How to Avoid 5 Big Mistakes Made by New Elk Hunters

Elk hunting is a thrilling and challenging adventure for many bowhunters looking for something more than just chasing whitetails from a treestand. However, it can also be a daunting experience, from simply buying a license all the way through to packing out your harvest, especially for those who are just starting. I know from experience, from being relatively self taught I've made each mistake mentioned in the article.

Like anything, hunting elk requires proper preparation, knowledge, and skills to succeed. Many new elk hunters often make the mistake of relying too heavily on their whitetail skill set, which can ruin their hunting experience. In this article, we will discuss the 5 biggest mistakes new elk hunters make and steps how to avoid them.

Not Knowing the Food Source

bull elk eating

One of the most common mistakes new elk hunters make is not understanding what the elk are eating during your specific season. Elk are usually found in rugged and remote areas, and hunting them requires a good understanding of the land. Before heading out, do your research and gather as much information as possible about the area. Get a map and study the terrain, including the location of potential hunting pressure, feeding areas, water sources, and bedding areas. Make sure you are physically prepared for the terrain and physically able to get where the elk will be spending time. Below is a break down of common food sources preferred by elk during September.


  1. Bluebunch Wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata): This is a tall perennial grass that is often found in open meadows and grassy areas. It is highly palatable to elk and provides them with valuable nutrients and energy.

  2. Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata): This is a flowering forb that is commonly found in mountainous regions. Elk may feed on the leaves, stems, and flowers of Arrowleaf Balsamroot, as it is a good source of protein and other essential nutrients.

  3. Mountain Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata): This is a shrub that is found in many elk habitats, especially in the western United States. Elk may browse on the leaves and stems of Mountain Big Sagebrush, as it provides important minerals and other nutrients.

  4. Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.): This is a deciduous shrub that produces small, sweet berries in late summer and early fall. Elk may feed on the berries, as they are a good source of carbohydrates and other nutrients.

  5. Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides): This is a deciduous tree that is common in elk habitats, particularly in higher elevations. Elk may browse on the leaves and young shoots of Quaking Aspen, as they are a good source of protein and other nutrients.

  6. Wild Rye (Leymus spp.): Wild Rye is a type of grass that is commonly found in elk habitats. Elk may graze on Wild Rye, as it provides them with valuable carbohydrates and other nutrients.

  7. Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax): Beargrass is a perennial flowering plant that is commonly found in mountainous regions. Elk may feed on the leaves and flowers of Beargrass, as it is a good source of nutrients and energy.

  8. Thistles (Cirsium spp.): Thistles are flowering plants that are commonly found in elk habitats. Elk may feed on the leaves, stems, and flowers of thistles, as they are a good source of nutrients.

It's important to note that the availability of these plant species and their palatability to elk may vary depending on the specific hunting location and habitat conditions. It's essential for elk hunters to do thorough research and familiarize themselves with the plant species that are present in their hunting area during September, as this knowledge can help them better understand elk behavior and movement patterns, and ultimately increase their chances of a successful hunt.

Not Being Prepared for the Weather

being prepared for bad weather when elk hunting

Another mistake new elk hunters make is not being prepared for the weather. Weather can change quickly in the mountains, and it's essential to have the right gear to stay warm and dry. This is something I always am prepared for. I've been caught in pop up showers that can ruin a hunt pretty quick. Something cheap, light, and as simply as a frogtog suit, garbage bag, poncho or cheap rain jacket can just be enough to make a difference. The key here is something cheap, light, and small. Remember, being prepared for rainy surprises means the gear needs to stay in your pack. You don't want to carry something big and bulky like a dedicated premium rain suit. If you have the budget there are some fantastic options out there from companies like Kuiu, First Lite, Sitka, and others but something cheap will do the trick in an emergency. 

Beyond being prepared within your day pack, looking at the extended forecast and having a layering systems is a must. Typical September Elk hunting weather can range from 70 degrees and sunny to 30 degrees snow. Neither is a big deal as long as you know what to expect. Actively hunting through the mountains really does force you to utilize layers. Add, subtract what you need on a daily basis. One quick tip is this...generally speaking new elk hunters tend to over pack and carry too much weight. For some overlooked space saving pieces of gear check out the article "Overlooked and Underrated Western Hunting Gear".

Being Afraid of Making Too Much Noise

Elk have excellent senses and can hear and smell hunters from a long distance but they are not whitetails. They will spook and bump but the bottom line is elk are not as cagey as whitetails. You can get away with way more when hunting elk. Many new hunters make the mistake of thinking they are making too much noise.

Elk are big and when moving they make lots of noise. If you're sneaking inside of 100 yards towards bedding it's one thing. Outside of that, be aggressive in covering ground but still use common sense. Utilize shadows and cover. Try to alter your walking cadence. If you make a mistake, like breaking a big stick, stop and turn that into a raking/calling sequence. The wind is still ultra important but from my experience making noise is not. When in doubt lean towards the aggressive side. 

Not Knowing When to Call

Calling is an essential part of elk hunting, but it's crucial to know when to call and how to do it correctly. Many new hunters make the mistake of calling too often, which can make the elk wary. Elk are most vocal during the rut, which usually occurs in September and October. During this time, bulls are actively looking for cows, and calling can be effective. However, during other times of the year, calling should be used sparingly.

Calling to elk is much more than just ripping off bugles. Keep that in mind. You need to have an arsenal of calls ranging from location bugles, challenge bugles, cow mews, lost cow calls, etc. And more importantly you need to know when to use them and what the elk are saying back if you get a response. Paul Mendel, the Elk Nut, is a great resource for this type of info. If you are new to hunting elk I strongly suggest you consume his content. Being a newbie, getting proficient is going to take time. Just because you can use a diaphragm turkey call does not mean you will be able to just pop in an elk call and be off to the races. 

Learn what each call means and when to use it. Then learn how to execute it. To many folks, include myself, wanting to learn how to execute the calls comes first but we miss the more important part of what each call means. If you learn that, you're encounter rate will go up dramatically. 

Not Enough Physical Preparation

exodus MMT arrow elk kill

DIY elk hunting requires a high level of physically ability both from a fitness standpoint and shot execution standpoint. Many new hunters make the mistake of not practicing stressful shot execution enough, which can affect their accuracy and confidence. Before the hunt, practice shooting at different distances and angles but add in the physical element. Do something to get your heart rate jacked up and then execute one shot. Work on making the one shot count while you are tired and physical taxed. Also, be sure you are practicing with the exact hunting arrow you will have in your quiver...arrow, nock, vane configuration, and broadhead!

Also, practice hiking and carrying a loaded backpack to simulate the hunting conditions. Regardless of how hard you train, any eastern going west cannot replicate elevation...Keep this in mind. Covering lots of ground day in and day out will be exhausting but most mentally tough folks can suffer through it. Packing out an animal is a whole different story. While I don't recommend over training with heavy weight to simulate a packout, you do need to feel what it's like to carry extremely heavy weight. Follow you normal preparation routine of hiking with normal weight 25-40lbs and then once a month throw on your pack with a 100lbs or more and do some hiking. Remember, in real life you'll need to climb over logs, go in and out of drainages, get off the hiking trails and make your training realistic. 


In conclusion, hunting elk can be an unforgettable experience, but it requires proper preparation and knowledge. To avoid making these common mistakes, do your research, prepare for the weather, move aggressively to cover ground, know when to call, and train before the hunt. By following these steps, you can increase your chances of a successful and enjoyable hunt.


Author: Chad Sylvester, Exodus Co-Founder/Owner

chad sylvester owner of exodus