first elk bow hunting
Mike Waisanen

Learning to Bow Hunt: First Elk with a Bow

Disclosure: Man Makes Fire is reader-supported. When you buy gear using retail links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission that helps pay for our work. Learn more.

My buddy Mike grew up bow hunting for elk. He and his dad hunted together many years, and he shared lots of stories of getting bulls excited during the rut, which is during August and September, depending on temperature, weather, barometric pressure, whatever, and who knows what gets elk excited to be in the rut. These stories were incredible — elk getting so amped up over imitated cow calls and bull bugles that they would come charging in ready for a fight.

Mike got me interested through these stories, so I decided to look into it. I quickly learned there are three key questions you’ll need to consider prior to dedicating yourself to bow hunting:

  1. Do you have a job that supports bow hunting — can you get time off work?
  2. Do you know something about hunting and being in the wilderness?
  3. Are you in pretty good physical condition?

I had to answer these questions. I have a job that allows me to plan ahead to take off some work and be somewhat flexible in case I get something down or get in the middle of the elk on the last day of hunting season and need an extra day off. Plus, I have medical insurance. This is big these days given that bow hunting is a strenuous activity — you can twist ankles, twist your knee, cut yourself, and you have to not only know how to care for yourself in extreme conditions but also know you can get medical help.

I have hunted off and on most of my life after I was 13 — I’m now 42. I gave up hunting in my 20s due to too many other things going on and not feeling real safe after an encounter with a hunter who didn’t practice safety — but that’s a different story. I have primarily gone big game hunting with muzzleloaders with my family for elk and deer for the past 15 years. I am very familiar with the terrain and wilderness, especially when I have hunted an area before. I have an innate navigational sense that I trust — an internal compass and familiarity with patterns of mountain formations. If I don’t know exactly where I am, I at least have general a sense and how I would need to get out of the area toward civilization if problems came up. I’m not bragging here, just being practical — some guys get lost easily. If you’re that guy, you better pack a map, a GPS unit, and do some extra scouting ahead of time.

Finally, I can’t say I’m in great shape — I could lose 20 pounds — but I’m about 225 pounds and 6’2” and I have no problem hiking steep ground for miles. In fact, hiking and hunting in the deep woods has always been something I’ve enjoyed. The bottom line is this: If I did shoot an elk well off the beaten path, I know that I could quarter the animal and haul it out on a backpack. And odds are, if you’re bow hunting for elk, you’re going to have to use a backpack.

practice bow hunting

The Buddy System

If you want to learn how to bow hunt, what’s next? You need a buddy to show you the ropes. Mike’s stories got me interested, but I needed the obvious thing — a bow. In the fall of 2013, Mike decided to buy a new bow since he had a 1990’s PSE for many years. If he was going to get back into bow hunting — his dad stopped going after retirement — he wanted a new bow. Mike sold me his old bow, a quiver, eight arrows with all blunt target tips, broad heads, a release, and a hard case. He found a Mathews bow on Craigslist in Montana. I took my new (old) bow into a local bow store and had them look it over. The bow guy said it was a great older bow but it will be louder (string sound when released), slower, heavier, and harder to hold the maximum bow draw more than 20 seconds because the design of the bow. On the newer bows the cams are bigger so the maximum draw weight is significantly less.

So I had a bow. Next, I needed to know how to shoot it. Again, a buddy who knows what he is doing is extremely helpful. Mike showed me the basics and technical aspects of shooting — how to hold the bow, pull the string back using your shoulder blade muscles acting like you were squeezing them together, not holding the bow with your non-shooting hand too tightly, lining up the sights taking into account distance, wind, contour of the ground, etc., releasing the string and following through with the shot.

Then comes practice, and practice, and some more practice, plus practice. In the beginning, every time I shot I think I needed to start all over with the basics as I could not get a grouping of arrows in a consistent cluster! Ideally, practicing 3-4 times per week, if not every day, would make you an expert marksman because with bow shooting, what it really comes down to is this simple equation: practice = consistency.

