Tough Terrain Bulls

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Tough Terrain Bulls

Backpack elk hunts are tough, so pick your battles wisely

I’m a sucker for a good view. Consequently, I often take what the terrain looks like into account when planning my backpack elk hunts. This probably isn’t the best way to plan a successful elk hunt, but for me it’s a good starting point for the makings of a memorable one. 

The views inspire me, but I also prefer big rugged areas for elk because I like to glass more on backpack hunts than I do when my camp is based along a road and I have access to my truck. After all, seeing is believing, and when I have to carry everything I need on my back, it’s easier to stop believing if I can’t actually see what I’m after. 

What’s the Difference? 

The main reason I prefer to glass more on a backpack elk hunt vs. a “non-backpack” elk hunt all has to do with mobility. This is a bigger concern in some areas I hunt than others; factors such as elk density, ruggedness of terrain, how good the trails are (if any) are all factors that play into this. 

I take into account that I can only hike so many miles and pack so much food, so if I run around forcing every encounter and being aggressive, I stand a good chance of running most of the elk out of the area that I can physically hunt on foot in one trip. 

This is totally opposite when I’m hunting elk while based out of a tent camp next to the truck and doing day hunts. Here I’ll usually be very aggressive with each elk encounter and if it doesn’t go my way, then big deal; I’ll hike back to the truck and drive to a new area and hunt new elk in a totally different spot the next day. 

I don’t want to give you the impression that I just run around like a headless chicken on this type of hunt, but when it comes to public land elk, they are often very unpredictable and tough to pattern, so waiting for the perfect conditions can often result in the elk vanishing before you ever even make a move on them. 

On a backpack elk hunt this is a risk I usually have to take though, as I don’t have the means to easily reach new areas each day in search of new elk. I’m usually logistically committed to that area.

Strength and Weaknesses

It’s a good idea to really understand what benefits and/or disadvantages a particular style of hunting or type of terrain offer you. 

Advantages. The main advantages I seek through a backpack elk hunt in rugged terrain are: 1) finding elk that are less pressured by other hunters, and 2) putting myself in country that because of its more vertical structure, allows me to see and hear farther. 

This is also a huge advantage if the elk don’t like to be vocal because of wolves or hunting pressure, or if there is just a lull in the rutting activity. If you can see them, you don’t have to worry as much whether or not they bugle. 

Disadvantages. The main disadvantages of this type of hunt are: 1) Lack of mobility; if you have trouble finding elk you can run out of energy and options real quick when you are running on manpower vs. horsepower. 2) Due to the previously mentioned disadvantage, it can make staying mentally committed to the hunt a lot more challenging. 

I have actually truly felt devastated by blown elk encounters on the second day of backpacking in rugged terrain. It’s not that I haven’t felt this way on non-backpack hunts or when hunting more gentle terrain, but it usually takes longer to get frustrated. Not to mention, when on non-backpack hunts, I am usually sharing a camp with family or friends that encourage and motivate each other. On backpack hunts, it’s often solo or with one buddy who is in no better mental condition that me. Understanding these types of backpacking attributes can help you tweak your hunting style to your advantage when in the field.   

Think Like a Deer Hunter

I find that on my backpack elk hunts, my daily routine feels very similar to that of a high country deer hunt, in that I usually get up and head straight for a highpoint for glassing. Conversely, on a non-backpack hunt, I might power hike though a bull’s bedroom on a timbered hillside, stopping to listen and call every few hundred yards while searching for a vocal bull to move in on. On backpack elk hunts, I’m very conservative about hiking into a bull’s comfort zone. I will run into that zone if the conditions are right, but if they aren’t, I won’t push it unless my hunt is getting down to the wire and I’m leaving soon. 

My favorite method. Like most hunters, I have preferred methods when it comes to ways to bowhunt for elk. My personal favorite method is to get as close as possible to the herd and wait for an opportunity to unfold. I’m not exactly sure why it’s my favorite, but I think it’s exciting to be close to a rutting elk herd and observing them behave naturally while totally unaware of danger. 

Don’t disrupt. Calling can oftentimes take that totally natural behavior out of the equation as they start looking for what they hear but don’t see. Plus, on public land where they get called repeatedly, it can put the herd of high alert even if your calling is decent.

Adapt. More than anything though, I simply want to do what works best for the situation. I don’t get stuck on trying to force a method to work; I’ll call, stalk, use decoys, sit wallows, set up an ambush, or whatever it takes based on the current situation. This is true on any elk hunt I’m on, but when it comes to a backpack hunt, room for error is much smaller, so I start calculating my degree of risk more carefully. 

