Skip to main content

10 Tips to Tag a Bull Elk in September

Shoot the bull: Employ these proven tactics to get closer to elk this month.

10 Tips to Tag a Bull Elk in September

There's a lot happening in the elk woods in September. Understanding the progression of herd behavior is important to punching a tag. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Note: This story on elk hunting is featured in the West edition of September's Game & Fish Magazine, now on sale nationwide. Learn how to subscribe

Despite my pleading cow calls and aggressive bugles, the bull elk wouldn't budge. Grabbing a thick, rotten tree limb, I began raking a pine tree in front of me and kicking loose rocks I was standing on.

Instantly, the bull let out another bugle, just as he had been doing for the past 45 minutes. But this time was different. Before the screams subsided, it sounded like a landslide on the opposing ridge. Shale avalanched its way down the mountain, and it sounded like the whole herd was sprinting my way.

Down the cliff they came, then all went silent as the elk made their way up the timbered, north-facing ridge from which I called. Arrow nocked, distances through multiple shooting lanes already established with my rangefinder, a slight crosswind in my favor, I caught a glimpse of yellow. Then another cow materialized in the thick trees, followed by a flash of white. I knew instantly it was a bull.


At 21 yards the cows stepped out. The bull followed and let out a screaming bugle in my direction. I was already at full draw. Though the shot was simple, pulling that bull into my lap was not, as I’d worked him much of the day. Fortunately, my aggressive moves paid off, forcing the bull to respond rather than flee. With September finally here, consider these 10 tips the next time you’re looking to close the deal on a wary bull.


1. GET THE RANGE

After decades of elk hunting, the No. 1 reason I hear from hunters for why they missed an elk—or multiple shots at elk during the course of a season—is that they didn’t have time to range it. To me, there’s no excuse for that.

First of all, if you don’t know the range, don’t take the shot to begin with. Guessing your range can easily result in a miss or, worse, a wounded animal that you can’t recover. Second, before even calling, use your rangefinder to mark trees, rocks, cut banks—whatever there is around you—so you know the exact distance wherever a bull steps out.

2. MIX UP CALLS

September is a time when elk go through a vast range of behavioral changes. Early in the season, calf and cow communication is high as calves venture farther from their mothers and cows enter estrus. As testosterone levels continue to build in bulls due to shifts in photoperiodism, their behaviors can change rapidly—even overnight if there’s a cold snap.

Calling for Elk
Mixing up your calls to fit the ever-changing mood of elk in September can be the key to bringing a bull within shooting range. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Cow and calf chatter can be effective at pulling in bulls. Mix in some young, high-pitched bugles, and this is a great way to emulate what’s happening among elk herds. It’ll increase your chances of pulling a young bull so you can put meat in the freezer. As the month progresses, cut off bugling bulls by mimicking the same sounds they’re making, only louder and more aggressive with a raspy finish. Make raking trees and brush and stomping the ground part of your repertoire and you just might bring an enraged bull right into your lap.




3. PLAY IT COOL

Cold temperatures don’t dictate the elk rut. Waning daylight hours increase hormone levels, and that’s what drives it. But cold temperatures do make it more comfortable for bulls to cover ground and increase aggressive behaviors, which can make it seem like the rut is intensifying.

Elk Tree Stand
Hunting from a treestand is a great way to get your scent off the ground, and is effective both on trails and at water holes. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

When there’s a cold snap, hunt hard all day because bulls can be more active. Start glassing, calling and covering ground early.

Cooler temperatures mean bulls can be more active for longer periods as their body temperatures stay lower. If there’s a strong wind, even better, as this will allow bulls to cool down quicker. If it’s raining, hunt hard all day since bulls might not even bed down if it’s cold and wet.

Recommended


4. HIT THE TIMBER

Even on hot days, hunting during the middle of the day in the timber can be productive. Listen for cows and calves chattering back and forth, as they often get up and browse at midday and communicate with one another while doing so. This is when you can move in close and start making the same sounds. Follow up those cow and calf calls with bugles, and you can make bulls more active, even bugling and coming to calls.

Elk Habitat in the West
Having a firm grasp on elk behavior during the month of September will help you fill a tag in the big, rugged land these animals call home. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

If there's a stiff wind, hunting downhill into rising, midday thermals can put you within shooting range. As evening temperatures cool and heavy air drops, hunt uphill toward where elk bed.

Elk Wind Direction
Continuously monitor the wind as you hunt and try to always move into it. You’ll never fool an elk’s strong sense of smell. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

5. CHECK THE WIND

Elk have one of the most incredible senses of smell in the animal kingdom. However, elk hunting is an aggressive sport and we’re usually sweating within minutes of starting a hike. By midmorning we’ve sweated and air-dried multiple times, and the only way to prevent an elk from smelling us when hunting on the ground is by keeping the wind in our favor. Keep a wind-check bottle handy and use it often. If you’re closing in on a bull and the wind shifts, back out and come in from another angle or return another day. You can fool an elk’s eyes and ears, but never its nose.