However, my family leads a busy life so continuing the interest means making it a family affair. I asked my two boys and my wife if this is something they would be interested in, and they were, so they all got new bows. Bow shooting became a family event — and it’s fun! Go out in the yard, take turns shooting at a target to see how consistent your cluster can get. I wish I could say we did it lots but again, life is busy but we did do it as much as we could — when we went camping or after work when we were relaxing in the evening. Bottom line, you can always use more practice.

Practice, Practice, Practice

A 3D bow shoot is also a must. What a blast — it’s kind of like golfing — there’s an 18-segment course where you walk paths in the woods that has a starting point (t-box), shooting lane (fairway), and some 3D animal-shaped target (the hole). The challenge is to stand in a position and hit the vital area of an elk, deer, wolf, badger, antelope, or raccoon, etc. target. If you hit the bullseye, it’s 5 points, the next outer circle is 2 points, the next is 1. If you hit the animal other than in the specified rings, you get 0 points, and if you miss the animal completely (and usually lose an arrow) it is -5 points. At the end you add up your score and the highest wins. In this shoot, we were able to use our range finders to tell us distance and rise; otherwise we would have lost a lot more arrows!

During this practice 3D shoot I was able to observe Mike and his dad, which helped me learn some new little points to consider around my shooting form. Ultimately, it helped me shoot better — their accuracy showed me a little lesson on why shooting for years makes you much more consistent.

Time to Take the Class

In Idaho, you have to have a archery certification to accompany your hunting license in order to hunt during bow season. This costs extra, plus, even if you have hunted most of your life but have never purchased a archery stamp, you have to take a class that’s certified by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Some states don’t require archery certifications but many do, so you’ll have to check your own state’s regulations well in advance of hunting season or special permit draws if you intend to hunt with a bow.

The real challenge here is finding a class to take that doesn’t interfere with your busy schedule. Most of the classes I could find were 3-4 nights during the week and then a half-day field day on a Saturday. There were also some weekend classes, but none worked out with my family and work schedules. The volunteer coordinator at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game was a great help, thinking outside of the box: I was able to study the “Today’s Bowhunter” workbook, including the test study guide. He then coordinated with a field day instructor to set up a time for me to do the testing, which is both a field test and a written test.

Now, I have to say that I have gone through three classes of the basic Hunter’s Education in Idaho: The first time when I was 12, then twice more within the last four years as I sat in class with my two boys. However, I learned a tremendous amount through the study guide that I didn’t know, and I highly recommend it to any new bowhunter. For example, I learned the history of bow hunting, the rule of first blood, parts of a bow and arrow, what arrows are made of and the best type to use, the archer’s paradox, shot selection like broadside and quartering shots, tree stand safety (because #1 accident in bow hunting is falling), jumping the string, subtending, refraction, and much more.

The downside was that I had to drive two hours to sign up and take the field day, as well take the written exam on a Saturday morning, but it was well worth it. I missed three on the test and could only miss five total — not bad for not having taken a class and just using the study guide. My only consolation here is that, when I returned home, I asked my buddy Mike all the questions I missed — and he missed them all as well!

Scouting for Elk


elk huntingScouting is another key part of bow hunting. If the average shot is 15 yards, you better find out where the elk are, make sure you don’t spook them, and get as close as you can prior to any calling. Unless you know the area well and have “hot spots” you can check, then scouting is absolutely required. Plus it’s just good bow hunting practice and respectful of other hunters. You can tell if other hunters have been in areas you are scouting. If they have been prior to bow hunting season then there is a good chance they are marking their area and scouting the same as you. Mike and I took our two families on a ride — we all have motorcycles, ATVs, and UTVs. We made it a family adventure and took a day to travel some of the areas I already knew about and have hunted during muzzleloading later in the year when everything looks much different. We had a great day and I showed Mike the lay of the land. If I wouldn’t have known the land as well as I did from 10-plus years of muzzleloading hunting, then I would have had to spend much more time scouting different areas and becoming much more familiar with the land and movement of animals.

