We live in a time when the amount of information available to us at any moment is so enormous that it can’t be quantified. Pick any subject, like elk hunting during the rut, and you’ll find enough educational information online or in print to occupy your spare evenings and weekends for years. With tailored educational resources like the University of Elk hunting from Elk101.com, The Elk Module from Roe Hunting Resources, the Elk Nut App from ElkNut Outdoors, plus hundreds of hours of podcasts from sources like Jay Scott Outdoors, The Rich Outdoors, the Elk Talk Podcast, and an unknown thousands of words on discussion forums, Blogs, social media, and thousands of hours of video on YouTube, the benefit of available education can turn into the bewilderment of available education. All of these resources offer the prospect of tremendously reducing the learning curve associated with becoming a consistently successful elk hunter. The people behind these resources have a genuine love of elk and elk hunting and want you to be more successful in the elk woods this fall. They also know that the typical success rate for a do-it-yourself (DIY) archery elk hunter hovers around 10% in most units. Looking at that another way, about 90% of elk hunters will fail to bag an elk this September.
With so many resources freely or affordably available, why is success so low? There are two primary reasons for this. The first applies to all hunters regardless of residency status. Elk hunting is HARD. More correctly, elk country is HARD. 90% of elk hunters are unsuccessful because 90% of elk hunters are unwilling to do the hard work required to be successful. A few poorly prepared hunters get lucky and a few capable hunters just don’t put it together so there is some overlap of those numbers. Still, the deal breaker is not a lack of information, it’s a lack of commitment. All that is said with no judgement. We all have jobs, families, and responsibilities that take precedence over hobbies, regardless of our passion for those hobbies.
The second reason largely applies to non-resident hunters. Even elk hunters who live in the west fall in this to this category when they travel to other units or states outside of their home turf where years of familiarity and experience work to their advantage. Not everyone hunting DIY in an over-the-counter unit in Colorado is from South Carolina or Iowa. Elk hunters from all over the west hunt as non-residents, too. The reason for the high degree of failure is that hunting a new unit, a new state, or new terrain you’ve never even seen before requires deliberate execution of a specific plan based on specific knowledge. This plan and the knowledge that shapes it is not necessarily that difficult or complex. The process of making this plan can feel like an enormous endeavor if you don’t understand it, though. Even when you do gain a firm grasp and some experience doing this, it is still a very time-consuming undertaking to do it right. The scope of this process and the fear of the unknown can be absolutely paralyzing.
Where to Begin?
When we have such a vast amount of information available to help us become successful it seems like it would be easy to make a plan and kill an elk. Why is that not the case? As a Tennessean who started elk hunting in my mid 30s I can tell you that the disconnect can be explained very simply. All of the good folks leading the charge to teach us to become better elk hunters are highly experienced, highly committed, and are all westerners who live in or near elk country. They understand the breadth and depth of knowledge that we all need to be successful and well-rounded elk callers and hunters and have done us an invaluable service by sharing the knowledge and experience that has taken them decades to build. To be clear, these guys are my heroes and my elk hunting idols. The following statement is not a slight or criticism in any way, it’s just a simple reflection of where they are in their elk hunting journey.
The more experience you gain, the farther you travel from the
very first step.
This article is not and does not claim to be a top-level resource containing the amount of knowledge that is available elsewhere (That’s deliberate for several reasons). The purpose of this article is not to tell you every step you should take, but to provide an outline of the FIRST step you should take followed by a very small number of subsequent steps you must take. With the information and outline contained herein, you can build an elk hunting plan that will give you an almost foolproof path to finding elk during the rut. Finding elk is the hardest part, by the way. Once you find them, the information on calling setups, vocalization, elk behavior, and hunting techniques you’ve acquired from Chris Roe, Paul Medel, Cory Jacobson, and a couple dozen other sources will come into play.
The List: Ten Steps to Success in September
1. Pick a unit
2. Develop topo fluency
3. Understand the elk’s daily routine
4. Understand wind and thermals
5. Be overly aggressive
6. Prospect in the dark
7. Hunt through the mid-day
8. Understand the “Doorway Principle” (credit: Roe Hunting Resources) and base your calling setups on this every time
9. Understand the basics (at a minimum) of elk language and be moderately competent at making those sounds
10. Plan for success
Unit Selection. Determine when you can hunt.
