Bow Hunting Elk: Master the Technique

We all know that hunting isn’t entirely about killing an animal. Okay, maybe it is, but the actual process of trying to track down your target and then successfully getting a shot at it is nearly the entire battle and is part of what makes the experience so rewarding.

Well, one way to enhance this experience, even more, is to turn the clock back a little and use a hunting technique that might be considered a bit old-fashioned: the bow and arrow. The truth is that modern day bows are actually quite advanced and once you start looking for them you won’t feel so old fashioned anymore.

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But, using this method will force you to engage some other skills that will challenge you and make you feel like a hunter from olden times. Archery elk hunting can be a phenomenal experience, but like we said, it is much different.

The way you set up, the way you shoot and the way you attract the animal are all a little different than traditional elk hunting. We are going to go over some of these differences so that you can have an idea as to whether or not you might like to try bow hunting elk or so that those of you who have already done it can learn a few ways to improve.

Why hunt with a bow?

In the days of high-tech hunting rifles, it might seem a little backward to use a weapon that is considered to be much less lethal and therefore makes it much more difficult to have a successful hunt.

woman bow hunting

Well, the truth is that it is only more difficult in the beginning as you get used to using it, but once you master the right skills, you will most likely find that hunting with a bow is much more rewarding and you might never look back. Here are some key advantages to hunting with a bow:

Extra challenge

Because you don’t have the advantage of using a rifle, you have to be at the top of your game in order to have a successful hunt with you bow and arrow. This means you need to learn the best tracking and calling techniques to be able to find elk and get as close to them as possible, but it also means you need to be a very accurate shot.

The arrow might do a little less damage than a bullet would so in order to come home with fresh meat you will need to be pinpoint with your shots. These challenges might seem daunting when you first start out hunting elk with a bow, but as you get better you will see that this extra level of difficulty actually enhances the experience.


When you release your arrow you are making almost no sound. This is a nice advantage because it will keep any other elk that might be in the area of running after you shoot. This way, if you do miss or aren’t successful you might have another chance shortly after.

hunter stalking prey

When hunting with a rifle if you miss your shot you are likely out of luck as the noise of the gun will spook any other animals in the area and will force you to search for much more time to have another shot.

In a perfect world, we are all sufficiently accurate with our rifles or bows that we don’t need to worry about second shots, but since this is hardly the case it is nice to know that with a bow and arrow we might have more than one chance to bring down the target.

Get up close and personal to the elk

This is a nice think that archery elk hunting lets you do. Because you need to be so much more accurate and you will have much less range, you need to get as close to the elk as possible before taking a shot.

This is interesting because it allows you to get a deeper appreciation for the animal you are hunting. Most of us hunters know that it isn’t just about shooting animals, it is about being out in the woods and the challenge of finding and defeating these animals.

elk very close to the hunter

By using a bow you will sometimes get so close to the elk that you will be able to hear it breathing or walking around. This can be a powerful moment and can really enhance the experience. By hunting with a rifle you might not have the need to get so close and this can make your time hunting a little more removed from nature.

It is less dangerous

This is not to say that a bow and arrow can’t be dangerous, but it can be said that they offer fewer safety risks than hunting with a rifle. There are less moving parts and fewer opportunities for malfunction. This might be good if you are heading out with younger kids and showing them how to hunt for the first time.

They will not only be learning the “hard” way, but they will be doing so using weapons that are a little easier to manage and that present a little less risk than guns. We will go over some safety tips later as archery hunting still has its own risks, but they are somewhat more limited than other types of hunting.

Choosing the right bow for you

Just like any other type of hunting, the type of weapon you use will have a big impact on how successful you are. Choosing the right bow for you can be the difference between a lifelong switch to archery elk hunting or a short-lived experiment that you look back on with frustration.

hunting bow

It’s important to match the bow you use with your skill level and also to make sure to try it out before heading out to hunt so that you can be completely comfortable with the weapon you are going to use. Let’s take a look at some criteria for choosing a bow.

Hard pull = fast release

Most traditional bows will release as fast as you pull. This means that the harder the pull on the string, the faster the arrow will release. This is important to know because the faster the arrow is released from the bow the more powerful it will be on impact.

There are some newer bows that are able to change this 1-1 proportion and can produce a faster release with an easier pull, but this can be difficult to manage and can make you be more inaccurate than you want.

The faster the release, the harder it is to be accurate so it might be a good idea for you to start out with something slower and then move up as you get more comfortable shooting with a bow.

Faster is always better when you’re accurate.

If you are already an experienced archer or you are confident that you will be able to get good quickly, then go for a bow with as fast as a release as you can find. As we mentioned earlier, the faster the arrow comes off the string, the more powerful it will be.

Hunter at sunset, ready to shoot

This will improve penetration and will increase the likelihood of delivering a fatal blow to the elk you are hunting. However, fast bows are much more difficult to handle and can result in much less accuracy if you are not comfortable using them. Again, if you are already comfortable with using a bow and arrow or trust your learning abilities, faster is always better.

