Early Elk

Posted on February 24, 2011

Don’t Resist the Chance to Bowhunt Elk Before the Rut—It’s Not as Challenging as You Might Think

elk hunting



As darkness turned into dawn, my dad and buddy Ron could see 11 velvet-clad bulls feeding on an open hillside. The elk were above several fingers of dark timber. It was late August and two days into Wyoming’s early archery elk season.

They had no problem finding bulls feeding out in the open during various scouting trips and for each day of the season so far. The animals were around; it was just a matter of playing cat and mouse in the woods and setting up a shot. So far, that hadn’t happened though. Dad was the shooter on this hunt, and he was hoping for a pretty slam-dunk shot on what would be his first-ever archery bull.


As the scorching sun began to warm the hillside, three bulls broke away from the big group and headed for a patch of trees that Ron was very familiar with. It was the moment to strike, but they had to move fast in order to intercept the bulls before they got into timber too dense and noisy for quiet stalking.

The jungle-like timber was in a deep canyon along with a small spring pond. They moved in and set up near this pond and a small clearing. Moments later, the bulls fed out in front of them, just inside dad’s effective range. Once Ron checked the distance with his Nikon rangefinder, old pop came to full draw and let ’er rip. The arrow flew true, and the nice velvet-antlered bull was down for good.

Most people who bowhunt elk prefer to call or chase them when they are bugling, rutting, and chasing cows around. They enjoy the excitement and thrill of hearing thunderous bull elk talk echoing through the trees and canyons. There’s no doubt mid-to-late September elk hunting can be exhilarating and productive, especially for those that love to call. But I’ve found bowhunting elk earlier on to be such as effective if not more so. During the rut, bulls become rivals and separate in order to sort out their dominance and to search for cows in estrous. This makes them harder to follow at times, I believe, which can add frustration to the hunt.


Whereas, during the early season, elk follow a consistent pattern, the same one they followed during the late summer and the weeks leading up to opening day. This means if you’ve located elk during your scouting trips, then you can find them in the same place again.

August and early September can surely bring warmer temperatures, but sometimes this can actually make animals more concentrated near water sources. This can make for more hunting action. Also, in most Western states, such as New Mexico, earlier hunts are much easier to draw. This could make them even more attractive if you know how to approach this kind of hunting.

In this article I would like to offer a few tips for harvesting early season elk. Each one has been proven to work well for me and my close hunting buddies.

Pattern and Ambush

Like early whitetails, early elk are easy to pattern. Their daily rituals are straightforward: They bed in heavy cover during the heat of the day and then move to feed, usually along open hillsides. In the evenings, when they first start moving, they often prefer to water. They also like to water just prior to bedding in the morning. Understanding these basic patterns will allow you to take an effective ambush somewhere along their travel routes—to and from feed or water. It’s that simple.

elk hunters

Another great thing about early elk is that they are still in summer bachelor groups. During August bowhunts, mature bulls are commonly seen in groups of three to 10, all feeding together. They are easier to locate this way, and more bulls in one spot means a high chance for shooting opportunity.

Be Patient and Aggressive

Depending on the terrain, early elk are ideal for employing spot and stalk. If you can glass them, then you should be able to move on them. The key is glassing them up early enough in the day so you can catch them in a vulnerable spot.

In most country, certainly in the deep-timbered pockets of the mountains we hunt in Wyoming, it’s difficult to glass or stalk a bull in its bed. Elk usually bed in the thickest, nastiest cover you can find. Such spot are way too noisy for effective stalking or still-hunting. I’ve noticed that in warm temperatures, especially, bull elk stay close to these types of bedding spots. They provide safety and cooler temperatures.

At first light, you should position yourself on a high vantage point in order to locate elk moving about. Then, depending on their patterns, you may have a couple of hours to close-in before they bed away for the day. Let your scouting observations tell you the best hunting approach. Sometimes you will have to be patient, waiting an extra day or two to make a stalk on a certain bull. Other times, you will have to act fast and be more aggressive. No matter what you do, be sure you have a good idea of where animals are feeding. Again, use what you’ve learned during your scouting trips.

If you race off without having a good plan and without having some idea where the elk are going, they will disappear from view once you arrive to the area, ruining your efforts. Be smart; be patient.

When stalking, it’s usually best to get in front of feeding elk, not behind them. A feeding elk doesn’t seem to move very fast, but it actually does. You will have a hard time keeping up and if you try, and you’ll probably get busted in the process. It’s not that it can’t be done, but it’s certainly easier intercepting elk. Stalking elk is more about intercepting them than anything else.

