Spend much time on the internet and you’ll quickly realize that you have to pick sides on the long-range shooting debate. In most people’s minds, you are either a long-range hunter or you aren’t. There is no room in the middle. I wouldn’t call Vanessa and me long-range hunters, but we are capable of taking long-range shots if that’s all that is available. Despite the advice of people on social media, learning to become a better hunter is not always the answer in avoiding the long bombs. Sometimes the wind direction, terrain and where you have permission to hunt can play a big role in how far a shot is. Truthfully, it was one hunt in particular that really got us interested in the long-range game and that was elk in the foothills of Alberta.
I’ve been hunting the same property in the foothills for more than 30 years and it’s only since we perfected our long-range game that we’ve consistently had a freezer full of elk meat. I’d say 80% of the long-range shots we’ve taken in the past decade, have been at elk on this property. The goal is always to get as close as possible to your quarry and the number of sub-200-yard shots we take at game easily out numbers the ones over 200, by 10 to one. But when the need arrives, we are well practiced and well equipped for longer shots. Notice I said well-equipped and practiced. I’ve seen a lot of people try to buy their way into the long-range game, forgetting that practice is a critical component. You can spend a lot less and practice a lot more and be far more successful than someone that spends a lot and doesn’t practice regularly. We are shooting factory rifles with factory ammunition and are confident to 800 yards, but only because we are intimate with our equipment and shoot hundreds of rounds throughout the year.
The 2022 elk season was a frustrating one. We never saw a single elk on the property we hunt for the entire bow season. It seemed most of the local elk had formed into one big herd of about 200 animals and rather than bulls splitting off cows as they typically do, all the bulls were rutting and breeding right in the middle of the big herd. It’s a phenomenon we are starting to see more of in our area, and it can be frustrating when the big herd is not on property where you have access to. I’m not certain what is leading to this behavior, but it is becoming more prevalent. A decade ago, the bulls would break the cows out into smaller groups and be fairly widely distributed throughout the rut. And once the rut was over, the cows would often form into a couple larger herds, but it was rare to see mature bulls with them in November. Now it seems all the elk in the area just move around in one giant mob. While 10 years ago it was common to see lone bulls or small groups of bulls in November, now it seems most run with the cows right through the winter.
It’s made it tough to connect on a bull for a number of reasons. The first being, with all the elk in one big herd, they are either on the property you have permission to hunt, or they aren’t. On the property we hunt, the elk will pass through once or twice in November, so you really need to be out there every day if you hope to connect. The second challenge is getting close enough to the elk without being detected. Sneaking up on one elk is challenging but getting in range of 200 can be nearly impossible, unless you are equipped to stretch your effective range. It’s been this change in elk behavior that has really driven us to become the best we can be at long-range shooting.
This past season, we knew the big herd of elk was about five miles away as opening day approached so we weren’t overly optimistic as we headed out. As expected, there were no elk anywhere on the property, so we decided to head home and get a day’s work done and return in the evening. I had little doubt the elk would get shot up where they were but figured it would take a day or two to get to us, if they did at all. So, when we returned late in the afternoon and saw where the entire herd had passed through exactly where we had been sitting in the morning, we were disappointed to say the least. We weren’t sure what time they’d passed through, but it would have been like shooting fish in a barrel had we been there. We both knew that we may have blown our one opportunity for the season.
The next morning, while driving out, we were relieved to see that the herd had crossed the road on the way into the ranch. We were back in the game. As we crept over the ridge, full of anticipation, we were disappointed to see the herd grazing on the neighbour’s oat field. We watched for about an hour as they slowly filtered up into the trees to bed. We both had commitments that afternoon and couldn’t stay out all day, so we left with our fingers crossed that it wouldn’t be a repeat of opening day. When we returned later that afternoon, all the elk were out on the oat field eating. There is typically a fair bit of hunting pressure on that property, but the elk were totally undisturbed. We watched them until dark. As we were driving home, Vanessa said, “We need a strong west wind to get them to move our way.”
As we were driving out the following morning, the wind was blowing briskly from the southwest. Vanessa said confidently, “It’s going to happen this morning.”
If the elk stayed true to their behaviour, they’d tuck in at the base of ridge on the property we were hunting. The only issue was that our only approach was from the west. After checking the wind direction a couple times, we confirmed it was a bit southwest and decided our only hope was to peek over the ridge to the north of where we expected they’d be. It wasn’t ideal but it was the only play we had.
As we crawled over the ridge, the herd was right where we expected it would be. There were about 150 elk and as we scanned through the herd, we could see at least eight legal bulls. There had been one really large six-point bull in the group earlier in the year, but he wasn’t there. We suspected he met his demise opening day. As this is a general three-point zone, this has never been a trophy hunt for us, and we are happy to take any legal bull. This is a hunt that fills our freezer for the year.
We were 800 yards away but there was a finger of aspen that we could crawl down and gain about 150 yards. After that, there was nothing but wide-open country. It was our only option, so we quickly made our way down. As we reached the end of the trees, I ranged the closest elk. They were 663 yards. Vanessa settled in behind her rifle and said she felt steady. Now we waited. Ideally, the elk would feed off the field in our direction and if they followed the path they normally did, it would offer a sub-200-yard shot.
It was about 30-minutes into legal light when a couple cows decided it was time to head off the field, but they were going east, away from us. There were three legal bulls at the edge of the group closest to us and Vanessa dialed her scope to 660 yards and found the bulls in it. With the number of cows around, it was just a matter of waiting for one of the three bulls to be in the open.