Find a unit with elk on public land during that time and get the tag. Period. It’s that
simple. Don’t overthink this. Don’t study sex ratios, trophy potential, harvest
trends, or anything else. Pick a unit that contains elk during the time-frame
when you can hunt. Make sure that unit has public land that you can hunt during
those dates. Make sure you can get a tag for that unit during those dates and
get that tag. Once you get some experience feel free to dig in and do tons of research on all these factors to help determine which unit is "best" for you. Here's the thing for the new guys; the sex ratio, trophy potential and all of those factors can certainly point to the potential for a better hunt. Resources like the GoHUNT Insider make this easy. I can absolutely guarantee you that the sex ratio of the unit you pick for your first elk hunt is NOT going to be the deciding factor in your success, however. Don't overthink this to the point of analysis paralysis like so many new hunters do. Just go hunt. You will learn far more by getting out there and making mistakes than you will ever learn by doing internet analysis.
2. Topo fluency. You absolutely must learn to read and use a topo map (doesn’t matter if it’s paper of electronic, though I HIGHLY suggest both) to the level of fluency. The high ground should be immediately apparent. Likewise, potential watering, bedding, feeding and congregation areas jump out at you. All of these are obvious if you know how to read a topo map. Your map fluency should be so strong that you can immediately understand the lay of the terrain and see where and how elk will use that terrain as they complete their daily routine. We will also reference aerial imagery to determine the land’s vegetation types and locations. Custom Topo maps can be ordered from www.mytopo.com. Select a 36” x 48” laminated map with a full UTM/MGRS overlay. This size is big enough to cover a significant area but can still be tacked on the camper wall or fit on your desk or kitchen table at home for study and research. Purchase a variety of colors of Staedtler Lumocolor permanent map markers and alcohol eraser pens to mark your map. When you finalize your plan you can add any relevant marks into your OnX Hunt App maps.
Once you know how to read your map, do the following:
a. Identify all open and closed roads and trails and mark them by status. Consult the Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) for your selected unit for this info.
i. Red for closed
ii. Yellow for seasonally open or ATV
iii. Green for open or automobile-capable
b. Mark all timbered north-facing slopes by circling them in green
c. Mark all timbered north-facing pockets on east-facing slopes by circling them in green
d. Identify which of the N/NE-facing spots also have water
Identify open areas with grass (check Google
Earth for bright green areas on late-summer aerial imagery) and circle these spots in brown (just pick a color that hasn't been used yet)
iv. Lower-elevation meadows/larger areas that serve as night-time congregation points
v. Smaller areas within ½ mile of N/NE-facing bedding areas for mid-day food/water
vi. The quality of this feed will vary through the year and with moisture. A local biologist may be able to provide insight on current feed and water conditions in the unit. This knowledge may help you prioritize more productive areas.
The green circles you’ve made on your map are potential bedding areas. The ones with or very near water are higher priority spots. You'll probably end up with as many as 50 of these potential bedding areas circled on your map. Pick an elevation to begin hunting based on the best information you have from your online research and conversations with biologists and locals. Once your map is completely marked you'll be able to pick out an efficient route that will take you through several of these priority areas on each day's hunt. If you can't get any specific information on the water conditions and likely elevation of September elk then start at the top and work your way down. It will become apparent where the water and elk are located. Though I’ve found some of the best bedding areas on the mountain within one quarter mile of a heavily traveled main Forest Service road, generally I prioritize those bedding areas more than half a mile from the road. The distance from a road matters less if there’s terrain or some other obstacle that reduces human traffic in a spot. It also matters less if the road is closed with a gate to eliminate vehicle traffic. Rarely have I found it necessary to travel more than a mile from a road or trail to get into elk. I may end up much farther from the truck as I hunt, but if you aren’t into elk or extremely fresh and plentiful elk sign within a mile from the truck, you may be in the wrong area altogether. This has been the case even in over-the-counter areas with human traffic so high that I was initially convinced my entire trip was going to be wasted. Yet, one mile from the truck and less than two and a half hours after buying the tag at the grocery store I’m at full draw on a 6x6 bull that had just defeated another 6x6 bull in full-on violent combat. This was after deliberately bumping a dozen cows and another huge bull that sounded like a bugling dinosaur in order to close the distance on the two fighting bulls. Sometimes you can use chaos to your advantage. Without identifying potential bedding areas, feeding areas, the routes in between and considering all of these in the context of the elk’s daily routine during pre-season map recon, such encounters would be far less likely.
