BOWHUNTING: 10 Steps to Rookie Success
by Chuck Adams
Bowhunting elk is tricky business. The animals are cagey, terrain is brutal and shot opportunities come and go in the blink of an eye. An archer can make hundreds of mistakes, and I believe I have made them all. If you can learn from some of my blunders, I will be a happy guy.
Here are 10 cardinal goof-ups everyone should avoid.
1. Don’t Under-Bow
An elk is a massive, large-boned creature with stamina and a strong will to live. For a humane kill and a quick recovery, you need to shoot completely through your animal. This will cause maximum tissue damage and create two holes in the hide for more blood loss to the ground. A bow selected for deer won’t necessarily get the job done on elk.
Use the heaviest-draw bow you can shoot with accuracy. For an adult man of average strength and stature, this normally means at least 65 pounds of compound peak weight. A draw weight of 70 pounds is better.
Youngsters and women normally shoot lower-powered archery equipment for elk. At a bare minimum, a compound bow for elk should have a peak weight of 50 pounds. With streamlined, low-friction broadhead such a bow will bag elk cleanly with a broadside shot through the lungs or heart. Any setup drawing less than 50 pounds is a risk.
If you have access to an archery chronograph, you can determine your arrow speed and calculate the energy of your arrows. Ask your archery dealer for help.
In general, I recommend at least 60 foot-pounds of point-blank arrow energy for elk. At 40 yards, the average elk arrow loses about 10 percent of penetrating energy, so don’t take shots beyond 40 yards unless your setup produces at least 60 point-blank foot-pounds—and you practice regularly at that distance. Shallow penetration and difficult blood trailing can result from an under-powered or off-the-mark arrow.
2. Don’t Call Too Much
Modern elk are call-shy. They often run from too much bugling, grunting or cow-calling. I have found it better, especially on public-land elk, to call sparingly if at all. Calling works great from a distance to locate rutting bulls, but a little calling goes a long way at close range.
I normally avoid bugling and grunting altogether inside 150 yards. I use a cow call sparingly to relax nearby elk and perhaps pull in a bull. Raking trees with branches sometimes works. But less is better in most elk calling situations. I prefer to sneak silently most of the time.
3. Avoid High-Friction Broadheads
Broadhead style can make or break elk recovery, especially if you shoot a setup with minimum power. In my experience, heads with large, relatively blunt noses are not the best on elk. Neither are traditional, wag-open mechanical broadheads with wide cutting blades. Penetration tests through ballistic gelatin, green cowhides and vegetable-tanned leather have shown that such heads can squander up to 50-percent of precious arrow energy on impact.
Heads with cutting noses and streamlined shapes are best. A low-friction head maximizes penetration through flesh and bone. Don’t underestimate this crucial factor for elk.
4. Rangefinders and Sights Are Important
Even a very fast arrow arches through the air. It is all too easy to hit high or low if you do not know the distance. You should carry a laser rangefinder and learn to use it quickly.
Compared to an elk, a deer is a dwarf. Because elk are bigger, they tend to appear closer than they really are. A bull elk is four or five times larger than a white-tailed buck. A rangefinder removes distance guesswork on this oversized animal.
Most elk are shot in steep, broken terrain. Ups and downs can complicate aiming, because arrows always hit higher at angles. For elk, I recommend an angle-compensating rangefinder like the Bushnell 1000 ARC. With one press of a button, you instantly know the angle-compensated distance to aim.
Elk are often shot early or late in the day beneath a thick forest canopy. Bright fiberoptic sight pins intensify sight-pin brilliance for precise shooting in low light. Know your regulations, though, as some states prohibit chemical or battery-powered illumination.
5. A Stand Can Work
Aggressive ground-level sneaking works best on elk most of the time. But there are exceptions. If you can pattern elk along a feeding area like a meadow or alfalfa field, a tree stand or ground blind might be effective. Be sure to set up downwind from likely elk movement areas, and cover your lower body with scent-purging spray to eliminate human scent trails to and from your stand.
When elk are scarce or unusually shy of hunters, a stand near a waterhole or active wallow can be deadly.
6. Slow and Timid Seldom Work
Even expert bowhunters blow opportunities at elk. That’s one reason these animals are so appealing. They are smart, alert and elusive.
I firmly believe an aggressive bowhunter will kill more elk than one who timidly hangs back. When in doubt, hustle after the animals and hope for the best. I’m not saying you should forget good hunting technique. But shy calling or waiting is less effective than closing the gap and taking the chance of being busted.
If I see or hear elk and cannot get close, I move on the animals. This does not always work, but it gets me more shots than sitting on my heels.
7. Get Beyond Hunters
To find elk, you’ve got to lose humans.
There is usually a clear line in the woods where boot tracks end and elk tracks begin. Elk quickly vacate places full of hunters. This can actually be a good thing, because hunting pressure concentrates elk even more. If you find an elk concentration area, you can have a terrific hunt.
Correctly done, a bowhunt for elk requires stamina and determination. On average, I walk four or five miles away from roads before sunrise. Human footprints usually disappear after a mile or two, and elk tracks become more abundant. During those magic early hours when bulls do most of their calling and cow chasing, I seldom see another archer. The guys who do show up get there too late, after bulls shut up and tuck in for the day.
8. Take the First Good Shot
Timid hunting does not get elk, and neither does timid shooting. Elk are perpetual motion machines, and they do not linger long. When you do get a good shot, take it. You might not get another.
The main mistake I see beginners making on elk is trying to get extra-close. According to official statistics from the Pope and Young Record Club, the average archery elk is shot at 35 yards. You should practice hard with your bow before season, extend your sure-kill distance as far as you can, and be confident in your ability when the moment of truth arrives.
An average bull elk has a chest cavity 15 to 16 inches in diameter. If you can hit this target every time from 30 or 40 yards, why try to get closer and risk blowing the opportunity? And remember, before you shoot, make sure the elk is relaxed, and you can’t see its eyeball because its going to see you move.
9. Aim Where It Counts
The top 8 inches of an elk’s torso are spine and non-vital tissue. Only the bottom 2½ inches along the brisket are gristle, meat and bone. This means you should aim 2 or 3 inches below center behind a bull’s shoulder. Don’t flirt with hitting too high, because a high arrow will seldom drop an elk.
It is an amateur stunt to crowd the shoulder during the aim. An elk’s foreleg and shoulder blade are too beefy for arrow penetration—even with a fast, powerful arrow with a cutting-nose broadhead. If you hit leg or shoulder bone, you will hear a dull “thunk” and see most of your arrow sticking out. The elk will go away wounded every time.
To avoid trouble, you should aim about 3 inches behind the back edge of the front leg on a broadside bull. An elk’s heart/lung zone extends well behind the leg, and aiming a bit farther back will ensure against impact with heavy bone.
10. Give Your Elk an Hour
Unless you see your elk fall and stop breathing, you should wait an hour before you follow up. Conventional wisdom says to wait 30 minutes before following an arrow-hit deer. But remember, you are shooting an elk with the same-sized broadhead you’d shoot a deer one-quarter as large. An elk has more blood and a bigger “engine room.” Give him ample time to expire.
Making mistakes is part of bowhunting. That’s how you learn, and why archery-killed elk are so darn special. But if you follow the 10 rules outlined in this column, you will be ahead of the game when you enter the elk woods. When it comes to these tricky animals, every bit of knowledge helps!
Life member Chuck Adams has written 10 books about bowhunting—including Super Slam, detailing his adventures with all 28 species of North American big game.