5 Tips for DIY Public Land Elk Hunting

August 19, 2021 | Pnuma Outdoors

Author: Bob Terwilliger


Do your Homework on a Hunt Area and Plan

Allocating and spending significant time on selecting a hunting area and planning your hunt is essential to your success! The good news is that today there are unlimited resources and tools available to help you do this! A critical factor of course is first determining what state(s) and potential areas you are interested in hunting. It is also critical to understand license availability. For example, Montana, Wyoming, and Arizona are draw only states which require preference points to draw a tag. Understanding the different limited draws in each state can be complex and a subject for another article.

Once you have decided which state you plan to hunt, the task of zeroing in on your hunting location begins. You can start off with statistics that states offer to understand elk population, bull / cow ratios, hunting pressure and more! Most states offer more tips and information on their respective websites and on YouTube as well. Great examples are those offered by Colorado CPW where they have posted videos on all GMUs within their “Hunting Colorado” series of videos. Click Here for Video. 



Click Here:  Also offers good insight as does the remainder of the CPW Hunt Page. 

Click Here:  Other states offer similar information as do many of the hunting forums (some free, some fee).

Once you have zeroed in on the area you plan to hunt, it is time to dig deeper with “e-scouting” using tools like Google Earth and On-X (or similar apps) to understand access, roads (and lack thereof), and identify potential areas for elk. Key characteristics of prime elk habitat are food (access to meadows and grassy areas), water and cover. Elk especially like to bed in cool areas during the archery season given daytime temperatures can be warm. Ideally, this means north facing dark timber hillsides or dense aspen groves. Elk also like to bed up high preferably on benches of hillsides and off the beaten path! No doubt e-scouting can be another major subject itself, but it is invaluable to your hunt plans especially when you do not live in the area you plan to hunt! If you are new to e-scouting, you might consider subscribing to an online course like what’s available within “The Elk Collective”This can dramatically reduce the learning curve in the interest of preparing for your hunt! The end game for e-scouting is to identify potential elk areas flagging them with waypoints you want to check out and hunt as well as flag potential access paths to get to them.

As you begin to crisp up your hunt plans, be sure to outline 2-3 options as you do not know what you will find until you get there (i.e., too many hunters, elk not in the area currently). Additionally, be sure to understand the weather leading up to your hunt for the area; such as did the previous winter have good snowpack and decent moisture during the spring and summer or has it been extremely dry? This can have a huge bearing on where you will find elk! For example, years with good moisture, elk will be well dispersed while dry years with limited water, elk will be more congregated to certain areas which always contain moisture and lush grass.


Refine your Core-Skills, Fitness and Gear

To best ensure success on a western elk hunt it requires you to be the best you can be with these “core-skills:

  • Navigation – download maps and learn the GPS tool well in advance (revisit how to use right before your trip)!
  • Shooting – establish your effective range, shoot in hunting positions with your gear and quiver on! Shoot odd distances and angles. 3D courses or stump shooting in the field including practice without ranging!
  • Calling – learn to make the basic elk sounds! Build variety into your calling! There are many videos on YouTube which can help you build and refine your calling skills! Some of the best are available on the Phelps Game Calls page and “The Bugler”. It is also important to learn and understand about “calling setups”, also found on YouTube.
  • Skinning and Quartering Elk - learn the “gutless method” if you have never done it! Once again, there are countless videos on YouTube for this technique. Depending on where you kill an elk, boning out all the meat may be a necessity to get it packed out quickly.


Fitness is another area to take very seriously! While you do not need to be a World Class Athlete to hunt elk, the physical demands of dealing with altitude, hunting tough terrain, getting little sleep and packing out a bull will test you! You will undoubtedly enjoy your hunt more and be able to hunt harder by ensuring you arrive at your hunt location in the best physical shape possible! If you know how to train, do it! If you do not, get some help. There’s lot of it available either on the internet or better yet at your local gym.



Along with fitness is mental preparation and gear assessment. Mental preparation can mean the difference of harvesting a bull or not! Key mental preparations should be focused on being prepared for a shot opportunity (i.e. mental checklist of the steps leading up to a shot like assess shooting lanes, range distances, assess potential draw points) and execution of the shot (i.e. focused on your target / shooting fundamentals vs how big the bull is). It is also important to get yourself mentally prepared for the physical challenge of your hunt! In terms of gear, gear failure can ruin a hunt! Prioritize boots, rain gear, backpack and sleep system at the top your list! You can get by with your old camo but blistered feet, tent failure or an uncomfortable backpack will ruin your hunt! Weight of gear and clothing is also an especially important factor with an elk hunt!


