August 29, 2022
When thinking of rutting elk, your mind should immediately jump to screaming bulls. There is no better time as a hunter to chase elk than during the rut. With breeding on their mind, bulls come out of the woodwork, becoming more vocal, more active, and more susceptible to a hunter’s tactics. But the more you hunt elk, the more you realize no two Septembers are the same. If you prepare only for the one rutting scenario of highly active bugling bulls, the success of your hunt will suffer.
When elk hunting, your actions should be a direct result of observed behavior. Through the course of the elk rut, hunters can encounter many different conditions, ranging from the dreamed-about bugle fest with bulls going crazy to quiet mountains with extraordinarily little vocal activity to weeks where it seems like all the rut action is happening at night. To find consistent success in any condition, hunters need to key into the behavior of the elk they are chasing and employ the right tactics to get within bow range. These seven tips will put you well on your way to ruling the rut by capitalizing on the conditions of your hunt.
RULE 1: CALL TO THE SILENT TYPES.
If you encounter elk that are seemingly shy and quiet, aside from a few bugles here and there, match the tactic. Younger bulls tend to do a lot of the legwork gathering up cows just to see bigger bulls stroll in later and take them. If the elk you are hunting do not seem super-fired-up yet, use that to your advantage. Bulls are likely gathering up cows in secret, especially early in the rut. They also may be doing a lot of cruising to check in on different harems. In this scenario, you really want to target lone bulls. While the action may not seem as hot as an all-out bugle fest, it can be the most successful way to call in a bull. Use cow calls to create the illusion of a group of cows in need of some rounding up. This is done with basic mews in different directions, like cows talking back and forth to each other. This can be done while walking and still-hunting or in areas close to where a bull has been spotted or heard responding to a location bugle. Judge the bull’s temperament to the calling. If he is alone and bugling back to the cow calls, you have him on the hook. That bull will most likely come a considerable distance to check you out. Be ready for a shot opportunity. On the other hand, if you know bulls are in the area but are not making a peep, set up and do cow-calling sequences in anticipation that a bull may come in silent. This can be done by cold calling and making stands. Take time to sit and wait before moving to a new location and calling again. These cow call sequences can also be done while at glassing vantages. It allows you to call for any silently cruising elk while also spending time glassing distance basins.
RULE 2: GLASS.
Locating elk vocally by bugling is great, but if they’re not making a peep, use your eyes to seek them out. Take time to sit down and pick the hill apart. Elk may not be making a lot of noise, but they will be cruising for cows. This pre-rut behavior is extremely exploitable. Start by finding a good glassing vantage where you can look over a good amount of country. Focus your glassing efforts on areas that regularly appeal to cows. They are the keepers of the herd and choose areas that offer good vantage points and relative safety from predators. They establish patterns to give the herd what they need to keep them alive. Pay attention to areas that the cows prefer. Focus your attention on good feeding areas in the mornings and evenings. Even if the cows were out feeding at night and not visible while you are glassing, lone bulls will cruise these highly trafficked areas trying to pick up their scent. By slowing down and covering these areas through your optics, you give yourself a good chance of locating a bull to trick with your cow calls.
RULE 3: DON’T BE BUGLE SHY.
While screaming elk are the best-case scenario—and what we dream of—it can be one of the harder scenarios for new elk hunters to capitalize on. When the elk are going ballistic, you need to do the same. They are bugling and will respond to bugling. Cow calling in these scenarios is ancillary. Bulls are making noise to take and to keep real cows. These elk are worked up for direct confrontation. You need to reply in kind and try your best to whip them up into a testosterone-driven rut frenzy. Use your bugle to escalate the confrontation. Match the pace and energy of what the elk are putting out. If you’re bugling to a bull at a distance, use a timing and escalation tactic to get them more fired up. This works by increasing the cadence and lessening the time it takes a bull to bugle back. To do this, start by timing how long it takes for a bull to reply to your bugle. Every time he bugles, cut the time you bugle back by half. Do this until your bugles elicit an immediate response: When you bugle the bull bugles right back. Once he is worked up to this quick response, it is time to move in.
RULE 4: GET CLOSE.
Most bugling elk encounters are not successful because hunters hang back too far. When a bull gets fired up from a distance, move in quickly and get close. I will often close my final distance in silence, especially if the bull is still firing off. This silence tends to fire them up even more. Strive to close within 100 yards then let a bugle rip. A bull will rarely confront elk screaming across the valley, but he will come to fight a bull that is a legitimate threat and close to his cows. Challenging his authority will bring him in close. Now is a great time to mix in raking a tree with your bugles. You want to assert dominance and claim the terrain. The cadence between bugles at this short range should be very close together. You need to make him angry enough to commit to moving into bow range. A mixture of aggressive calling and raking can do just that.
RULE 5: TALK BIG.
Every bull wants to be king. Acting like the big bull on campus will draw in more elk than calling like a small bull. No elk wants to waste time and energy on a bull that is not a threat. Bugling like you own the place is a great way to create the illusion that you’re in control. How good your bugle sounds is not as important as the emotion and energy behind it. When bulls get mad, fired up, and ready to fight, you can feel that energy. You need to call in the same manner. Throw in some volume, those chuckles, that aggression. It will go a long way into tricking the other elk. If you do not know what call to make, just mimic the bull you’re calling to. When you’re close and you have a fired-up bull that won’t commit, cut his bugle off with your own. There is nothing more infuriating to a dominant bull then getting bugled over. This can be the last straw in the call sequence to get that bull to close the final few yards looking for a fight.
RULE 6: WALLOW IN SUCCESS.
If you know the elk are active and rutting during your hunt because you hear them bugling all night long but see little action during the day, you may have to switch up your tactics. Sitting a wallow is a great place to focus your attention. During the peak of the rut, a wallow is primarily used as a scent station. It allows bulls to perfume up with scent to attract cows. While bulls will wallow at night, I have found that many bulls will leave uninterested and bedded cows to scent up and prepare for the night’s activities. Satellite bulls will make the journey to roll around at any point during the day when the herd is away and they are not risking getting run off by a dominant bull. By exploiting this behavior, you can make good use of the peak rut even if it happens to land during a full moon and the main rut action is taking place after hours.
RULE 7: STALK IN AND MAKE IT HAPPEN.
While calling elk can be one of the most exciting interactions in hunting. Spotting and stalking bulls can be one of the most efficient ways to consistently take herd bulls or mature elk. Just because elk are rutting doesn’t mean it’s easy to call them into bow range—especially if they are not exhibiting aggressive rut behavior during shooting hours. The best time to stalk elk is when they are bedded. The longer they stay in their beds, the better your chance of slipping in. Use the mornings to glass and put elk to bed. From there, get the wind right and crawl in. This tactic is consistent no matter the vocal activity of the elk. This tactic is also extremely productive toward the tail end of the rut when the bigger bulls get worn-out and slip away from the herd to bed. There is no better time to target a mature bull with a bow than when he is exhausted from chasing cows and sleeping alone. Being consistently successful hunting elk during the rut means matching your tactics to the conditions. Following the rules, use the right tactic at the right time and you can exploit elk behavior and put yourself within bow range of a bull this season.