How to Plan a Successful Hunting Trip – Rethinking Success
When my brother took this photo, I was right there but I didn’t notice the beauty in front of me. I was steaming up the hillside, shotgun in hand, completely consumed by the sound of chukar calling from the distant rim rocks above.
In a way, the title of this article is misleading. While you can definitely pick up some good pointers, I don’t reveal any secret tips for harvesting a trophy bull here. But I hope that by the end of this story your perspective about hunting might be changed a little in a way that mine has; in a way that will make your hunting trips feel much, much more successful.
This year I drew a coveted elk tag in my favorite area in my favorite state. Odds of getting this tag are about 20%. It isn’t wildly hard to get, but I also wouldn’t expect to get one again any time soon. For many months preceding the hunt my day dreams were occupied by scenes like this.
If you know, you know. If you don’t, this is elk country. Wallows, rubs, game trails, and panoramic views.
There are many reasons why I love elk country so much, but it’s hard to explain. I think part of it is the balance between dark, shady timber and vast open sage brush, and high country meadows. The terrain is difficult to navigate at first, but it gets easier the more time you spend with it. You learn to avoid the large swaths of beetle-killed trees and stick to the elk trails. You learn that some terrain isn’t worth traversing, ascending, or descending, often because the elk are too lazy to push through that terrain anyway.
For years now I’ve put in a lot of time in this particular hunting unit, scouting during the summer and archery hunting it in September. Prior to this year, I’d had a few successful hunts with my bow but never taken a mature bull. I’d called several big bulls into archery range, just to have bushes get in the way or winds swirl at the last second. They like to come in and show themselves, just to slip back into the timber from where they came. That’s archery hunting.
Needless to say, I love this mountain range and I was very excited to draw a tag that would allow me to hunt it with a rifle. With a rifle in my hand, I knew that my odds of success would be greater, and that if I put in some time I would have a good chance of harvesting a quality bull.
To keep things straight, I feel like I have to clarify that I don’t really consider myself a trophy hunter. Two years ago I drew a great rifle bull elk tag and I took a smaller bull on day 3 out of 14. Here’s what that bull looked like:
This year was a little different, though. After several consecutive years of harvesting elk, I was feeling confident about my abilities and I really wanted to challenge myself. With two weeks off from work, I decided that I would spend most of the hunt “shopping” around and getting eyes on as many elk as I could. I was most excited about just seeing lots of remote country and hopefully lots of elk. Even if I gambled and passed on a few smaller bulls and didn’t end up killing one, no big deal. Things changed, though, when my brother told me he was up for tagging along this year. This would be his first big game hunting experience.
We weren’t raised around hunting. I took it up as an adult and after years of telling my brother the stories and sharing venison with him, he decided to come along and see it himself. So, my plans changed. I decided that we would spend just the first few days checking a couple spots I knew, and after that I would take any animal I could legally harvest. I just wanted a clean harvest so my brother could experience the thrill of a hunt, processing an animal, the pack-out, and the unbeatable feelings of reward and gratitude that come afterward.
We left home on October 1st and we both managed to get two weeks off from work. After a two-day drive, but within minutes of being in our hunt unit, we pulled over to look up into a drainage where I have seen elk in the past, and this is what we saw from the highway:
It was a dream come true. Not 10 minutes into a 2-week hunt and we were looking at 45 elk. More excited than two kids in a candy shop, we scrambled to gather our gear from the back of the truck. Meanwhile, Stanley was in the front of the truck eating a large pack of gummy worms.
It’s hard to be mad at him, but I wasn’t happy. Mostly I was concerned for his well-being. We’d brought him along so we could squeeze some bird hunting into the trip, and I was already reconsidering that decision.
Regardless, we blasted up the mountain with the bare necessities. As we got closer to the elk, reality struck me. We were set up in the perfect spot for the elk to step out in front of us. There was a very, very real chance that I would be able to harvest a bull on the first night of our trip. Thrilled about this, I sent a message to Olivia saying something like “the good news is that we are already into a bunch of elk! The bad news is Stanley ate an entire pack of gummy worms”.
Olivia is the smart one of the two of us. She’s the one that keeps things straight. If I have questions, I ask her because I trust her judgement more than my own. This message was my way of asking her if I should take him to the vet, because I knew she would say something if she thought I should. Turns out she was very concerned about the gummy worms having Xylitol in them and being extremely toxic to dogs. Without hesitating, we left the elk and headed right back to the truck to check on Stanley.
At the time it was a very disappointing turn of events, but Stanley was fine after all. The gummy worms didn’t have anything toxic in them and they, shockingly, had zero side effects. He totally ruined our first opportunity at elk, but it turned out to be a blessing.
That night I had more time to think about those elk. It sounds funny, but they felt a little too easy. I wanted my brother to experience a successful harvest, but I knew deep down that he also needed to experience the challenge – the suffering – the pain that makes an elk hunt so rewarding when it all comes together in the end.
