Whoever coined the adage, “knowledge is power,” must have been a deer hunter—because when it comes to this pursuit, the more information you have, the more tricks you can wear up your sleeve while hunting deer, and the more better odds are to fill the freezer.
Here are nine tips and tactics offered by hunters who spend countless hours combing the West each fall in search of big bucks on public land. Each expert is a master of their craft and their advice will help you learn how to hunt elk and get you one step closer to tagging a public bull.
1) Rejoice louder than the bull of the herd
Jim Brennan is an elk hunting nut who has taken many bulls in several western states. He has a knack for winning on public land and doesn’t shy away from hunting over-the-counter (OTC) units. In addition to chasing his deer dreams, Brennan spends most of the fall guiding clients.
“Some will see this as a one-time archery or muzzleloader, but it also works well during those early rifle seasons,” says Brennan. “Be rude. If you want to get attention from another bull in the deer woods, you have to be rude. The herd bull loves to hear the sound of his own voice running through a wooded canyon or alpine meadow. When that bull starts shooting from a bug, don’t expect units he’s done. Lean right on it. Most bulls will come unattached. They don’t want another bull to interrupt their fall friendship.
“I’ve used this tactic a lot and had very good success with it. Typically, a mature bull will come in looking to beat the butt, so be on your feet and ready to draw or adjust your question marks.”
2) Glass for Elk from high vantage points
Colorado hunter Jason Weaver is an amazing deer hunter. His ability to routinely tag bulls in OTC areas commands respect. To date, Weaver has taken many bulls over the 300-inch mark, all on OTC tags he purchased at Walmart.
“I usually only have a few hunting days to get the job done each fall,” Weaver says. “My hunting usually takes place in October, but no matter when I go or what weapon I take, my tactics remain the same.
“I do my research and study my maps. I look for areas that are likely to hold deer but are not too thick. Next, I like to let my optician do the walking for me. Many boys crash in the woods bumping into deer. I like to score multiple vantage points that allow me a solid view of the surrounding landscape. Then, I move from point to point until I find deer. Often, finding the deer is the hardest part of any OTC hunt. Buy the best glass you can afford and make sure you have a tripod or some other system to keep you steady.”
Read more: Essential Elk Hunting Gear
3) Don’t be afraid to hunt a new place
JC Navarro may very well be the best deer hunter you’ve never heard of. On average, Navarro spends more than 30 days in the deer woods each fall, and during that time period, he usually calls in a lot of bulls for himself—as well as for hackers like me. His biggest bull to date breaks the 370 inch mark.
“I’ve never hunted deer on private land and I don’t plan to,” Navarro says. “My union is really twofold. First, you cannot be timid or afraid. I talk to a lot of guys every year who come out West and stay close to camp or pick a spot to hunt and refuse to leave even if the deer aren’t in the area. Do not do this.
“Instead, stay mobile. Get yourself a good GPS and make sure you have an SOS system like the Garmin inReach. That way, if you get lost or, God forbid, get into a bad place, you can get help. If the deer is not in an area, move to another area and then another. Be relentless in your search. The OTC deer hunter must have heart. If you keep studying your maps and moving into new areas, you will find deer.
“My second piece of advice is to go the extra mile. Pay attention to where other hunters are hunting. Notice where the guys are parking on the trails and such, and then look at a map. Most guys won’t wander too far off a trail or logging road. Elk under pressure will look for thick, dense, bad terrain. Find that kind of ground and get in.”
4) Stay aggressive
Royle Scrogham has shot eight public land bulls in nine years of hunting. Impressive, I know. Even more impressive is that until last year, before moving to Wyoming, Scrogham came West every fall from Kentucky.
“My biggest tip is to stay aggressive,” says Scrogham. “I believe more guys, no matter what they’re wearing, get cement legs during crunch time. If a bull is dozing off but reluctant to come, close the distance. Don’t settle for setting up 300 yards away, listening to that bull scream every now and then.”
