7 Secrets to Trophy Elk

Thirty years of taking big bulls with a bow has taught Jim Daniels a thing or two about elk hunting.

Following an unsuccessful elk bowhunt near our home in Central Idaho, my son Andrew and I were driving my old Ford pickup down a rutted logging road when we saw a man standing next to a grove of bright yellow aspens. Stopping to say hello, we learned that he was out scouting for a planned late-September hunt. “Did you have any luck?” he inquired.

“We saw a few cows along the tree line at dusk,” Andrew confessed.

Bowhunters are not normally a garrulous lot, but this one surprised us by pinpointing the location of two six-point bulls that had eddied out in separate but nearby drainages. He did not brag about his information, nor was he inclined to force his opinion on us, but during the following hour he revealed an encyclopedic knowledge of elk-their migration routes, where they water and feed, the use of wind and their bedding areas.

We also learned that this likable southern Idaho heavy equipment operator, named Jim Daniels, had started bowhunting when he was a junior in high school, and in the 30 years that followed had killed 30 elk, the majority of which were very large bulls.

In fact, Daniels, 47, has never shot an elk with a rifle, and he claims that for him, packing in, setting up camp, waking up hours before dawn and packing out a carcass from a high basin require far too much work to kill a bull at long range. He values the time spent scouting and stalking and often waits until the final day to shoot a bull. An equally revealing fact is that Daniels has never submitted any of his many large heads for consideration in the Pope and Young Club record book.

In Idaho, shooting an elk with a bow is not impossible, but it is difficult. Depending on your skills and how hard you work, you may average one elk every five years…if that. But it’s not only the preseason scouting, or the trails Daniels clears of deadfall in order to lead six mules to an elk camp on the back side of a nameless Idaho mountain range, that has made him such a success. And it’s not his 30-year friendship with Fred Schiffler, a road construction contractor who has hunted with Daniels since the two were in high school. Rather, it is Daniels’s attention to detail, his fixation on large elk and all things pertinent to large elk that has filled his scrapbook with photos of big bulls.

When I asked if he is simply passionate about bowhunting elk or obsessive about it, Daniels shook his head and confessed, “I’d say I’m just passionate.” Then he hesitated and added, “But if you’d ask my wife, Doris, she’d say I was obsessive.”

During long winter nights, Daniels builds his own arrows out of Easton ACC shafts. He devotes hours to exactly matching weights and placement of the fletching to ensure that the arrow flies straight. He will then number and repeatedly shoot broadheads at 40 yards until he has reduced the best to half a dozen. Ranking these from one to six, he will shoot number one first in the field.

The story of Daniels’s basement range offers insight into his determination and work ethic. When his 64-year-old, two-story house required a new foundation, he decided to add a basement den/bedroom/shooting range as well. In those days dynamite was readily available, Daniels had experience with the explosive and, while his family continued to live above, he started to excavate a large cavern beneath the kitchen floor. By limiting the charge to one stick at a time, he was able to both loosen the rock-hard soil and spare Doris’s china. Still, his wife, his son Remington and his daughter Jessica exchanged concerned looks as each successive blast rumbled from below.

Today the finished basement is divided between Remington’s bedroom (painted green, black and tan forest camouflage) and Daniels’s bow range. (Little wonder that all of the Daniels family members shoot bows and Doris recently killed a large mule deer that took first prize in a loc big-buck contest.)

1. Practice, Practice, Practice
Compound bows had not been invented when Daniels started hunting, and though he believes he could still take a bull with a recurve, because of a recurve’s shorter range it wouldn’t be the bull he wants. Today he consistently shoots a Martin compound bow four days a week, year-round in his basement range. On top of this regimen, he shoots two days a week in a local league, where he averages 80 shots a night from November through March. And finally, while hunting, Daniels carries a blunt tip to practice shooting at leaves and bits of deadfall. “It’s good practice for gauging distances,” he says.

Daniels has elk hunted almost exclusively with his friend Fred Schiffler since they were in high school. The two hunters invited me to their hunting camp last fall. Half a dozen mules were tied to a high line strung between two trees south of a canvas wall-tent, and dinner was cooking on a wood-burning stove when I entered camp beneath a gathering storm.

We were still eating when lightning arced onto one of the surrounding ridges. A minute later furious winds lashed the trees as large hail pounded down with an insensate fury.

Speaking above the storm, Schiffler observed that while elk numbers were down, hunting pressure was up. “The combination pushes the bulls into the high basins or forces them to leave the open hillsides before first light.”

Daniels added how, in a good year, he would see five or six trophy bulls in the surrounding drainage, but a series of hard winters and the reintroduction of wolves had taken a toll. In other words, locating a large bull would not be easy.

2. Intercept Bulls Early
The alarm buzzed at 4:30 a.m. and Daniels and I slipped into our camouflage. We saddled the mules in silence and started up a thickly wooded valley toward a high alpine basin, using the roar of the creek’s waterfalls and rapids to hide our progress. By the time we tied the mules to a tree, dawn’s first light was silhouetting the eastern ridges.

Jim Daniels has incredible eyesight that is part genetic gift and part knowing where to look for something out of place. It was still early morning when he spotted two five-point bulls feeding across an avalanche chute. The wind was blowing down the canyon and he needed only to position himself for a shot. Shaking his head, he motioned for me to back quietly down the trail. “Neither one is the bull I’m looking for,” he whispered.

Later that morning he crawled to within 25 yards of a nice 5 by 6. It was an easy shot, but again he passed.

