Do you remember your first elk hunt? What year it was, the weather, the smell of elk hitting your nose, the first bugle you have ever heard, or seeing a rub on a sapling taller than you? These are the memories that come flooding back into my mind when I close my eyes and picture myself out on the mountain again.
DIY elk hunts are a challenge. Your emotions are up then down, wet and cold changes to warm and dry, early mornings to late nights and for some of us like myself this is all packed into a week. Do or die, so many things have to go right for you to even consider filling a tag. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If it was easy the memories wouldn’t be as good. I wouldn’t want to go back every fall.
It was mid October 2 years ago and my cousin, uncle and myself were taking out first steps up the mountain for a trip I will never forget.
Before getting into the actual hunt I wanted to give some tips and tricks that I learned along the way. Hopefully one or two of these might help you out. If you have some of your own leave a comment below. I’m always wanting to learn and improve so feel free to share.
DIY Elk Hunt Tips and Tricks
- Wake Up And Start Hiking Earlier: Looking back I wish we would have woken up earlier. We never thought it would take us an hour or more to get to the top of the mountain to glass. Hiking in the dark doesn’t make it any easier but I felt we were always racing the sunrise. Not only does it help to be set up before light but you can’t beat watching the sunrise from the top of a mountain while eating your favorite dehydrated breakfast.
- Always Be Aware: What I mean by this is never forget the situation your currently in. I will touch on this more in the story but all of us were used to hunting the evening and being back inside a warm house and bed that night. Hunting in the Midwest you don’t think about these things. Once it was dark, raining, covered in mud and cold we realized the only thing we were heading back to was a tent and colder temperatures. I’m not saying don’t risk it but be sure you think through the consequenses before taking action.
- Pack A Comfort Item: If you have the room and don’t mind the extra weight I would highly consider packing a comfort item. Mine was a big jar of Jiff peanut butter. The happiness it brought to all of us at the end of the day around the campfire was worth every ounce.
- Bring Tripod For Glassing: Holy crap does it make a difference. Not only will it save your hands, arms, and shoulders from getting sore but the ability to see more clearly while you glass is worth the space it takes up in a pack.
- Seat Cushion: Use it while glassing. Keeps you comfortable and warmer than sitting on the ground.
- Bring Good Food: I learned this the hard way. I thought I could get away with the minimum amount of food. By the last couple days I was starving. Breakfast was my biggest downfall in my opinion. My thought process was to eat a light breakfast so every day except for one I only ate freeze-dried blue berries and oatmeal. It just wasn’t enough calories for my body. Keep this in mind when you set out on your first backcountry hunt.
- Use Wading Socks to Stalk: These worked great for stalking purposes. Made out of neoprene they were tougher and thicker than socks but flexible enough to tell if you were about to step on a branch. Very quiet and don’t take up much room in the pack. Can also be warm around camp as camp shoes if needed. If your not familiar (I wasn’t either until I bought them) they are neoprene socks you wear with waders or just a pair of boots while in the water.
- Tape Over The Muzzle: All you need is a bit of electrical tape and your good to go. I didn’t do this and you won’t believe the rain, dirt, pine needles, etc that make its way down the barrel. I’ll never make the mistake again. Also, a scope cover or quick access gun cover is something to consider.
- Use Puffy Jacket or Seat Cushion as Pillow: If you are worried about space or don’t want to carry a pillow, a puffy jacket or seat cushion work great. Use these 2 in tandem and you will be sleeping like a baby.
- A Creek Makes A Great Washing Machine: When your pants and jacket are soaking wet and covered in mud a good washing in the creek will do the trick. You can also use a couple smooth stones to agitate the clothes a bit to break up stubborn mud.
Day 1: What an amazing and beautiful place the Idaho backcountry is. We hiked 5 miles into the national forest. Saw a few ptarmigan which we couldn’t connect with. Would make for a very good dinner. Got to our campsite about 2:30pm and made good time as we left the trail head at 10:30am. 50lbs gets a lot heavier as the miles increase. All things considered I feel pretty good.
