As I stood over my first archery bull, I knew I had found my hunting passion. It was early September 1992, I was alone in the thick alder brush of northern Idaho. After a week of clambering through the thickets I had finally managed to get an open shot at a distance of 6 yards. My first archery bull scored a little over 300”, and I was extremely proud to take him home. Nobody in my family hunted, but from a young age I read every elk related magazine article and book I could get my hands on, as well as watching any hunting video I could find. Elk hunting with my bow quickly turned from a passion to an all-out addiction! From 1992 through 1996 I hunted Idaho each season, spending as many days afield as I could. In 1997 I started researching the elk hunting opportunities in other western states and started traveling more to hunt. For the last 17 seasons I have hunted 3 or more states almost every year.
In 1998 I designed an arrow rest that led to the start of my company, Trophy Taker. I decided that I was not willing to let work interfere with my elk hunting, so far I have done a pretty good job sticking to this resolve. Every year, when mid-August rolls around, everyone at Trophy Taker knows they will not see me for about 6 weeks. This time spent in the elk woods, is definitely the biggest contributing factor to the collection of mounts in my elk room.
I have chosen to continue almost exclusively hunting public land, and hunting on my own (self-guided). My reasons for this are simple; I am able to spend a lot of time hunting each year, I like to hunt where I want to, and I really like the sense of accomplishment I get from “doing it myself”. With these factors in mind, I still have some very good friends that are outfitters/guides and I know that with their help I could have the same (or better) results in much less time afield. Because I have the good fortune of being able to take this much time each year, I spend my hunt budget on longer hunts, accessing the best hunt areas I can, in multiple states each year. For those who have limited time, my advice is to definitely hire a qualified outfitter to get the most value for your money. With fuel prices today, cost of out of state licenses and tags, archery equipment, camping gear, vehicles, optics, etc., elk hunting can get very expensive. Many times “doing it yourself” is not actually cheaper than going on a good outfitted hunt.
My personal hunting tactics have evolved over the years. For the first several years, hunting in the brush country of northern Idaho, I primarily tried to call bulls in. Through trial and error, I learned that this was not usually doing the trick for me on the biggest bulls in the area. After I started hunting other parts of the west, and began to break free of the stifling alder thickets, I started paying close attention to the tactics of a few hunters that I had great respect for. Hunters that consistently put Trophy animals on the ground interest me! If a hunter is employing only legal hunting methods and consistently bringing home their trophy, they have to be doing multiple things right. After studying tips and tactics, of other successful elk hunters, I try to put these into practice and through time on the hunt I see which fit me the best.
Several factors have had notable influence on my elk hunting success. Willingness to learn and never giving up are probably the biggest factors. Being in “mountain shape” can be a big factor also. My feeling is that, all other factors being equal, the guy in the best shape stands the best chance on an elk hunt. However, the other factors that need to be equal, aren’t always equal! So, don’t think you can’t be successful just because you can’t sprint to the top of the mountain. For my style of hunting, patience is a huge factor. I am not ashamed to say that I am a trophy hunter. There are many different ways to end up with an impressive collection of trophy elk mounts. Building a collection by hunting on your own is, most of the time, not very glamorous, and can involve many lonely nights on the mountain. Hunting for the largest bull(s) in any given area usually consists of days, even weeks, of looking for a bull to hunt. Hoping I find the right one before I run out of time, sometimes never finding him. Once I do find the right bull, working within the set of circumstances I am given to get him in the back of my truck. If I want a bull in a certain size bracket, I have to be willing to let all the others go.
My tactics have continued to evolve as the years pass. After using calling as my primary tactic for several years, I noticed a few things. If I called a particular bull in, and did not get a shot, I usually could not call that same bull in again. Of course I’m talking about old, smart bulls. I also noticed that I could almost always tell when it was a hunter calling instead of a bull. If I can tell them apart that easily, how hard can it be for an elk to tell? Don’t get me wrong, there are some guys that can sound real good, but very few. Calling boils down to one thing, if you can convince the bull you are an elk it can work well, if you don’t, it won’t. I also found that I prefer hunting bulls that have no idea I’m in the area. This, of course, means I need to spot and stalk, still hunt, or ambush. I have never really enjoyed sitting in a treestand, or waiting at a water hole, even though these tactics pay off for elk hunters every year. I have hunted elk (even killed a couple) by sitting and waiting, but spotting and stalking, or hearing and stalking, has become my tactic of choice. Many times I also employ a version of still hunting/tracking if I can find the track of a bull I am after.
