Elk hunting mistakes will happen. We simply need to
limit the number of them. You've dreamed, planned, prepared, spent the money,
but will the big moment arrive finding you unprepared to take advantage of it
after all that? It happens to the best of us.
Elk are like ghosts sometimes. Showing up when you are sure there are no elk anywhere around. Other times elk rumble through like four- wheelers, giving you only seconds of warning!
Not being prepared and not aggressively reacting in time can cause your one good opportunity to vanish, just as suddenly as it appears!
Combine topo and aerial photo maps of your hunting areas to do some computer trip scouting. Here is an easy, cheap or even free way to view and print maps.
I've been successful at killing elk each year for quite a string of years. Every fall I hope I won’t make the elk hunting mistake that will cause that success string to be broken! I hunt hard and I hunt a lot. I’m relentless! One elk hunting mistake is, well, not hunting!
I’m also willing to kill a cow or a rag horn. I put effort into getting way back when I hunt. The elk hunting mistake made most often is hunting too close to the road. I’m willing to de-bone and pack an elk out on my back, if necessary.
I often hunt alone, because I hunt hard and often go to work in the afternoons. It's a greater challenge when you hunt alone, but no matter how you hunt, it's easy to miss the opportunity that you worked so hard for.
I could tell you countless stories about elk hunting mistakes I’ve made. Some I've learned from, forgotten and relearned! For instance, if you hear a bull coming, don't just focus on where he is. There may well be cows coming in ahead of him. Watch for them, or they’ll bust you, and you'll never see the bull.
Many years ago, I heard a bull bugling up through the trees. Back then, I didn't know a "round up" bugle from a challenge bugle. If I had, I would have known he was pushing cows. (The best resource to learn elk communication is ElkNut’s products.)
Between bugles I could hear squirrels announcing the elk, giving me a travel line. I lined up for an ambush in very tight jack pines. I was ready for that bull! I could see his horns above the short trees moving toward me. I had a few seconds before I needed to draw my bow.
I was inexperienced and didn’t realize how far ahead the cows would be. Bulls usually stay well behind the cows. Suddenly, to my shock, a cow almost ran into me. I accidentally touched my release and the arrow fell on the ground as I jumped out of the way. Opportunity: vanished! Remember, cows often precede bulls, but you often only see horns, or hear the bull.
Missing the opportunity can happen with a bow or a rifle. I was stalking elk by following tracks in the snow with my son when he was quite young. When a cow finally stood broadside at 50 yards I whispered, "shoot!" He responded, "I can't. I just scooped my rifle barrel full of snow." She bolted by the end of the sentence. He made the right call. I’ve done the same thing, by not being careful in deep snow. Opportunity: vanished!
He soon got another opportunity and made it happen.
Since I own Elk Tips Outdoor Gear (a sporting goods with an archery pro shop), people often want minor repairs made to their bows. Sometimes all they want is a bow tuned with a rusty old drop away rest and fuzzy strings on it. Bow strings can break and worn out drop away rests can fail. That can end your hunt, or worse!
My first elk kill back in the 80s
went like this. After watching bedded elk way up high all day, they finally
started moving down before sunset after a quick, fierce storm. I crawled through
the snow on my belly, hands and knees to get to a little rise where I could get
When I finally squeezed the trigger from a prone position- click! I very slowly bolted the misfired round onto the snow and carefully closed the bolt on another one. I was only 75 yards away and the noise was making them nervous.
Squeeze- click! This scenario repeated itself until all my rounds were laying in the snow and the elk were all staring up my way. I dried one of the rounds off the best I could, prayed and reloaded. Boom! My first elk was down, despite my first big elk hunting mistake.
That could have resulted in
a vanished opportunity. All because the excessive gun grease in my rifle had
frozen up in the very cold weather.
I’ve learned from many elk hunting mistakes to react instantly, even if drawing my bow might spook an elk. Don't wait for a better opportunity. I once arrowed a cow elk after it busted me. I had to nock an arrow and step to one side to clear the path for my arrow. She watched as I did all that and took an arrow through both lungs. If I had frozen instead of reacting aggressively, the opportunity would’ve vanished.
If you're cross hairs or sight pin isn't on an elk, you might miss an opportunity. Don’t take unethical shots. Just get ready, and then decide. Know you're limitations, but don't limit your options by not taking aim when you can. It's good practice to take aim, regardless. It soon becomes automatic. Another elk hunting mistake can result, without your weapon up and aimed.
Consider the current opportunity the only one you will get! It just might be. A friend of mine, who also kills elk every year, killed a cow elk one year on opening morning. He said, "I've learned never to turn down something the first day of the season that you would be glad to kill on the last day." He's right.
Those of us who are successful at killing elk yearly, aren't trophy hunters. We can't spend thousands of dollars on several trips all over elk country. Be ready for that one opportunity. Making just one less elk hunting mistake can result in elk meat at home.
Another thing I have learned the hard way through the years is this. I will get at least one good opportunity to kill a bull elk with a bow. A bull of some kind will be standing in front of me, eventually (unless I kill a cow first). A big elk hunting mistake often made is not reacting aggressively when that opportunity arrives.
