Make All the Right (Elk) Moves
American elk, which include the Rocky Mountain, Roosevelt and Tule sub-species, are icons of the American West and rank among the most sought-after big-game animals in the world. European explorers named these large deer “elk” as their size was more reminiscent of the moose – referred to as “elk” in their homelands – than the smaller European red deer. The powerful whistling, growling, “bugling” and courtship behavior of lovesick bulls are true wonders of nature. And elk hunters, novice and expert alike, dream of calling a hormone-crazed bull to the bow or gun.
Key to successful elk hunting — whether during the rut or not — is to have a thorough understanding of the behavior and consequent movement of the animals to be hunted. If you know what to expect, you will be better prepared for the unexpected: No rut; now what? They were bugling last week; now they’re not! The herd vanished; where did they go? Quandaries like these are common in elk hunting. Elk found feeding in a secluded meadow one day can easily be miles away the next, particularly if pressured by predators or humans. Bagging a mature, trophy-size bull elk today, particularly on public lands, requires the hunter to make all the right moves.
HABITAT, FORAGE AND MOVEMENT
Elk can be found in a variety of habitats — from open alpine meadows to dense rainforests, and semi-arid deserts to deciduous woodlands — but across the West elk prefer mountainous terrain and higher elevations of their typical summer range. They thrive at elevations from 7,000 feet in the mixed conifers to 12,000 feet in the spruce-fir-aspen, sub-alpine and alpine belts, moving up as the weather warms and remaining until winter snows force them lower. As a rule, they will roam no farther than a half-mile from water that is available for daily use. When snow depth makes feeding difficult, cows and young bulls move down to south-facing slopes with little snow. Adult bulls remain higher, moving down only when deep snow hinders their daily movement to feed.
Although many elk do not migrate, those that do will travel from 20 to 100 miles between summer and winter ranges, using the same routes each year. They walk at a speed of 8 mph, and can trot 10-20 mph for long periods, enabling them to cover great distances. Availability of adequate forage — typically at elevations from 5,000 to 7,000 feet — is the limiting factor for elk populations seeking winter range. Elk browse in winter includes shrubs and trees like sage, willow, bitterbrush, balsam, dogwood, aspen and poplar. They munch on twigs and woody bark for sustenance at this time of year, when more nutritious browse is low.
In early spring elk move back to higher elevation, working their way toward north-facing sun-shaded slopes, where they can stay cool while searching for a good supply of emergent grasses and forbs. Grasses, such as brome, wheat grass, blue grama grass and June grass, and forbs such as ragweed, geranium, clover and dandelion, are summertime favorites. The biggest bulls and pregnant/lactating cows regularly use the best food source in the area. In the fall, their diet also included mast crops like acorns, piñon nuts and juniper berries. Remnant farm crops of alfalfa and grains are typically utilized whenever and wherever available. Burned areas, where tree canopy has been removed, attract elk from spring through late fall, particularly when seeded with erosion prevention forage like winter wheat.
Undisturbed elk will feed heavily from first light until late morning before bedding nearby to rest and ruminate. Elk also feed in late afternoon, but when pressured they will often switch to feeding after dark, then move up steep slopes often far from feeding areas to bed. Sources of pressure that will alter elk feeding and behavioral patterns include hunting, predation — particularly by wolves — wildfires and urbanization that expands into elk range.
SOCIAL INTERACTION AND BREEDING BEHAVIOR
Cows, calves, yearlings and immature bulls live in loosely formed herds year ’round for protection from predators, while mature bulls live in small bachelor groups or alone. In late summer bulls strip their velvet and begin gathering cows and calves into small “harem” groups. Bulls bugle and rub trees with their antlers, not only to attract cows and intimidate rival bulls, but also to strengthen their necks for battle. They also scrape the ground with their antlers, urinate in the scrape and then wallow in the resulting mud, coating their hide. Stinky bulls convey their amorous intentions in this manner, attracting cows with the scent.
Breeding occurs when cows begin to “cycle” in late summer/early fall. Dominant “herd” bulls will guard their harems from other bulls aggressively, and violent competitive battles often break out. The elk woods are typically alive with vocalizations at this time, as elk are surely noisy. Herd bulls sound-off with bugles of contentment while tending their harems. When competition arises, the calling tone changes to a powerful “challenge” bugle to warn potential rivals. This is that magical time when elk hunters hope to call-in a giant-antlered rutting monarch.
