Leveraging Whitetail Tactics for Elk Hunting

Consider Whitetail Tactics for Public Land Elk Hunting

Elk hunting isn’t quite deer hunting. But there are strategies we can borrow from the whitetail world when other methods aren’t working.

By Shawn Lentz | PUBLISHED July 18th, 2022 

Elk hunting on public land can be a rewarding but aggravating affair. Kleptomaniac gear thieves, overcrowding on increasingly shrinking tracts of prime elk habitat, and continual issues with access are just some of the hurdles facing elk hunters trying to fill their freezers.

As a DIY public land hunter from the beginning, I consider it the school of hunting hard knocks. The elk are dodgy, and the hunting pressure can be fierce. But, when successful, it can feel like a hard-earned badge of honor.

I like it.

But I've learned to adapt. I'm not afraid to use non-traditional elk hunting methods or hunt fringe areas that hold elk. Just because it's not fifteen miles into the solitary high country doesn't mean you can't put the smack-down on a nice bull elk or cow.

See, I spent the first five years of my big game hunting career getting my ass handed to me. One reason was that I was trying to hunt public land elk like on the Outdoor Channel. My perception was, "This is how they do it, so I'll follow suit." Growing up, I didn't have any hunting mentors, so what did I know?

You soon come to know that the private land elk many T.V. hunters are tagging out on and the state land bull you are chasing all over hell and back is not the same thing.

Squeezing on that Hoochie Mama probably isn't going to sway elk to come your way. Not with dozens of other "Hoochers" running around the hills. Plus, you may have ATV-ers, horseback riders, hikers, and others adding unintended pressure.

Sometimes you have to resort to other means. We're gonna borrow some pages from the whitetail hunter playbook. Why? Because that shit works.

Consider these tactics if you haven't before.

Hunt Elk From a Treestand

I can hear your eyes rolling around in your head, "C'mon, this is elk hunting!" Yep. But do you want to actually eat elk or just talk about how you watched their butts cresting the timbered hill and disappear into the draw?

Elk meat tastes better than tag soup, and my family agrees. That means I'm perching up in a tree for the next two weeks if hunting areas aren't conducive to running cold call set-ups from the ground.

Hunting twenty feet up, or more helps get you out of sight, puts your scent above elk's noses, and allows for longer-distance broadcasting while calling. Depending on what the elk are doing, wait in silence or feel free to do some cow-calling sequences. As elk get pushed around by other hunters, they may just end up traveling by your stand.

If you prepare right, hunting elk from a stand can work well. As the saying goes, elk are where you find them. So, if you can find pockets of elk using an area regularly, these are the ones to target with this method.

E-scout potential elk habitat, then get out and ground-truth those areas. Look for areas with large clusters of mixed-aged rubs, sign-post rubs, and obvious game trails, especially where multiple trails come together. Like rubs, mixed-aged pellets and tracks help sweeten the deal as they show more evidence of history with the area.

Put up cams in promising areas to give you an idea of movement. Elk activity over consecutive days is a better sign than just the random few with several days in between. Also, the closer to opening day, the better. These days, I like putting cellular cams up at the beginning of August. Then I let them run until I’m ready to hunt in September. Pics get sent to my phone, and I don't have to worry about trampling around in my spots. But, of course, this is public land, so there is always the chance someone else will.

Putting all this intel together can help you capitalize on opportunities come opening day.

Hunt Over Bait

One of the most effective elk tips I ever got was from a turkey hunting outfitter that guided one of my turkey hunts. He told me to dump a bag of loose selenium with trace minerals a couple of months before the season. Then do it again in the weeks leading up to opening day. The first year I did that, I went from a few hundred mid-to-late summer trail cam pics of elk to a couple thousand. 

Combining salt and treestand that year helped me fill my first elk tag. The old 5x6 non-typical bull that meandered out of the brush didn’t know what hit him. He green-scored at 290. Not bad for a Washington Roosie. That was a bull that didn't even show up on my cams that summer.

Like any tactic, it's not a slam dunk every time. But it seems to keep a lot of elk interested through opening day, especially if they are already hanging around. And all you need is one.

Hunt Bedding Areas

When conventional wisdom says something is a bad idea, you can usually count on me to jump right into it. That includes hunting bedding areas during archery season.

Hunting bedding areas has become more accepted because folks stepped out and found that it works.

With the right amount of caution, you might just connect. Elk will get up to relieve themselves, stretch, feed a little, and mill around periodically throughout the day. If you have the patience and keep the wind in your face, you can still hunt through the dark timber mid-morning like Meateater's, Brody Henderson. Henderson uses his "timber sneaking" technique during rifle season to slowly stalk into these bedding areas and fill his elk tags.

As the rut starts to ramp up, you may find that several light chirps on a cow call will stir up some action. Sometimes an old croaky-throated bull will give a half-assed, lazy bugle while still lying in his bed. Other times a horned-up satellite or raghorn will come zipping in, giving you a shot. Light cow calling has worked for me from the ground and in treestands placed in bedding areas.

One important note: paying attention to thermals is critical in bedding areas and elk country in general. If thermals are shifty, as they can often be mid-day, it's better to back out and try again later. After they get a whiff of you, an elk’s ability to instantaneously turn and run in the opposite direction is something to behold.

We're quickly hurtling towards the elk archery general season! Maybe these tactics are a good fit for your area; maybe not. You don't need vast elk numbers or huge elk herds - just some local stragglers that cycle through every ten days or so.

If you're hunting the same public land areas and nothing else has worked in previous seasons, give these methods a try. Sure, they are usually methods one thinks of for hunting deer, but it might make all the difference. It did for me. 

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