Last Updated on March 25, 2023
So you want to hit the backcountry and go bow hunting for elk?
Are you just getting into the sport but don’t know where to start? Do you have a couple of seasons under your belt and are eager to keep growing? Or are you an expert looking for some advice they’ve already heard a million times over?
Whoever you are, you’ve come to the right place.
It just so happens I’ve been chasing wapiti through the mountains since I was a young raghorn, and I’m here to share some of my most valuable tips with you.
I want to help you learn exactly what it’s going to take to set yourself up for success as you try to fill your tag. Here you’ll find plenty of valuable tips to help you thrive before, during, and after your next trip chasing these elusive beasts through the wilderness.
You’ll need to know the regulations for your area, where to get the right gear, how to control your scent, and much more. You’ll also need to not only find the elk but learn how to get in close enough to take an ethical shot.
Preparation, weather, wind, stalking, shooting, tracking, hauling… Bow hunting for elk sure ain’t easy.
But I’m here to help. Now, let’s get you in the saddle and headed toward a successful 2023 season!
Before the Hunt
Pick the Brains of Fellow Bowhunters
Learning from those who have already gone through the trials and tribulations of bow hunting elk can provide valuable tips, hacks, and advice that could make all the difference for you as you prepare for your hunt.
Reach out to fellow bowhunters you trust and tap into their wealth of knowledge and experience. They’ll give you unique information that some half-cocked influencer on the internet never could.
What are some of their favorite units? What methods have helped them fill tags in the past? Which type of hunting arrows are they rolling with this year?
Gleaning valuable information from those who’ve successfully harvested elk before is always a good idea.
Pro Tip: Don’t ask for anyone’s honey hole. Try and be a bit broad with your questioning, and you’ll be surprised at how much someone will open up! Remember, becoming a good elk hunter takes a lot of hard work. Don’t try and take the easy way out.
Research & Scout Your Location Ahead of Time
Scouting your hunting area well before the hunt is crucial for a successful and safe trip.
Knowing the lay of the land, spotting wildlife patterns, and familiarizing yourself with potential hazards could mean the difference between bagging that monster bull and going home to eat tag soup.
Set trail cameras (where it’s legal), look for elk sign, familiarize yourself with the landscape, set up blinds and tree stands, and pick out the most logical place to set up base camp.
Poor preparation could prevent you from filling your tag, so always take the time to scout your unit before you set out.
Learn the Local Regulations
Familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations well before you embark on your dream archery elk hunt.
Because the division of wildlife doesn’t want to hear your excuses.
The rules and restrictions for archery elk hunting can vary greatly depending on where you’re hunting, so don’t assume the rules from one state apply to the next.
What’s legal in Montana may not fly in Colorado (and vice versa).
Doing so will ensure you embark on a legal hunt while respecting the land. Knowing the rules will protect you from getting in legal trouble and demonstrate your commitment to hunting the right way.
Get Your Hands on the Right Gear
Let’s face it: bowhunting elk isn’t for the faint of heart. If you’re going to brave the wilderness and take on the majestic wapiti, you’d better have the right gear to back you up.
Get your hands on an accurate bow that packs a punch, broadheads that penetrate deep, and quality tech like a long-range walkie-talkie, an angle-compensating rangefinder, and a reliable pair of hunting binos.
Don’t cut corners when assembling your hunting gear list. Packing the right stuff could be your ticket to elk-slaying glory!
Pack Clothes for All Types of Weather
Mother Nature might be fickle, but that doesn’t mean you have to get caught off guard. By packing the proper hunting clothing, you’ll be ready to take on any weather she throws at you.
Hot September days can instantly change to pouring rain, snow, or a sudden dip in temperature. Suitable clothing will ensure you’ll be ready to brave any storm.
Don’t let a little funky weather get in the way of a successful hunt. Gear up with the right threads, and you’ll be strutting your way to the trophy room in style!
Get Yourself Into Shape Beforehand
One of my favorite YouTubers, Cliff Gray, with some expert advice on getting physically ready for your hunt
Hate to break it to you, but sitting on the couch watching Steven Rinella videos ain’t going to cut it.
If you’re an aspiring bowhunter, know that elk hunting can take everything you have in the tank. If you don’t gas up before the trip, you’re toast.
