Elk Hunting Tips: Their Sense of Smell

I blew the morning hunt. The big herd bull simply ignored my attempts to call him to the edge of the herd where I could get a shot. He gathered his cows and moved around the hill. I tried to cut them off. But elk can mosey along faster than most people can run (on rough, mountain terrain).

My partner, Scott Christensen, who was a couple hundred yards off when all this was occurring, said he heard another bull up and to my left. Believing in never giving up, we started climbing. An hour later we topped out in the saddle leading to the north side of the ridge. Immediately we heard elk hooves pounding the earth below. I could tell from the sound that they were headed down and they were not spooked. Spooked elk can sound like a freight train crashing through the woods. These elk were calm.

We sat there, munching on trail snacks, discussing the situation. From the saddle, facing the direction the elk were, the ridge wind was at our back. Not good. I always like the wind in my face when moving in on game. It’s critical. Deer, elk, and bear have noses that can smell you long before you can even see them. Also, it was about 10 am.

Elk Hunting Tips

The morning thermals had switched from downhill to uphill on the south slope. The north slope where the elk were still had downhill thermals since it was still in the shade of the ridge top. If we followed the elk they would smell us, as the downhill thermals would carry our scent directly to their noses. We had to figure a way to get the thermals in our favor.

Elk Hunting Tips

Thermal Winds

In northern latitudes the south slope is the side of the ridge facing south, toward the sun. It warms up first. The north slope faces north away from the sun and warms later in the day after the sun clears the top of the ridge.

Thermal winds are winds created by the temperature of the slope. This is controlled by the sun, or at night the lack of sun. Thermal winds are present even on the calmest of days, overridden only by winds from incoming low-pressure storms. At night these thermal winds drift downhill, as cold air sinks and warm air rises. When the sun rises and warms the slope, these winds switch direction and drift uphill. This transition usually begins around 9 o’clock and a short period of swirling winds can occur during this transition. If this occurs, simply wait for the winds to stabilize.

My Elk Hunting Tip: Wind Detection

Using electrical tape, tape a light sewing thread which you have glued a small down feather to one end to the inside top limb of your bow. This will always indicate wind direction and you will not have to show movement by tossing dust into the air.

Our Bowhunting Strategy

I figured the elk would not go clear to the creek and stay, but would probably bed down on the north slope near the bottom. So we decided to circle the head of the basin as we descended, to keep our scent on the opposite south slope where the thermals would carry our scent uphill away from the elk. When we got to the bottom, we were on the opposite side of the creek from the elk. It was quiet, no sound of elk anywhere.

Our Bowhunting Strategy

We crept silently along the creek, moving down with the thermals in our face. Suddenly a bull grunted from across the creek on the north slope. Rick and I decide to split up. He would stay on this side of the creek and call to the bull. I would cross the creek and set up for a shot, keeping the wind in my favor.

My Elk Hunting Tip: Your Hunting Partner

Hunting with a partner can be highly effective. One stays behind and does the elk calling. The other positions himself between the caller and the bull. Keep the wind in mind and keep each other in sight. Use hand signals, as the bull can come from any direction and the shooter may not see him, but the caller might or vise versa.

The Smaller Bull

After crossing I set up near a small meadow. Elk love wet meadows. They bed in timber, but will feed even during the day in small wet meadows near their beds. Rick began calling. The bull answered with a grunt. Then there was movement in the trees. A small 4X4-point bull walked out of the brush. He walked right by me presenting a perfect shot.

I could hear another bull in the brush. He was rubbing his antlers on a tree. I passed up the small bull, wanting a chance at what I knew to be a bigger bull. Rick called, again the bigger bull answered. The smaller bull, after circling back towards the bigger one walked out a second time and presented the perfect shot. I waited. Suddenly a stick cracked. I looked back in the direction of the big bull to see him coming in head on with his rack down and pointed right at me. At ten yards, he turned broadside and began horning the ground.

Horning the Ground

“Horning the ground” is when a bull elk sticks his antlers in the earth and tosses dirt in the air. It is an intimidation thing.

Taking the Shot

Taking the Shot

He horned the ground several times. I noticed as he did that, his eyes disappeared behind a downed log. The next time his eyes disappeared, I drew and fired. The bull whirled and ran. I bugled loud and long. He stopped, looked back and fell down in full view. The hunt was over. The work was just beginning. My bull was a fine 6X4 Rocky Mountain Elk.

My Elk Hunting Tip: Bugle After the Shot

Always bugle loud and long after you release an arrow at a bull. The bull may stop, even turn and come back to you, avoiding a possible long and tedious tracking job to recover your quarry. This has happened to me twice. Even if you spook the elk without them seeing or smelling you, bugle. I stopped another bull from running off doing this and my hunting partner, Scott Christensen, shot him at 15 yards after tricking the bull to come back for the shot.

My Elk Hunting Tip: The Lung Shot

The pink frothy bubbles emanating from the bull’s side indicates a solid lung shot. This is where you want to hit them. A double lung shot, with bow, will put down an elk nearly as fast as a rifle. This bull only went 50 yards after the shot.

Stay safe, shoot straight, have fun!

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