8 Elk Hunting Lessons Learned the Hard Way
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8 Elk Hunting Lessons Learned the Hard Way

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I have spent six years hunting elk on public land. I have learned new lessons on every trip, brought home new experiences each time, and thankfully, I also tagged-out 4 of those years. I am far from an expert, but as a regular do-it-yourself guy, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned that could benefit other folks, like you, that are learning to hunt elk on public land.

These lessons helped me and my two hunting partners to each harvest mature 6×6 bulls this past season. We didn’t start with a 100% success rate, but these lessons helped us get there last year.

Be able to use non-verbal communication.

Most hunters already do this to some degree, but this past year really hammered home the importance of having a clear, concise, and comprehensive system to communicate with a hunting partner. One of the biggest additions we’ll be making in 2018 is to have a way to communicate over longer distances, a lesson learned the hard way in 2017.

In general, there are three scenarios where you need to create a system of nonverbal communication.

  • While moving through the timber within eyesight of each other
  • During setups
  • Across larger distances where we cannot see each other
Moving Through Timber

Unless we are moving on an active bull, we often sift through “elky” areas with the wind in our face, and the caller about 25-45 yards behind the shooter. On many occasions, we’ve simply walked right into a group of elk, and were so close that we couldn’t stop to regroup and formulate a plan. Oftentimes only the shooter will see the actual animals, so being able to communicate with your caller using hand signals is huge.

Come up with a system hand signals to let your partner know things like — the type, number, gender, distance, and direction of the animals you see, as well as the next course of action, which includes if and where to set up.

During a Set-up

Being able to communicate during a setup is vital. The caller can’t always see what the shooter sees, and a lot can happen very quickly. Typically, we use a Hoochie Mama elk call to communicate to one another, as most of our calling sequences targeted towards elk are done with other calls. By using the Hoochie Mama, we know that we are talking to one another, not elk. Here are some of the basic “instructions” we send via the use of the Hoochie Mama calls…

  • The shooter instructs the caller to initiate a calling sequence when the shooter sends 2 mews from the Hoochie Mama
  • Instructions to terminate a calling sequence are sent by 2 mews from either shooter or call, confirmed by 2 more from the other party. If there is no response to confirm, then the calling sequence will continue
  • The shooter instructs the caller to move ahead to the shooting position with 3 mews
  • If the shooter is moving forward and would like the caller to continue, the shooter will send a spike squeal
Across Longer Distances

When hunters split up, communication becomes much more challenging. Without good communication, each person often doesn’t know where the other is, and then things can get frustrating. We’ve found that bugles are the best way to communicate across long distances.

  • “Come to me” is said with 2 locator bugles
  • “I am coming to you” is said with 3 locator bugles
  • “Move back to last location you were together” is said with 4 locator bugles
  • “Move back to camp” is said with 5 locator bugles

Always be ready for a shot.

Something that has proven to be a prudent decision time and time again is to ALWAYS NOCK AN ARROW if you decide to stop and rest. Regardless of the duration of the stop, you need to be prepared to take a shot if an opportunity pops up.

Not only do you need to nock an arrow, but you need to be able to access your bow with minimal movement. This was made very clear last year to me as a group of elk walked right up on us napping in the middle of the day, and although I had an arrow nocked, my bow was just out of reach.

This also applies to the caller during a setup. Last year a nice bull was able sneak by me (the shooter) and walked right up on my partner (the caller), but he did not have an arrow nocked.

Hunt all day.

The more time you spend in the field, the more opportunities you will have.

Regardless of the type of hunting you do, there is a very small chance that you will shoot an animal from camp.  Granted, I’ve almost done just that, while barefoot and shirtless to do laundry at camp, but that was just plain dumb luck. Hunting from camp is not a good tactic.

Although activity is higher in the mornings and evenings, and it can be tempting to head back to camp for a mid-morning coffee and snack, I’d strongly suggest that when you head out to hunt that you stay out all day. Some of our best hunting has been mid-day sifting through the woods.

If you need to stop to rest, do it in an area where there is a chance animals are present. More than a few times I’ve been napping in the dapples, only to look up and see a group of animals passing through. Even if the animals are not the ones you are hunting, the experience of being that close greatly outshines the small comforts that camp would provide.

Always carry essential gear.

Conditions in the mountains can change suddenly, and without warning. My partner shot a Pope & Young bull on a beautiful bluebird morning last year. The bull was down not far from our spike camp, so we left everything at camp except our kill kit and packs. After carrying, and not using, rain gear for the past 7 days, we decided to leave it at camp beneath the blue skies. No more than five minutes into breaking down the bull, a hail storm hit and the temps dropped dramatically. We walked a fine line that day with dehydration and hypothermia.

Sound doesn’t travel as far as you think.

