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Lessons learned from a 2020 archery elk hunt — part 1

Lessons learned archery elk hunting

All photo credits unless otherwise noted: Jake Horton

Looking back on any hunt in the rugged and beautiful mountains of the West can lead you down memory lane. It’s easy to look back on a successful hunt and think you have everything together and know how to get it done and harvest bulls with the best of them. What becomes difficult for me, is to look back on an unsuccessful hunt and digest everything that went wrong in order to become a better hunter the following year. Looking back and learning from all of your preparation mistakes, wrong gear, unsuccessful strategies, and blown stalks in order to better yourself can be the difference between you being successful next year.

Here are five lessons that I learned and felt were important pertaining to gear and my body during my 2020 archery elk hunt in Idaho that will make me a better hunter next year. My hope is that you can learn from your mistakes and from mine to increase your success in the 2021 archery season, no matter where you are hunting. 

1. Be in shape

The joys of elevation while elk hunting

No matter how much you work out in the offseason it never seems enough during the first few days of your hunt. This year I was unfortunate enough to roll my ankle hard one month before the season and felt the repercussions during the opening week of my hunt. This is a two part lesson that I feel is important. The first lesson is as the start of the hunt comes near it is okay to slow down your training and stop pushing your body so hard. In my younger years, I used to be okay to push hard running, lifting, hiking right up until the day I left for my hunt however nowadays my body doesn’t agree. Next year I will be pushing hard through early August and then begin to ramp down my training by running less and doing more weighted pack hikes instead. I believe this will benefit my hunt and also keep me from getting hurt weeks before the season. The second part of this lesson came because of not being in as good of shape as I wanted. Since I was not able to stay in top shape the month before the season, the first few days hurt bad. Hiking over 12 miles every day played a major toll on my legs and morale. To combat this a good pre workout and recovery drink really played a huge role in allowing us to get up and get out to the mountains every day. Waking up sore and cold is always hard so a little caffeine never hurts. 

2. Take care of your feet

Hot spots on feet

Photo credit: Brady Miller

When it comes to hiking up, down, and side-hilling across mountains most hunters know how much stress it has on your feet. No matter how nice your boots are and how good of socks you have your feet might end up hurt, blister, or rub raw. Something that I started to do in 2015 is to bring 2-3 pairs of different boots with me (kept in my truck). Once my feet were tired of the first boots I would switch to a different one with different insoles and feel. This would rejuvenate my feet enough to do another few long hikes and I would then eventually I could switch back if needed.

Along the way, the most important thing to do is take care of hot spots before they become blisters. I can not stress enough how important it is to stop and tape an area of your foot whether it is your heel or big toe as soon as you feel the slightest discomfort. This will keep your feet blister-free and in good shape to keep going day after day. Another thing I am sure to do year after year is to carry an extra pair of socks with me in order to swap out if the ones I am wearing are wet or sweaty. Taking care of your feet is definitely a lesson I have learned the hard way but I believe I have figured it out over the last few archery seasons.

3. Take a day off

When it comes to hunting trips that last more than a week it is so easy to burn out your body. Often we need thousands of calories more than we are consuming and time for our muscles to recover. Most of the time it’s easy to get duped into thinking that we need to hunt every day of a nine or ten-day hunt. Depending on what you are hunting and where, this can make a trip miserable and even become detrimental to your success. Of course, terrain plays an enormous role in how many days in a row you can physically hunt. For our hunt we were gaining upwards of 3,000 feet vertical daily and after five days our legs, feet, and morale were hurting. We took one rainy day off in the middle and it changed the rest of the hunt for us. This rest day allowed our muscles to partly recover and repair some of the damage we had done. For this reason, if the hunt allows it, taking a morning, evening, or entire day will most likely be in our plans for 2021. 

4. Wear your gear during the preseason

Practice with hunting clothes

It goes without saying that having good quality gear is a game changer. Pants and coats that vent, strong backpacks with ample support, merino wool base layers, and light miscellaneous gear. Time and time again I hear people complain about something not feeling right or their pack being too heavy, or not being able to shoot accurately with their gear on. Prior to the season I was wearing my gear and pack for hikes, shooting with it on at the range, and wearing my boots around the house in order to get my unused muscles ready for the change in use. This helped me greatly in 2020 in order to feel good and confident with my gear day one of my hunt. 

5. Shoot every day 

Archery practice for elk

The final lesson learned in 2020 pertaining to my gear and preparation is to shoot every day of your hunt. Prior to the season, I was shooting my bow better than I ever have in my life this year, hitting inside the 7 ring at up to 100 yards. I felt more confident and accurate than I could imagine which is an awesome feeling to carry into your hunt. Day 4 of my hunt had me less than 70 yards from a 300” bull and his 35 cows. I drew back for this shot that I was super confident in and released a flawlessly executed shot, and missed! How could this be? I had prepared consistently, practiced daily, and executed flawlessly. I had made sure all offseason that I was ready for this 65 yard shot. At the moment I assumed that the wind took it right or my nerves caused me to make a mistake that I couldn’t pinpoint however that wasn’t the case. When I got back to camp that day I shot my bow at 40 yards and missed the block target completely. So I shot again, and missed again! Somehow between day one and day four, my sight had been bumped and I didn’t notice. So I stress to everyone out there, shoot your bow at a target every day. Along these lines have some basic quick repair items such as extra d-loop string, wax, Allen wrenches, replacement arrows, broadheads, and nocks just in case. 

Steep terrain archery elk hunting

These are five of the biggest things that I wished I did right every year in regards to my body and gear. Being in shape, taking care of your body and feet, taking a recovery day, being familiar with your gear and shooting your bow every day can help make you more successful on the mountains. There is success in an unsuccessful hunt but you need to reflect back on your hunt and figure out the lessons learned in order to be better in your 2021 archery elk season.

Part two of this article is going to lay out some mistakes that were made in strategy and skills that kept me from filling my tag even after that near miss shot at a public land bull of a lifetime. 

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