3. Elk’s Daily Routine. You must understand the daily routine of an elk during the rut. This will vary in detail, but not in general between bulls and cows, and between satellite bulls (those with no harem) and herd bulls (those with a harem, however small). Once you understand this routine your map fluency will enable you to visualize where the parts of this routine will take place. Map fluency and your knowledge of the elk’s daily routine combine to form the key that unlocks your entire hunting plan.
Elk feed and congregate down low or in the
basin or valley floor at night. Elk begin traveling to their mid-day bedding
areas on north- or northeast-facing slopes as or before darkness ends in the
morning. Elk stay in their beds throughout the mid-day and most of the
afternoon with the possible exception of a quick trip to a nearby water source
or to browse briefly on nearby vegetation. Temperatures will affect the
likelihood and frequency of such mid-day trips. As temperatures start to cool
in the early evening, elk move back down toward their nighttime feeding and
congregation areas. This is a simple cycle. Down for the evening. Up for the
day. If you find yourself wondering “where are the elk?” then you need only to
note what time of day (or night) it is. You've circled the potential feeding areas on your map in brown and the potential bedding areas on your map in green. The potential feeding areas give you a place to start each morning. The potential bedding areas give you places to prospect during the middle of the day.
4. Understand wind and thermals. The first answer to every single question you will answer during your hunt is “WIND.” Until you understand what the wind is doing, nothing else matters. Let me repeat that. Until you understand what the wind is doing, nothing else matters. Heard a bugle and want to get closer? WIND. WIND. WIND. What is the wind doing at your location? What is the wind doing along the path you plan to take to reach that elk? What’s the wind doing at the elk’s location? What’s the wind doing on the back side of the ridge you have to traverse to close the distance? Want to go check out a high bench that looks like a likely bedding area on your map? WIND. The wind must determine your approach to that location, the timing of that approach, and your prospecting technique as you move through it.
Cold air falls. As or before the temperature begins to fall in the early evening, the elk will be on their way down to their nightly feeding and congregation areas. The thermals will continue to fall all night and into the early-mid morning. As the sun climbs throughout the morning, warming causes the thermals to shift. Warm air rises, right? Elk travel to bedding areas at higher elevations before this shift occurs in order to keep their noses in the wind. The elk may not make it all the way to their destination in either direction before the thermals completely shift but taking advantage of favorable thermals is always on the agenda.
You must make your daily plan of attack based on the knowledge of thermal winds then account for any prevailing winds that may complicate things. When morning thermals are falling you must be below the elk. When afternoon thermals are rising, you must be above the elk. You can also be on the same elevation as the elk and offset to one side, but watch for prevailing winds that may foul your approach.
