Elk hunting is rare in the eastern United States. There are many hunters and relatively few elk. So when I got drawn to go on an elk hunt, I felt like I’d won the lottery. Lots of hunters here apply for a decade and don’t get drawn. It took me four years. Here’s the story of my hunt with my 15-year-old son, Silas. You can check out the video below for my take on the hunt.
Of my four kids, Silas is the one who loves hunting. We walk a lot of miles each fall hunting whitetail deer. That’s how we like to do it – put boots on the ground, and run and gun (with a bow). Still, we spend a lot of time watching Steven Rinella, Remi Warren, Cam Haynes, and other professional hunters hunt elk out west.
Elk hunting is different from whitetail deer hunting. Deer hunting is typically ambush hunting. You figure out where deer are going to travel, then set up in a tree or on the ground in a place where you can ambush them as they pass by.
Elk hunting is primarily spot and stalk hunting. We were hunting on some mountains in Eastern Kentucky owned by a coal company. We had to do a hazard safety training course before we could hunt. The leader of the course took the time to show us the area, unlock the gates, and give us tips on how to hunt the mountain.
I had a cow firearm tag, which means I could only hunt female elk, but could use a rifle. We spent our days putting my truck through hell driving around the mountain scouring the ridges for cow elk. We didn’t see any elk the first afternoon, but the views were amazing. The mountain was full of animal scat and tracks from elk, deer, coyotes, and black bears.
We got on the mountain the first full day right at sunrise. And it was a gift.
We didn’t see anything early on. We kept moving, looking carefully over each ridge for the creamy winter coat of a cow elk. Around 9:00, Silas and I both spotted a light-colored dot on the ridge, about 1,500 yards away. The binos confirmed that it was an elk. But it was a young bull. We watched it feed around that ridge for at least 30 minutes, then headed off to find some cows. Unfortunately, no cows were to be found all day. We came back periodically to watch that young bull feed. We even got on top of the ridge above him to get a closer look.
We checked out some different ground on Day Two. As we were driving along, Silas spotted two elk on top of a ridge, skylined. The binos seemed to indicate that they were bulls, but we weren’t 100% sure, so we decided to go in for a closer look. One of the fun but difficult aspects of hunting new ground in the mountains is figuring out how to get to the animals you see. We drove up to a high spot, but then walked down a trench to try to get close to the elk. Sure enough, right as I passed a tree, we popped out right below the elk. The rangefinder showed 85 yards. But it was clear that they were both young bulls.
The young bulls either never saw us or didn’t care. They weren’t fazed. They just went about their business while we watched. This was the closest that Silas and I had ever been to an elk. Despite our best efforts, the rest of the day passed without seeing any cows. We did spot six whitetail deer, but that was it.
Day Three was the last day of the hunt. The initial forecast was supposed to be a washout, but the rain held off for us. We again spotted the young bull that we saw on the first day. He was feeding down the same ridge, but getting lower and lower. We went up above him to get a closer look. When we got to the top, we found him 400 yards below. He continued feeding down that ridge until he went into the timber down below to bed down for the afternoon.
As cool as it was to see the bulls, we were frustrated by the lack of cows. And the clock was running out on our hunt. We were going to leave early enough to get back home by dark. Around 1:30, Silas was glassing a ridge when he spotted another white dot. The binos couldn’t confirm it as an elk but didn’t rule it out either. We drove to higher spot with a better angle to get a better look. When we got there, we confirmed it was an elk. And it was a cow. And there were two others bedded nearby. My boy has a heckuva game eye. And we were in business!
There was only one problem. When I pulled my OnX Maps app to check the location, the cows seemed to be on a different tract of land than we were allowed to hunt. We decided to drove over to see for sure. And, unfortunately, we confirmed that they were on a different tract. We couldn’t hunt them. But we could still access that tract and get a closer look at them.
We started towards their location, which was around 600 yards away through some pretty dense brush. We found a trail into a cedar thicket that should put us close to them when we came out. But about mid-way through the cedar thicket I spotted an elk. It had heard us coming an began moving away. Not spooked, but nervous. As we continued to quietly move in, we saw it again – a beautiful mature bull elk. And we were standing right in its bed. The ground was clawed up and full of scat. The trees were rubbed bare. And the smell – it smelled like a horse stable.
The smell is what grabbed our attention. Silas had a huge smile and said “You smell that?”. We’d always heard great elk hunters talk about how elk smell and how you could know you were close to them by the smell. And now we had experienced that. We stood in that bed for a while and just soaked it all in. We listened to the bull crashing through the woods. We were content. The trip had been made.
We made our way back to the truck, locked all the access gates, and headed back home. We were empty handed. We didn’t kill a cow. We didn’t fill our tag. We won’t be eating elk this winter. But we had just spent 3.5 days in some of the most beautiful country in the world, we’d seen elk up close and personal for the first time, and we’d done it together. It was a week that neither of us will ever forget.
I’ll be the first to admit I still have plenty to learn as a hunter. I don’t kill many animals, despite lots of time in the woods. But I’m learning. Any my son is learning with me. We’re much better than we were when we started in 2018. That journey has led us on tremendous adventures and created tons of memories. One day he will take his son on an elk hunt. And he’ll remember standing with me in that bull’s bed when he first smelled a bull elk. And that makes my heart full. This is the man’s life.