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With more pressure from hunters and predators, elk hunting as we used to know it has changed for good. But that doesn’t make a stalk for these big-game trophies any less thrilling. Here, seven expert guides share the modern tactics and tips they rely on most to kill big bulls.
Tactic 1: Be the Calf
As the rut progresses, a herd bull assembles a larger and larger harem, making him even tougher to call in. Montana outfitter and world-champion elk caller Chad Schearer (shootstraighttv.com) says the sound of a lost calf can get the bull’s attention in this situation. “Cows will come running for the calf, and the herd bull will follow them.” Here is Schearer’s plan:
– Perfect Timing “I rarely mess with bedded elk,” Schearer says. “You’ll bust them if you get too aggressive, and they’ll run to where you might not be able to hunt them. I want the herd to be active, which means an afternoon jaunt to food or water.”
– Nyah-thing to It Once the elk make their move, Schearer follows the herd, staying about 500 yards upwind. “I look for anything that funnels animals past a specific point,” he says. Schearer uses a double-reed diaphragm to make a high-pitched cow call and applies increased tongue pressure to make the short, nasal nyah sounds of a lost calf. “I’ve had as many as 20 cows come to these calls before the bull gets there. The caller can drop back and use terrain and cover to call from behind. This should keep cows searching for the calf until the bull appears.”
– Last Call “This is a perfect tactic to use with a calling partner,” Schearer says. “The incoming cows will focus on the caller, giving the hunter—who’s tucked in cover 60 to 70 yards between the caller and the herd—the chance for a shot at the bull.” The bull is going to be looking for his cows, so the shooter needs to have a diaphragm call in his mouth. As soon as the bull hits an opening, squeak or chirp on that call to stop him for the shot. —S.B.
Tactic 2: Plot a Desert Ambush
New Mexico is full of beautiful pine forests that hold elk, but Tom McReynolds rarely hunts them. That’s because the biggest bull elk are out in the desert. “We’ve killed some of our nicest—including a 427-inch gross that’s the state record—when we’re in the cholla cactus and wide open desert,” he says. “Elk are more adaptable than people think, and I’m convinced really old bulls figure out where they don’t get much pressure. Plus, out in the desert, they can see danger coming from a long ways off.” Here are his tips for staying hidden and killing a desert giant:
– Get High Good binoculars are adequate for most elk hunting, but McReynolds relies on a spotting scope to search for far-off desert bulls. “That 427-incher, I spotted him from 5 miles away,” he says. “I couldn’t tell how big he was—just that he was worth a closer look. I like to get up on a high point where I can look over a lot of territory and pick the land apart.”
– Get Moving Once McReynolds spots a good bull, he keeps watching for moments of vulnerability before he begins his approach. “One of the toughest things to do is sneak up on elk feeding in open areas,” he says. “If they bed, it’s usually a good time to make a big move toward them, assuming you can identify some landmarks to guide you. Also, when the herd is moving to another spot, like for food or water, I can glass ahead, figure out their probable route, and pick a good ambush point.”
– Get Ready After he’s chosen his stalking route, McReynolds moves in for the shot. “When I’ve got cover, I don’t waste any time getting as close as I can. When there isn’t much to hide behind, I’ll belly-crawl to close that final gap.” —S.B.
Tactic 3: Stand Up to a Farm Raiding Bull
Hunters romanticize elk as a majestic mountain species, but they’re increasingly adapting to the encroachment of agriculture. Mike Miller says more farmers are finding elk herds in their corn, turnip, and alfalfa fields. As a result, Miller has adapted the whitetail tactics he learned growing up in Pennsylvania—including hunting fields and food plots—to put his muzzleloader hunters on big bulls. Here is Miller’s hunt plan:
– Seasonal Menu Before the season, talk to the farmer who’s given you permission to hunt about his crop-rotation plans. An elk’s changing tastes dictate where to hunt and when. “As turnips and sugar beets emerge, elk will move in to feast on the tender tops,” Miller says. “Then they’ll hit those fields hard again after fall’s first frost.” Just in time for hunting season.
– Gust Gauge Fields in the foothills are susceptible to swirling winds. Stay away from ridges, draws, and other changes in topography that cause winds to swirl unpredictably. One tool Miller relies on to figure out the wind is the Mossy Oak Hunting Weather app. “It’s surprisingly accurate in predicting prevailing winds,” he says. With this knowledge, Miller can pick stand locations based on the forecast.
