On The Trail of the Majestic North American Elk!
Hunting the majestic North American Elk is one of the most exciting experiences a hunter can have. A big, mad, screaming bull charging to within just a few yards of you can leave even the most seasoned hunter shaking with fear and excitement.
Author: Chad Wilkinson
We have all heard stories of an angry bull elk charging less than five yards from an overwhelmed hunter who cannot make the shot, shaking with fear of a 900 pound testosterone filled animal with twelve sharpened points on his head, designed to fight. Needless to say, it is the type of experience that most hunters live (and sometimes die ... gulp) for.
There are a few different options for an elk hunt, but one thing is for sure, they are all challenging! There are healthy elk populations throughout the Rocky Mountains of western North America. These populations rely on their remote location to elude hunters. They have a daily routine moving from cover into more open areas where they feed. There are also ‘flatland’ populations of elk and others who live in the agricultural ‘forest fringe’ areas. These populations rely on farmers activities to provide high quality forage. Crops such as peas, corn, and oats provide the nutrients the elk need to thrive. However, access to these feeds often means they must expose themselves to hunter and so much of the feeding activity occurs at night. Regardless of the population you are hunting, ambushing the animals as they travel between feeding and bedding areas is a popular hunting technique, as is spot and stalk as they move. Finally, hunting ‘the rut’ is another very popular method of hunting elk, and without a doubt the most exciting.
‘Herd cows’ are an exceptional animal and elk herds rely on these mature animals to react and survive. Most elk hunters have been the victim of the ‘cow bark’ when a big, old cow spots a hunter and sharply ‘barks’ the entire herd to attention, almost certainly followed by a charge back into heavy cover to make their escape. I remember on particular experience when I was on a field edge watching a herd of feeding elk. They were calm, not the slightest bit on edge in the early evening. At 800 yards, I felt safe to move and adjusted my position slightly to settle in for an evening sit. I was shocked, and learned a tough lesson when I looked up to see the biggest old cow staring a hole through me, even at this distance! A few seconds later she let out a sharp bark which brought 25 elk heads up, all scouring the landscape to see what she was warning of. A few second later, it sounded like a freight train as the herd charged back into the dark timber and I learned a valuable lesson.
Backing up a bit to look at the history of elk populations, it is generally thought that they were a plains species, spending most of their time in the open. In fact, if you look at populations that are within parks, they still spend a lot of time in the open. However, in order to avoid a fate similar as bison, when Europeans settled the west, elk moved into thicker cover. This habit can still be observed today as an elk herd may be relatively visible during the early fall, but as soon as a hunting season opens and they feel any pressure, they quickly move into thicker cover where they feel more safe and secure. As hunters, it is important to understand this and realize that elk are very adaptable and will change and respond depending what hunters in the area do. This is a valuable piece of information you can use in planning a hunt.
When the hunting seasons begin, usually it is prior to the peak of the rut. Elk can be hunted then taking advantage of their routine, and their drive to feed on high quality forage. Whether this is natural forage such as the lower plains around rugged mountain timber, or lush agricultural fields like hay, peas, or oats, elk concentrate much of their activity around food sources. Generally, young cows and bulls, along with calves are easiest to target during this time, although still a challenge! Unlike whitetail deer, elk are more unpredictable. Whereas a whitetail will use the same travel route, and a same general area or even specific field daily, elk may move miles, or even dozens of miles daily. This can be frustrating but it is a part of elk hunting. To make it very simple, scouting an area to identify food sources and bedding areas is the key to early season elk hunting.
Elk are large and heavy animals and their tracks are unmistakable, so once you find many tracks, then it is a matter if identifying their destination and where they are coming from and finding a place to setup there and wait for them to pass. This method of hunting is suitable for both rifle and archery hunting, and should lead to shot opportunities. Elk have a keen sense of sight and smell so you must be careful to keep the wind in the right direction so they cannot smell you and to setup where your outline is hidden so it is more difficult for them to see you. A common mistake is setting up to close to the food source. If an elk population is adapted to hunters, they may not get to the food source until dark, and may also leave it before light in the morning. In these cases, you must setup closer to their bedding areas so you can intercept them in shooting light. If you spook the herd badly, either by allowing them to catch your scent, or by missing a shot opportunity or being spotted by a herd cow, elk may run for 20 miles, and may not come back to that area for weeks or months, so be cautious and ensure you do not make a preventable mistake. With elk, it may be more than just a single hunt that gets ruined; it may be the whole season.
