Bowhunting Wilderness Public Land Elk

Elk don’t always inhabit easy-to-get-to public land locales, and getting to these wilderness areas sometimes leaves a few — honorably worn — battle scars.

Bowhunting Wilderness Public Land Elk

Elk live in steep country, and you can expect them in the roughest and thickest terrain if there is any public land hunting pressure.

Just make up your mind already, I thought, as the most recent bugle signified a significant change of course. Above the herd, daylight was breaking as I too changed my course on the near-vertical slope. I shifted back into high gear for the promising cutoff when a rock dislodged, and I crashed to terra firma like the scores of deadfalls surrounding me. Standing back up, I looked down at the tear in my expensive hunting pants. Darn, I thought again, but with more appropriate cuss words. That’s when I noticed I was leaking fluid, red fluid.

Fortunately, it was just a small gash from a pointy rock, but it was throbbing with pain as it bruised to the bone. Oh well, it was only one more memory of why bloodied and bruised is the norm for my public land elk hunts. The herd was again charging up the mountain, so I brushed the injury aside, checked my gear for damage, and dove into a steep, dog-hair canyon to meet the loudmouths below.

Before you give up an attempt at public land elk because of possible bodily injury, keep in mind that all elk hunts are not created equal. Despite my bad luck and inclination to hunt elk where sheep might appear, there are areas where elk live in relatively docile environments. Unfortunately, many of those environments include “no trespassing” signs with unfriendly deed holders or require years of preference points to draw. Don’t forsake limited-draw units. Worldwide Trophy Adventures consultants put me in annually for dream elk hunts. In the meantime, it’s just easier to include a pair of ripped pants in the planning and prepare for some bruises in the reality of real elk country as I wait for luck in the draws.


Public Land Reality

Without cash or preference point access, you’ll likely land in a unit characterized by lots of hunting camps, busy ATV trails, and few bugles near the road. While bowhunting in Montana several years ago, my partner and I lost count of the number of camper trailers and wall tents along a section of National Forest Service road. We knew then and there that hunting near the road likely wouldn’t be productive.

And just when you think your accessorized side-by-side has the wherewithal to escape civilized settings, you’ll be equally as frustrated. Recreational vehicle sales are booming. Look at your neighbors’ garages, and you’ll see trailers loaded with off-road wonders. There’s no escape, even down two-track trails with ruts so deep a mule deer buck could hide out in one. Plus, according to many studies, most laws are broken by 2 to 8 percent of the population, and that same group drives beyond the end of the trail. Be careful if you do confront any beyond-the-trail lawbreakers in this small-percent group. A hunter who had driven way beyond the “road closed” sign caught me photographing his ATV identification markings one season. He came at me with an intent to assault but stopped suddenly when my partner stepped up as a show of force. All dangers don’t include a fall.

The author has met many unethical hunters pushing beyond road closures on ATVs.
The author has met many unethical hunters pushing beyond road closures on ATVs.

This compilation of factors prods elk to leave suitable habitat in bustling zones and head to the danger — not ranger — district. Increasingly this is occurring even before hunting season. A Colorado biologist shared with me that they are witnessing elk leaving busy forest areas for more remote country because of the buzz of preseason scouting, camp set up and even the increase in recreationists like nonhunting mountain bikers. Think of that. Elk you scouted in midsummer could be miles from your predetermined camp even before the opener because of pre-hunting activity and the general public use of natural resources.  

Elk won’t necessarily leave the mountain due to more human commotion, but it’s not uncommon for them to place a large chunk of rugged country between them and the road. Some of these elk may embrace the new address while others could return to past, cushy digs under cover of darkness. One September, I was camped at a trailhead and bolted up in my sleeping bag at screaming bugles just outside of camp. The rut ruckus continued all night long, and the next morning I dogged the herd for several hours as they returned to a nasty, sheer canyon for daytime refuge. No, I never did get a shot. 

That’s the everyday reality of public land archery elk hunting. Most elk that haven’t hightailed it over the fence onto private lands look for roadless areas, dangerous canyons and steep slopes to separate themselves from divas in designer camouflage.

What’s the answer? Every avid public land bowhunter shares this tidbit of knowledge, but you need to heed the message. You simply increase your odds of success if you’re in above-average physical shape. Whether you spend your hunt day hiking from trailheads or don a backpack to live out of for a week, being in shape is the defining measure of success.

