How to Hunt: Tips for elk, mule deer and pronghorn

How to hunt elk

A freezer full of elk meat doesn’t come easily. Last year’s hunter success rate for elk in Colorado was 21 percent, with 43,480 animals harvested. And this year, if it stays warm, filling your tag could be even harder.

In warm weather, elk stay spread out across vast areas at high elevations at and above timberline. When snow falls, elk usually will start to move, bunch up and look for food sources at lower elevations or on slopes where vegetation is exposed. However, the snowfall must be significant; usually more than a foot of snow must be on the ground to get elk moving.

■ Get off your ATV. Hunt slowly and quietly far from any road. Elk are very smart, move quickly at any hint of danger and hide in rugged terrain. They also typically gather in groups of 10 or more. If one is spooked, they all move, and they easily can run for a mile or more.

■ Watch transition areas at first light and at dusk. Elk are most active during the night and graze in transition areas: meadows next to heavy timber and where different types of vegetation meet near ridgelines. Find where animals graze at night and you might find them in adjacent areas during the day.

■ Hunt dark timber during the day. In particular, check out cool north-facing slopes and hard-to-reach areas.

■ Move quietly for short distances. Then scan the woods for 10 minutes or more before moving again. Even in dense forest, use binoculars to discern subtle movement or unusual colors.

■ Move far above or below roads. In areas where two roads are in close proximity, locate the most difficult terrain in between.

■ Line your shot carefully. Elk are difficult to knock down. Deliver your shot in the critical area of the lungs and heart just behind and below the front quarters. Never try for a head shot.

How to hunt mule deer

While mule deer success ratios are higher than they are for elk — last year 76,445 hunters harvested 33,217 mule deer for a 43 percent success rate — deer hunting still is challenging. Follow these tips to improve your chances of filling your tag.

■ Hunt varied terrain. Mule deer don’t spend much time in heavy timber, preferring aspen and forest edges, low shrubs and varied vegetation. In warm weather, look for deer along ridgelines.

■ Hunt at dawn and dusk. Mule deer are most active at night and often can be found in meadow areas during low-light hours. During the day, they bed down in protective cover.

■ Scout out edges. During low-light hours, hunt in meadows at the edge of thick cover. Deer move during the middle of the day toward the areas where they feed in the evening.

■ Stalk slowly. Spend time scanning slowly with binoculars.

■ Monitor wind direction. If the wind is blowing in the direction you’re moving, a deer will likely pick up your scent. Also, avoid hunting near moving water during the day.

■ Play off their curiosity. When mule deer are spooked, they’ll often run a short distance then turn to see if they are being pursued. This may offer the chance for a shot.

■ Go to snow. Light snow will get deer moving quickly out of high-altitude areas to their winter range areas.

■ Aim for the vitals. It’s a small target, about the size of a dinner plate just behind the front quarter, but it represents your best chance for success.

How to hunt pronghorns

Pronghorn hunters enjoy the highest success rate of all big-game hunters. Out of 20,000 licenses issued last year (doe tags are the easiest to draw, but hunters usually need at least one preference point), 11,708 animals were harvested for a 58 percent success rate. Still, even with Colorado’s population of 80,000 pronghorns (many of which are in the northwest), filling your tag isn’t a sure thing. While they’re easier to locate than deer or elk, pronghorn hunting requires a different set of strategies.

■ Ask for private land permission early. Never wait until opening day. If properly asked in advance, many landowners are willing to allow access and might even offer directions to the best locations and information about watering holes and road access.

■ Keep hidden. Pronghorn have the vision of looking through 8X binoculars. They also can burst into a sprint of more than 60 mph to stay out of range of even expert marksmen.

■ Be patient. A stalk may include crawling on your belly for an hour only to have the animals spook and quickly move. Only one out of five stalks gets you close enough for a shot. Be prepared to crawl the final few hundred yards — even if it’s through yucca, sagebrush, cactus and cow pies (some hunters sew leather patches on their knees and elbows for added protection).

■ See them first. This gives you a huge advantage. Avoid ridge tops and hills and move through draws and along the back sides of ridges to avoid detection.

■ Consider wind direction. It’s easy to send a foreign odor in their direction. Winds change direction less frequently on wide-open prairies.

■ Catch your breath before firing. Crawling can be exhausting. Steady yourself before the shot.

■ Try an ambush. Waterholes and fence lines are good places to wait (they tend to go under fences rather than over). Pronghorns alternate between feeding grounds and watering holes during the day, but they move unpredictably.

■ Practice flagging. Pronghorns react with curiosity to shiny things and other objects. Flagging piques their curiosity and gets them to come to you. After you spot an animal, walk back and forth in an adjacent downwind draw while hoisting a white handkerchief on a stick (or sit with a flag flapping above you). They might approach you.

■ Nail your shot. Shot selection is important. Pronghorn present a small target: The vital area is the size of a small plate. Shots also tend to be longer, especially on windy days when the animals are more alert. Know the capabilities of your rifle and scope. Also, don’t shoot a pronghorn that is running.

■ Blind early. If you use a blind (best around water holes or fence crossings), set it up a week before hunting to let the animals get used to it.

■ Decoy in bow season only. Decoys cut in the shape of a pronghorn often attract bucks chasing challengers (bow hunters often hide behind them). But they also attract other hunters, so don’t use them during rifle season.