How to become a better rifle elk hunter?

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Kenai_dtracker

Kenai_dtracker

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BTW, this is a pretty great thread that can save new elk hunters years in tough lessons.
Tough lessons build character! Just kidding of course, but we are definitely seeing an influx of new hunters looking for shortcuts and they have way more technology then when I started hunting. I think that folks taking the time to read through a thread like this will come away with hopefully some good perspectives on different approaches, all to be applied depending on terrain, etc. Way better than trying to emulate something seen on youtube, etc.

For me, it helps me pass the offseason and energized for next falls adventure.
 
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A short answer-To become a very deadly rifle hunter with any species, become a very effective bow hunter.
This. I bow hunted exclusively for the first 10+ years I hunted I elk. It makes a huge difference in how you think about moving through the terrain and gets you lots of up-close elk experience. After stalking to 40-60 yards countless times, getting to 300 is a cake walk.
 

Matt Cashell

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This. I bow hunted exclusively for the first 10+ years I hunted I elk. It makes a huge difference in how you think about moving through the terrain and gets you lots of up-close elk experience. After stalking to 40-60 yards countless times, getting to 300 is a cake walk.

I get the idea, but bowhunting rutting elk and rifle hunting migrating elk are two very different tasks that take very different skills.
 

Seeknelk

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I get the idea, but bowhunting rutting elk and rifle hunting migrating elk are two very different tasks that take very different skills.
I agree with this very much. If you have a rifle rut tag, yes, it can be very simple( but not as easy as you'd think sometimes, just never know).
But a mid October to late November bull hunt is VERY different than rut archery hunt in the country I hunt.
There's two parts to killing a bull I feel.
#1 - Finding the bulls: You need to find elk to start "hunting them. This is often the hardest part of course. They are often in the nastiest deadfall, or craggy canyons that don't have huge parks or brushy pastures you can glass. You often have to dig into these places on a guess the first time and can sometimes short range glass across a canyon or whatever but have to settle for basically watching one or several small pocket parks to see if they step out. They usually live a small life after the rut ,until migration.
They need food and security and will give up some food quality for more security. They do browse brush a lot, especially later, they love grass of course but eat a larger variety than some you might hear.
#2 Hunting the bulls: if you find fresh sign or glass one too far away to make a play that day. Be there way before first light waiting. Tracking them in fresh snow is my absolute favorite way to go after them if an ambush doesn't work. But be aware if you blow them out , they often go and don't come back. So if you have multiple days left , try the stealth approach for whatever shot your comfortable with. Being on the same slope as them is often tough but sometimes perfect.
Sometimes a cross canyon shot is close enough and the best. All depends.
Once you find elk, they are far easier to put on the ground than big mature whitetails your used to.

Finding them is the hard part, especially in big timber country, no snow, warm weather, no bugling, lots of pressure, etc. They just don't move much most of the time.
 
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Kenai_dtracker

Kenai_dtracker

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'm from your area - just north of Boston here, grew up in Marshfield. Been heading out west since 2014 so can give you some observations / stories. Definitely don't have it figured out though.
Oh crap, my wife is from Marshfield, this could be interesting, haha! I'd definitely like to throw some ideas at you and see what your thoughts are. Also, I've got more points in most states then my buddies, so might be doing a solo soon myself. My first elk hunt was in 2019, but out of my "group", I have the most experience and since I do logistics for a living, everyone seems to lean on me.

I don't mind hunting with a group, as the camaraderie is great, everyone chips in around camp and it's great swapping stories at the end of the day. We normally hunt in pairs, which is nice to have company, but there are times I'd like to hunt solo as there's less pressure on decisions, and I can cover a lot more ground on my own. For whitetail hunting up in northern Maine, where I like to track, I don't even like someone riding in my truck with me. The way I look at it, is if you want to track mature whitetails or even stillhunt them they way I do, you need to be independent of everyone else, so drive your own rig.
 
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Kenai_dtracker

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This. I bow hunted exclusively for the first 10+ years I hunted I elk. It makes a huge difference in how you think about moving through the terrain and gets you lots of up-close elk experience. After stalking to 40-60 yards countless times, getting to 300 is a cake walk.
I've rifled hunted whitetails in VT, NH and ME since I was a kid, and I despise treestands and deer drives. All my hunting is tracking when there's snow, or still hunting if I can't track. This has definitely taught me a lot about being a woodsman, moving through the woods quietly, and that simplicity is key. I think that my longest shot at a deer was 150yards.
 