Hunting Etiquette

Before I talk about the hunt itself, I let you know that we were hunting in North Idaho, but that’s as specific as I’m willing to get. On the flip side, guys put in a lot of time and effort to figure out good hunting spots and how to hunt them effectively. If you hunt with buddies, all the buddies need to respect the secrecy of the location — or all agree to share it. At the same time, it’s natural for other hunters to want to know a general location because it helps them understand what the elk are doing depending on the time of year and weather. Because my hunting spot was a traditional place that I went every year with my own family muzzleloading, so I first asked my brother-in-law if it was all right with him if I brought Mike into the spot.

This etiquette and respect is also carried on to how we treat other hunters in the woods. If a hunter comes across evidence that another hunter is already in a particular area, they should leave. When Mike and I hunted one of my hot spots, we parked our ATV on an old logging road that was a dead end off one of the main roads — and then we walked in to where we wanted to hunt. When we got back to our ATV, we could see the tracks of another ATV that can come upon our own, then turned around and went somewhere else. That hunter did the right thing, but unfortunately, this can’t be said of every hunter I’ve run into in the woods. Space if the key, and if another hunter gets the spot you wanted to hunt first, you should always defer.

The Hunt

scouting elk

On day one, I woke at 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday, met Mike at 3 a.m. and drove two hours to the area we were hunting. We unloaded Mike’s UTV and drove to one of the areas I wanted to get to before dawn in order to walk a particular major ridge line where we always have had lots of luck spotting elk. The spot has a major clear cut on one side of the hill and thick timber on the other (by the way, this exact spot is where my brother-in-law shot a cow during muzzle loading later in the year).

As we walked in, it was absolutely beautiful with the sunrise and views. Mike walked the ridge and every once in a while let off a quick sounding bugle. I’ll just say right now, I have a lot to learn about bugling, grunts, and cow calling. I have done some cow calling during muzzleloading, usually with my Sceery Outdoors ACE-1 Special Elk Call, which is easy to use by blowing through it, or with the Primos Hoochie Mama, which is a call you push with your thumb. I like both, but the Sceery call lets you make more kinds of cow calls.

However, during bow hunting this is done somewhat differently. A bugle is a whole different story — when do you do a powerful, long sounding bugle to show your dominance as a herd bull? When do you do a short, weaker sounding bugle like a satellite bull wanting to test things out and locate other bulls . . . or better yet snag some cows that may be interested in sneaking off?

There is a whole communication network going on that I had heard about but learned so much from Mike about how it all worked. Anyway, the morning was uneventful — this was a huge drainage and Mike’s bugles and cow calls could be heard from miles away with echoes bouncing off mountain walls.

Nothing bugled back, and the woods were silent.

Mind you, it was pretty warm for the middle of September — up around 85 degrees. We walked the ridge, which took us most of the early morning. We thought we heard two bugles off in the distance but coyotes erupted and we never decided if it was anything at all. Then we walked the logging road back to the UTV and as we came around a corner spooked something above us in a timber and brush patch. Mike went up the road some and started cow calling, grunting and letting off quick, weaker sounding bugles. The brush popped for a few more seconds and all was silent. We were just around the corner from the UTV and upon investigating the soft dust in the logging road, we saw tracks of a cow and calf walking off the ridge behind where we parked, crossing in front of the UTV and heading to the brush patch where we heard the cracking. We knew they were fresh because a few of the elk tracks were in my footprints from when I left the UTV that morning.

We decided to visit another hot spot which was a short hunt where we walked a ridge that was timbered and got right on a set of very fresh tracks and the smell of elk. This smell is distinct — a cross between hair, body odor, and animal urine. It usually comes in waves but when it is present it feels like you are in the middle of an elk herd — that’s how strong the smell is. We get to the top of this ridge and decided to sit down and listen and wait just off the ridge trail in some bushes. The feeling I had at the moment told me we needed to stop and be patient — something I’m not very good at, which is probably why I like elk hunting the best. From my experience finding the elk and chasing after them has always been why I like muzzleloading. The spirit of the hunt and the chase — regardless of the outcome of harvesting an animal — it’s exhilarating and rewarding.