Whether you’re hiking up and down rugged mountains at 10,000 feet or lugging around a pack full of heavy gear across a desert, being in good shape can make all the difference in your ability to handle the rigors of the hunt.
By putting in relevant training beforehand, you can increase your endurance, blood oxygen levels, agility, and overall success in the field. Don’t neglect your physical preparation!
Hit the Archery Range Often
You should hit the archery range religiously if you want to bag the big one (and brag about it to all your friends). The more time you spend slinging arrows, the better you’ll be when it’s time to hit the field. No excuses, no exceptions.
Whether you’re fine-tuning your bow sight or getting comfortable with your release, frequent range time is vital. If you want to be a “one-hit wonder” and drop that elk with a single shot, hone your skills to stake your claim as a bowhunting pro!
Don’t be afraid to practice at home, too. If you have the room in your backyard, grab a quality archery target and let some arrows fly as soon as possible.
Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 repetitions before something becomes second nature for you. With bowhunting, I’d reckon to say it’s closer to 20,000.
During the Hunt
Set Up a Strategic & Comfortable Base Camp
When it comes time to set up shop in the backcountry, you’d better bring your A-game. Stake your claim in an ideal location that’s close (but not too close) to the areas you’ve scouted ahead of time. And make it comfortable.
That means a canvas tent fit for a king, a kitchen that’ll make you feel like a five-star chef, cots that are comfier than your bed at home, and sleeping bags that’ll keep you warm and toasty throughout the night.
Don’t forget some comfy camp shoes and a cooler filled with your favorite ice-cold beverages to help you unwind after a tiring day in the field, either. Don’t rough it as a rookie. Set up a basecamp that’ll make you feel like royalty in the wilderness!
Control Your Scent
If you want to bag that big elk you just glassed, you must keep your scent under control. After all, you can’t expect these clever beasts to waltz up to you and say, “Hey there! Drop an arrow into me, will ya?” (In your dreams, dude.)
Elk are equipped with exceptionally powerful noses. To get close, you’ll need to be extremely stealthy, which means controlling your scent before anything else.
I always stash my clothes into a scent-free bag when I’m not actively hunting to keep the bacon, beer, and other delightful camp-related smells at bay.
Whether using scent-eliminating soap or spray or simply keeping a clean camp, ensure you’re doing everything you can to keep your scent to a minimum.
Stinky hunters usually stink at killing elk.
Find Vantage Points & Use Your Glass
Ready to take your elk hunting game to new heights? Then get yourself up high, find a clearing with good views, and start glassing.
Whether you’re using a trusty spotting scope or a pair of high-magnification binos, earning a good lookout point will give you an unobstructed view into the elk kingdom.
Spot those sneaky elk from a distance to get the inside scoop on their movements and habits. Grab a comfortable tripod, dial in your glass, and start scanning the horizon.
Speak Elk Language & Call Elk Effectively
Paul Medel, the Elk Nut, is an absolute expert in calling
Once you’ve glassed one of these majestic beasts, producing elk language and utilizing proper call sequences will help you draw them closer. Because let’s face it, wapiti won’t just come prancing over because you look cute and smell like fresh pine.
If you want to become an expert elk caller, our pal, Paul Medel the Elk Nut, will show you the way. He’s the Jedi master of all things elk calling and has the tools to teach you to get those big bulls to come crashing through the timbers in your direction.
Want an elk to listen to you? Learn to speak their language.
Utilize Elk Decoys
Calling is only one piece of the puzzle. Elk often circle downwind to investigate these intriguing noises. If the first thing they see when they get close is your ugly mug, they’ll high tail it out of there as quickly as they can.
Lure those beautiful beasts within shooting range with a realistic elk decoy. Choose the right one, place it properly, and you’ll have those big bulls thinking, “What’s this, a damsel in distress?”
If all goes as planned, you’ll draw them in close enough to seal the deal. Set the decoy, let out some mews, and cross your fingers that the bull bumbles into range. If and when he does, you can thank me later!
Close the Gap Properly When Stalking
You just heard a big ol’ wallered up bull elk bugle from up the hill. How exciting! Closing the gap is your next big challenge.