Finally, one bull stepped clear and at the report of the 6.5 PRC, the elk jumped forward and stood with his head hanging low. He was hit hard but as the other elk started to line out, Vanessa placed a second shot in his vitals. He stood still for a few seconds and then fell over, very dead. It was one of the longest shots Vanessa had ever taken on an animal but the elk lying dead in the hayfield was testament to the fact she was well qualified to take it. There was no celebrating or bravado at the length of the shot. Vanessa simply had a job to do and that was to fill our freezer and she did it with laser-like precision. Long shots are nothing to brag about nor should they be apologized for. It was the only option she had, and she made her opportunity count.
This scenario is typical of our elk hunting. We get as close as the cover permits and then wait for the elk to move; hopefully closer. If they don’t, and the conditions are right, we take the shot. One of the biggest bulls I’ve taken on the property was a classic example. I first saw them close to a mile away, drinking from a dugout. I moved quickly to get into position above them but was still nearly 800 yards away. There was no wind, and I was steady on the bipod but there was no hurry either. I’d made it to my position undetected, so I was content to wait for them to make the next move. Over the course of the next 30 minutes or so, the big bull and a handful of cows made their way across the hayfield. Finally, they were directly perpendicular to my position, and I ranged him at 525 yards. They weren’t going to get any closer, so I dialed the scope and took the shot. The big bull ran about 30 yards before succumbing to the double lung hit.
They say necessity is the mother of invention and having a freezer full of elk meat is a necessity for us. We love it! So, we had to figure out a means of keeping the freezer full. The elk were there but we often couldn’t get close enough to take them. This was at a time when long-range shooting was just becoming popular and gear more available and affordable. In the short decade since, it’s become even more affordable and it’s now possible to set yourself up with a long-range hunting rig for around $2,000. You need a rifle capable of around .5 MOA accuracy; something that many factory rifles offer today. You need a scope capable of ballistic compensation through the use of a ballistic reticle or exposed turrets. You require an accurate bullet that will expend reliably at extended ranges. And then you need a means of accurately measuring the distance to the target. A laser rangefinder is a must (see list of best rangefinders for hunting here). After that, it’s a matter of sending enough rounds downrange so you become proficient with your rig at the distances you plan to shoot at.
I’ve had the good fortune to hunt elk across much of the western US and Canada and to me, it’s the one species that consistently offers up long-range shots, often with no opportunity to close the distance. If you want to be consistent on elk, being capable of shooting to 500 yards or more definitely increases your odds, no matter if you are hunting the foothills of Alberta or the National Forest in the western US.
I’m a big fan of the 300 Winchester Magnum, 7MM Remington Magnum and even the new 6.5 PRC but if I were forced to pick one for elk at extended ranges, it would be the 7MM Remington Magnum. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with both ballistic reticles and turrets over the years and each has its advantages and disadvantages. These days I’m shooting a 4-16×44 Zeiss V4 with a custom burned yardage turret on it. The scope is fairly lightweight and compact but still offers plenty of magnification and MOA adjustment for those longer shots at elk. With the custom turret there is no need to count clicks. You just dial to the appropriate yardage. I like things simple when hunting and this is far simpler than a reticle that requires remembering what yardage each hashmark represents or the need to count clicks on a turret. I get my turrets from Ballistix Custom Targeting Systems.
I’m a big fan of cup and core bullets for long range and they offer superior accuracy to other styles of bullets and they expand reliably at lower impact velocities. The Hornady ELD-X is a favourite among long-range hunters and my go to as well.
Vanessa wasn’t the only one to take an elk at long range last year either and in my situation, it really emphasized how important being well practiced with simple to use gear was. We were just cresting a ridge when we suddenly came face to face with a herd of elk. They’d obviously been spooked on the neighboring ranch and were running to the west in a long line.
I extended the legs on the bipod and set the rifle in the snow as I dropped to me knees. My first job was to range the elk. They seemed to be balling up right at the fence line, with the calves having to crawl beneath. I found a big cow right at the fence and hit her with the laser on the rangefinder. She was 419 yards. I dialed the turret on the scope to 420 and slid a 6.5 PRC round into the chamber. I settled in behind the scope.
I focused on the area near the fence and caught sight of a five-point bull approaching it. He was surrounded by cows and calves, and I tracked him up the hill with the crosshair. My only hope was that the elk around him would clear and give me a shot at him, that presented no chance of hitting another nearby elk. He stopped when he got to the fence and my crosshair settled on his shoulder. But all I could see through the scope were elk behind him. There was no shot. He jumped the fence and disappeared. I slid the rifle to the left and about halfway down the slope found another five-point bull. This one appeared much larger. As I settled the crosshair on his vitals, it was as if the seas parted. The other elk around him continued to run up the hill but he paused to look back. He was in the wide open. Instinctively, my finger tightened on the trigger, and I could see him slump at the impact of the 143-grain bullet. I chambered another round. The other elk quickened their pace now and he tried to keep up but was unable. As another opening presented itself, I placed a second bullet right beside the first. His knees buckled and he went down.
It definitely wasn’t the way I wanted the hunt to go down, but it was my only option. I looked back to Vanessa to see if she’d been able to capture the chaos on camera and she gave me a thumbs up. It’s not a scenario that I’d suggest to people not well practiced at taking longer-range shots under but it’s something we practice often for. In the ideal world, shooters have lots of time to set up for these shots. In the real world it’s not always the case. Elk hunting for us is about feeding us and our families and we take the time throughout the year to ensure that when things happen in the real world that we are ready.