We posted up on a glassing spot looking back out of the valley we set up camp in. Great views but no animals to be seen so we made our way back to cam, pumped water and got a fire going. Nothing is better physically or mentally than the sights, sounds, and warmth of a fire. Before we wrap it up for the night my uncle realizes he forgot to pack bullets. Unfortunately, we had different caliber rifles.
How you forget bullets on an elk hunt when your 5 miles in the backcountry? I don’t know but we made a plan for him to hike back to the SUV and my cousin and I would head out to check a new location in the morning.
Day 2: Woke up to frost on the ground. Stayed warm in my bag but toes did get a little cold. Since my uncle forgot bullets he started his hike back early to try to maximize the day. My cousin and I climbed up the mountain we camped next to and set up a spot to glass. A beautiful sunrise met us as the top. About 30 mins later I heard a bugle to my left down in the valley we were looking over. It was one of those times your not sure if your mind is tricking you into thinking you heard something you really didn’t. To be on the safe side I didn’t say anything to my cousin for fear it was my imagination.
A couple minutes passed and this time we both heard a bugle followed by a chuckle coming from the same area. Hoping the bull had some cows with him we quickly packed up and started to make our way down into the valley. Just as we start to pick our way down the mountain the bull bugles again and our excitement level reaches its peak.
About 3/4 of the way down we find a wallow. The smell of elk is in the air. I’d always heard and read it described as a barnyard or urine type of smell and I would have to agree. It is definitely unmistakable.
We sneak to the edge of the pines we believe the elk are in and set up on a knob looking over this area. It also provides a great view of the other side of the valley.
The plan was for my cousin to head back at 1:30pm to meet his dad back at camp. They made their way back to my location and we took turns taking naps in the afternoon sun. As the evening rolls on we get setup to glass for the remainder of the evening. I hear my cousin whisper “We have an elk”. It turns out to be a nice bull with one side of his rack broken off on the opposite mountain side. We guess it’s the bull we heard this morning. Unfortunately, we only have cow tags so we cross our fingers and wait.
Right before last light we hear something walking right at us. Its close and we all scan the immediate area to our right in anticipation. My uncle sees it first, a small spike emerges from the pines and slowly makes his way past us at 50 yards. In a bitter-sweet moment we sit an awe as the spike feeds by us. Deep down inside we all wish it was a cow instead. Not a bad way to start a hunt and as the light leaves the sky we pack up and hike out in the dark.
On the way back I learn how difficult it can be to cover ground in this terrain. Going up the mountain we run into a patch of willows. I imagine this is what one of the stages of hell is. Every step something is either grabbing your foot or smacking you in the face. Again, its pitch black the only light we have is our headlamps and we are on a steep pitch of the mountain.
It’s slow going to say the least. We make it back to camp, get a fire going, and listen to the story my uncle tells us about his hike back to the SUV. He ran into 2 bull moose and a couple mule deer. We make our plan for the next morning and head for our tents.
Day 3: Today was a type 2 kind of day. The kind of fun that in the moment isn’t the best but a year down the road you will laugh about. Yeah that kind of fun.
We learned out lesson from the day before and started up the mountain well before first light. Making it to the top before daybreak all 3 of us split up to glass the other side of the valley and look for the elk we laid eyes on the day before. I had just finished warming up my breakfast and glassed for about 5 minutes before I spotted movement. Were my eyes deceiving me? One, two, three, four….ten elk total.
At this point I can barely contain myself with excitement. I double-checked again through my binos to make sure I wasn’t crazy and started sprinting up the mountain to my cousins location. From the elevation and incline by the time I got to him I was breathing too hard to speak. I finally muttered…10 elk and pointed. Quickly, he grabbed his binos and confirmed I was telling the truth. He had actually spotted a lone cow lower down the mountain.
With our hopes high we gathered our stuff and met up with my uncle. After some brain storming we came up with 3 options.
- Shoot straight down the mountain to the valley floor and up the other side. Sneak into the stand of pines we saw the group of elk slip into and see if we can stalk up on the herd. The most aggressive and fastest option but if successful would give us plenty of time to pack out the elk and come back to try to fill another tag. Also, we would need to beat the sun from rising to high and having the thermals change on us as we would be below the elk.