If you’ve put in your time preparing, you should have a good feel for the terrain between you and your prey. Follow your ideal route for closing the gap.
Stay downwind at all costs! Check the wind frequently and approach that monster accordingly. Use natural cover like trees, rocks, and vegetation to stay hidden along the way.
Walk slowly and pay close attention to each step. Avoid crunchy leaves and branches, and use natural noise like running water to cover your movements. Small noises are okay, but big ones will put an elk on red alert.
Closing the gap takes time, so be patient and don’t rush your approach. If you move too quickly, you risk spooking the elk.
Always Take an Ethical Shot
When you’re out there bow hunting, remember that the goal isn’t just to bag an elk, it’s to harvest honorably and with dignity. That means taking only ethical shots and passing up on all other opportunities that don’t meet your standards.
Sure, it might be tempting in the heat of the moment to pop off an arrow from an uncomfortable range, especially if you’re not seeing many elk, but is that really the kind of standard you want to set for yourself?
Leave the subpar shots and wounded animals to the reckless hunters out there. That’s not who you are.
Educate yourself about shooting into the vitals from different angles, and practice on 3D targets in various situations. Hunt ethically, keep your eyes on the prize, and take shots you’ll be proud to tell your grandkids about one day.
Wait to Track a Wounded Elk
Holy cow, you did it! You let one fly, and your arrow met its mark. Or did it? Elk can travel long distances before expiring, whether you nailed a double-lung, heart shot, or hit them in the liver. Tread carefully, and don’t rush into a track.
Take a few deep breaths and wait before you start tracking that wounded beast. Most elk will lie down to die if they don’t feel any impending danger headed in their direction (like you barreling down the hill five seconds after you take the shot).
I usually wait around 20-30 minutes before I go to look for my arrow. Whatever type of blood I find will determine my next move. If it’s bright red arterial blood or super pink and foamy blood from the lungs, I know I hit the vitals and can pursue it sooner.
If I find dark red liver blood, it looks like I hit the guts, or if there are only small traces of blood, I’ll stay put and weigh my options. It’s very challenging to track elk in the dark, and I may end up pushing the animal away for good if the elk is healthy enough to get away.
In these cases, I’d recommend waiting until daybreak to continue the track.
Track Your Animal Properly
When the time is right to find that elk, buckle up. It could be a wild ride.
Tracking can be a complicated endeavor and will likely go differently every time you hit an elk. Sure, we’d all like to drop that monster bull dead in its tracks with an arrow every single time, but that’s simply not the reality of bowhunting.
If you take an ethical shot and don’t spook the elk off by tracking too early, you should be in great shape. In all other cases, you’d best be prepared for the most challenging game of hide-and-seek you’ve ever played.
I could talk your ear off for a lot longer about exactly what to do after you’ve shot an elk, but I’ll spare you. Check out this super-informative article by RMEF for a more in-depth explanation of blood-trailing elk.
Take Proper Care of Your Harvest
Listen up because this next bit is serious business!
You’ve just bagged yourself an elk (CONGRATS!), and now it’s time to show that beautiful hunk of meat some proper love. That means getting down and dirty with a skinning knife and a proper field dressing, cooling the meat quickly, and hauling it safely back to camp.
Don’t be one of those poor hunters that end up with a bunch of tough, inedible, or spoiled meat. Harvest your animal correctly, and your taste buds will thank you later.
Taking care of your meat is like sending one final love letter to that elk who just gave its life to feed you and your family. Don’t mess it up! Respect the harvest, respect the animal, and respect the sacred tradition of hunting.
Be Patient With Yourself
The stats are in, and they’re not promising. In Colorado, elk bowhunters usually fill their tags about 12% of the time. While that number doesn’t tell the whole story, it does imply that even if you see an elk, you’re going to have a hell of a time dropping them.
We’ve outlined plenty of ways to give yourself the upper hand when bowhunting elk, but at the end of the day, don’t beat yourself if you don’t experience instant success. According to the numbers, you’re usually going home empty-handed.
Sorry to break it to you.
Bowhunting is a lifelong learning endeavor. Every moment in the woods is a chance to challenge yourself, sharpen your skills, and learn patience. You’ll make plenty of mistakes but grow because of them.
Enjoy Your Time in Spent Nature
“Any time you’re lucky enough to be in elk country, you’re lucky enough.”
