(Lynn Haven, FL)
Let me start by saying I am by NO MEANS an elk hunting expert. That said, I've been successful and would like to pass along some tips for the upcoming season. Last year I was blessed to kill a 300" class bull in southwest Colorado. I'll share the story and give you my $.02.
This hunt was completely unguided, DIY, first season rifle hunt in the back country-no I won't reveal the spot, as I'm headed back in October to hunt the same location. The area is accessed by either horseback or walk in ONLY. I believe this was critical to my success. In the valley a few miles below where I hunted, there were dozens of hunters on ATV's-guess what, NO ELK! We were above 10,000 feet and were in the elk from the beginning. My partner (as in my hunting buddy) and I are military fighter pilots-we live and breathe setting objectives, researching, and preparing for success. It was actually funny when we returned to our base camp after 2 days of hunting with 2 elk and talked to some of the other guys who were hunting the valley. No one had seen any elk down below and these crestfallen men were talking to us about our elk. They asked us where we hunted. We pointed to the mountains and said "Up there!" They hung their heads and left mummbling about not being able to get where the elk were. Lesson learned: Go to where the elk are!
Here are some tips (not in any sort of order).
#1: You'll read about this and ignore it. DO NOT! This is rocket science to some of you, but this is the most important tip...GET IN SHAPE. If you can't march around all day long above 9,000 feet, you simply won't be successful on a DIY hunt. Start early, push yourself, be creative, lose the weight, increase your stamina. The elk live up high, you have to go up high to find them, so you must be able to climb up steep mountains to find the elk. As a pilot, I know the air density changes the most from sea level to about 5,000 feet. Imagine what the air density is like at 10,000 feet. You are already on the bad side of the human performance curve if you aren't in top physical condition-this means cardio conditioning to the max extent possible. Listen, you can surely kill elk at lower altitudes. You can spend thousands of dollars, go to a private ranch and pick out an elk and shoot it, no big deal. I'm talking about a true DIY hunt in the backcountry. If that's what your're after, start running. 'Nuff said.
#2: Stay hydrated. I brought a Katadyn water filter backed up by iodine tabs. There were multiple streams, brooks, and seeps so I never had to pop the pills. The Katadyn was some of the best money I spent. Never had a problem and was able to fill my camelback whenever I needed it. At altitude, the humidity of the air decreases significantly. You need LOTS of water, more than you think. I drank til I was full, pissed a lot, but never got a headache or (worse) altitude sickness. Being in shape helped out, see Tip #1.
#3: Get away from other hunters. Far away. My rule of thumb is at least 2 miles from main trails, 3 miles from any roads. Hunt in areas where you can ONLY go in by horseback or by foot. You just can't believe how much this helps. All the flat-landers will be driving around in elk-free zones, making noise, spreading stink, and ultimately pushing any foolish elk to me. Most of the elk on public land are used to hikers being in their areas all year long, they are used to human scent. Don't let this fool you-when the traffic increases they will move. So, they'll be in areas where people go, just not lots of people, and certainly no vehicles. Get away from the traffic. If you are planning on camping out on the roadside from a camper and then riding an ATV around, IMO, you are destined to fail.
#4: Get a pack large enough to carry all your gear and food for the entire hunt. If you are truly going after the elk, in the rugged terrain that holds them, you must spike camp. We carried packs that weighed about 75lbs! Hard, severe, ass-whooping work, but WORTH IT. I used a GI issue Arceteryx pack and it was great. The only limiting factor was how much I could carry and for how long. I'm a small dude (good for pulling G's in a fighter, not so good for schlepping around a ruck sack in the Rockies)but I was able to take everything I needed in my ruck. Ounces count, so pare down your carry list to the stuff that is critical, leave everything else behind. Back to the theme of getting in shape.
#5: Get some walking/hiking sticks. You'll need 'em on the way up/down. Trust me. I did not use them when I was actually hunting, but some folks do. They also double as good prodding devices for your buddies when they want to quit hiking and set up camp on a road.
#6: Get gear that has multiple uses: a stainless cup can be used for eating/drinking/shaving/washing/cooking. You need 1, that's it. I only brought 2 knives: a big camp knife, and a smaller lock blade. We skinned/caped 2 elk with just our lock blades. I carried a cheap sharpener and used it, but I didn't need the entire Ginsu Erupean collection to do it. We ate dehydrated meals. There are millions of choices, whatever floats your boat. If I was going to bring more that enough of one item, it would be food. You'll burn something like 4 to 5 THOUSAND calories a day and only eat less than 2,000. Bring enough food. We would eat a good breakfast, snack on trail mix/power bars during the day, and eat a good hot meal before bed. Military Truth: Chow is morale, so take some good grub.
#7: WOOL. I've used all the synthetic stuff under the sun. IMO Under Armor Cold gear just can't match up to quality Marino wool garmets-from underwear to bibs/coat, nothing beats wool. When I'm walking around, I have the lightest set of gear on to remain cool-the other stuff is tethered to my day pack (I use an LL Bean Hunter's Lumbar pack). I do take a lightweight set of GoreTex rain gear. This is also a must have. The weather changes from minute to minute, so good GoreTex is a life saver. I don't worry about scent control. There's been much research de-bunking the scent control myths. I believe it is much more important to "hunt the wind" versus spending lots of cash on gear that has nebulous efficacy.
#Last: Hunt hard. Get up early, stay late. Slow down, be mentally tough. The reward is worth the effort.
Well, I've ramlbed enough. I could go on and on about prep work (calling the Game Warden, asking around), maps, GPS units, game calls, rifles, etc. But I don't want to inundate you with squeeb that's not critical. Good luck, God bless, stay safe.
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