Every time we hear a bugle we use hand and arm signals to signal the direction and distance we think it came from. We each make our own assessment, then meet in the middle. We almost always end up encountering the bugling bull MUCH closer than we expected. So much so, that I started to take my initial guess and cutting it in half, which turned out to be much closer to reality. By changing our mindset about sound and distance, we have been much more accurate in predicting the location of bugling bulls.

Experience has taught us that sound simply doesn’t travel well in heavily timbered areas. This lesson became very apparent on one of the bulls we shot when we were separated. I had the kill kit with me and was hunting over a game trail about 400 yards from my partner. After he shot his bull he had bugled 5 times (we had yet to establish the “come to me” protocol) which I could hear clearly, but I was unsure what to do, so I moved back to our last location together. He then used a police style safety whistle to alert me to come to him, which I did not hear at all. He said that he had actually blown that whistle so loud that it made his ears ring, yet I never heard a peep. So not only does sound travel very poorly in the timber but the TYPE of sound matters as well.

Don’t expect elk to do something because they did it before.

Having hunted the same area, during the same season, for multiple years, we’ve noticed that elk behavior is not as consistent as everyone makes it out to be. This past season illustrated this fact.

Example 1: In 2015 and 2016 I found animals already herded up in good size groups by the 5th of September; this past year they were still in bachelor groups on the 12th.

Example 2: We’ve always heard that when animals are wounded severely they’ll run downhill, and in a straight line. This past year we had a bull run uphill, approximately 400 yards, in a zig zag manner. The blood trail was heavy enough that we couldn’t believe he was able to continue to move uphill with that severe of a wound.

Have a pack-out plan and stick to it.

Packing an animal out of the timber is not the time to measure your manliness. Come up with a plan, and stick to it based on your fitness and the situation. One of the hunters that was with us in 2017 is well known on many of the forums and is a contributing author to many sites. I believe his elk last year was his 10th mature bull, and he’s been hunting them for close to 2 decades.

“Worst pack out ever.”

That was how he reacted to a bit of a pickle we found ourselves in,  where we attempted to pack out a monster 6×6 in one trip, in the dark, through a kind of heavy timber that we typically refer to as “Mirkwood.” From now on, we have the following plan in place for two hunters:

  • If the location is uphill from the kill site: 3 trips
  • If the location is downhill from the kill site: 2 trips
  • If the kill site is in heavy timber: 3 trips
  • If the sun has set: 1 trip on the way out, hang meat 100 yards from kill site, return next day to remove rest.

This only applies to getting the animal to a trail. Deadfall, uneven terrain, vegetation, and elevation changes are challenging when unloaded. With packs exceeding 100 pounds and a bow / rifle in your hand, it is just downright dangerous. A lower extremity injury to the ankle or knee can end a hunt, and the time saved by taking one less trip is simply not worth the risk.

Once you’re on the trail, load that Exo pack up and see what it can do!

Get meat in the bag ASAP.

We take pride in our field butchery. We take as much as we possibly can, which includes many portions that most hunters leave behind. Ethically, you should take every bit of edible meat off your kill. Don’t be that guy that grabs 4 quarters and the loins and leaves the rest for the birds.

Last year our final bull was my 6×6, which I shot in a burn. It was a bluebird day and we couldn’t ask for a better spot to break down our 3rd bull of the hunt. It fell in a flat spot, at around 11am, about 30 minutes uphill from a trail. We got to work and laid the meat on a ground sheet to dry out a bit, before placing it in our game bags. This had been a regular practice for us, which keeps the bags from getting soaked with blood.

There weren’t many flies out, which was nice, but apparently there were enough. Since this was the final bull, we decided to bring it back to Texas and butcher it at home. We were able to get all that meat to a meat locker the following day and hang it overnight in their cooler, as we had to pick up the other bull that had already been processed.

Upon our arrival back in Texas, we unpacked the coolers (that were stocked with dry ice) and started butchering. We found unusual clusters of very small, grain-like objects on some pieces of meat. Yep, fly larva. The meat hadn’t been exposed for more than 45 minutes before it got into the bags, and the number of flies in the area was not even noticeable, as there was a good breeze in that burn. Apparently, though, it was just enough.  Luckily, we didn’t lose any meat — we just had to spend more time and taking care in our processing.

Jake Saenz is a former Special Operations Soldier with 3rd Ranger Battalion and the founder of Atomic Athlete, a strength and conditioning facility in Austin, TX, as well as co-owner of The Atomic Legion, a firearms and preparedness training company. He has worked with thousands of athletes, both in person, and through Atomic Athlete’s online training platform. Along with training everyday athletes Coach Saenz has worked with UFC and Invicta fighters at the professional level, MARSOC and AFSOC soldiers, instructors from the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, FBI agents, First Responders, Local and State Law Enforcement Officers, as well as competitive endurance and mountain athletes.

As well as coaching and instructed professionally for the past decade, Jake’s passion is archery elk hunting on public land.

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