- Hike down the mountain out to the mouth of the valley and back up again. This time we would hike up and around the elk, wait for the thermals to change direction as we would be above the elk and sneak in for a shot. This would be the most strenuous as we would have about 2,000ft to 2,500ft in elevation change going all the way down and back up all the way to the top.
- Continue following the mountain we were on to the top, hit a ridge, and wrap around the valley to post up on the opposite side of the opening we spotted the elk feeding in earlier in the day. Being the most conservative tactic but most time-consuming as this would take us about 4hrs to cover that much ground
Which option would you take? Let me know in the comments below.
Safer heads prevailed. Taking option 3 we started up the mountain not knowing what would lay out in front of us. As we reached the top the weather turned on us and rain began to fall. We hiked a bit further and stopped for lunch. The weather didn’t look that bad and we were too far to turn back now so we pressed on.
Shortly after the rain picked up, a dense fog began to set in. Soon our boots are caked in mud and due to the fog we got a little off course and had to back track a bit but we find our way to the location we had seen from the other side of the valley. We drop our backs. Only the essentials as we try to slide our way up to a couple dead trees on the edge of the opening. We thought this would provide us plenty of cover, offer a clear view, and give us a solid rest for a shot. In theory this sounded great but in actuality due to the steep curve of the opening we couldn’t see the area where the elk entered the pines.
No problem lets just belly crawl another 15 yards and we will have a better view. Well after only crawling 15 more yards 5 more times we are covered in mud, soaking wet, and now have to sit for the next 2hrs waiting for the elk to return.
If you have hunted long enough you know, rarely it goes according to plan and unfortunately this is what happened to us. Not a single elk. Deflated we made our way back to the packs, changed into whatever dry clothes we had and set off down the mountain. The direction home was a new path filled with creek crossings over out boots. Rain doesn’t let up and 2.5hrs later we make it back to camp soaking wet. To say we are defeated is an understatement. Not many words are shared and we slide into our tents tails tucked between out legs.
Day 4: Thankfully we awake to clear skies. Unfortunately, not only is everything wet but now its almost frozen. The only thing I have dry is an extra jacket I packed, merino wool leggings that I slept in, and my sleeping bag and pad. Boots, socks, pants, top layers, underwear, pack, gloves, hat is wet. I’m talking everything.
No one was in a good mood. Multiple ideas are discussed. From hiking out and finding a laundry mat then hiking back, wearing wet clothes, and building a fire to dry out our clothes. I’ll be honest I was spent. My uncle tells us we need to stay, build a fire and dry out our clothes. If that doesn’t work then we can pack out.
The hardest part of this trip wasn’t the hiking or any other physical activity. It was waking up that morning finally dry and willingly putting wet, muddy, cold pants back on. 5 mins of talking myself into it and I creep out of the tent. We gather firewood, use some para cord and branches to build drying racks under a pine, and start a fire. Due to the belly crawling our pants were caked in mud.
We camped along a creek and decided to use it as a laundry mat. It worked really well. Almost all the mud came out. 5 to 6 hours later just about everything was dry. Sunny skies and dry clothes does a number on your spirit.
Since it’s too late in the day to get over to the elk we decide to hike as far as we can into the valley we camped in. No matter where you go in this country you’re going to have spectacular views and the overlook for tonight was no different. Not a single animal was spotted. Night ends with another campfire, laughs, and a plan to go after the elk from the day before.
Day 5: After getting a good nights sleep we woke up with high hopes for the day. Plan was to hike up and around the valley to the opening where we saw the elk 2 days earlier. We leave camp at 7:30am and reach the spot where we drop our packs by 1:00pm.
My uncle and I take our boots off and put on our neoprene socks and start still hunting up to the pines we saw the elk head into days earlier. Slowly we make our way into the pines. Yes this is an aggressive tactic but the thermals were in our favor and it was the 2nd to last day of the hunt. At some point you have to choke up and swing for the fences.
We ended up striking out. Either the elk had bedded in another location or we spooked them before we could lay eyes on them. Either way we meet up with my cousin and decide to spend the evening on the knob we had the spike walk by us on the first evening.
