First-time elk hunters will be amazed at the amount of preparation necessary to pull off a successful hunt. High country hunting requires special planning, physical fitness training, selection of proper equipment, and basic knowledge of game habits and habitat. The success rate for trophy bulls depends on hunter effort, the weather, a good guide, and above all, being in the right place at the right time.
Hard work and luck is the key. High country hunting, simply by the title, refers to an area where the air is thin and the terrain rugged. Hunting can be physically demanding. Don’t let the lazy “road hunter” type influence your preparations. Many of these people illegally shoot off a vehicle and then brag how easy it is to hunt elk. A true hunter might spend seven to 10 days in the mountains in pursuit of a hard-earned trophy.
When on my last elk hunt in Montana with my friend Dan, I was shown that a lot of elk hunting information presents good reading, but little in the way of practical information for those attempting such a hunt, especially for those trying for the first time, either guided or on-your-own.
The following guide is the result of Dan’s experiences and information learned from picking the brains of various high country hunting enthusiasts.
Know your animal
Only 90 years ago, a time looked upon by many of today’s outdoorsmen as an era of abundant game. There were, in reality, less than 100,000 elk in the United States. Some of the reasons for such an alarming trend were the results of over-hunting, lack of regulations, and the destruction of elk habitat.
Loss of habitat and domestic razing is unfortunately still an issue today. Even with these problems, the North American herd is growing and estimated at over 650,000 animals. Sensible game management programs by progressive state officials, conservation groups, elk preservation organizations, hunters, and outfitters have contributed the resources needed to make this change in numbers.
Anti-hunting groups have done little to help increase herd size and quality. These so-called “do-gooders” are misguided and ignorant concerning true wildlife management, and their emotional tactics do little good for the animals themselves. Enough!
Of the various subspecies of elk, of which some are extinct, the remaining main species are the Rocky Mountain, Roosevelt and Manitoba. Generally speaking, the body weight and size vary within populations and according to food supplies.
To put this into numbers, a bull could stand five feet high at the shoulders and weigh as much as 1,000 pounds with antlers spreading over five feet. With a possible body length of 10 feet, this is big but not an easy target when considering ranges, hunter exertion, and tachycardia due to simply seeing this magnificent animal.
Study and learn his anatomy and habits so when and if the opportunity arises, you will know instinctively where to put that crosshair for a rapid and humane harvest during high country hunting.
There are four concerns that should be addressed by anyone traveling with firearms. These relate to loss, damage, legality, and lack-of-a-hassle. Airlines require firearms to be obviously un-loaded and transported in a rigid and locked case. Therefore, purchase the best you can afford. Depending on the handler and luck, a gun case can emerge with only scratches or look like it was thrown down the runway by an anti-hunter.
To avoid loss, I put a name tag on the handle with my home address, plus the address and phone number of the outfitter I will be hunting with. I also stick an address label on the case and engrave my name into the aluminum near the handle. For extra precaution, run a band of nylon tape around the case over the latches.
Picking an airline is important since some seem to be anti-hunting and treat you and your luggage with a negative “we don’t need your business” attitude. Other precautions include insuring the firearm with the airline, removing parts, so if stolen, it lessens the value for the thief. Also, keep photos, serial numbers, and receipts to prove ownership.
Hunter preparations for high country hunting
Most of us live at under 5,000-foot elevations. Get above that elevation when used to sea level and there is the possibility of altitude sickness. This is a disorder that occurs when the amount of oxygen in the blood becomes so low that there is not enough to meet the body’s needs.
The resulting symptoms could include fatigue, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, headache and nausea. The reduced atmospheric pressure which determines the amount of oxygen that enters the blood by way of the lungs is the indirect cause of the above symptoms.
If the hunter is overweight, out of shape, and/or has a medical problem such as angina, a tragedy is just waiting to happen. Even when in shape but not yet acclimated to the high altitude, slight exertion and excitement such as seeing an elk on the first few days could be all that is needed to push someone over the edge.
There is a fine line between simple exhaustion or experiencing a heart attack during high country hunting. Also, remember that with advancing age our coronary arteries begin to narrow which means that even less oxygen-carrying blood is transported to where it is needed.
Our guide told me that on this topic, a good guide will be careful not to push someone beyond his limit even when the hunter insists he is fine. The next consideration, once the need for advanced preparations are realized, is to get started with an exercise program six to 12 months before undertaking such a trip.
This should begin with a visit to your family doctor for a check-up that will hopefully catch a potential risk. After getting a physical, start your exercise program and follow it faithfully. Our guide, who has lead many hunters of various backgrounds over the years surprised me when he stated that his best physically prepared hunter was a middle-aged man who lived in New York City and worked on the 18th floor. The key is that this man never took an elevator and climbed steps at all opportunities.
When one thinks about this approach, it makes sense since climbing mountains requires the same muscles.
Besides a lot of fast walking, our guide wishes that all hunters would exercise on steps. I am adding this routine to my exercise program before my next high country hunting trip. Physical well-being means that the hunter must get himself in shape months before attempting any high altitude or physically demanding adventure.
You either walk or ride and riding means a horse during high country hunting. This can be fun or traumatizing, depending on your preparation, experience, or physical well-being. This was my pitfall! Although in pretty good shape and not having any medical disorders, after two days on a horse, I tried to walk and lead him whenever possible due to excruciating lower back pain.
This made hunting painful yet still enjoyable. It would have been a lot more enjoyable if I only had the cold and mild exhaustion to contend with. With three days of hunting left, a new hunter who joined us was a chiropractor from Oregon. He manipulated my back, which relieved much of the pain and allowed me to take a lot less Advil.
