How to Find an Elk after the Shot

The first bull I shot I didn’t find for a week. This past season I recovered my bull within a few hours of shooting it, but we lost a bull that Harrison had hit. We did a few things right and a few things wrong in each situation. This blog provides guidelines for having the best odds at recovering an elk.

Listen Carefully

Almost nothing compares to the rush of shooting an elk. Maybe having a kid… if your wife happened to give birth to a seven hundred pound animal on the side of a mountain. Try to remain calm and pay attention to which trees or bushes the bull runs past. Take notes on the sound of the arrow hitting the bull and how far it penetrates. Watch as the bull runs away for any blood and to see if the arrow breaks off.

Listen for any noises for several minutes following the shot. Sometimes you’ll hear the bull crash down, but if the bull walks away, it may just make a shuffling noise as it lies down. The herd might call to one another and give you an idea which direction they headed. In any case, don’t start high fiving or talking to your buddy until a few minutes have passed.

Mark Your Spot

Take an arrow and mark exactly where you took the shot or break off a few branches on the closest tree. Then mark the location on your GPS.

This past year when I went back to the spot where I shot my bull a few hours later. I couldn’t figure out which tree I had been standing next to when I took the shot. Though I thought my memory was clear, my adrenaline had warped the view. I had completely ignored a downed tree and had remembered a three foot pine as twice as tall. If you can scrape an X in the dirt or tie some ribbons around a branch, it will help tremendously later on.

Follow the Herd

As a whitetail hunter I assumed the first bull I shot would run downhill. I thought he may try to get to water or just take the path of least resistance. In Iowa deer feel safe in the dense cover of low lying areas. Elk don’t get the same sense of security from valleys. Low lying areas don’t provide cover and get hot in the middle of the day.

Instead of running downhill the first bull followed the herd straight across the side of the slope. With my adrenaline pumping I was trying to make mental notes and I misread his path. The second bull I shot continued straight up the hill after his cows. I did miss a bull one time that took off in the opposite direction of his cows, but I assume that he made it back to the herd later. Basically, don’t make whitetail hunting assumptions on elk. The bull will likely want to stay with the herd and, even with an arrow in his side, will climb up a mountain.

Using a Partner

Having someone else there to search for the bull helps both as an extra set of eyes and also to have an objective outlook. If you find a sparse blood trail have your hunting partner stand on the last spot of blood while you search for the next one. A partner also cuts down the time it takes to grid search by half. Contour lines on a GPS come in really handy as well.

Take your time. If the bull has died quickly it won’t be any more dead after two hours than after one hour. Hot September days can make hunters impatient to clean the bull, but if you’re not confident the bull has died, wait at least two hours.

It’s devastating to lose an elk. Sometimes frustration makes a hunter quit searching too early and other times they keep at it too long. A hunting partner can provide a voice of reason. If you think you heard the bull go down, you’re probably right. It’s easy to start second guessing yourself especially when you’ve been alone in the woods for days and your sanity and hygiene have both gone out the window.

Use a Dog

In 2019 I used my black lab to help recover the elk I shot. You can also hire trackers that will bring dogs. Most states allow the use of dogs but not all. Check out our blog on how to take a dog to elk camp for more details.


The chances of recovering the animal go up dramatically if a hunter takes the right steps immediately following the shot. Don’t move your feet before marking the location and listen for a few minutes before celebrating. For an animal that big, they can disappear surprisingly easily. The hunt isn’t over until you have the antlers in your hands.

Good luck and thank you for reading,


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