I decided that night that we’d take a closer look at those elk again in the morning, but that we’d probably keep them in our back pocket for later if we couldn’t find any big bulls. I’d never walked away from a legal animal before, and it felt a bit weird when we drove away that day.
The next part of our trip was dedicated to trying to call in a bull to close range. It was early October which is a little later in the season than I’d like for calling elk, but dreams of calling one in were in the forefront of my mind. We drove up a long, windy dirt road to a very dear place to me; the place where I harvested my first bull elk. It was rainy, which I was glad about. Clouds and cool weather are better for hunting and better for hiking.
This day was the type of grind I knew my brother would have to experience on this trip. Elk hunting is a big step up in difficulty from just hiking, especially when you do it every day for days or weeks. It becomes especially difficult when enduring long periods without seeing any elk. That day we did miles of hiking off-trail through steep country and called quite a bit, only to hear and see nothing.
The following morning we decided to leave and try our luck at backpacking into a new area. On our way there, we decided to sneak in some bird hunting and fishing. Stanley was pumped to get into his first bird hunt of the year, and we were please with a riverside chukar lunch.
We dropped Stanley off with a friend that afternoon and scrambled to pack our gear for an overnight backpacking trip. I was very much looking forward to spending a few nights out in remote, beautiful country like this:
Our plan was to set our camp high up on a ridge where we could glass for elk in the late evening and early mornings. After a couple of miles of steep climbing, we crested the ridge where we planned to camp, and immediately spotted a group of elk. There were four cows and a bull. Through our spotting scope the bull looked mature and large, so we dropped our packs and took off down the ridge.
I relocated the bull within shooting range below us. I snuck up as close as I could and got prone with my rifle. By the time I was ready to shoot, though, all I could see was his rump and his antlers as he slipped into the trees.
It was time for running. My brother and I slipped back over the top of the ridge and jogged down to get in front of the timber the bull had headed into with his cows. We were expecting the group of elk to continue in the same direction and pop out of the trees on the other side, so I got set up prone again and waited for them. Moments later, all 4 cows filed out of the trees one at a time, but they were passing through a narrow window in the timber and I knew my chance at the bull would be brief. Here’s a photo of that narrow window. (Sorry for the blurring, but I don’t want spots to be identifiable on the internet. Can’t blow up the spot!)
At the last second, I dug through my binocular case and pulled out an elk call. The bull stepped into the opening but he was walking at full speed to catch up with his cows. Through the intensely dead silence, I let out a loud cow call to try and catch his attention and stop him in the opening.
He stopped and postured, and to my surprise, he let out an ear-piercing bugle. Towards the tail end of his scream, I pulled the trigger.
After the shot rang out he stood there frozen as if nothing had happened. So I shot again. And one more time. I generally take a couple of extra shots if I can. Elk are big, sturdy creatures and the last thing I want to do is wound an animal. If you can get a clean second or third shot, take it while you can. I had a problem with my gun cover and while I was struggling to reload, he disappeared.
For me, no matter how good I feel about the shot, there is always a moment of panic afterwards. All I want is a clean kill but when they disappear and I can’t see if they’re dead, I panic and start to wonder if they’re wounded or if I missed. In this case, I was particularly worried because of how little the bull reacted to each shot.
It was getting dark, so we didn’t wait long before we snuck over the rise and looked down below where we thought he would have run after the shot. I didn’t see him anywhere, and the panic just got worse.
That was when my brother said “There it is. isn’t that it?”
Usually, even after a great shot, they’ll run a short distance before they collapse. That’s what I expected and I was looking in the direction where he would have gone, but he hadn’t gone anywhere at all.
Harvesting an elk on the third day seemed almost too easy, but any illusion of ease in this hunt was quickly erased by the difficulty of the pack-out. To sum it up, my brother said that the pack-out was “the most difficult thing I have ever done”. We didn’t finish packing the elk out until the following evening, almost 24 hours later.
For me, this was the best hunting experience of my life so far. Not because I had challenged myself and beat my personal best. It was because my brother was there, and what I wanted most out of this trip was for him to have a positive experience on his first big game hunt. I’d made a quick, clean kill and was thrilled to have my brother there to witness it.
We’d endured a couple tough days of hiking and while we never got into the long-haul-of-a-grind that elk hunting normally is, we now had over a week ahead of us reserved for fishing, bird hunting, hot springs, rafting, and visiting friends.
I’ll let the pictures below sum up the rest of our trip:
On past hunting trips I’ve sometimes had the feeling of being plagued with the stress of finding and harvesting an animal. This is a feeling that I think a lot of hunters have. But in recent years I’ve been able to turn good hunting trips into great hunting trips by thinking less about the prize and more about the process. Hunting success doesn’t have to be defined by whether or not you harvest something, or by how impressive of a trophy it is that you harvest.
I’d like to invite you to think of a successful hunting trip as a well-rounded vacation into the woods. Try to redefine your goals to include other activities. Introduce a new hunter to the experience. Focus less on the quality of your trophy and more on the quality of your experience, and you’ll be happier no matter the outcome. After all, most of us only get so much time to hunt every year – it may as well be a vacation.