Thinking Less Like a Whitetail Hunter and More Like an Elk Hunter

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I just finished up my first archery elk season here in Oregon. I didn’t fill a tag, but I did learn some tough lessons that I’d like to share with any whitetail hunter hoping to try their hand at elk hunting. The biggest mistakes I made boiled down to one thing: thinking like a whitetail hunter. The key takeaways: if you don’t see or hear elk, keep moving until you do, and once you do, don’t be afraid to be aggressive.

Keep It Moving

In the area I was hunting, I found an overwhelming amount of sign, full of beds, rubs, wallows, and scat that had been used so recently that it still smelled like elk. Every time I found a spot like this, my inner whitetail hunter couldn’t resist setting up nearby and waiting for the elk to come strolling back through – a great strategy for hunting whitetails but not elk. 

Elk can cover 20 miles in a day, so the sign I was seeing may have been used only a few hours ago, but they were likely miles away. Unless you have elk patterned out with cameras and a ton of scouting, if you aren’t seeing or hearing them, resist the urge to setup in places like this. Keep moving until you see them or hear them, and when you do, go in after them. 

Be More Aggressive

We’ve all seen videos where elk hunters set up, bugle a few times, and a bull comes in on a string bugling his head off. They shoot him with a frontal shot at six yards, and he’s down in twenty yards. This is the elk hunt we all dream of, but what do you do when that doesn’t happen. If you’re hunting highly pressured elk on public land, this probably won’t happen most of the time, which I quickly found out. I ended up having three sub-100 yard encounters. Each of them were from being aggressive but maybe not aggressive enough.

One afternoon, I heard a bugle 200 yards away in a drainage. I snuck in closer and bugled, and the bull blew my doors off with an immediate, aggressive response. Closing in to less than 100 took over an hour, but finally I got into his lair and bugled again. His cows went nuts and so did he, coming in out of the brush bugling. He stood there at 80 yards, looking around for the bull that had been challenging him. I froze, not wanting to spook him, hoping he would come in a bit more for a shot, but he didn’t. Eventually he walked away in the opposite direction and took off, taking his cows with him. 

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Later on, I had a smaller bull hang up at about the same distance. I tried bugling and raking, but he just wouldn’t come any closer. I tried to close the gap, and I realized he could see me through gaps in the trees. I froze again, standing there for almost an hour as he stared at me bugling as precious daylight disappeared. At dark, he headed off away from me, and I never saw him again. 

My third encounter was a spot and stalk that went from 650 yards to 36 yards. Because of the steep terrain, he had no idea I was there. Once I had him in clear view, I ranged him at 36 yards – well within my shooting range, when the wind switched. He snapped his neck and was staring right at me. I had no shooting lanes without taking a few steps to the left or the right, and I froze again. He spooked a few minutes later.

It wasn’t until my drive home that I realized in all three encounters, in the final seconds where it counted the most, I was still acting like a whitetail hunter. I was worried about blowing the bulls out of the area completely and stood there, hoping that not spooking the bull entirely would lead to a better opportunity later on, instead of realizing they probably won’t even be in this same area again, which none of them were.

A few days later, I saw two separate posts on a forum where bow hunters were in similar situations I had been in, but instead of freezing, they charged in bugling. One even held his bow on top of his head, mimicking antlers. They both shot their bulls at about 50 yards. It’s hard to say whether or not this would have worked on the three bulls I saw, but every time I look at my empty freezer over the next year, I’ll spend some time wondering.

Ben Burgholzer

The outdoors have saved and changed my life, and this is a gift I wish to give to other people through food, education, and mentorship, and all of this is reflected in my writing.

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