With an hour left of light I hear a familiar sound echoing across the valley. The sound of a bugle hits my ears. We can’t believe it because it sounds to be coming from the same general area we had been in hours earlier. Before darkness falls on the valley I count 15 more bugles. As we hike out back to camp the bull continues his show and I count about 10 more before we are out of ear shot.
It was almost as if that bull knew we were there all along. As if he was challenging us to come back for more punishment and heart break. He and the herd had bested us the past couple days..
Day 6: The last day of the hunt is a lot like the last day of vacation when your a kid. You know its coming but when it finally arrives you wish you could reverse time to start all over again. Because we had to hike out that afternoon we made a plan to hike to the mouth of the valley we camped in, glass the mountain side across from us, and see what we could get into.
A moment I will remember for the rest of my life happened on our hike out to the glassing spot. We followed the creek out of the valley. I was in the lead and was coming up on a bend to the right. The ridges pinched down to about 40 yards apart at this point. As I came around the bend I caught movement out of my peripheral. At first all I saw was a huge, black 4 legged animal step behind a pine about 80 yards in front of me. Stopping in my tracks I see antlers emerge from the other side of the pine. A moose is on the trail along the creek and heading right for us.
Quickly we jump the creek and crouch down on the opposite ridge. Unaware of our presence the moose makes it to 15 yards from us before he can tell something isn’t right. He turns to head back the direction he came from but decides we aren’t enough of a threat to alter his path and turns around and follows the trail we had come from.
This is one of the many reasons why I love the outdoors and want to do my part to make sure these wild places and wild animals are here for future generations. Many people will never get to experience something like that. What a massive and beautiful animal. I am very fortunate to have been in that moment.
The remainder of the morning was uneventful besides 3 mule deer does we spotted on the opposite mountain side. We glass a bit longer and then make a large loop back to camp. Pack up camp and hike out. We are back at the trail head before the sun goes down.
What I Learned
With any hunt you should take away a lesson or two. How can you improve? What should you have done differently? For a hunt like this I have a list a mile long with this being not only my first elk hunt but first western hunt. Here are a couple that I hope help you out, especially if your about to embark on your first adventure out West.
- I did as much e-scouting and research as I possible could before this hunt. I felt confident that we were in a good location but to be honest before the trip I told myself I’d be happy just to see some elk. Do I think we had some luck on our side…you bet. Where we faltered though was from getting to cocky. For myself when we spotted elk within a decent yardage I thought it was only a matter of time before we would be packing out meat. We learned the hard way there is a big gap between spotting elk and actually getting a shot at an elk.
- Make a trip like this happen. Plain and simple. Don’t tell yourself…. I’d like to do a trip like that someday. Make a plan, set a date. Don’t live your life through someone else’s pictures. Go take your own!
- I have so much more to learn. Pretty obvious but going on a trip like this is an eye-opening experience to a much different type of hunting style. I’m hooked and plan to be out in the mountains chasing elk again soon.
- For your first time go with at least one friend/family member. There was a period of time before the hunt where I was going by myself. Looking back I’m glad that didn’t happen. So many new situations are going to be thrown at you. Having at least one person there to help you out will make a difference.
- I need to do what I can to protect these amazing lands. These lands are for all of us. Whether it’s hunting, hiking, camping, ranching, natural resource extraction. There has to be a balance between all groups if we want to preserve these public lands for future generations. Backcountry hunters and anglers is a great organization to join if you haven’t already. I am proud to say I am a member of such a great organization. Here is one of their latest videos on why making your voice heard is so important.
Success is judged in different ways. Did we fail to come home with elk meat? Yes, unfortunately no one filled a tag. The unit we hunted was around a 17% percent success rate so the fact a couple first timers from out of state found elk, chased elk, but came up short is pretty good in my book.
The memories though from laughing around a campfire, falling asleep to the gurgle of a creek, having a moose walk pass you at 15 yards, hearing an elk bugle for the first time on a hunt, and sharing time with family is something that can never be taken away from me.
I’ll trade an empty tag for that any day and throw my hat back in the ring at another attempt down the road.