10 Ways to Prep for Elk Season

Pre-season prepping at home for the most important hunt of the year.

Elk season seems like it’s a long ways off as I sit here in my office in June, writing an article instead of cutting the weeds and fertilizing the lawn. That’s what I’d be doing if I did anything besides go hunting and think about it all the time.

For a lot of us, the elk hunt is the main event of the sporting year. Indeed, in my home state of Oregon, one of the top 10 elk states, it takes an average of 6.6 days in the field for the average hunter to be successful. Given that some of our seasons only last five days, the average hunter is at a disadvantage. To me, that’s the essential point. Six-point-six days. If the season lasts five days then it makes sense to arrive in camp three days before the season and scout the two days prior to the opener. Blackout those days on the calendar right now and, although we are still a few months away from the action, take steps to complete these 10 action items, in between those other chores that distract us from hunting season’s main event.

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10. Sight-in the rifle or bow.

Too many of us put this off too long. Remember what it feels like to blow a shot on an elk? Standard procedure for a lot of experienced elk hunters is to sight-in a rifle three inches high at 100 yards. That way any shot taken out to 300 yards can be held in the vitals. In open country, plan to use a rangefinder and get the range right instead of guessing it. Since I use multiple rifles for multiple hunts in the course of a year, I tape the ballistic information for each gun, including wind deflection and bullet drop out to 1,000 yards. Rifle hunters should shoot at various distances out to at least 300 yards, several times before the season starts. Archery hunters should shoot at least every other day in the two months prior to the opener or longer — perfect practice.

elk Don’t put off rifle practice this year.

9. Plan a menu.

Hunting trips are often best remembered for the cooking. Make it memorable for all the right reasons. Set the menu now and put frozen meals in Ziploc bags for thawing and cooking at camp. In our camps, we rotate cooking duties and hold each hunter accountable for his meals. Someone who brings MREs and calls that good enough doesn’t get invited back.

elk When considering optics, make sure to have a way to carry the binocular on a chest harness for quick access to the glass.

8. Pick a campsite.

Campsites can make or break the success of the trip. In one place I hunt there is only one good campsite. People will show up a week before the season to claim it. And the meat pole always gets used in that camp. In most places though, there are a lot of options. Some camps allow hunting right outside the tent while others require a drive of an hour or more. In general, it’s best to be closer to the hunt area. Thinking back I remember one elk season when we camped too far away, driving 45 minutes one way to hit our jumping off point. I remember the sinking feeling when I realized we were literally two minutes too late. The elk crossed in front of our competition. They were successful because they were camped less than five minutes from the hot spot and they had more time each day to analyze the movements of the herd.

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elk For opening day, try to put the party in the spots where the elk tracks are so fresh, the elk are stepping out of them.

7. Listen to learn and understand elk talk.

Elk have a sophisticated language. Herd animals, they are orderly and respectful. Bull elk bugle from August through November and I like to break the meanings of each bugle into these categories: locate, advertising, scream, herding, resting. Chuckle sounds can be lovesick or a fight challenge. Bulls also mew and chirp, bark and grunt. Cows also bugle. Yes, they do, especially prior to calving and a lead cow bugles to gather a herd for a move. Learn the sounds by watching videos and searching the Net. You can do it on a lunch hour and check it off the list well before the season.

6. Talk to the biologist.

Too many hunters don’t take advantage of this resource. In every elk state, there are field biologists and district biologists that monitor the health of the herds in their region. They know the seasonal movements of the animals and can impart that information to a hunter who asks nicely. So ask nicely, well in advance of the season. Like right now.

elk Where the herds are highly transient, it pays to understand the animals’ weekly route. Know where they’ve been and where they’re going.

5. Plan the opening day hunt.

For our hunts, planning takes a topo map and an aerial photo lain side by side. We try to focus on one bull in one herd and we already have a good idea where he lives, where he goes to feed. If we have cow tags, we still try to focus on the herd bull because by understanding his daily movements, we are more likely to find the herd. Sketch out the plan for each member of the group, where the drop-offs are, where the pickups are. Pay attention to prevailing winds and possible stand locations.

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4. Figure out a Plan B.

A lot of times our hunts are messed up because someone else has their eye on the same herd. For this reason, it helps to have a backup plan or two. The Plan B option can make a good second-day hunt as well. Again, sketch out the hunt for each member of the party.

elk If the opening day plan goes awry, be ready with a second option.

3. Make the truck elk season ready.

Elk country is hard on trucks. But it’s why we buy trucks. First off, look at the tires. Some of the best brands will pop on a gravel road on 3/4-minus. Believe me, I popped a tire on a rental truck just three days ago in British Columbia. Make sure the spare tire is aired up. Check the spare to make sure it is accessible and check to see if there is a jack in the truck. In some of the places we hunt, I bring two spares.
Late season hunts can bring snow and there is nothing more frustrating than being locked out of good elk country by an overnight’s blanket of the white stuff. Bring tire chains — and a tow strap. Many times I have stuck a truck in a bank and waited with a tow strap for a Good Samaritan to pull me out. The tow strap is important. Another important tool is a come-along. If the truck doesn’t have a winch on it, and most don’t, the come-along can help get unstuck. And it’s useful in other ways on the road too, like when a tree falls across the trail. Some hunts require a chainsaw for this eventuality. Hunting early in the season? Bring a fire extinguisher, a shovel, and extra water. Every truck should have a first aid kit behind the seat to treat knife cuts, broken limbs etc. If you don’t have the training to treat beyond a paper cut go get some  — I could save a life.

elk One of the first things to make sure of is that the pickup’s tires are ready for elk season.

2. Hold a pre-hunt pep rally with all your hunters.

I learned this from my friend and elk hunting mentor, Troy Neimann. A few weeks before our first elk hunt together, he called as many of the hunting party as would come over to his house for a barbeque. The two of us were in sync on that hunt and it ended with a 5×6 Rocky Mountain bull that is one of his best trophies. The next time we hunted together, we operated the pre-laid plan to perfection on the second day of the hunt and it was my turn to tag an elk. Those preseason pep talks eventually turned into a seminar series we have held every year since. And I use these pre-season get-togethers, whether they are attended by 100 people at a sporting goods store or held in my backyard around a fire, to see which of my prospective elk hunting partners are serious about this. Want to hunt elk with me, but skip the battle plan? Forget it.

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elk Greg Smith with a public lands wilderness bull.

1. Walk and run and climb.

Elk country can hurt you. Start now. Walk more, run a little and climb. Be intentional. Some of the best elk hunters I know are the ones that sit in one place and watch all day. They put themselves in good habitat and let the animals move around them. It sounds easy, but it takes effort to get from the truck to that one good place. It might be a two-mile hike in the dark, to sit on the downwind side of a certain meadow when the sun comes up. Starting from scratch, put in 20 minutes of time three days a week. Walk a mile, climb some stairs. Take a weekend and hike some high country at the approximate elevation the elk hunt will take you. Better yet, hike that elk country.  Get started now so you have the best Elk season you can. Good luck and safe hunting.

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