– Farm Stand Miller sets a treestand on the field edge within shooting distance of where the elk enter as they come out of the mountains in the afternoon. Falling thermals make approaching this stand before sunrise, when the elk are already on the field, next to impossible. Here, the best option is a ground blind at the lower end of the field just inside of the first row of corn, using the standing stalks to cover your early-morning approach. —D.D.
Tip 1: Pinpoint Elk with Trail Cameras
I can cover a ton more ground with trail cameras,” says Jody Smith, who guides hunters for Roosevelt elk in Oregon (jodysmithguideservice.com). “Then, I show those photos to the client, giving them more confidence to be patient and wait for the elk to come to us.” Smith, an outfitter for nearly 20 years, hunts a resident herd of elk he knows well. “These elk have been using the same spots year after year. It’s pretty easy to figure out where they’re going. They find a flat area on the side of a hill, very far into the woods. Where I’ve found beds over the years, I’ve rarely seen any sign of other hunters.”
Smith’s elk go to bed late, so he knows he can get in there to set his cameras while they’re still on the irrigated clover fields down below the woods. He starts hanging cameras just before the season and waits about a week before he checks them. When he hunts with clients, he doesn’t jump right into bed with the elk. Instead, he hunts a different herd early while waiting for the thermals to start rising later in the morning. If he doesn’t get a client on a bull early, that’s when he heads for deeper cover. “By about 8 a.m. the wind direction switches to a consistent uphill breeze, so I can get in there undetected,” Smith says. “I don’t call at all. I just sit and wait on the trail leading into the bedding area. It makes for an exciting hunt. It’s so dense in there, by the time you get a shot, the elk are unbelievably close.” —D.D.
Tip 2: The Big Time, Part I — Pre-Rut
New Mexico guide Tom McReynolds (bmohunts.com) says hunters always want to call up and kill a screaming, crazed bull in the peak of the rut. “That’s what they see on TV,” he says. However, the peak rut in New Mexico is one of the worst times to kill an old, giant bull, he claims, because that elk is so engrossed in getting and keeping cows that calling him in will be very difficult. For a true trophy, McReynolds swears by the pre-rut.
“Seven to 10 days prior to the rut, that bull is vulnerable,” he says. “He’s hanging fairly close to cows, but he’s not chasing them around like smaller bulls. If he’s truly big, he’ll be alone. Study where he lives and how he moves through that area, and you’ll find he’s highly predictable. He’s not going to have the eyes, ears, and noses of other elk to help him, so it’s just a matter of slipping in to one of those spots he already wants to go, and everything is in your favor. Ideally the bull can be ambushed on a pattern from bed to feed, or vice versa. But if terrain and cover don’t allow me to get close enough, just a soft cow call, mew, or bull grunt can pull him into range for a close shot.” —S.B.
Tip 3: The Big Time, Part II — Post-Rut
Late September may be the most intense time to be in the elk woods, but for big bulls, Colorado guide Mike Miller (locomountainoutfitters.com) likes to hunt immediately post-rut. After the rut, a trophy bull is so tired and beat up, Miller says, he wants nothing to do with the rest of the herd or human pressure. So, he goes into hiding. And Miller knows just where to look. “In the week or so after the rut, and before they start gathering in winter herds, I find big bulls laid up by themselves in remote areas,” he says. “They definitely don’t want to hear a bugle or a cow call.” There are, however, two things they still need:
“I look for food and water. Find one or the other and a bull is close, but if I find those two things right next to each other, that’s money.” Other than a few go-to places—wet meadows and wallows just off the field edge—Miller and his hunters stay on the move. With food and water close by, bulls will spend nearly all day in bed; Miller likes to glass a lot of country, hoping to catch a bull on his feet. When he finally does, he knows the hunt is all but over. —D.D.
Tip 4: Roost a Bull
The new bull likes to be off fields and open areas by first light, so waiting until dawn to locate the herd puts you behind the game. Arizona guide Jay Scott (colburnandscottoutfitters.com) is able to hit the ground running because he roosts a bull the night before. “I drive Forest Service roads in the middle of the night, stopping every 4 to 5 miles to listen,” Scott says. “It’s pretty common to hear bulls bugling, and there’s usually cow talk, as well as the sound of the herd moving through cover. When I locate a herd, I know they won’t be far away at first light, giving me a great starting point. I tell any hunter new to the area to do his initial scouting this way. Drive between all the water tanks in your unit at night, pick out the best six or seven, and concentrate your hunting efforts on those areas.” —S.B.
