Chances are you won’t die on your next elk hunt. But a little prevention never hurts either.
If you’ve watched the TV series “1000 Ways to Die,” you know there are many bizarre ways to check out of this world. But I am betting not many elk archers think about how it could happen to them.
Morbid thoughts certainly were not on my mind as I climbed after a bugling elk in New Mexico a few years ago. I had not seen the bull, but he sounded big.
I was skirting the bottom of a shale slide when all hell broke loose above me. Rocks rained down, followed by two mature bull elk in mortal combat. The animals tumbled end over end toward me, their antlers locked like folded fingers. Dust flew as they clawed to gain footing on the near vertical slope. An instant later, they flattened a four-inch lodgepole pine three feet in front of me and catapulted out of sight into the forest below.
I never saw those bulls again, but the memory is forever imprinted in my brain. I could have been crushed by nearly one ton of falling elk, or impaled by a dagger-sharp tine. Like most death-dealing incidents, this one came out of nowhere in the blink of an eye.
You never can anticipate everything, but here are eight dangers to watch out for in the elk woods. Anyone could permanently ruin your day.
Beware of Rut Crazy Elk
Elk are normally shy, retiring creatures. But rutting bulls sometimes throw caution to the wind. I’ve had several bulls come too close for comfort during the mating frenzy. The previous incident is just one example. Bowhunting is all about getting close, but if you get in the way of an 800-pound, testosterone-soaked animal, you could be toast.
Four years ago, I crouched behind a rock as a herd of elk trotted by. The wind was dead in my face, and half the 30 odd animals veered on either side of me less than five yards away. The herd bull strutted past on the downhill side, and I could have smacked him with my bow. I will always wonder what might have happened if I had suddenly moved. Would he have run, or would he have come after me? Elk fight back violently when attacked by mountain lions, wolves or even grizzlies. At very close range, what would a startled bull do to a human?
Rutting elk can be nutty, so it is best to shoot or get out of their way before they move within spitting distance.
Follow Blood Trails with Care
Any hurt or cornered animal can be dangerous. I once saw a cornered mouse go after a cat with a vengence. It is wise to remember this as you follow an arrow hit elk.
One hunting buddy of mine is usually a good shot with a bow, but he tweaked the bowstring on one of our hunts and hit a raghorn bull through the paunch. Six hours later, we had only moved 200 yards along a skimpy scattering of tracks and blood.
I always try to be careful on a trail, but that bedded raghorn caught me by surprise. He stood up right beside me in heavy cover, lowered his head, and charged.
My pal told me later that he thought I had set a new Olympic record for running while looking over my shoulder and clearing logs with giant bounds. Fortnately, the bull was injured and could not run as fast as I could. We finished him off a few minutes later.
Never take wounded elk for granted. If pressed in tight quarters, they might be dangerous.
Nags Can Get Nasty
Horses and mules can be great for packing out elk meat, but hunters beware. No offense to those who love their equine friends, but pack animals can be very bad news.
I have hired several meat packers to haul elk out of the woods. Those events seldom went well. There was usually a rodeo, and one mule nearly killed me when I got too close from behind. I will never forget those steel-shod hooves whistling past my head mere inches away. A bit to the left, and I would certainly have been dead.
It really does not matter how skilled you are with beasts of burden or how lucky you have been in the past. Anytime you work with big, powerful and not so bright animals, stay alert.
Consider my good friend Craig. He has bowhunted in his home state of Montana for 30 years, and he’s owned pack horses even longer. A few years ago, Craig loaded the quarters of a large bull elk on two horses, mounted up and headed downhill toward his pickup. One of the nags went berserk and pulled Craig’s saddle horse over backwards. It was lucky my friend’s son was also there. Craig landed on a log, his pelvis shattered in a dozen places. Weather was freezing cold, and Craig went into shock. Only a Life Flight helicopter saved his life.
Craig told me that he shudders whenever he thinks of all the times he packed elk meat on horses with nobody else around.
Another elk outfitter friend of mine has been in a wheelchair for several years. He was a cowboy his entire adult life, and riding horses was second nature to him. That is until one bucked him off on his head at age 55. His riding and hiking days are permanently over because of a nasty nag.
I never ride horses anymore, and I stay well away from pack animals’ hooves!
Butcher with Care
Three years ago, I shot a 6×6 bull on a steep slope. I jockeyed the animal, pulled out the innards and wrestled the carcass sideways so the body cavity could drain.
Without warning, the bull flipped and began to roll. I leaped to one side, but not before a brow tine buried in my pant leg. The antler tore those trousers from mid thigh to the top of my boot and flung me to one side. The bull cartwheeled downhill and smashed into a tree.