In 2015 I had a herd bull walking across in front of me. It was perfect. The direction he was walking was obvious. I quickly ranged the distance to a tree he would soon pass by. "50 yards". I drew when his eyes went behind some brush. When he reached the tree I had ranged, I stopped him with a grunt. I put my 50 yard pin on him and thought, “Looks closer than 50”. I released the arrow well over his back. Opportunity: Vanished!
After watching him run away, I checked the distance to the tree again. "35 yards". In my haste, I had not carefully made sure the laser bounced off the right tree, but I only had seconds to draw at the right moment. Putting everything together is something we can practice in our minds. See scenarios in your mind. "See it before it happens".
If possible, range check the base of the tree, not the trunk. Get a second laser range, if time allows. Go with your inner voice, if it’s yelling at you!
I’ve had opportunities vanish because my rifle was slung over my back. Many years ago I stopped doing that when I started using a ready-carry rifle sling, like the Safari Sling. I never have to fumble with my ready-carry bow sling, either, like the String Sling. Change habits or equipment that might cause an elk hunting mistake, an opportunity to vanish
Never call elk without an arrow nocked, or gun at the ready. In 2012, I decided to stop and eat lunch at a nice little spring around noon. I sat down on a log and got lunch out. I gave a little cow chirp and stuffed something in my mouth. Within seconds I heard a crunch behind me. I turned and was face to face with an elk 20 yards away. An opportunity I never expected- Vanished! Another elk hunting mistake.
Several years ago, I sent a cow call across a fence to a herd bull that was screaming. Before I could even nock an arrow and look up, the bull was heading straight for me, 20 yards away. He walked up to my kneeling position and breathed steam on me from his nostrils. He turned quickly and walked straight back to the fence. I hate to admit it, but that kind of scenario has happened a few times to me. If you call, be ready. If an elk is coming, expect an opportunity and be decisive.
Don’t assume you know where the elk you’re expecting will show up. Let’s say you’ve set up so that the wind is in your favor. Assume the bull will correct that and turn it into an elk hunting mistake for you! Bulls will usually circle around behind the caller speaking elk to him. He wants to smell elk to verify. You can try elk scents. I do. But, rest assured, they can smell both you and the elk scent and they are not confused into ignoring the human smell!
A calling partner will need to expect this move and set the shooter up for that inevitable downwind move. If you’re alone, as I usually am, move downwind a little after calling, if possible. Or, move into the wind toward the animal to a spot where he won’t expect you to be before he begins his downwind circle.
Another elk hunting mistake I have made is not watching for the silent bulls coming into my call. Often I will be working an incoming bull and another bull will end up standing right next to me all of a sudden, staring at me!
It’s easy to get discouraged, and bored, in silent woods. Eventually that will result in the elk hunting mistake of assuming there are no elk, only to have a silent bull show up when you least expect it.
In 2013 I was determined to be ready when the opportunity arrived. Very early one morning I heard a bull doing a locator call while walking across in front of me in the dark minutes before legal shooting light. I had to wait those agonizing minutes before I could call during first light.
When I did, the bull immediately headed my way. I told myself, "I am NOT going to blow this opportunity!" On my knees I drew my bow before he came into view and held it (something I practice).
The bull walked straight toward me and to my left a bit. I had to wait for the shooting angle to open up a bit. When he was five yards to my left, he stopped and I released. I was focused on doing it right and it paid off. Even that could have turned into another elk hunting mistake. I shoot left-handed. The bull was to my left. Being on my knees kept me from turning easily. However, standing at five yards away might not have gone unnoticed. (Although, a HECS Stealthscreen makes a huge difference!)
Early one recent season I was stalking out ahead of a cow-pushing, bugling bull. I could tell by his "round-up" bugling that he had cows that he was moving. He was pushing them right down a heavy trail. I stalked in and almost bumped his cows out ahead of him.
I slowly backed out and did a “clover leaf” out ahead of them again. I was sneaking rather than running. I was not aggressive enough. I made it to 70 yards away from the trail they were walking on, just in time to watch that huge herd bull and his cows walk by. Opportunity- vanished! I wasn’t quite aggressive enough and was late to the meeting. Being aggressive means taking risks. You just might get away with it. Sometimes you might have to run to make it happen!
Actually, I blew TWO bull opportunities with a bow that year. A partner and I saw a bull pushing a cow hard and fast. No chance for a shot early that morning. We expected the elk to stay in that area and the rut was on, so we circled way around and hunted through the same area a couple hours later. It was nearly noon when the bull slowly following the not-yet-receptive cow across the two track road in front of us. We were caught in the open. We knelt as he stared at us from 40 yards away.
My partner drew quickly. Something
was blocking my range finder as we argued about the distance. Therefore, my
partner hesitated a little too long and the opportunity vanished! Be ready and
be decisively aggressive.
Elk hunting mistakes are going to happen. That's elk hunting! It's the most frustrating fun ever. Right?
Always be prepared and don't be afraid to be aggressive! Don't do "nothing", in order not to scare off an elk, or to wait for a perfect opportunity. Expect an opportunity, and then react appropriately and decisively. (You can always change your mind.) Otherwise, opportunity: vanished! We will make a lot of elk hunting mistakes, but we only have to be right once for every elk tag we carry!
If you want to read a short elk hunting story with a couple terrible mistakes that ended up in success, read this Quick Elk Hunting Tips & Updates newsletter.