Although I never injured my back, being tense on a horse for long periods of time must have been too much for muscles and joints not accustomed to the rocking motion of a horse. Our guide recommended frequent riding two to three weeks before the actual departure. I rode a little but obviously not enough.
With the huge amounts of territory needing to be covered, being on horseback is the only practical transportation in rough country. Yet, if a hunter is not up to a lot of walking and riding, a good guide wisely will put him or her on stand while others will work through an area. This method can be productive for both.
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Clothing for high country hunting
Sounds simple, but someone on their first hunt can pack too much of the right or wrong kinds of apparel. Don’t forget that all of this has to be packed into the base camp on horses.
Proper clothing is also the most important factor that determines the hunter’s comfort and protection from the elements. When purchasing clothing, factors to consider are warmth, keeping dry, weight, versatility, comfort and fabric “noise.”
When stand hunting on a frigid or wet day, you need to have the proper clothing. When moving through rough country, avoid clothing that makes noise when walking or rubbed. A one-piece outfit is very awkward when nature calls since dropping the top half on wet snow-covered ground to expose the bottom is not the best approach when living out of a tent.
Wool is the quietest but lacks some of the advantages of the high tech fabrics. No matter what you pick, the important thing to do is to dress in layers beginning with synthetic long underwear that fit but are not constricting.
Next, a sweat outfit or one made of Polar Fleece makes a good center layer. On all of this, pick a good outer outfit, as mentioned above. A hooded outer jacket is also useful in preventing snow from falling down your back when riding under snow-laden branches.
Concerning gloves, mittens are warmer but make handling a firearm difficult. I recommend bringing two pairs of gloves.
Footwear is very critical to staying warm. I usually wear a pair of Thinsulate Leather Boots and pack in with an extra liner, which is rotated every night. After a day in these boots, the liner usually is damp due to normal perspiration. If there is no snow and the ground is dry, I prefer the leather boots since, for me, they are easier to walk in.
Firearms preparations for high country hunting
As far as firearm preparation goes, once you have selected a flat shooting handgun or rifle with the power and bullet sufficient for this size of the animal, all this is left to do is to practice. This sounds logical, yet every outfitter I have ever hunted with, when asked for their main complaint concerning hunter preparation, has stated that many can’t shoot under pressure offhand.
The outfitter told me that he had three hunters who could shoot one-inch groups from a bench at 100 yards and then miss pronghorn and mule deer broadside at less than that. For elk hunters it is even worse since the game is usually farther away. Therefore, you must practice weekly offhand, leaning against a tree, prone, or sitting at targets from fifty to at least five hundred yards.
Concerning the rush of adrenalin when the game is spotted, you can probably never eliminate that factor, but it can be controlled with practice. Keen competition in the shooting sports, preferably with the firearm used to hunt with, is the best way I know to control “buck fever” common to deer hunters.
Because big game ammo is expensive, when planning to hunt with a Thompson/Center handgun, I do a lot of practice with a .22 caliber barrel. When planning to use a rifle, a Ruger 77/22, which feels a little like a larger caliber firearm is used. The key is to shoot and then shoot some more!
According to our guide, there is an 85 percent miss rate on elk during high country hunting. To get that statistic lowered, hunters will have to shoot more, exercise more, learn to control hunter stress, and not take shots that are beyond what is considered reasonable.
The worst thing a hunter can do is to go on a hunt, thinking he knows it all and therefore does not listen to the guide’s advice. Guides stated that this is sometimes a problem. Basically, do what you are told, be quiet at all times since sounds travels far in the mountains and have a good pair of binoculars to assist your guide in locating game.
Optics for spotting your trophy
A guided hunt should be a joint adventure. Since optics will be used extensively, to avoid eye-strain, a quality pair is a must. I use Steiner 7 x 50s since they are rugged and of sufficient power to scan for game at long distances. A good guide will not only try to locate game but will teach a client what to look for if interest to learn and participate is evident.
Concerning glassing, our guide told me when observing an area to look for tracks as well as game in the shadows of thick woods. He also pointed out the differences between various animal prints and when trailing an elk, how to discern if it’s a male or female. On urinating, a female will stop and squat in one area while the male will dribble along the way.
It becomes simple when animal behavior is compared to that of humans. Females, due to hip displacement, often have their back feet overlapping outside of the front footprints. The guide also believes that you can pretty well figure out a male from a female from the droppings. On the times we followed up on this, he was right.
This may sound like luck only, but a guide’s gut feeling is usually a good bet. He mentioned that he had such feelings about watching a certain meadow when nothing appeared to be in the area. Instead of the hunter listening to the guide and posting there, he would insist on going beyond only to find on the return trip hours later that game had crossed where they had been.
The concept of distance can mean a lot of different things to different people. To someone who is used to shooting within 100 yards, as is common when hunting deer in the East, it can mean disaster out West. The most critical problem I encountered when hunting in the Western States concerned correctly judging distance.
To assure a clean kill, the hunter has to first sight his rifle for a specific distance and then know how much the bullet will fall at extended ranges. The only problem left is to know the ranges. If you are not a good judge of distance, I would recommend a quality rangefinder. They accurately measure distances from 20 to 500 yards and 50 to 1000 yards depending on the model. The only drawback to using them is the time factor.
Yet, with at least 70 percent of the shots I have taken at game within the last 10 years, I had ample time to measure. For the other 30 percent, I was lucky to get the safety off before the game vanished. They work if you have the time to use them and are smart enough not to use them when you do not have those extra moments.
In summary, the experiences of high country hunting is equal to no other activity or vacation I have ever experienced. It is rugged yet one of the most beautiful places on earth and gives the hunter memories to last a lifetime. With wise preparations for high country hunting, the memories will be enjoyable ones.