Hunting Over Waterholes For Elk May Be Your Best Bet

By Stacy Beasley  

elk drinking     Bob Brown is new to bow hunting. In fact, prior to the 2003 season he had only a year’s worth of archery experience under his newly purchased camouflage. In that year he was able to tag a turkey – at 40 yards, his only game with a bow. From that point forward, Bob began to dream of bigger and better pursuits. His dream led him and two friends, Jody Baugh and Scott Trent, to northeastern New Mexico to Milligan Brand Outfitters for the opening morning of the 2003 New Mexico elk season. Little did Bob know, his winning hand was about to be dealt.

      On the first morning of the hunt, Bob quietly made his way to his stand overlooking one of Milligan’s waterholes. When he got within a stone’s throw of the waterhole he heard a lot of splashing and commotion. “I did not know if it was a bear or an elk.” Bob approached the waterhole cautiously. Every time the animal splashed Bob would move. With the wind in his face and the sun sneaking up behind, he quietly crawled up the dam. Suddenly the splashing stopped. At the top, Bob carefully peeked into the waterhole. “Whatever was making the commotion was gone,” said Bob, he climbed into his stand and waited for his shot at a waterhole wapiti. By noon Bob was headed back to camp. He told his story to his guide. The guide was certain that what Bob had heard that morning was a bull elk and that he would be back for an evening drink. Now it was up to Bob to play his cards right. By 2:30 p.m. he was back on the same stand. Soon he spotted several elk in a meadow to his left. He pulled out his Hoochie Mama cow call, squeezed it, and a bull raised its head. “The call got his attention and made him very curious.” Bob watched as the curious bull approached the waterhole. “He looked around for the cow, then decided to take a drink.” The bull spread his front legs, lowered his head and went down for a drink. Just before his lips touched the water, he raised his head. Again he went down for a drink, and again he raised his head. On third time he lowered his head, he began to suck in the muddy water. “That is when I drew back my 165 pound Martin Prowler,” smiled Bob. “Actually its only 65 pounds, but it sure felt like 165 pounds when a magnificent animal like that is only yards from you.” Bob lightly touched the release trigger, and then a smile lit up his face when he saw the arrow hits its mark. The following morning Bob was able to wrap his tag around the antler of his first waterhole wapiti.

     Ray Milligan, owner and operator of Milligan Brand has taken over twenty bulls at waterholes and has been outfitting elk hunters for over fifteen years. When it comes to hunting elk over water he knows his stuff. He is confident that water can be the elk hunter’s ace in the hole, if he/she plays by the rules.

 Rule #1: Find a Prime Location

“Don’t try to hunt over waterholes that are near rivers, streams, and lakes,” advises Milligan. “Rather look for waterholes in arid areas with an abundant food source, especially acorns, and heavy cover. If the hunter is not able to hunt arid places but only higher elevations they should hunt springs as a main water source. Look for springs on the east and north faces of the mountains because these areas are cooler and are prime bedding locations.”

      “Elk need a minimum of 10 gallons of water in them at all times. A hunter can bet on an elk visiting a water source at least twice a day,” says Ray. “They are more likely to drink just before bedding or after they get up from their beds.” If Ray had to choose to hunt elk over waterholes in the morning or evening, he would choose an evening hunt. “Hunting over waterholes in the evening is three times better because the elk seem to come to waterholes more often in the evening.” 

Rule #2: Make a Good Set Up

     Hunting elk over water is best done in a tree stand. All of Milligan’s stands our set between 12 and 15 feet. “Any higher than that and the hunter can expect less penetration especially if shooting an expandable broadhead,” says Ray. When hunting elk over water the bowhunter must pay attention to the sun and wind thermals.

     The sun can be your worst enemy, so use it to your advantage. Ray says, “Never set your stand over a waterhole with the sun in your face. If it reflects off your clothes, skin, or your bow, it will give your position away. Also, if the sun is shining in your face, it will hinder you from seeing an approaching elk in time for you to get ready for the shot. Always set your stand with the sun at your back.”

The most common mistake that the flatland deer hunter makes when hunting mountainous areas is in not knowing about the thermals and how to use them to their advantage. Thermals are simply air currents that rise and fall with the temperatures. Troy Peterson, avid elk hunter and owner of Conejos Cabins in Antonito, Colorado, testifies that wind thermals may be the number one reason why most bow hunters fail to connect with an elk. “The wind may be in your favor one moment and your worst enemy the next,” claims Peterson. The flatlander needs to know the thermal rule of thumb: In the morning western air currents are usually calm until the sun rises over the mountains and warms the air. As the temperature rises, expect the air current to rise. In the evening as the temperature drops, the air currents generally flow downward.

     Therefore, when hunting elk over a waterhole in the evening it would be wise, says Ray, to place your stand on the drainage side of the waterhole so that the thermals will pull your scent down the drainage and away from an approaching elk.

Rule #3: Know When to Shoot

     Elk will approach the waterhole fully aware of danger. They will relax a little when they go down for a drink; yet don’t draw back just yet. Ray advises his clients to wait until they hear the elk drinking, then slowly count, one . . .two . . . three. Then draw back, relax, aim, and shoot. “Oftentimes the elk will go down to drink, then suddenly raise its head, doing this two or three times. So wait until it is committed to drinking.”

     If you are interested in hunting elk over waterholes, Milligan advises an early season hunt because that is when the bow hunter will see the most elk coming to a waterhole. However, if the hunter cannot make an early season hunt, he says the late season is good also and that many big bulls have been taken over waterholes during the peak of the rut.

     For more information on hunting elk over waterholes contact Ray Milligan at Milligan Brand Outfitters phone 1-505-756-2630 or visit them on the web at www.milliganbrand.com.