Rookie Elk Hunting Mistake – Look Before You Eat

elk herd climbing hillsideOn two separate occasions, I have missed chances at elk because of a rookie mistake.

I didn’t get buck fever, I didn’t fall asleep and I didn’t quit early and go back to camp.

I didn’t forget to load my rifle and I didn’t forget the wind.

My rookie mistake was paying too much attention to my lunch.

I’ve been called a chow hound before; just ask any of my old high school buddies. Despite the fact that I didn’t weigh 100 lbs until I was in the 10th grade, I could eat more than everybody.

I still love to eat and there is nothing that makes food taste better than being outdoors and climbing up and down hills all day.

Start Hunting as Soon as you Park the Truck

The first time I missed a chance at getting an elk because of food was five years ago. I had tags for both spike elk and cow elk. Sonia was with me and we had hunted an area early that morning, but returned to the truck before lunch because there were no signs of elk in the fresh snow.

I had seen elk a few days before just several ridges to the east, so we drove out of the canyon to go farther east and back up another canyon. On the way, we passed through a small town and though we had packed lunch, Sonia suggested we get another sandwich. As soon as I parked the truck near the area I wanted to hunt, I started eating my sandwich. I was hungry and the sandwich was good.

Between bites, I told Sonia our plan for the rest of the day. We wanted to slip through the pinyon-juniper and watch a south-facing hillside about 600 yards north of where we were parked. I had seen elk there just before dark as they came out of the canyon and moved up the hill. I pointed to the hill we wanted to watch and after I took another bite of the sandwich, I looked back at the hillside again and saw 8 – 10 elk working their way up the hill. I almost choked.

We raced around like crazy as I pulled my rifle out of the case and we grabbed our packs and started after them. By the time we started moving we could see at least 40 elk in the group, mostly cows, calves and a few spikes. We tried to close the distance without being seen, but by the time we got through the trees below the hillside, they had already gone over the top.

We raced up the hill as fast as we could to see if we could catch them in the open before they went back into the trees, but we were too late. They were exactly where I expected, but they were about three hours too early. We went back to my planned ambush site and watched the hillside until it was dark, just in case more elk moved through, but they didn’t.

If I got out of the truck when we first got there, I don’t know if I could have heard or seen heard the elk in time to get into position for a shot or not, but I wished I had the chance to find out. As I finished my sandwich on the way home that night, I promised myself I would always get out of the truck and look around when I first pulled into an area before I ate my sandwich.

Range Shooting Lanes before You take a Break

This year I did it again, not the same thing, but a similar rookie mistake; I ate my sandwich before I ranged all the shooting lanes.

We were hunting a new area I had never been before. We left the truck and started working through the trees. I really liked the habitat which was patches of aspen, open grasslands and very thick spruce-fir on the north-faces. We started dropping down into a very steep section of spruce-fir when we heard an elk bugle on the ridge to the west. I had spike elk and cow elk tags again, so the big boy that was bugling was not the target, but any cows with him were.

We work our way toward the sound and came to an opening where we could see parts of the ridge through the trees. I saw a cow elk at 550 yards. That is not a shot I want to take, so we kept the trees between us and kept working closer. We got to the bottom of the hill and crossed the creek. The elk had definitely been using that part of the creek, so I made a mental note about what wind conditions would be right to watch that area in the future.

There was only one more stand of trees between us and the elk up on the ridge. Our side of the hill was densely covered in spruce-fir trees, the bull’s side of the hill was more open with mountain shrub and patches of aspen on the east face of the hill and thick conifers on top of the ridge. The bull was still bugling and I estimated he was only about 300 yards up the hill.

The wind had been blowing steadily from the south all day, so the wind was still in our favor. I went up into the last stand of trees and peaked through the other side to see if I could see elk up on the ridge, but couldn’t see over the crest. It was unlikely we could cross the opening and go straight up the hill towards them with out being seen, so I needed to come up with a plan to get closer.

It would have been easy to back out and go around to the south, then up the ridge toward the elk, but the wind was wrong. We would have to drop down into a steep canyon to the north, then try to climb back up the opposite ridge, but not knowing the terrain, I didn’t know if it was possible to climb out of that canyon or if there were trees for cover or not.

I decide we should just wait a bit and see what the elk were going to do. If they came back to water hole, they would come straight to us, but if I got too aggressive I would bump them. They had been on that same ridge for at least an hour and the bull was still bugling, so if I didn’t spook them, they probably weren’t going anywhere in the next few minutes.

I decided we should eat something because we were probably going to need the energy for whatever we decided to do next. I told Sonia we were going to take a break. I scanned the treeline for elk before I moved over to some rocks, dropped my pack and propped my rifle on the bipod.

Before I grabbed my sandwich, I also should have ranged all the open shooting lanes and made sure I had a proper rest for the bipod that would allow a shot all up to the top of the hill, but I did not. That sandwich was calling my name and I thought I knew where all the elk were.

As I took the first bite of my sandwich, I heard Sonia whisper “elk!” I looked at her to see where she was looking and turned to see three cows and two spikes standing in an area I just checked 30 seconds before. I didn’t miss seeing them before, they had just arrived. They had crossed the creek to the south of us and started up the ridge towards the bull elk that was still bugling. They were frozen and stared straight at us.

The wind was blowing towards us, so they were trying to figure out what we were. Elk will question what they see and hear, but never question what they smell. Normally, if you freeze and if they don’t catch your scent, they will forget about you and continue what they were doing. But I needed to get a shot before they continued over the ridge, so I had to move.

cow elkThe elk were less than 200 yards away and my rifle was sighted in at 200 yards, but I was so surprised to see them standing there, I decided to range the distance to make sure. I slowly reached for the rangefinder around my neck and confirmed the elk were at 165 yards. I would definitely take that shot with a 7mm Rem. Mag.

The elk just stood and looked at us as I slowly reached for my rifle and aimed at them from an unsupported, standing position. I wasn’t in a comfortable position and wasted several seconds trying to hold steady enough to take a shot. I gave up and dropped to one knee and tried to balance the bipod on a rock, but couldn’t see far enough up the hill. And still, the elk just stood there.

I balanced one leg of the bipod on the tallest rock and found one of the spikes in the scope. I moved the cross-hairs on his chest, pulled back the hammer back and just as I started to squeeze the trigger they bolted up the hill.

One cow elk stopped at the crest of the hill just to tease me. I pivoted around the rock and put the cross-hairs on her chest, but before I could pull back the hammer, she moved behind some trees and crossed over the top.

We moved into some cover and watched the area until dark, but never saw another elk and the bull elk never bugled again. I finally got to finished my sandwich as several mule deer does and their fawns came out and started feeding. I even saw a little 4 X 4 mule deer buck within range, but no more elk that day.

If I had ranged the shooting lanes before I took the break, I would have been certain any elk that came into view was within range. If I had tested several shooting positions, I would have known to put my pack on top of the rock to increase the angle I could shoot up the hill. I had plenty of time to shoot an elk that day, but I didn’t have time to range them and then find a shooting position. A rookie mistake.

But I don’t beat myself up too much about it because I still have elk meat in the freezer and I love to hunt. Besides the hard work of humping an elk back to the truck, the worse thing about shooting an elk usually means the season is over. But I’ll never make that mistake again and hope you don’t either.

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