I define elk-country physical fitness as being able to hike six to eight miles daily with at least 1,200 feet of vertical ascent involved. Some days you may hike farther and others less. The same is true of elevation, but if you can’t handle this scenario for five or more days, you may be wasting time and money in elk territory.  


Dangers in Elk Country

Public land elk country is unforgiving. The first time I came to that determination was staring off a cliff down at the tan rumps of elk bounding effortlessly down an avalanche chute as they made an unanticipated move to another mountain. After letting the elk disappear, and the dust settle, I started down the slope. Immediately the scree and dirt gave away, and instead of hiking down the slope, I skidded down to the creek bottom in a butt-skinning slide of terror. The elk made it look too easy, and I ended the slip-and-slide descent with only a skinned cheek that scabbed later. I’ll take that any day over the off chance a bowling-ball-sized rock could slam me in the noggin on the gritty slide.

Slides and falls are the two most common dangers you’ll likely face in elk country. It’s imperative to keep a pledge for a slow and focused stalk to avoid danger. I particularly slow down and look ahead for hazards since I routinely hunt solo. If harm befalls me, I’m the one responsible for any extraction.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in a bugle bash but stay alert for threats ahead. If a cliff looks too risky, take a detour. If a trail looks too dicey, reroute. If too many deadfalls deter progress, work around the mess to find an open path. Falling is bad, but falling and having your leg or arm wedged, is a real fear for me. I’ve heard one too many stories about outdoor enthusiasts having to cut a limb off with a pocketknife to escape certain death after being trapped.

Sharp objects, manmade, not Mother Nature supplied, also hold horrors if handled poorly. Just yanking a broadhead out of a quiver or fixing an accidentally deployed mechanical broadhead could slice you. Then there’s the high you get from arrowing a bull, and in the excitement, you cut too fast only to discover a knife stuck in your thigh. Slow down and think of safety. I rarely leave a deboning site without one or two nicks to my digits, but knock on wood, I’ve yet to require stitches, unlike a guide I helped skin an elk with one year. He nearly cut off his thumb, but luckily, I was along to stop the bleeding.

The author helps bandage the hand of an outfitter who cut himself during a skinning job in the backcountry.
The author helps bandage the hand of an outfitter who cut himself during a skinning job in the backcountry.

The weather also brings upon added danger. Before you leave online connections behind, acquire a long-range forecast. If it includes rain or snow deluges ahead, get updates whenever possible. I carry a small AM/FM radio for unsophisticated connectivity almost anywhere. Mountain forecasts can change daily, if not hourly, so don’t hedge a bet. A skiff of snow can become feet with a simple updraft along a mountain slope. With a questionable forecast, my first intuition is to take a few days off and let the weather pass.

You can create a disturbing moisture event, and it’s a real danger in the backcountry. Sweating during a hard hike into the backcountry or up an extreme slope can lead to hypothermia even in moderate temperatures. One of the worst cases of hypothermia I ever experienced was in July at 8,000 feet with a temperature hovering around 45 degrees. Mountain winds chilled me instantly into an uncontrollable shivering mush of a man. 


Prepare for Peril

To be ready for any threats, it takes sensible planning and several years of refinements to your survival system. To date, most of my injuries in the woods include cuts, minor abrasions, backaches from overburden, and lots of sore feet treated with moleskin and athletic tape wrapping.

As you contemplate all possibilities, remember lightweight is everything while traversing elk country. Nevertheless, don’t forsake safety for a few ounces. A first aid kit for backpacking typically includes the necessities to clean a typical wound and stop bleeding. But what if your injury is atypical? Adding in butterfly bandages, Liquiband or QuikClot packets could be the difference between life and death.

Rain gear serves an essential purpose in case of a deluge, but if you need to spend the night, it can also trap heat when combined with a pocket-size space blanket. And speaking of that unplanned night in the woods, reliable fire-starting materials are a must. Extra food and water, plus a survival straw to filter questionable water all play into safety methods to ensure unexpected is nothing more than a bit uncomfortable around a fire.

Regarding navigation, be sure to back up your battery-powered gadgets with the knowledge and use of a compass and a map. HuntStand is a popular hunting app, and they will print you nearly indestructible maps of your specific hunt area that can even double as a waterproof tarp. Communications can also be backed up with systems like the Garmin inReach or the Spot 2-way satellite messenger. Few interior mountain settings allow smartphone connection to the outside world.