That’s what my Grandpappy used to say, anyway.
Enjoy yourself out there! Take your boots off, kick your heels up by a babbling brook, and relish that you’ve escaped the rat race, if not for one fleeting moment. Spending uninterrupted time in God’s country is a blessing we mustn’t ever take for granted.
Leave No Trace
While soaking in the beauty around you, respect the land and follow the principles of leaving no trace. Being a hunter is about more than killing animals; it’s about protecting the longstanding tradition of land and wild game conservation.
Give more than you take from Mother Nature and leave the land in better shape than when you found it. Clean up after yourself, pick up a stray piece of litter or two, and help preserve and protect the land for generations of hunters to come.
After the Hunt
Reference Your Notes in the Offseason
Here’s some advice I picked up from an old timer on the trail: Get a hunting journal and use it religiously. Keep track of important details during and after every outing into the woods. Jotting down notes will help you discover patterns in your unit and learn from mistakes you’ve made.
I tend to keep track of the weather, the wind, elk sign, and other types of animals I see during my hunt. I’ll also write down the moon phase and sketch out shooting lanes and distances in my favorite spots. Doing so keeps my mind active and focused during the hunt.
We humans don’t have the best memory, if you haven’t noticed. So, having useful data to reference during the offseason will help you remember the finer details of your hunting area and the lessons you learned while honing your craft.
Keep track of important insights, or you risk forgetting them forever.
Make Tweaks to Your Gear List
What part of your gear list failed during your hunt? Did your elk hunting boots give you blisters? Did your backpack dig into your shoulders? Did your cheap Chinese binos break, leaving you high and dry during prime glassing hours?
The harsh demands of bowhunting elk can push your gear to its limits. You’ll likely need to replace and upgrade items on your list every season while you grow as a hunter.
As a beginner, start slow and focus on finding quality gear at an approachable price. If you can’t afford all new gear for your first season, that’s okay. Maybe this year you buy a decent rangefinder, and next year you get a sweet pair of Maven binos.
Make sure you have the most essential pieces of bow hunting gear dialed in before you hit the wilderness. Your backpack, kill-kit, bow, arrows, broadheads, release, and a well-fitting set of boots are some of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Everything else you can upgrade as you go.
Learn from Your Mistakes
If Hunter Larry wakes you up at 3:15 in the morning with a deafening bugle outside your camper van, you’d better get the heck out of bed and put that camo on!
Bowhunting season means you need to wake up early. That bull of a lifetime could be right up over the next hill, bugling before the sun creeps up. Trust me.
Because when old Larry comes back with an ear-to-ear grin on his face, an elk quarter slung over his shoulder, and a lifeless grouse strung to his backpack, you’re going to hate yourself.
If this story sounds ultra-specific, that’s because it was one of my most teachable moments of my 2022 Southwest Colorado bowhunting trip. I screwed the pooch by sleeping in, and, boy, did I pay the price as I helped Larry haul out the rest of his kill.
Stew on your mistakes in the offseason, pick yourself up by the bootstraps and do better next year. You got this.
Ready to Grab Your Bow, Go Hunting & Bag an Elk?
Well, well, well…
Are you still eager to try your hand at bow hunting elk? I hope this post helped simplify the process for you. Keep at it, though. I’m a seasoned elk hunter, and I myself still have a lot to learn.
If you read through this list and think some of the advice is a bit generic: that’s intentional. The secret to bowhunting success is rooted in the fundamentals. You play like you practice, as they say. Becoming an expert bowhunter takes a lifetime of hard work and repetition.
Let’s be honest, rifle hunting can be a breeze. But bowhunting? That’s where the real fun begins. You’ve got to be stealthy, strategic, and lucky to bag an elk. They’re intelligent and sneaky critters that’ll do everything in their power to avoid your shiny broadhead.
Now are you ready to track one down, draw back your arrow, and it fly?
Thanks for stopping to read through my top tips on bow hunting elk. If you want more hunting advice, including rock-solid gear recommendations, check out our top-notch buying guides below.
Also, don’t forget to join our mailing list for monthly updates, new post notifications, and to be automatically entered into our future gear giveaways.
Hope to see you out in the field some day soon!
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