Where I bowhunt, elk are almost always killed by archers after long treks on foot because the animals wander too randomly for productive sits on stand.
So what was I doing crouched behind a juniper bush along a shallow ravine? My legs ached from 2 hours of severe bending, and my lower back was beginning to spasm. It was not at all what I was accustomed to on a bowhunt for Montana elk.
But 200 yards away, the leading edge of a large herd of elk was slowly grazing my way. The main bunch was still behind a low ridge, but I knew they were coming because I had watched them disappear early that morning. With one huge bull and more than 60 cows, the big guy wasn't about to leave his girlfriends. I could see him in my mind's eye, his massive 7x7 rack swiveling as he paced at the rear of the herd and bristled when a satellite bull strayed near. With the evening sun dipping low, the bull was sure to appear at any minute.
As a bowhunter, you need to be flexible and think outside the box. If you don't have the open-minded ability to quickly switch tactics, you just might miss out on a great opportunity.
For example, the bull elk I was waiting for had pushed his herd across 2 miles of semi-open ground dotted by sagebrush, juniper and stunted pinion pines. As I watched, the animals fled from a warm September sun and climbed a cool north-facing slope. I could see the bull chasing cows through scattered trees, but there was no way to approach without being seen or smelled. My only chance, I decided, was trying an ambush near dusk. A well-watered flat behind me provided the only lush graze within 15 miles, and the elk were sure to come my way. The trick was sitting in the right spot to get a shot.
Waiting for elk felt strange to me, but there was no other way to fool 65-70 sets of eyes and ears in this very open area. So I groaned and tried to ignore my cramping legs and back.
Exceptions To The Rule
There are standard, time-tested ways to bowhunt for most big game species. For white-tailed deer, black bears over bait or pronghorns near waterholes, you plant your fanny and wait. For alpine mule deer, wild sheep or elk, you normally spot-and-stalk. For fair-chase bison in dry and brushy terrain, you find fresh tracks near water and then follow. The list goes on and on.
But as I waited for my 2006 Montana elk, I pondered exceptions to these rules. Three years earlier, I'd spotted-and-stalked an 11-point whitetail in the sandhills of southern Kansas. With no trees within miles, it was my only way to shoot that buck.
Within a few weeks of my 2006 sit for elk, I stalked a massive, high-horned pronghorn that broke all the rules by never watering at the main stock tank in the area. After sitting in a blind for days and passing up dozens of lesser bucks, I glassed the big boy and went after him on foot. Fortunately, he hung out in a series of broken hills. He made a fool of me several times as I crouched and crawled across the cactus-dotted landscape, but then one day, he chased a doe toward me at high speed. I drew, waited and nailed him as he stepped from a shallow draw and stopped. Not an orthodox way to shoot a pronghorn, but the only way to get the drop on this one. I never did figure out where he was drinking.
There's definitely an advantage to ambushing game. The burden of detection is on them, because all you have to do is wait. In a treestand—particularly one at least 20 feet above the ground—it's even harder for you to be seen. At ground level, it's best to hide in an enclosed pit blind or upright blind with a dark interior that fools the eyes of animals in much brighter outside light.
The most difficult stand is always one at ground level without surrounding fabric to block out the sun. Natural, open stands like the one I took for the big bull elk must be chosen with care. Hunker behind solid or semi-solid foliage with small peep holes to keep tabs on game. Draw your bow just before animals enter open shooting lanes so there's no eye-catching movement. A slight aiming adjustment and your arrow should be on its way toward the target.
Stalking is a whole 'nother ball game, more complex in every way. The burden is squarely on you to avoid detection because you're moving, making noise and encountering changing wind conditions. It's a chess match against the animal, with the odds heavily favoring the critter.
A few years ago, I bagged a nice 9-point whitetail in an open agricultural habitat. “Clean” farming practices had removed most escape cover from the area, but fields of alfalfa and grain drew deer like ants to strawberry jam. These animals had learned to bed in open places with a few scant clumps of grass or brush for cover. There were no trees in likely ambush sites, so it was spot-and-stalk or nothing.
Terrain was rolling, with occasional cuts where seasonal rainfall had eroded the soil. Using these low places was the only way to get close to whitetails.
I spotted antlers above some grass. After searching for other deer with my binoculars, I circled 180 degrees by using low hills and several small ravines. Finally, I was lying with my nose inches from the dirt and the bedded buck less than 40 yards away. I rolled to my knees, the arrow already nocked, and waited. A half-hour later the buck stood, stretched and looked straight away. It was the last look he ever took. Stalking can work on wary whitetails.
Showdown At Sundown
Just before sunset, a deep bugle sliced across the Montana ridgeline. More than 50 cows, calves and smallish bulls were fanned along the prairie in front of me. A few were feeding in a draw less than 30 yards away. A stiff breeze was blowing from them to me, just as I had hoped. The wind in this area was usually consistent, and I'd planted myself on the downwind edge from where I believed the elk would travel toward feed. Now, with animals scattered across 200 yards of terrain, the outcome boiled down to luck. Either the bull would walk within bow range or he'd pass me at a distance.
Cover was sparse on the lip of the ravine, but I was wearing Realtree X-tra Gray camo, faded to semi-desert colors from dozens of washings over the years. If I stayed put and ignored my screaming muscles, I knew the small bush in front of me would suffice. A clay bank rose 6 feet behind me, so there would be no telltale human silhouette.
The bull bugled again, closer but still out of sight. My heart leaped into my throat. The herdmaster was circling, as I'd hoped he would. Dominant bulls prefer to move downwind of their cows and rival bulls to keep tabs with their sensitive noses. If this guy stayed on course, and acted in the customary herd-bull manner, he was likely to swagger up the dry creek-bed right below me. I slowly nocked an arrow, mindful of all the grazing elk I could see through the bush.
The 7x7 elk bugled again, clearly circling to get the downwind scent of his herd. My heart was hammering like a bongo drum.
Suddenly, bushes crackled as the bull strolled down the draw. I caught the flash of antlers and drew slowly with bow pointing low to the ground. An instant later, the monarch swaggered into view.
The arrow struck with a crack, splitting a rib and driving deep through his chest. The bull staggered less than 100 yards and dropped in plain sight. A small 5x5 bugled with glee, galloped into the cows and pushed them out of sight in a giant cloud of dust.
Without creative strategy and old-fashioned good luck, I'm sure I would never have gotten a shot. Unique terrain and high elk numbers made traditional stalking impossible.
Sit or stalk for game? For best results in bowhunting, you've got to proceed on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes standard methods work, and sometimes you need to try a completely different approach. Assess the situation, be creative and keep trying until you score. At its best, that's what bowhunting is all about.