An Extreme Bowhunt For Public-Land Elk

Making the most of your available hunting locations often means enduring miserable weather, limited elk sightings and dangerous terrain. But for some, those conditions just make success that much sweeter.
An Extreme Bowhunt For Public-Land Elk

If I could only be so lucky,” I thought to myself as I watched the small herd of elk dive off into a treacherous canyon that my horse, my mule and I did not have the nerve to tackle. Actually, we had tackled the same canyon a year earlier but limped from its depths with a few bruises after a horseshoe spinout on rocky, vertical slopes.

The opening “lucky” reference was the fresh memory of my son bow-killing a mature 6x6 bull elk just a week earlier. That’s the end of Cole’s story. He was tagged out and back to school while I was back to the school of hard knocks in craggy elk country. But enough with the self-pity – I had to find a bull ASAP as conditions at my current backcountry camp were as fluid as the creek below my tent.

Public-Land Rollercoaster

Archery elk units on public land vary like mountain weather. Hunting pressure, elk density, private-land sanctuaries and weather all combine to create hunting areas with unreliable outcomes. Unless you draw a tag in a limited, premier unit, be prepared to have other hunters walk in on your setups, to have elk disappear overnight and, yes, to travel to distant destinations where others are reluctant to go.

My son and I apply annually for a Wyoming unit characterized by all of the above. Why do we return for more misery and terrain abuse? First, the unit is a virtual guarantee to draw and that’s a bonus since Wyoming residents receive no preference-point aid. Second, it is within a reasonable drive of home and allows my teenage son archery elk hunting opportunities without missing school. Finally, through patience and persistence, we’ve been able to pattern the elk that bounce around like a five-year-old in an inflatable bounce house.

To maximize hunting and minimize wasted time, we start our hunt at high elevation in the early part of the season. Elk are still in transition from summer range and rambling toward winter havens. Of course, weather extremes can change that rambling behavior to an all-out Olympic sprint. We keep a camp at approximately 10,000 feet, giving us access to an area riddled with wallows, meadows and plenty of dark timber to hide pressured herds of elk.

If the elk begin their downhill march, we have another camp prepped and ready at a lower elevation. During the summer we prepare the lower camp, which is accessible by horse or 4x4 leg power. We pack in weed-free horse feed and stash it for fall use, plus prepare our campsite for immediate use upon arrival. Lastly, I scout several drive-to options where elk pass within close proximity to roads as they leave the mountains.

Staying Flexible

After Cole’s elk retrieval, I hustled back to the high-country camp after a ScoutLook-Weather confirmation that a winter storm was imminent. The next morning I took off in a circular hike that generally tallies about 10 miles and passes by a series of wallows. If elk were using the area, the day-long outing would either put me in earshot of bugles or reveal fresh sign around the wallows. I had even set up a ground blind three miles from any road as a bivy camp and hide overlooking a meadow cratered with wallows. By afternoon neither bugles nor droppings were evident as I stepped out on a ledge to grab lunch.

Right then a bugle rang out. Of course it was several hundred feet below in a straight-down descent through thick, downed timber. What else could I do? I took off on a log-hurdling sprint. The wind was good on the initial move, but the further I dropped the more I could sense a swirl in its path. Apparently the bottom of the canyon was awash with wind deflectors. As I rounded a creek corner I knew I had to be close. Actually, I was too close. Because of the thick understory I walked right in the middle of the herd. I dropped to my knees, nocked an arrow and peered through the brush for antlers as a number of cows strolled past. A second later the wind gave me up and left me in a cloud of dust as the herd dropped into the canyon abyss.

The next morning started with high hopes as a nice 6-point followed a small herd in our direction. Somewhere along the way they took an off-ramp into the timber, so we slogged through the snow and into the timber above them. The ambush was working great until the lead cow decided she wanted to drop 1,000 feet off of a sheer wall and cross to the other side, which required a 1,000 foot ascent. We saddled up and rode on.

My next choice was the head of a drainage adjacent to an open mesa above a creek that coursed down the mountain. Elk loved its nearly impassable terrain features. Once inside the dark timber I cow-called once, and shockingly, a bull returned with a bugle.

Just then a nice 6-point ghosted above us. I whispered for Cole to freeze as I nocked an arrow. The bull searched the timber for the squealer but couldn’t see us. I was smart enough to pack snow camouflage and Cole and I were as invisible as a winter jackrabbit in its white fur coat.

As the bull searched, I “mewed” again on the call. The bull turned and walked right at us. Each time the bull passed behind a tree – which was every half-second – I tried to draw. Small trees, a fast-moving bull and less-than-perfect shot angles hosed me. The bull wasn’t about to make a return pass as he trotted off.

Five days later, backing away from another horse wreck, I had to face honest reality. Even though the snow had disappeared, the majority of the unit’s herd was now safely tucked thousands of feet below me behind fences guarding private ranches. With that dose of disappointment shrouding me, I pulled low camp and skidded the horseshoe twosome 3,000 feet downhill on a wet, rocky route back to the trailhead for more planning. The season was quickly coming to a close, and the public portion of the unit was about as empty of elk as a beer keg after a frat party. It was time for a drive-by.

A Little Luck

Drive-by hunting by my definition is an area most hunters literally drive by. It either is an area that appears to be elk-less or has features too severe to consider as a hunting alternative. My first target was a rocky, vertical canyon that opened up with a few grassy slopes. I dropped nearly 1,000 feet to a remote area that held the most promise. My bet was right. Three bulls strode out at sunrise, fed for a few minutes and then slipped into the timber. I hustled above the raghorn trio and, with surprising luck, slipped to within 30 yards without calling. Dense brush scrubbed my chances for a shot. The next morning the trio was nowhere to be found, so I hopscotched to the next likely location.

While still-hunting along the adjacent ridge, I stumbled across a wallow with all the telltale clues that a bather had just departed. Mud glistening on the pine needles leading away indicated the travel route of the bull, but instead of following I constructed a quick hide downwind of the wallow and waited.

At sunset I still wasn’t convinced the wallow was a one-and-done shot, so the next morning I mountaineered up to the wallow and just missed my opportunity. A bull was leaving in the dim dawn light, but he didn’t see me slipping in behind him. With high hopes I slipped back into my hide. By noon the warm sun had taken its toll and I awakened with a sixth sense of shock. Thirty-five yards away a young bull was circling. He didn’t appear spooked, but he did seem a bit uncertain and disappeared back into the timber without getting downwind.

At sunset I lifted my head to see a bull above me. As the bull eased in to 15 yards a red flag must have flickered. The bull stopped, backed up and started to circle downwind. The bull was getting farther away, but the large trees helped me hatch a plan on the fly.

When the bull passed behind the first large tree I rose up. The next tree to block the bull’s view allowed me to rotate 180 degrees. When another tree covered his eyes, I drew my Mathews Creed XS. The bull stepped from behind the tree and must have sensed the final movement, but he had already revealed too much chest. I was mentally estimating distance the entire series of steps and tallied 36 yards as the Carbon Express arrow left my bow. The shot was spot-on. The bull literally went end over end in its final attempt to flee, and I had my wife Sharon on the digital dial seconds later to tell her not to wait up for me.


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