In elk-hunting country, day-old sign is ancient history. That’s because overnight, elk can move to the next-over mountain, or a neighboring hunting district or lower-elevation private land that’s off-limits to hunting.
Whether you’re hunting them for the first time or the next time, the most useful piece of intelligence is appreciating that elk are landscape-scale animals. While whitetails or even mule deer have home ranges measured in acres, the home range for elk is measured in townships and square miles.
They are built to cover ground, and then vanish in dense timber or folds of terrain when they feel pressured.
That’s why, unless you find smoking-hot sign — fresh tracks that haven’t been snowed in, or still-warm scat, or ridgeline beds that are warm to the touch — don’t put stock in places elk have been.
Instead, think about where they will be and then do your best to be there waiting on them. The ability to pattern and anticipate their movements applies to rut-season archery hunts, and all the way though late-season migration hunts into December.
Nearly every Western state holds its archery elk season during the height of the rut, which generally covers the month of September, usually starting around Labor Day and extending through the first days of October, depending on elevation and latitude. Herds will still be on their summer ranges and their daily patterns are dictated by shade, water and herd dynamics as bulls establish and defend harems.
It gets hot in elk country in September and, because bulls are starting to build their winter coats even as they run hot during the rut, the first rule of locating archery-season bulls is understanding the laws of wapiti thermodynamics.
Bulls will be active in early mornings and in the cool of the evening, and some of the most intense bugling and movement may be under the big hunter’s moon of September.
Bulls will find shade on north-facing slopes during hot, sunny days and regulate their temperature by wallowing in springs, sweeps and muddy washes.
Your first step in killing a big bull is finding him, and the search should start with these hidden sources of water. You can use topo maps and digital mapping apps to remotely scout for water, but there’s no substitute for hiking your hunting area, looking for bogs and wallows.
Pay close attention to prevailing wind around these damp pockets, remembering afternoon winds generally blow downhill into these water sources.
Warm-weather bulls that rut all night will bed down during hot days on cool, shady, north-facing slopes, so your pre-season patterning should find places where you can hunker down in bow range of bulls that move out of the shade and into meadows and timber openings where they can gather up harems.
Look for concealing brush, pockets of timber and even natural features like creekbanks and boulders where you can hide, keep the wind in your face and arrow a bull as he either strolls past or comes to your calling.
Most rifle seasons take place after the rut has cooled but before serious winter weather hits the high country. In much of the West, this is classic public-land hunting, in which elk are scattered in remote parks and subalpine basins. After the first gunshots of opening morning, elk will move away from popular trailheads and into what the locals call “dark timber.” This is nothing more than dense thickets of lodgepole and fir, generally on north-facing slopes, that are hard to see into and even harder for a hunter to walk through quietly.
Elk will bed in these areas during the day, moving at last light of evening and first light of morning. If you’re lucky enough to hunt just after a moderate snow, use fresh tracks to follow herds into these timbered pockets. Then set up in a place where you can shoot as they emerge from cover. If there’s no snow, then plan to move through dark timber slowly, with your scope on its lowest power, and jump-shoot elk as they blow out of their beds.
If you’re lucky enough to be hunting mountains just after a heavy snow, intercept elk as they move downhill. They’ll be following remote ridges, headed to private land that limits hunting pressure. Hunted elk are savvy to these refuges, but they also tend to use historic routes. If you find well-worn tracks and trails, set up just downwind and wait for the next bunch of elk to move past.
This is the season that rewards effort. Those hunters who are capable of hiking miles away from pressure points typically notch their tags, and a disproportionate number of November bulls are killed within a few hundred yards of private land. Hike the public/private fence line to find elk that are keying in on ag land for feed but are bedding in adjacent public-land timber.
Elk Calibers Evolve
Used to be, an adequate elk caliber started with a big 3. The .30-’06 was considered minimal; the .300 Win. Mag. and .338 Win. Mag. were reliable options. But better-built bullets moving faster has reset the notion of an adequate elk round.
NOSLER .280 Ackley Improved 160-grain AccuBond
My very favorite .284 is the .280 Ackley Improved, which delivers 7mm Mag performance without the recoil. Loaded with a 160-grain Nosler AccuBond, there isn’t a bull standing that won’t fold out to 400 yards. $38 (50 ct.)
NOSLER .270 160-grain Patrition
Instead, step up to the .270 Win. with a 160-grain Nosler Partition or a 140-grain Federal Trophy Copper. $44 (50 ct.)
HORNADY 7mm Rem. Mag. 175-grain ELD-X
If you want more oomph, it’s hard to go wrong with the classic 7mm Rem. Mag., especially heavier bullets like the 175-grain Hornady ELD-X. $40 (100 ct.)
Because elk populations are above biologists’ objectives in most hunting areas of the West, states are doing a brisk business these days selling cow tags to trim herds. Many of these antlerless seasons extend past the regular season, into December and even January. If you draw one of these tags, let the weather push elk to you.
In many areas of Colorado’s Western Slope, the three states around the Yellowstone Plateau, and south into Utah and New Mexico, the high country will be getting dumped with snow, pushing elk to lower-elevation habitats. This is optics-intensive scouting, finding strings of migrating elk, and then working to get in a place where you can intercept them.
If snowbound public land is intimidating, then ask about private land that allows cow hunting. Chances of getting permission is good, especially on working ag land that gets hit hard by crop-marauding elk, and there’s no sweeter end to a successful late-season cow hunt than getting permission to drive up to your trophy and loading her whole in a pickup.