A cow elk drifted silently past, her spring calf romping along behind. Head down feeding, she was within longbow range. I watched, breathed, and relaxed as she made her way out of sight. Soon another followed her path, filling its belly in preparation for the chill high-country night to come. The main herd was just out of sight, sixty yards away through the boulders and evergreens. Four bulls bugled intermittently, the best of them crowned by a beautiful seven by seven rack. I’d watched them all earlier in the day. I liked the seven-point best, but knew that I’d be happy to take any of them.
Sunlight vied with shade in the little side canyon that hosted our elk and hunter drama, the shade slowly and inexorably forcing the sunlight out of the canyon bottom and up the side. The elk were talking and moving a bit more now. That was my cue to crawl forward to a low rise, stopping with a small boulder in front of me and stunted pines at my flanks. As I periscoped over the rock in front of me, I could see the main herd in the canyon bottom, maybe eighty yards away.
The herd bull was among them, with one of the other bulls between us. Apparently the smaller bull was too close to the cows to suit the big bull and he started toward me, clearly intent on pushing the satellite bull away from the herd. I readied for a shot, rising from my knees and turning toward the seven by seven, now forty yards out and coming. Suddenly antlers showed from behind the rocks to my left, twenty yards away. After nine days of hunting hard, I considered a satellite bull in hand better than a herd bull in the bush. I dropped back to my knees and drew my longbow as the elk emerged from behind the rocks. A steady broadside walk brought him into full view. I watched the near foreleg swing forward and back, and I dropped the string as it came forward again.
I watched in surprise as my arrow clanged off a head-high boulder beyond the bull, turning a couple of summersaults high in the air before crashing to the ground. How could I have missed? But I didn’t miss—I could still see the arrow in my mind, disappearing through the bull’s hide and chest. It had gone through the bull like he was made of froth, bouncing off the boulder behind with startling force.
The bull was away and gone in three jumps, dashing into the forest below. All went silent as the elk in the meadow stared toward the timber. Perhaps eight seconds after the shot there was a huge crash in the timber and then the canyon was quiet again, the elk in the meadow trotting quickly away, disappearing like wraiths into the forest.
Hunting from the ground has blessed me with some of my most exciting and memorable experiences in the woods. Stalking your way into a wild critter’s personal space is a challenge worthy of the most accomplished hunter or woodsman, requiring a high level of skill and patience, strong nerves, and a steady wind.
A mule deer or an elk has four main senses that he employs to protect himself from invasion by predators—including you. They are, listed in order of the trust that he places in them: 1) scent; 2) sight. 3) hearing. 4) sixth sense.
1) Scent. The olfactory sense never lies, and deer and elk know this. If one gets a good whiff of you the game is over, and he’s the winner.
So what can you do to neutralize your quarry’s ability to smell you? The honest answer is, you can’t. What you can do is learn to use the wind to your advantage. Wild predators do it, and you should too. The key to this is always to make sure that the wind, be it anything from an imperceptible breeze to a gale, is never blowing straight from you to the animal.
I live and hunt in the Rocky Mountains, where terrain and winds are unpredictable and capricious. Prevailing winds give way to twilight thermals, and ridges and canyons divert, funnel, and alter the direction of the wind. Predicting the path of the wind can be maddening. There are, however, a few general rules that can aid in reading the wind and planning a stalk.
Thermals. As a general rule the wind in mountainous terrain falls out of the high country during nighttime. In the morning, as the sun heats the ground and warm air rises from the lower country, the winds will begin to change, unpredictably, swirling and shifting for a time. Then they will steady, blowing upward with the prevailing wind direction until dusk falls and the air cools, changing, shifting, and then falling into the valleys again. A savvy hunter will learn these patterns and use them to his advantage. Be aware though, that storms or cloud cover can affect these patterns.
Flow. Air flows in a manner similar to water. Just as water running downstream will eddy, divide around obstacles, and tumble over edges, wind will follow the terrain, divide around peaks and outcroppings, and eddy backward in canyon bottoms. It’s very common for the wind to be flowing in opposite directions in a canyon bottom and on top of the ridges.
Animals can scent a smelly hunter much sooner than a clean hunter. It’s impossible to entirely eliminate your scent, but you can cut down on the scent molecules that you donate to the wind and to your prey’s nostrils. Wash your clothes and body frequently with a scent free soap. The majority of scent from a clean human comes from the mouth and backside, so take chlorophyll as an internal deodorizer, and avoid eating onions and other spicy foods before hunting. Try to prevent your hunting clothes and shoes from coming in contact with stinky objects like trucks, service stations, or restaurant seats.
