Today’s hard-hunted elk herds aren’t the same plains game as their ancestors. They’ve learned to take cover in the dark timber, and if there’s adequate browse and water, elk are quite happy to never leave their stand of lodgepole pines during daylight hours.
Your best option for hunting pressured elk on public land is to get in the woods with them.
Pick the Top Timber
First, read the landscape through an elk’s point of view. Warm weather pushes them to high, shadowy, north-facing cirques. If it’s bitter cold, they’ll be on sunny, south-facing slopes. Elk will feed in timber where enough light filters through the trees to support grass and shrubs. Bulls like to bed on flat benches with quick access to dense woods on a steep slope.
Move quickly through forests where there’s no elk sign, then slow to a creep when clues indicate elk are nearby. Occasionally mew on a cow call to mask any clumsy footfalls. If the timber is dry and crispy, stalking into range is tough. Instead, set up an ambush along a trail to water or on a saddle that acts as a natural funnel.
Beat a Bull’s Defenses
Of his three defensive senses—sight, smell, and hearing—a bull trusts his nose the most. Carry a puff bottle and use it obsessively to keep the wind in your face. Plan your day around the rising and falling of thermals—they blow uphill during the day when the sun heats the mountain and downhill early in the morning and in the evening when the sun sinks low. Glass diligently, even in close quarters. Keep your hat off your ears, and keep your nose to the wind. You’ll often hear or smell elk before you spot them. And carry your rifle in the ready position, so you’ll be ready to make a snap shot.