Tip 5: Locate Bulls in Wolf Country
Few states have felt the impact of wolf reintroduction more than Idaho, and outfitter Al Bayer (elkspringsoutfitters.net) has had to adjust his hunting strategies to keep his clients on predator-wary bulls. Here are Bayer’s key tips for finding bulls when you’re in wolf country:
– High & Clear “Elk have moved to open areas, where they can better see danger coming. Get up on a high spot and glass as far as you can see.”
– Hush, Hush “Either elk have learned that calling makes them vulnerable, or the really vocal animals are out of the gene pool. I do a lot less calling now and keep it muted when I do call. A really loud animal—even if it’s a real elk—makes elk nervous.”
– Migrant Packs “Wolf packs have a huge territory, and they rarely camp out in specific areas for more than a couple of days. If you see fresh wolf sign or spot a pack, it can actually be a good thing. They aren’t going to be there much longer, and the elk will be more relaxed once they leave.”
– Hidden Signs “I do a lot of scouting throughout the year and ride through seemingly similar habitat types. I think the sign-rich spots are places where elk feel safer from predators. Those are the spots where I focus my hunting effort.” —S.B.
Tip 6: Short-Distance Calling Plan
Years of hunters bugling on tubes and mewing on cow calls has reduced the effectiveness of those sounds, says Tom McReynolds. So he likes to get tight—within 40 to 60 yards—to a bull and work him with low-volume calls. Here are his favorites:
– Squeak “When I’m in with the herd, I like to squeak or chirp softly on a diaphragm call to make the bull think he’s left a cow behind. This is an abbreviated, softer version of the standard cow call, but the proximity and reduced volume add realism.”
– Grunt “Bulls are always talking to each other, and it doesn’t take a bugle to piss a herd bull off. A short uh-uh-uh grunt—like a bull does before a full bugle—on a diaphragm will convince a herd bull that he’s got competition.”
– Glunk “A glunk is made by a bull that’s really hot and ready to breed. I mimic it by popping my hand over the end of a bugle tube. It’s another sound that can only be heard at short distances, but when a herd bull hears it, he’ll leave his cows to come in.”
– Rub “Take a sturdy stick or branch and rub it aggressively against a tree or tree limbs. The herd bull will interpret this as a bull that’s right in his wheelhouse.” —S.B.
Tip 7: Meet the Modern Herd
A typical elk herd has almost as many characters as an episode of Game of Thrones, and like the show, the head of the family is always at risk of getting killed—either by hunters or by the predators that’ve boomed in elk country in recent years. Keeping up with the herd can be confusing, but Mike Miller says identifying the major players and understanding how each affects the dynamics of the herd can help you hang your tag on a big bull.
– Wolves The reintroduction of wolves in the West has changed herd dynamics more than any other factor. In areas where wolf pressure is high, elk have gone all but silent.
– Bears Populations of both black and brown bears are on the rise, and in the Greater Yellowstone region not an elk season passes without a grizzly attack on a human. Some guides have reported black bears coming in to their elk calls with more frequency.
– Herd Bull It’s good to be the king—but also not easy. Other bulls constantly harass his harem, according to Miller, and every hunter in the woods is gunning for him. During peak rut, the herd bull may be covering as many as 20 cows, and fighting off nearly as many rivals.
– Satellite Bulls Orbiting the herd will be several bulls—big and small—looking to pick off a stray cow or two. They’re never far and often the first to get spooked by hunters.
– Challengers Among the satellite bulls are a couple that are big and tough enough to knock the herd bull from his throne. When this happens—or when a hunter tags the big boy—the whole herd goes on edge.
– Spikes These young bulls—which stick with the herd until they eventually get kicked out during the rut—travel in groups of three or four. Like jake turkeys, they are curious and dumb, and will run to a call, Miller says.
– Matriarch An elk’s average life span is 15 years, and every herd has at least one old cow that has survived that many hunting seasons or more. When planning your stalk, keep a close eye on her. If the matriarch busts your approach, one bark from her will send the whole herd running.
– Ladies-in-Waiting Constantly corralled by the herd bull and chased by satellites, the cows (and their calves) are on high alert during the rut. Trying to sneak on so many eyes is a near impossible task. —D.D.
