This article was written by guest author Corey Jacobsen of Extreme Elk Magazine (now Elk101.com)
Many elk hunters will agree that it is difficult to boil elk hunting down into one topic that could be described as being the most important factor in success. Elk hunting is made up of so many pieces and it’s difficult to attribute success to any one individual topic. Success in elk hunting is the culmination of all these aspects coming together, working together like a well-oiled machine. The more effort we put into one aspect, the more it adds to the overall efficiency of the system. To achieve the highest level of success, it takes a balanced approach on all fronts – scouting, using elk calls, selecting the right gear, experience, education, conditioning, etc.
In the past, I've tried ranking the tips and found that it’s virtually impossible to assign an order of importance. Being in great physical shape is incredibly important when it comes to hunting elk, but is it more important than obeying the wind? Neither one will matter if you aren't mentally ready for 7+ days of backcountry abuse and you find yourself sitting in your tent when the sun comes up on Day 8. So, in no particular order, here are the Top 5 things I feel will contribute most to D.I.Y. elk hunting success.
The calling tactics I use only involve 3 calls: a simple cow call, a simple location bugle, and a very effective challenge bugle. Learning when to use each of these calls is more important than making them sound perfect. Additionally, I've found that quietly moving in close to a bull before using calls greatly magnifies the effectiveness of calling. The same sequence from 400 yards away is drastically less effective than the same sequence inside of 150 yards. For more detailed information on the calling sequence I use, as well as audio clips of each of the calls, click here.
You don’t have to be a great elk caller to call in elk. That doesn't mean that you don’t need to practice and improve, but don’t let your calling ability be the reason for a lack of confidence in the elk woods. Keep it simple and you’ll be better off. With a background in engineering, my mind is programmed to continually strive for efficiency.
When it comes to elk hunting, that application is especially noticeable. I hear the stories of hunters who call in 40+ elk in a season and don’t get a chance to put their tag on one. Once I get to four or five call-ins without a blood trail, I start getting pretty antsy!
Perhaps the most critical step of the system, set-ups play a very major role in determining the outcome of the hunt. I can’t count how many hunts have been blown by our set-up – too much brush to shoot through, not enough cover to hide in, no shooting lanes, inconsistent wind currents, caught in the open…the list goes on and on. I've found that hunting with a partner can increase my odds of success greatly. By placing a “shooter” out in front of a “caller”, the bull is focused on the calling and can be drawn in past the shooter without realizing he is there. As I am setting up on a bull, there is one word I always repeat to myself: ARC.
The meaning of the word “ARC” is two-fold. First, a bull will often approach your set-up by circling down wind. As the shooter, I like to visualize a straight line from the caller to the bull. Then, I draw an imaginary “arc” on the downwind side that the bull will likely follow as he comes in. I always try to set up along that imaginary arc, increasing my chances for a shot before the bull winds me. The second thing “ARC” means to me is Always Remember Concealment. Elk survive by three main senses: sight, sound, and smell. Remembering to conceal yourself from these senses EVERY TIME you set up is vital.
It’s important to set up in front of brush or trees and allow your camouflage to break up your outline, concealing you from an elks’ view and giving you clearer shooting lanes. Also be sure to draw your bow when the elks’ vision is obstructed (i.e., head turned or behind a tree). You should also clear out the area where you set up. This will eliminate the chances of breaking a twig as you shift your weight to draw your bow, or snapping a branch as you come to full draw. Lastly, OBEY THE WIND! No argument, no excuses. If the elk smells you, the hunt is over. No amount of cover spray, odor eliminating gear, or luck will make your scent disappear from an elk’s nose if the wind is going straight towards him. Keep the wind in your favor, always!
It’s worth mentioning in the section on set-ups AND continuing to discuss in its own category. Don't ever forget to check the wind. In your search for a bugling bull, in your approach, in your set-up – always keep the wind in your favor. I've hiked miles out of my way to get the wind right for a set-up.
