Mule Deer, Elk and Western Big Game Hunting -

Follow Your Nose To Elk
By Jim Deeming

I remember the last time I ever used a cover scent. It was many years ago.

For two evenings in a row, I had watched a bull and his cows start their nightly sojourn down into Troublesome Creek and the grassy meadows below.

Photo By Peter Eades
With his harem of about a dozen cows intact, and the last of the bothersome satellite bulls run off, this wise old coot was not about to go looking for trouble. I learned pretty quickly that any bugle at all - no matter how wimpy - only caused him to bark retreat orders to the girls, and off they'd go.

Thinking I might get a third opportunity to ambush this little parade, I planned my assault carefully - grabbing for every ace in the hole I could think of. Rummaging around in my bag of tricks, I found the little canister that contained three plastic wafers, positively reeking of somebody-or-other's formula for cow elk urine.

I safety-pinned one to my hat. I hung another from the quiver on my bow. The third I clipped to my front shirt pocket. Quickly overwhelmed, I moved that one out from under my nose to a belt loop on the back of my pants.

I became Wapiti Man - sort of a slower moving, stinky version of Yeti.

The climb to the ambush site was steep, up a long shoulder that paralleled a deep ravine. The elk had been coming down out of a ridiculously high, steep-sided bowl that was thinly timbered, preventing any chance of stalking them earlier in the day. Each of the two previous evenings they had traveled down the bottom of that ravine.

I got into position, hunkered down and waited. Just after sunset, I could hear them coming. The cows were mewing and chirping at each other, occasionally interrupted by the bull's sharp bark, commanding them to fall in line.

Presently, they came into view below. They were on the opposite side of the ravine from what I had planned, ambling in and out of openings where I could see the whole happy band.

This time I avoided any grunts or bugles, opting instead for sweet, beckoning cow calls.

It worked!

Or, at least it worked on the cows. Alarmed that a member of the sisterhood was AWOL, a few of the matrons called loudly in my direction - demanding that I get back in formation or suffer the consequences.

I stayed in my bush and called again, hoping the bull would take charge, but he didn't. Apparently he could count, and I was not missing from the roster. He ignored my pleadings, or perhaps they were drowned out by the growing chorus of cows yelling at me.

Eventually, one old girl got so wound up she bolted across the ravine and charged straight up in my direction. Not seeing me, she ran right on by, ultimately circling completely around my hideout before dashing back down to the herd! I would have happily arrowed her if she had slowed down a notch but her crazy, air-headed dash was so comical, it was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud much less get off a shot.

Alas, the bull did not take the bait. If my perfume was strong enough to reach him, he was unimpressed and they all filed down into the valley below. As the last of legal shooting light faded, I watched their tan rumps melt into the trees.

I waited until dark, clicked on the flashlight, and began descending to the valley far below. The walk helped shake the post-elk-adrenaline that always hits me a few minutes after the encounter is over. I shivered a bit, not sure if it was the cold air or the excitement.

Occasionally adrenaline has another effect, depending on what was for lunch. I began to realize I had left one important item out of my day pack and it was going to be necessary to get back to camp as soon as possible, if you know what I mean. I picked up the pace as best I could in the thick, dark timber.

When I finally dropped off the shoulder and started bushwhacking my way through the willows toward the creek crossing, I heard voices.

My hunting partner had crossed the creek just a few minutes before me and struck up a conversation with some neighbor hunters he'd just met.

Ordinarily that's an opportunity I would take too, but I had urgent business elsewhere, so I said "Howdy" as briefly as I could and kept on moving. I didn't even wait for Troy to acknowledge we were in the same camp or make introductions.

Behind me, I couldn't help hearing one of the strangers in a hushed voice say,"Whoa! Did you SMELL that guy? Sheesh! Is he SICK or something?"

I think at that point Troy was rather glad there hadn't been any introductions and he didn't claim to know me.