Scrogham likes to have a buddy keep the bull moving as he slides through the wood. “Go slow and keep your eyes up,” says Scrogham. “As long as the bull is still talking, he has not seen you. Keep a bottle of wind in your pocket and pay attention to the terms and direction of the wind. You can’t be afraid to move on deer. Fear of contamination will cause you to miss an opportunity.
“The same goes if a deer isn’t talking, but you can see it or recognize the small, isolated patch of wood it entered. Use the terrain and move inside. If you are pulling a rifle, you may only need to close a small distance to get into range. Get a plan together and move.”
Read more: 12 Best Shotgun Shells for Elk Hunting
5) Don’t hesitate to put another round in a bull
Scrogham would have been formidable if he had been alive during the gunfight era. I have never shot with a man who can load and fire so fast. If a bull is still standing after the initial strike and he can shoot another arrow or bullet, Roy will shoot.
“Elk are tough fools,” says Scrogham. “If I make a shot, even if I know it’s fatal, and the bull is still in range, I’ll get an arrow or another arrow in it. You don’t want a rodeo. You don’t want to track a deer for miles and miles through rough country. If a bull is standing, put another in it.”
Read next: 31 DIY Tips for the Ultimate Elk Hunt
6) Set an ambush
The number of times Yahsti Perkinskiller has broken the 350 inch mark is absolutely insane. When it comes to consistently taking deer on public land, Perkinskiller takes a different approach.
“I don’t like calling,” he says. “I don’t like to make noise and I don’t like to let a deer smell me. I want to keep everything as natural as possible. I want that deer to feel like it’s completely safe, until, boom, it’s dead.
“I like to find and watch the deer for a morning and an evening. If you can find deer that aren’t bothered and are content, you’re on the chips. After peak breeding has occurred, a mature bull will usually stay with his cows for a short time as long as he is not under pressure. Those deer will get into a bed feeding pattern. Discover the pattern and go kill your bull.
“Later in October, a big bull will usually leave his cows and find solitude. Like an unsuccessful bull, an unsuccessful bull will seek to eat, sleep and stay alive. Typically, mature bulls will look for an area that is dense, thick and sloping. The area must have food and water. Sloping, open avalanche ledges near thick timber are excellent spots to find naked bulls.”
7) When the moment comes, be ready
My friend Tim Kent lives in New York, but every fall, he travels out West to hunt elk on public land. Tim is a grinder and has given a piece of advice that few people think about:
“Be ready,” Kent says. “Your opportunity for a deer will usually be there and gone before you know it. Be mentally ready to take advantage of the opportunity. Stay focused. If you are calling at Elk, know where your shooting lanes are and stake them out with your rangefinder. If you are moving with a bull, pay attention to the forest. Listen for any sounds that may alert you to the fact that you are being squeezed. Many hunters, when the moment of truth is about to appear, have a brain fart. Basically, they darken. You may get dark and scared after you tag your bull, but until he goes down, stay in the game.”
8) Take your elk hunting seriously
The time it takes Kent to travel from New York to hunt destinations like Idaho and Colorado is considerable. His financial investment is steep and time away from family is extended.
“For me, it’s not a vacation,” Kent says. “If you want to find regular success, you have to go hunting with this mindset. If you look at it as a vacation, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You are also doing your family and your hunting partners a disservice. In my opinion, tagging a bull on public land is the most difficult thing there is in the hunting world. It should be taken seriously. Prepare yourself mentally and physically ahead of time and go hunting expecting success. And when you get that one opportunity you’ve worked so hard for, execute it.”
9) Give yourself enough time to be successful while elk hunting
I don’t claim to be a deer whisperer, and while I’ve enjoyed success in the deer woods with firearms and archery equipment, it’s usually been for one reason: I’ve given myself time to succeed.
I recommend taking 10 days for your hunt. Two of those days might be travel days, but you want eight hunting days. I understand that with work and family obligations, this time is not always possible, but the more you give yourself, the more successful you will be. Plus, you’ll need to take a day off. My hunting partners and I like to run into town, do laundry, shower, and eat a good meal. It really helps morale.