RENO, Nev. According to the old joke, whenever you find yourself lost in the woods, just sit down and crack open a deck of cards. If you start playing solitaire, someone is soon to come along and tell you that you're doing it all wrong.
But for hunters lost in the elk woods lost in terms of not knowing when, where and how to get the big bull that they covet the butt of a rifle and the limbs of a compound bow make poor surfaces for playing parlor games.
So what's a hunter to do when a tag's burning a hole in their polar fleece and their sugarplum visions of up-close-and-personal encounters with Elkzilla are dashed in the first few hours?
Once afield, it's probably too late to pull the iron out of the fire. But to save the elk-obsessed men and women in North America the pain of a hard-learned lesson, three of the U.S.'s most knowledgeable and accomplished elk hunters are sharing three crucial tips with anyone who can use them (three hunters, three tips, "tri-tips"... get it?).
They'll address everything from prepping your body and mind to picking the place you will forever remember as "the spot" once you harvest your trophy quarry as well as how not to turn the climatic moments of a hunt into a 10-car pileup comedy of errors.
Feel free to take notes. The final exam begins opening morning.
Wilderness elk hunting is about as athletic an endeavor as can be found in North American hunting and definitely requires any would-be wapiti watcher to be in shape.
But you don't need to kill yourself to get there. Cameron Hanes of Springfield, Ore., is a fitness and bowhunting authority as well as TV show host and columnist for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
With vast experience in both bowhunting for elk and keeping his body in tip-top shape (he runs 50-mile ultra-marathons in the offseason), Hanes said moderation in exercise is a key for most of today's modern hunters.
"You don't have to be a world-class athlete to build up amazing endurance, but you do have to get started with some sort of workout regimen," Hanes said. "Every day you spend in inactivity, you get weaker. Every day that elk move through high country, they get stronger. And the longer you wait to exercise, the wider the gap grows."
To keep pace with the physical (and mental) rigors of elk hunting, Hanes offers this advice:
1. Try a "commercial workout" when you're sitting around watching TV. Do push-ups or sit-ups during commercials. Over just the summer months, this kind of exercise can make a big difference. But if you've been doing nothing recently, there's no point in trying to go out and start running. Going overboard right out of the gate will only make you too sore, cause you to hurt yourself or burnout quickly so try a brisk walk instead. Try to walk for 10 minutes and jog slowly for five. If you do this alternating walk-jog for 30 minutes and about four times a week for a couple of weeks you can start increasing the length of your workout and this will definitely make a difference for you when it comes to the long hikes during your elk hunt.
2. Don't let your ego get in the way of proper preparation. Hard workouts are not always better. Some of the world's greatest athletes exercise at "conversation pace," a pace easy enough to have a conversation while they are running or doing whatever physical activity they might be doing. Some Olympians workout at a comfortable pace 90 percent of the time. Longer, 45-minute, comfortable workouts three or four days a week combined with one day of harder, fast-paced workouts will get you in shape without risking injury or burnout.
3. Don't be afraid to mix up your exercise routine. Add some variety to your walking and jogging with cross-training and lifting weights but keep in mind that almost everything you do in elk hunting begins and ends with your legs. Throw on your pack and climb hills or bleachers; get on a bike. When you're in the weight room, emphasize squats and lunges. Lots of reps are more important than heavy weights, because for elk hunting you need lean muscle, not size.
Your body is in shape and your mind is filled with visions of big-headed bulls bugling below you, it's time to do your elk-hunting homework if you haven't started that already.
Jay Scott of Scottsdale, Ariz., is co-owner of Colburn and Scott Outfitters and a field editor for Western Hunter Magazine. In addition to putting his clients on gigantic bulls (one client arrowed an enormous bull in 2009, which grossed 435 4/8 and is likely to take over the No. 6 spot in the Pope & Young record book), Scott is a voracious elk hunter in his own right.
Since rifle season usually finds him guiding, most of his personal hunts are during bow season, where he has four bulls to his credit that scored better than 360 inches two of those topping the magical 400-inch mark.
The secret, Scott says, rests primarily in putting yourself in the right place to succeed.
"You've got to be in the areas where the quality bulls are," Scott said. "And I admit, I'm lucky because I'm in Arizona where we have a lot of really nice bulls."
So when planning your next (or your first) elk hunt, Scott says that hunters looking for big antlers or those looking for good meat need to consider the same things:
1. If you want a big bull, you need to be hunting in a place where the trophies are being taken. Look for the big bull harvest records; note the states, the counties, units where they're being taken. This is if you're concerned with quality antlers. But for some people, they want to see a lot of elk or they want meat for their freezer because we all love to eat elk meat. If you want a good chance at shooting any elk, look for places that have high elk harvest totals. When I say "quality" antlers, I am talking about keying in on those areas that offer the legitimate possibility of taking a 350-class bull or better. Arizona, Utah, New Mexico all offer the best chance, I think, for an elk like that. But they can come from anywhere. Just remember that the areas known for the best bulls are going to be the hardest to draw, so you need to be applying every year and building up those preference points. I know that keeping up with every state's harvest data can be a chore, but there are a lot of service available to hunters that can take care of this for you, like Huntin' Fool or Western Hunter application services. I use these services as resource to tell me where to go plus it not only gives information on elk but deer and other big-game animals, too.