Later, back at camp, he couldn't help rubbing it in a bit. Troy has a tone of voice that speaks volumes more than just the words.

"You know, I'm not sure how good those wafer things are. Maybe they're expired or something. How in the heck do you expect to smell elk anyway when you walk around stinking like a barnyard?"

He had a point. And it's a point that has proved itself over and over.

For example, Troy knew he was close to that 6x5 bull he arrowed last September long before he saw or heard it. He said the smell just about crossed his eyes, it was so strong and fresh. There's a picture of Troy and that bull on my website at:

And just two days later, I climbed around and up the backside of a mountain just to make an approach from downwind on a wallow I had located, intending to watch it for the hot part of the day. From fully a hundred yards up the hill through thick timber, I could tell there was either a bull in it now, or had been very recently.

Unfortunately, I had missed him by only a few minutes because when I got there, fresh mud was slung everywhere. But it confirmed two things for me; one was that the wallow was indeed active and two… I had correctly planned the approach for the wind - and could do it again.

The first time elk hunter is usually pretty taken back by the potent smell of elk, especially a rutting bull. You can be your own judge whether you think they smell like the bottles of stuff in the sporting goods store. At any rate, once you have that locked in your senses, use it!

Without going into an entire lesson on the subject, let me just state here that you should hunt every minute of the day aware of what the wind is doing. And as much as humanly possible, keep it in your face.

Plan your day around the basics, and then adjust as needed. In general, prevailing winds will run from west to east during the day. But in the mornings, you can often count on breezes flowing downhill until the air warms up mid-morning.

Yes, at times the wind will circle and drive you crazy, but hunting with the wind at your back is always a losing proposition. It doesn't matter how much scent blocker or cover you use, this is a surefire way to be looking at the south end of a northbound elk in a hurry.

I'm not ever going to be paid to do a product review for cover scents after writing this, but here goes: I am convinced that for getting close, there's no better plan than making the wind your first priority, and making lack of scent your second.

I'm all for minimizing your scent, but trying to cover your man-smell with something that smells different - or stronger - just doesn't make sense. I guess it does make dollars and cents - for somebody else.

I once heard a wise old hunter and champion elk caller say that when you walk through the woods looking for an elk, you are as disruptive to him as someone walking through your living room is to you.

Elk have an incredible sense of smell and they also know who does and does not belong in their living room. I don't think they are really fooled by "genuine" estrus scents harvested from farm-raised, corn fed, domestic elk.

Sure, you might be lucky enough to bump into a bull having his one day of the year that I call "Stupid Day", where he's so full of himself that you can do almost no wrong. But those are rare indeed, and not worth betting your hunt and tactics on. And statistically speaking, most branch-antlered bulls don't get that way by being careless.

If you walk around with cover scents like cow pee, pine, sage, skunk, dirt or whatever else, all you are doing is adding something else to your human odor. And worse, you are hampering your own ability to smell the elk before they smell you.

Whenever you are still-hunting your way through the woods, you should focus on keeping the wind in your face every minute. But take it a step further - stop and deliberately sniff the air once in awhile. This is especially good to do whenever you crest a ridge, shoulder, or any other terrain feature that is likely to put you into the wind-stream of a whole new area.

This is a hunting tool you completely forsake if your own nose is filled with cover scents.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say when you're in a heavily hunted area where the bulls have heard every brand of elk call in the catalog, you stand an equal if not better chance of locating a bull by winding him than you do of bringing him in on the run to a classic, five-note bugle.

Unless, that is, you have some goofball running through the living room with elk pee wafers hanging from his hat. Sheesh! Those guys are sick! All you can do is feel sorry for them - and keep a safe distance.

About the author:
Jim Deeming is a lifelong Colorado native who writes about his 20 plus years of hunting and guiding adventures. He publishes a free newsletter with tips, tricks, and stories of elk hunting, aimed primarily at the public land do-it-yourself hunter. His eBook "Do-It-Yourself Elk Hunting" is available for download now at:

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