Overcoming The Elk's Big 3


By colorado goatman - Posted on May 24, 2011

When it comes to elk hunting, most of us humans have so many disadvantages that the cards stacked against us usually sends us home with blisters, aching muscles, a need to sleep for a week, and no meat in the fridge. Even though I'm a big believer that one's success is directly proportional to one's conditioning, I'm going to leave that for another time because that is a topic unto itself. Instead, I'm going to discuss the superior advantages of the elk, not our disadvantages, and how you can use this knowledge to supplement the things that you already know about elk hunting.

Since an elk's sight, hearing and smell are far superior than mine, it's a wonder that my staple meat is not always beef. When I see a dead elk - the result of my luckily placed broadhead - I know that something other than skill intertwined within me is the only reason my fortune blossomed...a blessing from on high! Every once in awhile, I get to enjoy the fruits of my quarry's downfall and throw one of those massive tenderloins soaked in mesquite marinade on the grill, forgetful of how that time came to be. Well, it's springtime again and the thoughts of elk hunting are working their way back to the forefront of my already busy day ... it's time to talk about elk hunting!

One of my favorite sayings is this, "Don't let an elk see ya, hear ya or smell ya!" So, what do I mean, other than the obvious? I would like to start off by discussing the elk's eagle-eye vision. Well, I don't know if it's that good, so let's just agree that it is somewhere between me and the eagle. If an elk ever sees you - within a given distance - he will probably grace you with his absence in about two seconds. Why? Well, you don't look like everything else he's used to seeing, so instincts dictate a flight response. This may not pose a problem for a rifle hunter who can shoot off a fly's whiskers at a thousand yards, but for the rest of us, well, we need to be a little more cautious or come up with an alternative course of action.

What can one do? I think it is pretty obvious that once an elk sees you, and determines that you are not another animal, that flight is pretty well guaranteed. Since you are obviously not what usually roams around in the woods, your movement and stature are what triggers an elk's response. Even though a slight movement may catch an elk's attention, he may just look in your direction and not actually see you. Since movement is a trigger, it only stands to reason to suggest that slow movement is the key and to avoid quick or jerky movements. The more you move, the more opportunity an elk has in picking you out of the backdrop.

Obviously, one must move to hunt so here's some pointers to help you mitigate an elk's sight and flight response. Always walk in the shadows; never in bright sunlight and never out in the open. Always stay close to trees or brush as high as you are, especially behind you. Avoid walking up to and standing on a ridge before scouting the other side. If you are taking aim at an elk and he spots you, continue with your shot. The odds are that his curiosity will cause a slight response delay and allow you time to finish the shot. This is especially true for bow hunters who are in the process of drawing down on an elk. On the comical side, you could try the "moo-cow shuffle." If you are hunting alone, hunch over; or if you have a hunting partner, both of you hunch over in tandem. I've managed to close the distance on elk and delayed the flight response by using this goofy technique. Of course, it only works on longer distances while rifle hunting...elk aren't that gullible up close. Of course, just make sure no one armed with a camcorder is close by. Lastly, if you shoot an elk, hold off on the moon walk or pumping fists until he's out of sight. A glimpse of your early celebration may result in a boost of adrenaline and a dead elk in the next county.

Have you ever been walking through the woods, and lo and behold, you walk right up on an elk? Do you think he was deaf? Of course not. Do you think he heard you all along? Duh, of course! Well then, why did he wait until you were right on top of him before he bolted? Well, two reasons. First, he bolted because he saw you. Second, animals make noise while tromping through the woods all the time. What makes you so special?

Other than cows - and elephants and giraffes - elk are the noisiest animals in the woods. Woodsy noises don't scare elk; non-woodsy noises do. What are non-woodsy noises? How about talking, chambering a bullet, clicking off the safety, banging your bow, muzzleloader, or rifle against a tree or rock, or any type of man-made produced stuff. Breaking branches, brushing up against brush, rocks breaking loose or leaves rustling from your boots are all part of the woods environment. An elk will hear and take notice, but will usually not spook; he has no reason to.

I distinctly remember an archery elk hunt several years ago; I was sitting on one side of a canyon watching a herd of elk on the other side. They were traversing the hillside when all of a sudden the lead cow stopped, ears pointing forward. The rest of the elk herd just kinda mingled around feeding while the lead cow stayed alert. Within a few seconds, I noticed another bow hunter about a hundred yards ahead of the herd making his way down the hillside. When he reached close to the bottom, the herd continued their trek as if nothing had ever happened. The hunter was heard but not seen. What do you think would have happened if just one of those sets of eyes saw the hunter? Well, they'd be gone in a flash! So, the only time I attempt to be "really" quiet is when I don't want to draw attention to myself and risk being seen, such as when, um, I'm stalking, sitting in a stand or taking a shot.

