Distance Bulls-How to Hunt Elk from 5 Miles Away

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    Distance Bulls
    How to Hunt Elk from 5 Miles Away
    By Remi Warren, of Western Hunter and Elk Hunter Magazine


    The first elk tag I received in my home state of Nevada came well after I started elk hunting; ten years later to be exact. By that point, I had taken quite a few bulls in other states and guided many more while working as an elk guide in Montana and New Mexico. Most the bulls I had spotted while glassing, but most were probably a mile away or less.

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    Big open country can be the best place to find elk from a distance. When you stop to glass the closer mountains, don’t forget to check out the ones way off in the distance.

    On that first hunt in eastern Nevada, I changed up my tactics a bit. Not really knowing where I wanted to go, and arriving at the tail end of my season, I gave the area an overview from afar. At around five miles away from the mountain I would be hunting, my dad, mom, and I set up our spotting scopes and started glassing. It didn’t take long before we were able to pick out a bull worth closer inspection.

    Before that, five miles seemed like an extreme distance to be glassing for elk. Over the years, I’ve found that sometimes you just need to step back to see the whole picture. The farther you get, the more you can see. This can be really beneficial, especially in a new area. Glassing bulls from a long or extreme distance can give you a view of a lot of country, but translating that into success is another story.

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    Watching the herd and then moving in and setting up paid off. The elk came out right in range in a new area the author had never hunted. In an area with really low success, he was able to spot a group way off in the distance, determine there was a bull based on the color and shape of the animals, and then set up and take a bull.

    This article is intended to provide tips on how to cover the most area while glassing from distances of four to ten miles away, and focus on how to close that long distance and be successful. Spotting the elk is one thing; figuring out how to get to where they are, and pinpointing their exact location is where the real challenge is. Deciding what to do once they disappear into cover when you’re so far out and when you should make your move are the tactics that will make glassing from a long distance successful.

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    Getting steady and really examining the landscape is key. Using binoculars and a spotting scope will help you cover ground most effectively.

    I’m a firm believer that quality optics have dramatically changed the landscape for western hunters. The topic of glassing has been well covered, extensively talked about, and almost beaten to death. The reason is because it’s that important to know.

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    Glassing a meadow in a far-off burn in Idaho. Look in places that the elk use and may stand out the easiest.

    When it comes to elk and modern optics, either a spotting scope or binos, how far is too far away to glass? One mile? Five miles? Fifteen miles? There have been many times I’ve spotted elk 5-10 miles from where I was glassing. The hard part is not just spotting the animals, but how to make a move once an animal is spotted at extreme distance. There is a lot of ground to cover and a lot that can make this tactic fall short.

    Looking for Ants -

    Tips for picking out elk really far away

    Start early and be systematic. When looking at these distances - even on a high magnification - the elk will appear tiny. They can also be nearly impossible to pick out in cover. That’s why when you’re looking over a long distance, you want to be ready early. Glassing anything from four miles or more can be tough, so your best bet is to catch the elk while they’re out in highly visible spots or moving. It’s important to be at a good vantage before daylight. You’ll get the most time to catch the elk in their routine and actually be able to see them.

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    Use your hood to cover your non-glassing eye. It helps you glass longer without fatigue.

    As the area starts to get light, start by quickly glassing all obvious openings, meadows, or feeding areas. These are places where an animal would be obvious to see in the gray light and also places where elk may like to be first thing. I give them a quick initial once-over; that way I don’t miss anything that might just be out in the open.

    Next, give the entire area a once-over. This is generally with binos or the scope on low magnification.

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    A good archery bull located at a distance, giving the hunters an idea where to focus the hunt.

    After this initial once-over, I switch my focus to a more detailed look. I generally start out looking east if I can. That way I can cover the area the sun will blind me out of first. If there is an opportunity to look west, I’ll save it, because the elk will stand out a lot easier once the sun hits them. I like to glass in this pattern to try and cover the majority of my vantage by factoring in the sun.

    This article was originally published by our friends at Elk Hunter and Western Hunter magazines. They are among the select few print hunting magazines I read these days. I think you would like them, too. To learn more about them, CLICK HERE
    -Len Backus-
    The distance I am from the mountain depends on the method with which I glass. I start zoomed out in the spotting scope. I’ll use my hood or an extra jacket to cover my head, blacking out the surrounding light to the eye not looking through the scope. This allows me to comfortably glass for an extended period of time with better focus and less fatigue while having both eyes open.

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    A general area bull spotted from a long way out in the evening, giving the hunters a place to set up the next morning.

    While glassing, leave the scope stationary and scan the available area with your eyes through the optics. Study it for a while before moving the scope to a new spot. Patience and continually watching the most likely elk spots may help you catch them while they’re visible. Spotting from extreme distances can be more about finding a location to focus in on than anything else.

    Keep in mind there may be clues to hone in on. One major clue is to look for tracks across snowfields or in the open. You can actually pickup game trails and spot tracked out areas pretty well from a distance. These are all good things to look for and often stand out easier from afar.

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    Analyze what you see. Once you spot an elk, the hardest part is identifying whether or not the elk is one you want to go after. Often, you may spot an elk, but it can be too far to really see the characteristics of the antlers. In this scenario, I use indicators of color, shape, relative body size, and behavior to determine if it warrants a closer look.

    From a distance, the blonde body is the first indicator. I combine that with looking for a much darker neck area and square body shape. At distances where it can be hard to see all the antlers but you can make out an outline, I’ve found that you can still estimate maturity of the animal by gauging their overall body shape. Mature bulls tend to look square. This is because as they age the chest barrels down. Also, the contrast of the dark neck to a whiter body helps determine maturity. In most areas, elk with these features will get me moving to take a closer look.

