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Adapting elk strategies to changing conditions

 

Arizona elk country
All photo credits: Rick Bush

I am an opportunity hunter. I learned to hunt elk by purchasing over-the-counter (OTC) tags, as well as applying for controlled hunts with high draw odds and respectable hunter success. I cut my teeth in units often referred to as mid-tier, low-demand or limited-opportunity. This requires an open-minded approach for every hunt. Before hunt application services were readily available, I was that guy building extensive spreadsheets using publicly available hunt data in hopes of drawing a tag more frequently. In March of 2017, my buddy Matt and I were rewarded with archery elk tags in our home state of Arizona. I drew for the second straight year while Matt applied for five years before drawing his first elk tag.

Scouting intel

Waterhole

Even though I had recent firsthand knowledge about the unit, I did not want to rely solely on past experience. We were coming off of a dry winter so we decided to put some boots on the ground to do some early season scouting. Water was in short supply as many of the dirt tanks were dry or soon would be. We met a helpful guy named Nate while scouting and he lent a hand swapping out a flat tire on our truck. Since we both had tags for the same season we exchanged numbers and planned to keep in touch. As a consequence of the abnormally dry conditions, the threat of fire loomed as smoke from a neighboring wildfire moved into our unit in late July.

Arizona countryside

Drought recon

The U.S. Drought Index had upgraded the severity of drought conditions to moderate throughout much of northern Arizona. While western drought and wildfire are a persistent reality, we decided not to concern ourselves with something that was out of our control. Although we continued to come across natural and manmade water sources that were dry, we weren’t surprised to find some areas within the unit that appeared to receive more rain and were somewhat buffered from the statewide drought. Another source of wildlife water we found were rock cavities (i.e., tinajas) that held monsoon rain much like a bedrock pool in an intermittent stream.

Small puddle of water

Spot and stalk strategy

We glassed from good vantage points on opening day. We set up on a glassing knoll we had watched elk from while scouting, but, unfortunately, we couldn’t spot an elk. We relocated to a more prominent hill and it was game on. Since it was only Matt and I, we didn’t have a spotter to remain fixed on the bull as we made our stalk. We covered about three-fourths of a mile to the location where the elk should’ve been; however, I miscalculated the distance and we busted his harem. After days of only spotting cows from other vantage points, we summited the prominent hill from the opening morning and it looked like an NFL watch party. There were 15 guys in all; five different guide outfits with three spotters for each client. We were devastated to learn that in addition to all the spotters there were additional guides and the clients situated on the forest floor below waiting for radio contact from their eyes in the sky. The logistics and all the Swarovski optics were impressive to see, but it was a sight I never want to see again.

The big blow

Blind set up

We collectively decided to change our strategy to try to intercept a bull coming to water. Three straight days of hunting from two separate ground blinds didn’t produce. I had cows come in two days in a row, but no bulls followed. Matt didn’t see a single animal for the first two days and he repeatedly told me he felt like a caged animal in solitary confinement! Then, on the third day, he had a non-committal 6-point bull hang up at 75 yards, linger briefly, then bug out without apparent cause. Matt was hooked; he was prepared to wait as many days as it took to get a shot opportunity on that bull. That is when Mother Nature had different plans for us and the winds began gusting to 30 mph that afternoon. It was a steady blow for the next week. Hunting from a ground blind and glassing through the blowing dirt was futile in the heavy winds; we needed to employ a new strategy.

View inside blind as a cow elk walks by

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Dark timber

Hunting dark timber

We needed to find an area sheltered from the unrelenting wind. I knew of a bowl in the dark timber that could afford some refuge, but in exchange for getting out of the wind, we’d lose the ability to effectively use our optics. We spent the next day exploring the sheltered bowl and developing a plan. The wind blowing through the pines created too much noise to hear any elk vocalizations, but the well-worn travel routes traversing the quiet timber and fresh rubs were intriguing.

Because the wind was highly variable and still hunting the timber would be a gamble, I hung a treestand at the intersection of two game trails in hopes of catching a bull moving from its feeding area to the thick timber.

Elk rub

The first evening I hunted the stand it showed some promise and also created cause for concern. My wind-blown scent spooked a bear working down the ridge on the opposite side of the draw, but just as it was getting dark I caught a glimpse of a cow elk through the timber. Matt decided to travel back to town that evening as he needed to take care of business and decided to do so before the wind backed off.

Without any good alternatives in the gusty wind, I was back in my stand about 30 minutes before legal shooting light the next morning. I thought I saw a light tan rump moving through the trees on the same path as the bear. I had almost convinced myself it was a blonde-colored bear when I positively identified a section of an antler. After freezing motionless in his tracks for several minutes, the bull veered onto the game trail that passed my stand. I could feel the uncontrollable smile wash over my face as I realized my plan was coming together. I drew my bow in anticipation of him coming to the intersection and had a diaphragm call in my mouth ready to freeze him in his tracks. I did not use the call as he paused momentarily when he came to the intersection. I released my arrow and watched it enter right behind the shoulder. The bull turned sharply around and headed back from where he had approached. I recovered the rear one-third of the arrow within a couple yards of where the bull was shot, which meant the remaining section of arrow and broadhead were still in the body cavity. The blood trail was heavy and, by its frothy appearance, suggested I had made a lung shot.

