7 Tried and True Tips for Bowhunting Elk

Christian | |

The allusive bull elk rack is the dream of many a bowhunter. Because they’re often wise from years of successfully evading hunters, taking down one of these dominant bulls with a bow and arrow is no easy feat. You have to be on top of your game, and that means learning the practices and advice of the many successful hunters that have come before you, something I’ve condensed into these seven essential archery elk hunting tips. 

Wild roosevelt elk
The elusive bull elk

1. Study Up on Your Elk Science

Elk are unique animals. Even within the deer family, they have their own specific habits and behaviors. To hunt them successfully, especially with a bow, you need to understand what they do and why. Most importantly, you need to know the specifics of the elk rut and the elk migration.

How Elk Act in the Rut

The rut is the elks’ mating season. During this time, the bull elk have grown their full antlers and become aggressive, fighting with each other for territory. Eventually, the dominant mature bulls build large harems consisting of up to 30 cows which he mates with exclusively—or tries to, at least. The cows then give birth to calves in the spring when they have the best chance of survival.

The timing of the rut varies by location. In the mountain west, it starts as early as late August and runs through the beginning of October. Meanwhile, populations at lower altitudes like those in the Ozarks start later in the middle of September going till the beginning of November. The hunting seasons in most states are timed to take advantage of the rut, which is why it’s important to understand the biology of what’s going on.

Namely, you need to know what drives elk during the rut. For instance, bucks respond aggressively to the sounds of other bucks or lone cows in estrus. They’ll also respond to hormonal scents that play on their territorial instincts. Read up on these things beforehand.

Hunting the Elk Migration

In mountain environments, especially the Rockies out west, elk migrate throughout the year. In the spring as the temperature rises, they move into the mountains and up to higher latitudes. Then in the fall when it starts to get cold and snow begins to cover their food, they move back down into the valleys.

It’s definitely worth looking into the information posted by your local game and fish commission or other researchers detailing this migration. Many mountain states have seasons that coincide with the migration, so knowing how, where and why the elk will be moving boosts your chances of success.

General Elk Behavior

Besides the rut and migration, the more you understand the elk mind the better. You don’t need to go get a graduate degree, but regular reading up on elk behavior can really help. Know how they react to the stress of being hunted, changes in the weather, even the moon cycles. Ultimately, it all plays a role. 

2. Be Patient

Elk bowhunting frankly requires more commitment and dedication than hunting other types of game. Elk usually live in rough terrain far from human population centers and they can cover large distances over the course of just a day. As a result, many hunters set aside a week or so to shadow a herd and camp during the night.

Even if you don’t want to make a whole camping trip of it, you should at least hunt all day. Many new elk hunters make the mistake of just hunting the dawn or dusk like you would for whitetails, but since elk migrate, bulls will still bugle and potentially move their herds during the day.

3. Use Calls Strategically

Because calls are one of the primary ways elk communicate, you can use them to your advantage when you’re hunting. You have to do it right, though. Otherwise you may send the wrong message or make the elk suspicious, giving away your position.

Most importantly, you should bugle sparingly. During the elk rut, the bulls make loud, powerful calls referred to as “bugles.” These announce their presence and state their dominance.

For example, if a dominant bull has claimed a large swath of territory and a herd of cows for himself, a challenger may appear, announcing his presence with a bugle. The dominant bull will inevitably respond telling the challenger to get lost. Depending on various factors, including how dominant the responding bugle sounds, the challenger may continue to approach the dominant bull to fight or may run off scared.

Using a hunting call to imitate the bugle can attract dominant bulls because they may come to see who’s trespassing on their territory. However, elk communication is not that simple, and chances are you aren’t entirely fluent. As a result, don’t over-bugle or you inevitably risk sending the wrong message.

Bugles work best at the very beginning of the rut when bulls are still fighting, but once the dominant bulls have formed their harems, bugles are less effective. At best, you can try one bugle to judge the bull’s position on his response. Further bugling will just make yourself appear like an aggressive challenger, and the dominant bull will likely move his herd off. Plus, it’s more likely to make the bull suspicious that you’re human.

4. Employ Bow Accessories

Unless you’re purposefully hunting minimalistically with a longbow or recurve bow, there’s no reason to skimp on the accessories. The best compound bow accessories for elk hunting include:

Above all, I recommend investing in a good sight with as many reticles as possible calibrated for longer ranges. Depending on where you’re hunting, it’s likely elk are in much wider spaces that will require accuracy over longer distances.

5. Trust Your Nose

Smell is arguably elk’s best sense. While you likely don’t use your own sense of smell in your day to day life, you’ll have to tap into it at least a little to successfully hunt elk.

Most importantly, you need to use your own nose to gauge if you smell. If you can smell your deodorant, for example, you can bet the bull you’re hunting can too. Most of the time, we don’t even notice the smell of our own bodies and clothes, but in this case, you need to pay extra attention.

Additionally, your human nose isn’t completely useless for finding elk, which are particularly smelly animals. If you start to smell their musky odor, you’re getting close, but it should increase in potency as you get closer. Just remember that if you can smell them, there’s a good chance they can smell you.

6. Keep Quiet

Elk can hear almost as well as they can smell. That’s why silence is essential to a successful elk hunt. There are a few things to pay attention to.

Wear Quiet Clothing

The most important part of staying quiet is getting clothes that don’t make noise. Usually this means avoiding blends with a lot of synthetic materials that swish or squeak when rubbed, such as your pant legs when walking.

You should also be vigilant about the fit. Baggy clothing rustles a lot more and is more likely to catch on brush and make noise.

Similarly, get hunting clothing that has straps and buckles to keep it secure and well-fitting. That will cut down on rustling as well.

Pack With Organization

Your hunting day pack or other gear you’re carrying is also likely to rattle around and make noise if you don’t pack it strategically. Make sure it’s organized in such a way that the gear is secure and stable.

Pack well, secure, stable, organized and not rattling around and noisy…

Watch Your Step

Elk somehow seem to recognize the sound of human footsteps. When you step on a twig, they know it’s a hunter and not a squirrel.

Consequently, you really need to look where you’re going, even if it means walking a little bit slower. Check for sticks and leaves in your path as well as low hanging branches you might bump into.

If you want to take it a step further, some serious elk hunters even slip off their boots when they get close to their quarry. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it because it does risk the safety of your feet, it definitely cuts down on noise.

7. Know Your Distances

A lot of missed arrows ultimately come down to misjudged distances. If you took my gear advice, you’ll have a rangefinder with you, but you can’t necessarily pull that out right when the bull elk comes into range. 

Especially if you’re stand hunting, but even if you’re shadowing a herd, you should regularly use your rangefinder to take note of the distances around you based on nearby landmarks. This will help you use the right reticle on your sight when it’s time to take the shot and just overall aim correctly.

Don’t Give Up

How about an eighth bonus tip? It may not be as practical as the others, but elk hunting requires perseverance. If you are used to hunting other game like whitetail or mule deer, you may be discouraged by the initial difficulty you face bowhunting elk. However, with enough study and practice, you can have that bull elk mounted on your wall, and it will be all the more rewarding for just that reason.


I'm an avid hunter, archer and outdoorsman. I was born and raised in the Ozarks, my aunt taught me to hunt and I've been shooting bows since I was a kid.

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