3. Time the Rut
Daniels admits he doesn’t focus on the rut. “In fact, I couldn’t care less about the rut,” he says. He rarely bugles and instead relies on spotting and stalking. His reasons are clear. “In this canyon there might be fewer than twenty cows, and whether the bulls need the cows to trigger the rut or it’s caused by cold weather, I couldn’t say.” He is also convinced that hunting pressure disrupts the rut by pushing bulls over saddles. “You may not find a bull in this drainage one day and three or four the next,” he says.

4. Stow the Bugle
Daniels’s believes most hunters would be far more successful if they left their bugles at home and instead tried to intercept elk. For that reason he rarely bugles and when he does it is only to locate a bull. He insists, “A six-year-old bull knows the difference between a call and another bull.”

Once Daniels locates a big bull he won’t bugle again because, in his own words, “I’ve had too many just run on me.” While he has had virtually no success attracting a big bull by cow calling, he admits cow calls will attract frustrated lesser bulls that have been pushed out by dominant herd bulls.

“When elk are really, really heavy into the rut, you might get a big bull to respond to a bugle,” Daniels says, “but it’s a poor shot because he’ll come in facing you.” For that reason, he is convinced it takes two hunters to bugle effectively-one to call while the other stands off to the side to take the shot.

5. Work the Wind
Daniels and Schiffler have killed 90 percent of their elk before 9 a.m., and they are convinced the key to success is to be where the elk are in the cool of the day when air currents are flowing downhill so they don’t have to worry about their scent pattern. Daniels says, “When it’s cool and there is no breeze and elk are feeding, we hurry through bedding areas and move slowly through feeding areas.”

Once the sun touches a hillside and the currents start rising uphill, they know their chances drop dramatically. Rather than risk spooking a big bull out of a basin, the two will spend the rest of the day around camp and then return the following morning to try to intercept it as it crosses the trail.

** 6. Get in Close**
Daniels believes the art of stalking has been lost. Most of the elk he has killed were moving from feeding areas to bedding areas before sunrise, when the thermal currents shift from falling to rising. He says, “People don’t anticipate where the elk are going or try to move in front of them. Too often they just bugle or chase after them. For me, elk hunting is a game of interception.”

7. Don’t Be Late
Starting before dawn, Daniels will follow a valley trail until he cuts a big bull’s rounded, four-inch-wide print. The direction of the track and how fresh it is tells him whether the bull has returned to the timber or is still feeding on the south slopes. He notes, “Elk will cross year after year after year in the same area, but you have to be there at first light. Big bulls don’t like to be out in the open, and if you’re twenty minutes late, too often they’ve already crossed back into the north-slope timber.”

Once Daniels has spotted a large bull with cows, he then determines the herd’s direction. Dropping back downhill, he will run to intersect the elk as they cross through a saddle or gully or into the trees.

Daniels typically schedules his week’s vacation in mid to late September. This year, when he and Fred Schiffler failed to cut the track of a trophy bull in four days, they moved two drainages and 30 miles south to a heavily trafficked canyon. Despite intense surrounding hunting pressure, two days later Daniels arrowed a large non-typical six-point that was moving to water. The bull traveled less than a half-mile before it died.

Now, a year after Andrew and I met Jim Daniels on a back-country road, I have enormous respect for his knowledge and modesty. Daniels doesn’t think he’s especially lucky or skilled. He has no secret spot, or unlimited time to hunt. Instead h to respond to a bugle,” Daniels says, “but it’s a poor shot because he’ll come in facing you.” For that reason, he is convinced it takes two hunters to bugle effectively-one to call while the other stands off to the side to take the shot.

5. Work the Wind
Daniels and Schiffler have killed 90 percent of their elk before 9 a.m., and they are convinced the key to success is to be where the elk are in the cool of the day when air currents are flowing downhill so they don’t have to worry about their scent pattern. Daniels says, “When it’s cool and there is no breeze and elk are feeding, we hurry through bedding areas and move slowly through feeding areas.”

Once the sun touches a hillside and the currents start rising uphill, they know their chances drop dramatically. Rather than risk spooking a big bull out of a basin, the two will spend the rest of the day around camp and then return the following morning to try to intercept it as it crosses the trail.

** 6. Get in Close**
Daniels believes the art of stalking has been lost. Most of the elk he has killed were moving from feeding areas to bedding areas before sunrise, when the thermal currents shift from falling to rising. He says, “People don’t anticipate where the elk are going or try to move in front of them. Too often they just bugle or chase after them. For me, elk hunting is a game of interception.”

7. Don’t Be Late
Starting before dawn, Daniels will follow a valley trail until he cuts a big bull’s rounded, four-inch-wide print. The direction of the track and how fresh it is tells him whether the bull has returned to the timber or is still feeding on the south slopes. He notes, “Elk will cross year after year after year in the same area, but you have to be there at first light. Big bulls don’t like to be out in the open, and if you’re twenty minutes late, too often they’ve already crossed back into the north-slope timber.”

Once Daniels has spotted a large bull with cows, he then determines the herd’s direction. Dropping back downhill, he will run to intersect the elk as they cross through a saddle or gully or into the trees.

Daniels typically schedules his week’s vacation in mid to late September. This year, when he and Fred Schiffler failed to cut the track of a trophy bull in four days, they moved two drainages and 30 miles south to a heavily trafficked canyon. Despite intense surrounding hunting pressure, two days later Daniels arrowed a large non-typical six-point that was moving to water. The bull traveled less than a half-mile before it died.

Now, a year after Andrew and I met Jim Daniels on a back-country road, I have enormous respect for his knowledge and modesty. Daniels doesn’t think he’s especially lucky or skilled. He has no secret spot, or unlimited time to hunt. Instead h