Ten biggest elk hunting mistakes

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

You may wonder what my qualifications are for writing about elk hunting mistakes. "What makes you think you're so smart?" you may ask. Well, I hunted nine seasons before I tagged my first elk. Nine years of blown chances, and missed opportunities make me the expert. Plus, I've hunted with some of the other masters in the field.

One fellow used baby powder, the stuff you sprinkle on a baby's bottom, to check wind direction. I think his plan was to make the elk think we were busy changing diapers so that they would relax and let us stalk them.

My best ever elk hunt mistake happened the morning I walked right by a six-point bull. My partner spotted it and made the shot when the bull tried to sneak away from me.

Sometimes you can make all the mistakes in the book and still end up with your elk. Then again, you can do everything well and never see an animal. That's hunting. Minimize your mistakes and you maximize your chances of eating fresh elk steak. Over many seasons of elk hunting these are the top 10 errors I have seen elk hunters make. Lest you doubt my qualifications, I have made each of these mistakes myself.

10. Leaving binoculars in the backpack.

There is no substitute for good binoculars. Wear them in a harness on your chest where you can grab them at a moment's notice. Use your binos to cover more ground than you can reach on foot.

9. Leaving the call in your pocket.

Undisturbed elk communicate with mews, whines, chirps, bugles, and other sounds. Learn how to make the sounds elk make and you can fool the herd into thinking you're one of them.

8. Going back to camp for lunch.

You may need every minute of daylight before you get your opportunity. Carry your lunch with you and hunt all day.

7. Hunting with the wind.

Big game animals sometimes second-guess their vision and hearing, but they don't wait around for another whiff of danger. Use a feather tied to the barrel or a squeeze bottle of unscented powder to make sure you have the wind in your favor.

6. Hunting too much country.

Once you have located habitat that holds elk, don't try to see it all. Spend your time watching the benches and saddles that elk use to travel from place to place.

5. Trying to be too quiet.

Herd animals, elk are used to the noise of other elk. If you step on a branch, make a cow call. If the wind is right, the elk will believe you are simply another one of the group and go back to feeding.

4. Educating the elk.

Elk are quick to learn. Don't practice elk calling in camp and don't bugle from the truck. When you reach the spot you plan to hunt, don't slam the door of the pickup.

3. Hunting with the wrong people.

One of my friends is Pessimistic Pete. Six hours into a hunt, he decides that this season will end like every other one, with no elk meat in the freezer. He's right, because he packs up the second morning and goes home. If you hunt with Pessimistic Pete, take separate vehicles or hide his keys.

2. Letting someone else plan your hunt.

You may recognize Flaky Phil. He has pack mules and a secret spot. He'll take you deep into the backcountry, he promises. "Just buy the tag and show up," he says, "and I'll handle the rest." You call him the week before the season and he's forgotten all about it and made plans to re-roof the garage.

1. The biggest mistake of all is to stay home.

Maybe you don't have the vacation time. Hunt on the weekend. Maybe you're worried you won't find the herd. You won't know unless you go.

And Sometimes...

Last season, a friend of mine bought a Cascade elk tag and found a piece of some of the thickest, steepest habitat on the wet side of the Cascades. He couldn't have picked a more difficult place to hunt. The first weekend, he fell on his rifle and broke his scope. Instead of giving up, he returned the following week with another rifle. He hiked in to a dark, timbered bench and sat along an elk trail.

After a few minutes, he bugled. A bull answered from across the canyon. He began to cow-call, imitating a bull surrounded by a herd of contented females. That was too much. In came the bull, ready to drive his rival out on the tips of his antlers. My friend grabbed his rifle and made the shot that dropped his first-ever elk, a big five-point. Yes, he made mistakes, but he stayed in the woods.

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