2) Eyesight. Wild prey spends a good deal of time searching its surroundings for danger and places a lot of faith in what it sees. Even if an animal catches a glimpse of you, when you play your cards right you can often fool him into believing he was “seeing things.”
When you are looking for animals, what is the first thing that you generally see? It’s movement. Anytime something is moving it becomes much easier to spot. When stalking keep a visual barrier between you and your prey, and when sitting in ambush simply hold very still.
The best visual barrier is ground. Anytime you can keep a ridge, outcropping, or big rock between you and your intended quarry, it becomes impossible for him to see you. So plan your approach to utilize every possible terrain feature along the way.
The second best barrier is vegetation: brush, trees, grass, or whatever is available. You may need to crawl flat on your belly, but with care you can keep well hidden as you make your approach.
If there is no real visual barrier, as a last resort get creative and use whatever you can come up with that will shield you from the animal’s vision: a bush that you push along ahead of you, the sun at your back and in its eyes, a decoy, or even part of its own body.
If it does see you moving, freeze and pretend that you are a rock, bush, or some other part of the landscape. If you are entirely still for long enough the animal may give up and relax, giving you a chance to try again.
3) Hearing. Game animals don’t have those big ears just for show. Their hearing is extremely good, and they pay attention when they hear something out of the ordinary. However, they generally seek confirmation that the sound they heard was indeed a predator. Other elk and deer make sounds too, so a wild critter will usually spend some time gazing toward the source of the sound trying to identify what made it. Elk in large groups are especially prone to ignore noises around them. If you snap a twig or scuff a rock, simply freeze. Usually your quarry will look around and then go back to whatever it was doing.
This doesn’t hold true for bedded animals. When bedded elk hear something, they usually spend the next hour or two watching the area. And if it’s a big muley buck that you’re after he will probably explode out of his bed upon hearing any suspicious sound and then go a hundred yards or so and turn to inspect the situation.
Dress for the occasion. To move silently through the woods, a hunter needs to be dressed in clothing that will not rustle or make noise when moving or in contact with brush. Whatever you wear, test it before hunting to verify that it won’t give you away. Shoes need to be silent as well. My favorite footwear for the final approach includes moccasins, running shoes, water shoes, or just heavy wool socks.
4) “The sixth sense.” This should possibly head up the list rather than coming at the end. Wild animals are completely in tune with their surroundings. Most of you who have hunted much have seen your prey become alert, turn, and slip away for no apparent reason. The wind was in your favor, the animal couldn’t have seen you, and you didn’t make a sound. But somehow it knew that something wasn’t right. I believe that this stems from all the senses combined on a subconscious level, reading sights, smells, and sounds that are mostly imperceptible to us—bird calls, insect noises, vibrations, and so on.
There is no tangible way to deal with or neutralize the uncanny ability our wild brothers have of sensing us. But in an intangible way there is. I’m not one to pay much attention to “vibes” and “energy”—except when I’m hunting. Wild animals can sense an intense gaze or stare. It will make them uncomfortable. So when approaching your quarry (or when waiting for them to approach you), don’t focus directly on them with your mouth watering in anticipation of their backstraps sizzling on the grill. Keep your energy level down. Don’t assume an aggressive posture, shoulders squared and directly facing the quarry. Allow your body to relax, let your mind take in the sights, sounds, and smells around you. Merge into your surroundings until you feel natural and you belong there. Don’t focus on just the kill. You will enjoy the experience more and become a better hunter, and when you feel like you belong in the woods there is less chance that the wild critters will feel that you don’t
As I approached the downed bull in the timber the usual, poignant flood of emotions came—exhilaration, satisfaction for the perfect shot and rapid kill, remorse for taking life, gratitude for the meat, and memories the hunt would provide. I sat and soaked up the sights, smells, and sounds of the moment, quietly enjoying the experience. Then I snapped a few photos and began the processing chores. Just under an hour later the elk was reduced to quarters and backstraps hanging in a tree, skin spread over a bush to drain, and a meat sack of trimmings and organs hung to cool. I took one last look around, shouldered my pack and lifted my longbow to begin the long walk back to camp. As darkness closed around me, I reveled at the faint bugles sounding from the ridge above, the evening star hanging above the pines, and the feel of the longbow in my hand.
Aram and his wife raise kids and cattle on a small ranch in southern Utah.
Equipment Notes: On this hunt the author carried a 62-inch Royal Crown Longbow by Fox Archery drawing 60 pounds, Beman Classic shafts, and 125-grain Woodsman heads with 125-grain steel adapters.