6. GO STEALTHY

Hunting from a treestand will help keep your scent off the ground, as air travels like a river in a directional current. The higher your treestand, the better for keeping scent off the ground.

Ground blinds are another option for concealing movement and helping contain scent. While they’re not scent eliminators, ground blinds situated off a trail or a waterhole can help increase shot opportunities. There’s a reason both treestands and ground blinds continue growing in popularity among elk hunters throughout the West. They work.

7. CREATE A DIVERSION

Elk decoys can be used when hunting from a stand or blind or when covering ground. They’re great at pulling in leery bulls and keeping their attention off you as they approach.

When using a decoy from a blind or stand, situate it so an approaching bull has to pass by you to reach it, whereby offering a shot. If hunting solo on the ground and trying to call in a bull, placing a decoy in front of you ensures you’ll see what’s happening and allows you to change positions as needed.

If hunting with a buddy, have him move and call with a cow decoy behind you, basing his moves on those of an approaching bull. Montana Decoys are my favorite elk decoys, as they’re lightweight and extremely lifelike.

8. READ WALLOWS

When you find a wallow, don’t just look at it—study it. See if it’s muddy from a bull’s recent visit. If it is, look close to see if the water is stagnant or if there’s a current. If there’s water flowing—like from a spring, small creek or runoff—the bull sign could be minutes old. If there’s no flow, the sign could be days old.

Studying Elk
Study a wallow to see if there’s a current flow or if it’s stagnant. Make your next move based on your observations.(Photo by Scott Haugen)

To age such sign, mix up the mud with a stick or your foot. Watch closely to see if the sediment moves or suspends. If it moves and flows clear in a matter of minutes, hunt this area—a bull could be near. If sediment doesn’t settle or flow away, the sign could be days old, meaning you’ll want to keep covering ground and searching for fresh sign.

9. TRACK ’EM DOWN

If you find tracks, be it near a wallow or in a creek bed, follow them. Tracking elk is a lost art but can be effective. While September tracking conditions can be dry and extremely challenging, know that elk are usually moving into thick cover to bed in the morning, then out to feed in the evening. Simply getting a line on tracks can help determine where they’re going.

Haugen with Elk
The author credits much of his elk hunting success to an acute awareness of elk behavior and reacting to cues without hesitation. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

10. START EARLY, STAY LATE

Come elk season, sitting in camp is the last thing you want to do. It’s not too early to start the day at 3 a.m., listening for elk as you slowly move to your hunting grounds. Stay out all day hunting timber, shaded canyons and north-facing slopes. Take a quick nap in the hottest part of the day, snack as you go and hunt until dark. You’ve worked too hard all summer to waste time in camp, and you can’t kill a bull if you’re not where it’s at.

This September, pay attention to what’s happening with elk behavior and adjust your approach accordingly. Take time to study elk sign closely, listen to how herds communicate and assess the conditions before making your next move. By analyzing details and making smart decisions, the odds of filling an elk tag will rise in your favor.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Sometimes you have to fish a bait that allows you to cover a lot of water efficiently. When you're on the search for bass that have moved into deeper water off the bank and away from obvious holding spots, a swimbait can locate them.
Fishing

On the Search with Swimbaits

One of the best imitations of a wounded baitfish is the soft-plastic jerkbait, or fluke. A fluke darting just beneath the surface can be too much for a bass to resist. Rig it and fish it according to water conditions and cover to make this great bait even more effective.
Fishing

Fun with Flukes

There are three models in SPRO's Outsider crankbait series: 55 (runs 3-4 feet), 60 (7-9) and 80 (19-21). Professional bass angler Jonathan Kelley goes over the specifics at ICAST 2022 in Orlando.
Fishing

SPRO's New Outsider Crankbait Series: First Look

Professional bass angler Jonathan Kelley highlights the features of SPRO's new lures at ICAST 2022 in Orlando.
Gear

New Essential Series Spinnerbaits and Buzzbaits from SPRO

Syd Ribes with Sea Falcon highlights four new lures for saltwater fishing. At ICAST 2022 in Orlando.
Gear

New Lineup of Lures from Sea Falcon

Syd Ribes highlights two new saltwater lures from SPRO: Flutter Tail Shrimp and Cannon Ball Jig. At ICAST 2022 in Orlando.
Gear

New Saltwater Lures from SPRO

AFTCO's Matt Florentino highlights the features of the new Barricade cold-weather suit, a Best of Category winner at ICAST 2022 in Orlando. With Game & Fish's Adam Heggenstaller.
Gear

New from AFTCO: Barricade Cold Weather Tactical Gear

Three-time ICAST Best of Category winner Bubba covers it all with new knives set. With Bubba's Matt Kinamore and Game & Fish's  Adam Heggenstaller at ICAST 2022 in Orlando.
Gear

4-in-1 Bubba Multi Flex Cutlery Kit

The innovative landing net will weigh and measure your catch while it's still in the net. Best of Category winner at ICAST 2022. With Game & Fish's Adam Heggenstaller.
Gear

Award-Winning Frabill Witness Net 'Keeps You Honest'

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now