Calling Can Be Effective

Many hunters say elk are only vocal during the rut, but this isn’t always true. I have actually heard bulls bugling in July, believe it or not. It is a different type of bugle, though—more of a high-pitched squeal, compared to a deep, throaty sound common in the heat of the rut.

The fact of the matter is that elk can be very vocal, even during the early season. Cows and calves seem to constantly be talking with each other as they go about their daily routine. These vocalizations are useful for the early season hunter, as it can help keep tabs on the herd as you’re stalking in for the kill.

Calling elk during the early season can certainly be effective, but I personally prefer to avoid the risk in most cases. I prefer stalking animals, so they don’t suspect any odd sounds and suspect an intruder—especially the two-legged kind. But in certain situations, early elk calling can be dynamite. My buddy Ron Niziolek has great success doing it.

Ron uses a variety of elk vocalizations to lure-in bulls. His favorite is the estrous-cow call. Ron only uses diaphragm calls because he feels they produce more realistic sounds, and the sound can be made more variable compared to that of a handheld call.

Ron is one of the best buglers I know, and has bugled in and harvested several bulls for he and his friends. Ron can even make that “glunking” sound that an excited bull often makes when trailing a hot cow. He can actually do it without the aid of a call. This sound has brought several early season bulls within close range. It’s a deadly call to use.

When I do use calls, I use nothing but cow calls, and no bugles, as I believe many of the bulls I hunt are quite educated and know what all their buddies sound like. I play it safe and keep my calling to a bare minimum.

The first week of September is ideal for calling. This is the pre-rut phase in most elk regions, and bulls are just in that stage of feeling all fired up. They are very emotional and easier to trick in this stage. Pre-rut is also when bulls seem to be most aggressive, as they establish their dominant pecking order. This is when the high-pitched bugle squeal of a young bull can bring mature bulls in fast. They are ready for a challenge at this time, and hearing a non-threatening bugle can bring them in on a string. In elk areas that are heavily wooded and/or brushy, such as much of the mountains of Colorado and Idaho, calling may be your only way for success.

Bow & Arrow Hunting Editor Joe Bell has done a lot of hunting in the backcountry of Colorado. The areas he hunts are simply too steep and too wooded for stalking or intercepting bulls. Here he must rely on reading sign and careful calling. He prefers to walk the woods until he spots a good amount of fresh sign, mainly droppings, and then he sets up to call. He makes sure there is ample shooting area in all directions up-wind from is position, so he can get a shot before the bull catches his wind or spots him.

For calling, he prefers open-reed mouth calls, such as the Primos Hyper Lip. This type of call can be blown very loudly and raspy, making the sounds he believes are irresistible to pre-rutting bulls. Most bulls that do respond to his calls come in silently, so you have to be on the look out and ready to act fast.

Hunt Water

Early season is ideal for hunting water sources. If you study topo maps and wear down some boot leather, you are bound to find a few secluded seeps or springs tucked away in remote timbered spots. These are ideal areas to set-up on. Unpressured wallows or tanks are nearly as good.

Elk are big animals and they require daily drinks. Rutting bulls need cooling a lot, and wallowing around in the banks of these water sources makes them feel rejuvenated and ready for the day. As I said earlier, elk usually water prior to feeding for the evening and just prior to bedding in the morning.

You will know when you find a major bachelor-bull watering site. It will be torn up, and the spot will reek a fierce musky odor. Consider this spot golden, and be sure to mark it on your GPS. You’ll want to hunt there as often as you can.

Watering sites are best hunted using a makeshift blind or treestand, although, I prefer the latter. Elk usually don’t expect danger from above, making it very effective.  My buddy Ron likes the usefulness of a makeshift blind, however. He doesn’t have to pack-in a treestand, and it allows him the option of leaving the blind quickly when he sees a bull he can stalk.

Whether you’re a serious elk bowhunter or a beginner, early season elk hunting can be fun, rewarding, and your ticket to success. My suggestion is to apply for one of the “earlier” archery elk tags. They are easier to draw and can offer a unique challenge. In some cases, taking an early season bull is no more challenging than one during the peak of the rut. It’s a no-brainer for me.

Choose a Versatile Call

Wayne Carlton’s Fight’n Cow Call is an open-reed model that offers versatility in volume and sound pitch. It produces high-pitched, raspy cow-elk sounds bulls can’t seem to resist. Sounds can be altered easily by biting down on the reed in different locations and by changing your blowing intensity. It makes for an excellent early season call, especially where calling is the only way to lure in elk. Give it a try. Visit www.hunterspecialties.com for more information. —Joe Bell, Editor

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