The canyon was littered with fresh elk sign. My guide and I found the honey-hole after miles of hiking over unproductive terrain. Our maps told a good story—large chunks of roadless public land near proven elk habitat. But we almost gave up before we saw the cool, heavily wooded gash slicing through dry and boring prairie land.
Almost immediately, boxy elk tracks and soft droppings appeared underfoot. Small pine trees were oozing from fresh antler wounds. Tiny springs bubbled across lush expanses of grass. Bull wallows were everywhere. This surely was elk heaven. The only sign we did not see were human footprints. Perfect.
As a self-admitted elkaholic, I do the homework and legwork necessary to put me into bulls. I bowhunt with a guide when it’s legally required, but my guides are always good friends who respect my ability to ferret out new elk spots. They don’t work for me—we work together. I never rely on someone else to locate elk.
My best elk spots usually share two important traits. First, I avoid known elk hideouts that are popular with other archers and outfitters. Instead, I concentrate several miles away from traditional elk terrain. Such “fringe” areas are seldom much to look at—dry, scrub edge country you’ll never see on an elk calendar. But more often than not, even the worst-looking areas hold small pockets of elk. Some of the biggest bulls hang out here because they are overlooked.
My second requirement in the search for “edge elk” is remote terrain. In my experience, very few bowhunters walk more than a mile from vehicle access points. If I can find elk sign at least 2 miles from any road, I’ll probably have that place to myself. An average hunter can hike 2-3 mph, so getting in and out is no big deal if you’re in reasonably good shape. The benefits of such effort are huge.
It was late afternoon when my guide and I found the remote canyon. We planted our fannies and pulled out our topo maps. The deep ravine was 10 miles long, beginning as a narrow cut in the pinion/juniper flats and ending as a massive gorge where it crossed beneath a paved bridge and intersected a river. I knew that bowhunters camped beside the bridge, and I’d seen archers cruising dirt two-tracks near the head of the draw. But in between might as well have been posted private land or off-limits wilderness area. There was nobody around.
The sun slipped downward, casting long shadows across the depths of the draw. And then the bugling began. I could hardly believe my ears. Not one, not two, but eight different elk sounded off in different side draws. Two had the deep, gravelly growls of serious boss bulls. My guide and I sat, listened, and finally started the 1-hour hike back to our truck.
I prefer not to bowhunt elk in fading light. It’s better to find a bull near sunrise and then hunt him hard until he beds for the day. Bulls move more in the morning, bugle more in the morning and give you more time for a shot in the morning. When the shot does come, you can clearly see to aim, clearly see where the arrow went and clearly see blood on the ground. This means you have a better chance of a good hit, a quick recovery and well cared-for meat. Elk shot near dusk can spoil before dawn in warm bowhunting weather.
Neither of us slept much that night. Two hours before daylight, we parked the pickup, took our last swig of coffee and strapped on our fanny packs. The moon was almost full, so we didn’t need our flashlights.
We were miles from the road at daylight, veering up the remote canyon with a cool thermal down-draft in our face. The dead silence was broken by a high, squealing spike bugle 200 yards ahead. Ten seconds later, a throaty, wheezing grunt blossomed from a side draw 1/4-mile up the canyon. Another mature bull answered behind us, and two more chimed in to the left.
We decided to beeline for the wheezing bull because he sounded big. This elk was directly upwind—the only place to have an elk if you’re a hard-hiking, perspiring archer. In my experience, no amount of scent-control product or scent-free clothing can cover an active hunter’s body odor.
We could certainly smell elk B.O. The pungent barnyard odor was thick in the canyon. We hustled uphill under the trees, my guide staying well behind me as he always does during a stalk. Two sneakers are never as good as one.
Ten minutes later, a cow and calf trotted across a meadow in front of me. I was well concealed, my Realtree camo almost exactly blending with the sunlight-dappled trees. Those elk weren’t running from me.
Suddenly, the bull swaggered into view. I sucked in my breath. His antlers were massive, the main beams sweeping down to the middle of his rump. The left side was toward me, and I saw an odd array of points toward the back. I had no time to count, but that antler had seven or eight points for sure.
The herd master swapped ends and galloped into a timber patch. Seconds later, a dozen cows came scooting out the other side. The bull bumped one with his brow tines, and the whole herd trotted around a bend in the draw.
Now I had a clear mental picture of the bull. He had eight tines on the left and six on the right. Most were long. His body dwarfed the cows. My pulse leaped into overdrive. Rutting elk almost always move into the wind. This lets the herd bull keep track of his harem and rival bulls by smell. It also makes stalking a chore. You cannot circle dead ahead because you’ll be scented every time.
Like most morning elk, these were moving fast. I figured they’d feed and cavort for a couple hours, and then tuck into a shady thicket for the day. It was my job to slip in from the side or rear, avoid cows and satellite bulls, and hope Big Boy bumbled inside bow range.
I kept after the herd for a half-mile, locked on the constant bugling of the bull. Elk flashed in and out of the trees. I could see my guide behind me, patiently dogging my heels. We were a well-oiled machine.
The main draw took a sudden bend to the right. I didn’t know this country, except from the maps, but I made an educated guess. I trotted uphill to the right, ran across a ridge and continued to circle until the bugles were behind me. I tiptoed downhill, the breeze fanning the side of my face.
A big cow stepped out 50 yards below me, followed by another and another. An explosive bugle rattled the trees right behind. I snapped a quick reading with my rangefinder and nocked an arrow as more elk trotted along the same trail.
An antler flashed, and the massive 6x8 strutted into view. He looked downhill, threw back his head and let go a wheezing series of grunts. A split-second later, my Super Slam arrow and Rage broadhead disappeared behind his shoulder and rattled into rocks on the far side. The giant bull was mine.
A Killer View
Each year the vast majority of my time bowhunting is spent on two tracts of land in Wisconsin and South Dakota, and I recently gave the owners of these properties (my dad and father-in-law) custom-made, color aerial photos from myTopo.com as gifts. They appreciated the bird’s-eye view of their land, and now I’m able to use the photos to scout from above.
In addition, I keep track of my many treestands and natural ground blinds with the use of colored Post-It Arrow Flags attached to the laminated photos. I place these tiny arrows on the photo to show the ideal wind direction for each ambush spot. I use yellow arrows for ground blinds, blue ones for hang-on portable treestands and pink ones for ladder stands. By knowing the wind direction for any given morning or afternoon, I can quickly narrow my choices by glancing at the photo. Our hunting group had more than two dozen treestand and ground blind setups during the 2007 Wisconsin archery season, so this system of using directional arrows helped us avoid choosing the wrong location based on the wind direction.
Another bonus to marking the photo this way is a new hunter joining our group can quickly see all of our treestand and ground blind locations, and the detailed aerial photo makes it easy for them to find these spots in an unfamiliar woods. Gone are the days of scribbling notes on scratch paper and trying to remember the exact “lay of the land.”
Specifically, I gave my father-in-law a 24x36-inch photo of his South Dakota land and bought a poster frame for hanging it; I gave my dad a 36x48-inch photo of his Wisconsin land and he built his own wood frame to match the walls in his basement.