Mid to late September is the ‘elk rut’ when most cows will come into estrous and be receptive to breeding. For elk hunters, this is the time of year they wait all year for. Mature bulls, smart and wary from years of eluding hunters spend most of their time throughout the year in what can only be described as a ‘fortress’. It is usually the thickest, nastiest forest in the area. A spot back miles from any predators where few humans or wolves would ever venture and those that so would make so much noise that the big bulls would hear them coming and be able to make their escape. They separate themselves from the herd for most of the year and focus strictly on survival. However, as the peak of the rut draws near, the urge to breed is undeniable and the bulls risk everything to take part.
The rut is a completely different hunt. The spine tingling bugle of a screaming mad bull elk cutting the crisp morning air is a sound and a feeling like no other. On those rare occasions when bulls are bugling, they are relatively easy to track down as you can simply follow the sound. Often, they stop bugling and bed down for the day so your opportunities are in the morning and evening. If they are bugling at regular intervals, your best is to move in on them, and move in fast. Don’t worry about being quiet until you get close then do your best to get even closer to the bull. Remember that there will almost certainly be cows around and their sharp eyes will bust you in no time so be careful not to silhouette yourself or giveaway yourself by not paying attention to the wind.
Typically elk don't bugle regularly and this is especially true in the early season and also in areas where there is a significant amount of hunting pressure. In these areas, your best bet is to setup where there is a lot of evidence of elk activity and you can see downwind. Then cow call softly at first, and then more loudly. A 30-60 minute session of cow talk, followed by an hour or more of waiting can be a deadly tactic. Often, wary bulls will come in perfectly silent to investigate the cow chatter. Be on alert and patient, and you will be rewarded. This tactic is likely the most successful in terms of calling to elk, but using a bugle can also be effective. When bugling, it is good to be cautious at first. If you do not hear an answer, do not continue to bugle again and again. One bugle is enough, and then wait the same way you would with cow calls. However, if you get an answer right away, then answering back and moving quickly towards the answering bull is a good strategy. Don’t worry about being quiet; move as fast as you can to the bull, bugling only once in a while to locate him, or in response to his bugles. If he continues to bugle to you, then a good strategy is to cut him off. Half ways into his bugle begin bugling. This drives big bulls nuts and is sometimes enough to get them into a frenzy.
During the peak of the rut, you will often notice bulls will be running away from you as you bugle back and forth. This is ok, keep going after him and pick up the pace! This most likely means that he has cows and does not want another bull (which he thinks you are), anywhere near ‘his’ cows. The only way to put a stop to this is to move faster than he and his cows are and close the distance. Eventually, he will have had enough and he will make a stand. If you are lucky he may even come to meet you to ‘teach this other bull a lesson’. Keep in mind there may also be ‘satellite’ bulls around, and these bulls are generally easier to call. A harem of elk is a group of cows and calves that a ‘herd bull’ keeps close to him. He does not allow any other bulls close to these cows, and attempts to breed with them all. The smaller ‘satellite bulls’ often follow these herds, and will try to sneak in and breed cows when the herd bull is not paying attention. These satellite bulls will also come in to your bugle to see if there are any cows in the area.
Elk are smart, and in areas where they are hunted a lot, or there are a lot of predators like wolves, they sometimes will mostly stop bugling altogether. In these cases, you need to be more subtle and patient. In areas where there are many hunters, they also may begin to associate bugling with people, so a bugle will send a herd running! There is no substitute for spending time getting to know the animals you are hunting. My final tip is pay attention to the elk, do what they do. If they are bugling like crazy, and you hear a lot of cow talk and noise then do the same. If they are only occasionally bugling, then do the same, and if they are silent, then try the more subtle methods of cow talk and waiting.