As most elk hunters - and elk - will probably agree, you stink! The manufacturers of "ScentBlocker," "Scent-Lok," and "Scent Killer" also agree and make millions off your stench. After seeing enough elk rumps going in the opposite direction, I think they're right! Alrighty, enough of the smelly comments. Let's face it, smell is a problem and lots of creative people have come up with a lot of creative ways to deal with it. I guess if we were all born scentless as a fawn, we wouldn't be trying to get a stinkin edge - ok, enough already!

Let's face it, scent covers are not 100% fool proof. Exposed skin and breath will always hamper our efforts. Unless you can hold your breath as long as a walrus or use breath neutralizers that scorch your mouth, you gotta breathe sooner or later. Since scent covers are a modern thing, what did elk hunters do in the past? Well, they obviously hunted into the wind and also used what nature has already provided, which I'll discuss later. One of my favorite places to hunt, and most successful, has such a layout that the breeze is unpredictable at best - it swirls all over the place - and I hunt on the ground, which can be higher, equal to, or lower than the animals, depending on which direction they come from. I don't wear special clothing but I frequently use scent blocking sprays. Since I frequently hunt this place, it has allowed me to experiment with various things elsewhere. Here are some obvious, and not so obvious, suggestions.

One of the easiest scent mitigation techniques is to avoid sweating. This may seem like a "duh" suggestion, but I have guided many elk hunters in the past who blaze up a hill, sweat like a pig, and their clothes are sweat-soaked once they get to the top. To make matters worse, they didn't bring extra clothes. And, besides wearing stinky clothes, their pores opened up a wellspring of smelly human scent. So, how does one avoid this? Well, first, slow down. If you have to come to a snail's pace to prevent sweating, do it. So what if it takes you longer - get up earlier and start sooner. Why spend your hard earned money for an elk hunting trip of a lifetime just to go home empty handed because you sweated too much. Before trekking to your honey hole, remove all clothing until you are chilled (works best during the rifle seasons - cooler temperatures). Bow hunters know the drill - it can be very hot during archery season. I've guided bowhunters that walk up the mountain in their boxers. Make sure you place your clothes in a scent-free bag while stuffed in your backpack. One of the first places you'll start sweating is on your forehead. If so, remove your cap and you'll also reduce your core temperature a few degrees.

In the Colorado mountains, there is typically a breeze at most times. During the cool of the day, when the sun is very low or below the horizon, breezes go down (early/late). As the sun rises and the air warms up, breezes go up. One must adjust his position accordingly. Coupled with this, and assuming your know your terrain and elk movements in the area, make those adjustments to coordinate with the elk. For example, elk will stay in thick timber during the time of the day when breezes go up. If you hunt during this time, you must hunt above the elk. While hunting early or late, you must hunt below the elk.

Now I'm no meteorologist, climatologist, or one of those "ologists," but I am fairly windy at times, but that's another story. Anyway, I have a theory about air flow and air dynamics. You can see it on car commercials; you can see it in the wind when stuff gets picked up and tossed about. I believe scent follows a similar pattern, that is, it follows a contour or a channel of air. For example, let's say I'm in a tree stand 20 feet off the ground and there is a slight breeze. How far does it take and at what dispersal rate does my scent get carried to elk level? I don't know. However, I believe the channel of air that carries my scent will take awhile to get to elk level, if ever, because scent molecules are practically weightless. And, by the time it gets there, it may be so diffused by dispersion and other scents that its effects are (hopefully) infinitesimal. However, to do this, it is assumed that the channel of air that is carrying my scent is displaced by, or has exchanged positions with, or has intermingled with, the channel of air below mine. Why do I think this? Well, if that weren't true, there would be an obvious vacuum in the air column above and below my air column. The point of this weird analogy is that height is a good scent mitigation technique, but not a panacea because like I said, it is only a theory. But, when I see elk around me while there are breezes, and I have done little "cloaking," I have to assume there is some dynamic process going on that fails to meet the eyes. Maybe, the breezes just kept a constant flow above elk level. Whatever the case may be, it is noteworthy of our attention and observation.

Lastly, no matter what scent mitigation techniques or scent covers I use, I always rub all my clothes with sage brush when available. It is a powerful and natural (and free) scent mask. You can cut off a small chunk and rub it everywhere including the bottom of boots, inside your cap, under your arm pits, and especially rub it in your hair. Don't forget to rub it on your backpack or daypack and anything else that scent may attach to. However, make sure none gets in your shorts; it can be an irritant to some folks so user beware.