Tactics to Capitalize on Rutting Elk

by | Aug 30, 2022 | Bowhunting, Featured

The sound of a rutting bull elk’s bugle as it echoes through the mountains is something hunters dream about all year. Anticipation builds until it comes to a head in September, when the rut begins and archery seasons are in full swing. Whether you’re a seasoned vet making final tweaks to your gear list or anxiously awaiting your first elk hunt, there are a few considerations to be mindful of before you hit the woods.

 

Hunting Styles

Generally speaking, elk hunting tactics revolve around either pack-in backcountry hunts or day hunts. As the name implies, backcountry hunting means reaching the most remote and (hopefully) untouched areas on the mountain. Hunters who take this approach hike or use mules or horses to go as far away from the trailhead as they can in hopes of finding unpressured elk. Day hunts, on the other hand, are typically shorter jaunts that don’t stray too far from the truck, as hunters hope to locate an overlooked bull in an area that allows them to return to their truck, campsite or wherever they’re staying during the hunt. Both styles are effective, with pros and cons hunters must understand before choosing one for themselves.

 

Backcountry Hunting — Pros and Cons

Try to find areas that are still unpressured. Photo Credit: John Hafner

 

Every elk hunter shares the common goal of finding unpressured elk behaving naturally. Elk are easier to call and hunt in these situations, and your odds of filling a tag increase. As a result, hunters go to extreme measures, sometimes straying more than 10 miles from the nearest trailhead to hunt the backcountry. Backcountry hunters hope to go deeper into the wilderness than most other hunters are comfortable with to capitalize on elk that either haven’t been hunted or have moved into these remote areas to escape hunting pressure. When that logic holds true and hunters locate unpressured elk, they might find themselves in the middle of a frenzy of bugles with a heavy pack full of meat and antlers to haul back to the truck.

However, backcountry hunting is becoming popular. Hunters have more information at their disposal today than they’ve ever had before, and it empowers them to trek farther into the backcountry. As a result, areas that were once untouched are more crowded. It’s a commitment to reach these areas, and nothing is more disappointing than hiking or riding in many miles in hopes of getting away from other hunters, only to realize others had the same idea. Unlike other hunting styles, backcountry hunters are committed to the area — it requires time, energy and resources to reach these remote destinations, and burning a day or two to return to the trailhead isn’t an option when you have limited time to hunt.

 

Day Hunting — Pros and Cons

Staying close to the hunting area’s entrance allows you to pack lighter. Photo Credit: John Hafner

 

Day trips, on the other hand, take place within a reasonable distance from an access point, meaning hunters can return to their truck or base camp at the end of the day. That means they are less dependent on gear and can carry fewer items in their backpack. Similar to public-land whitetail hunting, day hunters can put miles on their trucks in search of a trailhead with minimal hunting pressure. This highly mobile style of hunting is helpful if the hunting gets slow in an area and you want to try somewhere else. Rather than taking down camp, loading everything into their backpack, and heading to the trailhead, day hunters can simply make the short hike back to the truck, pull up their favorite mobile mapping app on their phone, and go try a new spot. As the popularity of backcountry hunting increases, it creates more opportunities to find elk close to the road that backcountry hunters overlooked.

However, overlooked elk aren’t a guarantee. Just because the trailhead is vacant on the day you’re hunting doesn’t mean it wasn’t overrun with other hunters pushing elk around in the days leading up to your hunt. Since day hunts are intended to be short, you won’t have a backpack filled with ultralight camping gear. While this saves weight on your back, it can limit you if you hear a bugle on a distant ridge, many miles from the truck. Backcountry hunters shine in this situation, since they carry camp on their back. Day hunters, on the other hand, shake their fist and woefully turn their back on bugling bulls.

 

To Call, or Not to Call?

 

Big bulls are arrowed every year by backcountry hunters and day hunters alike. Elk are where you find them, and ultimately, you’re just as likely to find a rut-crazed bull a few hundred yards from the truck as you are deep in the backcountry. However, when you do find him, you’re faced with a new decision — how to lure him in with (or without) your calls. The following tactics are effective methods of getting within top-pin distance of a rutting bull.

  • Pick a Fight: Bulls show their dominance with their bugle. It’s the most aggressive vocalization they make, and if you’re good with a bugle tube, this can be an effective way to coax them into bow range. Once you locate another bull, answer him to gauge his interest. If he responds, ramp up the intensity by cutting him off with a fast response timed in the midst of his bugle. Being interrupted doesn’t sit well with dominant bulls. Gradually ramp up the aggression with chuckles, a series of short, high-pitched tones at the end of your bugle, and glunks, a soft, guttural tone made by hitting the end of your bugle tube with your hand. If your target bull wants to impose his dominance, be ready for a close shot in tight quarters.
  • Cow Party: The cow party replicates a herd of cows and calves. If you haven’t mastered the bugle, this can be an effective way to call in a bull. Start by making a few soft cow calls, but remember to keep plenty of variance in your tone, pitch and location of your calls, since all cows don’t sound the same. You can find examples by looking up videos of elk herds on YouTube and paying attention to the different sounds cows and calves make. Increase your cadence and frequency of calling, especially if you’re close to a bull. Your goal is to give the bull the impression that he’s losing his harem, and that won’t sit well with him. While a dominant bull will likely start to bugle as he approaches, it’s important to stay at the ready, even when bugling is nonexistent. Younger, less dominant satellite bulls will typically come in silently with hopes of finding a stray cow that a careless herd bull might’ve let slip away.
  • Silent but Deadly: If calling isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Capitalize on the vocal tendencies by locating a bull and then stalking your way into bow range. Keep your wind checker at the ready throughout your stalk, being mindful to stay downwind of the herd. Be patient throughout your stalk, and if you find yourself on the edge of bow range but aren’t comfortable using an elk call, don’t overlook the effectiveness of replicating natural elk sounds such as antlers raking brush or breaking branches. Elk aren’t quiet, and these subtle sounds can be all it takes to pull a bull into your lap.

 

Conclusion

The elk rut is precious and doesn’t last long. Soak in every moment when you’re fortunate enough to hunt rutting elk, and don’t be intimidated to try new tactics. Trying things outside your comfort zone can be exactly what you need to do to make this season your best yet.

 

 

 

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