“Skills and Mental Preparation” for a Western Elk Hunt

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Most have read about the need to prepare physically for a western elk hunt given the fact of dealing with high altitude and hunting remote country. However, there are two other components of preparation that can be equally important as they relate to increasing chances for elk hunting success:  skills and mental preparation! Within this article, I will review some suggestions and tips which will help you increase your chances to take a bull on your next hunt!

Skills Preparation for a Hunt

Skills preparation in terms of shooting and being “field ready” is often under-estimated! It is astounding and disappointing the number of hunters who believe if they go sight-in their rifle once a year at 100 yards, they are ready to go hunting. With archery, it can be a similar situation with some guys. For example, they go and shoot for a couple of weeks at known / even distances (i.e. 20, 30, 40 yards exactly) and think the same. Thankfully, hunters who put in little preparation rarely get shot opportunities given their lack of commitment to the sport. No doubt, poor skills preparation can result in wounded, never recovered game which is unacceptable in this case. As hunters we owe it to the game we hunt, to harvest them as quickly and cleanly as possible. In support of the above, here’s some sound tips on how to prepare for an elk hunt:

  • Shooting Ability – as a guide, I tell clients that recommended shooting skill ability for rifle hunters is out to 300 yards and for archery out to at least 40 yards. To be specific, for rifle hunters they should be able to consistently shoot a 2” group at 300 yards and for archery, hunters should be able to shoot a 4” group at 40 yards. In general, most will agree the size of the “kill zone” is about a 12” pie plate but as responsible hunters we still must refine our skills to help eliminate the risk of poor shot placement. Additionally, shot angles can make this kill zone smaller! Hunters need to be honest with themselves as to what their skill limits are and be disciplined about only shooting within their ability!
  • Shooting Positions – once you have your weapon sighted in properly at desired shooting distances, it’s time to move on to practicing shooting simulating “in field positions”. For rifle hunters, this means sitting, prone, kneeling and even some off hand for “in-close situations” if necessary. Ideally, especially “the first shot” at an elk should be off a solid rest in order to make it count! This is your best opportunity for a quick, clean kill. Make the first one count and many times with today’s calibers and ammo, it’s all that’s needed. Archery hunters should also practice “in field shooting positions” (i.e. standing, kneeling, sitting, etc.) including with your pack on, with it off and with your quiver on. Frankly, I never take my quiver off when hunting elk as most times I am on the move.
  • Focusing on fundamentals of good shooting – when working to improve your shooting skills it is critical to focus on the fundamentals! Some core fundamental examples are breathing / relaxation, trigger control (steady slow pressure vs “pulling the trigger”), practicing “follow through” (i.e. don’t drop your rifle or bow to see where you hit the target), consistent anchor point for archers and a consistent sight picture (including level).
  • Shoot odd distances – once your bow or rifle is sighted in, shoot “odd-distances”. Elk don’t stand at “even distances” like at the range. Know where you bow or rifle shoots!
  • Practice shooting guessing the distance – range finders are great and should be used whenever possible (ideally ranging objects in shooting lanes when you first set up). However, practicing guessing distance can be the difference between success or failure especially with archery when an elk shows up unexpectedly and you don’t have time to range. When in doubt of the distance, don’t shoot! Archery hunters also have the luxury of going into the field to simulate hunting conditions with shooting stumps and portable targets. Lastly, 3D courses are also great practice for the archery hunters given they can replicate “hunting-like terrain” (shooting up and down hill), odd distances

Mental Preparation for a Hunt

“Mental Preparation” for an elk hunt often can mean the difference between harvesting a bull or not. It is my experience, and one that ALL my peer guides over the years would agree, where many hunters can fall short. For example, how will you react when that big bull steps into a shooting lane screaming with steam coming out of his nose at close range or a bull steps out across the park into the clear and you have mere seconds to set up for a clean shot?

Will you be “ready for the shot” when a bull appears from nowhere? The elk closest is a bull that slipped by!

One thing is certain with elk hunting, opportunities can arise quickly and just as quickly be gone! Therefore, being mentally prepared is critical to taking advantage of an opportunity! Here are a few tips that can help you with being prepared mentally for what might be one of the most exciting events of your life:

  • Create a “Mental checklist” as part of shooting practice. Some examples are:
    • Archery – consistent anchor points, bow square / level, proper pin, focus / pick an “aim spot” on the target (3D targets are great for “picking a spot on game-like situations).
    • Rifle – scope adjusted to the proper power, round chambered, solid rest, safety off, crosshairs square to target, double check aim point on elk, steady trigger finger pressure, fire!
  • Simulate “real shooting opportunities” in your mind when practicing. This is a great game to play with yourself on your first shot of a practice session. Was your first shot a “kill shot”? After all, in the field you don’t get a warm-up / practice shot on an elk!
  • Practice “shot opportunity thinking” when in the field so it becomes habit. Think about getting in position for the shot so you limit movement when the elk is in sight range (or moving when he’s looking down or away). Identify shooting lanes / obstacles and range distances when you first set up.
  • When you see game in the field think about shot placement (or no shot) factoring in good ethics (i.e. think through shot trajectory based on how game is standing and terrain (uphill / downhill). Are other elk in the line of fire?
  • Think about controlling breathing and excitement – watch hunting videos paying attention to how successful hunters handle shot preparation and execution. Taking a deep breath and focusing on the shot will help. Try not to focus on how big the elk is or the size of his antlers. Once you know you want to take him, key in on where, when you will shoot and the execution of the shot (including exact shot placement).
  • Build “safety first” into all mental preparation exercises! With arrows and bullets, there are no second chances!
  • Be prepared not only physically (by being in the best shape you can be for your hunt) but also mentally for pushing yourself through the physical challenges of an elk hunt!
Colorado Bull Elk
The author with a hard-earned Colorado bull elk.

Closing Comments

In closing, your attention to details with your practice and preparation, can make all the difference in the world on your upcoming elk hunt! Too many times hunters get shot opportunities only to have them slip away. These turn into memories which are love / hate:  the great memory of seeing a “bull of a lifetime’ with yet the ugly remembrance of a missed opportunity that plays over and over in your mind for years to come! Therefore, why not get started now in support of your next hunt with being better prepared by honing your physical and mental skills for the opportunity you have been waiting for and dreaming about? While many will take time to buy all kinds of new gear for their next hunt, not enough hunters will take the time to assess and improve their skills in areas that can really make a difference!