August 15, 2023
Despite wanting to gain 2,500 feet in elevation, I didn’t leave the tent until daylight. I knew that elk were bedding high in a timbered draw, but I wasn’t sure where they were feeding at night or exactly how they reached the secluded sleeping grounds. If I left in the dark, I might pass by the elk or spook them. If I waited too long, the herd might be bedded and hard to approach.
Halfway up the mountain I found a herd of elk grazing in an open meadow surrounded by aspens. A lone bull fed with the cows, and when I let out a cow call, the bull lifted its head and bugled. Cutting the distance to 300 yards, I called as I moved, and the bull kept answering.
The ground opened up, so I set up and called. Soon the bugling bull busted out of the timber and strutted to within bow range. My arrow hit the mark, and just like that, just two hours into a seven-day hunt, my Rocky Mountain elk tag was filled.
Though the hunt ended quickly, the groundwork was laid months in advance. I had begun in-person scouting in July. I also set out multiple trail cameras. By the time opening day came, I’d logged several days of boots on the ground. If you have the luxury of hunting elk close to home, August is prime time to physically scout for bulls. They’re more visible when their antlers are in velvet, as much of their time is spent in the open because they don’t want to damage their valued headgear.
Setting trail cameras, not only to size up bulls but to see how their movements fluctuate, can be eye-opening. In one area I hunt, I caught a big bull on camera in a rugged draw one day, then he showed up on another camera 9 miles away the following day. On day three the bull was back at the first location—and it was traveling across some rugged country.
As soon as bulls strip their velvet, testosterone levels spike and they’re ready to rut. During the pre-rut time, until cows come into heat, bulls can travel many miles, and trail cameras reveal valuable information. I set all my cameras on video mode, as the sights and sounds of video reveal far more than a still image.
August is also the time to pay attention to wildfires in your hunting area. With the severe droughts that have plagued the West in recent years, fires have routinely shut down access for many elk hunters. It’s a good idea to have at least two areas in mind to hunt in case one is closed due to fire danger. If hunting an area known to be occupied by wolves, a call to regional wildlife officials is a good idea to see what impacts the predators have had. In multiple places I’ve hunted, wolves have pushed elk out completely—some have been devoid of elk for more than a decade.
NO TIME TO SCOUT?
Many hunters don’t have time to scout for elk. It could be that the hunt area is out of state, or maybe all your vacation time will be used for the hunt itself. Whatever the reason, don’t panic; it just means you have to hunt smartly once the season starts.
When hunting areas I’ve not had the opportunity to scout, I’ll be in the field all day long. Elk are crepuscular, so spend the early-morning and evening hours looking for active animals. During the middle of the day, search for fresh elk sign.
The two things I look for most in the early season are fresh rubs and wallows. If you find these, and closely study the trails traveling to and from them, the odds of success will greatly swing in your favor. If rubs are still seeping sap and wallows are muddy, bulls could be close. If the smell of rutting bulls permeates the air, that’s an even better sign.
Fresh droppings also hold valued information, including how frequently elk are using an area. Follow trails and you’ll likely find feeding areas where herds of cows are concentrating. Once feeding sites are found, scour the area for bull sign, usually in the form of rubs, raked ground and dry wallows, where a bull rolls in the dirt and often urinates on itself to spread the smell of pheromones.
Be careful not to encroach on a bedded herd of elk in the middle of the day. If you locate a herd, sit on the outskirts and listen, or watch if the habitat allows. Often, a bull or single cow will call and the whole herd will get fired up. That’s when you can start calling yourself or move in for a shot.
If you’ve not already started, now is the time to get in better physical shape for elk season. Of all the camps I’ve been in, the No. 1 reason tags go unfilled is because hunters aren’t in good enough shape to get to where the elk are. With increased hunting pressure, elk are moving into desolate, more rugged terrain, and it’s not easy to reach them.
Make sure your bow or rifle is dialed in and you’re shooting with confidence. When practicing shooting, do so from various angles that you might encounter during a hunt. If rifle hunting, know your tripod and how to use it without thinking about it.
If bowhunting from a treestand overlooking a trail, practice shooting from an elevated position. When it comes time to take a shot, it should come naturally, almost like a reaction, with no distracting thoughts. Be sure your boots are broken in and all clothes fit perfectly and perform as expected. Never use new gear for the first time on a hunt. It should be tested before the season, ideally in the field, so it can be used with confidence to do the job it’s designed for.
If you’re planning to call elk, make sure to practice. You don’t need to be a competition caller to lure in a bull, but you do need to make quality sounds and know when to make certain ones. Cow and calf talk are big parts of my calling sequence in early archery season, as are insubordinate bugles. As the season progresses, more aggressive bugles and intense cow chatter are what I like. Trust your calling and use this form of communication with a purpose.
Before you head out, be prepared to break down an elk once it’s on the ground. A high number of elk are killed right before dark, and you need to have a headlamp, extra batteries, a knife and a sharpener handy. At the very least, gut the bull and get it cooling, but it’s better to get it quartered and hanging so it can cool even quicker. Elk leg bones are big and hold a lot of heat, so the sooner a bull can be quartered, the better the quality of the meat will be.
With elk season quickly approaching, take control of what you can to help yourself fill a tag. Elk hunting requires a lot of work, and the more time you put in on the front end, the quicker the hunt might go.
- Load your pack with these essential items.
My most important piece of gear when elk hunting is a wind checker. Often, I don’t care if elk see or even hear me, but if they smell me, the jig is up. I’ve never killed a bull that’s sniffed me out. Not only do I routinely monitor the wind when bowhunting, but also when rifle hunting. Check air currents, and if they’re moving toward elk, back out and come in from another direction.
Knife & Cord
A knife, small sharpener and parachute cord are always with me, too. As soon as I kill a bull, I immediately quarter it and get it hanging in the shade to cool. A 2-inch blade is plenty to break down an entire elk, and even disarticulate the joints. There’s no need to carry big, bulky knives or a saw.
I always pack a navigation system, be it a GPS or map and compass, because storms, fog and darkness can and will hamper navigation in the elk woods.
I’ll be the first to admit my first-aid kit needs attention. But I do take a small roll of duct tape, super glue, a suture kit, moleskin and adhesive bandages with me. It’s vital to keep your feet in good condition, so monitor hot spots and bruised toes.
Food & Water
Plenty of water and high-protein snacks are always in my pack, for once I leave camp, I don’t return until after dark. Hunt all day and stay hydrated. Having a hydration system with a straw that hangs near your mouth will encourage you to drink more often and is easier than having to retrieve a water bottle stuffed away in your pack. A water filtration system is a good idea so you can refill at a creek, river or pond.
As for calls, I love Slayer Calls’ new Enchantress push-button elk call and its Archangel acrylic bugle system.
- This article was published in the West edition of August 2023’s Game & Fish Magazine. Click to subscribe