The Novice’s Guide to Elk Hunting

Booking your first ever elk hunt? Congratulations, you’ll love it—so long as you go into the experience with realistic expectations and some idea of what you’re getting into.

Lots of hunters consider a big bull elk the ultimate North American big game animal. And, truthfully, few adventures can compare to pursuing bugling bulls in rugged country. But before you invest time and money in an elk hunt there are some things that you should know.

Here are six tips that will help you get the most from your first elk hunting experience:

1. Elk Country is Big

Wild elk are found throughout the Rockies and, thanks to recent reintroduction, from California to eastern coastal states.

The vast majority of hunters target these animals in the western United States with Colorado having the largest elk herd and playing host to the biggest number of out-of-state hunters.
Elk country-especially where really big bulls are found—is often remote and hard to access. You may go for days without seeing any animals, even in the best areas, and, in many cases, you need to be prepared to cover a lot of ground and shoot across canyons.

That’s a very different than the style of hunting that many of us are accustomed to, so be prepared to walk a lot, glass a lot, shoot far, and not see animals every day.

If you’re planning a do-it-yourself hunt on public land you’ll need to spend some time figuring out where the elk are, so plan accordingly.

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2. Your Physical Condition Can Limit Success

Novice's Guide to Elk Hunting - Walking with Elk PrizeBe honest with yourself. Can you walk for miles on end? Climb for hours with a pack on your back? Quarter an elk and remove it from the field?

Not all elk hunts are strenuous but many are, so you need to be aware of your physical limitations and let your guide know what you can and cannot do.

Have a clear understanding of what you’re getting into before you book and find a hunt that is in line with your physical abilities.

There’s nothing worse than spending a lot of money on a hunt that is unsuccessful simply because you weren’t fit enough to keep pace.

3. Pack What You Need, Ditch What You Don’t

Be prepared for your hunt, but keep in mind that you’ll be toting your pack each and every day. Limit what you carry.

Don’t bring a bunch of elk calls if your guide already has them. Nor will you need a complete field dressing kit if your outfitter has one on-hand. I carry more water than I used to and less food, and only bring a bunch of electronic gadgetry if it is necessary to the safety and success of your hunt.

Heavy rifles are great for long-range shooting, but the burden of even a few extra pounds is draining after a few vertical miles. Warm clothes and good boots are a must. E-readers and goose down pillows are not.

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4. Know Your Weapon

Your primary responsibility on any guided elk hunt is to make a good shot.

To accomplish this, take the time to hone your skills prior to arriving in camp. One of the most common complaints I hear from elk guides is that hunters show up at camp with a rifle or bow that they can’t shoot effectively. The first step is to ask your guide about the typical shot ranges where you’ll be hunting.

On a New Mexico hunt last year, we encountered lots of good bulls, but the terrain made it improbable that we’d be shooting at anything less than 300 yards. Long shots are tough, especially across canyons and from field positions, so have your rifle dialed in and don’t say you can take a 500 yard shot if you haven’t actually hit targets consistently at that range.

The same rules apply to bow-hunting. Combine your workout regimen with a shooting regimen before the hunt and, above all, practice from field shooting positions.

5. Find a Good Guide and Trust Them

Novice's Guide to Elk Hunting - Hunters hiking with Elk PrizeThe relationship between a client hunter and guide is critical to the success of any hunt. Check references up front and find someone reputable and then trust them to put you on elk.

Some clients are prone to questioning every move that a guide makes—especially if you aren’t having success early in the hunt. You’ve paid your guide to find elk and if you’ve hired someone reputable they’ll do their best to accomplish just that. Listen to them and be ready to do your part when the animal appears.

As a side note, it’s also protocol to tip a guide after the hunt. Oftentimes tips make up a sizable portion of a guide’s salary.

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6. Have Reasonable Expectations

What do you want from this hunt? If it’s a bull to hang over your fireplace then there are plenty of auction houses that will sell you an elk mount.

What most hunters desire, though, is a chance to pursue these magnificent animals in beautiful country with some chance of actually harvesting an elk. Don’t get hung up on inches of antler. Not all elk country produces huge trophies, and in some areas—especially public hunting areas—a 300-inch bull is a rarity.

If all you’re worried about is killing a giant elk you’re robbing yourself of the real value of your hunt.

By Brad Fitzpatrick | Contributor 

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