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Kenai_dtracker

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Tracking them in fresh snow is my absolute favorite way to go after them if an ambush doesn't work. But be aware if you blow them out , they often go and don't come back. So if you have multiple days left , try the stealth approach for whatever shot your comfortable with. Being on the same slope as them is often tough but sometimes perfect.
I think that tracking a bull would be a fantastic way to hunt them and my preference if possible, with some similarities to tracking mature whitetails. The differences of course is the vastness of the terrain out west and that elk travel way more than a whitetail does. Also, if I'm tracking a deer, I do not tend to worry about the wind, as a deer will normally let me get to 100 or so yards, even if it winds me. If I do jump them and don't get a shot, I can wait 15 minutes or so, get back on the track and usually catch up again. Do you worry about the wind when tracking a bull? Everything that I have read warns against having the wrong wind, so I'm just wondering how much of a factor this is when on a track.
 
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I get the idea, but bowhunting rutting elk and rifle hunting migrating elk are two very different tasks that take very different skills.
Yes and no. Bowhunting time builds up a knowledge base of elk behavior, which can be expanded on to cover their behavior across a broad range of seasons. I have an OTC area where I can hunt up high in their summer pastures, and then very reliably pick them up as they trickle down through the canyons in the later rifle seasons. Certainly, this is area dependent, but as a spot and stalk hunter who doesn't rely on calling at all, the ability to pattern and track elk, interpret sign, close the distance, and anticipate their behavior based on pressure and weather is applicable in any season. With the caveat that I am primarily an early season hunter, being archery through 2nd rifle. Knowing where to be waiting for a herd of 100 elk to drop out of the high country in a later rifle season is a matter of experience in that area and terrain but isn't that different than knowing where the elk are going to be on the opening day of 1st or 2nd rifle. Whether it's archery or 2nd rifle, I'm still going to be relying on glassing 2-3 days before the season to locate elk, then positioning myself to be in the right spot on opening morning, with the biggest difference being the distance of approach. Archery I may need to cross a canyon and work in on them, rifle I can make a 400-yard cross canyon shot without having to stalk in so close. Either way, the more time spent in close proximity to specific herds of elk in a particular type of terrain helps to develop a good understanding of their behavior, which is in my opinion really the key in any season.
 
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I think that tracking a bull would be a fantastic way to hunt them and my preference if possible, with some similarities to tracking mature whitetails. The differences of course is the vastness of the terrain out west and that elk travel way more than a whitetail does. Also, if I'm tracking a deer, I do not tend to worry about the wind, as a deer will normally let me get to 100 or so yards, even if it winds me. If I do jump them and don't get a shot, I can wait 15 minutes or so, get back on the track and usually catch up again. Do you worry about the wind when tracking a bull? Everything that I have read warns against having the wrong wind, so I'm just wondering how much of a factor this is when on a track.
Wind is probably the most important factor. Don't just track nose to the ground, try and interpret what they are doing based on how their tracks look, whether that is straight lining, or meandering around to feed or bed. Try and figure out a direction of travel, then think about where the animals could be, then position yourself to put the wind in your favor. Better to back off and circle around based on your interpretation than to get too close without knowing where they are. Also, glass constantly as you track, they are often closer than you think, so take your time. I treat tracking the same way I would still hunting, move slowly and deliberately.
 

Brendan

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Oh crap, my wife is from Marshfield, this could be interesting, haha! I'd definitely like to throw some ideas at you and see what your thoughts are. Also, I've got more points in most states then my buddies, so might be doing a solo soon myself. My first elk hunt was in 2019, but out of my "group", I have the most experience and since I do logistics for a living, everyone seems to lean on me.

I don't mind hunting with a group, as the camaraderie is great, everyone chips in around camp and it's great swapping stories at the end of the day. We normally hunt in pairs, which is nice to have company, but there are times I'd like to hunt solo as there's less pressure on decisions, and I can cover a lot more ground on my own. For whitetail hunting up in northern Maine, where I like to track, I don't even like someone riding in my truck with me. The way I look at it, is if you want to track mature whitetails or even stillhunt them they way I do, you need to be independent of everyone else, so drive your own rig.

