I clenched the diaphragm call in my teeth, let go a squeal and nervously gripped my bow. Underbrush crackled nearby as an animal eased my way. I just might get a shot.
Reddish brown hair flickered between two trees, and I slowly drew my arrow. A split-instant later, the critter stepped into view 25 yards away. I aimed, dumped the bowstring and heard the broadhead strike like a fist against a melon—a perfect, quick-killing hit!
Similar scenarios occur hundreds of times each fall as bowhunters across the country call in elk. But the month of the hunt just described was February, and the animal was a big, heavily furred coyote. Another elk season was a memory in my rearview mirror, but I was still enjoying an archery hunt.
Serious bowhunters do not hang up their gear just because the September elk rut is done. For those folks, archery is a year-round lifestyle. We all wish that elk season could last six or eight months, with multiple tags to fill, but this wonderful sport is usually squeezed into four or six weeks at most. Before and after that, we diehards need to be creative so we can continue to have fun with stick and string.
Of course there is other bowhunting to be had right through January or February if you do some research and (likely) some traveling. A few states, including my home state of Wyoming, offer late-season cow hunts beyond the first of the year, and if you don’t mind the cold and competition from gun hunters, you can have a great January archery experience.
Likewise, there are many winter hunts available for
white-tailed deer in various states, and desert-dwelling Coues deer are routinely bowhunted in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, in January. For an offbeat adventure with your bow, you can also hunt mountain lions in most Rocky Mountain states throughout the winter months. Lion trips usually require a friend or a guide with well-trained hounds.
I especially enjoy calling predators after big game seasons expire. Wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, raccoons and other sharp-toothed game will respond to careful calling with specialized predator calls or even your well-worn elk diaphragm. For wolves, both howling and cow-calling can be effective. For the rest, squeak or squeal like a mouse, bird or rabbit in distress, and hungry critters within earshot are likely to run or sneak right into your lap. Most states offer liberal seasons and bag limits on most of the carnivores just mentioned, and each one presents its own unique challenges and rewards.
Hunting in the off-season isn’t just fun. It also keeps your body in shape for hiking and shooting, keeps your aiming eye sharp and lets you experiment with a variety of gear to decide what combo you want to use when elk season rolls around again.
Here are two examples of what I mean by experimentation.
I have used a separate, belt-mounted laser rangefinder for many years with good success. I have also carried a compact but precision instrument called a clinometer to exactly judge steep uphill and downhill shooting angles. Using a formula in my head, I have been able to combine distance and angle to exactly match the unique trajectory and speed of my arrows for pinpoint hits on targets and elk.
But last winter, I decided to test several rangefinder binoculars to simplify and speed up my ability to shoot in tricky situations. I finally found the perfect bino—a 10-power unit with an accurate internal rangefinder plus an angle meter. Now I hunt with one binocular that replaces a separate rangefinder and separate angle meter. What once took me 10 to 20 seconds to calculate now takes less than five. This can mean the difference between killing an elk or watching it disappear forever. Experimenting with different brands and models of binos in the “off-season” took time, but I am better off as a result.
Another thing I constantly experiment with is various types of big game broadheads. I shot one popular style of two-blade head on elk for several years, but I recently found an even stronger, more accurate model from another manufacturer that seems to penetrate better in large animals like elk. Testing such equipment on a late-season cow elk plus smaller critters like the coyote mentioned earlier can boost your confidence in gear long before September arrives.
Aside from off-season hunting and experimentation with gear, a serious bowhunter’s list of activities is seldom short. Some enjoy the skill-sharpening fellowship of shooting in winter leagues with members of the local archery club. Weekly indoor target competition is a great way to maintain your shooting form after weather turns cold. Many towns offer indoor shooting facilities with distances out to 20 or 30 yards.
As winter fades into spring and spring into summer, outdoor 3D tournaments stir the competitive juices of many elk archers. Next to actual hunting, shooting at foam animal targets from various unmarked distances is perhaps the best way to practice with your bow.
The challenge of competing with other bowhunters helps to simulate the tension of encountering an elk and still making a pinpoint shot. That’s not to mention the fun of swapping hunting yarns with other archers who share the same passion that you do.
One of the most serious things I do throughout the off-season is tinkering with my bow and arrow set-up. There is always a better way to do anything, and I invariably find a more visible bowsight pin, a quieter and more accurate hunting bow stabilizer or a bowstring peep that allows a better view in fading light. And as I’ve recently written in this column, bows and arrows are routinely getting better as manufacturing engineers do their work. Most dedicated bowhunters have a shooting set-up that is as comfortable as an old pair of shoes, but smart archers keep an open mind about ways to make their ”shoes” fit even better.
If you don’t use your noggin and test new and intriguing equipment in the off-season, you’ll probably be missing out on a few elk-hunting improvements.
Fortunately for me, I am able to shoot a full 20 yards in the basement of my house. I shoot 30 to 60 arrows at least twice every week at a Block target, always using the same traditional blue 20-yard PAA target. This routine lets me know how new shooting setups and my own ability compare as off-season months go by. If bull’s-eye hits drop below an average of 95 percent, I know something about my gear or my shooting form is haywire. If I’m suddenly drilling the bull’s-eye almost 100 percent of the time, I know I’m on to something special.
I always strive to find that something special long before elk begin bugling in late summer and early fall. This gives me confidence that when a massive bull steps out of the woodwork, I can shoot him where it counts.
Off-season also means serious elk research and scouting. Various western states have different rules about bowhunting elk—when seasons run, how many tags you can have, bonus point regulations for lottery drawings in special trophy areas, etc. If you are really into bowhunting elk and have enough vacation time to pursue these animals, you can begin as early as mid-August and hunt until well after the end of the year. State regs change from year to year, so learning about such changes should be part of your off-season routine.
I am not willing to share some of my hard-earned knowledge about elk availability in various states, but I can tell you that if I wanted to on any given year, I could bowhunt at least half a dozen bulls without having to worry about drawing a special tag. And almost without exception, these hunts could be taken on my own without the need to hire an outfitter. The opportunities for fairy-tale fun with elk are out there if you carefully study hunting regulations and bag limits within various states.
The trouble with going crazy over elk in multiple locations each year is the mind-boggling task of scouting to find great specific areas. I prefer to limit my elk hunting to one or two bulls per year so I can hike the hills in August, find concentrations of elk, install trail cameras where appropriate and feel confident about finding nice bulls once the season begins. Scouting often takes more time than actual elk hunting if you want to do the job right. Spread yourself too thin with too little time and too many elk spots, and you will turn into a headless chicken with barely a clue how and where to hunt effectively.
A serious elk archer’s work and fun never stops. From actual hunting to target practice, tinkering with gear and pre-hunt elk research, this is definitely an every-month endeavor.
Life member Chuck Adams has written 10 books about bowhunting—including Super Slam, detailing his adventures with all 28 species of North American big game.