2. You need to prepare for every hunt like it was your last hunt. Obviously your body needs to be prepared for the physical demands of elk hunting, but you need to do even more homework. Talk to the people with the Forest Service, the people who manage the unit where you're going to hunt; talk to the DNR staff in the area as well as guides and other people who hunt around there. You can learn a lot from them. Most of them are in those areas year round and can be a great source of information. For me, this kind of planning goes on throughout the entire year. Since I hunt pretty much just in the early seasons and am guiding other hunters later in the year, I have to have my preparations done even earlier. Don't just think you can show up the day before your elk hunt out of shape, having done no planning and stumble into a big bull. Guys who do this burn out because it just doesn't work.
3. Just like you have to be physically prepared, you need to be mentally prepared. You've got to be able to deal with the highs and the lows of trophy elk hunting. You're going to have bad mornings when you can't catch up to the elk or mornings where you don't see any elk at all. You're going to have to deal with weather and there's going to be at least one more mountain to get over. If you're fit physically, you're going to have a better chance at being mentally prepared. I've found that the hunters in good physical shape seem to have a better mental edge and can stay sharp. Being persistent and staying mentally tough are the first steps to success, and you have to do that even if you've had four, five bad days in a row. Two things keep me sharp when things aren't going my way. First, I know, because I've done the research, that I am in a place that holds some truly big bulls. Just knowing that if I don't give up, the chance is there for me to harvest a real trophy. With the possibility there it's encouragement for me to stay sharp and focused. On the other hand, elk hunting isn't just about big antlers and we need to make sure we take the time to appreciate the whole picture of what we love to do. Even when times are at their worst, just being in the elk woods and seeing the mountains and watching the sun rise and smelling the air and maybe even hearing a bull bugle is really what we should be most appreciative of. Seeing all the things you wouldn't otherwise get to see if you weren't in the elk woods makes you realize that there is no other place that you would rather be and things don't seem so bad. We don't always come home with an elk, but we're still fired up to go on the next hunt.
Your body and mind focused on the task at hand, it's time to close the deal. Before the sun rises on opening day and the bellows of lovelorn bulls fill the canyon with a siren song that draws hunters from all corners of the globe, you've got to be armed with the skills needed to trick the monarch of the mountain.
Tricking big bulls has become a habit for elk-hunting legend Wayne Carlton. As talented with an elk call as he is long on Southern charm, the now Montrose, Colo., resident spends his days working with call maker Hunter's Specialties, speaking at seminars around the country and working as an auctioneer and a land consultant. But wearing all those hats doesn't keep him out of the elk woods.
Carlton won't profess to have all the answers, but with 344- and 398-inch bulls taken with a bow in consecutive years, you quickly realize that there are worse people from whom you can get advice. And when it comes to closing the deal and getting the wily wapiti to take the last few steps into bow range, there are few more seasoned at it than Carlton, who shares with hunters three important elements to bagging their bull:
1. When I hear a bull bugle first thing in the morning, I don't waste my time calling to him and trying to figure out where he is or if he will come to me. I'm more concerned about where he's going. First thing in the morning, the elk are going to be leaving whatever area they fed in all night and headed for a bedding area. They spend their day in this kind of sanctuary where they feel comfortable and when they get there they let their guard down. Knowing where they want to go is the key. If you were to try to get where the bull is calling from at first light, the herd will be long gone by the time you arrive. You've got to be able to know where they're headed and make movements right along with them so you can be ready when they start to settle down. Believe me, calling elk from an area where they want to be is a lot easier. This area they want to be could be something as simple as a crease in the land, some kind of low spot near a drainage or a finger of timber that sticks out that they don't want to have to walk around. Study the land and figure out where those places are.
2. Once the herd is in the bedding area, get the wind right. You want it blowing right in your face so you don't get winded and spook them. By the time you get the wind right it's going to be 9 or 10 a.m. When they're in their comfortable bed you need to slip within the area and start calling. Put yourself in their place of comfort and make the sounds that you think will intrigue them and draw them towards your position. I determine how close I get to them for my initial set up based on the sounds I hear from the elk. If I'm set up 400 yards away from them and the elk will answer a bugle but isn't coming any closer, I want to cut that distance in half. A bugle can have a lot different effect on an elk at 200 yards than it does at 400 yards. Once you've figured out that you're close enough, the elk will consider you an intruder in his area and will come to find you. Type of cover and terrain is an issue in deciding how close you should try to get. Under big pinion trees you might not be able to get very close, but in some really thick ground cover, like in Oregon, you might get as close as 10 feet without being seen. Once you think you have done that, quit calling. You want to make that bull look for you not at you. So many hunters get excited when the elk start coming and keep calling, calling, calling.
3. Learn how to use all the different types of elk calls and be able to make as many different kinds of calls as you can. Diaphragm calls are nice; they fit in your mouth and keep your hands free. External-reed calls, though, make a different kind of sound. They are rougher, sound more agitated and have an edgier tone. I always tell people to take more than one fishing plug because you never know what they're going to bite on. Once you find the plug that works, once you find what the elk are biting on which sound on which call don't try to switch it up. Stick with a good thing. And again, once you figured out that it is working quit calling. You don't want that bull coming straight to you but you want him to wander into the general area and wonder where everybody went. They'll get more vocal as they get closer, too, because they'll think they're in the right position but no elk are responding.