Early Elk Tips: Many Bowhunters Shy Away from Hunting Elk Early in the Season, but with the Right Setup this Season can be Dynamite
Posted on June 19, 2014
A soft, lonely bugle broke the silence of the Idaho forest on the morning of September 9, 2003. It had been a dead quiet morning, and I was beginning to wonder if this birthday was going to be as uneventful as some of my other early season elk hunts. I answered the call with a couple of chirps from my Primos Hoochie Mama call, followed by a short, high, non-threatening bugle of my own. I didn’t get a response. I didn’t hear a sound for another 40 minutes. Did I blow my chance again, without even seeing anything?
Few people are fortunate enough to have a birthday during elk season, and fewer still are as fortunate to have a birthday during September in Idaho. I am lucky enough to be blessed with both. I was born on September 9, in Idaho Falls, and for most of my life, I had no idea just how special this day would be until I started bowhunting later in my life. It’s now one of my most favorite days of the year and one that I make sure to put on the calendar for a vacation day. I’ve been fortunate enough that the boss, my father Jerry Carter, lets me take it off most of the time. I truly am blessed.
Early elk hunting can be a test of patience at times and some days can be downright boring. I know that some bowhunters don’t even set foot into the woods until late September, when the rut begins to become exciting. Surely these are the times all elk hunters dream of, when the bulls are screaming and competing for cows.
However, early season can be a great time to harvest an elk, if one is patient enough. A good friend told me once that any day in the woods is better than one in the city or at work. I’d have to agree with him.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer seven tips I’ve learned over the years while pursuing early elk. Overall, I think this advice will help you form a great game plan to achieve success.
#1 Locate Hot Spots
I start my early-season scouting as early as mid-June to get an idea of their movements and feeding grounds. Since the action of the rut won’t be happening yet, it’s necessary to have this information. I often scout areas that have been proven to have animals first, just to use time and energy more productively.
Another key element is water. I have had great success in the early season by hunting in tree stands set up over water holes, both man made for cattle and natural springs. The hot temperatures of the mid day bring animals of all shapes and sizes into these “gold mines.” I have not only taken elk from such spots, but several deer and a bear as well. Many of these waterholes evolve into wallows as the rut progresses. A trail camera can assist with the inventory of what may be in the area.
#2 Be Sure to Call
A misconception of early-season elk is that the bulls aren’t responsive to calling. This is not true at all, as they do respond, but usually not with the intensity of when the peak of the rut is going on. Most often, when called, bulls will slip in silently to investigate as their urge to breed has not yet become overpowering.
Another wise friend reminded me once that all you need to happen is for the bull to come in for a look. Patience and the ability to sit still is very important at this time, as it’s easy to get busted by a bull that has slipped in like a ghost.
Jim Horn, the well-known and respected hunter from Primos’ The Truth Video Series, has a CD about early elk calling (www.elkhornhuntgear.com), which I have found full of valuable information to help you lure in bulls during the pre-rut. This informative video footage covers a variety of topics from elk behavior to proven calling tactics. I highly recommend it.
Tip #3 Use a Friend?
Most experienced “elk whisperers” will always advocate a two-person setup as the best method for actually bringing down an elk. If you aren’t familiar with the procedure, it’s a standard method of having a caller placed behind the shooter with the intention of drawing a bull past the shooter to the enticing elk sounds.
While this is usually an effective tactic, it’s usually most productive when the bulls are responsive and calling well. It’s easier to locate a bugling bull and set up on him than a silent one. Earlier in the season, however, the elk aren’t as vocal but will still slip in silently to investigate.
If you choose to hunt with a friend, I have found it best to set up within sight of each other and stay put for at least an hour while using the “early season herd talk” calling sequence, which I outlined earlier. Staying alert is a must. A sneaky bull can appear out of nowhere at any minute, all as quiet as a mouse. For those like me who prefer to hunt alone or find it difficult to find a reliable hunting partner, the same thing applies. Stay put and stay very on guard.
Tip# 4 Treestands for Elk
For the western elk hunter, treestands are usually not the norm for elk. They are cumbersome and can be a dreadful task to haul in for miles to the secluded sanctuaries these animals often call home.
Yet, I’ve found they can be useful and effective. In many situations, using one in an area that has had a history of elk encounters or water holes or wallows long before season opens is worth the trouble. It gives the hunter a place to call from in the middle of elk country when the bulls are not as active. It has been my experience that elk are not accustomed to looking up in trees for danger. I have been able to maneuver with a lot of movement without being picked up by bulls. Some would even say they can get away with murder in a treestand with elk, and I would agree in some regards.