I've also sat down for several hours waiting for the wind to change to become favorable for a call-in. Whatever it takes, always obey the wind. A small bottle of wind detector is worth its weight in gold for me and I always have one quickly accessible in my pocket, if not in my hand. While we certainly can't control the wind, there are a few things we can do to limit its ability to blow our hunt (no pun intended). Thermals are fairly predictable. Early in the morning, the thermals move down the mountain. As the sun warms the hillside, the thermals reverse and begin pulling up the hill. In the evening, as the shadows begin to cool the hillside, the thermals again change and begin blowing downhill. Knowing that simple fact about thermals will help plan an approach and ensure the elk aren't alerted to our presence before we really even get started. Cloud cover, approaching storms, and Murphy’s Law can all wreak havoc on a seemingly structured law of nature, but there are a few things that can be done to thwart their attempts.
One of those tactics involves setting up on the same level as the elk. A sudden switch in wind direction is likely to be uphill or downhill, and rarely sidehill. If you’re set up above or below an elk and the wind switches, there isn't much you can do to prevent the elk from smelling you and bolting. Being on the same level decreases the likelihood of being winded by an errant switch in thermals.
If I had to choose one thing to focus on more than any other aspect when it comes to preparing for an elk hunt, it would be physical conditioning. You can be the best elk caller in the world or the best archer in the world, but if you can’t get to the elk it’s not really going to matter. Elk live in rough country, and being able to cover more ground looking for them, scrambling over the next ridge to chase a bugling bull, or just being able to push yourself just a little harder and go a little farther can be what separates you from failure.
Being in better shape doesn't necessarily mean you need to be able to make it through the NFL combines or run a marathon. However, if you evaluate where you are today and set a goal to be in better shape next elk season, you will no-doubt be a better elk hunter. Take your conditioning to the next level and your success in the elk mountains will likely follow.
I’m certain there are many times throughout an elk hunt that I feel like giving up. Frustration, exhaustion, and lost motivation are usual companions during a D.I.Y. elk hunt. Realizing this, and being prepared to work through it, is crucial. Sometimes, it takes just about every minute of an elk hunt and every ounce of energy, motivation, and desire that we can muster to make it happen. Having a “do-whatever-it-takes” attitude is so important. Don’t give up. Don't give in. It can happen at any time, just keep yourself in the game and your odds go up significantly!Hunting D.I.Y. on public land, especially with an OTC tag, can be incredibly challenging. The obstacles an elk hunter must overcome to realize consistent success can seem staggering. When these challenges arise (not if, but when), it’s important to be prepared with a strong, realistic mental attitude.
When things go wrong, I like to remind myself of the old Babe Ruth story. He was down in the count and with two strikes against him, sent a fastball out of the park. A reporter asked him if he was nervous when that last pitch was coming at him. He responded that he wasn’t. In fact, he was more confident. The odds of him hitting the next ball went up every time he missed a previous pitch! Sometimes those small “failures” throughout the hunt are what we need to realize success. But we have to learn from them and keep pushing on. I really like the quote, “Why would you choose failure when success is an option?” If we give up, we've failed and we have no chance of finding success. Success is always possible if we stay in the game, and having a solid mental attitude will keep us going, even when the going gets rough. And with D.I.Y. elk hunting, the going is most certainly not going to be easy.
About the Author – Corey Jacobsen is a 7-time world elk calling champion, and the founder of Extreme Elk Magazine. He has finished in the top 5 in the Professional Division at the RMEF World Championship Elk Calling contest 14 times in the past 15 years, and has become one of the most sought-after resources for elk calling and elk hunting instruction in the nation. In 2013, Corey was also named the RMEF’s Elk Calling ‘Champion of Champions”. Corey recognizes that success on the stage doesn’t necessarily relate to success in the field, however, and he lives for the “real” contest that takes place in the elk woods every September. It is there, on public land, over-the-counter archery units that he has been hunting elk for nearly 30 years.