Fact checked by Steven Lines, lifelong Hunter, and Outdoorsman.
Elk, a member of the deer family, has always been a popular animal to hunt despite all the troubles. Even though they are quite large, they are extremely difficult to locate and can disappear in just a few seconds. They can also be unpredictable when responding to elk calls.
But when it comes to taking down elk, there is one question that most amateur hunters forget to ask or inquire about, and that is, can elk swim?
Elk are very strong swimmers and can tread incredibly across all types of water bodies. An elk herd can continue for miles at a time without being at risk for hypothermia. They developed this skill to protect themselves and their calves from wolves, predatory bears in the wild, etc.
- 1 How Fast Are Elk?
- 2 Elk in Fresh Water
- 3 The History of Elk Hunting in Water
- 4 How to Hunt Elk in Water
- 5 Mapping Out the Area
- 6 Plan for an Ambush
- 7 Calling Strategy
- 8 Gear You Would Need
- 9 Final Words
- 10 Sources
How Fast Are Elk?
Elk can run quite fast, about 25 miles/h, for an extended period. If prompted, the speed can increase up to short bursts of 45 miles per hour. And while elk have excellent swimming skills, their swimming speed is not on par with their running speed as the current and their large body slows them down.
How Often Do They Go in Water?
Elk, on average, weigh at most 900 pounds and need around 4 gallons of water every day. So, they need to visit water sources to quench their thirst a few times a day.
However, the amount of water they need is not set and may change according to the habitat condition, its food, the time of the year, and of course, the weather.
Since warmer days dry out the water in forages and cause increased perspiration in the animals, you will find elk need more drinking water than usual.
For the whole herd, both males (bull elk) and females (cow elk) prefer low elevation zones with sufficient water access during summer. This need is more persistent in lactating cow elk than bulls as they prepare to birth and nurse calves.
But How Far Do They Go in?
Like all cervids and members of the deer family, elk are strong swimmers and can power through long distances and high currents. This helps them during their annual migration when they need to tread across deeper water paths due to freshet or spring run-off.
Their higher body fat percentage and thick hollow coat of hair keep them afloat and protect them from hypothermia in colder streams.
Elk have also developed this natural endurance over generations to protect themselves from wolves and other predators in the wild.
Since wolves prefer hoofed creatures like deer and elk and often stalk them, elk have learned to retreat into the water to keep them away. The herd even teaches their days-old calves to swim, even though it takes a lot of coaxing.
Adult elk, such as the ones on Afognak Island in Alaska, can cover up to three miles. On the other hand, Elk calves can barely cross a couple of miles initially and build their endurance in just a couple of weeks.
However, if elk have migrated to a new area and have yet to figure out all the routes, they can sometimes wander into the water and drown.
Elk in Fresh Water
It is not uncommon for elk to take a plunge into freshwater sources like rivers and streams. Roosevelt elk, a type of North American Elk and measuring five to six feet, are the biggest animals you would ever encounter jumping into the water.
In 2012, European elk journeyed from Poland to Germany through the Oder River, showing off their impressive swimming skills. Similarly, other wapiti herds are migrating and expanding their territories by crossing freshwater sources.
Can They Swim in Salt Water or the Ocean?
Even elk like taking a dip in the ocean and cool off. They are quite fond of the ocean water and love venturing into them during warm summer days. People living by the coast will often see a wapiti herd, especially of Roosevelt elk, wandering down the beach.
The History of Elk Hunting in Water
Native Americans have taken advantage of elk’s tendency to run away from wolves and other predators and into waterways since the Maglemosian period. The Puget Sound Salish people operated near the lakes and streams and used their canines to drive the elk away from the wild and into the water.
Meanwhile, they would wait in their large-toothed harpoons and would kill the swimming wapiti as soon as they reached them. The harpoons were designed to capture the injured elk and offer the final blow to take them down.
Since the elk were already preoccupied trying not to drown, they could not activate their defense mechanisms to protect themselves. This method has since been banned in the north of the United States and most of Canada as it seems highly unethical.
How to Hunt Elk in Water
Elk like staying in the water, but it can get very messy. Even though using canines and harpooning are banned across most areas, people can still take advantage of the situation and bring home a prize. And the best way to do that is to use a wallow.
What Is a Wallow?
A wallow is a shallow area of water and mud that elk will lay down in and use for many different reasons. Most elk will use a wallow to lay down in the water and mud to cool off in warmer weather.
During the rut, bull elk will urinate in the water and try their best to cover themselves with mud to stay cool during the day and attract cows. By covering themselves in their urine, they attempt to attract cows that will be coming into estrus at that time or in the coming days or weeks. The pungent odor sticks to the bull elk better, thanks to the mud they coat themselves with.
Wallows can be made in streams, wet meadows, springs, seeps, shallow ponds, or even artificial water holes. Once a bull elk finds a suitable location, he will use his antlers and hooves to dig out the area to lay down in. In arid environments, bull elk have even been known to dig a hole in the dirt, urinate in it, and then roll around to coat themselves as much as possible. While wallows can be used year-round for the bulls to stay cool, they are most actively used leading up to and during the rut.
As the rut starts to wind down, the amount of wallowing the bulls do will also decrease. But serious hunters can use a well-used wallow to their advantage to successfully hunt elk during this time of year. If a hunter intends to ambush a bull elk by using a wallow, the best time to do so is in the weeks leading up to the rut and during the rut itself. Depending on the location, this will typically be the last week of August to the end of September.
