I recently got lucky enough to tag along on a first season Colorado rifle elk hunt with Jon Lewis (who had a tag), as well as our good friends Zach Ferenbaugh and Collin Miller (Collin also had a tag). While no tags were punched, I feel like I learned a crazy amount about Elk hunting, and especially rifle elk hunting. Before this trip I had roughly 18-20 days archery hunting elk under my belt, not including scout days outside of season. What made the rifle hunt interesting to me was I knew it was going to call for a different strategy than I had used before, and I was excited to note all the similarities and differences between my past bow hunting experiences and first rifle season. After reflecting on the trip I feel like I understand the simplest and most direct way to compare the two types of elk hunting. Excluding the uniqueness and differences amongst the varying units I have hunted in, and focusing on general strategy of finding elk and getting close enough, I believe the main difference between public land rifle and archery elk hunting is as simple as using an offensive versus defensive strategy.
During archery season, the first few weeks of September, the rut is in full swing and the hunter has to get more up close and personal to get a legitimate opportunity. While you still have to keep an eye out for pressure from other hunters, there is a better chance of finding a desirable situation in a pocketed area, within a pressured mountain range, because of the time of year and lack of shots echoing across the valleys (if there are elk present). That’s not to say archery hunting pressure won’t run herds of elk clear to the next mountain just like rifle hunting pressure, but in my limited experience hunting pressured public land for elk, it seems to me that there's better odds of eventually finding yourself amongst a rut fueled herd during those first weeks of September.
I believe that is mainly due to the more offensive strategy taken during bow season. The time of year and elk behavior leads to more calls from hunters and elk. It calls for a greater potential to cover more ground by foot during the day in an effort to find yourself in that pocket of rutty elk. The strategy to find and get close to elk is more aggressive with the bow because that is what gives you the best odds of finding a pocket of elk that other hunters haven't found or completely pressured off the mountain. It is more offensive than defensive because the effort being put in is to work hard to get in their bubble and make something happen based on what you encounter. There is less anticipation and waiting with the bow because of the weapon being used and the more consistent rutty behavior. Obviously with a rifle you still want to find elk, but the attempts to find the elk and get a shot off is what can be more defensive than offensive, in my opinion.
In October during the first rifle season, the rut can still be on, but it can be off as well. The pressure from the gunshots, side-by-sides, or skylined hunters walking the rims of valleys seems much more likely to push a herd of elk that aren’t rutting the same way they were a month ago. It seems elk are mainly concerned with finding an unpressured, safe, food rich spot to live and hold their cows this time of year. Because you can shoot longer distances, you're naturally going to find a spot where you can take advantage of that. It seems something that goes hand in hand with that is picking a setup where you can take advantage of elk vacating an area from some of those other forms of pressure mentioned. That is the more defensive side of the rifle strategy. There are definitely moments of covering ground hoping to find something worth hunting, but it feels like the strategy to put the majority of your confidence in, if you don’t find anything immediately, is to use your set up in a way that maximizes the rifle and allows you to take advantage of the more likely type of elk movement that you will encounter during the time of year and season. Which, during rifle season is entire herds of elk getting bumped from one or more shots across multiple valleys, potentially. Rifle hunting is a little less call and natural rut movement dependent, and more visually dependent in areas that make sense for elk to come through on their own or from being pressured.
The most likely type of elk movement that will be seen during bow versus rifle season as well as the type of lethal setup for the corresponding season’s likely elk movement and weapon, is what made me think about the offensive and defensive tendencies between the two seasons. Both are very logical strategies based on the weapon and time of year, but that's not to say the two season’s strategies can’t interweave situationally throughout the hunt because they certainly do and should, given the right circumstances.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect going into this rifle hunt, but we did find a few elk and one nice bull that we only saw because of our defensive strategy posted high above a wallow. The only reason it didn’t pan out was because we took too long to make a decision on how to close the distance on the elk. By the time we got to where we needed to be we were 10 minutes too late on intercepting them in a shootable spot and we ran out of daylight. The last significant note I will mention is the defensive strategy can quickly turn into a need to make an aggressive move in order to have any chance of getting an opportunity. Be sure to notice those moments and flip the switch quickly to have the best odds of closing the distance successfully.
All in all our trip was a success. We had a legitimate opportunity at a bull that we didn’t capitalize on and learned a lot about a new area and new strategy. Most importantly we had about as much fun as you can have on a trip like that with a group of guys that anyone would be lucky to spend time with and learn from.