Mike made me slow down and be patient, teaching me that is what we have to do during bow hunting in order to not disturb the environment. I had fallen asleep listening to Mike’s periodic cow calls while he tried to doze off himself. The sun was hot on our faces and we were exhausted from getting up so early and covering so much ground. I woke up from my nap and had to go to the bathroom. I stood up slowly but quick enough to startle what I believe was a few elk walking up the hill towards us — within 20 yards. It took off back down where it had come from. It was loud, quick, and smelled like elk again. Mike got behind me, still off the trail and started cow calling and letting off a short bull bugle. It erupted in cow calls from where the elk went back down the trail 50 yards away. Mike had stopped them and they were curious again! But nobody moved for what seemed like a very long time. Then it was over. We walked down the trail and it was clear they had snuck off.

We tried another hot spot that afternoon, but didn’t see any sign of elk.

Day 2 Through Day 5

We decided to bring the camper back a few weeks later and stay for four days. The bulls were not bugling very strong and Mike said rut wasn’t quite in full swing yet. We gave it 10 days and came back. We set camp and were in the woods the next morning by daylight. Checking hot spots was the plan — Mike doing a light snort of the bull bugle and me cow calling a few times to see if we could identify any interest and/or activity. We walked an old logging road and as we were doing our calls periodically, I heard a high pitched squeal across the canyon. Mike didn’t hear the same noise but we set up anyways just in case. I heard some cracking of brush and branches; we also heard pretty aggressive bugles much farther down the canyon.

tracking elk

After waiting 20 minutes we decided to come out from the bushes and cover we were behind and continue to walk down the road a few more bends. We continued to do our patterned bugles/cow calls together but no more bugles or sounds. However, I continued to hear faint cracks from the creek bed below. We hid again behind some small trees and brush on the side of the logging road. After 15 minutes . . . no more noises. Thinking I was hearing things, I whispered to Mike that I was going to get up. Without looking both ways on the logging road, I stood up and made a step toward the road, and there was a 2 x 3 bull elk standing broadside 60 yards away looking curiously in our direction. Then it was gone. I was shocked, excited and disappointed all in the same breath. Mike didn’t see it but I told him I wouldn’t be making that rookie mistake again. Patience . . . something I am still learning.

We continued down the old logging road doing our patterned, non-sequential calls. Mike was a few bends ahead of me when what sounded like a monster bull started screaming at Mike from across the canyon. Mike’s light bull bugles paid off — he had a bull all fired up. I also started cow calling to try and make it sound like there were more animals spread out than what the bull originally thought. Mike later told me that may have been a bad idea as it could have confused the bull. Mike bugling and me cow calling went on for 30 minutes — each time he bugled or I called that bull exploded, screaming back at us and it seemed to be getting closer by the minute. I set up off the old logging road behind a bush completely ready with arrow nocked. There were five minute spells where nothing happened but when one of us called, he exploded again, seeming to be closer each time. Then in the distance, coming down the road we had walked all morning, comes an ATV — one that had to have passed our UTV as it was the only way in to our spot. The ATV passed and both Mike and I decided not to chat and stay hidden. I caught up to Mike. He said the bull stopped talking when he heard the ATV but he had come down from the top of the other canyon side ridge and we had called him to the bottom of the creek where he became very aggressive but wouldn’t cross the creek. Mike and I decided to walk to the creek and assess the situation. We found where the bull had stopped and raked brush and small trees with his horn tines — it smelled rancid of elk and the ground was completely tore up. We continued to walk a very old logging road — sign was everywhere and there was a small clear cut up the hill 100 yards from the creek.

