Many bowhunters dream of harvesting a bull during archery season. With the right preparation, education and some luck, you can make it happen. Photo Credit: John Hafner

Bowhunting Elk: Your Guide to Tagging a Bull

  Jackie Holbrook   BowhuntingFeatured   August 8, 2023

The midmorning sun warmed my face as I rested on my hunting pack. Dressed in head-to-toe camo, my sleeping body disappeared into the forest floor. As I dozed, I heard bugles. I can’t be the only bowhunter whose dreams are filled with that sound each September, but these bugles seemed to be drifting out of my dreams and into the timber around me.

The snap of a branch, a far-off bugle and the chirp of a cow are all subtle sounds that can signal incoming elk. They’re also easy to make up in your head. But today, the bugles that interrupted my nap weren’t living in my imagination. After a completely silent early morning, I was surprised to be hearing bugles this late into the morning. But I’ve learned when bowhunting elk, anything can happen.

Bowhunting elk can be a heart-pounding, nerve-wracking, frustrating endeavor. It’s often filled with literal and figurative peaks, valleys and some naps in between. Arrowing a bull is never guaranteed, but if you’re aching to spend time chasing them, here are some tips for success.


Scout Before the Season



Locating elk is one of the toughest parts of the hunt. You don’t want to waste precious days exploring areas where elk don’t live. That’s why it’s important to scout before the season opens. Glass for herds and look for rubs, scat, tracks and wallows. If you can’t physically scout an area on foot, e-scouting is a great option that’s growing in popularity.

Public-land advocate and elk enthusiast Randy Newberg teaches elk hunters how to use e-scouting on his media channel Fresh Tracks. He explains the three main daily activities of elk: traveling, bedding and foraging. When searching for an area to hunt, he makes sure the area is suitable for these activities. He then looks at how the elk will use the landscape for those activities to plan his hunt.


Play the Wind



An elk’s sense of smell is far superior to a human’s. It’s one of the animal’s main tools for detecting danger. If you’re winded, say goodbye to a shot opportunity. That’s why it’s important to “play the wind,” meaning to understand how the wind works in your area and use it to your advantage.

Elk reside in varying terrain. However, they’re often found in the mountains, which means you’ll need to contend with thermals. Air rises in the morning as it warms, and falls in the evening as it cools. For bowhunters, these thermal patterns mean the air will flow uphill in the morning, and downhill in the evening. Plan your routes based on these thermal patterns.

Unfortunately, thermals can be unpredictable. Some bowhunters use scent concealment products, although those products are more popular with whitetail hunters. Always carry wind indicator and use it frequently. Wind in the mountains frequently swirls. This is often one of the most difficult parts of bowhunting elk. Try your best to remain undetected by remaining downwind. If the wind switches, it’s a good idea to move into a better position to avoid scaring elk.





Elk are social animals. They live in herds and communicate through vocalizations. Bull elk rut from roughly early September through late October. This coincides with bow seasons in many states. During the rut, bulls communicate through bugles, sending various messages like warning other bulls or showing off for cows. But bugles aren’t the only sounds elk make. Cows chat through chirps and mews. Elk also bark to warn each other of nearby danger — a sound you never hope to hear while hunting.

Many bowhunters use the chatty nature of elk to their advantage. Learning to mimic the sounds of elk can yield success. Calling requires hunters not only to learn to call but also to speak the right language. Sending the wrong message will send elk running.

During the rut, mature herd bulls will create harems of cows, which they’ll fiercely protect against other bulls. While it’s possible to lure herd bulls away from cows with calls, it’s not easy. That’s why bowhunters often try to target satellite bulls. Satellite bulls are typically smaller than herd bulls. They hang out on the outskirts of herds hoping to pick off cows when the herd bull isn’t looking. Bowhunters sometimes use cow calls to trick satellite bulls into thinking a cow got away. Or they use bugles to challenge other bulls in the area.

If you plan to target elk by calling, bring a buddy. Elk have an amazing ability to pinpoint the call. That’s why most calling situations involve two people. The bowhunter will be on the upwind side of the caller, in between where the elk is expected to be and the caller. The caller should be roughly 50 to 75 yards away from the bowhunter. The idea is to draw the bull past the bowhunter as it moves toward the caller. This will ideally give the bowhunter a shot without the elk being suspicious. Many callers often move around to call, since elk rarely remain in one position.

Learning to call takes time and practice. There are lots of different calls on the market. Archery shops will carry a variety and help you make a selection based on how you plan to hunt and your abilities.


Treestands and Ground Blinds


Some of the most successful elk hunters choose to hunt elk the same way they target big bucks. Treestands can be a very effective way to hunt elk, but it takes planning and patience. Elk aren’t always easy to pattern, despite having some predictable daily activities. They move long distances and travel in herds. However, there are ways to improve your odds of a shot.

Some bowhunters place treestands over water or wallows, which bulls frequent during the rut. Treestand proponents believe the height keeps the bowhunter, along with their movement and scent, away from the elk. Ground blinds are another option. They not only keep the bowhunter hidden, but they can also help contain scent.


Enjoy the Hunt, Not Just the Success



Tagging a bull with a bow is hard. According to a survey on Elk 101, an online course designed to help elk hunters, roughly 15% of elk hunters are successful each fall. However, that includes rifle hunters and guided hunts on private land. Their study showed that “actual success rates for mature bulls for the ‘average’ hunter is under 3%.”

Don’t let that success rate scare you, and don’t base your enjoyment on the end goal. Enjoy the journey and milestones along the way. Just finding mature bulls can be tough, so getting one in your glass is exciting. Swirling wind always seems to be a battle and there’s nothing you can do. Don’t let it discourage you. And even when you get into range, sometimes things don’t go as planned. Every misstep and encounter becomes an opportunity to learn.

When those bugles woke me up from my midmorning nap, experience told me to get into a shooting position. I snuck deeper into the timber, toward the direction of the sound. I found an area with a few shooting lanes and positioned myself in front of a tree. I began ranging the shooting lanes, knowing I wouldn’t have time in the moment.

While I couldn’t see far within the thick timber, I began to hear crashing sounds. Something was moving quickly through the woods. To my right, a trio of cows came racing through the forest, with a bull hot on their heels. They were roughly 50 yards. It happened so fast that I wasn’t prepared to try to stop them with a call, and they disappeared as quickly as they’d arrived. However, I could hear more crashing behind them. I drew my bow in time to see another cow moving past me with a second bull just behind her. They were in my 20-yard shooting lane. I positioned my pin on the bull’s moving body and let out a cow call. It worked. The cow continued to run but the bull stopped … with all his vitals covered by a large tree.

Had he taken one additional step or stopped sooner, I would’ve had a clear, 20-yard broadside shot. His stop was brief before he continued after the cow. I let down my bow and sat for a few minutes in the once-again silent woods. I was equally disappointed in the outcome and overjoyed at the encounter I’d just experienced. But that’s what bowhunting bulls is like. Even when you don’t leave the forest with a bull, you’ll leave with memories and lessons to last a lifetime.

For additional tips on bowhunting elk, check out “Bowhunting Elk 101.”



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