Sun Tzu, the great Chinese military general and strategist said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Interestingly enough, he made several comments that I find very applicable to elk hunting. But this one of knowing your enemy – or your opponent – resonates with me. Let’s get to know our opponent’s strongholds, and what it is that keeps them alive and makes them so difficult to get close to.
Elk utilize three main senses to help them detect and escape danger: sight, sound, and smell. Of the three senses, elk rely most on their sense of smell. You can get away with being seen once in a while. You can make some sound and still be okay. But if an elk smells you, it is over.
The first two senses of sight and sound might be somewhat secondary to smell, but they are definitely worth understanding and paying attention to. Elk have incredible hearing, and can pinpoint the location of a sound with amazing accuracy. However, there are many sounds that get filtered into their ears every day, so sound in and of itself is not necessarily bad. An elk that is on high-alert and trying to recognize a sound though, is a tough opponent.
Breaking branches, raking trees, and normal elk sounds don’t necessarily alert an elk to danger, but human voices or coughing, boots scuffing on rocks or trees, or clothing rubbing against trees, can. If you are going to be making sounds, make sure they are natural sounds. And know that if you make sounds, the elk will know exactly where you are. If you are a caller back behind the shooter, that is OK. If you are a shooter out in front hoping to maintain the element of surprise, or stalking closer to an unsuspecting elk, ANY sound can give away your presence and your exact location.
When it comes to sight, elk aren’t endowed with precise vision. In fact, they see around the human equivalence of 20-60. Additionally, they don’t see the full color spectrum humans do. Elk vision is dichromatic, which means their world is seen in two colors, not trichromatic like our vision. There is a whole science to ungulate vision, but to keep it simple, just know this. Elk don’t have a red cone like humans, so the upper end of the color spectrum appears yellowish to elk. They aren’t color blind, but they don’t see color the way we do.
At 20-60, their vision is more tuned to picking up on shapes and high-contrasting objects, not on detail. Elk are also able to see nearly 270 degrees without moving their head, which means they can see the slightest movement, even if it is somewhat behind them. Because of these two factors, there are two important things to keep in mind: limit (or eliminate) movement, and use your surroundings to blend in. If you follow this simple formula when hunting elk, it will greatly reduce the chances of the elk picking you out with their eyes.
The last, and most important, sense I’ll discuss is that of smell. Elk have thousands of scent receptacles in their noses, and are able to detect the presence of danger at over half-a-mile away. They absolutely rely on their noses. I can remember walking upon the rotting carcass of a beef cow in Arizona several years ago. I was over 300 yards downwind from the carcass that had spent the better part of a month soaking up the Arizona heat, and the stench was gagging me. I tried to breathe through my mouth to prevent the instant gagging a nose-breath caused, but it was to no avail. The only option I had was to hurry and get upwind from the source. I mentioned to my hunting partners that this experience was probably what it was like for an elk that was 300 yards downwind from us. As sensitive as their sense of smelling is, I would imagine that they aren’t getting a slight whiff of our scent, but rather, a nose-full of human stink!
Because of their acute sense of smell, it is vital that you pay attention to the direction the wind and thermals are moving at all times. They change continually, which means you must be constantly monitoring and willing to change as well. If you don’t pay attention to the wind, your chances are cut in half immediately. And that’s best case. I cannot stress enough the importance of paying attention to the wind. You must do it continually, because I promise you that the elk are.
In the next Chapter, I’ll go into more detail about what an elk’s daily habits are, and how their sense of smell – coupled with their other senses and their will to survive - actually shapes much of their activity throughout the day.If you’re ready to proceed, Click ‘Next Chapter’ Below