Silent Strategies Get Your Sneak On
by Mark Kayser
You’ve played the wind, but now you’ve got to navigate 100 yards of dried-up balsamroot or aspen leaves to close the gap. Here’s how you do it.
The elk woods can be crunchy as cornflakes or as supple as butter. It all depends on Mother Nature’s mood. And on a recent elk hunt, the cornflakes were winning. It had been a dry fall, and with every step I discovered a hidden noisemaker in the forest duff. I sat down to contemplate a new route. Suddenly the light bulb lit in my mind. A rocky shelf ran above the cover I was trying to still-hunt. If I could reach the rocks, I’d avoid the cornflakes. Although my viewing windows would decrease and my shot distance increase, I’d once again have the silent advantage on a flat slab.
While an elk’s nose won’t lie, their ears sometimes can be tricked into thinking you’re just another one of the herd. But elk can rotate their ears on a 180-degree axis, allowing them to pinpoint any sound, near or far. So whether you’re attempting to stalk or still-hunt for elk, you need to keep your human-sounding clatter to a minimum.
So, walk like an elk. When on the move, elk are rarely silent, but they imitate a church mouse when they want to stay hidden. When you move, stop every few steps and take a moment to look and listen. This not only helps you spot and hear nearby elk, but you sound like another animal in the woods.
Next, put all the weight on the balls of your feet as you slowly move forward. This allows you to control what you feel underneath and pull back if your feet sense something that’s about to snap or crackle. Choose a shoe with enough traction, yet with a sensitive sole. It allows you to feel the ball of your feet and even the shape of a pine cone about to give away your position.
On early season elk hunts I generally lean toward semi-aggressive soles built on an athletic shoe platform like a trail-running shoe. If I find myself about to slip into a herd of elk, I don pullover fleece booties. They are lightweight and slip on in seconds, softening every step. You still have time to make a pair. If you find yourself slipperless, shuck your boots and go in stocking feet. It’s not glamorous, and can be painful, but serious hunters have been hunting in their socks for generations when they get close because it works.
Pick your route wisely. I chose a ledge of rocks to silence my approach above, but soft pine needles, green grass and even moist, freshly dropped leaves can dampen your noise. Game or livestock trails, or even old logging roads free of debris also offer silent routes. If you want to push fast, consider walking along a gurgling creek to camouflage your advance.
Few of us have the luxury to pick hunting windows. But if you live in elk country and can hunt on a whim, your best bet is to watch the forecast. Drizzle, sleet, snow and other moisture-makers in moderation rarely hamper elk movement, but they dampen duff like milk on cornflakes. A skiff of snow in the morning with warming daytime temps is a recipe for success. High wind is both friend and foe. It helps camouflage your slip-ups, but reduces the odds of hearing the clip-clop of hooves on rocks or fleeting cow conversations.
As for that flat slab of rock, as I skimmed along it I stopped to peer below in the frequent pine openings. It took me more than 30 minutes to cover 100 yards, but the snail’s pace paid off. Hidden below me in the refuge of a dozen small pines was a bedded bull. In fact, he was beyond bedded and rested his head on the ground snoozing soundly. I decided to give him another year and let him sleep. Slowly backing away from the ledge, I took pleasure in having fooled one of nature’s best security systems.