Some tips for archery elk hunting

As we mentioned earlier, hunting elk by archery presents its own set of challenges that can enhance the experience and test your skills as a hunter. We are going to go over some things that are important to consider when archery elk hunting.

Cover your scent

This is something you would do no matter what, but it is extra important when hunting elk with bow and arrow. As we mentioned earlier, in order to be successful you will likely have to get much closer to the animal than you would with other types of hunting.

This means that any scent that does not match what the elk would expect to smell will tip it off to an intruder and will likely scare it away.

scent covering when hunting

Use unscented soaps, shampoos, and deodorants and make sure your clothes are well matched to the scents of the area. One key thing to remember in order to properly cover your scent is to play the wind. You want to always try to be downwind of your target so that you can remain hidden.

If you let the elk get downwind from you, even with all the precautions you take to hide your scent, they will likely still detect you. The most experienced hunters will get to know wind patterns of the area they are hunting.

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This means knowing how warming temperatures throughout the day affect wind direction and learning some indicators that can tip you off to any potential changes. The more you know about the wind the better you will be able to hide, the closer you will be able to get to the elk and the more successful you will likely be when the time finally comes to take a shot.

Get into a good position

The position you put yourself in to watch for elk and then eventually to shoot from will have a big impact on whether you are successful or not. If you are hunting in the morning it is important to get to your spot before the sun rises as elk will be on the move shortly after daybreak. They will be mobile again a few hours before sunset as well. It will be difficult to find them outside of these areas.

The important thing is to beat the elk to the area where you want to hunt them. You want them to come to you, not the other way around. Also, you want to find a spot that gives you cover but not so much that you cannot adjust. Elk will be spooked if they see or hear you so if you are hidden away in thick brush, the sounds you make to adjust for a good shot will likely ruin your chances at taking that shot.

Bow hunter on the ground with prey in sight

Another thing to consider is where the elk will have to go to get to you. When you make a call the animal will come looking for you. Try not to position yourself somewhere that would require the elk to cross a meadow or an open field to get to you. They will probably sense some danger and may abandon the search for you.

A good place to hide is near trails or near rivers and streams where you can hide in thinner brush and also coax the elk into areas where you can get a good shot. It’s also a good idea to shoot from ground level as being higher up will likely scare the elk away.

Get close and make a little noise

You will want to get as close as 100-150 yards before making your shot. To do this you will want to make use of calling sounds. You can use bull calls or cow calls, but know that each one will mean something different to the animal and will affect how it reacts.

A bull call will signal a terrain challenge and a cow call will signal a mating possibility. Experiment with both, but know that the elk is capable of finding you even if it hears you from far away. As you approach, don’t be afraid to make a little noise, but as you get within shooting distance you will want to stop calling as this might scare the animal.

Also, one thing that often gets forgotten is that elk are rather noisy animals. This means you do not need to be overly cautious about any noise you make stepping on branches or running into bushes.

Obviously, you still want to be stealthy, but you don’t need to be so much so that by slowly moving around you miss shot opportunities. Move quickly and with purpose and get yourself into hiding, remaining downwind, as soon as you can so that you can shoot when the opportunity presents itself.

Consider hunting with a friend

This is probably a good idea anyway for the overall enjoyment of the experience and in terms of safety, but hunting with someone else has its own advantages in archery elk hunting. Essentially, one person shoots and another person calls.

This allows the person hunting to move more freely to get into a good position while the elk follows the sounds of the calls. Remember that both need to mask their scent and you should probably have a way to communicate with each other so that you can be more effective, but working in a team can really improve your chances at a successful hunt.

Use decoys

Once you or a friend gets an elk to come into the area by calling, having a decoy set up is a great way to help you get the elk into a good position to take a shot. You will have to have good knowledge of the area and of the wind to be able to use a decoy and call successfully, but doing it correctly can have great benefits.

You will be able to better predict the elk’s movements as it will likely head towards the decoy and this can give you a great advantage in terms of finding the right position and then later for securing the best shot. Your decoy doesn’t need to be overwhelmingly advanced, but it needs to be enough to fool the elk and convince it to do as you want it to.

Tips for a successful shot

When archery elk hunting accuracy is of utmost importance. Where you hit the elk will have a big impact as to whether or not you bring home fresh meat.