I'm playing the points game too so have bunch in different states. I feel the same way solo vs. group: Now been out west 8 times, driven every single time, and 6 of those times have been solo. There are times when I think solo is the only way to go, and other times where it'd be great to have someone else there with you.

Let me know if you ever want to find time to talk or meet up somewhere. I probably won't hunt Elk this year because I've got a bunch of non-hunting trips planned already, but may shoot for a 1-week trip somewhere for Antelope, Deer, or even Upland / Ducks.
 

Matt Cashell

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Yes and no. Bowhunting time builds up a knowledge base of elk behavior, which can be expanded on to cover their behavior across a broad range of seasons. I have an OTC area where I can hunt up high in their summer pastures, and then very reliably pick them up as they trickle down through the canyons in the later rifle seasons. Certainly, this is area dependent, but as a spot and stalk hunter who doesn't rely on calling in dark timber at all, the ability to pattern and track elk, interpret sign, close the distance, and anticipate their behavior based on pressure and weather is applicable in any season. With the caveat that I am primarily an early season hunter, being archery through 2nd rifle. Knowing where to be waiting for a herd of 100 elk to drop out of the high country in a later rifle season is a matter of experience in that area and terrain but isn't that different than knowing where the elk are going to be on the opening day of 1st or 2nd rifle. Whether it's archery or 2nd rifle, I'm still going to be relying on glassing 2-3 days before the season to locate elk, then positioning myself to be in the right spot on opening morning, with the biggest difference being the distance of approach. Archery I may need to cross a canyon and work in on them, rifle I can make a 400-yard cross canyon shot without having to stalk in so close. Either way, the more time spent in close proximity to specific herds of elk in a particular type of terrain helps to develop a good understanding of their behavior, which is in my opinion really the key in any season.
Elk behavior during the rut, post rut, and migration aren’t all that similar in my experience; particularly with bulls, more so yet with older bulls.

I just think advising new rifle hunters with questions about becoming more successful rifle hunters to just start spot-and-stalk bow hunting instead isn't especially beneficial.

As I’ve grown older and more successful as an elk hunter I spend more and more time glassing during rifle season, while I spend much more time moving during archery season.

I wish I would have spent way more time glassing and less time “still hunting“ and pushing timber in my youth.
 
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Elk behavior during the rut, post rut, and migration aren’t all that similar in my experience; particularly with bulls, more so yet with older bulls.

I just think advising new rifle hunters with questions about becoming more successful rifle hunters to just start spot-and-stalk bow hunting instead isn't especially beneficial.

As I’ve grown older and more successful as an elk hunter I spend more and more time glassing during rifle season, while I spend much more time moving during archery season.

I wish I would have spent way more time glassing and less time “still hunting“ and pushing timber in my youth.
I probably should have been a bit clearer, I'm not suggesting he take up bowhunting to learn to rifle hunt elk, just that it is a beneficial way to learn more about elk in general, as the encounters are typically different as you mention. The bulk of what I was discussing was learning to pattern them, in different conditions, each season has its own patterns of behavior that will build on the previous season. I hate dark timber and avoid it like the plague, and wasn't suggesting he still hunt it, just that following a track the way he would still hunt is a method that has been successful for me. I hunt alpine basins and the canyons that funnel down off them into the low country they migrate into later in the season.

By hunting them across a range of seasons, in the same general area, in my opinion, it is easier to develop a good sense of how their behavior will evolve as they move from rut to post rut to migration. As my canyons are major migration routes with summer range at 9-11k+ and valley floor at 7k- that they move through, it is good to understand when and why they change elevation. It is a funnel that collects high country herds from several units as they move lower. In the early seasons, we glass from up high to locate herds then move in on them utilizing terrain features to get into bow range. In late seasons, we glass into the oak brush and aspen glades they move through on their way down, then use terrain features to position for cross canyon shots.

I agree fully with the glass more, walk less philosophy. 90% of my elk are killed after locating them from afar, then planning an approach. I guess my approach is different as a hunter who focuses on bulls during the rut and early post rut, and cows later in the year. If I was focused on bulls later on, the approach I take would be different, it would be more focused on looking for their hideout pockets as they break away from the cows and go into their remote little locations to recover.
 

