their scat, rubbings and their bed down spots. Walking with the dogs is my scouting. The deer dont seem to mind. Might have to do with the livestock being out there too. Found a bed down spot near the goats the other week.

    If I am on foot, dont think I would be humping with a sniper rifle. Even short barreled sniper rifles come in around 10lbs before scope and ammo.
    Unless you are shooting a long way off, with a serious long range caliber rifle, not much need for a high end sniper scope. I do just fine with my 2-7×32 scope, for less than $140.

    Logistics. Yep. I have done both field dressing and hauling it back to the barn for processing. The latter is easier. Having a block and tackle make work that much easier, along with a good butchering knife set. I have a pull behind trailer for the ATV that “dumps.” Lot easier then trying to load it on the back rack of a ATV, especially by your self.
    I do the same with the hogs.

    Seen videos with guys packing out their kill. Be nice to try it sometime, but with all this high weirdness going on, I dont see me getting on a plane anytime soon. I will have to make do with what I got.

    • Yeah for deer I run 14 and 16 power scopes but I’m hunting open country. It’s common for me to take shots generally on 7 to 10 power.
      The extra power is nice for identifying sex and/or rack sizes.
      Shots run anywhere from point blank to 600yds (which is my cutoff) but I’ve seen them taken much further. It’s just not in my capabilities for humane harvest. Hostile engagements are different.
      The wind is huge out there because there are days it’s 50mph. I limit my shots to 300 those days.

      • Been looking into black powder as of late, both modern inline and percussion (I kinda like those those traditional Hawkens or Deerstalker rifles) . . . .
        And ya cannot find molds for the most popular calibers either! Almost are hard as finding ammo or dies in more popular calibers!
        Same goes for some of the furnaces.

        I shot a friends percussion black power pistol a few years ago, the ones that look like from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. Lot of fun, but I can see why they were expert swordsmen too.

  • Hey Daisey
    Re. Elk
    Very good article on the basics. Apply to Moose as well by the way
    Up here however, when hunting Elk and to a lesser extent Moose depending on the area, you will find yourself in Grizzly country.
    Your choice of caliber should reflect this possibility.
    Conduct at the kill and while packing out the meat needs to be well thought out.

  • One more thing to drag a animal after its shot buy an ems purple mat used for hauling people over terrain.

    Has good hand hold and makes it way easier to drag as it has a tacky and a slippery side. Can pull 500 lb one person. We have a harness made from a fall arrest harness it clips on to the hand holds on the purple. Mat.

  • I was always hoping for one of these hunts on an elk in the Rockies but those days are eluding me. Now it’s hoping for a draw hunt at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refugee.

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