5. Be overly aggressive. This point is aimed at easterners and deer hunters in particular, but also at resident elk hunters who are typically cautious because they have the entire season to hunt. Being overly aggressive in this case is focused on your movements as you locate and approach elk, not necessarily your calling once you engage the elk. It is FAR easier to fail because you are too timid than it is to fail because you are too aggressive. When you hear a bugle, take about four seconds to evaluate the wind and thermals, determine the best approach path based on those winds and then RUN to close the distance on that bugle. If you think the elk is 400 yards away, you should be sprinting for 250 yards, running for 50 yards before attempting to relocate or call the elk from 100 yards. If you can get within bow range before calling, then do so. Just as important as the wind is to your success, getting close to the elk before beginning your calling sequence is just as important. It is impossible to overstate the impact that getting close has to your chances of successfully calling in an elk. Can you call an elk across the valley from 800 yards away? Sometimes. It is inarguable that an elk that’s a half mile away will feel far less pressure and/or curiosity to investigate or respond to your calling than an elk that’s 50 yards away. Get as close as you can as fast as you can. Setup with the Doorway Principle in mind and THEN start your calling sequence. If you don’t bump elk occasionally then you aren’t being aggressive enough at closing the distance. There’s a fine line between being aggressive enough and being too aggressive. How do you know where the line is if you don’t cross it every now and then? Adopting this attitude has another benefit. When you expect to bump the occasional elk and when you see it as a good thing instead of the ruination of your hunt you’ve just released yourself from the fear of failure. Bumping elk is not failure. More than once I’ve gotten shots at bulls I bumped that may or may not have happened had I not bumped them. I ran to within less than 40 yards of a herd bull during the 2019 archery season. He heard me coming through the brush and gave me a low-volume moan (see also RHR). I responded with one Assembly Mew and then drew my bow as he closed the distance and stepped into the doorway at 27 yards.
When it comes to calling elk, you should be as aggressive as you need to be and no more. The idea that you should just challenge every bull to a fight (with your calling) is just as absurd as saying that you should never challenge a bull with your calling. Paul Medel describes wanting to have the knowledge and ability to address every bull in the valley, regardless of what calling technique will be the most successful with each bull. Out of every ten bulls, three may absolutely come running as soon as they hear your first cow call, three may be ambivalent initially, but respond eventually if you pique their interest with a sequence of calls, One may run away if you make anything more than the most quiet and infrequent sounds, Two may sneak in close out of curiosity following your contact or low-level bugling, and one may come in fuming mad and ready to fight in response to a challenge. Chris Roe talks at length about starting low and building your calling in intensity. You’ll eventually get a feel for things and have your own sense of what the situation calls for or what you can get away with (I love hard aggressive calling with a feisty bull). Before you’ve developed that experience though, keep in mind that you can always get louder, harder, faster with your calling, but it’s difficult to work with decreasing intensity.
6. Prospect in the dark. If you aren’t on elk every day (and even if you are) you should be out prospecting or “Night Calling” two hours after dark and two hours before daybreak. Elk feel more secure and are far more vocal in their congregation areas during darkness than during the daytime. Additionally, since many herds and solo elk have congregated in the low areas after dark, there will inevitably be more contact and conflict among herds and elk. All of this results in more frequent vocalization. Since elk spend much of their day at higher elevation in remote spots, these nighttime lower-elevation feeding and congregation areas often bring elk closer to roads or trails where you have a better chance of hearing bugles. Likewise, herds often have to cross roads when they begin moving back up the mountain to bedding areas for the day. All of these factors improve your chances of locating bugling elk. In addition to driving around the unit randomly calling every half mile, use your topo fluency to pick the spots where your calling has the best chance of success. High ground overlooking a broad basin where open grassy areas attract elk to feed and congregate nightly within a mile of the road are prime night-calling spots. If you can call into a basin from both ends, that’s even better. One spot where we typically do this has calling spots above and below and it is common to get a response from one end or the other, but not both. Once you locate elk’s nighttime hangouts, it should be easy to look on the map and pick out their most likely daytime hangouts. Put yourself in between the two before dawn the next morning and make an intercept as the herd moves up the mountain. Keep the wind in mind every second of the way or you’ll blow the whole thing.