It often seems the biggest bulls vanish post-rut. Some are taken by hunters, but survivors typically retreat into seclusion in the thickest cover where late-season hunters seldom venture, usually at high elevation. Forage is a secondary consideration during this rest and recovery period, and movement at this time is minimal.
Elk are hunted — somewhere across the Western U.S. — from late August through January. Although a variety of hunting tactics are used to take elk, the hunting method often depends on the specific time and location of the hunt (seasonal restrictions applied), as well as the type of weapon used. Nevertheless, three basic methods account for the majority of all elk tags filled — spot-and-stalk, ambush and calling.
The spot-and-stalk method is effective anytime, whether elk are maintaining a regular routine, or not. Hunters typically climb to an elevated lookout position before daylight and search with optics as the landscape brightens. Elk typically leave feeding areas in early morning hours and travel to daytime bedding areas. These may be near the food source if elk are unpressured but are usually some distance away and at higher elevation. This predictable movement often holds for the reverse trek — elk leave elevated bedding areas and often move downhill to feed in late afternoon.
Once a good bull has been located, an afternoon hunting trick that can pay dividends is to take a position in or adjacent to his feeding area, where he can be spotted moving down to forage. The stalking part of this method is usually most effective when elk have bedded to ruminate after feeding. Regardless of the weapon used, hunters should pay careful attention to the wind — scent control — when approaching bedded animals. I have found that a multi-level approach to controlling odor can pay dividends in the field. This includes good hygiene, scent-free clothing, including headgear, and regular application of scent-masking products while hunting.
An unusual variation on the spot-and-stalk method netted a beautiful 350-inch herd bull for my hunting partner a few years back. While waiting for fickle winds to settle one morning, and just after hearing a faint distant bugle, we were surprised by an animal approaching from behind. This 6-point bull was on a mission, walking by briskly at less than 40 yards. Bob raised his muzzleloader but passed, hoping to find a better bull. We decided to follow, suspecting this bull may be trailing the main herd we located the prior evening. Twenty minutes into the pursuit we heard commotion ahead, followed quickly by the unmistakable clash of antlers. After sprinting across a flat, we moved quickly toward the noise. Interrupting the party on top, elk scattered in every direction and the two combatants separated. Bob dropped the larger herd bull from just 50 yards, ending our spot-and-stalk in a cloud of smoke.
Ambush Your Bull
The ambush method is closely related, but keys on predictable movement patterns. Hunters wait in ambush downwind from the anticipated path of travel. In warm weather, elk will go to water one or more times each day. This provides excellent opportunity for ambush, particularly if water is scarce.
As breeding time approaches, well-used wallows make excellent ambush points. Despite little rutting activity, I arrowed a mature 6x7 herd bull in late August that returned to his bedding area after an evening of feeding and light courting. Located on the cool north side of an impossibly steep slope, the timber cover was dense enough to discourage other hunters, and easily hide the herd of 20-plus animals.
Call ’Em In
The classic elk-hunting method is calling, which works best far off the beaten path where elk are not pressured. Despite the fact that manufactured elk calls mimic live animals remarkably well, elk have become call shy — particularly to the bugle — in many heavily hunted areas. At times it seems like elk can identify the make and model of every hunter’s call! Younger bulls may respond, but wise old bulls learn to recognize the voices of rivals and are rarely fooled. Experts agree that knowing when to call, and when to not call, are equally important for success.
Calling with a selection of high-pitched cow calls or calf bleats is often more effective than bugling. Cow elk will often come to a bleat, even with their calf-of-the-year standing at their side! Cow calls are also effective for covering noisy mistakes hunters make while moving in the elk woods, as elk make noise while moving, as well.
Stalk the Talk
Although calling a bull in close is the ultimate experience for many hunters, when elk are actively talking, I prefer to silently “stalk the talk.” I used this technique to take my best-ever bull, on public land — a massive 12-year-old Boone & Crockett record-book giant. After chasing that bull — actually his bugle — across two drainages, as he retreated from battling with a younger herd bull, I caught him cooling off in a creek. While he strolled through the running water, stopping occasionally to turn back and answer his rival, I sneaked ahead. There was ample time to prepare for the 40-yard shot that sent this old monarch to wapiti heaven. The encounter could not have been more satisfying, even if I had called him in.