We made way back to our UTV, went back to camp and planned out our next day.

steep-elk-hunting-2Again, knowing the country is key to a good hunt. I knew the area we were going the next day and found an alternative way to hunt the area we thought the elk were located. We made our way in at daylight. Mike and I set up and started doing our calls. Right away cows started responding — multiple calls from over the hill in the thick timber. We were exposed at the time, so I found a small outcropping of trees and brush on a hill a bit around from where the cow calls came.

I slid down an old skid trail on my butt and Mike remained above and behind me up the hill. It was a very steep hill with cover between me and the downhill slope towards where the cow calls came that looked to be somewhat open with some brush patches and then thicker timber below and down the hill over 100 yards. I started cow calling episodically — three or four at a time with Mike doing short, quick bugles to sound like a small bull. Cows were calling back, many times what sounded like multiple cows. This went on for 15-20 minutes until the bulls started. One came from a canyon over –– he was excited — bugling regularly with full-on bugles, not the short ones Mike was doing — these were bugles you typically hear from an bull elk. They were beautiful, long and loud bugles — very impressive.

Then came the rumble from deep in the canyon we were hunting in. It sounded awful, like something was caught in the throat of the bull we were listening to across the canyon. I looked behind me at Mike and his eyes went wide. He whispered loudly back, “That is a big bull!” There was a distinct difference in the bugles — one clear and beautiful and one raged, deep, and hollow sounding. I caught site of movement through the brush below me and below the bushes and small trees I was hiding behind. I took out my range finder and ranged all bushes in my line of sight from where I was sitting so I knew all distances in my area in case I needed to estimate a shot. The brown movement became a head coming around the bend moving in the direction of below me to now in front of me on a wider opening where the old skid trail ended. She was the lead cow and was approximately 80 yards away and had no idea I was there. I was hidden behind the bush with Mike up behind me on the hill.

He continued to do short bugles and some cow calls, and I did cow calls with my Hoochie Mamma. I let Mike know with hand signals that there was elk down the skid trail and below me to my right. She disappeared behind some brush and around the corner going to my left — she was out of sight but I know we didn’t spook her and wind was blowing towards us, so I knew she didn’t smell us either. We continued to do our calls and then another bull erupted between calls just below where I saw the cow. He was close and he was getting excited — Mike had him going — I could tell Mike was amping up his small bull sounds that was in turn getting the bull more excited and louder. It was probably a smaller bull as it was higher pitched but it was hot. Things continued to escalate in intensity — Mike calling, the bull immediately calling back. I estimated he was at least 100 yards down the hill but not yet in my line of sight.

Then I saw the cow — 20 yards away at a bush I had ranged earlier, standing broad side but only her neck and buttocks showing with the bush covering her vitals. I was just out of her sight up the hill behind a small bush. I pulled back to full draw. I was shaking uncontrollably with a heavy shot of adrenaline rushing through my body. I took some deep breaths in through my mouth and out through my nose telling myself I have to calm down and regulate my system, which I did. I told myself I had to wait for a vital shot and was prepared to shoot with my 10 yard pin, compensating for the severe grade of the hill, the second she moved a few inches forward to my right out from behind the bush. I knew I had about 20 seconds at full draw with this older bow before I would start wavering and my muscles would start failing due to the heavy poundage of the bow string weight.

I also knew I needed to take a vital shot, which was driven into me through the archery class. Mike cow called — and the bull behind her screamed again instantly — I still couldn’t see him but knew he was coming. At the same time, she looked up the hill towards me . . . and then she turned towards me coming up the hill and stopped at 15 yards!

What happened next, happened fast: I thought of something my wife’s grandfather once told me: If you are going to shoot straight on an animal and not in the vitals, don’t shoot low in the shoulder or brisket where there is large bone and structure — shoot as high on the neck as possible just under the chin. You will either miss completely, graze the animal slightly or hit the trachea or arteries and veins. She noticed me behind the brush — her head started moving as she looked at me inquisitively, trying to figure out why I was out of place with the landscape. I remembered the saying “aim small, shoot small” meaning I aimed for just under the chin at a discolored hair clump and released. I watched the arrow enter the neck exactly where I was aiming and stick there. The cow took off to my right down the hill where I first saw movement. I saw the arrow coming out of her neck as she ran down the hill and saw her crashing and moving before hearing a final big crash at the timber. I started cow calling right away to try to slow her and the other elk in the area down. Mike came down the hill towards me and asked what happened — he had heard me shoot, but couldn’t see what I was shooting at.