Tip 8: Execute the Chaos Ambush
Many elk hunters know how tough it can be to get a herd bull away from his cows. Over the past few years, Jay Scott has figured out an answer for this situation—a simple three-step method that mixes passive and aggressive tactics.
– Waiting Game “After spotting a herd, I hang back and watch. Often, a satellite bull will crash the party and stir things up. Once a smaller bull gets in there and starts pushing cows around, the big old bull knows he has some housecleaning to do—getting that smaller bull out of there and rounding up his cows again.”
– Moving Time “When I see this chaos happening, I head straight for the elk at a good clip. Using the wind, terrain, and cover, I walk or run toward the herd and get as close as I can. I don’t worry much about noise. Elk make a racket when they move through the timber, so snapping twigs and rolling rocks isn’t a problem.”
– Close the Deal “Once I’m tight to the herd, it’s just a matter of setting up and making soft cow calls or subtle bull grunts before I’ve got an excellent chance at a close-range shot at a bull. When a bull thinks he’s losing control of his harem is when he’s the most vulnerable.” —S.B.
Tip 9: Finish a Bull with an Antler
In Wyoming’s Laramie Mountains where Doug Stults guides (huntfwa.com), herds of elk roam from the sage flats up into granite outcroppings tossed among the scrub timber. All that open country presents a challenge in calling to bulls that use their eyes as much as their ears. But with little more than a 6-point shed antler, Stults has turned the disadvantage of hunting where elk can bust you from a proverbial (if not literal) mile away into an advantage. “When I’ve got a bull responding to my bugles and I can tell he’s searching for me, I’ll raise the antler up from behind a tree or boulder so he can see it,” says Stults. “I wave it a few times just like a bull spoiling for a fight, and the bull will actually come running. The first time it worked I couldn’t believe it.”
This trick is particularly effective when an elk catches a hunter moving and hangs up out of bow range. “Often, flashing the antler lets my hunters move or draw without spooking the bull,” Stults says. “The bull is so locked onto that antler he seemingly doesn’t even care. I’ve found you can get away with a lot of stuff.” —D.D.
Tip 10: Cow Deke Three Ways
Deer and turkey hunters swear by them, but weight-conscious elk hunters who chase bulls all day often overlook decoys. Doug Stults, however, never goes afield without a lightweight, collapsible cow-elk decoy, knowing those extra few ounces on the hike in often add up to a pack heavy with elk meat on the hike out, thanks to tricks like these:
– Instant Elk When he trails a bugling bull, Stults knows he may have to deploy his decoy at a moment’s notice, so he keeps it easily accessible. “When the bull turns away, I’ll pop the decoy up and hold it,” he says. “Often it’s enough to get him to come those last extra yards my hunter needs.”
– Head Games As talkative as an elk herd can be, a lot of the communication between a bull and a cow is silent. How a cow holds its ears or positions its head can tell a bull if she’s on alert or relaxed. Stults exploits these quiet cues by setting the decoy with the head behind a tree. “If the head stays hidden, that bull will keep moving, hopefully giving the hunter a chance at a clear shot.”
– Upper Hand Elk are amazingly accurate at pinpointing where a call is coming from, even from long distances, and when they come in, they’ll always try to get downwind. Stults places a decoy upwind and to the side of his hunter, opposite the direction of the elk. When it’s set correctly, the bull will cross in front of the hunter as he circles the decoy. —D.D.
Tip 11: Bugle Like a World Champion
Today’s elk listen to more and lousier calling than their predecessors did. Chad Schearer—one of the best elk callers in the country—has a few tips for speaking the language that can dupe even the most stubborn bull.
– Practice “Old-timers had an excuse to be bad. We don’t. Get a single- or double-reed diaphragm call and practice before your hunt until the sounds are natural. If you don’t, it’s easy to blow a bad note in the heat of the moment.”
– Be Brief “The average bull bugle lasts three to five seconds. I hear guys bugling 12 to 15 seconds—just for the pleasure of listening to themselves. Shorter is more authentic, and it minimizes the chances for a sour note.”
– Cut Back “Long bugle tubes aren’t necessary. I cut mine to 6 inches or so, and stick it in the hip pocket of my pants. That way you don’t have 2 feet of plastic scraping brush, and the sounds are just as real.” —S.B.