Tip# 5 Hunt All Day
If you have the time, hunting all day in elk country is not only very effective but a blessing. A day in the beauty of elk country is a treasure, so stay as long as you can. If you have knowledge of water in the area, the hot afternoons can be a great time to catch a thirsty bull getting up for a mid-day drink.
Tip #6 Stay Scent Free
Early season can be a difficult time to “play the wind.” Without knowing where the elk are going to come in from, it’s critical to be as scent conscious as possible. Swirling winds are common in the western timber as well. I carry a bottle of Dead Down Wind™ field spray in my pack for those hot sweaty days.
Tip#7 Using Decoys
I’m going to go against the norm here, again, but in my experience decoy use in the early season is just not as effective, unless the bull’s are much more charged up and feeling the effects of the beginning of breeding season. Specifically, this is when they work the best and really provide the mesmerizing effect to calm bulls down and draw them in on a string. But during the early segments of the season, when there’s little bugling and rutting action, bulls will often spot the decoy, wait for movement to occur, and if not, lose interest in leave. I’ve never seen an early season bull come in from afar after spotting a decoy.
Back to the Hunt
After hearing the solitary bugle and then nothing for about 45 minutes, I began a sequence of cow talk by blowing through my Hyper Lip call, mimicking a cow in estrus while using the Hoochie Mama call at the same time.
After about 30 seconds of this cow talk, I was rewarded by a powerful bugle from a bull about a quarter-mile away on top of a nearby ridge. I answered with a bugle, mimicking a small spike bull and a couple of more cow calls.
For a moment I didn’t get a response until I pushed the bellows on the Hoochie Mama once more. The bull erupted with a bugle and a series of chuckles from about halfway down the mountain. This bull was hot and coming in fast!
I stood in my ladder stand and readied my Mathews bow, as I began to hear him cross a small creek, where he screamed again. After a couple of more heart-pounding minutes I finally saw his dark legs moving through the pines.
I gripped my Carter Target 4 release, which had been hanging from my drawing loop, and prepared to draw. At 40 yards the bull trotted into the open where I was finally able to judge his wide rack. I had taken a 4×5 bull on a hunt two years prior, so I had a goal of a better bull than that. I counted out the points of a dark 5×6 rack and decided that this bull would fill that goal nicely.
One advantage of calling from a tree stand is that an elk can walk around underneath you searching for the elk that he heard and the hunter can remain undetected and concealed. I was able to maneuver a full 90 degrees at full draw while the bull came from directly facing me at 40 yards to broadside at 10 yards.
I focused my aim directly behind the crease of his shoulder and the release fired. As the bull began to run off, I was rewarded by seeing all but the fletching of the Beman arrow protruding from the opposite side.
A quick call from the diaphragm in my mouth to slow the fleeing bull worked perfectly. He stopped at about 30 yards away and slowly walked off. I saw him again at about 60 yards where he appeared to fall.
It’s at this time that the realization of what just transpired sinks in and the adrenaline surges. It’s an odd phenomenon that as an animal appears, my heart pounds as if it’s going to burst from my chest, but as soon as I draw and come to anchor, time seems to slow down as I bring the sights to focus on the intended impact point.
Then when the shot breaks, and the animal runs off, the adrenaline hits all at once. It can be difficult to force yourself to remain calm, but you need to try. I recommend blowing on your cow call immediately after the shot, in hopes of confusing the bull and stopping him. Many times, they’ll stop and stand still and reduce the distance they travel, allowing you to hopefully see them go down within sight for easier recovery.
After saying a prayer of thanks for this moment and waiting 20 minutes or so, I lowered my bow and went to where I saw the bull last. There I found bright red blood on the ground. Soon, after following the blood trail a short distance, I founded a group of pines and saw dark antler tips! The bull was mine. I again said a quick prayer of thanks to show my gratitude to my Lord.
After calling my family and a few friends to help, we took pictures, dressed the bull and got him loaded into the back of my truck.
While driving to the processor, I realized right then that my father and I had taken elk on our birthdays, me this year and him last year on September 21st. This made success that much sweeter.
” Early elk hunting can be a test of patience…”
“The bull erupted with a bugle and a series of chuckles from about halfway down the mountain.”
“I gripped my Carter Target 4 release, which had been hanging from my drawing loop, and prepared to draw.”
“A day in the beauty of elk country is a treasure, so stay as long as you can.”
Treestands can be very productive when set up near waterholes or wallows. During the early season, you can wait in ambush and also call during lulls in the day, waiting for that bull to slip in like a ghost, so be on alert at all times. Joe Bell photo
The author has had mixed results with cow decoys, depending on the intensity of the rut. Earlier in the season, they don’t seem to work as well. But as bulls begin to ramp up calling and feeling the effects of testosterone, decoys can really calm a bull down when coming into a calling setup, drawing him in on a string to arrow range.
Text and Photos by Forrest Carter