There are many quantities that go into a successful hunt: Skill, Motivation, Physical Ability, Experience, and Luck. Lot's and lots of luck. Oh...animal population also can be a factor.
Sometimes, luck figures more into things than the other factors.
Skill. Well, I fessed up to missing a shot on a buck that I should have made back during deer season. I then missed a shot on a cow on the opening day of elk season...but man, it was a tough shot. Three cows were running down hill across a draw from where I was sitting, a distance of 80-100 yards, and through some trees. It's the kind of shot that an instructor in a hunters safety class might say is unethical; running target, through some trees, getting near the edge of my 'comfortable range'...and I missed. It's dang tough to hit a moving target with a muzzle loader...the timing is all different than hitting a clay with a swinging shotgun. IF I had hit that cow I would have done a victory dance...it would have been a great shot. As it was, I was lucky that I saw the bullet puff against a tree, which is better than a bad hit on one of the cows.
Motivation. I was motivated. I spent 10-11 hours a day for 5 of the 7 days of hunting season out of my truck, either walking or sitting in the woods. The 6th day I spent an hour helping my boss skin his cow out, and then had a celebration lunch, so I only hunted 8 hours. On Friday, the last day of the season, I headed home at noon, after hunting 5 hours that morning. It's hard to be much more motivated than that...it helps that I find 'road hunting' boring. Never mind that I shot my doe from the side of the road two weeks ago...target of opportunity.
Physical Ability. Much room to improve on this one, and it's the same EVERY season. I end up doing more sitting than walking, which is not horrible, because sitting is much quiter than walking...but, it wouldn't suck to cover more ground without needing to stop every 200 feet of climbing to catch my breath. At the end of every season, I say I'm going to be in better shape before the next season...and it's one of the things I can't blame anyone but myself about. Sooner or later, I just need to do it. My wife has lost 65 pounds, because she saw a picture of herself that made her sad. In my case, it probably won't be a picture of me...it will be a picture of my daughters, and thinking about their weddings, and grandkids, and....okay, enough maudlin topics for now.
Experience. I shot my first(and only) elk back in 1992, a junior in high school. I haven't hunted every year since then(being stationed in Connecticut can cut into ones elk hunting opportunity), but have probably hunted 8 seasons since then, including the last 5 in the Bethel Ridge area. I know where we have seen elk in the past, and I know what elk poop, rubs, and elk country look like. I'm not Jim Zumbo, Elmer Keith or Jack O'connor, but I think I understand the concept of elk hunting.
Luck. In the end, it all comes down to you and an elk being in the same place(a circle with a 150 yard radius) at the same time. This is a factor of how much space and how many elk. I saw 6 elk my first 24 hours up on the ridge, and then NO elk the next 6 days. With the weather being unseasonably warm still(day time highs 72-73, overnight lows mid 30's) I think the elk took to high ground after the first day or two of being chased around. The game unit I was able to use my cow tag in was between 3000-4000 feet. The next GMU over had land up to 6500 feet, but going there would mean I could not legally shoot a cow. Decisions. Not a tough decision...stay where I am, in an area I know fairly well where I can shoot a spike or a cow, or go to an area I DON'T know and try to find only a spike.
It's not a case of 'get further away from the road' either. Bethel Ridge is not DEEP wilderness. The area is fairly crisscrossed with roads and trails of different types...there are very few areas that are greater than 1/2 a mile from some sort of travel path. The resident elk are pretty comfortable with roads, and the vehicles that travel on them. The cows will sometimes stop and stare at a truck driving by. If the truck stops, they get a little restless, and if a door opens, well...that's enough to send them running. This adds up to the Bethel Ridge area being a pretty nice area for road hunters, which cheeses me off more than a bit. I am a believer in karma...or at least, that there should be karma. Me getting out of the truck and walking a 2 mile loop through the forest should EARN me a better chance of success than the guy crawling along the road at 5 M.P.H. in his Bronco...but that's often not the case.
In the end, it looks like I just might need to pick a new place to hunt(I've not seen a spike elk in 5 years) OR get a Bronco.