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Ground Zero Elk at Cabela's

Ground Zero Elk

Author: Cameron Hanes

For an elk hunter, these are the "Good ol' days," to be sure. "Good ol' days" in a couple of different ways; firstly, elk numbers are peaking like never before and secondly, some absolute monster bulls are being killed (see Chuck Adams' new Pope & Young World Record). In fact, I personally know one man, Chris Rager, who has arrowed two bulls that score over 390 P&Y in the course of the past few bow seasons.

Hanes and another big elk.
However, for the new elk hunter, setting goals such as tagging a Boone & Crockett animal or arrowing a Pope & Young bull maybe a sure recipe for disaster. For the greenhorn, I feel like what is most important is garnering an overall elk hunting experience. One gets this by simply hunting and perhaps more importantly, successfully hunting. When I first started chasing these buff colored beasts, I trophy hunted for all of one morning, and then it was anything goes. I started a natural transition from being an elk hunter who would be happy simply getting something on the ground, to presently, a hunter who has the patience to be a little more selective.

During those first couple of seasons I would go through waves of frustration, but because I would attempt to take any legal animal, I mixed just the right amount of success to keep me focused and hungry to learn. Elk hunting is very difficult; there is not any other way to say it. And, if you take something that is already incredibly tough and make it exponentially tougher by setting lofty goals such as holding out for a 6x6, or a big 5x5, you can be making a big mistake. Days, weeks or years marked by frustration will create desperation and take the fun right out of chasing your dream. Elk hunting is hard, but it can also be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences in your life.

When I hunt, I learn something every time out. Essentially this serves as a highly effective form of scouting. When hunting, I am more in tune and cognizant of my surroundings than when trips are scouting specific. I have averaged approximately ten days in the field for each of the bulls I have killed. It should be noted, that as an archery hunter, I am privy to a much longer season than a rifle hunter would be. This elongated time in the woods has allowed me to learn a great deal about elk in just a handful of seasons. To expound, here in my home state, Oregon, rifle season lasts for about 7-days or in some cases as little as 5-days. When one can only spend a handful of days chasing elk each year, wapiti savvy can accumulate slowly.

Another key attribute to my ongoing elk hunting education happens when I am lucky enough to tag out, early or otherwise. When faced with such a "dilemma," I never pass on a chance to spend time in the elk woods during elk season. I often find myself tagging along with one of my elk hunting buddies in an effort to learn more. I have been with friends and family on at least as many successful elk hunts as animals I have personally tagged. I believe this approach is akin to being an "elk sponge," for lack of a better term. Also, I've been able to hone my bloodtrailing skills and deal with that demon known simply as, "elk fever," that can sabotage the most ideal situation. More time spent with and around elk, has allowed me to hold my composure in crunch time.

Elk like big country.
Granted, hunting is a great time to scout, make no mistake, but I do still spend many hours afield scouting. Elk may be one of the easiest big game animals to scout due to their large size and the not so subtle behavior of rutting bulls. When I scout, I could care less whether or not I see an elk. The sign they leave gives me ample information on elk numbers in the area I am focused on. A herd of elk tears up an amazing amount of ground, creates trails quickly and browses heavily, which are all calling cards that can be interpreted quickly, even by a novice.

When scouting during the summer, prior to elk season, again I am not concerned as to any physical sightings, as they may very well summer in an altogether different area from where they will be during the breeding (bow) season. This holds true for summer areas, as they relate to fall (rifle season) haunts. When I scout, I look for signs of rutting behavior because this is when I will be pursuing the beasts. This is not too difficult. A bull will tear up many a tree in a display of dominance or in an effort to burn some of his spare testosterone.

Elk rubs are hard to miss.
I have found most rubs will be around bedding areas, which typically will be located in the cool, big timber of north facing slopes. The reason for this is that bulls are on edge during the rut (breeding season) and often pace around the perimeter, amongst or through his bedded herd. The rutting bull spends very little time bedded, so while his harem rests, he wanders and with peaking aggression, tears up trees. When I find these bedding areas that are littered with rubs I know I am onto something. Then, when I know the area harbors elk, and more specifically bulls during my hunting season, I try and determine likely travel routes that will link feeding to bedding areas.

Yet another easily distinguishable sign of bull elk presence, is a wallow. A wallow is basically a mud bog the bull will wallow in, urinate, splash and generally have a good time making quite a mess. You see, elk are big animals, and during bow season, which most often runs during very warm periods of late summer, they will need a good water supply. As such, you can count on them frequenting water daily. And when near water, you can be rest assured that the bulls will create a wallow in an effort to cool off, or perhaps simply display classic rutting bull behavior he has seen displayed by previous herd masters.

The last piece to the puzzle comes in the painstaking attention I pay to topographical maps. I use these great tools to accentuate the knowledge I learn while hunting or on the scouting trips I take. By scrutinizing topo maps, I can learn of water sources, saddles (low spots in a ridge) or favored bedding areas.

In terms of saddles, elk will almost always take the path of least resistance when they are not pressured. A dip in a ridge thusly creates a natural funnel that may very well connect a bedding area to a feeding area. Circle this spot on your map and make a point to check it out. As mentioned previously, favored north slopes will serve as your typical elk bedding area. I then pick apart my topo, looking for a bench or flat spot on a north facing canyon wall. This bench will draw elk, as it is obviously easier to lie on flat ground than to lay on more vertical landscape.

When the majestic elk is your chosen quarry, start at ground zero by setting realistic goals for success and rely on basic common elk sense when hunting, scouting or studying maps. By doing this, I think you will be pleased with your results, and remember, take lots of photos!

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