Common Elk Hunting Mistakes

Editor’s Note: J.R. Keller of Delta, Colorado, father of the Mac Daddy and an avid elk hunter, has been a member of the Hunter’s Specialties’ Pro Staff Team for 15 years.

Question: What are the five most common mistakes that elk hunters make?
Keller: They are:
1) Setting up too tight – I believe that one of the biggest mistakes elk hunters make when they set up in a place to take a shot is to be so concealed that they can’t take a shot in any direction when the elk comes in to them. I’m an archery hunter, and nine times out of 10, I’ll be hunting elk with a bow. When I set up, I want a downed tree to the side of me and a bush in front of me. I want to be set up open so that if a bull comes in, I can draw my bow beside the downed tree or behind the bush in front of me. I don’t want to be inside the treetop that’s lying on the ground because if the bull comes in, I may not able to draw my bow due to tree limbs.

You don’t want to set up in cover that will prevent you from drawing your bow or getting your gun around to take the shot. Elk rarely come in on a string and walk straight to you from the direction you expect. Many times, they come from the side or another direction that you haven’t anticipated, and then you’ll have to turn to get the shot. When you set up to take the shot at the bull, make sure you have enough open area that you can turn without being seen and not have so much brush in front of you that when the bull comes in, your cover will prevent you from getting the shot.

2) Hunting elk alone – I believe that most hunters don’t buddy-hunt. I’ve learned over the years that buddy-hunting is the most effective way to call in an elk and get the shot, especially for a bow and a gun hunter. If you’re the hunter who’ll be pulling the trigger, you have the best chance of taking that elk, if you have a buddy doing the calling from behind you.

The caller’s responsibility is to drag that bull past you, close enough for you to get a shot. Most hunters make the mistake of trying to call the bull to them using the caller. Elk are smart animals. They know where you’re calling from, and they’re going to come to that spot. But, as they come, they’ll be looking around that place for danger. If you have a buddy who’s calling for you, the elk will to come in, looking past you instead of at you. He’s attempting to find the caller and won’t be looking for the shooter.

If the elk doesn’t come in the right way for you to get a shot, the caller can move around behind you and call the elk in that way. If the bull comes in and tries to get downwind of you to pick up your scent, the caller can simply move to the other side of your position and drag the bull back to you. I always tell hunters that I never call in the elk to me. I want to call the elk through me, which requires a buddy to do that.

You’ll take far more elk if you buddy-hunt and establish before the hunt who will be the shooter and who will be the caller. The other advantage to this style of hunting is that you get to go on two elk hunts instead of one. Once you’ve taken your elk, you get to go with your buddy to call in the elk that he takes. I believe that buddy hunting’s the most efficient way for both hunters to take their elk.

3) Not calling aggressively – I don’t think that most hunters call aggressive enough to take a bull. When I first started elk hunting, I’d get a bull to bugle from 500 to 600-yards away. I’d move 100 yards closer to him, set up, start to call to the bull and then have the bull walk off. I was afraid to get really close to a bull. Over the years, I’ve learned that to effectively call in a bull elk, you have to get inside his comfort zone where he feels he knows everything that’s going on around him. When you get him close and put on pressure by calling from close to him, you have a better chance of making him come to you.

When I set up on a bull, I want to be within 100 yards or less of him before I start aggressively calling to him. I think that the tighter you can get to that bull when you’re calling to him and the less distance he has to cover to come to you, the greater your odds will be for taking him.

4) Not using scent elimination products – People in the West aren’t as accustomed to using scent-elimination products as people in the East. Whitetail hunters in the East completely understand the advantage of using scent-elimination products like Hunter’s Specialties’ Scent-A-Way. Even though elk have a phenomenal sense of smell, most western hunters haven ’t discovered the advantage of using scent-elimination products when they hunt.

Most western hunters will tell you, “If you just play the wind and hunt into it, you can get as close as you need to an animal to take him.” However, I’ve learned from hunting out West all my life that the wind in the West blows in only one direction – the wrong way. I’ve noticed that as soon as I get set up on a bull to call him in, most of the time, the wind will switch directions. I do all I can to eliminate human odor by washing my clothes in Scent-A-Way Laundry Detergent, bathing with Scent-A-Way Bar Soap and spraying with Scent-A-Way Spray when I’m in the field. I use the cover Scent Wafers, including fresh earth and natural pine. I also use Cow Elk Estrus Urine.

When an elk comes in, I want him to smell a cow elk, not me. If I’m working a bull, I spray that Cow Elk Estrus Urine around me, and I’m constantly misting that urine as the bull comes in to me. Not only do I want to convince his ears with the Mac Daddy that I’m either a bull or a cow, but I want to confirm with his nose that there’s a cow elk in that area. You never know when the wind’s going to change directions. If you can eliminate and cover human odor and use the odor of a cow elk, even if the wind does change as the bull’s coming in, you drastically increase your odds of getting that bull within shooting range, regardless of what the wind does.

5) Moving before it’s time – Elk have very keen eyesight. The less you move as the bull comes in, the more likely you are to take him. One of the secrets to taking an elk with a bow is learning when to draw. You can’t draw the bow when the bull’s looking at you. The only time to draw the bow is when the bull’s looking away from you, or when there’s a tree or some brush in-between you and the bull-making it hard for him to see you. Any time you want to move and reposition, draw the bow or scratch your nose, make sure there’s some kind of brush or other obstacle between you and the elk’s eyes.

A bull can see you move just as quickly as he can smell you. Never move until you’re absolutely certain that the bull can’t see you move. You’re better off to let the bull walk past you and then try to get a shot, than to take a shot at 15 steps if the bull can see you draw.