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How To/Pro-Tips

Smokepoll Bulls

Elk hunting with muzzleloaders is a big deal. As a halfway point between bowhunting and the use of modern centerfire rifles, many muzzleloading elk seasons are set between archery and gun hunts. In many areas, muzzleloading hunters catch the tail end of the bugling and calling period. In response, muzzleloaders have come a long way fast. Though many still prefer the traditional side-hammer guns resembling those of the 19th century pioneers, others have gone more modern. The new "in-line" muzzleloaders look very much like a modern bolt-action rifle. The in-line advantages include faster and more positive straight-line ignition, better weatherproofing in the critical cap and nipple area and better, crisper triggers. Their faster rifling twist offers better accuracy with conical and sabot-type bullets. All in all, a newcomer to muzzleloading will be able to shoot an in-line gun more accurately with less practice.

States have varying regulations defining what is legal and allowable for muzzleloader/primitive weapons elk hunting. Check the regulations where you are going.

The Waterhole

Elk are the most prestigious Western big game animals but hunters should remember that the West is mostly a dry place. Out here, water rules. Great land without dependable water is almost worthless -- for both people and wildlife. Hunters from the well-watered East tend to not understand how critical a wildlife water supply is. For elk, waterholes and wallows are two big factors in life. Obviously, waterholes furnish drinking water and the opportunity to cool down. Given the chance, elk will go to water a couple of times a day. In dry country, an ambush at a waterhole is a good bet. Wallows have social, sexual, and comfort significance for bulls. Even without enough open water to drink, a bull loves a good mud wallow. He will often spike this pungent patch of muck with his own urine. Caked with personally scented mud, he is, in effect, wearing his "scrape" and advertising to cows. A stand near a fresh (take a whiff) wallow can pay off.

Bullets For Bulls

While many standard (as opposed to magnum) rifle cartridges are elk-adequate in power, your projectile is critical. The one place not to scrimp in your elk-hunting budget is on your bullets. Big, tough elk are best taken by big, tough bullets. The so-called "premium" bullets which offer controlled expansion and deep penetration are what you need to punch a big bull's ticket. There are several strategies for building tough bullets. Some feature a partition, some a bonded core and some are all copper with expansion cavities in the nose. Style really doesn't matter as long as the bullet mushrooms adequately, penetrates deeply, doesn't fall apart and shoots well in your particular rifle. Another factor to keep in mind is that long, heavy bullets retain velocity and energy and penetrate better than short, lightweight projectiles. The ballistic term for this is Sectional Density, which is the relationship of the bullet's weight to its diameter. Bullets with sectional densities over .250 both fly and penetrate best.

Elk Hunter's Gear List

Besides your bow or gun, arrows and ammunition and even your clothes and your calls, there are several handy items elk hunters need to have along. Carry the bulk of your accessory gear in a roomy day pack. When you slip it off, you get a real break from the load. Good binoculars are basic. Remember that you are going to be glassing big country, sometimes for long periods. Magnification and glass quality count for a lot. Cheap glasses that are O.K. for a quick look can be a literal headache out West. Other items should include compass, maps and a GPS unit. The compass and map will get you where you want to go. The GPS unit will make sure you can find that spot again and then get you back to camp. A flashlight (with extra batteries), a folding saw and a rope (in case success strikes), a survival kit and a canteen of water (don't drink from streams) round out the basics.

Of Bulls And Gobblers

The calling strategies for bull elk and gobblers are very similar. A strident bugle call can cause sub-dominant bulls to fade away and cause a bull with cows to avoid competition. Too much gobbling on a call does the same thing to turkeys. Both bulls and gobblers seem to catch on when they hear repeated calling from the same spot. Hold back on the call at log landings, along roads or on trails well-traveled by other hunters. Go out into the woods a bit so your calling is coming from a new and more natural area. Both bulls and gobblers "go silent" when they've been exposed to too much calling. That doesn't mean they won't come in for a look, but they will do so quietly. It takes a lot of patience to wait out a hard-hunted bull in a high odds area. Use subdued cow calls and keep your eyes open.

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