Matt Cashell

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I probably should have been a bit clearer, I'm not suggesting he take up bowhunting to learn to rifle hunt elk, just that it is a beneficial way to learn more about elk in general, as the encounters are typically different as you mention.

Thanks for clarifying. To be clear, I’m not trying to be argumentative. Just trying to keep things clear for the OP, to save him some of my many mistakes I’ve made on my elk hunting journey.

I hate dark timber and avoid it like the plague, and wasn't suggesting he still hunt it, just that following a track the way he would still hunt is a method that has been successful for me.

Sure, I’ve killed a couple like that too. More often than not, though, the bull catches my wind, sound, or sight first and I bump him out. He has all the advantages over you in there. Just not the most effective way to hunt elk. I would recommend NOT following that track into the bedding area, but rather find a vantage point where you can see him when he gets up and moves on his own.
 
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Kenai_dtracker

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I'm playing the points game too so have bunch in different states. I feel the same way solo vs. group: Now been out west 8 times, driven every single time, and 6 of those times have been solo. There are times when I think solo is the only way to go, and other times where it'd be great to have someone else there with you.

Let me know if you ever want to find time to talk or meet up somewhere. I probably won't hunt Elk this year because I've got a bunch of non-hunting trips planned already, but may shoot for a 1-week trip somewhere for Antelope, Deer, or even Upland / Ducks.
8 times in that short of time is awesome! I'll be in touch for sure. Driving solo is tough, but even when I'm not driving, I find it hard to sleep in my truck. We are headed to MT, WY and ID in August for a family trip, but my plan is to still get out west for hunting. Might end up just CO OTC, but that's better than nothing. If it is OTC rifle, I'll be carrying a cow tag.

I waterfowl down on the Cape a lot and have a chessie for a companion. He's just two and my second one, and doing good on the water. I took my daughter out last Saturday for ducks and we had some divers harassing our decoys, but I said just be patient. Next thing you know, 18 Canadians came in and I got two. Dog did great, even with a not so dead goose fighting him the whole way. I had him force retrieve the second one with about a 70 yard swim. I can't wait til she is shouldering a shotgun with me. Char goose.JPG
 

Seamaster

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To each their own. I have killed a few dozen elk. more than my share, over the years without using my spotting scope on public property during the season. During the season I use my binoculars, and then my boots. When I have access to private property, or have a tag for s special unit/area, I do find the spotter to be of use but not in the areas that are hit hard by the orange coats. Simply advising fellows to just sit and glass is not always the best advice for everybody.
 
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Thanks for clarifying. To be clear, I’m not trying to be argumentative. Just trying to keep things clear for the OP, to save him some of my many mistakes I’ve made on my elk hunting journey.



Sure, I’ve killed a couple like that too. More often than not, though, the bull catches my wind, sound, or sight first and I bump him out. He has all the advantages over you in there. Just not the most effective way to hunt elk. I would recommend NOT following that track into the bedding area, but rather find a vantage point where you can see him when he gets up and moves on his own.
Absolutely agree on avoiding the bedding areas. If I see tracks going into them, I want to be able to see what's in there before I go into it. With a rifle there's no reason to push in that close. My rifle elk have ranged from about 175-450 yards. I would rather know they are in there and then sit on the bedding area where I have a good vantage point a few hundred yards away and can wait for an opportunity. If I don't see activity, I will continue to circle downwind and glassing into it. This works well for pockets of timber I don't want to disturb. I will eat my lunch and chill for an hour or two to watch it then move on. I mostly focus on catching feeding or moving elk in the morning or evening and moving around to different likely areas in my drainages during the midday. I've had good luck spotting bedding elk down in aspens and oak brush from above, so I try and follow spine ridgelines up and down and glass into the opposite ridges as I go. I will glass for a minute or two, walk 50 yards and glass again. I won't cover a ton of ground, rather just pick apart the pockets I can see on either side.
 
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Jon Boy

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I get the idea, but bowhunting rutting elk and rifle hunting migrating elk are two very different tasks that take very different skills.
If I had a gun to my head and needed to kill an elk but had to choose season and weapon. Itd be archery season every time. Two completely different games in my neck of the woods. I cant think of many days I wasn't into elk during archery season. I've gone weeks during rifle with out seeing a legal bull.

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