Photo Credit above: @Toppriorityhunting
Written by Hyrum Facer. Hyrum is an elk hunting nut and professional guide in Utah.
Test For Success
Late season elk hunting conjures up thoughts of crystallized breathe at the end of your nose and long difficult hikes in the snow, leaving you hot on the inside and freezing on the outside. Late season elk hunting is not for everyone but is a genuinely unique experience with its own set of singular challenges and opportunities. Elk are truly wild animals and live in some of the toughest and most aggressive terrain Mother Nature has to offer. The better condition you’re in physically, the better chance you have to make it where the elk are then back out. The late season elk hunts can test your mental fortitude, physical abilities and the toughness of your gear like no other hunt can. Just like any test there are ways to come out onto the other side with success.
- Knowing Your Area
One of the most critical pieces of information is first getting to know the area you plan to hunt. You better be prepared to know landmark references and know the best ways in and out of an area because during the late season the days are short and the darkness is long. OnX Hunt Maps is one of the best known pieces of gear that you need to have in your arsenal for doing this. I’ve been in situations in brand new areas where I did the prep work and had a plan and things worked out when they might not have otherwise. I’ve had experiences where fog rolled in or an unexpected white out happened. Because I had marked waypoints of landmarks, trails and my truck, onX is the only reason I made it back safe and sound.
Also you can save waypoints and personalize your content in order to guide you safely, and most importantly, legally into areas where game is and where your hard work will pay off. The reason why knowing an area is such a big deal is for a couple reasons; one is for your own safety and the other is to better set you up to be successful as a hunter.
- Preparation and Dedication
As mentioned before the most important piece of equipment that you own is your physical self. If you’re going to plan on hunting late season elk then you better be taking good care of yourself and be exercising. The off-season during the winter and summer months is a perfect time to really get yourself in shape. These four-legged ungulates are always in 4-wheel drive while we only have 2 wheel-drive so you need to be in good physical shape, and being in good physical shape will put you in good mental shape. If you’re physically struggling you will mentally be out of the game and want to quit. Being physically and mentally fit will help you match whits with elk on their terrain.
A good place to start scouting for late season elk is during the spring shed hunting season. When you’re shed hunting take notes and observe what’s going on in these areas where elk come down late in the year and through the winter. Pay attention to more than just the shed antlers. Note where browse plants are being eaten. Hedging and crowning are good indicators of big game foraging. Hedging is what it sounds like, it’s when game animals eat back the terminal growth on branches and they look stunted or cut off. Crowning is where a plant is tall enough that the upper parts are out of reach and game animals eat the reachable lower portions of the shrub and it begins to look somewhat umbrella shaped.
Elk are taught by the previous generation where summer and winter ranges are and they learn these migration paths at a young age. From my experience, 16 to 20 inches of snow will push elk down to the lower country as well as a lot of hunting pressure. Elk typically will stay on the same paths made by other elk because they don’t want to expend more energy than necessary and save fat reserves to get through the winter. If you know these wintering areas, just remember that the older bulls that have been making the trek back and forth from the high country to the low country will usually migrate down regardless of what the weather brings. This is because migration is linked to photoperiod (amount of daylight) as well as weather.
Last year I used this tactic and it paid off as I found myself looking across a big canyon through my spotting scope at five mature bulls with the smallest bull being around 310”. I was able to make some landmark references and then mark them on my OnX hunt maps and was able to make the 5 mile hike in. When the light broke through the clouds first thing in the morning I found myself within 365 yards of these same five bulls I had located the day before. Everything was going great, until the wind got me and the bulls tore out of that drainage.
- Success in the Journey
Most importantly when hunting late season elk is to remember to have fun. Many people are way too serious when it comes to hunting and they forget about the Journey and experience of the hunt. The cliche goes, “embrace the suck”, well embrace the next level suck that late season hunting has the potential to become. Be sure to get away from roads and don’t be afraid to put a little distance between you and other people. Remember south facing slope are always warmer and the snow depth is always a lot less on those hillsides. Elk want to stay warm and need to eat and expend as little energy as possible. Travel for game will be easier and you will often see more game trails on the top of these ridges as the wind will keep the tops of these ridges cleared off to help to expose more feed (hint, this is also a good way for you to travel and use less energy).
Using your optics to your advantage can save your legs; often people just want to start hiking without a clue to where the elk might be. Glass can be your best friend during the late season and keep you from trudging unnecessarily through snow and cold that can easily exhaust you. I’ve sat on a glassing point with several other vehicles in a parking lot and had to keep telling myself to be patient. As it got later in the morning and no elk were being spotted people started leaving, then fifteen minutes later as I kept an eye on tops of those ridges and as it warmed up the elk started moving out into the open to feed. Being patient can definitely pay off.
- Having the Right Gear
It’s no secret that having the right gear can make or break a hunt. Optics on a late season hunt are the most important item next to the weapon of choice that you are hunting with. Optics will save your legs and will help to confirm just what you are looking at when an animal makes an appearance. As stated earlier the hiking can be tough and arduous during the late season so hike with your glass before you hike with your legs. This will allow you from a long distance to make a game plan on just how you will execute your stalk.
Layering during the late season elk hunt is as important as any other hunt. Being able to shed and add layers as the temperatures turn from frigid to mild and back again can be critical to staying on the mountain. These layers should also include waterproof outerwear because snow and rain are likely. I would buy the best camo system that you can afford as this will allow you to stay out longer and will up your percentage of seeing more game.
Last but not least is a good pack that has an internal pack frame is a must. Having a good pack like the EXO system will let you take out a heavy load the first trip and save you from having to switch packs at the truck. Remember the more prepared you are the more comfortable you will be and the more you will enjoy the journey as memories last forever.
Oh, and don’t forget some good fire starter, nothing beats a good fire to sit next to on a late hunt while waiting out a big bull. It’s therapy for a cold soul.