Locating Elk is a Must

Job number one in your hunt is to locate elk. There are a lot of places for them to be on public land in the west and sometimes finding them can be challenging. Best bets for locating elk are listening for bugles near feeding areas and glassing high mountain bowls on the fringes near timber at first and last light. Of course, looking for fresh sign like tracks, rubs, beds, wallows and droppings is critical too. An important point to keep in mind, elk tracks will look fresh if there has been no rain for days! Therefore, ideally finding fresh dropping (still moist and almost greenish in color) is what will convince me elk are in the area now!



Fresh wallows with mud splattered about and muddy water are also great signs that elk are in the area now!

A few tips for times when you are having trouble locating elk are as follows:

  • Get up high and glass; I have spent many afternoons and evenings doing this in my quest to find elk and many times it has paid off!
  • Get into potential feeding areas early and late where you can see and listen. Use location bugles at first / last light and after dark
  • Move & cover country including to different drainages – glassing and looking for fresh sign
  • Right after PM storms can be a great time to locate elk both feeding and bugling

A final note here is to keep moving until you find the elk! If you are running into too many hunters or no fresh sign, it’s time to move to a new area!


Hunt Smart to Maximize your Opportunity

Once you have found the elk, it is important to make the most of the opportunity. Here are a few points on how best to do that:

  • Hunt smart! When things are not right, back out (i.e. wind is wrong, can’t get near them without being seen) and reassess your plan. It might mean coming back in the evening or next morning. If they smell you, game’s over and you will be back to locating elk again! You can hunt the same elk for 2-3 days if you do it carefully!
  • Call softly initially especially in areas with hunting pressure. Don’t over call or make the same sounds repetitively (vary your sounds)
  • Shot discipline is crucial on Elk given their size, bone density and toughness! Make your shot opportunity count! Don’t rush it! Wait for a shot you know you can make which will be fatal.
  • After the shot, watch, listen and make mental notes! Assess hit, penetration, direction the elk went. Mark shot sight locations, blood trail on your GPS app. Elk make a lot of noise when they go down! All this will provide needed input for your recovery plan.
  • Tracking wounded game in the West can be extremely challenging due to the dry ground! Do not push it unless circumstances dictate (i.e., threat of rain, other hunters in the area)! Minimally, I recommend waiting 45 minutes to an hour depending on the circumstances. If the hit is not ideal, you will want to wait longer as if you jump a wounded elk from his bed, most times finding them can be incredibly challenging!


A Word on Hunting Tactics

  • Stand hunting vs on the move calling and glassing try to locate elk.
  • Off the beaten path, if you keep running into other hunters, keep moving!
  • Elk will travel miles if pressured; therefore hunt smart!
  • The key can be getting to location early / late near feeding areas. Glass, listen and call.


Some Final Points

  • Elk may not always call early. Do not get discouraged. Sometime times the fun heats up mid-morning!
  • Once you locate a bull, determine the best path to close the gap; keep the wind in your favor and use the terrain to stay hidden.
  • Go into each day with a plan based on activity and sign. Ensure the wind and thermals are in your favor. Plan B is hearing a bugle!
  • During periods when elk are not talking, hunting wallows in use can be effective as can setting up on active game trails to and from feeding areas.
  • Spot and stalk is an option to keeping the wind in your favor and using the terrains to sneak in!

Factoring these tips into your hunt plan will give you the best chance for success on your next elk hunt! Bottom line, allocate the time, do the work and it will pay off!

- Bob T.


About the Author: 

Bob Terwilliger has been hunting, fishing, and spending time in the backcountry for over fifty years. He has been hunting elk for 27 years since moving to Colorado in early 1994. Bob has also worked for two of Colorado’s largest outfitters including guiding nine years full time, some of which included the role as head guide. Bob is entering his 13th year of guiding wilderness elk
hunts and fly fishing expeditions. He currently guides for Colorado Outfitters LLC. as the primary interface for Wilderness Fly Fishing Expeditions and still guides some elk hunts.