I explained the event, and when I said that I took the shot on her neck, he replied, “Oh shit.”


Mike and I needed to wait at least 30 minutes — the last thing you want to do is immediately chase after a wounded elk, giving it a rush of adrenaline that can give it enough energy to run far and get forever lost.elk bow hunt idaho

And then I started second guessing my shot selection. Did I actually see the arrow in her neck? Should I have even taken that shot? Should I have waited for the bull? No, the cow made me. Had she bailed, she would have taken the bull with her. I have always been a meat hunter and not a trophy hunter. Sure, I would love to harvest a mature and smart bull elk someday but this wasn’t that day. I felt privileged with the opportunity, and to shoot an elk with one of my good friends was even better.

More to the point, though, what about that shot? It was not the kind of shot that any experts recommend. It’s not the shot selection that is taught in the archery hunting classes. And I could tell Mike was a little concerned.

As my own adrenaline wore off, I kept replaying everything in my mind. The cow, the shot, the cow. It was an accurate shot, I decided — risky, yes, but I had put the time in practicing at that distance, and I took a confident shot. In the moment, I had no doubt — that was where I needed to put the arrow to bring down the elk so I put the arrow there. It was a tactical, even pragmatic choice, almost automatic.

The 30 minutes were up. I had located the last place I had heard the cow crash and headed directly to that area while Mike flagged the bush where I shot from as well as the bush where the elk was. I found blood and lots of it.

Mike came to where I located the blood and we started tracking very carefully. Mike placed a flag at every blood mark just in case the blood ceased by clotting up. We continued contouring into the thick woods, marking every 10-20 yards for approximately 500 yards from where I first saw the blood. With each mark, I felt more confident. The shot was doing its job.

And then Mike found her.

After a hunter puts down a big animal, there is a lot of emotion. Elation, you get a burst of energy, you’re thankful, and there’s respect for the animal, too.

When you’re bow hunting, you get pretty far away from any roads, so most bow hunters quarter their elk or deer in the field, maybe even bone them out entirely, and haul the meat out on backpacks. And we were down deep into an Idaho canyon. We packed the quarters, our backpacks, and bows to the top of hill and then out an old logging road that eventually tied into the main road. Mike hoofed it ahead to get the ATV. Back at camp, we could both take our shirts and wring out the sweat! I was sore for a week afterwards.

The funny thing is, throughout our tracking and packing the cow out of the drainage — through any noise we made on our side of the canyon — the bull across the canyon continued to bugle all day long.

Disclosure: Reviews and Gear Links:

In addition to Man Makes Fire buying gear for reviews and guides, gear manufacturers occasionally ship review units to Man Makes Fire. If we like it, we spend some quality time with the gear and review it, noting if it was provided to Man Makes Fire. After the review, we return it, give it away, or work on longer-term review follow-ups when applicable to reader interest.

We do not accept any gear in exchange for coverage. If we do not truly appreciate the gear, we don't write about it at all -- bad gear will fade into obscurity on its own if everyone ignores it. In addition, we focus on gear from reputable companies, reputable brands, and reputable retailers we trust.

The gear links on Man Makes Fire are focused on what we are willing to recommend to our own family and friends. Many of our specific gear links connect to industry-standard affiliate advertising programs. When you buy something using the retail links in our guides and reviews, we may earn a small affiliate commission that helps pay for our work.

Basically, we deliver the advice and insight you need, you get the gear you want, and then everyone wins. Pretty straightforward.

Complete Site Details & Disclosures Here