Failing to pierce a vital organ means that the elk might get away, or worse, it will take you a day to track it down and the meat from the dead animal will be wasted. To avoid this from happening you can follow some of these tips for securing a successful shot:

  • Aim broadside. It is much more difficult to hit a vital organ when shooting straight at the animal. It is much more prudent to wait for it to turn to its side so you can shoot where it will count. This might require some patience and some creative calling techniques, but it will certainly pay off.
  • A good bow with a good sight. Having a quality sight on your bow will be absolutely essential. You will need to be able to hit the elk in a very small area and there is very little margin for error. Obviously, you will need to practice, but having a bow that enhances your accuracy will be very important when the moment comes to take a shot.
  • Draw a horizontal line across the elk. To help you visualize where you need to shoot so that you can increase your chances of an effective shot, imagine a horizontal line drawn through the middle of the elk from its behind to its neck.
    The first thing you want to do is hit the animal below that line. That is where most of the vital organs are; any shot that goes above this line runs the risk of not doing enough damage to the elk to bring it down. To get even more accurate, you will want to aim below this line right behind the front legs.
    This is where you will find the heart and the lungs and a shot placed here will almost guarantee success. Again, your ability to make this shot depends on your bow and how experienced you are, but a well-placed arrow will make all the difference.

Some safety tips and general rules of thumb

As always when talking about hunting, it is important to remember safety. We mentioned earlier that archery hunting possesses fewer risks and can be considered safer in some respects, but there are still dangers and it is important to know what to do so you can prevent accidents before they happen.

You need to be in good shape to hunt elk

This is something many people forget. When tracking elk in the warm weather at high elevations, you tire quickly and can become dehydrated without realizing it. It is essential you carry with you the proper supplies and that you also pay attention to where you are.


You can easily get caught up in the hunt and lose track of where you are. This can lead to a situation where you are lost, tired and dehydrated. Take precautions and if you have never been elk hunting before it might be a good idea to put yourself through a little training first so that you are sure to be able to handle the stresses.

Keep arrows in the quiver until you shoot

Since the opportunity to take a shot can come and go in an instant, many archers tend to place their arrows in the bow and walk around with it ready to shoot.

This might seem like a good idea as it means you are ready for when that chance does finally come, but arrowheads are razor sharp and a misstep while walking or just simple fatigue can cause these blades that are intended for the elk to do damage to you.

Keep the arrows in the quiver and then when you find a good place to hide and wait you can put one on the bow and prepare yourself for that perfect moment. Do read our article on the best bow string silencers to suit your needs.

arrows in the quiver

Know land boundaries and make sure you have permission

When you are tracking and hunting elk you may cover some large distances. Make sure you are familiar with the area and where you are allowed to be and where you are not welcome.

It is easy to lose track of where you are and find yourself somewhere where you shouldn’t be. The consequences of this can be quite severe. If you are hunting anywhere near private property make sure you have the appropriate permission to do so and if you are not sure, it’s best to wait to confirm it is okay, rather than to find out later you’ve done something wrong.

Be certain about your shot and wait to track

Don’t take a shot unless you are very sure you will be able to hit the elk somewhere that will take it down. Hitting the animal but failing to pierce vital organs will cost you the elk or will result in a long tracking process and spoiled meat.

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It might be tempting to shoot as soon as you see something, but it is better to wait and get that perfect shot than to jump the gun and waste the opportunity. Once you do take the shot and have hit the animal, wait for a little before tracking it down.

See also: Moose Hunting Tips and Tricks: Fool Proof Methods to Bag Your First Moose

Watch where it goes, but then give it a 20 or 30 minute head start. If you follow after it too soon you will risk spooking it, which will cause it to run and might mean you never find it. As you being tracking look for blood not only on the ground but also on leaves and branches. It might take you some time, but if you know you hit it in the right spot, you’ll find it.

Grab your bow and let’s go

As you can see there are many advantages to archery elk hunting. The increased challenge can really make the experience more rewarding, but only if you know the right tricks and techniques. Once you have these mastered it will still take some time as you will need to adapt to what works best for you and also to the local environment, but we hope the information provided here is enough to help you get going in the right direction.

What do you do when you hunt elk with bow and arrow? Any tips for our other readers that we haven’t mentioned here? Let us know what works and what doesn’t work so we can all become masters of this hunting method and enjoy what it has to offer.

So if you have a bow or are about to pick one up, let’s grab it and head out to elk country. It’s time to do some hunting. For the best recurve bow for hunting, see our earlier piece on this topic.


Shawn Harrison

Shawn Harrison is our expert in hunting. He was born in Alaska, so hunting was his hobby since high school. Later, Shawn took a Hunter Training at Alaska Department of Fish and Game to structure his knowledge and now he is open to share his knowledge with our readers. Shawn is taking ‘Safety First’ approach on all of his trips, especially is some people are going hunting for the first time.


  • This was some good information. I have been hunting for some time, and recently came to enjoy shooting bows. I thought it would be fun to put them together. I think the added challenges will certainly add to the enjoyment. I’m already pretty good at hiding my scent and tracking, but I have never had to get close enough for a bow shot.

    • Thank you! Great that you’re able to get needed information! Hunting is indeed about challenges and it adds to the whole experience. Don’t worry about getting close enough at this point. With more practice you’d be able to do that in no time. Good luck!