Tips for the Ultimate Elk Hunt

In case you forgot, you co-own 600-plus million acres of public land—and somewhere out there is your elk. To help you narrow down the search, we drilled six experts for their secrets on finding and killing bulls in the backcountry. Because while there’s nothing wrong with hunting private ground, there’s absolutely nothing like getting it done on public land.

✖ Mix Up Your Bugle 

■ Most hunters can’t resist making the long, screaming bugles that sound good to their own ears, says world-champion elk caller Chad Schearer of Shoot Straight (shoot​straight​ But on pressured public land, you have to sound different. “Just shortening your bugle will separate you from the crowd and double your success,” Schearer says. Just as important: You don’t have to make a full bugle to rile a herd bull. Here are three abbreviated calls Schearer uses to sound more like the real thing—and less like everyone else.
The Half Bugle “This is a call that real bulls use to say, I’m over here,” Schearer says. “It’s a courtesy bugle, and a way for bulls to keep track of one another.” To make it, you simply cut your bugle short half to two-thirds of the way through. “It’s a great locator call, and one that bulls almost never hear from other hunters.”
The Squeal “When a bull is really worked up, he’ll often skip the full bugle and just squeal.” Here, Schearer increases tongue and air pressure on a mouth call while putting his lips loosely together to get the highest pitch possible. He ends it with a simple low note. “This is perfect for pissing off a hot herd bull.”
The Grunt “This short chortle usually comes before or after a full bugle. But after weeks of full-throated bugling, a few grunts may be all a bull has left.” To make the sound, Schearer says, “Cha-heh,” into a mouth call, exhaling on the first note and inhaling on the second. “Use it for close calling in the timber or finishing a bull that’s hung up.” —D.H.

✖ Stand Ready

■ When Bob Daugherty, owner of Redwing Outfitters in Winston, N.M. (, first started bowhunting elk, he made the same mistakes that he still sees Eastern hunters making. “We’d get too hidden,” he says. “We had good luck getting bulls to come in, but we couldn’t kill them because we were covered up by too much brush.”
Daugherty’s hunters now simply lean against a tree in the open—and they kill far more elk. “When a bull is hot, you can get away with a lot of movement,” he says. “But it’s important for the caller to set up to the side of the hunter, rather than behind him. That way, when a bull comes in he won’t be looking at the hunter, and he’ll more likely be broadside.” Shooters should range several landmarks quickly after setting up. “Even if a bull sees a hunter drawing and bolts, he usually won’t run 10 yards before you can stop him with cow calls.” —W.B.

✖ Get Moving

■ Most hunters in over-​the-­counter units never even get a decent chance at a bull. “It’s because they don’t find any elk to begin with,” says Travis Reed, a backcountry outfitter in the San Juan National Forest near Durango, Colo. “Elk are herd animals, and they move. They’re not like whitetails that are dispersed every quarter mile. You can burn a whole week of hunting in the wrong spot and never get close to one.” Reed hunts remote areas by horseback, and his clients are successful in some of the same drainages year after year. Here’s how to find a hotspot of your own.
Map It Out “Look at a map and get at least 2 miles away from the closest road,” Reed says. “That doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re walking up and down mountains, it’s farther than most people are willing to hike. And really, that’s all it takes. Elk don’t live next to the roads during hunting season. Many people give up, when if they’d just gone another mile, they would have had elk all over them.”
Read the Signs Finding fresh sign is good—but 20 elk can destroy a ridgetop at night and be 3 miles away by daylight. “That’s why to be successful, you need to see them,” he says. “At daybreak, I like to spend my time in high, open areas where I can glass. If you’re seeing elk every day, you’re in the right area. If you’re only seeing sign, keep moving.”
Plan Big In big country, the elk you see may be several miles away. “If I watch a herd a few mountains over do the same thing two days in a row, I’m making a move to hunt them on the third day. That might mean getting in closer and setting up a spike camp, or it might mean packing out and driving around them. Always bring a map with you, because as ­often as not, there’s an easier way to get to where you’re looking than by walking straight to it.” —W.B.

✖ Don’t Go There

■ Public-land hunters are automatically drawn to the classic high-country habitat of aspens, dark timber, and open parks. These areas do typically have the highest concentrations of elk, says Byron Carter. But to actually tag a trophy on public ground, he suggests looking elsewhere.
“I concentrate on areas that have both fewer hunters and fewer elk,” says Carter, who has guided clients to more than 100 bulls. “That’s because both human pressure and too much breeding competition cause bulls to constantly move their cows around. On the flip side, where there’s not much of either, even the biggest bulls become much easier to pattern and call.”
In Carter’s home state of Utah, that means leaving the high ­picture-​book country to the masses and hunting lower-elevation thickets of piñon-juniper, mahogany, and oak brush. “Many hunters think of that as mule deer habitat,” Carter says, “but as long as there’s good feed and water, it will hold some of the biggest bulls—because they are just like you; they want to get away from the pressure and competition.” —D.H.

✖ Shoot With Confidence

■ “If you’re calling elk by yourself, you’re going to get a lot of straight-on shots,” Miles Fedinec says. “That’s a shot I’ll personally take every time. The crease between the neck and shoulder blade is a beautiful opening to the heart and lungs, and it will kill an elk in seconds. But it’s a small target. If you’re not confident with your bow or gun, well, you shouldn’t be elk hunting anyway, but you definitely shouldn’t take that shot.” —W.B.

✖ Take the Hook

■ “In Arizona, the farther you get away from a road on public land, the closer you get to another one,” says Jay Scott, co-owner of Colburn and Scott Outfitters ­(colburn​and​­scott​­ That means he’s always hunting pressured bulls, which requires a sneaky approach. Here’s his public-land plan:
Spot Him “First I try to glass a good bull heading toward bedding cover with his cows,” Scott says, “and then I’ll slip in very close—sometimes as close as 50 yards.”
Flank Him “Elk typically move with the wind in their faces. In order to keep the wind in my face, I parallel the herd.” If there’s a slight angle to the breeze—and there usually is—he sets up on whichever side gives him an edge.
Cut Him Without calling, and moving as quietly as possible, Scott sneaks alongside the head of the herd, all the while looking for an opening. “Our piñon-juniper habitat has lots of little gaps where I can make a buttonhook. I watch and let the cows go by first, as they usually lead the way, and then I move into bow range and wait for the bull.”
Take Him “If I don’t have to call, I won’t,” Scott says, as the bull often walks right in the footsteps of the cows. “If I do, one cow call will usually put him in my lap.” If Scott knows he is hunting an aggressive bull, he may bugle to make the animal think a rival has gotten between him and his ladies. “That works, but you’ll need to put down the call real quick and pick up your bow.” —D.H.

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