Photo credit: Jake Horton
When elk hunting, most hunters understand that elk have an excellent sense of smell. As hunters, we go through a lot of effort to stay down wind, to enter an area correctly and avoid that nose. What you do not often hear about is using our human noses to hone in on an elk or elk herd in an attempt to get close enough to harvest them, especially during archery or muzzleloader season when getting close is the name of the game. Using your nose and sense of smell can allow you to find elk even when they are not vocal. And it can work — even in the thickest country where you leave your optics in the truck.
If you have ever killed an elk, been close to a herd, came up on a fresh elk bed or used an elk attractant scent you understand that elk have a very distinct and undeniable scent that stops you in your tracks. For those of you who have not smelled elk, the scent has been compared to a lot of smells, but, personally, I think it compares to the strong musk of cattle. The scent of elk can be attributed to their urine and other glands that produce liquid and musk, stink from wallowing and just being a wild animal. Understanding that elk have this distinct scent that is strong — especially when they are together or nearby — will help you become a better elk hunter. When you smell elk they are often close or on an upwind path. Knowing this scent can lead to a still hunt or stalk if played correctly. Keeping the wind in your face and trying to stay in the elk scent path will allow you to walk in the right direction to where they are or were without them smelling you. With experience, you can almost smell the difference between a few or a lot of elk and guesstimate how close you are to them. The wind and thermals are very important to being able to smell these animals and need to be understood.
Photo credit: Jake Horton
Many hunters talk about thermals and wind direction and how to use them to your advantage by keeping them from carrying your scent to where the elk are. Some of you may be wondering what thermals are or do not have a clear understanding of how they work. The most simple definition of thermals with regard to hunting in the mountains is a directional flow of air that is a result of air warming or cooling. It is common knowledge that hot air rises and cold air sinks which, in a mountain setting, moves air up and down the mountain slopes. When there are no strong winds and thermals are the only air movement as the sun goes down, you can feel the cool air start to fall down the mountain and this continues to fall throughout the night. If you are on the mountain at this time you can actually feel the shift of direction and the different temperature of the air.
Early in the morning, the air is still falling down the mountain, which is why elk usually make their way uphill to bed with the thermals hitting them in their face. This allows them to smell any danger that may be near their bedding area as they head up the mountain. Depending on the day and cloud cover, at some time in the morning, when the sun is heating up the mountainside, the thermals shift and the “warmed” air moves up the mountain. By this time, if everything went as planned, the elk have arrived in their bedding area and will be able to smell any danger that comes from below or that was following them. If any danger comes from above the elk, they can quickly drop in elevation and escape.
Late in the afternoon, before the sun goes down, elk will head down in elevation with the afternoon thermals in their face, smelling any danger that is in their nightly feeding destination. This technique helps elk stay alive; however, if used to your advantage, can make elk more predictable and can allow you to smell the elk. All of this information comes with a disclaimer stating that if there is a prevailing wind, the rules of thermals still apply, but may create a swirling wind situation that usually gives the elk an advantage.
The elk use these thermals to their advantage so why do we not use them more? Well, I do and here is how I put them to work for me. In the morning as thermals are still dropping, come under an area where you suspect elk are and take a whiff. Do you smell elk? If so, slowly move up the mountain and try to keep the scent of elk in your nostrils. By the time the thermals switch and the elk are in their bed you should be close or on a parallel with the herd. Then you can call, stalk or wait until they switch their pattern and go down the mountain in the afternoon. No matter what you choose, you have made it, hopefully undetected, into the elks’ bedroom. The same strategy works in reverse throughout the day. During the late morning and afternoon when elk are bedded in thicker, dark timber or pockets of timber, still hunt above these areas. Whenever you get to a good side hill where you can feel the thermals hitting you in your face and coming up the mountain, stop and sit down. Give it a minute or two to try and smell any elk that may be below you. Often, if day hunting from a trailhead, I will head out to the field around noon and get above or on parallel where I think elk would bed. Then, I slowly move, using my eyes, nose and ears, keeping a careful lookout for any elk sighting, smell or sound. When I see, smell or hear an elk, then I need to formulate a plan to kill the elk, which is often harder than finding elk.
Here is an example from a few years ago when I used this technique on a bull, using no calls or glass; just my ears and nose. I had been out all day in this big basin with no luck. I was working my way back down the mountain ridge, being careful not to be skylined when I heard a bugle across an open rock field. I quickly moved down to what I thought was parallel or below where the bugle was since the thermals were about to switch from uphill to downhill. The sun was about to set and I didn’t know exactly where this bull was. As I got closer to where I thought I heard this lone bugle, I felt the evening thermals switch from uphill to downhill and, instantly, I could smell elk. Without letting out a call or making a sound, I slowly still hunted uphill, keeping the wind and smell of elk in my face. If I lost the scent, I would move left or right until I found it again. As I crossed through the pines, I came out directly downwind of two bulls raking a tree less than 40 yards ahead of me who were unaware of my presence and the rest is history. All it took was one bugle and the scent of elk to put me within bow range of these bulls. A lot of hunters would say that I should have snuck down and cow called, hoping to coax the bulls to my position. This technique might have worked, but definitely would have put these bulls on the lookout for a cow or person. Personally, I find that in a public land pressure elk situation, calling an elk can be a hit or miss depending on the elk’s behavior and hunter interactions thus far in the season. What I can personally depend on during a pressured elk situation is a slow stalk using cover and terrain to mask my approach.
When hunting elk, most hunters understand that it is important to see the elk and hear the elk, but often don’t think about smelling the elk. Paying attention and using your nose to smell when the wind is in your face puts you in a better position to find elk in thick timber when your optics are next to useless. Next time you are working in on a bull, consider not calling. Instead, use thermals and the elk’s scent to head in the right direction and get closer. Once you get in close to some elk that are unaware that you are in their bedroom, you will be using your nose more than your call when hunting pressured elk on public land.