The Power of Hunting Alone

May 14, 2024

By Zach Bowhay

The Power of Hunting Alone

Like many folks, most of my early years were spent elk hunting with my mentor, my dad. Fortunately, he was willing to drag me around and show me the ways of the elk woods. Often, Dad would take a couple of weeks off in September to bowhunt elk for himself, but when the weekend rolled around and I was done with football and school, the hunting was about me. In the early '90s, when I was first old enough to hunt, the hunting was fabulous, and Dad and I got into tons of elk; after a couple of years of close calls, I killed my first bull when I was fifteen.

As my high school years continued, I hunted a lot with Dad, but I felt the urge to try this myself each year. This is not because I didn’t love hunting with my dad; that couldn’t be further from the truth. This feeling came from just wanting to see if I had what it took to do it alone. I went on short hunts alone, but honestly, it was half-hearted, and the intimidation of being out there alone got the better of me most of the time.

When I graduated high school, a buddy and I decided to work all summer to raise enough money to quit our jobs and hunt all fall. That fall, my buddy Casey and I hunted our asses off, learned a lot, and failed a lot. We both ended up killing an elk, with his being a cow and, a few days later, a five-point bull for me. This was my first elk without my dad, and although it wasn’t solo, I was a more experienced hunter than my hunting partner, and the calling and decisions were mainly up to me. So, when that bull hit the ground, it gave me a little more confidence to strike out on my own.

Striking Out on My Own

With this newfound confidence, I began venturing into the woods solo more frequently. While I still enjoyed hunting with my dad and friends, each passing year saw me devoting more time to chasing elk independently. Yet, despite my growing experience, I couldn't shake the occasional feeling of trepidation. It's not something I'm ashamed to admit; even now, there are moments when hiking before or after dark triggers a sense of unease. It's a natural instinct to be cautious, especially when faced with the unknown. I'm sure many hunters can relate to this feeling regardless of their level of expertise.

For those of you who may experience similar apprehensions, I want you to know that it's perfectly normal. Take it one step at a time, gradually expanding your horizons with more extended and challenging hunts as you gain confidence. Focusing on the task, the pursuit of game, helped distract my mind and ease my nerves. Even today, fleeting thoughts of the dangers lurking in the woods may cross my mind, but with years of experience, I've learned to dismiss them and refocus on the hunt.

You’ll Become a Better Hunter

Some may disagree with this, but I am 100% convinced that becoming a self-reliant elk hunter capable of harvesting bulls on your own makes you a better all-around hunter than if you always hunt with a partner. I love hunting with friends and family, and sharing hunts and kills with them is one of the greatest joys of my life. However, some of my solo hunts are the most rewarding.

When hunting alone, there is no one to ask for advice, no one else to call, glass, or help with anything; it's all up to you. This fact alone ensures that if you want to get better at elk hunting, you must improve all aspects of your hunting. Not having anyone to fall back on for calling makes you figure things out, like refining your calling setups. You must ensure the bull enters your effective range without even knowing it. Sometimes, that means calling one last time and swiftly moving forward to set up. Other times, it means positioning yourself in thicker timber, forcing the bull to search for the calling and come closer to you as both a caller and shooter.

Those new to chasing elk or who have always hunted with a partner can easily rely on others for guidance in specific situations. However, this isn’t the case when hunting solo. You're making the calls, and there's no one else to praise or blame for those decisions besides yourself. Failure can't get diluted in this process, and you learn what works and what doesn’t through trial and error. Slowly but surely, you will become a better elk hunter through this process.

It can Be Really Hard

I vividly recall the first solo bull I harvested. It was September 28th, 2006, and after a month of relentless pursuit, countless close encounters, and several missed opportunities, my ambition was waning. Nevertheless, I mustered the energy to hike the mountain toward a promising location. Upon reaching a bench nestled amidst the remnants of an old burn, I let out an estrus cow call, hoping for a response. Moments later, a glimpse of tan caught my eye on the edge of a live timber patch several hundred yards above me.

As I observed closely, two young bulls emerged, slowly making their way towards my position. Though they were not the largest bulls I had encountered, the prospect of finally killing a bull solo excited me. With the bulls closing the distance, I decided to take the shot if the opportunity presented itself. True to my hopes, the bulls approached my setup, and at a mere twenty-seven yards, I delivered a perfect shot to the first bull. He barreled down the slope, expiring 150 yards away.

Approaching the fallen bull, a mix of emotions washed over me. I felt proud, knowing that this accomplishment had been achieved entirely alone. However, this feeling of success was quickly tempered by the practicalities of the situation. The bull lay far from any shade, and the day's heat was quickly approaching.

After snapping a few photographs to commemorate the moment, I set to work, breaking down the bull and transporting each quarter to the nearest patch of shade to prevent spoilage. It was hard work, and the quartering was far from perfect, but a profound sense of accomplishment washed over me as I completed the task. At that moment, I reaffirmed my capability to navigate the challenges of solo hunting and handle the accompanying responsibilities.

A little Help Never Hurts, Though

One of the most daunting tasks about solo elk hunting is the prospect of packing out the entire bull on your back. This challenge understandably instills fear in many hunters. Elk are large animals, and the risk of meat spoilage is a legitimate concern. However, with quality game bags and access to shade, meat can often hang for several days without issue. I approach every hunt knowing that, if necessary, I am capable of quartering, hanging, and packing out an entire bull on my own.

That being said, I still appreciate the assistance of strong companions or, even better, the aid of a reliable horse or mule. It's essential to consider how far into the backcountry you plan to hunt and whether you'll need assistance packing out the harvest. Having a solid plan in place, whether it involves hunting solo or coordinating with friends or livestock, is crucial and should be established well before the hunt begins. The time to figure this out is not when a bull is down. While this article focuses on solo hunting, preparing for the post-kill process can alleviate concerns and allow you to hunt more confidently.

Ditching the Hustle and Bustle

While hunting alone may not hold the key to becoming a great elk hunter, I've discovered that it has profoundly enriched my life. Finding moments of true solitude can be rare in a world constantly buzzing with family obligations, work demands, social media, and community engagements. Even at elk camp, surrounded by others, we often remain tethered to the outside world, never fully disconnecting.

However, the peace and serenity in solo hunting are truly remarkable, as both I and others have come to appreciate. In these solitary moments, I reflect on far more than just the pursuit of game. It's a time to contemplate my role as a father, husband, and friend and to reconnect with the values that matter most to me. During the quiet lulls of solo hunts, when the pace of the hunt slows, it is a great time to dive deep into introspection, gaining clarity and perspective on life's broader challenges and aspirations.

In a world where we seldom allow ourselves the luxury of being alone with our thoughts, the elk woods offer a sanctuary—a place where the mind can wander freely and find peace amidst the chaos of modern life.

Should you Hunt Alone?

Like most questions in life, this must be answered by each individual. If you are happy with always hunting with a partner, by all means, do so. If you find yourself longing for more adventure, wanting to become a better hunter, or having some time to yourself, I am confident you will enjoy some solo time in the woods.

I almost assure you that at the very least, you will learn something about yourself. You will also likely become a better hunter, which helps you even when hunting with others. I often talk about confidence when it comes to elk hunting success, and very few things breed confidence like knowing that without anyone else's help, you can successfully hunt elk.

It hasn’t been the only piece of the puzzle in my growth as an elk hunter, but it may be the biggest. Since that day in 2006 when I took that first solo bull, I have had countless more solo elk hunting days, both successful and unsuccessful. With each one, I learn a little more about both elk hunting and myself.

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