Know when to back away. If the conditions aren’t obviously in my favor - such as an inconsistent wind, loud stalking conditions, and/or a questionable calling setup, I’ll often back away and wait for another chance. The reason I get more conservative on this type of hunt is because spooking the bull out of my canyon or area I’m hunting means I often only have two choices: 1) sit around and hope new elk move in, or 2) pack up my camp and hike off with a heavy pack in search of new elk in a different spot. Those aren’t fun options.

Know when to press. Another factor in how conservative or aggressive I’ll be with any given encounter is what stage of the hunt I’m in. For example, on a seven-day backpack hunt, I’ll usually be patient and calculate every element of a potential elk encounter very carefully, while waiting for nearly perfect situation, for the first five days. But for days six and seven, I’ll be far more aggressive and take more chances. Blowing the elk out of my area won’t be an issue since I’ll be leaving soon, so I might was well give it a shot. 

Playing Your Cards Right 

This past year I backpacked in to a rugged area and had somehow managed to spook every elk out of a sizable drainage in only a few days. I was dejected, and as I went to bed on the third day, I was convinced that I would need to pack up camp the next morning and hike farther out the trail in search of new elk. I figured I had one big move I could make on this seven-day trip, so this would be it; if I didn’t find elk within a few miles, I’d be out of options, as this would be the edge of my physical limits. 

The next morning I woke up and heard a bugle not far from camp.  I soon spotted the bull along the edge of a timber patch above me and could see he was a nice six-point. Knowing this was likely the only bull left, I backed away from the location - even with a favorable wind - and headed for a vantage point across the drainage from the bull. This would allow me to get a better feel for the situation and gauge my risks better. 

I was very excited that a new elk had moved into the area overnight, and as soon as I heard the bugle close to camp, I wanted to quickly move in (especially with a favorable wind), but experience had taught me otherwise. I still had time on my side and I wanted to know more before moving in. I had no idea if he had cows, if there was more than one bull, if he was on the move, or just hanging out. All of these details would make a huge difference in how I would try to kill this bull. 

As luck would have it, I got to the vantage point and couldn’t see or hear him. An hour went by and I started to second-guess if the bull was still around. Finally, he bugled softly and I now knew the exact timber patch he was in, which was a 20-acre patch of nasty deadfall. 

I decided I still knew too little, so I waited. Unfortunately, a storm system started to move in and my earlier stable and favorable thermals were now gone. 

After a few hours of sitting in the rain and freezing half to death while keeping on eye on the timber patch, all I knew was he wasn’t moving and he bugled only occasionally.

My instincts told me he was alone and was a good “lovesick” candidate to call in. I packed up that afternoon to cross over and get level with him. Everything worked great; I was able to get into perfect position. Then the wind switched. I was sick, because I knew I would be moving camp in search of new elk if he winded me

Considering this, I swiftly backed out and returned to my previous vantage point, hoping it wasn’t already too late. The bull bugled again after I returned to the vantage point. I now had a second chance at this bull and I was determined not to screw it up, even if it meant waiting until tomorrow. 

Nearly the entire day passed when he finally showed himself.  He wasn’t alone; he had at least two cows with him! Armed with more info and steady thermals, I moved in. Wanting to make it as easy as possible for him to come to me, I got level with the herd. 

I was only a couple hundred yards from the elk. I had a good wind the herd was small, so I pressed on.  With only a couple cows, I knew the bull might be interested in adding to his harem. With daylight starting to fade, I either needed to make a move or wait for tomorrow. 

I decided to set up a decoy behind me in the wide open and let out a couple soft cow calls. He bugled instantly and then again; I knew he was coming. He barely got into view and then stopped at 80 yards, staring in my direction. I knew he couldn’t see me or my decoy yet, so I was tempted to call again, but I knew I’d run the risk of 1) him pinpointing my location, and 2) losing the affect my decoy might have if he voluntarily took a few more steps and saw it. 

After a minute, he continued on his path and saw my decoy. The 20-yard broadside shot was all but a formality. 

It’s taken me years to learn that successful backpack elk hunts usually feel more like playing chess than rugby. Slow down and gather as much info as you can before you take on your next backpack elk encounter and stack the odds in your favor.  


Nate Simmons

Nate is one of the most extreme backcountry bowhunters on the planet and prides himself on being a self-sufficient DIY hunter. He is the Producer and Co-Host of The Western Hunter TV show and a past Co-Producer of Eastmans’ Hunting TV. Nate is also a talented writer, having published dozens of quality hunting articles over the years. Nate is a resident of Wyoming.

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