The best time to hunt over a wallow that local elk are using is during the middle of the day. While the best time to hunt elk is generally the early mornings and late afternoons when they are most active, hunting over wallows is the opposite. Bull elk will usually visit wallows during the middle parts of the day, as it is the warmest. While they are aiming to coat themselves with odor and mud, it does cool them off simultaneously. Because of this, it is not uncommon for a bull elk to wallow at least once a day during the peak of the rut.
When in the elk woods, a hunter should always be on the lookout for fresh wallows. Not only will this let you know that there are elk nearby, but it can give you an excellent ambush location to hunt over. So while elk do not technically “swim” in a wallow, they are significant water sources and favorable to hunt elk more effectively.
Mapping Out the Area
Hunters from the popular group “Go Hunt” like using the Triangle theorem to identify the three core resources of elk habitat. These are the bedding areas, the feeding areas, and the water sources.
Get yourself a map of the area you want to hunt and search for the traditional water sources. A lot of people use 3D maps for aerial imaging and finding quality habitats.
You can also use apps like Google Earth to give you a top view of the area and easily identify where to start. However, do not trust the images alone, as you should check out these areas by yourself. So, be prepared to walk for miles before deciding on a location!
Some of them also like using trail cameras to study the area if they do not visit it themselves. These cameras can be beneficial to record the date, time, and location of your hunt besides giving you proper intel before proceeding.
Unfortunately, trail cameras are forbidden in some states, so it is best to avoid them if they are.
Instead of a rocky stream, look for smaller seeps and springs running down to the meadow. These areas are secluded enough for bulls to bathe while watching the cow elk and calf harem.
Although elk do not need a water body specifically, they still need the soil to be moist and soft. In those cases, you will find that bulls urinate on themselves to saturate the loose soil and then tumble down and roll in the concoction. These areas can be harder to locate, but you can always use your sense to smell to track them down.
Plan for an Ambush
Once you have circled down a few areas, the next thing to do is prepare for an ambush. Scout in a popular wallow with your friend and wait for an elk to wander in. Make sure to camouflage properly for the best security and to escape a bulls’ sharp eyesight.
The smell would be harder to cover, though. This is where ground blinds can help since most elk do not tend to bother with ones hidden properly. Besides containing your scent, ground blinds also give you more freedom to move and shoot.
You can also perch on a platform well above the ground. If you have been cautious to stay out of the wallow’s main path, the herd will have difficulty catching your scent as the wind would carry most of it away. Just remember to veil it properly and blend it with the background, like you would with a ground blind.
Since bulls like to walk with the wind in their face, make sure your smell does not waft through to them. Look for spots outside of the path of the wind flow.
You can use archery or a hunting gun from both locations easily. Even if they run into the water, the current keeps them distracted and slows them down while you kill the bulls.
Calling strategies are less effective than using a wallow, but there is a thrill to it. To hone the perfect cow calling technique into your arsenal, you need to master the basic few. A brother-sister bowhunting duo, Krissy Knox and Ryan Hay recommend trying the iCall Elk app to nail the tone of cows!
Both the caller and shooter need to search a location to mask themselves properly, hide their scent and stay out of the wind. However, a caller needs to practice their skills and put the shooter first.
They also need to be extremely patient and avoid placing the signal too fast. This could agitate the bulls and make them wary. The herds often ignore misplaced calls.
On the other hand, a shooter needs to get comfortable in his hiding spot. Put down your bags and other heavy gear that does not need. Get into position and use reference points for the best shot.
Knox and Hay also state this strategy can only succeed if you trust your partner and let them play their role, cow caller, or shooter. Interfering and trying to get the harvest by yourself would set you up to fail.
Gear You Would Need
There are three primary weapons that you can use to hunt elk: the classic hunter rifle, compound bow, and crossbow. While it is legal to use any of these three weapons, it is generally only allowed to use one weapon type at a time in most US states, depending on the season and hunter’s permit.
Where legal, some people like carrying both so that they can use them if the opportunity arises. However, many opt for taking as little weight as possible to track their elk for longer distances.
With bowhunting, you would need extremely high skills with a solid upper body and core. This is because you would need to stretch and hold your body steady without using external support.
Besides, you would need to be very accurate as bows take longer to string, and misfired arrows can spook the elk and take away your chances of firing again. But bowhunting seasons last longer, so you can always take your time enjoying them.
On the other hand, a rifle is less physically demanding and more affordable. You always have a better chance at pulling an ethical shot. Fortunately, mastering shooting skills takes less time than bowhunting, so you can start practicing right before the season!
It takes a lot of patience to kill an elk. The ambush may not seem glorious, but it is a necessary means. You can also use a cow calling technique. But once you harvest a bull and bring it home, all the trouble would seem worth it.
I hope all your questions including, can elk swim, have been answered so that you can start your hunting season with a bang. And if you do not want to wait for the season, you can also go in around early June.
Steven Lines is a hunter and outdoorsman from Safford, Arizona, USA. Since a child, he has been hunting and fishing and has over 20 years of experience in the outdoors. Steven works as a hunting guide in Arizona during his spare time and runs a Youtube channel dedicated to sharing his outdoor adventures with others.