Photo credit: Sam Sarbacher
If you Google elk hunting, search for it on YouTube or Facebook, you will find hundreds if not thousands of videos. In most of those videos, you see hunters calling bulls using cow calls, bugling at bulls to get them fired up or spotting and stalking bulls in the open sage country. Though these are excellent methods to try and harvest a bull elk, there is also one way that often isn’t shown because it doesn’t make good video footage. This way is using all of your senses to find and harvest bulls in thick timber.
Here are some tips on how you can master still hunting for elk through dense timber. The cool part about still hunting through the timber is that you can find success during every phase because these principles do not require elk to be rutting.
During the spring, summer and early fall, elk are mainly nocturnal; however, can also often be active hours after daylight and hours before dark. They become comfortable feeding down towards their nightly hangout early to get some extra food and water for the night and hanging there later in the morning before going to bed. However, once the hunting seasons start and they begin to feel pressure, it is common for them to head to bed earlier and become primarily nocturnal. It is also common to see them move from higher elevation alpine country into some of the middle elevation timber. They love it there because most hunters would rather glass from a vantage point than work their way through loud, cracking deadfall. This is precisely why you should not be like most hunters. Instead, you can find success doing what others do not want to do. The elk are there. And you can find them and harvest them by still hunting through thick timber and using all of your senses to do so.
When it comes to finding a good timber patch that holds elk, you need to think about three things. First, pressured elk love to move into hard-to-access areas. They do it year after year and find safety there during the hunting seasons. Inaccessible areas are typically miles from trucks and trailheads and in areas that are overlooked. The second thing you need to look for when seeking out elky timbered areas is the thicker the timber, the better. Elk love thick timber with deadfall and loud cracking earth because this provides safety. They can hear most predators and clumsy hunters coming from miles away and quietly slip out while the hunter is non-the-wiser. The last thing that pressured bulls like is steep country — the steeper the terrain, the better. If you have any steep country with northern facing thick timber in a hard-to-access area with a bench more than halfway up, that is where you will find your elk.
To still hunt through thick timber, you need to use your eyes, your ears, your nose and have some patience. I always like to glass in the morning in order to try to find easy-to-spot elk. If you spot a herd that you can’t get to quick enough, watch them to determine where they go. Then, decide if you think you will have a chance in the afternoon. If you think they might do the same thing in the afternoon — only in reverse — I would suggest that you plan to ambush them that evening. However, if you are in a high pressure unit or you think they might disappear, I would plan on still hunting the timber patch they move into. Ultimately, you need to decide what is your highest chance to harvest an elk and do that. Suppose you do not see any elk while glassing. Then, you need to pick some timbered slopes that look elky and plan on still hunting them during the day. I always like to wait until mid-morning when the thermals are steadily pulling up the hill and the prevailing wind is usually consistently blowing in one direction. Only then do I start on elevation or higher than where I think the elk will be with the wind and thermals in my face.
Once I am set up, I slowly work my way through the timber a few steps at a time. Each time I stop, I look, glass, listen and smell. If you have ever hunted elk, you know they have a very distinct odor that carries through the wind, especially if you are near a herd of elk. If I do this and do not see any elk, hear anything (including twigs snapping) or smell any elk, I move forward a few more steps. The trick with successful still hunting is always to assume that you are just about to see an elk herd and never get complacent. You are putting in the time to hike hard and hunt hard, so do not let impatience ruin your opportunity. Move through the timbered area until you are satisfied that there is nothing there. Once you are satisfied, find another timber patch and do it all again. If you see, hear or smell an elk, you need to quietly and slowly move into a shooting position. I have had elk hear me sneaking through the woods and come in close to check out what I am. If they do this and you are ready, you can have an opportunity. If it’s the rut, you may also choose to call or bugle at close range to get him to investigate or kick some butt.
Many hunters avoid units and areas that have a lot of timber and for a good reason. These areas are challenging to hunt! This is precisely why you should consider hunting elk in units and places that have thick timber. If there are fewer hunters, there are less pressured elk and your chances to harvest go up. Of course, still hunting through timber may not be for everyone, but having this skill in your playbook may help you harvest a mature, dark-antlered bull this year or in years to come. Remember to be successful, you need to use all of your senses, including sight, hearing, smell, and, above all, patience.