As a solo hunter, I try to make detours to service areas to keep my wife updated, but I also leave GPS coordinates of my hunting camp and proposed hunting areas in case I go missing after my noted return. If I move for some reason with no way to get word to the outside world, I leave a note visible on the dash of my truck for search and rescue to use. Donate to these crews as they will be the ones risking their lives if you go missing.


Rewards for Wounds

The cut clotted quickly on its own as I slipped through the timber toward the last vocal clues. Rounding a rocky corner, I nearly spit up my power bar from earlier that morning! A bulldozer of a bull marched straight at me. His long beams twisted through the young pines, and for a moment, I thought he’d walk right over me. He didn’t, but as he snaked his rack past at 10 yards, the whites of his eyes suddenly widened. He saw me and made a break for it! On autopilot, I mewed with my mouth, and he slammed on his hoofed brakes to slide sideways in the duff for one last look at less than 30 yards. My HHA single-pin bowsight had the vitals zeroed, and upon impact, he whirled again, busting through the timber. This time a lack of lung power stopped him 60 yards away as he wobbled to an end in a breathtaking sight.

I spent the remainder of that day and the next packing the bull from the remote basin with the leg gash a distant memory. I’d like to brag the extraction was injury-free, but during my last night in camp, my back reminded me I wasn’t 25 any longer. Nevertheless, it was a good pain with no blood or bruises. I quickly remedied the dull ache with a dose of ibuprofen and fell asleep looking at the six by six rack propped up in the corner of camp.

Thankfully the author didn’t get too bloodied during this DIY public land elk hunt.
Thankfully the author didn’t get too bloodied during this DIY public land elk hunt.

Sidebar: Call Elk to You

One way to save yourself from injury is to stop hiking and call elk to you. There are dozens of elk calls on the market today, but one of the most innovative companies continues to be Rocky Mountain Hunting Calls. Their focus has been on elk since their launch, but you can also count on them for inventive calls targeting deer, turkey and predators.

RMHC’s latest is the Ultimate Bugling System package. The unique Wapiti Whacker bugle comes with both the Sure Fire Bugle adapter and the Black Magic mouth diaphragm in this kit. That means you can create realistic elk vocalizations, whether you master a diaphragm or prefer a mouthpiece designed for those with gagging reflexes.

RMHC Ultimate Bugling System
RMHC Ultimate Bugling System

Once you master either mouth call, simply utilize the Wapiti Whacker bugle to produce true-to-life bugles and cow calls. The heart of the Wapiti Whacker is the V.E.T.T. calling system (volume enhanced tone technology). In brief, it is a tuned spring fit into an adapter at the mouth end of the call. When the bugle is used, the spring aids in manipulating the right amount of backpressure to help change tones and octave levels with ease. Precisely sized, the bugle generates deep bugles, higher squeals, chuckles, grunts and growls all from one call. Plus, tap on the bell of the call with the flat palm of your hand, and you can mimic a bull glunking sound that works wonders when in close to an aggravated bull.


Sidebar: Hunting App Help

Even without connectivity in the backcountry, you can still utilize maps on your smartphone by downloading them. The HuntStand hunting app I use allows me to create detailed maps of areas with notations, measurements, property information, and a host of other useful elements that help me navigate even without a cell tower nearby. Unfortunately, smartphone batteries only last so long.

Hunting apps on smartphones or GPS devices are great tools but have a map along in case your batteries fizzle during a hunt.
Hunting apps on smartphones or GPS devices are great tools but have a map along in case your batteries fizzle during a hunt.

To continue navigating, you have two main options. First, consider hunting like your grandfather with a map and a compass. HuntStand allows you to order maps of your specific hunt area. These high-resolution maps can be printed in sizes up to 3 by 4 feet on materials that are virtually armored and waterproof. When your battery dies or you want a larger view, unfold the map and continue on course.

The second option is to invest in a solar charger along with a spare battery pack. Companies like Goal Zero specialize in backcountry energy with gear such as the Nomad 5 Solar Kit. It includes an incredibly light power bank and solar panel in one convenient package. The duo allows you to keep phones and other small USB-powered devices charged when outlets are at a premium.

Hunting and wildlife photos by Mark Kayser


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