I struggled to my feet and discovered that the point had driven into my leg and ripped a gash. A little deeper, and it could have severed my femoral artery. As it was, I bled like a stuck pig. A friend helped me roll and drag that elk to a nearby road before I stiffened up, and we managed to grunt it into my pickup bed. I could not walk the next day, but the wound eventually healed.
Even a dead elk might kill you if you do not watch your step.
Beware the Bear
Some elk areas are also bear areas. And I’m not talking about black bears. In most situations, a black bear is no more dangerous than a deer. But grizzly bears can kill you.
Take for example my Wyoming elk hunt two years ago. I saw four grizzlies on that trip—one really close. When I did shoot my bull, it was, by design, in the morning. I did not bowhunt evenings, because elk meat left overnight can get you in trouble. A griz will not let you have an elk he has found.
Even during the day, I looked over my shoulder the whole time I was de-boning and backpacking that bull. Grizzly encounters with humans occur more frequently every year in the Rocky Mountain West, thanks to booming bear populations. Far too many of those involve bowhunters, and more than a few have been killed.
In elk country with grizzlies, you need to retrieve your meat the same day or hoist it high in a tree in an open area where you can scan for bruins before you approach. Like hand grenades and freight trains, grizzlies are nothing to fool with.
Don’t Get Lost
I am happy to report that I have never been lost in the elk woods. But it might have happened a time or two without pre-hunt preparation.
For example, take the time I already mentioned when my friend gut shot his elk. That morning, it was 80 degrees and sunny. By midafternoon, as we field dressed his bull, the temperature had dropped 45 degrees and the sun was long gone. Welcome to Montana. Like they say in that state, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute!”
We had just finished the butchering chore when it began to snow. Then it got dark. We trudged several miles back to camp, navigating with a compass through a near whiteout of giant flakes. I knew a cattle fence meandered through the country, and we nearly cut ourselves on the wire before we saw it in our flashlight beams. That fence took us right back to camp.
Elk country weather can be brutal. Getting lost is bad enough, but getting lost at 20 degrees in a driving storm can be deadly. Study your elk area with maps, pay attention to terrain, and carry cold weather clothes plus a compass and a GPS. Elk habitat is huge, and it is easy to go the wrong direction. Don’t let that happen to you.
Deadfalls Can Make You Dead
Many elk areas are piled high with deadfall logs. It is tempting to walk along these like a tightrope artist as you scout the country or chase bugling bulls.
Trouble is, the wrong log can be rotting and slimy, hard and wet, or covered with innocent looking frost. Suddenly, your feet fly out and you fall like a rock. You can break your leg, crush your skull or impale yourself on a broken limb. You might die right there and never be found.
One bowhunting acquaintance of mine learned the hard way not to tiptoe across piles of “jackstraw” timber. Fortunately, he lived to tell about it.
This guy was easing along a deadfall five feet above the ground. He slipped, with one leg coming down on each side of the log. A six inch, up thrusting snag nailed him through the crotch and buried nearly to his stomach. It makes my skin crawl to think about it, because I’ve walked across hundreds of deadfalls myself.
Somehow, the bowhunter lifted himself off that horrible wooden spear, crawled to a nearby road and passed out. A truckload of hunters found him and drove like heck to the nearest hospital. Several hours of surgery saved his life, but he’ll never be the same again.
Think before you step in the elk woods. Hidden dangers are everywhere.
High Dive to Death
According to official statistics, falls from tree stands are the most common cause of bowhunting injury and death.
I have talked to several archers who have fallen from trees. The ones who can still talk are the lucky ones. Some, like my bowhunting buddy Stan, have survived to bowhunt elk another day. Stan fell from a tree and broke his arm, but he fully recovered. Others I’ve met are in a wheelchair for life.
Several bowhunters die each year after falls from trees. Some are elk hunters who set up over waterholes, wallows or feeding areas. Some expire from the sudden impact, others after they fall on sharp broadheads.
What a shame. Tree stand accidents are 100 percent preventable with a few time tested precautions:
Use only well-designed tree stands. Ladder stands are safer and easier to install than conventional self-climbing or chain on stands. Before you climb, tie a hoist rope to your bow, day pack and other gear. Tie the other end to your belt. Climb slowly with three point technique—never more than one foot or one hand free from a limb or tree step as you go up.
Once you reach the stand platform, strap yourself to the trunk with an approved tree stand safety harness. Then, and only then, should you hoist your gear and begin your hunt.
Tree stand hunting can be deadly for elk, but it can also be deadly for you. Don’t take chances high above the ground!
All of these scenarios shouldn’t scare you out of elk country. In reality, it’s more dangerous to drive to your favorite spot than to hunt it. And once you arrive safely, remember that most of these situations are highly preventable with a little forethought.