Early season elk tactics for a bowhunter will vary greatly depending on which state you are hunting. Some states allow time in August while others have you waiting for early to mid September. Regardless of which state(s) you have tags for, we will focus on the notion of hunting public land elk that are not quite vocal, not quite rutting, and conditions that are warm and dry. During the summer, bulls are in velvet, and their bone is growing with tremendous speed. Bulls are guilty of being social much of the year. For instance, they live in bachelor groups over the summer, but as late August approaches they separate and begin to gather their harems.
As daylight begins to dwindle each day, the bull’s testosterone, vocalizations, and desire to breed all increase. This activity starts to build towards a rut-crazed crescendo as the end of September approaches. Since we are only discussing early season, we will go over how to locate bulls this time of year, how to call nonverbal elk into range, and how to ambush a bull. First, here is a snapshot of some prominent states and their coinciding openers for archery:
(Check your state’s proclamations to verify dates and units)
Utah – 8/15/2015
Nevada – 8/16/2015
New Mexico – 9/1/2015
Arizona – 9/12/2015
Colorado – 8/29/2015
Wyoming – 9/1/2015
Montana – 9/5/2015
Oregon – 8/29/2015
Idaho – 8/30/2015 or 9/6/2015
Washington – 9/12/2015
If you do not know how to use Google Earth, then you are behind the learning curve. This may sound harsh, but you cannot beat the aerial perspective of your hunting unit from the comfort of your office or home. Food, water, and bedroom. Yes, that is what you are looking for whether you have boots on the ground or are cyber scouting. Now that you have an idea on where the animals might eat, drink and sleep, you need to identify vantage points to do your glassing from. This can be done from your computer or by studying topography maps. If time or logistics prevent you from preseason scouting in person, then maps are your next best option.
Glassing up elk and studying their summer pattern can really help in the early state openers. Even when the bulls rub off velvet, they can still be in bachelor groups and commit the same daily behavior. I am not a wildlife biologist, but I’ve been hunting elk since 2001, and based on my notes, most bulls rub velvet off on or around August 15th. There are always exceptions, but this generally holds up pretty well. Here are the basics on a glassing set-up. Have binoculars on a tripod; my personal set-up is Vortex Kaibabs (20×56) on a Vortex Summit Tripod. You are not a pirate and don’t wear an eye patch, so the eye-relief from looking through stable binoculars versus a spotting scope will keep you glassing comfortably and without squinting or headaches. Find or locate high vantage spots that you can glass from a distance without disturbing the elk and their pattern. You need to be in position at first light. Bulls tend to bed early when they don’t quite have cows herded up, so look for them in transition. Depending on your area, you may hear some vocalizations, but chances are slim. I have filmed bulls screaming, chasing, and posturing with cows as early as August 23rd in Nevada, but in most places this activity will happen later. The glassing game is your best chance at locating. Once you have figured out what the area holds, you can now figure out the best strategy to get into bow range.
If the glassing game paid off, you should know the general pattern of the elk, and you can capitalize by playing the wind and setting up in key spots for your own vocalizations. With the wind in your face, slip into dark north facing timber where bulls bed for the day. Just because elk bed in timber, doesn’t mean they sleep the day away. Bulls can get up to reposition, graze, and sometime even slip off to wallow, so be on high alert. Once you are in an “elky” area, slow down, and glass your timber surroundings. Look for brand new rubs on saplings or small trees. Tracks are important in telling the story of where the elk traveled to, and of course droppings can explain how fresh sign is. You can slowly work your way into the cool timber with fresh sign, and try some cold calling. These calls are not the estrous whining sounds or big challenge bugles, rather the social mews and calf calls that elk do daily. You are trying to set the stage for a bull to swoop in, and hook a few cows. If you are in close proximity to a bull, you may get a bugle, but chances are that a bull will come in silent. In order for a bull to come into your call, he will first try to circle you and double check the validity of the sounds by confirmation from the wind. You will need to anticipate this so plan on making sounds and moving downwind from your vocalizations or perhaps even setting up a decoy (Heads up or Montana Decoy). There are many ways to skin the cat, but there are zero ways to fool a bull’s olfactory sense, especially on public land. I believe after a few sequences of calls, set-up your position, and wait for 20-30 minutes. If nothing has materialized, continue moving through the timber for the next set-up. Elk have exceptional hearing in dark timber during daylight hours. You will need to be stealthy and deliberate with each step; always keep the wind in your face.
By now you understand the importance of glassing your area to locate elk, you meticulously worked some soft cow calls in the timber in order to coax a big bull your way. What should you do if none of these strategies are working early season? Your next best bet in my opinion is to find places to ambush elk. Since the days are long and hot, elk will retreat to cool hideouts in the timber. The heat encourages the elk to move from bedding to feeding areas in the night or at the very end of shooting light, when it’s a lot cooler. The good news is, no matter what elk you are hunting, they have to drink water every single day. So the next logical tactic is to look for hidden water holes, and watch them until the end of legal shooting hours. Not only bulls, but cows and calves are fond of wallows in the heat of late summer. Look for wallows around beaver dams or marshy springs. Wallows may also be in and around high country meadows and frequented daily. If the water in a wallow is muddy and stinky, you better believe the elk are using it. If wallows aren’t present, set up on a trail in late afternoon between the timber and a meadow where you’ve found fresh elk sign. Always consider the wind when you select a stand location and anticipate the changing thermals the come in the evening. I have been known to pack in a lightweight tree stand climber for such an occasion. Getting off the ground can really help you keep your scent out of the area long enough for a shot to materialize. If that’s not realistic, then build a ground blind out of local vegetation, and stay in the shadows so you can pull that bow back undetected. Be patient, and feel free to make a few soft calf/cow sounds throughout your sit.
Early season can be the best time to harvest a mature bull. The bigger bulls have maturation on their side, and make it very tricky to get into range when they have a herd of cows. Even though the elk are not as vocal, you can really capitalize on calling in a mature bull before he’s gathered his herd. Patience and persistence will help you manufacture luck along the way. Glassing, cold calling, and ambushing wallows or heavily used trails are just a few tricks to make your early season time fruitful. Always keep the wind in your face, and never give up.
Dan Staton resides in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. He is an avid bowhunter, and his favorite animal is the Rocky Mountain Elk. You can follow him at ElkShape.com