Blood trail

Doubt creeps in

My only concern as I tracked my bull was how many trips it would take me to pack my animal back to camp. I easily tracked the bull for the first hundred yards where I found an area of clay-like soil where the bull had laid down. His side profile was easily discernible in the soft soil as was a reddish brown plate-sized area where the animal had bled heavily. From that point on, tracking became very difficult because instead of following drops of blood I only found small dirt clods that were composed of drying blood and the clay-like soil that matched the color of the surrounding terrain. I decided it was time to make some phone calls because it became readily apparent that a second set of eyes was essential or there wasn’t going to be a pack-out.

My first call was to Nate as we had kept in touch periodically leading up to and during the hunt. He answered my call for help and met me at camp by the time I had chorizo and egg burritos ready for breakfast. We hiked the three-quarters of a mile back to where I had lost the blood trail and I briefed him on the sequence of events. We proceeded to methodically search for any cues to determine which direction my wounded bull traveled. We came to a dead end on multiple occasions before retracing our steps to learn we had missed a broken branch or had followed the wrong set of tracks. This scenario played out throughout the afternoon and the sun was sinking low in the sky. Several times we had lost the trail entirely to only hear the other guy shout those lovely words, “I have blood”. 11 and a half hours after I shot my bull, we recovered the animal.

Arizona elk

I cannot describe the feeling of working that hard to recover an animal without giving up to ultimately find success. I was concerned regarding how long the meat had been exposed to the elements on a sunny, but cool, fall day. When I dropped the meat at the butcher the following morning I gave him a rundown on what had happened. I was extremely excited to learn from the butcher that there was no loss of meat. I am grateful for Nate’s assistance and the opportunity to harvest a great bull.

Pack out

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7 Comments

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Brady B. - posted 1 week ago on 08-13-2018 08:42:06 pm

Tyler T. it seems other agree with you. Here is a post I found from another article about guides vs. DIY.

Hunter H. - prev. posted
Your article misses the real issue that most people have against hunting guides. Its not about if 'Guides are good or bad guys' or DIY are either one too. My friends in Arizona frown on guides because they effect us (DIY hunters) in a negative way. The issue is about an extremely limited resource (180"+ class bucks) that are being prostituted heavily for money and ego (ego drives the social media phenom). A test case would be to remove the big money and see if hunting guides would fade away.
Here in Arizona, we see the impact of guides greater than most states. Arizona's famous big mule deer bucks are located in a small percentage of the state north of the grand canyon. In comparison to other states, the area is much flatter and easy to hunt. In Utah/Colorado and others you can find big bucks in all parts of the state. Not so in AZ. Guides have saturated our 'much smaller areas' (in strip and a few elk units) with hundreds of paid helpers and trail cams.
The pressure on the monster muleys has become excessive in recent times. Making it harder and less fun for the DIY guys (majority of hunters) to locate a 190+ buck. Simi-local guides with very local helpers live on-top of the deer year round. They are like the paparazzi taking thousands of pics and giving them names. The bigger bucks can't stand this pressure forever and the hunt "Experience" is worse now than ever. Its TRUE. The catalyst has been the online world that can stoked a flame. There's a hire-a-guide frenzy that we see now with internet/social media. If you draw a coveted elk/deer tag in AZ, people will say that you better hire a guide as if your hunt and life depended on it.
We applaud the tag holders who made a decision to earn their buck no-matter the outcome. Not thinking 100% success on a 200" buck was something to be purchased, but rather earned. Res & non-res hunters who woke up on their own without a guide slapping the tent door. Hunters who made their own breakfast. Who jumped into the driver seat of the truck, not the backseat... and who set out to do something significant each day...and left the outcome to GOD. We in AZ applaud you and respect you for your effort. Its 'YOUR' hunting storied we want to hear.
This message is mostly meant for those who pay someone else to do their hunting for them (not counting anyone with physical needs). For the rest of us there is an assumed 'effort' required of earning the title of "hunter". A rarely spoken truth is how friends and associates will examine your 'hunt effort' and decide to respect you as a hunter, or not. A lot of heads on a wall are meaningless if someone else hunted them for you. Its a respect thing that dad, granddad and great granddad understood. On a guided hunt, you're the guy who 'pulled the trigger' at best and that's how people (and guides) will think of you. Go DIY next time. The inner you will thank you.

Tyler T. - posted 2 months ago on 06-06-2018 11:22:17 am
goHUNT INSIDER

Unfortunately gobs of guides helping 1 client is becoming a constant every time I go out and hunt in Arizona. Great story and bull! Love hearing about the success of the DIY hunter putting in work.

Quentin J. - posted 3 months ago on 05-17-2018 03:14:08 pm
goHUNT INSIDER

Congrats on a great Bull!

john f. - posted 3 months ago on 05-16-2018 08:21:19 pm
goHUNT INSIDER

You definitely earned that bull. Great story and window into what it takes to succeed in some difficult conditions.

Sam J. - posted 3 months ago on 05-16-2018 07:43:28 am
Santa Rosa, CA
goHUNT INSIDER

Great story! Great Bull. Congrats

Spencer E. - posted 3 months ago on 05-16-2018 06:41:38 am
Boston, MA
goHUNT INSIDER

Inspiring article. Thank you and congrats.

grant m. - posted 3 months ago on 05-15-2018 06:39:34 pm

Sounds like 7E or 7W