Elk hunting is a dream hunt for many of us, I am lucky enough to have had the chance over and over throughout the years. If an elk hunt is on your list of must-do hunts, here I have put together my thoughts on the gear you won’t want to be without when you go.
The Rocky Mountains are a bountiful and impressive place to hunt, whether you are after monster mulies, elk, or one of the other beautiful species herein, it can be quite a job. Today we’ll speak specifically about the elk hunting side of it, and the differences you should know between elk hunting, and smaller animals like deer.
The Bugle of a Bull
Contrary to what you see on all the hunting shows, calling elk is not as simple as it appears. Elk are most vocal during the rut, which is usually in September. If you are hunting outside of their rutting schedule, then your bugling tube and all your practice might be nearly useless. If it is a general season hunt, or any hunt where there will likely be people around adding hunting pressure, elk tend to shut up unless they are rutting. So keep in mind when your hunt is, and the kind of pressure they will be under. Elk are quite smart, and a call under the wrong circumstances may send them charging off into oblivion. Whereas during the rut, they can be hormone-driven fools, that come in fast looking for a fight.
Cow calls and other noises can be useful depending again on the general mood on the mountain you are hunting. I’ve brought in several bulls just raking the trees with a broken branch. If a big bull is what you are after, you have to play to his attitude.
Whether you are after a bull or a cow, you will want to keep an eye out for the cows. There are lots of eyes and ears in a herd of elk, and the ladies are usually the ones to bust you. Minimal sounds and calls may be all you need to find them and get into place for a shot. If you are hunting active herds, make sure you bring your A level calling game, a good bugle can bring in a monster on a string.
Boots of Hermes
Elk hunting will drive you right to edge of sanity, plodding through soft mountain soil, chasing towards a ridgeline in pouring rain or snow, your legs and feet will take punishment like never before. Having a good pair of boots is absolutely essential, or even better, have more than one pair. Sometimes you might find yourself sneaking quietly through dense forest, and other times clawing your way up a loose rock pile or chute. Having good boots and perhaps several different pairs for these differing terrains may keep you fresh. Make sure you have good comfy shoes waiting for you back at camp as well, with clean fresh socks. You’ll want to care for your feet as best as possible because they will be punished.
Lightweight is a must, but the weather can dictate the rest. If it’s cold and snowy then you will obviously want insulating boots to keep the heat in, and if it’s wet and raining, you’ll want waterproof footwear to keep from getting soggy and cold. The best practice is to have several good options, that way your feet get a pleasant change from day to day and hike to hike.
Extraction: Rope and a Plan
Until you walk up to your first downed elk, they just look like a big deer from a distance. But as soon as you lay hands on your prize, you will realize just how big they are. The realization shortly after recovery, offers quite the challenge, even with a buddy just turning a large elk around is hard enough. So one of the most important things you can have before leaving camp is a plan to extract the animal, that could be quartering it and packing it out, or hauling it away in one big piece. Whether it is horses, ATV’s, or just some good backpack frames, make sure you have everything in place beforehand.
A good extraction plan could just be a large group of friends with an affinity for intense labor, or it could be as simple as a profane and indecent amount of cordage. I’ve been party to several different types of elk recoveries, but whole is by far my favorite, and for that, you usually need enough rope to reach the animal with either a vehicle or a hypothetical team of mules. We’ve pulled elk nearly half a mile up steep canyons with enough rope, other times we have carried quarters from a pole carried by two, and the most ingenious plan ever, we built a sled from fallen trees and used it to drag an entirely butchered elk up a steep hill to the truck. There are hundreds of ways to do it, research the country you intend to hunt, and see what kind of work it will take to get your prey back to camp. Sometimes if you are lucky, you can drive an ATV or truck right up to them, of course, those stories don’t sound as adventuresome.
As I mentioned already, elk are very large animals, handling a fallen animal the size of a horse can be a lot of work. If you are lucky enough to get it out whole, you will need to get it cooled down and skinned asap. If you end up having to pack it out, it will likely be in large pieces, and nothing beats some high-quality game bags to keep those pieces in. Typical game bags may be a bit small for an elk unless its in pieces. Make sure you have enough game bags to protect your meat from contaminants and insects, it will make it that much better to eat and butcher once you get back home.
It’s also a good idea to have a bunch of twine or paracord you can use to tie-up open ends, or to hang it from. Many times we have had to make multiple trips to pack out an elk, and sometimes overnight. Paracord is great for hanging up those pieces left behind to keep out of reach of foraging animals, it also keeps the meat clean and elevated where the air can maintain it cool and as fresh as possible.
Elk hunting can be feast or famine, days can pass with little to no sign. One day they could be everywhere, and the next day they may have evaporated into the atmosphere. Elk hunting requires a good attitude, and if you couple that good attitude to diligence you can be successful. Study the area, know where the animals go when spooked, get a feel for their safe zone, and unless its a last-ditch effort, do not push them out of their safe zone. You’d be better off waiting for them to come back out on their own, whereas if you push them, they might run for thirty miles and never look back. In my experience, you don’t get the prize without putting in the effort, only after your hopes are broken, and your body pushed to the edge, does that magical moment happen when stars and sights align.