September 08, 2023
The mere mention of September to a die-hard elk hunter makes their heart flutter and their mind wander to the sights and sounds of the rugged landscapes that rut-crazed elk call home. Unfortunately, the chaos of the rut only lasts a couple of weeks each fall, but that does not mean that hunters hang up their boots in pursuit of the mountain monarchs for the season. In most states across the West, hunters have opportunities to pursue elk through the end of the year. However, the tactics you successfully use in September will have diminishing returns in November.
Below is a breakdown of elk hunting tactics specific to certain timeframes during the fall. When employed, these tactics will give you an advantage in the elk woods.
Early Season: August 15 – September 10
Mature bulls are rarely receptive to calls during at the beginning of the season, but rest assured there are some impressive bulls killed during this timeframe every year. The biggest factor that hunters deal with during these weeks is the brutal summer heat. However, the hot weather can be used to your advantage as elk are extremely tied to water sources this time of year. Focus your time and effort locating water and, where legal, set up trail cameras to identify what bulls are in the area.
Scouting is always an imperative aspect of each hunt regardless of its timing, but your success or failure during the early season will often be a direct reflection of the amount of time you spend scouting. Besides elk patterns being tied to water, they are also extremely habitual during the early season. This opens up many opportunities to use your preseason scouting knowledge to put you in the right place at the right time to punch your tag.
Any time after September 1, it is not uncommon for bulls to become more vocal, but they are just pregaming for the main event.
The Rut: September 11 – September 30
The peak of the rut will vary region to region, but it typically falls during this timeframe. Rest assured, love-sick bulls are the stars of this show and the elk rut is a magical time to be in the mountains. Elk are extremely susceptible to calls during the rut, but overcalling is also one of the biggest mistakes I see hunters make. Yes, we all dream of a screaming bull charging through the timber to our soft calls, but the reality is that your calling often does more damage than good.
When a bull is fired up, use its belligerence to your benefit and slip inside of 100 yards before ever making a sound. Once inside the danger zone, if the bull is bugling often, let out a challenge bugle. Doing so at close range enrages the dominant bull and it will often come looking for a fight. Another calling tactic that is responsible for the demise of many bulls each year is raking. Grab a downed limb and mimic a bull terrorizing a tree. Like the challenge bugle, when a herd bull hears another bull raking antlers near its harem, the elk will come to stake its dominance from imposters.
Cow calls are the most common type of calls most hunters make during the rut. Use a variety of different cow calls and sounds until you find one that the bull is responsive to. I like to carry around a small handful of diaphragms, as well as two or three open-reed calls. Do not be afraid to cycle through them during the same calling sequence. Doing so mimics multiple cows and you never know what sound will finally flip the switch to get the bull to come investigate.
Don’t be afraid to be aggressive when hunting the rut. The woods are chaotic during this time frame and allows hunters to get away with more aggressive moves.
Second Rut: October 1 – October 20
Cows that do not get bred during their first cycle in September will come back into heat during this time frame and incite a second frenzy. This does make calling still a viable tactic, especially for satellite bulls looking for love. By this time, dominance of the herd bull in an area has been established and the likelihood of calling him off his cows is difficult. If the herd bull is your primary target, setting up an ambush on the herd as they move to and from bedding and feeding areas is a successful tactic to employ.
When calling, lean more on cow and calf vocalizations to lure the herd past you in hopes they bring the bull with them. Also, be leery of using a challenge bugle during this time. By now, herd bulls are getting run down and are more likely to gather their cows and vacate the area when a challenge bugle is ripped as opposed to defending its territory.
Post-Rut: October 21 – November 15
Most harems of elk you see through the middle of November will still have a bull with them, but they will almost always be satellite bulls. By late-October, mature bulls begin to pull off the cows and head for their winter staging areas to lick their wounds and recoup the fat reserves they lost during the rut.
One benefit to hunting post-rut is bulls often bunch together. While they were bitter enemies a few short weeks ago, they now find safety in numbers. Spend hours behind your glass diligently searching for post-rut bulls tucked away in secluded pockets and canyons. Post-rut staging areas are often at lower elevations than where they rut, but higher than their winter range. Seek out covered, north-facing hillsides with a water source nearby and ample feed. During this time, bulls have a very small core-area and move around as little as possible. This makes them more difficult to locate, but once found, they are very susceptible to hunters.
Don’t be afraid to be mobile. Finding post-rut bulls is an arduous task and often requires many miles of boot leather and or tire tread.
The Migration: November 16 – December 31
Snowfall will typically dictate when elk begin their migration from staging areas to winter range. If you time the migration and know their travel corridors, you may look over several hundred elk a day. If you do not have that knowledge going into a hunt, seek information from locals as well as glass for a beaten path of elk trails leaving the high country. Patience is key to late-season hunting. You may not see a single elk one day and hundreds the next.
Once elk make it to their winter range, they tend to bunch up in massive herds. Combine a hundred or more sets of eyes and ears with the obnoxiously loud crunching snow and it is easy to see why hunting late-season elk can be a difficult task. Spend plenty of time behind the glass and be proficient with your weapon. Long shots are more common during this timeframe.
Battling frigid temps during late-season elk hunts is the norm and often discourages people from hunting them during this time. However, the reward is there for those willing to persevere as you often have the ability to filter through dozens of bulls before deciding which one to hang your tag on.
Elk hunting is an addictive endeavor that will take you to some of the most rugged and unforgiving country in the lower 48 and foster some of your most cherished hunting memories. Regardless of when or where you hunt elk, be a student to the game, go the extra mile and don’t be afraid to think out of the box. The reward is always worth the sacrifice.