September 06, 2022
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.