    Looking at behavior is also a good way to help determine maturity level. Factor in time of year and what else is around. During early fall, mature bulls run the herd. Ask yourself if the animal you’re looking at is on the outskirts of the herd or is he doing the chasing? Later in the year, mature bulls are often alone or in small bachelor groups. Is the bull you’re looking at with a bunch of cows? Or is he sitting on a remote point alone?

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    Walking up on a good bull

    The way elk move can also indicate if it’s something you should investigate. There have been times where I’ve spotted elk so far away it’s impossible to tell if they have antlers, even on 60 power. They just look like tiny ants. The giveaway was when two of the specks looked like they were sparring and moving around the group of other specks more frequently. This told me there were multiple bulls.

    Instead of wasting time, we made haste to that location. My hunters and I snuck into the herd and took two good bulls that day. This was on a week where bull sightings were hard to come by. By extending our scope of view, we were able to cover more ground with our eyes and find a few shooters.

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    Never forget to take a look nearby. The author was glassing a meadow six miles out when he scanned the closer hills. He spotted this big bull 800 yards out.

    Making a Play

    Now that you have an animal spotted what next? Picking an elk up a long way away is one thing, but translating that into success is another ball game. This is where planning, navigating, and strategy enter into the hunt.

    Strategy: The main strategy when hunting bulls at distance is to watch what they do in the morning, and then take the day to get into position to hunt them in the evening. This is the most successful plan to make long distance glassing pay off. I’ll often watch the elk until they disappear or bed.

    The key is to move in during the day and pick a spot where you can either watch from a relative proximity to where the elk disappeared, or just set up where you believe they are going to come out again. This tactic is extremely successful, but you want to refrain from tromping through the thick cover where they’re bedding. The best play is to get to where they were last seen feeding in the morning and wait there for them to come back out before sundown. Going in after bedded elk in thick cover rarely pans out.

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    Hunting pressure in the area and your certainty of where they’ll come out will determine how you set up for the evening. If there is a lot of pressure, the elk generally won’t come out to feed until just before shooting time ends. This means you’ll want to position yourself within range of the best place to catch them when they come out.

    If there is a large area to cover and you’re not sure where they’ll feed out, I suggest getting a close vantage where you can glass, but still have time to make a stalk and get into position. Over the years, this method of spotting elk from afar in the mornings then getting set up in the evening has been successful more times than not, even across multiple states and types of terrain. It’s especially effective in places where there are only limited feeding areas surrounded by heavy cover.

    In order to make all this come together, you need to make a solid plan before you even leave your vantage point. There’s still a lot of turf between you and the bull.

    Planning and navigating: The first step is to determine their location. If you’re familiar with the area, you’re already ahead of the game. This is instant knowledge, but this isn’t always possible. On many hunts, the place where you spot elk may be somewhere you’ve never been, so you’ll have to figure out logistics and navigation.

    I start by documenting where I’m looking by taking a few photos with my phone or camera. I’ll take a couple through the scope in a zoom view, trying to capture the animals and any distinguishing features. I’ll then take a few more photos partially zoomed in and some with no zoom. These photos are for reference in the planning and for later as I navigate toward that location. I’ll note any landmarks and estimated distances to where I want to be. I’ll also plan possible locations where I’ll be able to see that same spot from a closer distance.

    I’ll next pinpoint on a map exactly where the animals are. I’ve found that paper maps work great, but even offline Google Earth maps will provide a serious advantage. I think it’s important to have a topo view as well as aerial view if possible. This will allow you to switch back and forth to get an exact location.

    Recently, I’ve found that the onXmap app can be one of the best ways to pinpoint exactly where you’re going. Technologies like that allow the hunter an uncanny ability to pinpoint exactly where they are looking by combining multiple map types in a single map including topo and aerial.

    This is the point where you’ll want to plan how to get there. Factor in where the wind might be and the best possible route. Look for roads or trails that may be the best path. Keep in mind that the best way may not be a straight line due to canyons, lack of cover, etc.

    Last season I spotted a bull three miles out. The obvious path was to head across the canyon. The best route, however, looked to be coming in from the other side. This in total would be too far to walk in time to set up. Instead, I opted to walk the three miles back to the truck, drive around the mountain and approach from a mile away (the better position). It paid off. I got in on the elk and in not much more time than heading straight in.

    Once you have the plan, plot the course. Use the map you have and the image reference from the photos you took to get into place.

    Glassing elk from a long distance can be an extremely effective way to find elk, especially in a new area. Spotting them in the morning and then using the day to cover ground and get set up for the evening is great way to be successful. Especially with modern navigation tools, getting to that spot way off in the distance can now be done with pinpoint accuracy, giving the hunter the upper hand.

    When looking at a mountain off in the distance, instead of ignoring it, sit down, pull out your optics, and study it. You may be surprised at what you’ve been missing in those spots that seem too far away.

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    Five Tips for Long-Range Glassing

    1. Glass with both eyes open, but try to black out the eye off the scope with a jacket or your jacket hood.

    2. Pick the farthest points to look first before the heat waves distort your vision. Also remember that ridges in between where you want to look can cause heat wave distortion. Getting higher than close ridges will minimize this.

    3. Scan the places elk will stand out first with your binos. You don’t want to miss an easy spot by focusing immediately in full power zoom.

    4. Continually check the best spots. Just because elk aren’t there when you first looked doesn’t mean they won’t be. Sometimes they just need to get into a more obvious position, so give it time.

    5. Never forget to look close as well. When you’re focusing in a long way out with the scope, look away for a few minutes with your eyes and binos.

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