EDITOR'S NOTE: Master Western hunter J.R. Keller of Delta, Colorado, a member of Hunter's Specialties' Hunt Team, is one of the most-versatile hunters in the U.S.
QUESTION: What secrets must a person know to hunt elk in the West?
ANSWER: 1) A hunter from the East needs to call a wildlife park and game official in the area he plans to hunt out West and just ask for some maps that show elk populations and property boundaries.
2) Make a list of the essentials you'll need for travelling out West. Since you'll hunt in a lot of rugged country, you'll definitely need a GPS. When you travel from one canyon to the next, you easily can get lost out here. If you hunt from a drop camp in the back country, you'll need a framed pack, a sturdy tent, a GPS, a water bottle and a water purifier. With a purifier, you can drink the water out of a waterhole or a stream, rather than carrying water back and forth. You'll also need a quality pair of boots. You'll hike through rough country, so you'll want something comfortable. Don't go out and buy a brand new pair of boots a day or two before you're ready to go elk hunting. You want to make sure your new boots are broken in so you won't have blisters.
3) Know your equipment. Whether you're an archery hunter or a rifle hunter, your equipment will shoot a lot differently out here, just because of sheer elevation changes. Say you are back at zero elevation and come out here and shoot at 10,000 feet. You'll be shooting quite a bit higher because the air is a lot thinner out here. When you come out here, you also want to know where you'll hit, because it will vary. If an archer shoots anywhere from 30 to 40 yards, the altitude can make a big difference in a 6-inch drop in the killing of an elk or a deer. So, you want to know your equipment. Just ask yourself how demanding you want to make this hunt. If you're going to get back into some of this country that's more remote, you'll have to get in shape. A lot of out-of-shape people come out and get sick because they push themselves too hard. You really have to pace yourself. Get in shape, and prepare for some rough conditions because carrying yourself and your equipment up and down these mountains is hard.
4) Allow yourself a couple of days to scout. Get to know your location, pick out landmarks, and then spend another day actually looking for signs, droppings and rubs on trees. A good pair of optics will go a long way out here. I look for drainages where elk can move in and out and good food and water sources.
5) If possible, hunt with a buddy--not only for companionship but for safety as well. Bring someone else out there with you, because you will be hunting in new territory. Once you take an animal, the work begins.
6) Make sure to bring your calls. Know your calls, and practice them. A lot of guys who come out West will stop in a store and pick up a call. To experience success with the call, you need to practice with that call before hand and become comfortable with it. Then, when the moment of truth comes, you won't panic or hyperventilate.
7) I recommend a bugle call. You definitely want to use a bugle as a locator call, and you want to take a couple of cow calls. We have a new call called the Tone Trough Diaphragm. The call is made with a double reed rather than a single reed. The call differs from many diaphragm calls on the market because it actually has a sound chamber built into the call. This easier-to-use call sounds more consistent because it requires less air pressure. A diaphragm call keeps your hands free, so you don't have to worry about picking up a call and putting it in your mouth. I'll keep the call in my mouth all day long. Then if I come up on some elk rather suddenly, I'm ready. You can use a diaphragm for a bugle and for a cow call. You can bugle with a grunt tube to amplify and direct the sound. When a bull walks toward me, I can put that grunt behind me and make it sound like I'm further away in the distance.
If you're just getting into elk calling, you'll eventually want to pick up a diaphragm call because at one point in time, you're going to say, "I wish I had diaphragm call." I use it for bugling or cow calling. I like to have another external fighting cow call to give off a little bit higher- pitched, more-aggressive sound. This call seems to really excite and stimulate the elk.