7. If your morning attack doesn’t put a bull on the ground, your best bet all day can come from what I call the “bedroom sneak.” The bedroom sneak consists of carefully prospecting your way through targeted potential bedding areas (remember all those green circles you made on your topo map?) where you’ll locate bedded bulls with your calling. This is so deadly it is among my favorite hunting techniques. Unlike morning and evening periods when the elk are on the move to or from bedding and feeding areas, mid-day bulls are stationary in a location of their choosing. In this spot they feel relatively safe. Herd bulls can be confident their cows are still and resting. Satellite bulls that may have been pestering the herd have found bedding areas of their own and are, at least temporarily, out of the picture. Get within 150 yards of a bedded bull and entice him with a single “lost mew” (See Roe Hunting Resources) and he is highly likely to respond. I’ve gotten responses on my first call with this technique, but occasionally it takes two or more repetitions to get a response from a sleeping bull. When you do get a response, keep reminding yourself; WIND, WIND, and WIND! Figure out where the bull is and make a plan to carefully close the distance with the wind in your favor. If you made contact with a herd bull by using cow sounds, the bull will generally expect you to come to him. It is possible with satellite bulls that they’ll start coming to you immediately. I’ve seen entire bachelor groups of bulls close the distance from around 150 yards to within bow range in seconds. The good news is that you can likely keep the bull talking as you approach. Use “assembly mews” (See Roe Hunting Resources again) to entice the bull out of his bed. If you’ve set up properly, you’ll get your shot the instant the bull hits the doorway (see next point). This technique is magic. If you really want lightning, use this process on a herd bull with a hot cow and challenge that herd bull from within no more than 75 yards. While more difficult to pull off without getting busted, this is the absolute ultimate experience for an archery elk hunter. Get ready, because it won’t take long. Hope you’ve emptied your bladder.
8. During the encounters described above you should constantly be looking for doorways (See Roe Hunting Resources). Chris Roe does a fantastic job of explaining the doorway principle with lots of video evidence in the Elk Module at RHR, but the short version is that elk will stop at the first location they reach where the calling location is visible. If they reach the doorway and don’t see the elk that they just heard, then the game is over. ALWAYS setup with the doorway principle in mind. ALWAYS setup in the shade (your bow must also remain in the shade as you draw). ALWAYS set up in front of a tree and never behind one. ALWAYS have a diaphragm call in your mouth when you set up. If you think you’re close and the bull stops responding, pick a doorway and freeze in a shady spot.
9. Understand at least the basics of elk language and be moderately competent at making those sounds. The minimum of your calling repertoire should include the previously mentioned “Lost Mew” and “Assembly Mew” for cow sounds. For bull sounds, you should be competent at making a “Location Bugle” (aka “Contact Bugle”), a Challenge or Dominant Bugle, a “Nervous Grunt,” and a moan. That’s only six sounds that will cover the vast majority of encounters you’ll have and none of them are difficult to make if you’re willing to learn and practice using a an open-reed cow call and a diaphragm call for a few minutes a day several days a week over the summer before your hunt. Frankly, if you’re not willing to do that then you probably don’t have the level of desire and the commitment required to successfully kill an elk with your bow during the rut. Calling elk is not magic and you don’t have to be a world champion to get the job done.
10. Plan for success before season. Elk are big animals and you need a plan for how to deal with the meat once it hits the ground. If your kill site is within two miles of a road you may be ok to pack the meat out by yourself. Even within two miles, the terrain can make that extremely difficult, though. It will likely take a minimum of five separate trips over moderate to rough terrain if you plan to bring out the head. If you’re two miles from the road, each trip totals four miles. Four miles repeated five times is 20 miles over what may be rough country. A smaller bull killed in easy or moderate terrain (good luck finding that) can be hauled out in two or three trips, but the heavier your pack gets, the higher the likelihood of injury becomes. If you have hunting partners this all gets a little easier, but even with friends you have to consider the distance and terrain through which you’ll be packing heavy loads. It is highly advisable that you find, contact, and make arrangements with an outfitter that offers pack-out service in your hunting area. Even with an outfitter lined up, you must have a backup plan. I’ve been stuck with a bull down miles from the road only to have the outfitter I lined up before season fall through due to problems on his end. ALWAYS take a load of meat out when you leave the kill site. Yes, even if you have an outfitter or friend with horses coming to pack out your meat, ALWAYS take a load when you leave the kill site after field-processing your kill.
These ten steps will enable you to put together and execute an elk-hunting plan for September that will improve your chances of success to a degree that will place you among the most capable hunters on the mountain. Even though (very much by design) this isn’t a long or complicated list, very few elk hunters put all of these pieces together. Instead, we hear the advice, sound that it may be, of hunting the same area year after year so you can learn the elk’s patterns and locations. Put this list into action and you’ll know the patterns and locations of the elk in every unit you’ll ever hunt.