The largest bulls in any given area don’t survive by accident, they find ways of avoiding hunters. Knowing this, and the fact that year after year some of the largest bulls get killed by first time hunters, makes me constantly remember another thing; big bulls are where you find them, not where you think they will be, or should be. Similar to large whitetail bucks, the oldest bulls many times find areas to live that are not where people expect them to live. With this in mind, I try to never get stuck in a “tactic rut”. Always being willing to explore new areas, at new times can really pay off.
Confidence is probably the greatest ally we can take with us on our elk hunts. Obviously there is no substitute for elk hunting experience, and there is only one way to get experience! Being able to look back at years of successful hunts gives a huge confidence advantage going into each elk season, so spend as much time as you can afford each year! One thing that can really defeat your confidence is letting yourself get overwhelmed by “iron elk syndrome”. If you have multiple close calls without getting a shot, or maybe shot opportunities that you mess up, it is very easy to feel that you just can’t put a bull on the ground. I can remember giving up on hunting a particular bull because I blew an opportunity at him. In my mind I thought “he won, there’s no way I can get this bull”. This is a very common thing with us, as hunters. Always remember, every bull can be brought to the ground with one well-placed arrow, period. It doesn’t matter if you have hunted him for 30 seconds, 30 days, or 3 years!
One thing I have learned about myself, that I believe applies to many of you also, is that I dream about and look forward to elk season all year. But, when I’m actually out by myself on the very hunt I’ve dreamed about, it isn’t always a dream hunt! It’s easy to get discouraged, lonely, worn out, and pack up and head home early! I remember days in hunting camp when I slept in because I didn’t know where to go or what to do that morning. I have packed up in the middle of the night and started driving home because I was so discouraged with how my “dream hunt” was going. We all face mental, physical, and emotional challenges on our hunts, how we deal with them is up to us, and will impact the experience. Deciding ahead of time how you will handle things can really help when you are faced with decisions on a hunt. Take every variable out of the equation that you can through preparation and research. Commit to keeping a positive attitude through the tough hunts and always remember the worst hunt can turn into the best in about as much time as it takes you to draw your bow.
Putting a trophy elk on the wall, in simple terms, breaks down to this; hunt an area that holds the quality of bulls you want, find the bull you want, get within good bow range, set up an opportunity, make a good shot, and you’re done. We have talked some about the hunting side of this equation, closing the deal is also a big part.
Confidence in your equipment, and your ability to deliver the shot at the moment of truth, is another big part of hunt success. Over the years I have known some really good hunters that consistently get close to elk, but they don’t shoot well enough to bring them home. There are also many bowhunters that are great tournament archers, but they never are able to set up a shot opportunity while elk hunting. We have to figure out how to be a great hunter that is also a great shot.
Start with the best equipment you can afford, there are multiple bow companies that make quality bows. The same can be said for accessories, arrows, and optics. Work hard at becoming proficient with the equipment of your choice. I am a big advocate of long range practice (not long range hunting). Practice routinely at distances twice the distance you will hunt at. Learn to make correct shooting form a subconscious part of your skill set, and put yourself in pressure shooting situations whenever possible. Everyone is different as far as what puts stress on them, learning to perform under pressure is the key. If you shoot in tournaments, or even just with friends, it will help you feel pressure to make your shot count. Another thing I like to do, when actually hunting a bull, to stay calm for the shot, is to always remember; this is not the only chance I will get, this is not the bull of a lifetime, this bull will be mine with one perfect arrow, and IT IS LIKE ME TO SHOOT A PERFECT SHOT. Last but not least, I say to myself; “I have done this before, and I will do it again”.
Maybe I’m just getting old, but I have seen my appreciation for many things in life change over the years. Next to God, and Family, my annual trek through the elk woods is my biggest passion. More than ever, I now really enjoy my hunting camp each year and try to never take a hunt for granted. When you find yourself on your dream elk hunt, commit to giving it all your effort, and never give up! Enjoy the experience, the country, and the trophy. Research, prepare, stay calm, and execute. Let’s make it count (again) this year!
By: Dan Evans (Article for Bowhunter Magazine 2014)